I Feel Stupid | Interview with Milena Pastreich

| April 16, 2015

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Discovered in the marketplace at the 2012 Palm Springs Film Festival and quickly added to the roster of Film School Shorts‘ Season 1I Feel Stupid is filmmaker Milena Pastreich’s nuanced and masterful portrait on adolescence. Milena recently answered some of our questions about the film and the little compromises people make to their own values and character just in order to fit in. Milena also discussed her experience at UCLA, her collaboration with the film’s writer Ana Lily Amirpour (AGWHAANA Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and The Bad Batch), and the cool projects she’s had cooking post-graduation.

The script was written by A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night‘s Ana Lily Amirpour. Tell us about the project’s beginnings and your creative collaboration. 

I Feel Stupid was my UCLA thesis film. I had worked as a writer/director on all of my previous shorts but was very curious to collaborate with a writer. I wrote the very first draft of a film that would become I Feel Stupid.  It was called Fly Home and was about two teenage girls who rip off locals by selling street pigeons as homing pigeons, inspired by a short story by Tim Gautreaux called Little Frogs in a Ditch.

I then approached Ana Lily Amirpour to see if she would be interested in re-writing the script.  Lily and I went to UCLA together at the time.  Although she was in the Screenwriting program while I was a Directing major, I was familiar with her work and was a big fan.  Plus we got along great.

Lily was interested.  We met for breakfast several times, got to know each other better, discussed the story, and then I just let Lily do her thing.  I think she wrote her first draft in one sitting, and it was great.  In fact, I thought that draft would be the shooting script but then two weeks before the shoot’s start, Lily and I both came to the realization that we wanted to get rid of a character. This character was an old man who was good friends with Lein and made her seem like even more of an outcast.  He was totally unnecessary and also made the script twice as long.  We literally cut out all of his scenes and were left with the current script, a story that, apart from the pigeons, has nothing in common with Little Frogs in a Ditch. I couldn’t have been happier with Lily’s script or my collaboration with her.

Lein (Sophia Rose Vail) and Amber (Samantha McCullough) in "I Feel Stupid."

Lein (Sophia Rose Vail) and Amber (Samantha McCullough) in I Feel Stupid.

The entire cast is fantastic, but I was particularly struck by the incredibly nuanced performances of two female leads. Where did you find them? 

I worked with a great Casting Director named Brad Gilmore. He brought Sophia Rose Vail and Samantha McCullough in to read and they really impressed us. When we invited them to call backs and they performed together, we knew they were our Lein and Amber.

So, pigeons. Do you know what inspired that detail of the lead’s character?  

Tim Gautreaux’s Little Frogs in a Ditch…heavily featured pigeons.  I think that got me on a pigeon kick.  It just got me thinking about the kinds of people who are interested in pigeons.  I had never cared for pigeons and I thought that people who did were really unique and worth exploring.  The pigeon coop where we filmed I Feel Stupid belonged to a teenage girl about 4 years older than Lein.  When I met her, I bombarded her with questions and I think I freaked her out a bit.

Cramped quarters: Sophia Rose Vail, Dagmar-Weaver Madsen and Michael Bosman filming in a pigeon coop on the set of "I Feel Stupid."

Cramped quarters: Sophia Rose Vail, Dagmar-Weaver Madsen and Michael Bosman filming in a pigeon coop on the set of I Feel Stupid.

I’m a huge Boogie Nights fan, so I may be projecting, but was Amber’s performance informed by Heather Graham’s Roller Girl?

Haha.  No, I’ve never made that connection before but I’m flattered.  I love Roller Girl.

The film does a fantastic job of capturing the little compromises one makes to their own character in an attempt to fit in or get better at life. As a viewer, we empathize with Lein, we root for Lein, and we ultimately witness a subtle but radical change in her character. Is it a permanent change?

Although I Feel Stupid is a comedy, the story is not particularly uplifting. The film leads up to a moment that marks the beginning of a transformation in Lein. She humiliates a friend to please Amber and, unfortunately, I do not think this is an event she will regret for long. It’s just the first step in a direction that will lead to much more than ditching her pigeons and opening up a Facebook account.

Amber gives Lein a makeover.

Amber gives Lein a makeover.

Tell us a little about your experience at UCLA.

I don’t think film school is for everyone and I certainly don’t think you have to go to school in order to become a filmmaker.  That being said, I couldn’t be happier that I went to UCLA. I feel honored to have had the Hungarian director Gyula Gazdag as my mentor.  Furthermore, I was able to study both directing and cinematography, which no other schools offered at the time. Lastly and most importantly, I met collaborators who I respect and admire.

You’ve contributed to a lot of interesting films and projects after graduating. Tell us a little about the transition between being a student and setting the trajectory of your career. 

There was no huge change for me after graduating from film school.  I just kept doing the same things I had been doing in school.  I had already been getting paid work as a DP while I was at UCLA and I think this made for a smooth transition. I still mostly support myself through my work as a cinematographer although in the last year I have been getting more work as Director/DP.

In addition, since graduating from film school I have been working on two passion projects. I have been making a documentary, Birdmen (which will be renamed post-Birdman) that follows three men in South Central LA who are kept off the streets through their obsession with pigeons that do summersaults in the air. It is an intimate character driven film with lots of vérité footage that introduces us to a passionate subculture of men and their rather absurd world.

I have also been working on Two of Me, a narrative feature that I am developing with an amazing Dutch writer (Helena van der Meulen) and the production company Caviar.  This film is about a woman with two lives and two identities: one in Amsterdam and one in Los Angeles.

Of course it has been hard to balance my work as a cinematographer and moving forward with my directing projects, but despite how random some of my paid work may be, I learn something new on each project and I know this will only help inform my future work.

Director Milena Pastreich is KQED.

Director Milena Pastreich is KQED.

Tell us a little about working in both documentary and narrative film. Now that you’ve done both, is there one that you favor? 

I like making narratives and documentaries.  They are very different beasts that have their own pros and cons.  It feels very different to make a narrative than a documentary, the process for me is nearly the opposite; however, they both seem to inform each other.  Or maybe it’s just that each project helps inform the next, no matter what the type.

Born in San Francisco, Milena Pastreich currently lives in Los Angeles where she directs and shoots films. After earning her BA in Art History from NYU and establishing herself as a documentary photographer, she began her filmmaking career with Trigger Happy Productions while living in Berlin from 2004 to 2007. From 2008 to 2012 she attended UCLA Film School and graduated with an MFA in Directing and Cinematography. Her thesis film, I Feel Stupid, is a 2012 UCLA Spotlight Award Winner. Her short film Jean-Paul Luc Sebastien Rene screened at South by Southwest and she won the 2012 Panavision Award for her work in cinematography on the Cannes favorite The Ballad of Finn + Yeti.

Check out her website: milenapastreich.com

Follow her on Twitter: @milenapastreich

-Lisa Landi

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Film School Shorts is made possible by a grant from Maurice Kanbar, celebrating the vitality and power of the moving image, and by the members of KQED.

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