“Léa” | Interview with Connor Simpson, Columbia University

| March 4, 2016

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A delusional actress with an affinity for burning bridges struggles to connect with the role that could make her career. We chatted with Columbia University filmmaker Connor Simpson about his stellar character study.

Léa will screen as part of Cinequest’s Short Program 9B – College – American Voices.

A still shot from Léa. (Dir. Connor Simpson. Image courtesy of Connor Simpson.)

Tell us a bit about yourself. What got you into film?

When I was very young, I used to get my friends together and make stupid shorts with my Sony Handycam. It was always just a casual hobby for us. When I got older, I worked for a few years as a freelance designer and photographer throughout my undergraduate career, so I always had my hand in visual arts. During college, I was constantly struggling with what I wanted to do. I went from the business school to computer science to advertising, but I was never happy with the careers that awaited me after graduation. Then in my junior year, I decided to make a short film for a college competition. That experience immediately reignited the latent filmmaker in me, and I (once again) changed my major to film the very next morning. That was the one that stuck, and it’s still sticking.

Tell us about Léa and how it came to be.

Léa was my first-year project at Columbia University’s Film MFA program. For this project, each student had to write an 8-12 page script and give it to a classmate to direct. Léa was written by one of my good friends in the program, Erlendur Sveinsson. We already had great experiences collaborating in the past, and I knew that we had similar sensibilities creatively. After we decided to work together, we went back and forth with multiple drafts, eventually coming to a version that we were both very happy with. The original concept came from an experience we had at a casting workshop last year, where the host of the event informed us that he had separated the “real” actors from the “others.” Léa is the result of wondering what it was like to be one of the “others.”

Dominique Johnson as Léa in Léa.Dir. Connor Simpson. Image courtesy of Connor Simpson.

Actress Dominique Johnson plays Léa in Léa. (Dir. Connor Simpson. Image courtesy of Connor Simpson.)

Your film’s title, and also main character’s name, “Léa” pops on screen in tandem with a toilet flush. A dead animal’s funeral. Is her life going down the throne?

Although the visual metaphor definitely leans in that direction, I really want the audience to decide for themselves whether Léa is moving forward or backward in her life. The moment with the toilet, for me, is a signal of change masked in the mundane (and darkly comical) act of the disposal of a pet fish. That’s the moment I connect with her in the script.

Tell me about your lead, Dominique Johnson, who is incredible. How’d you cast her?

Casting Léa correctly was a top priority for this film. I was looking for someone very specific, and Dominique checked all of the boxes and more. I held an open casting call, where I filtered through over 200 applicants. I eventually saw about 80 in-person, then whittled that down over two rounds of callbacks. Line reading was definitely a part of the process, but I wanted to focus mainly on getting to know the actors’ personalities. It was definitely a difficult decision, but from the very first round of auditions, I knew that Dominique was going to be the right one for the role. She was fantastic to work with and really brought a lot to the film.

Dominique Johnson as Léa in Léa.Dir. Connor Simpson. Image courtesy of Connor Simpson.

Léa works out in her apartment. (Dir. Connor Simpson. Image courtesy of Connor Simpson.)

What’s it like directing an actor who’s playing an actor?

You’d think it would be fairly straight-forward, but that was not the case. Léa is not necessarily a bad actress, but she’s not a great one either, so it was difficult to ride that line with a talented actress like Dominique. We had to pull her back when she was “acting” on screen while letting her go all-out during the in-between moments. It was a lot to figure out at first, but it became much more natural once we got to know the character better. Most of our work together was done in pre-production, where we could just talk about Dominique’s experiences as an actor in New York. Some of her stories were just insane. We built the character around these real experiences, bending and twisting things when we needed to. Then, once we got on set, it was incredibly rewarding to see her come to life.

L to R: Joseph Midyett as Harrison and David Gibson as Gill in “Léa.” Dir. Connor Simpson. Image courtesy of Connor Simpson.

Lea auditions for a film. (L to R: Joseph Midyett as Harrison and David Gibson as Gill in Léa. Dir. Connor Simpson. Image courtesy of Connor Simpson.)

Acting’s a funny gig, and the fine lines between performance and lying are wonderfully communicated in your film. Why explore this issue?

This line is something that I find super interesting. I’m not an actor myself, but I’ve always been intrigued by it. I wanted to follow a character that not only had trouble distinguishing the line between acting and lying, but used it to manipulate aspects of her life. For both directors and actors, it’s natural to study human behavior in real life, but we wanted to take Léa a step beyond that. The funny thing is, everyone does this to some extent — she just has a script to go from.

Your last image haunts me, under the credits. It’s not much of a spoiler, but I don’t want to say what it is. Is this a new beginning for Léa, or is her life an endless cycle?

You hit the nail on the head with that last question. It’s both. The ending was meant to feel cyclical, but with the slightest up-tick (represented by the change in color). She has learned something new with this experience, but I definitely want her to try again.

Dominique Johnson as Léa in Léa.Dir. Connor Simpson. Image courtesy of Connor Simpson.

Léa mops the floors of the bowling alley. (Dir. Connor Simpson. Image courtesy of Connor Simpson.)

Tell us about the production.

We shot over a three day period in Manhattan and Queens. One day was spent at each location — the apartment, the bowling alley, and the audition space. The crew was made up of mostly Columbia students, with a few freelancers sprinkled in. My DP was one of my best friends from Alabama named Marc Patterson, who is currently in the cinematography program at UCLA. We work together all the time, so knowing each other’s sensibilities and ways of working really helped to smooth out the hectic schedule. This was my first real production in NYC, so jumping over the hurdles of transportation, locations, etc. was a huge learning experience in and of itself. It could not have happened without all of the talented folks I surrounded myself with.

L to R: Dominique Johnson as Léa and Eric Reis as Alex in “Léa.” Dir. Connor Simpson. Image courtesy of Connor Simpson.

Léa (played by Dominique Johnson) with Alex (played by Eric Reis) in Léa. (Dir. Connor Simpson. Image courtesy of Connor Simpson.)

Who do you cite as influences?

For this project in particular, I watched a lot of short films like Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight by Eliza Hittman and Bara Prata Lite by Lukas Moodysson. Some feature inspirations were Import / Export by Ulrich Seidl, Fish Tank by Andrea Arnold, and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days by Cristian Mungiu. Using the camera to dance between objectivity and subjectivity was something that I wanted to explore with Léa, and each of these films was largely influential in that sense.

Tell us about your Columbia experience.

There will always be a debate on whether or not film school is “worth it,” but I will echo the common opinion that it totally depends on the individual. Some on my favorite filmmakers either avoided or dropped out of film school, so I’m just approaching my career in a way that is best for me. I wanted to focus my craft and be surrounded by filmmakers smarter than myself so film school just felt like the right path. I had a hard time deciding which school to attend but after my tours and interviews, Columbia was the obvious choice for me. It’s known as the “story school,” and after almost two years here, I couldn’t agree more. It’s such a collaborative environment and I have grown more as a filmmaker in these two years than I could have ever imagined.

Dominique Johnson as Léa in Léa.Dir. Connor Simpson. Image courtesy of Connor Simpson.

Léa in her kitchen. (Dir. Connor Simpson. Image courtesy of Connor Simpson.)

Do you have any advice for student filmmakers?

Don’t lose focus of your script. It’s easy to get sidetracked when production is looming, but never trick yourself into thinking that a script/story issue will resolve itself on set. It won’t. If you know there’s a problem on the page, I promise that everyone else will see it on the screen. Fix it while it’s still fixable! Extra time spent on the script will yield more returns than the same amount of time spent on set or in the editing room.

With that being said, don’t get too attached to your short projects. Write something, shoot it, edit it, and move on to the next one. There’s no point in spending a year on a short film. Every short project is just an exercise and an opportunity to learn something new and hone your skills for that first feature, so try to treat them as such. I’m not saying you should rush through things or avoid being ambitious — just don’t obsess over it. Especially in an academic environment, the more work you pump out, the more you’ll benefit. And remember: everything you do as a filmmaker — every choice you make — is to serve the story.

Connor Simpson, director of Léa.

Connor Simpson is a New York City-based director and writer. He is currently pursuing his MFA in Screenwriting & Directing from Columbia University and is in post-production for his latest film, Snake Heel, starring Sean Bridgers..

Learn more about Connor’s work on his website: connorsimpson.me

Like Léa on Facebook: facebook.com/leafilm

Follow Connor’s mind on Instagram (@jconnorsimpson) & Twitter (@jconnorsimpson) | #LéaFilm

Léa screens as part of Cinequest’s Short Program 9B – College – American Voices showcase on Friday, March 11 @ 9:30pm, and Saturday, March 12 @ 3:45pm.

All screenings are at Camera 12 Cinemas in San Jose, CA.

Click to read more Cinequest interviews.

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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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