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Exclusive Interview: The Women Behind “M.F.A” Add a Female Voice to Rape-Revenge

Wednesday, January 10, 2018 | Interviews


In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and as the canon of terrible public apologies made by high-profile men facing sexual harassment, assault, and misconduct allegations continues to grow, Rue Morgue takes a much-needed look at the rape-revenge subgenre in our latest issue (#180) – but from a particularly female perspective.

In the issue, we spoke with the talented women behind the latest female-led rape-revenge film, M.F.A. The film follows Noelle (Francesca Eastwood), a fine arts student who is viciously assaulted one night at a college party. After accidentally murdering her aggressor the following night, Noelle experiences an unexpected surge of creative inspiration and a thirst for revenge on those who destroyed the lives of innocent women.

We spoke with Natalia Leite (director), Leah McKendrick (writer, co-star), and Mariah Owen (executive producer) to discuss the film and why it’s important for women to have a voice in rape-revenge. What follows is the complete interview.

Natalia, you’ve revealed that your decision to make the film was inspired by your own trauma. Did the process heal old wounds or tear them open anew?

NL: For sure it helped heal old wounds. People deal with trauma in different ways. For me it was just trying to bury it. Making the film was a way to face my fears head on and in some way rewrite my own story. I wanted to see myself in Noelle and so I modelled her after me in art school. It was very therapeutic. 

Was the ineptitude of the police and the campus counsellor also autobiographical?

NL: No, that was not autobiographical at all. In fact, nothing about the film was autobiographical. I didn’t kill any rapists lol! But I did find a connection to the material because I had a personal sexual assault story that happened when I was in art school with a classmate. Other than that, everything else sprung from Leah’s mind. 

Leah, the character of Skye will haunt me forever. Did you intend her to be something of a cautionary tale against the dangers of triggering and revictimization?

LM: Thank you! I don’t think I meant for her to be a tale at all. I was reading message boards about sexual assault while I was writing the script and I was so stunned and shocked when I would see a girl turning to the community after being assaulted, asking for advice and support, and many times survivors encouraging her to stay silent. I was heartbroken! I thought no, no no – don’t listen to them, that’s bad advice! And then, the more that I learned, the deeper I dug, I came to understand it. For many women, going that route of reporting to authorities can be furthering the trauma. It can feel futile. What is worse than gathering your strength to speak out against your rapist and being told in a court of law that it never happened? It’s no one’s place to tell a survivor how to heal from his or her experience. But after learning what I did, I thought this viewpoint needed to be in the film. I was very, very determined to make the survivors in M.F.A feel like real people with authentic shame, trauma, and fears.

How does M.F.A fit in with the existing entries in the rape-revenge subgenre, alongside films made by men like Ms. 45, Last House on the Left or I Spit on Your Grave?

LM: I am very proud to say that I think the difference between M.F.A and other rape-revenge films is that ours is from the female gaze. And it’s because it was directed, written, and starring women. I have two other producers on my team, both men – Shin and Mikey – and they truly stepped back and allowed for and facilitated our visions. They never tried to take ownership of the narrative and I’m grateful to them for that. It speaks volumes about who they are as filmmakers and who they are as people.

Why is it important for female filmmakers to have a voice in the rape-revenge subgenre?

LM: It’s important for female filmmakers to have a voice in every damn genre. I’ll leave it at that because I know Nat will answer this eloquently!

NL: Haha, thanks Leah! Yeah, I mean, we don’t want to just write romantic comedies and cute female friendship stories. We want to write horror, action, and superhero stories, because we are dimensional human beings! The rape-revenge subgenre is very male-dominated. The vast majority are written and directed by men, which is very strange when you think about it. It’s great that more women are telling these stories now because we understand this story in a way that men never will. We can add a totally different (and probably more real) perspective on it. I watched a lot of rape-revenge films in preparation for directing M.F.A. and they were mostly reminders for me of what not to do. 

MO: Similar to Leah, rape isn’t a hot topic; it’s a ruthless, global epidemic that we need to eradicate. The making and release of our film and the recent surfacing of the all of the allegations were purely coincidental. I think we are all incredibly proud to be a part of the much-needed conversation. 

M.F.A’s release seems prescient, given the recent Hollywood Weinstein scandal. Was there a particular catalyst that compelled to you make the film now? 

LM: It’s not about following trends for me. Violence against women such as sexual assault is not new. Just because rape is a hot topic now does not mean it is a recent development. I have wanted to kill rapists onscreen for years. The catalyst was finally being in a position where I could fight to get a feature film made. If I had the resources, knowledge and the balls that I do today, I would have made this film at 14 years old. I reached a point where I had enough work under my belt that I felt ready to take on a feature and I thought – what do I want to say? Every time I’d see a new case in the news, a new girl getting raped by a new Stanford swimmer or whatever – I thought, oh, I know what I want to say.

NL: Also, releasing the film on the same month as the Weinstein scandal was very surreal and coincidental. We knew the film was already timely when we were shooting it last year because the rape cases in universities were finally making the news. But we of course had no idea how timely it would be this year. 

“It’s important for female filmmakers to have a voice in every damn genre.”
– Leah McKendrick

I love how the film takes pains to show sisterhood and solidarity between women who have assaulted, but the victims all have different approaches with regard to how best to act upon their trauma. The film offers no concrete answer to this; why was it important for you to portray this complexity? 

LM: Because every woman is different and therefore every healing process is different. I think there is so much power in listening; So much power in offering support and love. I would never pressure someone to speak out publicly or to stay silent. It is our job to listen, to assure survivors that they are believed and it is never their fault. I believe the bond between women is immeasurably powerful. Which is why it destroys me when I hear stories of survivors being bullied by other women, being slut shamed. I am a girl’s girl and I adore the women in my life and believe that we should rally behind one another – which may sound a bit Barney!  

MO: I don’t think there is any concrete answer to relieve trauma. Everyone experiences, hurts, and heals in their own way and I think Leah, Natalia, and Francesca did a phenomenal job at highlighting the various ways people attempt to move forward after a traumatic experience.

Being so immersed in this topic couldn’t have been easy on you, psychologically. How did the cast and crew support one another throughout the filming process?

LM: It was tough. I have Mariah to thank for keeping me sane. I knew that Nat had a handle on it. I trusted that she would steer the ship with a strong, steady hand and that she did. Every day. But behind the scenes, it was rough! There were more than a few tears and Mariah was always there, always positive, always confident we’d pull through. She’s my EP and she didn’t need to be on set everyday. She did not need to be going on coffee runs or listening to me while I cried – but she was always there. My sister said it best, “She was your angel.” She truly was. We didn’t know each other before this film and she’s proof that sometimes the universe has your back.

NL: It was really physically and emotionally draining for a lot of reasons, not just because of the subject matter. But we would be checking in constantly – regrouping to make sure we were on the same page and doing okay, which is especially important cause I was directing Leah’s script and she was also acting and producing. For me it was also really important that Francesca felt supported so that she could do these very intense scenes so I would check in with her constantly. 

MO: This was the first project I worked on where I didn’t know a single person involved. Yet, this incredible team felt more like a little family. We just clicked and complimented each other in amazing ways. I think even on the days when it was incredibly daunting or frustrating that everyone pulled together as we all felt a strong responsibility to the subject matter.

Has M.F.A elicited different responses from male and female audiences? Why do you think that is?

LM: I’m pretty humbled by the response from many men. I’ve had many guys tell me they watched the film and it caused them to think back, going through all of their hookups out of fear like, “Oh my God – have I raped someone?” I think that’s huge. It think good guys have that reaction. They don’t point fingers, they look inward. Many of the champions of M.F.A starting with my mentor John Benitz, and my friend and researcher Jess Prosser, my producers Shin and Mikey, many of my investors and many of the encouraging film critics — have been men. It makes me smile and it reminds me that many men love and support powerful women.

It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that often women just tend to “get” our film. Probably because as Amy Schumer puts it – “we’ve all been just a little bit raped.”

NL: I see no difference between gender reactions. People either get it or they don’t.  

MO: I would say yes. However, the most surprised response I’ve noticed is generational. The film has definitely gotten different reactions from different age groups and I’m really grateful that younger audiences, both female and male, are responding so positively. How we as a society view women and their bodies is changing for the better… finally!

Rape-revenge is a small subgenre within the larger body of horror movies. Do you think there is a future for this subgenre in the hands of female directors?

LM: Man, for sure –  I hope so. But I’ll be honest, after making the film – I don’t know how many rape-revenge films we really need, you know? I’d like to see many more stories about women healing from trauma, reclaiming their sexuality, seeking vigilante justice – but I don’t know how many times it needs to be through the lens of a rape-revenge film. I’m grateful for the response to M.F.A and the catharsis it has offered some viewers, but it can be hard to watch – even for me! How many times do you do it before you become desensitized and it starts to feel exploitive? I don’t know. I will say that a part of me is at peace after making M.F.A. We told that story and I look forward to the next one.

NL: I think there’s definitely room to explore this genre from a female perspective. The genre has mostly been told by men so I’m excited to see how women can tell it differently, in their own words.  

MO: Ultimately, we tend to make movies and TV shows about problems in the world. So until rape is no longer a common occurrence in the lives of women around the world, we will have to keep exploring stories and making movies as an opportunity to raise conversation and hopefully find a solution. So, yes, I do believe there is a future for female directors. With that being said, it’s hard for me to say as I really hope one day we will live in a world where women can walk out their door and feel safe. However, I also fear that they may not happen in my lifetime.


** SPOILER ALERT ** Important details of the plot development is about to be revealed.

Tell me about the original ending of the film where Det. Kennedy lets Noelle off – what made you change it?

LM: In the script, Detective Kennedy is the B-story. You see into his past, his trauma, his connection to Noelle. In the script he becomes a bit of a vigilante himself because he’s battling his own demons. It is implied that he is a sexual assault survivor himself. So in the end, he has all the evidence – and he can’t bring himself to bust her. They are cosmically linked, there’s a kinship. But if you have to cut down his storyline for time, it makes no sense that he would let her off like that! So we shot both to cover our asses. And we ended up going with the alternate. 

NL: We decided ultimately that since this was Noelle’s story, the Kennedy story line got cut because there was no room for it. I like the alternate ending because it felt like a more realistic version. Also because Noelle really wants for the rapists to own up to their crimes and in the end, she willingly walks towards the cop car, like she is owning up to her own crime.