Catching Up With Jillian Schlesinger, the Director of Maidentrip

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In January 2012, a sixteen-year-old Dutch girl became the youngest person to sail around the world on a solo mission. She celebrated this great feat by getting back in her boat shortly thereafter, and returning to the waters. Laura Dekker’s story is beyond remarkable—she fought the Dutch courts when they attempted to legally block her from making the voyage, and won the case in July 2010. She set off on her epic journey just one month later, though she’d been preparing for years. Laura, who spent the first four years of her life at sea, took two years to circumnavigate the world by herself. But she wasn’t alone. As Dekker achieved her dream of a life at sea, exploring new countries and experiencing the wonders of places like the Galápagos Islands, filmmaker Jillian Schlesinger achieved her own dream of telling a powerful story, like those she’d heard growing up, of Man versus Nature. Although in this case, the man was an adolescent girl, and her voyage—beautifully captured in Schlesinger’s directorial debut, Maidentrip—tells the tale of a person more at odds with land than sea, more comfortable on the water than perhaps anywhere else. Paste caught up with Schlesinger to talk about the adventure of a lifetime, the making of Maidentrip.

Paste: Your father has experience in sailing, right?
Schlesinger: Yes. He dropped out of school in his late teens and early twenties, and built a boat with some friends. They sailed around Central America and a little bit of South America, so I heard a lot of his stories growing up, and it was always very inspiring. From a storytelling perspective, there’s nothing more exciting than the relationship between people and the sea. It comes up time and time again in so many stories that are usually male-dominated, so it was so thrilling to come across this story of a woman—particularly a young woman [Laura]. It was a dream come true.

Paste: Based on that scene with Lauren and the reporter, you can tell that she’s really not interested in the journalistic aspect of her voyage. She doesn’t want to have to explain what she’s doing or why she’s doing it. How were you able to approach her in a way that would make her feel comfortable about working with you on this?
Schlesinger: A lot of it was just instinct, which often comes into play anytime you’re doing something that you haven’t really done before. I had been involved in documentary filmmaking in a lot of different capacities for a long time, but I had never helmed a project in this way. I just went on my basic instincts as a person and I think we were so similar—maybe we didn’t have literal shared experiences, but there were a lot of similar themes in our upbringings and life experiences. I think a lot of those things just helped us establish a relationship that was more about a friendship. The filmmaking and the collaboration was sort of second to that, so our connection very much transcended the typical filmmaker/subject relationship. She would complain to me about journalists (laughs).

And a lot of it was about figuring out her comfort zone and seeing what she responded to in a negative way. I wasn’t going to force her to do something if she didn’t want to do it. She was super-independent and strong-willed, so it made sense to figure out the best way to do it so I could get the content I needed to tell the intimate story that I wanted to tell, and to have it feel really comfortable and natural for her.

Even with the filming, I saw that she had her own way of doing it, and I wasn’t going to interfere with that. She had this beautiful relationship with the camera when she was out at sea and to mess with that would have ruined that friendship that she had with it. So I was just careful to do everything with a lot of respect and a lot of input from Laura. I saw her as an essential collaborator of the film.

Paste: As Laura was making her way around the world, you were traveling as well and meeting up with her at different locations. What was that like—going on your own physical voyage while you were already on this adventure of making a film?
Schlesinger: Oh, that’s a great question! I don’t think I’ve ever gotten that question. It’s something I think so much about and I think it had a huge influence on the film too. In a lot of ways, we went on these very parallel journeys. And I think we were able to really support each other through that.

When I read about Laura’s story, I was also at a point in my life where I was living a more mature, conventional lifestyle than I was naturally suited to, and I think I didn’t really understand why. I had this great job at Sundance Channel. It was really cool, and I loved all the people that I worked with, but I read this article and it gave me the courage to take this crazy leap. I was going back and forth doing freelance work for crazy hours for a couple of months and then I was going off to some far corner of the Earth to meet this girl. And at that point the film didn’t exist, yet! So it was all just a leap of faith. It wasn’t necessarily going to turn out the way that it did. I’m thrilled that it did.

It’s very hard to describe how it became this all-encompassing, tremendous journey for me, but it allowed me to know Laura more intimately and to immerse myself in the culture of ocean sailing in a much more deep and intimate way. When I was visiting her on the Galápagos Islands, we were joking over dinner with another family that was sailing the world and I ended up going with this Canadian family on a boat and spent three weeks crossing the Pacific. My life became the adventure that I wanted it to be. And I think Laura’s did too.

Paste: How much do you think Laura’s gender played into the media’s reaction to her story?
Schlesinger: The language that was used to talk about her in the media felt very gender-biased—words like “spoiled” and “impulsive” and “bratty.” And there were things about young women being vulnerable and this idea that she needed to be protected from the world. Having personally enjoyed a very adventurous and independent youth, I felt particularly drawn to that aspect of it, and frustrated by that kind of language. In a lot of circumstances, young women are made to feel like they’re not empowered and that the world is a scary place that’s threatening to them. I think that affects how threatened you are. If you approach the world like you’re a 14-year-old girl who can conquer it, then you’re able to do that. But if you approach the world like you’re a victim, then you’re gonna be victimized. Laura’s story can be really empowering for young women who don’t feel powerful in their lives.

There have been a lot of important strides in the portrayal of young women as powerful and capable beings. That’s great, especially in mainstream Hollywood movies with something like The Hunger Games—you didn’t use to see that as much. There’s been an amazing wave in indie film, fiction, and somewhat in nonfiction, of really powerful, interesting, complex women characters. I think that’s great, and I hope I can continue to be a part of it.

Paste: What’s next for you?
Schlesinger: I have a few ideas, some on the documentary side, some on the narrative side, both related to young women. I’m at this weird point where nothing’s fully in motion. I read this story, and I knew that I had to make this film and I wouldn’t want to feel anything short of that. You have to have that level of commitment to take it the whole way. The one that’s coming up most is about young women—college students and graduate students—who are involved in artificial intelligence research and the emotionally intelligent robot.

Paste: Wow!
Schlesinger: That’s in the developments stages, but I’m really excited about it.

Paste: Well, I consider myself to be a big fan of your work, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of it.
Schlesinger: Thank you so much.

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