Director Jillian Schlesinger: “You Dream Your Film Will Mean Something to Just One Person”

01/15/2014 9:30 AM |

jillian schlesinger laura dekker maidentrip

This Friday, Jillian Schlesinger’s documentary Maidentrip, about 14-year-old Laura Dekker’s 519-day, 27,000-mile solo sea voyage against the wishes of the Dutch government, will open at the IFC Center. Read our review here. We also talked with Jillian: about living in Brooklyn, walking around Prospect Park, how she met Laura, and what it’s like to share a name with a pop singer.

Which neighborhood do you live in?
I just moved from Carroll Gardens to a beautiful old brownstone in Lefferts Gardens, and I love it! There are a lot of great things about the house and the neighborhood; being close to Prospect Park is something that I especially love. Having grown up near a lot of beautiful wilderness in Northern California, the park is a great
escape. One of my favorite activities is discovering new ways to walk through the park to Hanco’s in Park Slope. I don’t think I’ve ever taken the same route twice.


How does a background in writing and linguistic anthropology lead you to documentary filmmaking?
My interests in writing and linguistic anthropology both grew out of a deep love of storytelling in many forms. Linguistic anthropology and non-fiction storytelling are very closely linked, so it just felt like a natural progression for me into documentary filmmaking.

How did you first connect with Laura Dekker and her story?
I read about Laura in the New York Times in 2009, when the Dutch government had first intervened to prevent her voyage, and I was instantly captivated. Everyone had an opinion on the topic of whether a person so young should sail around the world, but I never thought about it in those terms. I was interested in Laura as a person, interested in hearing her unique story from her point of view, which seemed all but missing from the conversation in the media. I reached out to her with the idea of a collaborative film project—a first-time
adventure for both of us—and she responded. I took a solo bike trip across southern Holland to meet Laura and her dad on the boat [on which] they were living in early summer 2010, about a month before she got
permission to do the trip. And together we hatched a plan for making the film.

Did you school her much in what she needed to capture while sailing alone for your purposes as a filmmaker?
I observed Laura’s natural talent with the camera the first time we met, and I knew giving any sort of instruction would be a mistake. The camera was a confidante and a friend; I didn’t want to do anything to
interfere with that relationship—and it was a good decision to put all my trust in Laura and in the situation that way. I was especially delighted by how her relationship with the camera evolved over the journey. At the beginning, it was a lot more straight-to-camera traditional updates. By the Indian Ocean, Laura’s approach to filming became much more daring and experimental, and I thought that was cool, since it wasn’t something we discussed or that I influenced at all.

You’ve been picking up awards at festivals; what do you think makes the movie resonate with audiences?
The great reactions from audiences and critics have been very gratifying—when you pour so much of yourself into something, you dream that it will mean something to just one person. That would be enough. So when it means a lot to a lot of people, that’s really something. The craziest thing—and something I never anticipated at all—is how much the film seems to have the same effect on people that reading about Laura’s story initially had on me. I think the film reminds people that they can choose how to live, and that it doesn’t have to be the same way as everyone else. Sometimes when people think you’re really crazy, it means you’re doing something right. One story I love to tell is about a woman in her mid-20s who saw the film at SXSW. She came up to me and [coproducer] Emily [McAllister] after the screening and said, “Maidentrip made me want to quit my job and go do something awesome!” Then we ran into her six months later and she had really done it! How cool is that?

When you Google “Jillian Schlesinger,” the first autofill suggestion includes “american idol.” How is it sort-of sharing a name with a pop singer?
I think it’s great! The other Jillian Schlesinger is a talented young actress. I believe she was the winner of an American Idol-like competition on the Today Show on NBC, which is probably why that search suggestion exists. It is my dream for us one day to collaborate. Directed by Jillian Schlesinger. Starring Jillian Schlesinger. Confusion and mass chaos would undoubtedly ensue.

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart