Francesca Eastwood stars in M.F.A, the new critically acclaimed thriller that addresses sexual violence on campus. Nominated for the Grand Jury Award at the 2017 SXSW Festival, M.F.A. tells a gripping story of a young woman forced to protect herself after being sexually assaulted by a fellow classmate. I spoke with Francesca; the film’s director, Natalia Leite; and writer co-star, Leah McKendrick for an in-depth look at M.F.A.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview. M.F.A. is sad, powerful, furious. What attracted you to this emotionally charged, violent thriller?
Francesca: The script Leah wrote was so strong. After I read it, I had a gut feeling the role of Noelle would put an actor through the ringer. I was hungry as an actor and I felt I could play it with a heightened reality. Noelle was a great character with a great message, with room for exploration.
“IT’S HARD TO SEE HOW DAMAGING RAPE CAN BE BECAUSE THERE’S SOMETIMES NO PHYSICAL DAMAGE,” Natalia Leite
In directing this film, what were the emotional signposts you sought out in presenting this subject matter?
Natalia: I wanted to keep it grounded in reality. I researched the first half of the film to really understand what Noelle was going through and the brutality of rape, which many people tend to overlook. It’s hard to see how damaging rape can be because there’s sometimes no physical damage. I wanted people to be shaken by that so we could go on this journey with her. But I also wanted to address a big social issue while being entertaining and accessible to people. I didn’t want it to be a documentary about this sad, depressing story that people may not have wanted to watch.
Do you personally know of or have you talked to rape victims?
Francesca: I did my research and prep work as quickly as I could before filming. As I got into character, there was this element of anger. You mentioned the word, furious earlier, and that’s such a compliment. As an actor, that anger was one of the emotions I wanted to explore. I feel that sometimes, it’s not okay to be angry. But it’s one of those emotions I’d like to see more of.
Natalia: I’ve personally experienced sexual assault. I wanted to make informed decisions on this project so I read a number of things on how people deal with sexual assault. I shared my research with Fran. I wanted to have a deep understanding of the subject. Everyone responds differently. And you see that in the film. How Skye deals with it is completely different from how Noelle deals with it.
“THE FIRST STEP IS TO BELIEVE A SURVIVOR WHEN THEY STEP FORWARD AND TO TELL THEM NOT TO ASSUME ANY BLAME,” Leah McKendrick
The pain and humiliation of coming forward silence many rape victims. What did you learn about the justice system concerning rape reporting?
Francesca: One of the main things I loved about Leah’s script is that she gets right into addressing that shame. I thought it was smart that they cast a woman as a college administrator to show that the college isn’t necessarily on your side. And it’s about how you heal and move past that.
Leah: My issue with how the administration handles campus assaults is that most do not handle them. They often feel more protective of their brand or the epidemic that’s going on across the world. The first step is to believe a survivor when they step forward and to tell them not to assume any blame. In my research, I found that many survivors encouraged other survivors not come forward because the experience was so traumatic. The film explores how victims are treated by their peers, the administration, and the rapist. It’s this bullying and shame that can ruin lives. And how girls have committed suicide because of it. Things that happen in high school always feel like the end of the world, but when you get to college, you feel you’ve sort of made it. But an assault can make you feel like you don’t want to live anymore. And that makes me feel that if we had a better way of approaching our survivors and helping them handle on-campus assaults, we could save lives. What upsets me more than anything is the mishandling of rape survivors in this country. So my thought in writing M.F.A. was how far must we bend before we break. Noelle took the right route: she spoke out, she went to the school, she was initially not violent, she was honest, but she was shut down everywhere she went. So what are you supposed to do in that case? When people react to the trailer and make an assumption about the film, saying, oh, she’s killing someone and rape is not equal to killing, they’re missing the process and the journey. I’m hoping that after they see the entire film, they realize that maybe if the response to the assault had been handled properly, there wouldn’t be so much blood everywhere.
Noelle’s art grows dark and critically impactful as she transitions from demure art student to violent vigilante. Do you think silenced rape victims often express their pain in non-verbal ways?
Francesca: I think art is a very healing medium. It’s a way to have a voice in the world, to give and express. It was Natalia who brought the art into the story.
Natalia: Christine Wu is the artist who did Noelle’s work. We looked at so many different artists, but we really loved her work. It dealt with the subject matter of the film. I gave her free reign. I wanted her to do it in her style, to show work that represented an MFA’s work at the top of her class. I wanted the art to be as strong as Noelle’s character.
“I DON’T JUDGE ANYONE BY HOW THEY NEED TO HEAL. IT’S IMPORTANT TO ME THAT ANY SURVIVOR WHO SEES THIS FILM CAN SAY, OH, THAT WAS ME, THAT’S HOW I FELT,” Leah McKendrick
Noelle’s reaction to her assault set in sharp relief how Skye dealt with her attack. Can you comment on that?
Leah: I’m bothered by how the media likes to pinpoint what a rapist looks like—usually a man of color who jumps out of the bushes late at night with a knife in his hand. That’s how a good- looking guy from Stanford gets away with raping a girl. It’s just not the picture we have in our heads. The picture of a survivor covers the same spectrum. Everyone handles trauma differently. Every kind of woman has been raped and can be raped. If we understood how widespread the issue is, we’d take it more seriously. In M.F.A., we see two very different types of survivors and different ways of dealing. I’m not saying one is healthy and one is not. Obviously, we hope that survivors are able to work through it, whether it’s talking about it privately or openly. I don’t judge anyone by how they need to heal. It’s important to me that any survivor who sees this film can say, oh, that was me, that’s how I felt.
Noelle not only violently dealt with rapists, but she aggressively attacked the system—the police, psychiatrists, even rape support groups. So are we saying the system is as much of a problem as the crime?
Francesca: That was the message I took away from it. It’s how you deal with things. I felt that on a character level.
IT’S IMPORTANT TO DO THINGS THAT CHANGE PEOPLES’ MINDS AND HOW THEY LOOK AT RAPE,” Francesca Eastwood
Do you think the light-hearted attitude of the VDAY Balboa support group finally set into motion what Noelle had become?
Francesca: While I think support groups can be important for people to talk, in terms of healing, I think for Noelle, it was more of a disappointment. It’s not a girl’s fault that she was attacked. Doing beauty drives or hash-tagging something may not have the same impact as standing up for yourself or for those who have been assaulted. It’s important to do things that change peoples’ minds and how they look at rape.
When Noelle criticized the support group over things like nail polish that changes color after taking a spiked drink, it was good to see she finally spoke up.
Francesca: I loved that part of the script. It was a bit funny, but sadly true. I’d heard about this nail polish. While it’s not a negative thing, it’s really not the answer.
The rage when Noelle finally confronts Melinda, the school psychiatrist, was another trigger that pushed Noelle over the edge. How do you feel about that scene?
Francesca: That’s when Noelle learns that Melinda also treated Skye. Noelle had a lot of love for Skye, who was really her only friend. So all the pain and anger came out when Melinda began blaming victims for things like a personality disorder.
“…IT’S USUALLY THE GIRLS WHO HAVE TO LEAVE TOWN OR LEAVE SCHOOL. IT’S THEIR LIVES THAT ARE IRREVERSIBLY DAMAGED. WE DON’T SEE THE RAPIST KILLING HIMSELF,” Leah McKendrick
What happens to one character near the end turns everything full circle. It’s a sad, sobering moment. Why did you write that scene?
Leah: I’m very heartbroken by all the girls who have taken their own lives because of what happened to them. So to not present that felt like sanitizing the issue. If all the good guys survive and all the bad guys die, that’s not the world we live in. We need to see that there’s a price to everything. It would be lovely if a vigilante could simply get rid of all the bad guys, and it might be cathartic to some. But that’s not the way this works. It’s not lasting change. We need to change the system and society to save lives. For me, it was that character sacrificing herself for her friend and her cause. And she’d been through so much, she just couldn’t return to it. When I read about rape cases, it’s usually the girls who have to leave town or leave school. It’s their lives that are irreversibly damaged. We don’t see the rapist killing himself. He’s eating ice cream with his girlfriend. I wanted to show a character who was trying really hard to return to who she was. So the impact of that character’s passing was profound.
Will you be collaborating on any future projects with Natalia and Leah?
Francesca: I’d love to collaborate on something else. They’re incredibly talented women and I’m so lucky that they chose me to be part of their story. We had a really unique experience and it was life-changing for me.
M.F.A. is now theaters, on VOD and HD Digital