“I used to joke when I was writing this story that when I was a teenage girl I thought high school was trying to kill me. That was my starting point: What if high school really was trying to kill you?”
That’s Danishka Esterhazy, writer/director of the dystopian thriller Level 16. It’s set in a girls’ boarding school where students are taught “feminine virtues,” which include cleanliness and obedience, but not critical thinking.
Attending an inner-city high school in Winnipeg in the 1980s felt a little like that to Esterhazy. “I felt extremely alienated as a girl of 16,” she says. “I had a very hungry mind and I was very interested in exploring philosophy and literature and the great works.”
But school emphasized conformity over exploration. “They put a strong emphasis on teaching us to fit in and know our place and, especially for young women, to accept a certain amount of second-class citizenship. That made me very angry as a teenager, and I haven’t forgotten that. I wanted to tap into those feelings.”
So when she graduated from the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto, she immediately wrote the screenplay for Level 16, with a science-fiction vibe she once characterized as “Jane Eyre meets Logan’s Run.” No one would fund it.
“Genre was a huge problem,” she sighs. “I would pitch this film again and again in film markets all over the world and be told there’s no interest in women telling genre stories; no interest in female-driven science fiction. It seemed to be the understood wisdom at the time, 10 years ago.”
Every year she would rewrite the script to make it more appealing to backers, only to receive the same answer; women don’t do this. In the meantime, Esterhazy made the well-received 2009 historical drama Black Field, and 2013’s H&G, a modern take on Hansel and Gretel. But Level 16 stayed with her. “The core of the story, this idea that these two young women are raised in ignorance and that they have to challenge the educational system to liberate themselves and to save the other girls, that never changed,” she says.
Then, the world changed. “The #MeToo movement and the #TimesUp movement has really started to transform the film industry.” The success of TV’s The Handmaid’s Tale proved that female-driven dystopia of the type delivered by Margaret Atwood or Ursula K. Le Guin could thrive on screens as well as the page. And so in the fall of 2017, funding finally in place, Esterhazy and her production team moved into an abandoned mid-century police station in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood to create the Vestalis Academy, where the futuristic Level 16 takes place. “I wanted to find a location that we could transform, that has natural quirky character and history,” she says. “We had the whole run of the building; we were able to paint and age and redesign and board up all the windows.”
The film stars Katie Douglas (TV’s Mary Kills People) as Vivien, who starts out as a diligent “student” until the institution’s mysteries raise questions she can’t ignore. “She has this range which is quite rare in young women who are actors,” says Esterhazy. “She can bring vulnerability, which most young women actors don’t have difficulty accessing, but she can also bring a fierceness and a bravery and a strength that is really quite outstanding. Every day on set she just knocked it out of the park.”
Level 16 had a festival run that included stops in Berlin, Austin and Vancouver, and starts a limited run in Toronto and Calgary on March 15. But Esterhazy is already on to her next project, a horror movie based on the psychedelic late-’60s kids’ show The Banana Splits Adventure Hour, often remembered for its “Tra-La-La” theme song. “I just got back from 20 hours on set of shooting nothing but fake blood,” says Esterhazy from South Africa, where filming is taking place. “It’s been a crazy day.” The movie is expected to air on the Syfy channel late this year.
She wasn’t familiar with the show from her own childhood, but has since tracked down and watched all the archival footage she could find. “I quite fell in love with it,” she says. “The crazy, colourful sets and the weird, strange writing and these creepy children’s television characters that are kind of innately scary when you look at them from the wrong angle. It wasn’t much of a leap to imagine them in a darker world.” Just as it’s not a leap to imagine the director of the excellent, creepy Level 16 rising to this new challenge.