Toronto International Film Festival 2020
Short Cuts
Leonardo Van Dijl


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After winning her first international title, an 11-year-old gymnast experiences both new pressures and a new degree of self-awareness. The more recognition she gets, the more she realizes that the game only has begun.

Hi Leonardo thank you for talking to TNC, how are you held up during these very strange times? 

I consider myself lucky to be in good health and it’s nice to have my short premiering at TIFF this week. It brings some positive distraction.  

Has this time offered you any new creative inspiration?

When we went in the first lockdown I started to make collages again, some of them you can see at the instagram of @stephanie_shortfilm.  

Your debut film Get Ripped’ won the Grand Jury Prize at Outfest Los Angeles, did you imagine you would get such recognition for your first film?

After obtaining a BA in Documentary, I was kindly asked by the head of that department to not obtain a MA. He couldn’t fail me on a technical note but it was clear he didn’t see any potential in me and wanted me out. He was right, but at that time, I was heartbroken.  This shock made me admit to myself that my dream was to make narrative fiction and that I was actually so afraid of being bad at it, I became bad at something I didn’t really want by heart. 

So I changed schools, followed a special year to prepare myself for a master in fiction and in that year, I made Get Ripped.  I needed to make this film in the first place to give myself the permission to do what I really wanted to do. The school gave me good grades and one advised me to sent it to Outfest. I did not even attend the festival as I was broke and the prize became even more unexpected obviously. But it felt like I made the right choice for once, so it was super symbolic for me. 


As well as being part of TIFF Stephanie was in the official completion at Cannes, what has it meant for you to get such recognition for your film? 

To be part of Cannes and of TIFF is a dream come true! It feels amazing. 

Can you tell me a little bit about Stephanie, what was the inspiration behind this film? 

For 3 years I lived with a girl called Stephanie who is one of the most inspiring people I have ever encountered in my life. I always told her one day I would make a movie about her. She was a gymnast herself, so she inspired me all that time with pictures and stories, I became completely obsessed with gymnastics. It’s a very inspiring world, there is so much going on under the surface. These girls look so shiny, so fragile but are really tough inside. I love this ambiguity.  I wanted to tell a story about a girl who wants to be the best, not for the fame or attention but because she simply feels like she owes it to herself to deliver her absolute best. Often characters in sports are very dramatised and appear to be the victim, especially female characters who only appear to be driven by cliches such as a dominant mother or jealousy towards other girls in their competitive behaviour. I absolutely wanted to avoid any of that and create a more empowered character. 

"Narratively it wouldn’t change anything in the story, not sure it would even fit in,  but I feel that would have been a beautiful scene…"

How much did Stephanie change from during production, are you flexible and allow for changes or do you prefer to stick to what has been written?

That’s a hard question, Yes, a lot changed and yet, in the end I feel like I made the film that I had in my head. For me the script is mainly about structure.  It is only when I start developing, visiting locations, casting the actors, I start seeing the bigger picture and feel what could work and what doesn’t.

That said, I think that many beginning director’s agree we need to be flexible, merrily because budgets force us to make certain decisions and we hope that those limitations will work out for the best. We shot on 16mm so every take had to be well considered before ‘Action’. 

What was the most challenging part of making this film for you?

Writing, writing, writing.  

When you complete a film are you able to let it live its own life or are you always thinking 'I could/should have done this differently?

There is one scene I wish I would have shot a simple image of Stephanie reading a comic book, having a smile on her face…Narratively it wouldn’t change anything in the story, not sure it would even fit in, but I feel that would have been a beautiful scene… 

Where did your passion for filmmaking come from?

Being a fat gay kid in the countryside, I didn’t really have many talents so film and television were my escape. When I was twelve I saw The Virgin Suicides and I was blown away. Sofia Coppola became my imaginary friend and mentor,  she encouraged me to become a director myself. 

How much does your background as a stylist and fashion editor inspire your filmmaking?

Fashion taught me that anything can be fashion and cinema has taught me that anything can be cinema.  

Is there any advice you would offer a fellow filmmaker?

Be kind to your crew (and yourself). 

What would you say has been the most valuable lesson you've taken away from making Stephanie?

The universe has his own pace and you cannot force it. Many will think you are weak when you are mindful about this while they will be the first to be ‘proud’ of you when you achieve something big. I try to live in the grace of the universe nowadays.  

And finally, what do you hope people will take away from this film?

To show all the Stephanie’s in the world how truly special they are.  

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