Level 16, the new film by Canadian filmmaker Danishka Esterhazy, focuses on the students of a futuristic, all-girl boarding school known as the Vestalis Academy, who are all named after classic Hollywood actresses. Vivien (Katie Douglas), Sophia (Celina Martin) and others (including Ava, Rita, Mae, and more) have never seen the outside world – instead, they watch their namesakes’ movies in order to assist in their education in so-called feminine virtues, with the goal of impressing potential parents for adoption (or so they think…).
The idea that women are socialized to act a certain way by the movies that they watch shouldn’t be news to anyone. However, Level 16 – written, directed, and starring mostly women – talks back to this tradition, fighting to carve out a more nuanced place for women in genre films. To learn more, we talked to the three main stars of the film – Katie Douglas (who plays Vivien), Celina Martin (Sophia), and Sara Canning (the villainous teacher Miss Brixil).
Q: The group of students in the film – really the only sympathetic characters throughout – are all young women, while the majority of the staff (with the exception of Miss Brixil) are male. How do you think that this gendered division helps Level 16 to stand out from other films in its genre?
Katie Douglas: It’s a story about how traditional feminine virtues can typically suppress and limit women – it’s about how women, if we band together, we can overcome that. It’s very important to remember how we can help each other out, and stand up for each other. It’s a story about friendship, essentially, which was what the appeal was for me, initially. It was a very heart-touching story when I first read the script.
Celina Martin: It is different because up until recently there weren’t very many stories in this genre that focused on women, our story forces that focus. I think our gender division helped create more of a sense of isolation for the girls in Rose Hall [the girls’ dormitory in the Academy], and heightening this warped view of femininity found throughout the film. It’s a true female perspective, where through their own self-discoveries they save themselves.
Sara Canning: I think Level 16 lives in the realm of feminist uprising. But the difference with this film is that while the characters are absolutely compromised in the story, our director Danishka Esterhazy was firm in ensuring the actors were not compromised in the way female characters can be in this genre. She has many stories about notes that were given her regarding the script years ago that would have just led to exploitative scenes. She was absolute in getting the film made in a way that rather focused on empowering young women and the nature of friendship.
Q: The science fiction/horror genre is also one that has a reputation for being exclusionary – from the disproportionate focus on stories about white men to various fanbases’ hostility towards women and people of colour. With this in mind, why do you think female-focused works like Level 16 are important, both to the film community and the world at large?
KD: I think it’s quite important to this day, unfortunately. Of course, it’s gotten better, but there have always been obstacles for women, and there has definitely been a lack of representation – keeping in mind our traditional views of sex appeal and the idea of – gosh – even being a woman over 26 years old. The lack of representation and the lack of opportunity is very present. It was a film that was very empowering to work on, not because we were proving ourselves or anything – we knew we could do it – but it was just an opportunity to do it.
CM: I think it is very important to have inclusion. It’s a great reminder to the film community and the world that we have stories worth being told, that are thrilling, terrifying and smart. We aren’t simply carbon copies, in matching dresses with legs crossed, but complex women with thoughts and strength of our own that are just beginning to be celebrated. When we look at the studies shown last year, there is a very low percentage of women representation in the film industry. That just shows that we still very much need to work on the change of inclusion and it’s a topic to be discussed further. It’s taken this long for us to get this far, but I believe that we are taking the right steps in bringing more awareness. Female representation is very important, not only within this industry but as a whole in our society.
SC: Female-focused works are important in any genre. We make up half the population so there should be an equal number of stories that focus on the female-identifying experience. And I think there is a huge liberation experienced in a very contained setting in this film. It’s a metaphor for the multiple societal battles women are still fighting.
Q: Level 16 is like a lot of great works of science fiction in that the literal details of its plot are implausible, while the social realities it uncovers (the exploitation of women’s youth and beauty) are all too familiar. As actors working in the genre, what power do you think works of speculative fiction can have on the audience’s present?
KD: I think that why the film is so effective right now is that it is not totally improbable – it’s a very bleak and realistic outlook on the future. It’s very similar to situations that are happening right now – like human trafficking, violence against women, and so on. That’s really the horror of it all – stuff like that is happening, and can happen. I think that the film industry sometimes forgets what the real world looks like, and I think that it’s very important to capture that on film and talk about it.
CM: Works like Level 16 have this immense power to force their audience to think beyond the movie screen. It makes them reassess their idea of what it is to be a woman, how social constructs like advertising, or social media still eerily stress the same Vestalis Academy virtues. It’s terrifying to know that while we believe our world to be different, women’s voices still need to scream to be heard, and fight back in movements against their abusers. It’s also a harsh realization that our world has come to such a halt where people become desperate to look a certain way so they could fit within societal standards of beauty. Our talented writer/director, Danishka Esterhazy has beautifully crafted that within the storyline and it leaves audiences feeling a certain way.
SC: Science fiction is a great tool to shine an allegorical light on pertinent issues. The conversations I’ve had with audience members after viewing the film have centred around how they identify too closely with being subjected to the ‘feminine virtues’ in the story.
Q: While the system Miss Brixil finds herself at the top of is a misogynistic nightmare, she is also a woman herself. What were your influences and inspirations as you approached the role of a woman who devotes herself to the exploitation of other women?
SC: I definitely had to step outside of my own moral code and identity as a feminist while preparing to play Miss Brixil. But I certainly understand the desire to be loved, which I think influenced the character’s choices in her initial involvement in Vestalis. Danishka and I were aesthetically influenced by Old Hollywood icons and I wanted Brixil to live in a Hitchcockian realm. She’s built an idealistic armour around herself.
Q:Because of your character’s place in the story, you aren’t granted the same opportunity to show the same interiority and depth as the students onscreen. How did your role as a personification of misogyny, rather than a real person, influence your approach to the role? Do you think that Miss Brixil is redeemable, or does it even matter?
SC:I actually very much think of Miss Brixil as a real person. There are people in the world who make choices that are inhumane, but my job as an actor is to consider the motivations for those actions. I’ve always been intrigued by sympathetic villains in film, and although I don’t think Brixil’s actions are redeemable, I believe she is a complex character who is courting a lot of inner conflict.
Q: Each of the students in the film are named after classic Hollywood actresses – when playing these characters, how did you take your Hollywood namesakes – and the lineage of objectified women they represent – into account while preparing for your role?
KD: In the story, the girls are only shown films from a time when women were more so oppressed – I actually took that into account when I was preparing for the audition, in my dialect. You can even tell the way Danishka wrote the script, the dialect is a little bit old-timey – the words are a little bit more enunciated, and the actors manage to stay very together, and almost dainty in a way.
CM: Danishka definitely made a clever choice there. However, in order to stay true to the characters, and their worlds where they aren’t aware of these Hollywood actresses (except Vivien), I tried not to let Sophia Loren influence my performance. When I learned that our characters names were inspired by women in the classic Hollywood era, I was very intrigued and did some research on Sophia Loren. What I got from it was that Sophia Loren always stood for what she believed in and did not conform to societal standards. It was great to see that she wasn’t just remembered for her beauty but rather, her character and passion. However, I’d like to think Sophia Loren and my Sophia share a beautiful inner strength, as the actress once said “Beauty is how you feel inside, and it reflects in your eyes. It is not something physical.”
Q: Vivien and Sophia both shift from being concerned with their own success to helping others trapped in the same system they are. How do you think that this message of rebelling against a system which encourages competition could be important to audiences, and especially female audiences?
KD: It’s not so much about rebellion as it is about finding your voice – I think that’s it’s important to tell to reassure women who might be finding themselves in situations like that that isn’t how it’s supposed to be – the film itself is a statement in that sense, and I hope that it reaches the audience that is looking for that push and that reassurance.
CM: I think that because women are offered less opportunity it becomes easy to view everyone as competition. We are often told to strive to be better than everyone else, to “not like the other girls”, but this film teaches that being like the other girls means being part of a strong and empowered sisterhood. There is strength in numbers. I think it is so important for both female and male audiences to see that these girls march out together. Although they are terrified to go outside of what they know, they do it as one. I think Sophia always felt that strong connection with Vivien, going back to their earlier days. Throughout the story, you see her desperately trying to win back Vivien’s friendship because she carried this guilt with her because she didn’t have the courage to take a stand back then. So it was important for her to stand up for the other girls in the end, even when she felt powerless. Level 16 sends a beautiful message that if we unite as one, and stand for what we believe in, it is incredibly powerful and we need to see more of that in film.
If you want to know more, be sure to catch Level 16 when it opens on March 15 – until then, you can find the trailer below!