Filmmaker D. Mitry’s feature debut, My True Fairytale (2021), is personal storytelling driven by the loss of his young daughter. The film is set in the intimate community of Gardenland, Florida. The story follows 17-year-old Angie Goodwin (Emma Kennedy), who goes missing after a car accident. As the police, family, and friends search for her, she pursues her fantasy of being a superhero by realising her capacity to help those around her.
Mitry’s previous films include the shorts The Wizard (2015), Shade of Music (2015), and The Lovebite (2016). My True Fairytale perhaps has shades of his short film Under the Above (2016), which is about a young woman with special abilities tasked with a challenge.
In conversation with PopMatters, Mitry discussed his desire to provoke his audience’s feelings and how a film lives or dies depending on the filmmaker’s response to adversity.
Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you personally?
I grew up knowing that I wanted to devote my life to film. Growing up in Belarus, in the former USSR, I wound up idolising French and Italian cinema of the ’70s and ’80s. I knew from that moment on that somehow, someway, I needed to tell stories through film. I just didn’t know how I was going to do it, and here we are.
Are there any films from this period that particularly nurtured your enthusiasm for storytelling in the cinematic medium?
Obviously Breathless (À bout de souffle, Godard, 1960) with Jean-Paul Belmondo and the films featuring actor Alain Delon. We’re of course going into the world of Federico Fellini, Monica Vitti, Alberto Sordi, Marcello Mastroianni, Giulietta Masina and so on. Then I got into heavy drama with Fanny Ardant. And then there were Polish films that shaped the way I saw the world through the lens.
I remember when I was 11-years-old, my parents took me to a film festival in Belarus, and I wound up seeing an Akira Kurosawa film for the first time. I was blown away. I still get goosebumps. There were also, of course, those big American hits I was enamoured with, in particular, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Forman, 1975) and Amadeus (Forman, 1984). I could watch those films over and over again, and coincidentally they’re by the same director, Miloš Forman.
How do you perceive your work in relation to the films that inspired you? Do you see a link, or are they a jumping-off point to finding your creative voice?
Filmmaking is a very complex process because there are so many components that go into it. I always try to simplify the process as much as I possibly can. Believe it or not, it boils down to this one particular factor: how do I want my audience to feel?
There’s always the three-act structure, there’s always the arcs of the characters, but ultimately we wind up leaving the film with goosebumps, whether we hated it or loved it because it made us feel. At this point, Korean cinema does this the best, simplifying it to a level where you come out with a cathartic feeling. I try to learn from these guys and incorporate what they’re doing into my work.
This being your feature debut, how did the expectations compare to the realities of the experience?
Before I went into a feature, I did a short with a very accomplished actress, and she said, “A feature is like doing a big short.” I can tell you the voyage is a lot longer, the water is a lot deeper, and the other side is a lot harder to reach, but I’ve noticed a similarity in all the films I’ve made.
There comes a point when you know it’s not going to happen, and everything is going to fall apart. In that moment you have a decision to make: are you going to leave it, or are you going to go for it? Every time you go for it, no matter how bad it is, it’s going to get worse beyond that point. Miraculously, and it always happens at the end, but somehow, someway, magically, algorithmically — I don’t what it is — it always comes together Or at least that was the case for the five films I’ve made.
For the audience, a film can open doors to our memories, allowing us to understand ourselves more fully. Do you view cinema as a form of talking therapy for not only the filmmaker but the audience as well?
You use the word “therapeutic”, and it’s a terrific word. I use the word “healing”. I hope that the film’s message of love serves as this healing process to many who have lost someone close to them. Ultimately that’s the feeling I want them to walk away with, knowing that they’re llost oved ones are not gone, and to just give them love because they’re giving you love all the time. Healing will come as a result of that.
How do you take such severe pain and mould it into a story that can speak to an audience? Storytelling is difficult enough without the strain of the personal. Does your pain motivate certain choices?
When you write about something painful like this, you have to surrender yourself to the abyss, and there’s no question about it. You have to be a part of it. I believe that without pain, there is no liberation. At some point, you have to go through it.
Sometimes you hear filmmakers say that when you get on set the film will let you know how it wants to be shot. For this specific script, it rings true. I have to give co-credit to my daughter. I felt her helping me write so many scenes when I’d written myself into a hole that I couldn’t get out of, and something in real life would happen.
In fact, there’s a scene where, after an incident, the daughter turns to her father and says, “I can fix you.” I didn’t know how to write this scene and I was stuck. Then all of a sudden — I don’t know how this happened — but iTunes or whatever it was on the computer turned on and it was a song by Coldplay called Fix You. I knew that was the line that would define the scene. I get goosebumps even telling you this.
My True Fairytale needs to create a specific haunting mood, a presence that we cannot see but we can feel. How did you use the camera, music, and sound to create this presence?
I take an approach that I want to work with people who are better than me. In this case, I had an incredible collaborator in Pablo Diez, my director of photography. We were on the same vibrational level and he also comes from a place of, how do we want people to feel? I’d tell him the feeling, what I wanted to convey and how I saw it, and he’d say, “That’s great, but how about this?” So when I have faith in someone, it becomes about two things: vibration and pacing.
Pacing is crucial to a film, especially when you’re an indie filmmaker and you only have 18 days to shoot, and you don’t have any pick-up days. I have to tip my hat to my editor [Antonio Gómez-Pan] and of course my composer [Pancho Burgos-Goizueta], as well as my director of photography. All three of them were able to create that vibrational pacing I talk about, where we can make the audience experience that feeling that we’re trying to convey from the beginning.
Was there a personal transformative aspect to the filmmaking process? Is it only personal films such as My True Fairytale that can provoke such change?
I believe every film should be personal. My next film is my favourite, and the film after that one is my favourite because each film is part of you, it’s a part of your soul. You and the film are like a piece of paper, if you will, that you cannot separate the front from the back, and so it’s a joint adventure.
Is there a transformation for the audience?
Absolutely, but I believe even if you leave the movie theatre and you call someone in your family to tell them, “I love you.” Something as little as that is a huge transformation. We cannot change the way we are, but we can change the way we look at things, and that’s what films should ultimately be able to do.