Filmmaker Suzi Yoonessi
- Name: Suzi Yoonessi
- Created on: 1978-February-21
- Record last updated on: 2009-July-30
- Homepage: www.sanguinefilm.com and www.dearlemonlimamovie.com
- Domain: Writing, Directing, Producing for film
- Location: New York City and Los Angeles
Suzi Yoonessi is in touch with her inner-child. She still writes with jelly-pens, knows how to make a pretty awesome cootie-catcher and with her very first feature film, Dear Lemon Lima, brings us back into the painful yet innocent era of adolescence where we’re guided by a voice so endearing we can’t help but embrace the memories of that time. The film was met with much success and an audience award at the 2009 LA Film Festival, where a third screening had to be installed by popular demand. Yoonessi is also the co-founder of Sanguine Films, through which she has done much producing, including Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know. Flux recently held a screening of Dear Lemon Lima to celebrate the sweetness of the characters peppered with all the things we love about summer…..ice cream, sno-cones, cupcakes and the pastel shades of girly youth.
Dear Lemon Lima’s protagonist, Vanessa
Hello! Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from and how did you grow up? How did you get into filmmaking?
When I was young, my grandmother would tell me Persian fairy tales about mythical lakes, talking cockroaches and deserts that stretched miles beyond my imagination. I would put on a ridiculous, silky nightgown and pretend that I was a princess. Bundled under the covers with my sisters, we were transported from upstate New York to an enchanted castle in Iran. My grandmother’s storytelling inspired me to pursue narrative film, so I can visually capture that magical experience and share globally-conscious stories that inspire kindness, compassion and love.
Do you still write with jelly pens? What childhood memorabilia/game do you miss the most and why?
My writing desk features the Sakura pen collection in Soufflé, Metallic, Jelly and Glaze inks. I recently wrote a companion journal to Dear Lemon Lima, which celebrates my favorite childhood memorabilia, doodles and games; highlights include a rainbow sticker page, an illustrated “how to make a Cootie Catcher” page, and a tribute to the game MASH.
Recently you came out with your new film, Dear Lemon Lima. This film has been getting great press, particularly at the LA film festival where it recently won some awards. Could you tell us about that project? How did you come up with it?
Re-reading passages from my childhood diary inspired me to write and direct a story that encourages love and kindness. The diary is a rainbow-studded, tragic and funny compilation of letters, written to my imaginary best friend, Lemon Lima. These sticker-clad pages became the heart of my first feature film. It was a delight to create and capture this magical world through the eyes of a 13-year-old girl, using a sherbet color palette, sweeping wide-screen aspect ratio and infusing the world with love and kindness.
A page out of Dear Lemon Lima
Usually coming-of-age films involve older teenagers. How did you decide to make a film about a pre-teen set? Were you a fan of coming-of-age films growing up?
Thirteen is a significant, transitional year for kids as they transfer from the loving world of middle school to complicated high school life. When I turned 13, I stopped writing in my diary and lost faith in my imaginary friend (Lemon Lima). It was the year that I experienced the shocking cruelty of high school. I remember being cast in a play of Snow White, and all of the kids in my class called me Snow Brown. I also did a brief stint dating a cool kid, and everyone would call out “CK” when we’d walk down the hall. Being innocent and 13, I assumed they were talking about the fantastic “CK” ad campaign from the early nineties; I was wrong. “CK” was an acronym for “Camel Kisser.” I’m not sure if adults realize how impressionable kids are during adolescence. They are sponges; hungry to understand the world, and 13 is metaphorically the year that you stop sending valentines to all of your classmates. In an older age group, an element of that magical innocence and gullibility is gone, which is what I attempted to capture throughout the film.
How do you think watching a coming-of-age film affects the audience of the same age? Is there an effect you aim for?
My hope is that the film inspires pre-teens and teens to channel angst into a creative medium and to embrace their individuality – in Dear Lemon Lima, terminology, their “inner FUBAR.” Over the course of the shoot, Zoe, the adorable 7-year-old sister of one of the lead actors, became Dear Lemon Lima’s set mascot. Bubbling with love and kindness, she embodied the spirit of the film.
On the last day of the shoot, I gave personalized diaries to each of the young actors. The diaries were passed around like yearbooks, so cast and crew could write in each other’s pages. Not to be outdone, Zoe also passed around her personal diary. Flipping through the journal, one of my producers saw a familiar “Dear Lemon Lima” scribbled throughout the pages. It felt like everything had come full circle, knowing that my imaginary childhood friend had a new best friend.
The following is an excerpt from Zoe’s diary :
Dear lemon lima,
I’m so sorry about not writing to you this mornin’. Well, I got a warm bath, & a cold shower but my pap’s coming out tomorow. So, I love you Lemon Lima.
First love and heartbreak as seen through the eyes of a 13 year old girl
Dear Lemon Lima is a very eclectic mix of characters, setting, and story. How did you come up with the story? Have you ever participated in the World Eskimo Indian Olympics (WEIO)?
A couple of years ago, my ex-boyfriend stopped talking to me because he was scared that everything he said would end up in Dear Lemon Lima. He was probably right. I find it’s cathartic to write from life experience. Dear Lemon Lima, is a collection of my emotional truths, servicing a story that is essentially about learning the true meaning of heartbreak. Many of the relationships in the film are autobiographical, plucked from my life and those closest to me. My sister’s ex-boyfriend literally said, “Say you are a baker, and you make cupcakes for a living. And then you quit. And then you make them again. And then you quit again. You are still a baker.” Neither of us still really knows what he meant, but Philip Georgey, the lead love interest in Dear Lemon Lima, certainly does.
The first time I experienced the World Eskimo Indian Olympics was 5 years ago in Fairbanks, Alaska. My sister and I were driving when I saw a large banner that read, “World Eskimo Indian Olympics.” Intrigued, we pulled over, expecting a group of super competitive, sculpted athletes. When I entered the gymnasium, I saw an old, Alaskan Native woman walking with weights hanging off of her ears. The next competitor was a teenage girl, stumbling forward as an announcement was made explaining the survival skill represented in the game. The Alaskan Native elder was cheering for her competitor because the World Eskimo Indian Olympics encourages camaraderie. The spirit of the Native games is very much in line with the spirit of the film, in that the games are based off of the notion that each person’s survival skills contributes to the greater community.
Yoonessi on location for Dear Lemon Lima
What was it like shooting? Did you guys go to Alaska? Is the warm weather a comment on global warming?
The warm weather is definitely a comment on global warming. I am amazed that there are still people out there saying that there’s no such thing as global warming, when the glaciers in Alaska are melting away right before our eyes! The shoot was an adventure, visiting extraordinary locations with sweeping vistas, abandoned amusement parks and fly-infested lakes. All of the key characters were female, so the set had a very sensitive and loving vibe, heightened by our heart-warming cast.
What films inspire you? What made you want to make the films that you do?
I am constantly in awe of the smart family films and TV shows from my childhood: The Last Unicorn, The Muppet Movie, Water Babies, Watership Down, Rainbow Bright, Fraggle Rock and The Dark Crystal are all incredibly imaginative and provocative stories that created vivid worlds that made subversive topics palable.
What are your hobbies, i.e. what are you doing when you are not making films?
I am one the founders of the Glitterbead Collective - a Los Angeles based art movement that embraces the world of arts and crafts to create multi-media work that is palatable and socially relevant. I am also huge fan of music; for me, most storytelling starts with a song that triggers my imagination.
Pastel shades and Alaska complete the beautiful cinematography of Dear Lemon Lima
You also produce. What was it like to shift from producing to directing?
It was a sweet relief to switch from producing to directing because I can now visually and emotionally flex other creative muscles, working with performance, the color palette, the score and mise en scene instead of battling all sorts of crazy, behind-the-scene production issues. I deeply respect independent producers because you really end up selling your soul to get a movie made on a low budget, hustling to ask people to overextend themselves for months, while you overextend yourself for years to actualize the director’s vision.
What have been your favorite projects to work on? What was the most challenging project? Why?
I loved working on Michael Kang’s, The Motel because it was my first feature experience; Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Knowbecause I have been a long-time fan of her work and Dear Lemon Lima has been my favorite and most challenging project to work on because it is my biological child. In production, we faced many challenges, trying to keep the Alaskan Native elements authentic. Also, the film features a number of other unconventional elements including Native dance, American Sign Language and Spanish. It was like our actors were in summer camp, constantly taking classes to prepare for their roles in the unique and original world of the film.
Spreading peace and love, Suzi-style
Who’s your favorite artist?
It’s hard to reference one artist - Hellen Van Meene and Loretta Lux are two photographers who beautifully capture the trials and beauty of adolescence, reiterating the notion that, “a picture tells a thousand words.” The raw emotion of Sadie Benning’s work had a huge impact on me when I was a teenage girl growing up in a Riot Grrrl band. Benning’s search for a sense of identity through the use of a video journal informs Vanessa’s journey to find her own voice in the pages of her rainbow-studded journal. I hope Dear Lemon Lima resonates in the same way that Sadie Benning’s work did for me. These issues of self-identity are colored in pastel pink and place in a family film, making the idea of self-exploration more palatable to a wider audience of teenage girls.
What are some future projects you have coming up?
I am working on a film about two sisters who befriend an illegal alien after the loss of their mother - it’s kind of like ET, if ET was an illegal alien. I also have an irreverent holiday comedy, a book, “Miss Communication and the Vagina Whisperer,” and a horror film that is set in Japan. I love the idea of incorporating Kawaii (cuteness) into a horror film. Directing family films for Walden, Nickelodeon and Disney is something I am also intrigued by. All three companies reach an audience that I’m very connected to; also, I am inspired by their storytelling because it inspires peace and love. Family films have the greatest potential for social change because you are connecting with kids who hold our future in their hands.
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