Alumna Q&A: Writer and director Lilian Mehrel ’09
From working with Google Tilt Brush to creating videos for Vogue to working with the U.S. State Department, Lilian Mehrel ’09 has made huge strides in the arts since she graduated from Dartmouth. Mehrel’s films have premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, winning awards from ABC/Disney, the Puffin Foundation, the Marcie Bloom/Sony Pictures Classics Fellowship and countless other organizations. Mehrel is now an MFA candidate at New York University’s Tisch Graduate Film Program with a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans. She is currently writing comedy television scripts, creating artwork, making digital shorts and working with virtual reality.
How did your time at Dartmouth influence your future career?
LM: At Dartmouth I actually came in during the year where during the summer reading they had us read “Mountains Beyond Mountains” about Paul Farmer and partners in health in Haiti, and I think a large percentage of my incoming class came in wanting to become doctors, and I was one of them. But I ended up getting a freshman seminar in comparative literature, and I just fell in love with literature without really realizing it. Little by little, I was starting to take pre-med classes, but storytelling classes would always filter in. I took a class in the Hebrew department because I started taking language in Hebrew, and I just loved it so much that I kept taking classes in the department.
I took a class called “Film, Fiction and the Arab-Israeli Conflict,” and I started getting very interested in basically conflict resolution. I worked over one fall at the State Department, and then I worked one summer at Seeds of Peace, and I started sort of going in that direction, but meanwhile all my classes were getting closer and closer to storytelling. I took theater classes and more literature, and I ended up in my senior year doing a Senior Fellowship, and this was a way to tell the story of my family which is a hybrid family.
My mom is Kurdish from Iran, and my dad is from Hungary — Holocaust survivors — and I wanted to tell the stories of their mothers because they’re these two women with untold stories that are so epic and universal but also so different and specific. There are all these human themes in there, like love and loss. I had actually been really inspired by Maira Kalman, who’s this writer-illustrator who does hand-written pieces where she also illustrates them in the page, so it doesn’t look quite like a graphic novel, and it’s not so much like comic, but it’s more like a landscape of art and words. Using her as inspiration for my Senior Fellowship, I got to write and illustrate a book that was half one grandmother’s story and half the other grandmother’s story, and then the last chapter is how my parents met.
Can you tell us about your films? What inspires them?
LM: Even though I didn’t actually take a film class at Dartmouth, when I was a teenager, I used to make kind of funny, silly movies with my brother and my friends, and it was always in the back of my mind that I loved movies and stories in general. After Dartmouth, I created this youth leadership program for girls from different backgrounds in Tel Aviv and Yafo in Israel, where there are Arab backgrounds and Jewish backgrounds, and I bring the girls together to do creative projects. While I was there, I realized that every time I would encourage them to tell a story, that’s really what I wanted to do.
I’ve started to realize that my films tend to be about unexpected connections between people, usually with some element of absurdity and humor. I think that my films will always be in some sense a comedy. Even when some people might cry at certain moments, they’ll have an ultimate sense that it was in some way funny. Maybe it’s my way of trying to make it okay that there’s sadness because you can also laugh.
Can you tell us about your work with virtual reality? How is this different from creating a typical film?
LM: I got really interested in virtual reality last year. The more I learned, the more the question of presence kept coming up and the question of are you really there because it’s virtual. When you’re in virtual reality, if you look down, you don’t have a body, which they call the ghost effect, which I thought was kind of funny. And I was talking to a friend about how we don’t always feel present in our everyday lives and how we can feel more like we’re really here and not in the past or the future, and suddenly it clicked that I wanted to tell a story inspired by the art and for the art.
I didn’t want to just make a traditional film that could’ve been a 2D film. It had to feel right for the medium. So the story is about a ghost who, when she was alive, never felt present. Now, as a ghost, she’s just haunting the places she used to be, dwelling in her memories and wishing she was there.
I shot it very bare bones; I borrowed equipment from school over a weekend, and I acted in it out of necessity and just grabbed one friend and banged it out to make the deadline for the Tribeca Film Festival. And it got in, and it was this wonderful experience to share with so many people something that may have been the first time they would watch a virtual reality film, and it was this film.
What is it like to work with Google Tilt Brush?
LM: Oh, I love Google Tilt Brush. It kind of inspires this child-like wonder because when you’re in Google Tilt Brush, if you draw a stroke, like let’s say you draw a line, it’s just hovering in the air, and you can walk around it as if you just placed a stick in the air, and it’s floating. It sort of defies the laws of physics, and it generates for me this child-like excitement of magic. I can put some stars in the sky, and they’ll glitter. I can basically whip up a gigantic sculpture with flowing, graceful moments of my arms. It’s so easy in a sense, even though it takes a moment to adjust your sense of gravity and physics once you’re in there in space and how to draw in three dimensions because it really is kind of like sculpting with wire. I’m thinking about what is the equivalent of an illustrated book in Tilt Brush and how to share that.
What kind of artwork are you working on now?
LM: My greatest love is comedy television. Right now, being interested in so many different things, I feel like I can try and infuse them into whatever I’m doing. With comedy TV, I do improv at the UCB Theater in New York, and I use some of the energy from improv and the kind of collaborative spirit from that when I write television.
I also use my sense of how in [virtual reality], I have to be extremely audience aware and constantly be thinking about what kind of experience the audience will be having. You’re not directing them the same way when you direct them in a regular film where you’re choosing what they can see at every moment. In [virtual reality] they can choose to look wherever they want, and so I’m constantly thinking about what an audience is going to look at and what’s going to get their attention and why, and it’s affecting my writing. I’d like to think that they all kind of come together, but right at this moment I’m doing a little of all of them, and focusing on television right this second.
This article has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.