In honor of the Film Independent’s Los Angeles Film Festival (June 18 – June 30), Write On! speaks with Suzi Yoonessi, writer/director of Dear Lemon Lima, which is having its World Premiere at the Festival (screening June 20 and June 23). The film—about an awkward Alaskan teen discovering her Yup’ik heritage while rallying her fellow misfits to compete in her school’s annual Snowstorm Survivor competition—is sincere, heartwarming, and authentic. Yoonessi shares her journey working on Dear Lemon Lima, as well as the joys and challenges incorporating personal experience into writing.
How did the concept for Dear Lemon Lima come about?
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. The film inspires the notion that every human connection deserves the honesty, love, and compassion with which a 13-year-old girl embraces the world.
How much of it is from real-life experience?
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.
The most gratifying dialogue I write is plucked from life experience. 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.
When you write from real life, how do you discern what to include and what to eliminate?
In the first drafts, I included all of my personal experiences that were relevant to the subplots in the film—heritage, first love, heartbreak, alienation, prejudice. Two months before production, I went through the script and slashed anything that was two arm lengths away from the protagonist’s journey. It’s kind of like Jenga, if I can pull out a piece and still have the structure intact, then no matter how shiny and smooth that piece is, it’s a memory.
What was you favorite part of the process when making this film? Your greatest challenge?
I love production, so translating the film from script to screen has been the most gratifying part of the process. I adored casting and finding kids who created certain nuances, making the audience fall in love with all of the characters.
The greatest challenge was maintaining high production value on a low budget. The protagonist Vanessa sees her life like it’s Gone with the Wind, so it was imperative to maintain a specific color palette and a sweeping aesthetic, while ensuring that the Alaskan Native elements were authentic. The actualization of this film would not have been possible without the support of the World Eskimo Indian Olympics organization. The film features their games such as the blanket toss, the stick pull, ear pull, and high kick. The WEIO organization generously loaned the production these priceless items and brought the recreation of the games to a whole new level. The actors had to learn proper techniques to carry out the games, as well as the cultural significance of each event. Some of the games were quite an athletic feat; we even employed the help of a high school cheerleading squad with a scene featuring the 2-man carry—a Native game in which a single person carries two other members of his/her team in a race to the finish line. In addition to the numerous Native elements to secure for the film, Dear Lemon Lima also features a number of other unconventional elements. Not only did the lead actors need to learn Native dance, they also were taught American Sign Language and Spanish.
There are so many films from the male point-of-view, were there any specific challenges in getting a film with a female perspective made?
I am always amazed by how many coming-of-age films about teenage girls are directed by men. Although I am a fan of many of those films, I felt that so much of the nuance from my personal experience was being dismissed—doodling, dreaming of unicorns, rainbows, and plastering your Lisa Frank notebook with hearts. Historically, women are natural storytellers, so I believe we should have the same presence in the film industry.
Throughout the process, there were obstacles, as with any film, but there are also some amazing programs that are springing up to help women and minority filmmakers. Several years ago, I participated in Tribeca All Access, which introduced me to agents, financiers, and creative executives. After that experience, I was fortunate to receive a grant from National Geographic All Roads, which enabled me to direct a short version of the film.
In your writing, how do you approach the blank page?
Before I start writing, I compile the soundtrack for the movie and collect photographs that capture the essence of the story. These media are what I fall back on when the cursor morphs into a stick figure, flashing on the page.
How did you keep the sincere quality that makes the film so special?
I literally threw all of my heart into Dear Lemon Lima. I have a deep love and respect for all of my characters and I stay far, far away from caricatures. Great characters will guide you through your script.
Advice for writers?
I met an amazing and talented group of writers when I participated in Film Independent‘s Screenwriters lab. The group’s insight nourished the development of the script when I felt like I was approaching a black hole. I encourage writers to find and embrace the support of creative thinkers who understand their vision. Writing groups are a great way to learn, while developing your writer’s toolbox.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
As a writer, one of my biggest concerns is that the dialogue sounds organic to the characters. I stray away from writing exposition in dialogue because I am a fan of showing, not telling. After directing Dear Lemon Lima, I am no longer afraid of writing exposition because you are telling a story and I realize it helps to expound on the story.