Interview with Director Jessica Leski
It is a great pleasure to welcome Jessica Leski, Director of I Used to Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story.
Jessica welcome to EverydayFangirl.com and thanks so much for taking the time to discuss this awesome Fangirl documentary project with us!
Patty: What does the title of this documentary signify?
Jessica: The title is a direct quote from one of the main characters in the film, Elif, a One Direction fan from Long Island, New York. It comes at a fascinating moment where she is at a backyard pizza party with friends and she starts spiraling into a 1D fantasy, imagining Niall Horan casually turning up to the party. She suddenly stops and catches herself and wails to her friends “This is not good! I used to be normal!” I loved this moment as she was both allowing herself to sink deep into her fandom fantasies, but was also aware and present enough to question her behaviour. Each of the characters in the film is struggling with what being a fan means to them and how to reconcile it with their ideas of growing up and being a woman in the world. That was something I found very interesting – the judgement and consequential shame that can come with loving a boyband and how to own it and celebrate it, rather than hide it away.
The film will hopefully lead audience members to question what is normal behaviour, and consider that they may have judged fans too quickly and too harshly.
Patty: What prompted you to create a documentary on this topic and who or what inspired you to?
Jessica: The fact that I had never liked a boyband before. When I was in high school in the late 1990s, arguably the golden era of boybands, I was actually dismissive of the entire phenomenon. The boys, their music and their fans didn’t interest me at all. But then in 2012, I was driving and heard the One Direction song “One Thing” on the radio. I remember scoffing at how simple the song was – they repeated the chorus so many times! But by the end of the song, it was stuck in my head. As soon as I got to my desk I looked up the video clip on Youtube. And I was hooked. That video clip in particular was such a magnificent introduction to boybands for me – the co-ordinated outfits, the hairstyles, the goofing around, the attempts at dancing. It was so innocent and wholesome and joyful. This led to an internet spiral into the world of One Direction. I had never been a fan of something since the internet had become such a huge part of my life. And so I was floored by how much access I could have to material – photos, articles, videos. This felt so different from being a fan when I was a teenager, carefully cutting photos out of magazines to stick into a scrapbook. It very quickly followed that I discovered how truly amazing fans of this era are. I was astounded by how talented, creative and hilarious these 1D fans were. I’d never seen fan art before, or read fan fiction or seen a twitter hashtag take off. It made me think that I may have misjudged the Backstreet Boys and Nsync fans I’d known when I was a teenager. And I started to think that I’d like to see a film that gave boyband fans a voice, away from judgment and ridicule. I didn’t feel like I’d ever seen them treated that way.
Patty: What are the most important attributes to remaining sane as a creator and how does your work reflect some of these attributes?
Jessica: Ha ha, this is a great question! I think you have to be a little bit insane to be a filmmaker, or probably to be any creative person trying to make a living as an artist. Finding that balance between sanity and insanity is challenging for sure. I think what is key for me is deeply loving the projects I work on. You are stuck with them for so long and you have to constantly defend them and hype them up. It really helps if the love you feel is real, to put it mildly. You have to believe in yourself and your ideas, even if those around you are implying or even outright stating that you shouldn’t.
I also think that finding collaborators who share a common vision and drive is so important. This can be very hard to find, but so worthwhile for those moments when you feel that you’re a part of a cohesive and inspiring team. Documentary teams are very small and intimate so it’s essential to find people who have different but complimentary skills to your own.
Patty: What kind of research did you have to do for this documentary and how is this different from others you may have worked on before?
Jessica: Researching for this film was so much fun! Sometimes too fun – and the lines between work and play were easily blurred. I lost track of how many times I tried to convince Rita, the producer, that scrolling through tumblr and instagram were not just important, but absolutely critical activities. But arguably they were; we found some of our key interview subjects online!
Beyond delving into boyband history starting from The Beatles to today, I also researched a lot about the history and evolution of pop music, our physiological reactions to music and the teenage brain. We interviewed a wide range of people in the first year of making the film – musicians, psychologists, neurologists – even former boyband members! The film evolved a lot over the years we were filming, which was a very different experience for me. It was often challenging, wanting things to move along faster, but also a blessing to have had such a large amount of time to research, explore and grow with the characters.
Patty: How did you decide which Boy Bands to cover and which Fangirls to interview?
Jessica: In my very early plans and ideas for the film I wanted to cover as many boybands and as many different kinds of fans as possible. However I realized what was at the heart of this project was a desire to demystify the boyband fan, to allow audiences access to a kind of person who routinely gets judged in a negative light or simply dismissed. I decided to focus instead on a key group of fans that were smart, honest and open and had had a wide range of experiences. All that mattered to me was that their bands were different and that they were from different generations.
It’s been very rewarding to have audience members communicate how much they connect with the stories in the film, whether their particular boyband was focused on or not. Even more rewarding is when fans of entirely different things can see themselves in these women – we’ve had horror movie fans, heavy metal music fans and fantasy novel fans all feel a deep sense of connection with these stories.
Patty: Love how diverse the documentary is and that it spans multiple eras. Was this a conscious decision during the process or was this something that developed organically?
Jessica: Yes this was something that was very important to me. Because I came to boyband fandom later in life, I had a distinct feeling of having missed out on what had come before. I had so many questions for fans of different generations. I wanted to explore how being a fan may have shifted and evolved over the last 50 years and also if being a young woman had changed. I think the findings were really surprising.
Patty: How long did this project take and when/where will this be released?
Jessica: We started filming this project in 2013 and followed the key characters for a number of years. The film had its world premiere at Hot Docs in Toronto in 2018 and has spent the last year traveling to film festivals all around the world. It will be released onto various US digital streaming platforms from September 17th 2019 (Amazon, InDemand, DirecTV, AT & T, FlixFling, Vudu, FANDANGO, Sling/Dish).
Patty: What are you a fan of and for how long? Are Boy Bands your passion too or is it something else entirely?
Jessica: I’d say I’m a fan of boyband fans even more than the actual boybands themselves. But a large part of my heart will always belong to One Direction, as they were the catalyst for this journey and the reason I got to meet so many incredible people and work with such a wonderful team. I’m holding out for the reunion tour… I’m thinking maybe 2030? 😉
Patty: What makes you laugh?
Jessica: I am still feeling all the good feelings from watching the first season of Pen15 earlier this year. I ADORED it. I also love watching Broad City re-runs. Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer are absolute geniuses.
Patty: How would you describe yourself and your creative process?
Jessica: I’m both focused and easily distracted. So many things in the world fascinate me. I feel like documentary filmmaking gives me permission to sit back and observe, and that’s one of my favourite states to be in. I like to give my creative process a lot of flexibility. I find if I get too fixed on one idea or one way of doing things it closes the door to opportunities, and a great thrill about making documentaries is all the unexpected things that can happen along the way.
Patty: Anything else you would like to share?
Jessica: As mentioned previously, the film will be released on digital platforms (Amazon, iTunes, DirecTV, AT&T, FlixFing, InDemand, Vudu, FANDANGO, Sling/Dish) on Sept. 17th. Find out more about this release through the following links: