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Interview with Filmmaker Natalia Leite

By Charles Purdy

Filmmaker Natalia Leite is one half (with her creative partner, Alexandra Roxo) of the film-production duo Purple Milk—the company behind the popular web series Be Here Nowish, numerous documentaries for Vice Media, and the new film Bare, which Natalia wrote and directed.

Bare is Natalia’s first feature-length narrative film; it premiered at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, and in June it will be the Closing Night feature film at Frameline, the San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival. We spoke to Natalia about what inspires her.

Dianna Agron and Paz de la Huerta in a scene from the film Bare.
Filmmakers Alexandra Roxo and Natalia Leite

Clockwise from top left: Filmmaker Natalia Leite; Bare will be featured at the 39th annual Frameline LGBTQ Film Festival in San Francisco; Natalia Leite and her collaborator Alexandra Roxo on the set of Bare; Dianna Agron (left) and Paz de la Huerta in a scene from Bare.

Create: Tell me what Purple Milk is all about.

Natalia: Purple Milk is the creative collaboration of me and my creative partner, Alexandra Roxo—it’s the umbrella name for our company. Both Alexandra and I are Brazilian-American—I grew up in Brazil. My last name means “milk” in Portuguese, and Alexandra’s last name means “purple.”

We work on a lot of different projects together. Sometimes we’re co-directing and co-writing; sometimes one of us is acting and the other is directing. In the case of Bare, she played a role in it and also produced, and I was the writer and director. Our collaboration takes different forms.  

Create: What is your Web series Be Here Nowish about? How did that come to be?

Natalia: We started writing the first season maybe two years ago. We had two scripts that were in development, and we were sort of waiting around for financing and for other projects to materialize. So during that waiting around, we thought, “Let’s just do something more immediate and fun”—something to involve our community and bring our friends together and tell stories that we thought weren’t being represented in the media. So we came up with the concept for a show that we play the leads of—these two New York girls who move to LA in search of a spiritual awakening.  

We didn’t have any money—we did a Kickstarter for it. And then the show premiered at Tribeca N.O.W. and got great attention and press. And now we just finished shooting our second season, so we’ll be launching that hopefully at the end of July. It’s been a wonderful journey.

Watch a trailer for the popular comic web series Be Here Nowish. (Please note that the series trailer contains brief nudity. Be Here Nowish addresses adult situations in adult language.)

Create: Let’s talk about your film Bare. How would you describe it?

Natalia: Bare is a story about a young girl named Sarah, played by Dianna Agron, who lives in a small town in Nevada. She is at that age where she is sort of figuring out her future. It’s a few years after high school, and she’s realizing what her options are and what adulthood means for her. She meets this older woman, Pepper, played by Paz de la Huerta, and Pepper influences Sarah to take a job at a truck-stop strip club as a way to have some financial independence—or the film subtly alludes to that. So they develop a romantic relationship, and Sarah is sort of led to this other world that involves drugs, and a sexual awakening, and psychedelic experiences—it’s her coming of age.

Create: What was the movie’s genesis? How did you come to this story?

Natalia: It’s not autobiographical…but it’s very much based on personal experience and events that happened in my life and a relationship that I had with another woman who sort of opened my horizons and made me realize that I could be a creator of my own reality. That was at the core of what made me want to write this script.

Create: You’ve described the cast of Be Here Nowish as being a group of your friends. What was it like to work with “name” actors like Dianna Agron (of Glee, among other high-profile roles) and Paz de la Huerta (of Boardwalk Empire and numerous films)?

Natalia: At the end of the day, it’s not that different from other actors I’ve worked with. But it was different in that I went into it knowing, like, “Oh, these actors have worked with Martin Scorsese and all these different directors that I admire.” So it was definitely, like, “Whoa, I really have to know what I’m doing here.” But of course I do know.

Dianna and Paz, both of them—we didn’t have a lot of prep days, but any day we had off, I would have them do stuff to prepare their characters. For instance, Dianna—one night I told her, “I want you to see what it’s really like to work in a strip club, so put on this wig and make up a persona.” Of course she wasn’t doing a lap dance or anything. She was dressed the part, she’d talk to the customers, and she even went up on stage and did a dance…. I think the fact that both Dianna and Paz were so willing to go there and do the research and be in that character was very important.

Create: How did the work on Bare compare with working on your web series?

Natalia: Obviously, everything happens on a bigger scale. For Bare, Alexandra and I were producing a feature together for the first time, and we really learned a lot…. The story of the script is really like the story of making the film, because we were just trying it out and saying, “OK, we can do this even though we’ve never done it before.” It was just a big learning experience for us and a wonderful challenge.

Create: And how does it feel to be featured at a major festival like Frameline?

Natalia: It’s so exciting. I lived in San Francisco for four years—I went to the San Francisco Art Institute. I loved Frameline—would go there every year. And seeing films at the Castro Theatre, which is such a beautiful theater—I don’t know if they still have an organ player before the movies?

Create: They sure do.

Natalia: That’s so great. It’s so gorgeous, and it’s such an honor to be screening there and having Bare be the closing night of the festival. We’re excited.

Create: As a filmmaker and storyteller, what inspires you? What are the stories you want to tell?

Natalia: At the core of it, regardless of whether it’s drama or comedy, I think it’s about human relationships, and that’s always been something I’ve been really drawn to, the psychology of how people interact and why they do the things they do. With the work that Alexandra and I have been doing together, we’re exploring themes around relationships and sexuality and spirituality—and the intersection of it all.