I usually don’t shy away from work that makes me uncomfortable. No matter how much it scares me, I push myself to go there, to explore and better understand the stuff that most people don’t want to talk about. But when the script for M.F.A. came my way, I knew I was about to shoot the most terrifying thing yet—rape scenes.

This was triggering for me and as a woman, it made me sick just thinking about it. It was in fact awful, just viscerally gut-wrenching, and nearly impossible to shoot. In my film M.F.A., our lead character Noelle (played brilliantly by Francesca Eastwood) decides to seek her own type of justice after she’s raped by an art school classmate (Peter Vack) and the system fails her. She discovers there were others before her, including a student who was gang raped (Jess Nurse), and seeks revenge on her own terms.

The scene where Noelle is sexually assaulted was crucial to the story. As is true for many women in real life, it’s a pivotal moment in this character’s reality. I felt a lot of pressure to get it right. I had done the research and watched a bunch of examples of other rape scenes in movies, especially in the rape-revenge subgenre, most of which were directed by men. Historically, these types of scenes are shot with lots of full body framing, focused on male domination and violence, focused on a male fantasy of female subjugation and degradation, with the subtext that a woman is only potentially powerful after she’s been broken.

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These women—me included—are tired of being exploited through the glamorization of rape culture in their daily lives, in the film industry, and through this film genre specifically. I decided instead to make the rape scene feel real from an emotional point of view, to speak to a different kind of audience, one that includes females, all of whom are fed up with this shit. And that meant creating an atmosphere that would allow for a frightening amount of authenticity. Here’s how we did it:

Create Deep Trust On Set

If I’m expecting my actors to be super vulnerable on set and have complete trust in me and the film, then I have to be vulnerable too. I made sure to spend enough time talking to Fran, Peter, and the other actors so we could be on the same page and trust each other. Usually this started with me opening up to them. If I didn’t initiate vulnerability and trust, how could I expect it in return?

I also can’t expect my actors to go there if I’m not creating a space for them to feel safe. This is why your key crew and closed sets are so important. Everyone in the room has to trust each other—even the camera assistant needs to occupy this mentality.

My relationship with my DP, Aaron Kovalchik, was crucial to making this all fall into place. We basically learned to communicate through telepathy. We were totally on the same page. I could tell him to move the camera and get closer without saying a word. I would just think it and he would do it. I know it sounds like crazy talk, but actually this is what was happening. We were so in sync during the shoot that we didn’t have to talk much at all once the camera was rolling. It was happening intuitively.

How to film a rape scene without exploiting women

Francesca Eastwood as Noelle in M.F.A. Image courtesy of Dark Sky Films

Empower Your Actors

I’m of the school that says good acting comes from believing in the journey the character is on and going through it emotionally. It’s about instinct, not premeditation. Some actors can do a great job of turning the switch on and off, but that usually doesn’t work on my sets. I also don’t believe in rehearsals. We do basic blocking and then shoot the rehearsal. I think it’s important to allow room for things to happen organically and play with different ideas.

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Because there’s very little rehearsal, so much of the prep happens during our conversations, and from emotionally understanding the characters. On the day, it’s my job to put my actors in the right head space. Especially in the rape scenes, the last thing I wanted was for it to feel contrived. We shot the gang rape scene with Jess Nurse at 8 a.m. The mood that morning was really somber. Everyone was dreading what we were about to do. But for the guys—Mike Manning, Michael Welch, and Kyler Pettis—this was supposed to be a party scene. They had to have fun for it to look real. So I gave the guys shots and put on party music so they could get into their characters. I encouraged them to get rowdy by getting rowdy, too. Soon they were all bonding and partying. Meanwhile I told Jess Nurse to stay in another part of the room, until we were ready to shoot.

As we shot that scene, I would interject, telling the guys to grab her boobs, push her around, etc. Aaron hovered around them, pretending to be one of the boys, in on the fun. Even though it was super disturbing and I couldn’t believe the things that were coming out of my mouth, we had to maintain an energy of fun on set, and Jess Nurse had to completely trust me and the other actors. We had all talked beforehand and Jess told the actors what she allowed and didn’t allow. It had to come from her, not me, and consent had to be addressed very clearly ahead of time. Even though there were clear rules on what to do and what not to do, I can’t imagine how intense that must have been for her. It was that synergy on set that made the scene so disturbing and real.

Likewise, in the rape scene with Peter and Fran, we talked about what was okay and not okay. But once that was established and the camera was rolling, I encouraged improv. I knew they were both amazing actors and I wasn’t going to disrupt their flow by shouting direction. I told them we would shoot the scene in real time and I wouldn’t yell cut until they finished the full scene. I wanted them to run with it, try things, and be fully in it—to forget that there were other people in the room. For me, maintaining the energy in the room and controlling the space includes both what’s on and what’s off camera. In some scenes, I’m going to interject and move things around. In other scenes, I want to empower the actors’ by giving them room to play and experiment, and I can just be a fly on the wall.

Put Yourself in the Character’s Mind

Before we began production, I brought Fran to my hair stylist and had her hair cut and colored like mine. I told the wardrobe designer to style Noelle (Francesca’s character) after myself in art school. I thought this would be a fun way for me to put myself into Noelle’s headspace and feel for this character even more.

I don’t think you have to style your protagonist after yourself at all—that was just a fun, weird experiment for me!—but it is very important to be able to personally relate to the main characters in some way. And remember that everyone is a three-dimensional human, even the worst humans. Even your very evil, horrible characters have other layers to them. If you think your character can only make bad choices because they are a bad person, then you don’t know him/her enough… or, that character is not real.

How to film a rape scene without exploiting women

Shooting M.F.A.‘s rape scene “meant creating an atmosphere that would allow for a frightening amount of authenticity,” says director Natalia Leite

Thinking 360 degrees about each character also helps you feel invested in them. I’m even a little bit method with my directing. I get so emotionally connected to everything in the scene that it shows up on my face when I’m directing. People make fun of me for this, but as a director, being emotionally invested is a bullshit meter. You have to know when to call bullshit. If you’re not cringing or crying or laughing, then your audience won’t either.

Know What Choices You Are Making and Why

In the case of M.F.A., one of my major choices was the use of wide angle lenses for Noelle’s rape scene. This was different from the rest of the film, which was shot all with mostly tight lenses. Aaron and I had long chats about how we would film the rape scene and how it would be different from other moments in the film. Putting the camera in the actors’ faces, intentional bad lighting, playing the take in real-time, having no cuts but instead only small camera movements—all these elements added up to make extremely brutal scenes feel very real.

We also found a location that needed barely any set dressing—production designer Kelly Fallon and I scouted frat houses and looked for the best rooms for both the gang rape and Noelle’s rape. (Kelly left all the random piles of stuff everywhere in the room cause it’s real. You can’t fake that.)

You Don’t Have To Be Ready

I mean, you have to prepare, of course. But you don’t have to feel fully “ready” to take it on. I knew I was shooting something so disgusting, so close to home, that I might not ever be in a place where I felt like, “Yes! Let’s do this.”

Every morning during production, Aaron and I would get together and talk about the day. I would dread the rape scenes. I’d freak out about it, and then try to block it out of my mind and focus on the present task. The day we shot it, my stomach was aching. Honestly, I never found the courage to shoot it—I just got to the time when it had to happen and it happened. Of course I was prepared, very prepared, but no matter how much prep I did, I would never feel prepared.

Watching the rape scene happen, there was a moment when I completely forgot I was directing a movie. At one point, I caught myself closing my eyes because I didn’t want to watch it. It made me cringe and that’s how I knew we got something good.

In hindsight, it might’ve even been better that I was so reluctant. My energy was similar to that reluctancy, built into the scene. If you’ve ever experienced something happening that’s so fast and so out of control that you have no idea what just happened, that’s how we all felt afterward. We were all like, “Did that really happen? Did we just do that?” Peter, Fran, Aaron and I kept checking ourselves. It was such a strange and surreal experience. The best scenes always are. MM

M.F.A. opened in theaters and was released on VOD October 13, 2017, courtesy of Dark Sky Films.