It’s currently cool to be a Star Wars fan, especially since Disney bought George Lucas’ epic trilogy with the aim of spinning it into new content for all eternity.
If you’re a woman of a certain age, however, you may remember the days when Star Wars fangirls were, at best, lonely or, at worst, made to feel like freaks. It’s only in the last few years the fandom has become so popular, its inclusiveness has been taken for granted.
With this in mind, documentary filmmaker and psychotherapist Annalise Ophelian dreamed up “Looking for Leia,” a six-part docuseries headed into post-production. The project began with a question: “Who are the girls and women in Star Wars fandom, and what stories do they have to tell about what they love and how they express that?”
A lifelong fan of Lucas’ original trilogy, Ophelian was inspired by her first experience at Star Wars Celebration, further galvanized by the demoralizing 2016 election, and persevered through the challenges presented by an independent, self-financed production and the sudden passing of the original Leia, Carrie Fisher.
As a queer woman, Ophelian was drawn to documentary film because she didn’t see herself represented on screen. It’s no surprise then that representation is a high priority for her, both in front of and behind the camera. “Looking for Leia” places an emphasis on the stories of a culturally diverse group of women, while promoting women in film behind the scenes as well.
Along the way, “Looking for Leia” has become something more compelling than a simple doc about Star Wars fangirls. It’s a thoughtful exploration of the transcendent nature of fandoms and intergenerational bonds, as well as a bold exercise in intersectionality and “decolonizing” the documentary.
As Ophelian describes it, the series is “a joyous gender justice project,” and it’s been warmly embraced by the Star Wars community, which means hopefully we’ll get to see it soon.
First of all, I have to tell you, I got a little emotional watching a trailer for “Looking for Leia” because I discovered Star Wars in the late ’80s and I remember feeling sometimes like I was the only girl who loved it. Does this seem to be a common reaction to your project?
It is! I’m now joking saying “making women cry since 2017,” because it’s such a universal response. But I don’t think it’s sad crying. I think it’s the kind of emotion we experience when we see ourselves reflected in a space where we’ve become acclimated to being excluded for so long.
Tell me more about the concept for “Looking for Leia,” which explores the Star Wars phenomenon from the perspective of a diverse group of fangirls. It started as a film, but evolved into a six-part docuseries.
I started with a question: Who are the girls and women in Star Wars fandom, and what stories do they have to tell about what they love and how they express that? And from there I started talking with folks, all over the US and some places out of the US, and a picture of participatory fandom emerged, and also of the function and role of fandom in participants’ sense of self and relationships with others.
In January, when I went to start assembling, I realized that 40 years of transmedia franchise translates into a lot of forms of fandom and it simply wasn’t going to work to squash these into a feature format. I’m also really fond of episodic, streaming and web-based media. I think it’s tremendously accessible and also much more reflective of how we’re consuming media right now. So in the spring I started developing this as a limited episode series, which gives us a bit more breathing room around each topic.
I’m not sure many people are even aware female Star Wars fans were marginalized in the past. Why do you think that is?
Well, I think the assumption is that women are new to Star Wars fandom, and to geek culture in general. When I started the project in early 2017, every media inquiry started with, “What do you think has brought women to Star Wars fandom recently?” and I had to answer every one with, “Women have alway been in sci-fi and fantasy fandom, from the start. In fact, we invented the genre.”
Interestingly, I don’t get that question any more. The cultural conversation in the last year has shifted and I think there’s a slowly growing understanding that what we see, in terms of who is visible, doesn’t reflect who is there. It reflects who has the access, who has the resources, who is listened to and believed. I also think it’s perfectly human to only notice things you relate to. So when cis guys tell me, “I didn’t know any girls into Star Wars when I was growing up,” that means those girls weren’t known to them, not that those girls didn’t exist.
I think fanzine and letter zine culture is a great example — in the late ‘70s and into the early ‘80s, there were upward of 1,000 of these in print, 95% of the editors and contributors were women, and these zines were hugely text rich, in some cases hundreds of pages of single spaced type with very few illustrations, just gobs and gobs of fanfic and theories and exposition on Star Wars (and other geekdoms). And for the women who read and contributed to these zines, this was a huge part of their community and connection to their fandom.
But until now these have had very little mainstream coverage. I didn’t know about them until researching this project. We’re really bringing our histories into the light and preserving them in this series, so that the next generation can look back and say, “This is my fandom heritage, I have roots here and I have foremothers who paved the way.”
You were inspired to make “Looking for Leia” after attending Star Wars Celebration in 2015. The 2016 election furthered your resolve. How did these events spark the idea?
I’d been to cons since the 1990s, during the “dark times” when Star Wars was effectively over and there was no thought we were getting more. I became a big “Star Trek: The Next Generation” fan and went to Trek conventions, and later WonderCon and local cons, ZomBCon, stuff like this. And I was very accustomed to being one of a few women — Trek cons had more women than most, but still, I would show up, often with my younger brother or by myself, and be prepared to navigate a sea of cis fanboys.
And I went to Celebration Anaheim with the same mindset, and was really amazed by the number of women there, and how welcoming the space felt. In particular, I loved the Reed Pop rules of conduct, this idea that “cosplay is not consent” and that things like “no bathroom policing” were put up front in the con rules.
I felt like the organizers understood some of the problems that women, cis and trans, and nonbinary folks go through in these spaces. I left Celebration feeling incredible, like I’d tapped into a community where I could show up fully for the first time, just talking about Star Wars 12 hours a day, I had such con drop going home! And it was the first time I saw groups of other women, and it made me want to know more, because these were people I did not see in mainstream representations of fan culture.
I was finishing up my last feature (“MAJOR!”), and then on the festival circuit with that film, which was a biopic about a black transgender activist and elder, and during the making of that film I was acutely aware of how out of my lane I was making it, as a white cisgender woman. I was asked to come onto the project and said yes, but throughout knew that the next project I did I wanted to be thoroughly in my lane, and a fangirl project felt both very culturally appropriate and also like a sort of self-care break. The last film had taken an emotional toll.
And then in the ramp-up to the 2016 election and especially right after I, like so many, felt scared and hopeless and I knew if I was going to keep making film I was going to need a project that had some joy infused throughout it. I think a main theme of all my work is resilience as a form of resistance. I tend to see the ways people survive and celebrate and find this more compelling that the sort of otherizing trauma porn that documentary can sometimes turn into.
“Looking for Leia” appealed to me as a joyous gender justice project, and also as a project that could treat a subject that has traditionally portrayed as shallow or frivolous as significant and meaningful.
The project hit a hurdle early on after the passing of Carrie Fisher. How did you deal with that obstacle?
I was getting ready to drive my mom and brother to the airport when the news of her passing hit my Twitter feed, and I just got up and walked into the bathroom, closed the door and sobbed. And then I kept crying, in line at the grocery store or in my car, at all kinds of inconvenient moments for the next two weeks.
It was just such grief, I’ve experienced a lot of loss in my community since the late 1980s and there’s something unique about losing artists. When Derek Jarman and Marlon Riggs both passed, I was so deeply heartbroken. It was a grief not just for the person but also for the work, knowing that there would be no new creations from these artists and that the world would be a lesser place because of it.
I felt like the project died with Carrie. My original concept for the piece was to road-trip around the US, and I thought I’d be able to put together a compelling reel to show her reps and she’d sit down and give me an interview to tie the film together, talking about her iconic role and her relationship to fandom.
I already had my tickets to Star Wars Celebration Orlando and had planned to film there, and my partner said, “You have to go, you have to talk with women about what Carrie Fisher meant to them, but also women are going to show up for this Celebration and you should be there to hear their stories.” Shortly after that, I learned about the Drowning in Moonlight Gala (honoring Fisher) and spoke with the organizers, who were incredibly generous and invited us to film there, and it moved forward from that point.
You dreamed up “Looking for Leia” before Disney released “The Force Awakens.” Did the new generation of Star Wars films change the nature of the project at all?
All along my intention has been to focus on participatory fandom, and fandom as an internal experience, more than content critique. So the films, shows, and books themselves exist in this project in terms of reference points or sites of fandom, but I don’t get into the impact Rey has had on the franchise or the fandom. This is a strategic decision in terms of working with IP, but also story/character analysis is very subjective, and as I think we can see on Twitter, folks can get really riled up about their faves and why something is or isn’t subjectively “good.”
I will occasionally get angry letters from folks saying, “Why aren’t you talking about such and such, because this content is by far better than this other content,” and I always write back and say that’s not what this project is about, I don’t have stakes in what’s good or bad, I’m interested in women’s subjective experience of loving with and connecting with a thing, and all the complexities that involves.
What I wasn’t expecting, and perhaps was silly to not anticipate, was that the franchise would be so incredibly huge. When I conceptualized this project we didn’t know Rey was the protagonist of the new films, or that we’d be flooded with options for women’s merchandise, or that we’d be getting new Star Wars content every year for the rest of our lives. The fan community still occupied outsider space, and since 2015 it’s now become the most mainstream and popular thing you can love.
With tons of financing and resources I would have ideally finished this series and be launching it this summer, but as an indie producer who is self-funded and also needs to work to keep a roof over my head, my process is slower. Staying focused on fandom as a phenomenological experience helps the project stay timely despite the incredible changes happening in the franchise itself.
You recently reached a major crowdfunding milestone on Seed&Spark. Congratulations! Tell me more about your crowdfunding efforts and how the Star Wars fan community is showing support for the film.
I can say without reservation that this project would not exist without the support of fan community, who have been so generous through two rounds of crowd-sourcing and also with resources and time and talent. I’m acutely aware that the number of women with incredible stories and invaluable expertise in the world far outstrips my ability include folks on film, and I also appreciate the generosity of spirit that folks have in understanding that even if you aren’t on screen, I hope you feel a part of this series, that it feels like something that belongs to you.
Looking for Leia is in its second round of interviews and heading into post-production. What will this next phase look like?
In the grand tradition of independent media making, it looks like a small group of us wearing many hats and spinning many plates! I’m simultaneously recording pick ups and b-roll while assembling, roughing out narration and hiring writers, roughing out animation and hiring illustrators, animators, and compositors, working with our amazing composer Christy Marshall on the score and mixing the a cappella John Williams music arranged and recorded by Kate Burns, Bri Holland, and singers from the Archer School for Girls, and seeking private sector sponsorship to help us cover licensing and legal costs and get us through the final stages of post, like color grading and titles and sound mixing, which really add up in terms of cost.
It’s been wonderful to work with so many great women and non-binary artists behind the scenes, and I’m excited to bring more hands on deck as we head into the final stages.
What has the production experience been like so far? What are some of the challenges you’ve faced?
Working on this production has been completely joyous. I get to talk with women about what they love, and it’s impossible to do that without some of that love rubbing off. Also, in daily life, I don’t think we have this conversation enough, “Tell me what you love and what purpose it serves in your life.” And, of course, the conversation is always complex, particularly for folks who live at the intersection of marginalized experience. None of us gets to love a thing in an uncomplicated way, but those complexities all showcase an incredible creativity and capacity for survivalism, and they speak to what we need more of.
The challenges are the expected ones. We’re a small crew and limited in the number of places we can reach geographically, we’re self-financed and in constant conversation about how to get what we need, and all of us are working more than one job, so there’s a point where there just aren’t enough hours in the day. I’ve been on the road every couple of weeks for the past year and I miss my chihuahuas desperately when I travel!
What events and locations have you traveled to in search of footage?
I’ve only filmed at a few conventions, because they’re logistically very difficult and expensive to film. We were at Star Wars Celebration Orlando, D23 in Anaheim, and GeekGirlCon in Seattle, and we were scheduled to panel and film a bunch of stuff at Universal FanCon. The demise of that convention definitely hit the production hard.
Conventions are places where we can talk to a geographically diverse group of folks without having to travel ourselves. We’ve also filmed all over the San Francisco Bay Area, where I’m based, Southern California, Seattle, Rock Point, Arizona, New York City, and Boston, and have pick ups scheduled in Detroit, Indianapolis, and Lexington.
We’ve got folks in Texas, Nevada, and Georgia that we’re hoping to bring to us. And I’ve had preliminary interviews with women in Oaxaca, Mexico, Osaka, Japan, and Lehore, Pakistan and would love to include these, but we don’t have the funding to do international travel at this point.
You’re striving to tell the stories of a culturally diverse group of women, many of them marginalized. Why is it important to you to focus on these women?
I think often when we say “women” what we’re really saying is white, cis, straight, able-bodied, 18 to 35 year old Christian women born in the U.S., and we know this is what we mean because all other women are given an identity modifier — women of color, trans women, disabled women. And it creates a sort of either/or dynamic that also erases the incredible diversity and intersectionality of women’s voices.
One of my goals in this and every project is to push back against white supremacy and heteronormativity and all the ways the dominant group gets to occupy the silent neutral center, and shift the lens to ask women who live at the intersection of marginalized identities to speak from their own experiential expertise.
It’s also important, I think to ensure that these women aren’t only being asked to talk on identity-specific issues, aren’t just showing up on the designated section about race or sexual orientation or disability, but are present in front of and behind the camera in all aspects of the project.
Can you tell me about some of the memorable women you’ve interviewed?
Honestly, every woman I’ve had the chance to talk with on this project has been memorable and amazing. I’d have a hard time narrowing it down. But I will say that I love hearing from women across generations.
I was talking with folks from the Empire Saber Guild in Madison Square Park, and I asked the question, “Who experienced bullying for being a geek in their childhood?,” and every woman but the youngest raised her hand, and the youngest person there said, “I haven’t experienced any of that, and it’s because of you. You all went through that so I don’t have to.”
I love seeing people’s creativity, and hearing how fandom has been a comfort during times of loss. I love hearing mothers and grandmothers talk about passing along their love of these stories to their kids, and I love hearing grown women talk about their mothers and grandmothers who were sci-fi and fantasy fans in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s and passed that love along to them.
The very first woman to reply to the contact form on our website last year is a Montessori teacher in the south bay of San Francisco who courted her husband by seeing “Revenge of the Sith” together three times in one weekend. She grew up in the Philippines in the 1990s and made her own Star Wars T-shirts and lunch boxes because there was no merch to buy in stores, and she created a group of My Little Pony Jedi mash-up cosplayers because she loves being able to make Jedi robes in bright rainbow colors and wanted to combine two of her favorite franchises.
There are just so many stories that showcase the ways we participate in fandom as a celebration of our capacity for joy, and a testament to the ways we use magic and story as a means of comfort and survival.
You’re also promoting women in filmmaking by recruiting many of them to work on the series. Why are you taking this approach?
Cisgender men are incredibly over-represented in film industry jobs, from production into post-production. Of the top 100 grossing films in 2017, women accounted for 8% of directors (and the Annenberg numbers are a bit broader and put this number at 4%), 10% of writers, 24% of producers, 14% of editors, and just 2% of cinematographers. Two percent. Those grip and electric jobs, operating the cameras and rigging the lights, the actual people on the set as the film is being made, that’s an incredibly cis male work force. Of the top 250 grossing films in 2017, 3% were scored by women composers.
Where we see those numbers shift at all are in indie projects like “Looking for Leia,” and in documentary in general, where women still only represent around 37% of all directors. In terms of funding, women directors experience a fiscal cliff. When we’re able to get one project made, we’re often unable to secure funding for subsequent projects, and have a harder time raising money and getting production backing for films about women.
And women directors are also more likely to hire women to other production and post-production roles. Dee Rees made “Mudbound” with women at the head of all creative departments and below the line her crew was almost entirely women. Ava DuVernay has hired all women to direct both seasons of “Queen Sugar.”
I hire women, both cis and trans, and non-binary folks and trans guys to my crews because these are the people I connect with in community and want to work with, and also because I think we tell different stories. And I want my communities to have robust filmographies and get hired for more jobs, and we’re only able to do that when we have projects to show for it.
This line about hiring the best person for the job, which inevitably is the excuse given for hiring all white cis male directors, is a cognitive distortion. Producers are hiring the person who had the most access and the greatest resources to build their career, and this is a historically very homogenous group. I’m incredibly encouraged by shifts in the industry and the ways women who do achieve a level of success are reaching back and pulling up other women with them.
I read that you began making documentaries because you didn’t see yourself and your story represented on screen. How has that informed your career?
When I was growing up, I was fascinated by the process of filmmaking, largely because of Star Wars and Alien. The making of these films completely compelled me, the way these worlds were created with practical effects to become real. And in the 1970s and 1980s, there was no messaging whatsoever that filmmaking was a career option for me. I watched behind-the-scenes reels and saw only white cis guys building models, operating cameras, talking about process.
I was raised by American ‘70s and ‘80s cinema, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, John Landis, Martin Scorsese, and also Ridley Scott and James Cameron. These men were (and are) held up as masters and Lucas in particular is the reason why I’m able, technically, to be a filmmaker — his digital innovations proletarianized filmmaking and made it possible for the equipment used in filmmaking to be accessible to the masses.
But even when I started making films 10 years ago, the only place I saw myself was in documentary. I wasn’t questioned as a documentary filmmaker, I think because that genre is somewhat inherently feminized — women are supposed to be good listeners and in the service of someone else’s story. But I was also compelled to documentary because in the 1990s I was incredibly influenced by the work of Marlon Riggs, who was making deeply personal, political, poetic work about identity, internal experience, and navigating systems of oppression, and also Derek Jarman, who was making experimental narrative.
Both of these men were creating queer film in a way I had never seen before and made me feel like I could tell a story like this. So when I did finally approach the camera, it was after a lifetime of loving cinema without ever feeling like it was something I was allowed to make, and also loving documentary as a site of self-determination and agency and expression of untold stories.
You’re also a psychotherapist with degrees in clinical psychology and a private practice. Do you feel this gives you any unique insights into fandoms like Star Wars?
There’s a benefit to having a lens on human behavior that seeks to understand the utility of actions. I believe that we’re all doing the best we can with what we have, and that some of us have less to work with in terms of internal and external resources than others. I think this framework does help me take fandom seriously, as a site of identity formation and something that informs relationships with others and in the world, and I’m often puzzled by media representations of fandom as something silly or weird.
The lens also helps me understand some of the mechanisms at work in on-line trolling and toxic fan behavior. But above all I’d like to think that my work in clinical psychology serves me as a researcher of human experience, there’s a methodological rigor to how I ask questions and then consolidate what I hear into a story, and an inherently collaborative practice that involves asking participants, “Did I get this right?,” which is very similar to how I work with people in therapy or supervision.
Star Wars played a big role in your journey to become a filmmaker. You’ve been a serious fan since 1977. Would you share some of your earliest Star Wars memories?
My earliest Star Wars memories are actually from the summer of 1978, when Star Wars was playing at the second run theater within walking distance from my house in Fort Collins, Colorado. There was a one-color newsprint flyer with the summer movie offerings and I’d scan it every week to find which screening I’d go to. I saw it every week that summer. This was just after my brother was born and it would be years before he’d be old enough to do Star Wars with me, so those early experiences were just of loving the world, the music, the design of the ships and the look of the Tatooine desert.
You’ve remained strong with the Force throughout the years. Why is it such an enduring passion for you?
In retrospect, I can say there’s something about the production design and the score and the story that is instantly familiar and transporting. As a child I listened to the read-along story books with my younger brother and to the Story of Star Wars album and relived the films over and over, to the point that I realized I could speak along with the film verbatim.
When I was in college in 1990 there was a completely non-sanctioned marathon of all three films and I was so excited for this, I actually had one of the promotional posters, this 11×17 xeroxed picture of Obi Wan with “Use the Force” on my wall. That college screening was the first time as a semi-grownup that I sat in a room of other semi-grownups and realized, hey, this is really a phenomenon, we really love this story. The world building was so perfectly all encapsulating. It was an immediate escape into something totally unlike my daily life and also completely familiar.
What are your thoughts on Disney’s new entries in the franchise, especially “The Last Jedi,” which sparked so much fan hate?
I’ve been a lifelong Disney fan. My mother was at the park the year it opened and Disneyland has always been something we’ve done together, and the films and television shows were a huge part of my childhood, so I was quite happy when the Disney acquisition happened. I felt like this company has taken such good care of my childhood, and this means we’ll get more Star Wars.
In 1977, Star Wars was amazing because it was completely new, and yet totally familiar. And these new films are completely familiar, yet totally new. Liking a story is such a personal, subjective thing, and I can certainly appreciate that in a 40 year transmedia franchise there is going to be stuff folks like and stuff folks don’t. I loved “The Last Jedi.” It’s perhaps my favorite Star Wars film, on par with “Empire.” I felt like it was made for me in a way none of the previous films felt.
As someone who saw the original trilogy in the theaters as they were released, I feel like I’ve been given the opportunity to watch my childhood heroes go through life and age in a way that is very relatable, will all the existential crisis and trauma and loss that is natural to life. I think I’m still adjusting to the fact that I’m going to get new Star Wars content for the rest of my life!
Lucasfilm recently announced Victoria Mahoney will be the first woman in the history of the franchise to serve as second unit director (on “Episode IX).” What are your thoughts on this news?
Well, my first thought was this is great, everyone is going to learn what a second unit does!
I think these studios are in a unique position to really incubate and resource a huge amount of filmmaking talent, and in doing so create a new form of blockbuster that speaks to a massive underserved audience. I look at what Marvel did with Ryan Coogler and Rachel Morrison (in “Black Panther”). Every frame of that film is so incredibly deliberate and revolutionary, it’s a testament to what can happen when you shift who gets to tell the story and I want more of that.
A lot of progress has been made regarding women in the Star Wars universe, especially with strong female protagonists like Rey. In your opinion, what progress still needs to be made?
One of the things I loved about “Black Panther” was the complexity of the women characters. Each of them had their own unique role to play and contributions to the forward progression of the story. Each of them existed in collaboration with male characters but without being defined by them or just in the service of furthering men’s plot lines. And all of those women were black.
We’re way past the time of shoehorning characters of color into white characters’ story lines. That column is oversaturated with 125 years’ worth of whiteness on camera. I’d love to see characters of color, and particularly women of color, at the center of Star Wars narratives both on screen and behind the camera as storytellers.
I have to ask: Porgs. Yes or no?
Um, I’m just gonna answer this with a picture of my office bookcase:
Who is your favorite Star Wars character of all time?
The Millennium Falcon. I have a tattoo of it, and I love it so much. I also love AT-ATs. The vehicles have always been my favorite part of Star Wars.
Do you collect any Star Wars memorabilia?
Well, since working on this film, I’ve found myself with a disturbing amount of Star Wars Lego, FunkoPops, and Porgs, which all somehow find their way into my house under the guise of “research.”
You’ve said, “I don’t often cosplay, but when I do, it’s as Han Solo.” More details, please!
The first time I dressed up as a Star Wars character was as Han Solo for the Disneyland Halloween party a few years ago. I hand-sewed the Corellian Bloodstripe on my pants and hand-painted my DL 44. I was so proud of the costume. And I talked my partner into dressing up as Leia. I bought his costume on Amazon and people were crossing the park to shake his hand and not even noticing that I was dressed as Han!
Do you devote yourself to any fandoms besides Star Wars?
I was a huge “Star Trek: The Next Generation” fan, collected trading cards and ship manuals and went to conventions. In 1990, I spent what at the time felt like a fortune to get front row seats to see Patrick Stewart talk and get his autograph. I think it was like $90. I love Harry Potter and was really excited to do a workshop at this year’s Granger Leadership Academy on decolonizing documentary filmmaking. But Star Wars was my first fandom, and it remains my most robust fandom.
If people reading this would like to support “Looking for Leia,” what’s the best way they can do that?
We’re an independently funded project not affiliated with Disney or Lucasfilm, so the financial support is always useful. We’re particularly looking for folks working in tech whose companies would like to sponsor the production of the series, and we’ve recently been fiscally sponsored by Women Make Movies, so donations are tax deductible.
Folks can find out more about contributing on our site, www.lookingforleia.com/support.
What are your ultimate hopes for the series?
I’m excited for women and girls in fandom to have a series of their own, in which they can see their own experiences mirrored and validated and learn more about the experiences of other women identified folks as well. And I’m excited to bring the conversation about participatory fandom into the mainstream, and to show it as a worthy topic that has so much to tell us about our capacity for creativity, joy, and resilience.
I think these sorts of stories bring us closer together, and this is sorely needed right now.
Photos: Looking for Leia copyright 2017 Floating Ophelia Pictures.