Filmmaker Spotlight: Anya Leta

Anya LetaAnya Leta

In Points of Origin a couple who cannot conceive must replace a birth announcement with a plane ticket, a baby shower with doctor’s appointments, and an American womb with an Indian one. RJ, an Indian radio host played by Ankur Vikal, and his wife, Rosemary, played by Tessa Thompson, face ethical dilemmas as they outsource their pregnancy to India, hoping that the in vitro process will endure as well as their relationship.

When thinking of outsourcing a service one’s mind doesn’t immediately think of outsourcing a pregnancy, but for Anya Leta’s main characters it’s the not just on their mind, it’s their reality. Writer and Director Anya Leta brings two worlds together divided by culture and circumstance and joined by one commonality: life.

As Rosemary attempts to relate to her surrogate she is blinded by the nucleus of her own grounding and deficient to see the circumstances of the cultivation that the surrogate faces.

RJ faces scrutiny as he addresses the controversial topic of outsourcing surrogacy on his radio show, and is rapidly put in the hot seat when callers ask heavy questions that force RJ to surface his fears and doubts about the procedure.

Tessa, Ankur, Denzil

Points of Origin Synopsis:

Points of Origin is a fictional short film exploring the emotional conflicts an American couple experiences while attempting to have a baby with a female surrogate in India.

Anya, tell me a little bit about where you grew up and where you studied filmmaking:

I grew up in a small town in Iowa called Fairfield. Where the Transcendental Meditation ™ headquarters are. I have roots of visiting India since I was 14 years old. So shooting a film there wasn’t such a foreign idea to me.

I did my undergraduate in Film at UCLA and got my graduate degree from NYU Tisch Asia at the campus in Singapore. What I loved about the program is that focus was making films and production in Asia.

India is like a second home to me and I’ve always been drawn to it. After I attended NYU I went to India with the intention of making a film. Being a foreigner over there I also encountered other foreigners and the reasons why they were there. I found that many were there for medical tourism, as after the financial crash in 2009, it was more affordable for Americans to do medical procedures at state of the art facilities in India rather than the US.

What lead you to tell the story of ‘Points of Origin’

When I started finding out that people were going to India for surrogacy. You’re taking your genes and implanting them into another woman, to me that was the most intense form of medical tourism that there is. You think about outsourcing being outsourcing jobs, but this is outsourcing life. All of this emotional and personal implications that usually involves two people and you’re starting to involve a third person and you’re involving doctors and nurses and this whole exploitation that runs under it. That was the inspiration for the story. Specifically I wanted to tell the story through the point of view of the husband. There are often documentary stories told about American couples who go there and they have no idea what’s going on. I specifically wanted the husband to be Indian and understand the culture. So he would give the audience a very personal look at what was going on. He understands what’s going on, he understands the language. Then I chose to have an American wife who was very much on the outside. And the conflict between the two people.

The plot of the film is surrogacy, but for me it’s about the relationship and what happens between two people in the conflict of this situation. Often they’re sitting throughout the film waiting to go to the doctor’s office, waiting to meet the surrogate, facing forward, but by the end of the film they’re literally facing each other. When you want something so badly and you’re going forward, going forward and finally you get that moment to realize and reevaluate what they want in the face of this circumstance.

In a way, you’re including a piece of your American side and a piece of your side that grew in India into the film:

Some people say ‘you make movies about yourself’ and people say “well you must be the wife,” actually I feel like the husband. But, I have some qualities of the wife. Even though I’ve been to India many times and I’ve lived there for two years I’ve been treated like such an outsider. I know how it feels to be the minority and for me it was a very eye opening experience.

I feel that I brought a sense of that discomfort from those experiences of being a minority in India into the film. Even though I had a great time there I also experienced some assumptions people had because I don’t look like I’m from India.

Points of Origin’ was shot internationally what was it like to have a crew internationally and filming in India?

Our lead actor is from and resides in India, our lead actress is from Los Angeles, our composer is from Madrid, the Director of Photography is from Tokyo, our producer is from Portland–our crew is from all over the world. Everyone is scattered all over the globe.

It is very difficult to get filming permits in India. Because the subject is sensitive that added this whole other element where people would ask what it is about and I would respond: it’s a love story. If I accomplished anything at the end of the day I felt good about it because of the challenges I faced filming in India. It makes shooting in the US easier. Filming in Los Angeles vs. India is very different, the lighting and grip team were incredible. They’re the hardest working people I’ve ever seen. I was blown away about how cool they were and how they could work with so little. I remember one day a lamp broke on set and they were so innovative they just made a new one on the spot.

We had a local production team that helped us get our permission for the location we shot at which was essential.

Where did you get the funds to film internationally?

I got the funds through kickstarter. I was thinking about how do I make a quality film, and where is that money going to come from? Thanks to my producer, Erin Galey, we raised $25,000 dollars. Without her I wouldn’t have gotten there. Approaching how to pitch Points of Origin I took into account that I didn’t want my pitch video to be “help me, please!” I wanted to talk about the story.

I think crowdfunding is tricky because the campaigns I get turned off from are the ones that come off as desperate, but if you tell me this project is amazing and here is why and here is why you should be a part of it I’m like okay, yes. So that was the approach that we took: we are doing an international shoot we have great actors and you want to be part of it!

The dream of kickstarter is that there is someone in the world that gives you a bunch of money because your story is so great and it started out that people from my hometown were donating and then at the very end we had this major donor from India who just really connected with the subject and donated thousands of dollars. I feel like I got the miracle of kickstarter. What’s amazing about crowdfunding is that you connect with people you would never know any other way.

My producer, Erin, helped me with great incentives and we used her successful kickstarter for her film Sahasi Chori (Brave Girl) as a model. Some donors aren’t in the film industry and it’s important to make them feel like they’re coming on a journey with you and they’re part of it all. I feel like I didn’t do it well enough after the film was shot– you really have to stay in touch with the people, they need updates, and that’s a struggled for me and Erin because we are keeping so many projects afloat. It’s almost like customer service, because you have to reassure people along the way that they’re going to get what they paid for. I’m happy to do it and I’m so grateful for all who donated, I just wish we could have been better about being in touch!

How did you go about casting the characters?

Our main actress, Tessa Thompson, loved the script. It’s important that they connect with the script because I don’t know her, she doesn’t know me, what you can sell is the story. I showed her some of my previous films so she got a sense of my visual style. I went through a casting director to bring her on board. I saw Tessa’s work and she had a bit of vulnerability that came across on screen and that is what I was looking for. The main character was in a vulnerable state being injected with hormones, she’s in a different country, as a woman she can’t give birth. I wanted the audience to empathize with her rather than thinking about her as a woman who goes to India and colonizes a woman’s body. I thought Tessa was a great fit because she was attracted to the script and she had what I was looking for. She really jumped in to the culture, she loved the food and she would travel around and converse with the crew and that elevated the story because she not only loved the script, but she was really an outsider coming in to the culture.

The actor who played the doctor, Denzil Smith, also connected with the material. Even though he had such a small role he wanted to be part of the story. It’s humbling when you get people like that who are part of your film.



What are you working on right now?

Points of Origin is touring festivals right now so I can relax a little. Right now I’m working with this brilliant screenwriter named Ron Nyswaner he wrote Philadelphia, he’s one of the writers on Ray Donovan. I saw Philadelphia when I was really young and I never thought I would get to work with someone like him and we’re working together on some of his television projects. He’s a great mentor and I love having a mentor that has so much experience. I’m also working with Erin and her production company In The Flicker. I’m also developing Points of Origin into a feature. Right now it’s only twenty four hours before they implant the embryo and there is so much more to the story, the pregnancy, the family dynamics. I’m also approaching the surrogacy topic and turning it into a television series. The topic of biological colonization is interesting and I want to touch on the dark side of it,  trade that goes on as well. There is a really dark side that isn’t explored in my film and I want to do that in a long format and in television you can expand stories out even more. Points of Origin is a look into the filmmaking I’m interested in I want to touch on the tension between the two cultures and ultimately between two people.

Do you have any advice to fellow filmmakers?

I feel like I’m not qualified to give advice at this time because I’m at the beginning of my career. I think it’s important to do good casting, work with good actors, and I think that all comes from the story. Your script needs to be right, it’s the foundation to your film. Once you have a story that’s working I feel like I’m embellishing it and working it, and when you bring the actors in they contribute to the script.

Anya with ActorsTessa Thompson