In Conversation With: Lilian T. Mehrel

Writer and Director Lilian Mehrel (right)

The descendant of Holocaust survivors and Kurdish refugees, Lilian T. Mehrel channels her hybrid heritage into her work as a writer and director who tells heartfelt stories with a dark sense of humor. She received her BA at Dartmouth and an MFA at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts with the support of the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans.

Since then, she has crafted a number of films, including Water Melts, a live-action/animation romantic comedy miniseries, co-created by Mary Evangelista and supported by the Tribeca Film Institute and Google’s Immersive Lab, eventually landing a distribution deal with Tribeca’s YouTube channel. It was also an official selection at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.

Water Melts was a “very WOC/BIPOC set.” In addition, the project was produced by Tingerine Liu, and animated by Emmy-award winning animator Maya Edelman.

Mehrel created her short film The Loneliest with an Alfred P. Sloan Award and a skeleton cast and crew of diverse women on a small boat, over the course of three days. Mehrel notes that “there’s something about these sets that feels like a rebalancing.”

“We went for talented wonderful people, and that’s how it worked out, but we’re also mindful of creating a set that reflects the world we want to see, and the people we know and love — and that ended up looking like this,” she says.

Water Melts wasn’t Mehrel’s first VR rodeo. In what she refers to as a “rush of inspiration” upon discovering virtual reality as an art form, she had created haunt — a short VR film from the POV of a ghost who never felt present, now dwelling in her memories and wishing she was there. Her films usually explore universal experiences through her raw, personal lens, and are often inspired by events occurring in real time.

“I’m processing something creatively in the midst of living it,” she says.

Quarantine and the myriad realities of COVID-19 have not put a damper on her creativity. She wrote her first children’s book in 2020 alongside illustrator Danielle Rhoda, with whom she is now collaborating on a short animated film inspired by the resiliency of the human spirit amidst the pandemic. To keep her spirits lifted, she engages in regular creative feedback sessions with trusted peers.

“The best thing I did all quarantine was join a weekly video-chat writing workshop with my film school friends,” she says. “Our group nickname is ‘Global’ because we’re from all over the world. We all have different styles, but there is a collective magic in the group — and we know each other so well. We’ve seen everyone’s true self on set at 5am. We’ve seen the one story we keep turning over and over, trying to tell. We’ve witnessed each other grow into our voices. And the feedback they give me about my work? The closer I get to telling my truth, the harder it makes them laugh and cry. That makes me so happy.”

She describes the way a film takes on a life of its own once it goes from her head to the world, where collaboration brings it to life.

“I work with talented people I trust, and love to see what they bring to the different creative departments. I have the directing vision for how the story will come to life as I’m writing, but they are different,” she says. “Writing is dreaming, and directing is living. Editing is murder.”

Mehrel says she wants to see more recognition of underrepresented creators, noting that the tragic realities of COVID-19 intersect with the already existing pandemic of racial inequality.

She helped healthcare workers tell their stories of hope during Covid with Stories Behind the Mask, a short documentary video series. While the project started with the intent to both highlight and inspire healthcare workers, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement shifted the series to also shed light on racism in the healthcare system.

“I hope that stories can expose the crucial changes that need to be made, yesterday,” she says. “To inspire everyone to keep up the good fight.”

“Art and storytelling do have power,” she adds. “I want to see sets and films and shows that reflect their realities, our reality. I want to hear truth, the full truth, from perspectives previously ignored or silenced.”

When asked what advice she would give a young, aspiring female director, she highlights the importance of “clear vision, communication, and emotional intelligence” and of being true to the kind of leader you are. She notes that there’s no need to play by the rules of a “capitalist, colonialist, patriarchal dystopia.”

“Make your own rules,” she adds. “Bring others up with you. With every project I direct, I feel immense gratitude that an entire team of people are working to bring my vision to life. I hope you enjoy every moment too.”

Stay up to date with Lilian’s work and journey on her website.

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Equal Footing is serving a diverse group of women and people of color who have been left out of the entertainment industry’s boys’ club for too long.

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