Filmmaker Leena Pendharkar Talks Bella Thorne, Female Comedy and Making Your Dreams Come True

Leena Pendharkar knows how to take on a challenge. After tackling some hard-hitting documentary subjects, Pendharkar set out to write and direct her first feature film, Raspberry Magic, and then thought she’d try her hand at comedy with the hilarious web series, So Natural. We sat down with the writer-director-all-around-awesome woman to find out how she balances it all.

HelloGiggles: How did you first realize you were interested in pursuing a filmmaking career?

Leena Pendharkar: Well, I’ve been interested in stories and storytelling for as long as I can remember.  As a kid, I’d read anything I could get my hands on, then as a teen, I would stay up, sometimes all night, reading everything from Sweet Valley High to Ayn Rand.  I guess all this reading gave me some desire to write, and I was a high school/teen journalist, which was great fun.  I really had my sights set on being a writer!  But in college, I got bit by the Internet bug, and learned how to create websites, make graphics, and just dork out.  I loved the mix of visual media and writing, so I ended up going to the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, where I studied documentary filmmaking.  Filmmaking combines everything I love from story and writing to production and completely nerdy stuff like cameras and editing.  So I started in docs, but my career evolved to fiction filmmaking.

HG: How did the concept for Raspberry Magic come up, and what was the process like taking it from an idea to a full-fledged script and then a feature?

LP: Making my first feature, Raspberry Magic, was a six-year labor of love. It’s a heartfelt story about a young girl, age 11, who thinks she can save her parents’ crumbling marriage if she wins the science fair.  Her science project is to grow raspberries in a forest.  It’s a small, heartfelt film, and a lot of people liked the script, but most Hollywood folks said it was just too small to make in a mainstream way.

Then in 2006, I met producer Megha Kadakia. She was looking for a project, and I was looking for a producer!  So, we spent the next couple of years raising the money, which was tough. A lot of people told us no, but we kept on moving forward, then shot the movie in 2008, just as the economy was melting down. It wasn’t easy, but we did it. Then 2009 was spent on post production, 2010 we played in fests, 2011 we started digital distribution, and it just came out on DVD.

HG: How did you get Bella Thorne and what was it like working with her?

LP: Bella was only 11 then, and everyone knew she would be a star!  She was a very bright and determined young lady, and she just lit up the room when she came in for casting. It’s amazing to see her everywhere with Shake It Up!

HG: What was it like to work with Alison Brie?

LP: Incredible, she was very focused and very quick with her ideas. I couldn’t keep up with her!  But amazing for sure to work with!

HG: What were some challenges in making your first feature film?

LP: Being on a very small budget was tough!  We also had a very ambitious schedule of locations, and a lot of complex physical effects like rain, wind, kitchens leaking… It was all a little nuts as a first-time director! But it was also amazing to do it, and have that experience!

HG: So Natural is obviously so different (ha!) from Raspberry Magic. Is it hard to balance your varied interests and ambitions (comedy vs. drama, feature vs. short), or do you find it helpful to move back and forth?

LP: I see myself as a storyteller first, and it’s most important to me that I create authentic, interesting characters.  I tend to write material that is comedy/dramedy. I think the Raspberry Magic script was more of a dramedy, but it evolved into more of drama, which happens sometimes. I also tend to write material with female characters! I need to give the men some love too!

HG: How in the world did you come up with So Natural and why do you think it’s hits so hilariously close to home for women?

LP: It came from a collection of flash fiction stories that I had been writing for a long time. It’s the inner me that’s kind of (kind of!) cynical.  I was writing them just for fun, but I was looking to do something for YouTube, and thought this would be great. I started out by shooting only two of the films, and I honestly didn’t know how people would receive them. I was also a tad nervous about “putting myself out there” in that way.  But I really wanted to allow myself the freedom and creative expression to do that. I think the younger me would have been a little squeamish about it, but the cast, Sofiya Alexandra, Emily Button, Heather Horton and Heather Marion have really inspired me to “go there” if you will.

HG: What it like working with an all-female cast?

LP: It’s so much fun! Wacky and crazy but there’s great synergy, and I’m always inspired by performers. It’s not easy to be “out there” like that, especially on the Internet!

HG: What’s the next project you hope to tackle, or do you hope to make So Natural go viral (as it should)?

LP: I definitely would like to grow the So Natural series and channel, to include other short films, and other series. I’d like to make programming for women that is edgy, fun and unique. I’d also like to integrate the channel with fashion and brands that are interesting.

HG: Lastly, any advice for girls interested in pursuing a career like yours? If there’s one thing you wish you’d known in your early 20s, what is it?

LP: Trust your instincts, listen to your inner voice.  I used to spend so much time and energy getting other people’s opinions, asking what everyone thought, and in that, I somehow lost myself. With So Natural, I decided that I wouldn’t get feedback from anyone, that I would just “put it out there”, and it has been truly liberating. If you have a goal, a dream or a wish, just go for it, don’t wait!!!

You can order the Raspberry Magic DVD here and check out So Natural on YouTube.

(Image via Raspberry Magic).