Last week, when Brie Larson called me to discuss her directorial debut, Unicorn Store (premiering tomorrow at the Toronto Film Festival), I asked whether she had ever made a vision board for the film. “I’m actually looking at it right now!” she said brightly. “I still have it. I don’t want to take all of it down, because it means that it’s over.”
Many first-time filmmakers are still finding their way with a camera, so it’s rare that a low-budget debut is bursting with color and clever visual ideas. Larson, though, wanted Unicorn Store’s look to be a priority. After all, the premise demands a flight of fancy: Larson’s character, Kit, is a stalled-in-life underachiever who finds her way to a magical basement store where the proprietor (Samuel L. Jackson, wearing a pink suit with with tinsel in his hair) offers her a unicorn. She’ll have to prove she deserves it — even in the free-unicorn business, there are all sorts of hoops you’ve got to jump through first — and while she’s getting her act together, Kit finally grows up.
What would Larson recommend for a young director who’s finding his or her visual sensibility? “Surround yourself with as much that inspires you as possible,” she said. “Don’t edit yourself until you really have to.” Larson pulled images from all over — “I found that Instagram was such an incredible tool for that” — and would take the images to the copy machine at CVS. “I’d just get hundreds of them printed everyday, and I’d just start tacking them everywhere and putting them all over my walls,” she said. “It really is just like a jigsaw puzzle. You have all the pieces at first, then you slowly start putting them together.”
Eventually, a pattern does emerge. “I sort of noticed that I was gravitating towards certain things but didn’t really realize why,” said Larson. “I became obsessed with this checkerboard pattern and I kept seeing it everywhere, and I had a whole section of my mood board that was just checkerboard.” Larson snuck the checkerboard into one of the character’s wardrobes and then remembered that she had scripted a scene where Kit plays checkers with an imaginary friend. Essentially, it had been there since the beginning. “You know, it’s weird how your brain doesn’t fully connect everything together,” said Larson, “but knows that that’s the path that it should be on.”
She also treated her main character as a visual muse, expressing Kit’s emotions through color and costuming and taking cues from her devotion to crafting. “Kit is really savvy and is finding ways to create things out of nothing, out of trash, out of whatever’s available to her,” said Larson. “We wanted to use that sensibility in this film and try and find ways to make the film interesting, because it will be handmade through our ingenuity.” Even when it comes to Jackson’s unicorn store, the surreal nature of the room is created through mixing and matching on a low budget. “Everything that’s in that room you can buy off of Amazon,” said Larson. “I know, because we did.”
As Kit figures herself out, then, so did her creator. “Part of making a movie means accepting how you view the world and what your voice is as being worth making a movie about,” said Larson, who will next segue to the superheroic Captain Marvel. “Once you can get past that step, then it’s just owning it. It’s totally terrifying the whole time you’re directing, I’m not going to say that it’s not, but I hope that more people get comfortable with how they view the world and how they see it and want to put it on the screen.”