In 2012, director Jessica Leski was like millions of others: She was completely obsessed with One Direction.
“I fell in love with One Direction and had no one to talk about it with,” Leski explains from her home in Australia over Skype the other week. “I went online, and that’s when I discovered the fans − this huge world of hilarious and talented fans I wasn’t expecting to find. And it wasn’t until I was totally immersed in it did I think [it was] interesting. These fans [were] experiencing something much deeper and more interesting than I ever realized.”
So when the early-thirtysomething Leski met with producer Rita Walsh to talk about another project, she came armed with a One Direction study pack. Which is how the two set out to make a film they hoped would show what being a fan was really like. Five years later, and I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story is debuting at the Hot Docs film festival on April 26.
Revolving around four fans of diverse ages who represent various pillars of boy-band history (The Beatles, Take That, Backstreet Boys, One Direction), the film follows each woman over the course of four years, proving that while fandom is universal, most of us embrace it for wildly personal reasons. Each of which are of equal importance.
“The reason I wanted the film to be multigenerational was to show the [similarities] of the experience,” Leski says. “Honouring that shared experience [and] letting go of the judgment about the thing they love and getting to the heart of it. The connection that they feel is very similar across the board.”
“Even though the girls are all in different place, we wanted to make a film that fans could see themselves in and hopefully like,” Walsh adds. “And these are only just four girls who have four individual fan stories, and there are so many different fan experiences. There are so many other amazing sequels to make about what an amazing thing being a fan can be.”
The duo’s reverence for fans is obvious. Both from the way Leski shoots and treats her subjects on-camera and the way she and Walsh speak about them now. To be a fan − to, in the immortal words of Almost Famous, love a band so much that it hurts − is more than hysteria and screaming. It’s youthfulness, it’s the process of finding one’s self, it’s using music as a means of staying afloat. For Leski, her yearly visits with the film’s subjects morphed into what they dubbed “boy-band therapy sessions.” And ended up being as helpful for her as it was for them.
“It was my first experience of being a boy-band fan, so I think it came down to people I felt like I wanted to sit and talk to and figure things out with, just because I didn’t really have that in my real life,” she says. “And by seeing them each year, I was evolving as a fan and they were evolving, and I cut out my experiences from the film, but it was very much a dialogue of me learning from the film.”
“When One Direction broke up and we were in the middle of filming, people were saying you have to put something about the band breaking up,” she continues. “But my reaction was [that] it’s actually nothing new. Take That broke up, The Beatles broke up, Backstreet Boys had a hiatus. There was nothing new about One Direction breaking up, or unexpected. It wasn’t historical. And the film did become more about the girls. It was more about them changing rather than the bands changing.”
Walsh recognizes the fans’ evolution, too.
“Not only does [being a fan] help you harness things that make you feel passionate and creative, but it’s just cool to have feelings in a pure way like that,” she shares. “But by the end of the film, we came around to the fact that the bands themselves are lots of fun, but they’re the entry point. It’s being a fan that’s more interesting.”
Both Walsh and Leski hope I Used To Be Normal will help viewers redefine what being a fan means. After all, we may not love bands (or anything) as passionately now as we did as teens, but that doesn’t mean we get to force our cynicism or joylessness onto those waving Harry Styles signs.
“A lot of people think [being a fan is] just the hysterical part of it, and [fans] get treated really badly in the media,” Leski recalls. “And I want people to see that there’s something much more significant and beautiful in the way they experience being a fan. There’s the concert, but that’s two hours and that’s a very small part of being a dedicated fan. So what happens on either side of that.”
“I loved finding my inner teenager,” adds Walsh. “We judge teenagers a lot, we judge young women even more. And being a teenage girl who loves something and feeling things is a really cool feeling. Feeling things strongly is a really great feeling and something you should always be in touch with. And if that means going to a concert and screaming or having a Beatles photo next to your bed because it makes you smile, that’s fine. Do it. That’s okay.”
I Used to Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story plays the Hot Docs Festival on April 26, April 27, May 4 and May 6.