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Devon Leaver recalls sitting in a room of a New York City apartment with a small group of fellow high school teenagers. She remembers a producer handing her a stack of photographs and saying: “Study these. You’re going to have to ask him questions.” What followed was a months-long journey that completely changed her life.

“The whole situation occurred from one instance and spread out like spokes in a wheel,” says the NYU Tisch Film and TV senior. It all started when she was 17 years old and attending the private Ross High School in Long Island and she chose to participate in a program called YoungArts. At the end of program, she was eventually chosen to be one of seven filmmakers out of 6,000 kids nationwide to be flown out to Miami and take part in a masterclass-like process alongside professionals in her field.

Nascence, the five-minute short with which Leaver participated in the competition, was an experimental film inspired by the women’s suffrage movement in the beginning of the 20th century. “It depicts the struggle of a housewife and mother attempting to fight her way out the box that confines her, using carrots as the primary metaphor,” says Leaver. After premiering at the Pollock Krasner House in Springs, New York, and winning at the East End Student Film Project Film Festival, Nascence helped Leaver earn a spot in the nationwide program.

A couple of years later, during which Leaver writes, directs, and composes the score for a 20-minute short of her own creation called Saving Caroline, which premieres at the Hamptons International Film Festival, she receives a phone call out of the blue. Now 18 years old, Leaver is told that YoungArts had referred her name as a possible candidate to be on a show called HBO: Masterclass. Thanks to these two distinct but deeply connected events, Leaver has been able to not only have several amazing learning opportunities that helped advance her craft, but create the foundation for a network of contacts in the film business that she finds irreplaceable to this day.

Born and raised in Amagansett, New York, Leaver was surrounded by art and creativity. Her father a decorative painter and set designer, her mother a massage therapist, nutritionist and health counselor, she started being trained to sing professionally since the age of seven. After years of performing and being involved in various areas of the arts, she discovered the one medium that combined all of her passions and interests: film.

HBO: Masterclass is a reality documentary series that showcases the experiences of a group of young artists working alongside a famous mentor. “My parents told me to go for it.” says Leaver. “They were super supportive.” Leaver’s chosen mentor was Bruce Weber, an esteemed fashion photographer and filmmaker whose most famous ad campaigns include Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Gianni Versace. For this specific Masterclass episode, Weber chose three film students and three photography students out of an initial list of fifteen that he was given.

At the time, Leaver was attending Bates College in Maine, studying Theater Arts. After being impressed with some of her past work, Weber added her to his exclusive list. “This whole experience, getting to know him, really changed my life,” she asserts.

After receiving that decisive phone call and sending additional work to be evaluated, Leaver was informed that she was one of six chosen participants. Since she was studying out of state at the time, she is flown down to New York City and, together with her five companions, she’s given a random address. “It was a little weird,” says Leaver, “We were in a van taken by our handler to downtown New York and they dropped us off in the middle of the street and tell us ‘Go and find this address. Ignore the cameras, they will follow you.”

After wandering around the city for a while, the group finally locates the address. Leaver remembers entering a service elevator, going up a few floors, and, “suddenly, there’s Bruce Weber.” The night before, the group had been sat down with a giant book of  Weber’s photos and a 30-minute documentary about Weber and his artistic process. “It was so that we would have things to talk about,” says Leaver. Two hours after they were given the material about Weber, they were asked to do a pre-program interview, during which they were individually brought into a dark room with a camera  and proceeded to be questioned about everything they knew or liked about their assigned “master”.

“A lot of us are usually behind the camera. It’s not a natural thing for photography and film students to be in front of a camera expressing our opinions.” They were told to act as natural as possible, to pretend the cameras weren’t there, and to ask as many questions as possible. After they met Weber, they were sat down in a circle in his apartment and the producers told them that it was time ask him questions. “On the actual episode you’ll see us sitting around casually drinking orange juice and asking him questions but what you don’t see is the multitude of people and the producers behind the cameras who are telling us what to say. Sort of feeding us questions.”

After an hour of this came what Leaver defines as a “magical moment.” Piled into a yellow school bus, the students were taken to Central Park’s John Lennon Memorial. Sitting around the Imagine mosaic and taking pictures, Weber started to teach them about composition by taking pictures of people in motion. The moment had finally come for their assignment.

All six were given the Earnest Hemingway quote “But did thee feel the earth move?” from the novel For Whom the Bell Tolls and tasked with finding out what made “their” earth move and come back with a product that expressed that in a creative manner.

After Weber gave the group their assignments, he brought the group to the Meisner Acting Studio to show them how to work with actors and they had to go up and start moving around and try to act. “This was cut for the actual episode, but […] we had to do a dance warmup and it was the most awkward thing in our life.” Leaver recalls, “Imagine. Three photographers and three filmmakers who are so used to being on the other side of the camera trying to move their way across a stage with a bunch of actors which are just free and open with their bodies and selves. Very, very weird experience.”

According to Leaver, the first half of the experience was the part that felt the most staged. “When you’re being followed around by cameras you become aware of all that you do and say and how it will be perceived by others. Because even if you show a hint of weakness, at one point, they could take that completely out of context and make you seem [completely different].” After those initial days together in New York, all the six participants went off into their separate directions and set to work. Camera crews, throughout the months they had to complete their projects, visited each of their homes to show their creative processes and to see how they put Weber’s teachings into practice.

Leaver’s project was a short experimental piece about puberty. At that point in her life it had been the biggest occurrence that had rocked her world in a complex and multi-faceted way. Very focused on imagery and composition, she concentrated on capturing the darkness and fear of going through something as significant as a drastic body and vocal change. This was especially true for her due to the fact that singing has always been such a huge part of her life.

A couple of months later, the whole group is flown down to Miami where they show Weber their products and make the final edits. “We sat down and read poetry in the very funny, staged manner and we set up for an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Miami. And this is where it gets weird.” Recalling these moments, Leaver’s expression turns slightly sour, even if three years have passed since these events occurred. During the exhibition at the museum, an art critic arrives, brought to the event, Devon infers, by the producers. “She waited for all of the guests to arrive, and then she went around with each one of us […] while for the photographers she had nothing but complimentary things to say, and then she gets to the filmmakers and she tears us to shreds. It was so quiet you could hear a pin drop.” It was both humiliating and illuminating, Leaver goes on to say. It gave her an idea of how a production like this actually signified and how truly unreal it could be.

Up until that moment, remembers Leaver, there had been nothing but positive things that had been happening while participating on this show and then even Weber seemed taken aback when this happened. “She was cut out of the final episode, ironically. We were so scared, all of us, that they were going to show that. It had been such a positive experience and then you could see the producers at the edge frothing at the mouth, saying ‘This is the drama we’ve been looking for.’” It came to a point, where even the very people holding the cameras started to feel bad, remembers Leaver.

“To end on that note was really sad for a lot of us,” says Leaver. “I don’t usually tell people about this last part because it was such an overwhelmingly positive experience. It’s helped me gain credibility and show people what I can do.” She can trace back various connections and job offers she has received to this one show that she only was featured on thanks to one competition she happened to become a finalist in. This undertaking has allowed Leaver to increase her versatility on the job market and has become something that sets her apart. “I’m happy I did it,” she says, “My placement in relation to cameras has been solidified by this entire experience.”