How a New-Age Sex Therapist From a Banned Cult Turned My Filmmaking Dreams Into a Nightmare

Perception writer-director Ilana Rein shares the wild tale of her darkest moments in the "hope-industrial complex" of the indie film world.

“Feel the connection of the hands you’re holding. Feel the power of this circle we’ve created and the force of our collective desire. Focus on the pure abundance that flows through each one of us. Visualize the one hundred million dollars that will come to us to make this movie.”

Her voice deeper than I remembered, Maya spoke with conviction. The middle-aged man to one side of me removed his meaty hand from mine and wiped a sweaty palm on the front of his wool trousers. He reinserted his right hand into my left and closed his eyes.

Maya led the group in a chant, followed by 20 minutes of rapid breathing. The handholding felt less strange the more I concentrated on my breath. A damp euphoria permeated the room. I felt lightheaded and awash in gratitude. The people present were going to deliver the funds I was desperately seeking to make the film I had been dreaming of for years. They believed they could do it. And though it sounds fantastical to me now, I believed it too. No one wanted to believe it more than me. 

I had met Maya at a film festival in London, where a documentary I’d made was screening. We quickly hit it off. Over the next year, as I traveled to and from the U.K. to do fundraising and preproduction on a short feature intended as a prequel for the full-length film I really wanted to make, Maya became a close friend, my quasi-therapist, and, in short order, my business partner. At first, we would just see each other when I visited London. Soon we were talking several times a week, over Skype, even when I was back home in Michigan raising young boys while my husband finished grad school. 

At this point, it may not surprise you to learn that Maya was not a traditional independent film financier (Is there such a thing?) but a well-connected, highly sought after sex therapist, in demand by a set of wealthy, British upper-crusters with New Age tendencies. Most importantly, Maya believed in me and the film I desperately wanted to make, and her worldview was in alignment with my belief that there’s more to this reality than we can see. She convinced me she was in a position to make my dream a reality and I was eager to believe her.

Filmmaker Ilana Rein with her husband and two sons.

Any filmmaker knows the unparalleled rush when someone wants to come on board who will move your project forward. That feeling is given life each time a new player becomes interested or creative and business meetings are held. Your dream is happening, the wheels are turning. That natural high supports an entire industry of hope built around filmmakers — mostly aspiring, but also established. It’s an industry which sucks up the financial fumes of desperate artists whose singular purpose is to make their movie. It’s a business which says, “I can make your dreams come true, if you just pay for this seminar, enter this contest, pay to submit to this festival.” It mistakes schmoozing and circulating for the actual work of making a movie. 

It tells you, “That big-fish investor we need is right around the corner, and they are going to love this film, we just need some cash to get started. We need a few thousand to throw this reception and invite all the money. But it would be better if we had all the preproduction documents in order. We can hire my friend, but he’s a professional, so that’s another 10K; don’t worry it will all come back, though. It’s important to keep the momentum going — we’ll open a company and by next year, we’ll have raised the money. Until we have the checks though, we’ll need to keep it funded to cover expenses. Your film is so special, the clouds will part and the angels will sing, and the universe will deliver us the money we need to bring your vision to the world.”

In the hope-industrial complex of the indie film world, there are two types of people, those who create the work and those who exploit the work. Artists want to hear one word: Yes. To be an independent filmmaker is to endure an avalanche of No, and after being buried alive, to hear a Yes becomes a beacon of light. Sometimes the Yes is shallow: Yes, your script was good enough to make the semifinals of our meaningless contest. And sometimes it’s deeper: Yes, I connect with your work. Yes, I care about your ideas. Yes, I want to help you make your movie.

Ilana Rein with her writer-producer on Perception, Brian Smith.

Maya was my beacon. I truly came to believe that she would somehow manage to raise a hundred million dollars by tapping into the universe and her wealthy clients. That belief was the reason I allowed myself to fall into a financial hole where I loaned her thousands of dollars against her future “finder’s fees” for raising the money. It’s what allowed me to buy in when an unscrupulous German producer, who promised we’d make the movie in Spain using tax credits with “people he knew,” was eager to come on board if only I would front initial development funds. These people had credits, seemed legitimate, seemed connected. I wasn’t blowing my savings, I was investing in my future. The filmmaking career I had delayed by starting a family and moving to Michigan would soon be a reality. 

After several months and multiple trips back and forth from the states to London, there was still no money raised, only money out. These trips were filled with nights out at chic London restaurants, visits to people who actually lived in castles, a screening of my short at a luxury hotel which cost thousands in beverages alone, and a publicity agent who delivered nothing other than name tags and a guest list of 250 potential financiers (five of them showed). I took it all in stride, convinced that the big money was right around the corner. I later came to realize how many wealthy people enjoy just being courted for projects in the arts, giving them the cachet of circling that world without any of the financial risk of actually being in it.

The German went MIA and failed to deliver on his contractual promises. I was ready to go to the U.K. and confront him when Maya told me about how a group she belonged to had “changed everything in her life.” She was pushing expensive classes at me, which I could no longer afford, promising this group would be able to help me achieve my dreams. I realized with horror that everyone she had connected me to was also in this group. A quick Google revealed the French government had banned the group as a cult, but they are still active in the U.S. and U.K., smartly rebranded as a self-help organization from their 1980s EST roots.

The crew of Perception on the movie’s final night of shooting.

I snapped out of my optimistic fog as fast as I had been caught up in it. Like a switch, all the chanting, all the wishing and breathing for millions of dollars came back to me, as if I were a character caught up in a horror film, someone else’s movie. I didn’t return to London.

I immediately experienced the great shame of having allowed myself to be taken advantage of so completely. I tried to get my money back, even engaging a law firm in the U.K. in an effort to try and reclaim the funds I’d given the German to set up the film. I was angry and embarrassed.

I removed myself from their influence and went back to writing and raising my kids. We left Michigan, bound for Los Angeles to pursue my career. I met Brian Smith, who became a kindred spirit. He was passionate about my work, which became our work together, and he was relentlessly realistic about how to achieve our goals. Still more charlatans crept up along the way: the established indie producer more interested in putting development money up his nose, the wealthy Russian heiress who wanted me to abandon my work to make her project, but who waited months to explain I’d have to raise the money for that as well. Finally, my partner and I embarked on a new project — a feature with an achievable budget, one where we would rely on ourselves rather than the hope-industrial complex to get it all done. 

It’s not uncommon for two people to have a very different understanding of the same event. We interpret the sights and sounds of our reality through the lens of our individual beliefs, and the strength and substance of those beliefs vary. I have no doubt Maya has a very different perception of how our relationship ended.

Wes Ramsey and Meera Rohit Kumbhani in Perception.

This summer, my first full-length feature film was released. It did not cost a hundred million dollars. Perception is a psychological thriller which draws its tension from the lengths people will go to believe what they want, and how far others will go to exploit those same desires. Instead of trusting blindly in others telling me what I wanted to hear, and how easy it would be with their help, I took on the full process myself and went slowly, usually three steps forward, two steps back.

My early experience brought me to the edge of a financial disaster. I know people who stopped making films after being taken for far less. Perhaps it was the cost of my education in this business. Instead of giving up, I let each No roll off my back until I could tell myself Yes. I may have yet to make the first film I started out wanting to create, but I have achieved my dream of making an exciting independent film I am proud to share with the world. It’s a step in the right direction. 

Ilana Rein is a director and screenwriter born and raised in New York City and now based in Los Angeles. Perception, her debut feature, is now on VOD through Gravitas Ventures. Rein’s first film, Periphery, screened at the New York Video Festival at Lincoln Center (run by the New York Film Festival) in 2002. Her award-winning documentary We Are All Cylons premiered at Sci-Fi London in 2011 and enjoyed a long international festival run. She wrote and directed the short film Ellipse, which was shot on location at The Royal Observatory in the U.K and premiered in May 2013 at the BFI in London. Her other short films include Julie (2009) and Radio Prayer (2006).