Abhishek Srivastava - 61 weeks ago
Director Jessica Thompson’s debut film, The Light of the Moon, was inspired by one of Thompson’s friends who was assaulted. Winner of the Audience Award at SXSW Film Festival, the film is not an easy watch and was handled with much sensitivity during its making. In a no-holds barred conversation with The Film Hashery, Jessica talks about saying No to The Weinstein Company, why she opted for Stephanie Beatriz and what turned her off while watching Jodie Foster’s The Accused.
https://mynk.co.in(Michael Stahl-David and Stephanie Beatriz in a still from The Light of the Moon)
How did you think about the plot of The Light of the Moon? Judging by the manner, in which this film has been treated it seems to draw from someone’s personal experience.
I have always been concerned about the way rape is portrayed in films. I always feel that it’s often from a male perspective and quite dangerously from the rapist's perspective. It’s also a very unrealistic portrayal, that the victim then goes on to become a vigilante and she revenges her rape. So, that was always at the back of my mind and I always felt cinema needed to be more responsible. Yes, I did have a friend who experienced something similar to what Bonnie goes through in the film in terms of recovering from her rape and going back to work and trying to maintain a healthy relationship with her partner. Seeing her go through this, I felt that such a story had not been told before, and I asked her if I could have permission to use some of the things in the film that I learnt from speaking to her.
How relevant, do you think, the film has become post the #MeToo movement?
We shot the film in 2016 and it came out in 2017. It actually came out right in the middle of the Harvey Weinstein story breaking with the New York Times, so that was not predicted obviously. In light of the #MeToo movement, I feel that people are now more aware of films like The Light of the Moon and, in that way, it was little bit ahead of the time. Yes, it was the first time that women have actually been heard in regard to this mass problem that has infiltrated into our society that women are second class citizens and that rape is okay. The fact that we had ignored that Harvey Weinstein had been abusing women and many other men in Hollywood have been abusing women for decades, only shows that we weren’t listening to the women who were speaking about their sexual trauma. May be the world, in 2017, was ready to hear them. I was really concerned, well before the #MeToo movement, about the rape culture and the way it had infiltrated our society.
The film is not an easy watch and its evident that it has been handled very sensitively. How did you go about locking the treatment of the film?
My Head of Departments were all women. I worked with Autumn Eakin, the cinematographer, closely and we spoke a lot about how this was all going to explode. We tried to handle the content of the film in a really sensitive way, so our treatment was always going to be shot from Bonnie’s perspective by being as close to her as possible. Yes, that scene (the rape scene) is not an easy watch, but I felt that it was important for us to not shy away and to be with her. I don’t think its grotesque in terms of the violence or the actual shot angle that we have seen, but its grotesque in terms of its immersion and that’s how it is when such sort of trauma happens to you. I decided to use techniques such as sound design and music to show her trying to block out the memory. On the day of the shoot, I was very sensitive to Stephanie’s needs. It’s become very popular in Hollywood now to have an intimacy coordinator; I don’t know if I needed someone like an intimacy coordinator to be on my film because I felt that I was already being sensitive to that. I wanted to empower Stephanie to make those decisions.
(Jessica M Thompson on the set of The Light of the Moon)
This film released before Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual misconducts came to light. As per reports, he was interested in buying the rights for the film. What made you say no to him considering the fact that he was a wonder boy then?
Yes, you are right. When the film actually came out in theatres, I think the Harvey Weinstein story had just broken a week or two before. We did actually get some interest from The Weinstein Company and, to be honest, even though the allegations were not allegations - they were very much real. The news of Harvey Weinstein's sexual misconduct came out in Oct of 2017, but even before then there were rumours running around him in Hollywood for a long time. I have been working in the film industry in America for more than a decade. I am originally from Australia but I had been in the USA for 8 years at that stage, and I had heard rumours about his sexual misconduct, verbal abuse, physical abuse too, towards men and women - on set and in his offices. So, I wasn’t feeling very comfortable and felt very strongly about that. I spoke to other producers, too, and we all had the same idea. In the end, we actually got a better offer and we went with a women-oriented company called Imagination Worldwide and that was the right decision for us in releasing the film. My producers felt that The Weinstein Company was not the right company to release such a film and I am very grateful that that’s how we felt and we stuck to that instinct.
You have spent a major part of your career as an editor. How easy or difficult was it to transition into a director?
I think editors make fantastic directors and writers, and I would encourage anyone out there who is a writer to get your script into the hands of an editor. I don’t know why we only bring out editors as third story tellers - they really are story tellers.
I won’t say that it was an easy transition. I have been wanting to be a writer-director since I was 12 years old. After attending a film school in Australia, I developed an interest in editing, and this, to me, was another version of writing and directing. My mom is a single mother and she is a migrant to Australia, so I am first gen Australian. My family is blue collared, salt to the earth type people, so I had no connection to the film industry or the arts world. I am someone who has always been working from the age of 14 and fending for myself, so it was always important for me to make my career feasible that I earn an income from my craft. I also looked at some of my favourite directors like Robert Rodriguez and he also came from editing background, so I felt like that was a good way to go and so I became an assistant editor and quickly climbed up the ranks to become an editor. Then I moved to New York and started editing features over there but soon I started writing and directing short films. The transition was not easy, of course, but it kind of came to a point when I felt that I was done with editing. I realised that I had made enough connections and friendships in the industry in NYC that I felt ready to make my first feature film. Of course, there is always a gamble because you don’t know how your first indie film is going to go. For every one that goes well, there is may be, a 100 or may be a 1000 that do not do well. It’s not because of their quality, it’s also about being at the wrong place at the wrong time. There are so many different factors involved and luck does have something to do with it but hard work and perseverance is, I think, more key. Luckily, in case of The Light of the Moon, we sent it to the Sundance with a very rough cut of the film and then it did not make it to the list of films. Then we sent the film to SXSW where it won the Audience Award.
(Jessica M Thompson with the Audience Award trophy at the 2017 SXSW Film Festival)
Was Stephanie Beatriz always your first choice? And what made you approach her for the film?
Yes, Stephanie was always in my top three. I had seen her, obviously, in Brooklyn Nine-Nine but I had also seen her in a play in NY. I did not even recognise her from Brooklyn Nine-Nine, she was that transformative. She really is an incredibly chameleon and can play anything, I am so sure of it. I won’t talk about who my other choices were because Stephanie was 100 per cent Bonnie. We knew that without Bonnie, we did not had a film.
The film won the Audience Award at SXSW Film Festival apart from the love it was showered upon by audiences – were you surprised or were you confident of the film bagging an award?
I was so surprised that I almost fainted. I was watching another film at that time when they announced the award. Out of the two big awards – the Grand Jury and the Audience Award - The Light of the Moon had the best chance of winning the Grand Jury only because SXSW tends to lean towards comedies or gritty, edgy films. I knew the audience at SXSW would appreciate the film, but I never thought that they would vote it as their favourite film. Me and my producer were sitting in the screening of The Work - the documentary that won the Grand Jury award and my phone started buzzing. I excused myself from the screening, which I felt so bad about but then I felt glad I did, because the phone call was from one of the coordinators who informed me that my film has won. I could not believe that the audience got behind such a hard hitting film. It did change the future of the film.
(Stephanie Beatriz and Jessica Thompson at an event for the film)
Hollywood has made some great films exploring the issue of rape –Jonathan Kaplan’s The Accused, Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs or Gasper Noe’s Irreversible – if you were to helm these films, would you like to change anything?
Look, these films were made at a certain point of time. They were made by men, and I am not trying to tell here that women are better filmmakers or anything like that. Some of my favourite filmmakers are men. It is just a perspective which is ingrained in your bones. It’s very hard to unshape or reshape your culture once it becomes a part of you. I saw The Accused when I was in my High School and there is shot in the film when the camera pans down to Jodie Foster’s breasts. Is that necessary? We are just sexualizing her and that means we are in the perspective of the rapist. I just don’t know if we ever need to be in the mental perspective of him. These were films that reflected the time during which they were made and I hope we have gotten past that now. I have been seeing shows like 13 Reasons Why and few others and they have handled it much more sensitively and realistically and from a feminine perspective. When I hear stories about Bertolucci and Brando, that how they did an on screen rape scene without telling the female actor, it makes me feel sick to my stomach. That is not how you should treat others. They are actors and it’s their job to act and if you were to take away that autonomy, that’s hideous.
Audiences are now really excited about your upcoming project. Could you please tell us more about it.
Yes, I just finished filming a TV series called The End. It’s from the same people who brought us incredible films like The King’s Speech, Lion and Top of the Lake, the TV series by Jane Campion. The show is created by Samantha Strauss, an incredible writer, and is about the end of life. It is a dramedy about a dying sister and three different generations in one family and how they are dealing with the end of life. The tagline for the show is ‘life begins at 70', which I just love and it is more about celebration of life as much as there is death in it. I was the lead director for the series which means I got to set it all up. I did the first four episodes and the last two. This series, also gave me an opportunity to go back to Australia for the first time in ten years. It should come out at the end of this year and will be shown on Sky in UK.
(The Light of the Moon is currently playing on myNK)
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