Interview: Stephen Lance

Maggie (Emmanuelle Béart) and Harrison Gilbertson (Charlie).

Maggie (Emmanuelle Béart) and Harrison Gilbertson (Charlie).

“The idea of what’s happening in the film and the impression of what’s happening in the film, I’ve experienced.”

Interview by Matthew Eeles:

You’re an award-winning filmmaker whose had a lot of success directing short films as well as music videos for some of Australia’s favourite musicians. Did you feel like you were under a lot of pressure personally to live up to those successes while making My Mistress?
Yeah I did and you know, it’s sort of like a different level of financial pressure than what I’m used to. It’s the first time I’ve worked with a really big budget. I’ve done a lot of commercials and music videos but I really feel the pressure of investment that comes with making a feature film. You want it to do really well because it’s my baby and it’s very much my creative baby and also I want it to do well for the people who backed it. The last thing I want is for them to feel disappointed in their investment.

S&M is a subject seldom explored in Australian feature films. What drew you to want to base your film around it?
Well I was very interested in making a film that had an allegorical element to it that was about an illicit relationship between an older woman and a younger man. I was interested in the way that S&M is used as an emotional way to deal with pain and the way that people use roll-play to exorcise emotional pain and the way that the idea of connection, the idea of touch, the idea of pleasure and pain plays into sexuality. Sexuality is a thing that runs through my short films and so it is something I’m really interested in in terms of sexual identity and the way it’s used as an acting out of a deeper emotional pain. So I was interested in how that level of S&M deals with pleasure and pain and I wanted to make a film that was an impressionistic look at my childhood and my relationship to my father and my mother and the trauma that I had gone through as a teenager and also my relationship with older women. A lot of these experiences I had as a teenager and my desire to play with that idea of S&M and what it means to me on a deeper emotional level and not just a titillating level, I mean the film is titillating and funny and dark but it also has a deeper emotional purpose to it.
I wanted to make a film that was both an impression of my teenage years but also something that represented my understanding of sexuality or what I wanted to explore in terms of sexuality.

So it’s a little autobiographical then?
Yeah, it is.

How much of it?
A lot of it. A lot of it is autobiographical. In terms of exactly what happened to me I don’t really want to go into that too much but the idea of what’s happening in the film and the impression of what’s happening in the film, I’ve experienced.

So did you have to do much research into the S&M side of it then?
I did. It’s not like I was a teenage S&M fiend. I did have to do a lot of research because I wanted to get into a particular area of S&M which is more of the higher end of roleplaying. That was the idea I was most interested in – people’s masks and personas they put on in this kind of theatrical arena as a stage or platform for playing out emotional trauma. I did consult an S&M specialist who’s name is Mistress Kalyss. I spent quite a bit of time talking with her about it and noting her experiences with customers and if they’d agree to have their details revealed because it’s all very confidential. She came onboard the film as a consultant as well, particularly during a scene where Maggie and Bonnie the Dog which required a lot of specificity.

Were any backers reluctant to fund the film because of the subject matter?
Thinking back, no. People always found the story of a young boy and an older S&M mistress titillating, it alway brought a smile to their faces. [Laughs]. And that’s just the surface of the film. The real story is about a tender, intimate connection between this boy and this woman and also the boy’s relationship with his mother. S&M was an angle of the story that really made people sit up and take notice of it. Right away it had titillating value but the script also delivered on an emotional level. Let’s just say people’s ears pricked up right away but there was no reluctancy.

Maggie and Charlie get physical.

Maggie and Charlie get physical.

Emmanuelle Béart is an internationally renowned actress. When did you first become aware of her and when did you decide you wanted to cast her in the role of Maggie.
Well I’ve always been aware of her because I’ve always followed her films right back to Manon de sources and I loved A Heart in Winter and even 8 Women was an influence on me. When I was in Cannes in 2009 with cowriter Gérard Lee we saw a picture of her and we instantly thought she would be perfect for this role.
Leanne Tonkes (producer) and I went to No Borders in New York in 2011 and we sent the script to CAA in Los Angeles and they loved it. They told us they wanted to put it to their actors. I had already sent the script to Emmanuelle’s agent but you never know whether these people are going to read it because they take so long to respond.
We went for some very big, high profile foreign actresses and we finally heard back from Emmanuelle that she had read the script and that she wanted to meet me in Paris. I literally had to jump on a plane in Brisbane and fly to Paris to meet her at her house. We got along really well right away. We actually bonded over the sort of film we wanted to make and we spoke about Mamma Roma, the Pasolini film which we both really love. We immediately had this connection and both really wanted to make the same sort of film.
I could see in her the kind of qualities I wanted for Maggie. She had this brutal, sexy, wild quality about her that was incredible and just so like this character, Maggie. She also had a maternal quality about her. When she told me she had to think about it I thought she wasn’t interested. It turns out she was. We actually had a distributor drop out because she wasn’t high profile enough.
Distributors are based around this sort of algorithm of numbers and if they plug a name into a computer and the name doesn’t compute then they really don’t care about you.
Actually, one actress who decided she really wanted to do it was Helen Hunt. I had a Skype conversation with Helen, who I really love, but I thought Emmanuelle was this part and she wouldn’t require as much transformation as Helen would.

It’s hard to imagine anyone else but Emmanuelle playing the part.
It is now and I’m so happy that we actually got to work with each other.

Can you tell us a bit about how the rest of the characters were cast?
Well Racheal Blake (Kate) was always my first choice for the mother. We actually sent her a very early draft of the script maybe two years before we were even close to getting finance and she loved it. I really love Harrison (Charlie). I was looking around for a charmer and really wanted someone who had a classic, almost James Dean quality and he had it. I tested him in Melbourne and I just loved his test. I knew that it would be challenging for him because it would be confronting for any young guy to be put into these situations, especially with a woman like Emmanuelle who’s very used to sexuality on film. Harrison had a very naughty, boyish quality and he was really willing to go the hard yards and commit to what this film is about. I was very worried about their chemistry.

So when did they first meet together?
There first meeting was at a tapas restaurant and I was more nervous then they were – well maybe not as nervous as Harrison was. I deliberately tried to keep them apart at most times because I wanted their relationship to naturally unfold onset – I didn’t want them to be over familiar with each other.

You wrote My Mistress with screenwriter Gérard Lee. How did this collaboration come about and did you always intend to write the script with another screenwriter?
Well Gérard and I were judging a directing prize up in Brisbane and I had never met him before. Sweetie is one of my all-time favourite Australian films – right up there with Picnic at Hanging Rock – and we started talking. I had really hit a wall with my script and I was looking to bring another voice in to bring some humour in because it was feeling a bit dour. I didn’t want the film to be all about grief, I wanted it to have some comedy about it in terms of this kind of relationship between this woman and this boy.
Gérard brought a lot of dark humour to it and I’m really thankful because I had him for a certain window before he went off to do Top of the Lake. I haven’t seen him for such a long time.

The film’s score by composer Stephen Rae is easily his best work yet.
Really, you loved it?

I loved it. Without putting the rest of the film down I think the music hit me harder than anything else. How do you think he handled the transition from television to a feature film score and how closely did you work with him during the process?
Well we worked very closely. I’m so glad you liked it. I began working with a composer in LA who was an electronic pop musician who had never done a score before but I really believed he could do it. It turned out that the music we kept getting sent through was too opaque and too heavy. A score needs to be transparent, you need to be able to look through it to the images. This guy wasn’t doing that.
It got to a point where we had to find a different composer. Stephen Rae’s name came up. I loved his hearty impression of the film and we wanted to do something that had a melodramatic feel to it. We wanted something striking as well. We didn’t want anything minimalist, we wanted something beautiful and lush to represent the emotional teenage heart crushing desire that this boy had for this woman. We wanted this to be the boy’s score. We had a great collaboration and a lot of people are raving about the score.

My Mistress is a finalist for Australia’s richest film prize at CinéfestOZ in August. What was your reaction when you found out the film was a finalist for the prize and what would winning something like this mean to you?
I was very, very honoured just to be a part of that group of filmmakers. I’m a huge fan of Matt Saville and Rob Connolly. It’s a great honour. I would be totally chuffed if I won because I’d love for the film to get that type of recognition and the prize money just seems crazy. I never win anything and I doubt that I’ll win.

Emmanuelle Béart

Emmanuelle Béart

My Mistress will have it’s first public screening as part of this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival and will screen as part of CinéfestfestOZ next week. You can see the trailer here.

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