Interview with Thomas Vernay (Director of Miss Chazelles)

Hi Thomas, thanks for agreeing to this interview. Firstly, I’d like to ask if you could explain the premise behind Miss Chazelles?

Chazelles-Sur-Lyon is the village of my childhood. The characters in the film are entirely inspired by people I have known. I wanted to evoke social and sentimental determinism through the characters, especially Clara. Clara tries to emancipate herself and listen to her own desires, but her social context catches up with her.

Miss Chazelles is inspired by tales of princes and princesses. I wanted to completely distort their sexist codes and give substance to a reading focused on female identity. Every detail of a medieval tale is present: The princess dress, the “prince” – who is a woman – the knight’s sword, the standard and the motorcycles which represent the steeds. We also find the castle ball – where the princess exchanges a look with the “prince.” The famous image of a dragon is embodied by the father, whilst the two twins are entirely inspired by Disney movies – looking at the absurdity and surrealism of physical resemblance. Megan Northam inspired me a lot during the writing. It is an ode to their face, gaze and movements.

What do you think this film says about beauty pageants that hasn’t been said before?

I’m not sure the film is really about beauty contests. It’s mostly an arena that reinforces the idea that men have real control over women. The contest supports the objectification of women by men. From a personal point of view, I find it very sad. But I understand that it does still exist, it is a reflection of the world in which we live and which, contrary to what I often hear, evolves very slowly in relation to these ideas.

In itself, the beauty pageant is a space for bringing up more deeply rooted issues. We all know that a beauty pageant is not a dignifying phenomenon. And choosing to participate is by no means a free choice. It’s a false liberty, conditioned by the male gaze, the desire to please men and society before being pleased with oneself.

How influential do you think the media is on the way women, particularly young women, think about themselves?

The media are a reflection of our society. And our society also follows the dictatorship of the media. So we’re on a mirror game. The media shows us the image of what we should look like. And we make sure we look like it. They explain to us what is beautiful, what is ugly, what is funny, we no longer ask ourselves the question of our own tastes, our own desires. Since we live in a world thought by men and for men, women are at the forefront of formatting. We explain to them through commercials, sometimes movies or books, the place they should be in. What they should look like. What they need to accept. All this has been so deeply rooted for millennia (there must be only about ten matriarchal societies…), that we all live in this world without questioning anything. We must regain our lucidity, understand and confront the injustice that women face. And the media have a real role to play.

How well do you think previous media has addressed the pressure young women often feel from their family’s when they enter beauty pageants?

Once again, the pressure comes from society. The family, the loved ones have been following a movement that has been running on empty inertia for hundreds and hundreds of years. The patriarchal system is so entrenched, so powerful, that it crushes any desire for emancipation.

In little miss sunshine we witness the will of a child to participate in a mini-miss contest. This little girl hasn’t a really advantageous physique, and we all know that she won’t win because she doesn’t correspond to societal norms. In my memories, the first shot is a broadcast of the Miss America contest on the TV in the living room. She is captivated and really affected by the Miss America’s victory. She watches it over and over again. Everything is shown in this first scene. It’s very clever. In one shot we understand the world we live in. We understand the weight of the media, the weight of the patriarchal society on people who are on the margins.

Why do you think beauty pageants are still popular?

As I said before, it is simply a reflection of our society. The beauty pageant allows men to control the image of what a “beautiful body”, a “beautiful woman” should be. And they allow women to be accepted by the male gaze. As long as the male gaze is the dominant angle in our society, there will always be these kind of contests.

One could say “yes, but there are also beauty contests for men”. For me it’s the same thing. It’s the same subject, the same problem. The man in beauty contests is a muscular, strong, powerful man. He is only the symbol of the dominant male, the good procreator, the strong and protective father. I’m not going to get into the debate on the fact that man also suffers from patriarchy, but masculinism is also a plague. It is really toxic.

How do you think coronavirus will impact the film industry?

It’s hard to say. First of all I don’t consider myself part of the film industry. I don’t shoot much after all. I’m just beginning to be able to make a living out of it. So it’s hard to have a real opinion. I know that coronavirus causes problems in production, with insurance, extra specialized staff… The budget is increasing… But for the moment I’m not facing it.

All I know for sure is that personally I don’t want to film people with masks. I find it very ugly, it’s really sad. It hides emotions. Masks are really dehumanizing.

How influential do you think other directors have been on your style of film making or do you feel that your approach hasn’t been influenced by other directors?

I think we are constantly being influenced. Those who say the opposite do not have sufficient hindsight, sufficient lucidity to accept it. Sometimes it’s about ego. The fear of not being at the origin of something. But we are never really at the origin of the things we do. It’s much more complex than that. When I talk about influence I’m talking about the world around us. It can be a film, a painting, an article, music or an important moment in your life. Everything is influence.

For my part, I am very influenced by Andrea Arnold. Not only in his directing but also in his artistic direction, his choice to work with amateur actors. There’s a real sensitivity that emerges from her films, I feel like I find myself in them. I also like Gus Van Sant very much for the accuracy of his comments about adolescence. And he is a great director, his use of music is very strong and relevant. I admire Jane Campion a lot as well. The Piano is a wonderful film. When I try to find a link between all these filmmakers, I feel I am attracted to a sensitive cinema. I also like neo-realism a lot, but I like it when it is very sensitive. In my opinion, the human being is as important as what defines him and what surrounds him.

What was the casting process for the film like?

It’s a mix of professional and amateur actors. I was incredibly lucky to stumble upon the two twins Robin and Tom, who are exceptional. Robin plays in French series « Skam », he is very skilled. I worked with him on a music video for an EP that I produced (Sirop – Flesh), it’s a true pleasure to communicate with him on an artistic level. All of the actors were attentive, very invested, I was lucky with the casting. Alice Mazodier and Megan Northam work wonderfully together. Alice had this softness and shyness that gave form to the character. There is in any case a lot of the girls themselves in the characters. Concerning Megan, as I said, I wrote the film with her in mind. We had already filmed together for different videos and every time the experience was very strong. She is magnetic and I really like her diction, her way of making the text her own, her timing.

I would also like to mention Nicolas Teitgen, who plays Matthias. He is extraordinary. He had never acted before, I met him at a casting. His brother was doing the casting and he was waiting on the side. I asked him to give it a try. He gave it a shot, having nothing to lose. It was love at first sight. To me, it’s one of the stronger characters of the film. I found out shortly after that he had passed away in a tragic accident. I was devastated. He was an up-and-coming talent. We still talked often on social media. I was waiting for my next project to be confirmed in order to work with him again. I think about him a lot. I miss him.

What was the filming process for the film like?

We shooted the shortfilm in 4 days. One day for the preparation. All the village and my family was here for helping.

For the artistic direction, I was inspired by princess fairytales. Most of which are sexist. There’s the princess dress, the motorbikes as war horses, the knight’s sword that becomes a sabre, the two twins inspired by wicked Disney caricatures, the ball at the castle, the father that becomes a dragon, and the prince, who this time is a girl. The short is based on the colours Pink and Blue. Two colours that are endlessly used for gender stereotyping.  If you look closely, whenever Clara is on screen as the pink dominant, the backdrop will often be a dominant blue. The opposite applies to Marie. This is quite telling in the ball scene. It is used to graphically illustrate that their thoughts are constantly directed towards one another.

Éloise Gilbert was remarkable as head of costume. The contrast between the girls and the other protagonists is flagrant. I put together an artistic brief for each creative group, in order to have a real base to work on. I picked elements that I found interesting and pertinent here and there. Nearly timeless clothing. You would think it takes place in the 2000s, and yet the style is still current.

Director of photography Nicolas Berteyac and I wanted bright colours, something vibrant, sometimes almost surrealistic. We wanted to accentuate the idea of a fairytale, as well as the passion between the two characters that ignites the screen. Clara Della Torre did a stupendous job with the colour grading.

And for the format, I used the ratio 1,33 to lock the character in, to accentuate her constant feeling of suffocation. The cage of human condition.

What has the reception to the film been like?

It was unexcpected. In the beginning, the shortfilm had a hard time being selected in festivals, especially abroad. The first festival to have selected Miss Chazelles was the FIFF at Namur. I have a memorable memory of it. It’s a festival that I love very much, the people are so kind. The whole festival team is adorable. Thanks again to Hervé and Anais by the way. The film won the Arte prize, and was bought by the channel. After this festival, the film was multi-selected. It was to clermont-ferrand the following year, and Megan won the award for best actress. Clermont-Ferrand allowed me to meet producers, to feel a little more accepted by the profession. Then the film has just won a UniFrance award, which is a real consecration. Apart from all that, I also noticed that the audience understood the film’s messages. I have good memories of the questions and debates at the Clermont-Ferrand festival. The meeting with the audience is something really strong.

What do you hope audiences will take away from this film?

Whether you come from a village, a suburb, or elsewhere, you are constantly confronted with your roots. They haunt us, have forged us, for good or bad. There will always be people to teach you good or evil, social barriers, prohibitions that are imposed to us. But what really matters is what is in your heart. The feelings that inflame us, those that can take us very far.

I hope that this shortfilm will give the audience a humble glimpse of how hard it is to be a woman in this world, and even more so as it is difficult to be outside of societal norms. 

What future projects have you got planned?

I’m working on my third shortfilm. This is about the necessity of female solidarity in the face of this male domination. How do we deal with toxic masculinity? How do we change things? The idea of sisterhood is one of the solutions if you ask me.

I’m also working on my second EP (aka Sirop), with some featurings like Aaron Cohen, or Chelsea Reject. I don’t consider myself a musician, it’s purely instinctive, but the music is complementary to my work. I don’t think of one without the other. It allowed me to switch angles.

I am also cowriting a feature film with Nour Ben Salem, inspired by Miss Chazelles. It was the production company Qui Vive! that proposed the project to me. I hope we’ll be able to see it through to the end.

With thanks to Thomas for agreeing to this interview.

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