interview

In Orbit With... Clara & Laura Laperrousaz

TMU: Sunbeat is your third film together. How does it feel to be sibling filmmakers?


L: It makes us much stronger and helps us get things done. When we talk, we often complete each other’s sentence. We’re trying to keep that in check right now (laughter), but that’s exactly how we work on set.


C: We always have the same ideas and vision about projects. There is no conflict. As soon as we have a new intuition, we find out that it often corresponds to what the other thought as well. That makes things much easier for a first feature film.


L: At the beginning of that project, people doubted that we’d always have the same viewpoint, but then they found out it really works that way. What’s great is that we always know what the other one is thinking. We can't talk much during the takes of course, but gestures, nonverbal and telepathic language allow us to communicate. In-between takes, we can debrief actors separately or together.


TMU: Your two latest films, Sunbeat and Embracing the Skies, share similar themes of a sensual summer during which a family secret is being revealed. How did it feel to work on related plot lines across different formats?


C: Both films are about resilience, and are full of light and hope. Although the themes are similar - a couple's past resurfacing in the heart of a solar landscape, between bathing in the river and the kids’ laughter - we treated the subject matter in very different ways. Embracing the Skiesallowed us to test some directions in character development. The mother’s character, for instance, was transgressive: there were moments of jealousy, possession regarding the child. That allowed us to realize that for the feature we wanted a different character arc, a mother that was super sweet gentle and had a symbiotic relationship with her twin daughters.


L: The plot structure was different too: in Embracing the Skies, we started during the crisis, whereas in Sunbeat we wanted to establish the characters beforehand and have time to develop their trajectories. The medium-length of the former allowed us to test things for the feature, including a method to work with children on a movie set.


TMU: Children play a central role in both these films. There is an impressive impromptu feeling in the scenes between the two sisters in Sunbeat. What’s unique about directing child actors?


L: The twin protagonists in Sunbeat are six and have an essential place in the plot line and dialogues, which was the main challenge of the shooting because child actors spend a very short time on set! We wanted the scenes between the twins to evoke the spontaneity and complicity of sisterhood, but at the same time, we had fundamental emotional plot beats and words we wanted them to say. Thus, we had to find a way to make every line sound improvised and heartfelt. Instead of having the twins learn the script, we gave them one line at a time while we were shooting. It was about timing. We had to imagine how the scene would feel when we edited out our own voices in post-production, allowing their faces and their acting to breathe and bring their emotions to life.


C: Originally, we planned to cast sisters (like we are), not twins. Then, when we found these twins, we realized that casting them was even a stronger choice. We quickly saw in their duet the joy and the contrasts we needed, and had already written for between our characters.


Another crucial factor was establishing boundaries between reality and fiction. While writing the script, we talked a lot with child psychiatrists. We wanted the child actresses to be able to tell what happened on set and off set apart, and realize that the emotions of other actors were staged.


TMU: Visually, there’s an enormous contrast between the intimate drama that plays out at home and the sultry summer landscapes outside. Could you elaborate on why you chose to focus on this distinction?


L: The immensity of nature helped us show the children discovering a new world, which also implies a breakdown of usual boundaries, parental control, and prohibition. It was a way to enter a universe that’s marvellous and dreamlike, as well as to build the ominous side of those sunburnt and haunted hills.


We used landscape to stage a relationship with the supernatural. When the mother is contemplating the breathtaking scenery alone, her relationship with nature is immersive, almost sacred. The twins are little witches, doing rituals. The fable-like aspect and growing tension were part of the crucial elements we wanted our feature to capture, and are particularly relevant to us because our next project is a shamanic thriller about two grown up sisters that are healers and have supernatural powers.

TMU: Sunbeat is dedicated to your parents. How important is auto-fiction in your work?


C: The ground of the film was something intimate. The secret, the tragedy of the characters' family was also ours. Our parents lost a child before I was born. But we thought of this as a fiction film, as cinema, with a practice that emphasizes formal and visual aspects. It may seem surprising to people who read our scripts for the first time here, but they’re not just decorative elements, it’s really about laying the groundwork for our directorial approach.


TMU: Settings also seem to play a critical role in your films. How did that come to be?


C: The idea is to bring the audience elsewhere visually. For Sunbeat, we were initially due to shoot in Lozère, France, a place of gorges and plateaus. Then we discovered Portugal during recce, and the country influenced many things, taking us toward fiction and a more substantial break with reality. We adapted the plot line and backstory of the main characters. We let the environment inspire us, creating for instance a scene for a group of patrimonial a cappella singers we met during recce.


Some shots are implicit references to John Ford. This sense of immensity acts as a character throughout the film.


TMU: Last year was marked by the Weinstein scandal and the #metoo movement. Does the debate about contemporary feminism influence your work?


C: We own our feminism. I reclaim my womanhood, and I feel that it’s vital that women’s cinema exists, since female directors are a small minority. That said, I wouldn’t want people to watch our film exclusively as women’s cinema.


L: I went to a sceening where Noèmie Lvovsky, the French director, introduced a film by a young female director. She said that, as a young woman, when people told her about women’s cinema she would be outraged. She felt it was very simplistic to read a film via the director’s gender. Now though, watching that film at 50, she thought: “This is a film by a woman, and it’s great that there is women’s cinema."


C: We don’t necessarily want people to watch our movie differently because of our gender.


Sometimes, during screening debates, we’ve heard that our film is “feminine cinema.” It’s always men who say that. When we ask them what they mean, they say: “it’s very sensitive, we can identify with every member of the family.” There seems to be something that leads them to say that. Maybe it’s because we wanted the characters not to be objects, but subjects of desire.


There’s also another aspect. Being a director is about leadership. As a woman, you could think that it takes something away from femininity or gentleness and turns you into a power figure. Sometimes it was troubling to notice that people don’t consider me as a woman anymore on set because I’m a director. Actors no longer have any kindness or chivalrous gestures for you. Their viewpoint changes. At the outset, it’s very strange; there's something violent in the experience. Working together with Laura is great because I know that my sister will consider me as a woman all along.


TMU: What’s your advice to your younger self?


L: Look ahead. Maintain a sense of freedom. Keep a broad horizon and keep steadily on your course. It’s all too easy to let things mangle you and stop you in your tracks.


C: Believe in your desires. You’ll make things happen despite all the difficulties in a project. Even if you find yourself with no producer, no team, no nothing, if your desires are strong enough, if you feel a vital necessity to complete a project, then you can make it. Let this necessity pervade you, spread through you. Know that you’re strong enough to make it happen.

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