“I like the idea of an unconscious process, and I don’t really look at myself and ask what I am, but try to tell stories from my perspective,” says director Alice Winocour. Her latest feature Proxima (2019), is a story of a mother and daughter’s looming separation as a year-long mission on The International Space Station nears for French astronaut Sarah Loreau (Eva Green). Preparing for her mission with fellow astronauts, American Mike Shannon (Matt Dillon) and Russian Anton Ocheivsky, she struggles to balance the competing needs of her training with those of her daughter, Stella (Zélie Boulant).
Winocour’s previous feature films include Augustine (2012) and Disorder (2015), and she co-wrote Vladimir Perisic’s Ordinary People (2009) and Deniz Gamze’s Mustang (2015).
Speaking with PopMatters, Winocour reflects on storytelling as a process of discovery, and her obsession towards a physical and sensory type of cinema.
Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you?
It was an unconscious process. I’d studied law and I wanted to be a lawyer. Since my childhood I had been writing stories and I watched a lot of films with my little brother. We were obsessed with films and we’d watch the same film four times a day, or every day of the week. We had a compulsive way of watching movies, even horror movies, and Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960) was really the film of my childhood.
Film was more of a game for me; I didn’t think about it as a job. Then a friend asked if I’d like to do the exam for film school. I did it with him as a game and I didn’t think it would work, but I was successful. So it was not something that I decided on and it’s the same when I write a story — I’m attracted by something and I don’t ask myself why. I discover the world and then the story comes.
Is your approach to treat the script with flexibility, the story an ongoing journey of discovery as you progress to the final cut?
It’s a constant journey, and what’s exciting about making movies is you discover a new world: new characters and people, and yourself as well. You discover things that you didn’t know about while you were writing, and I don’t think you do have to know about it before, it’s to be discovered in the process.
… Sometimes at the end of the process you realise the film looks like the first idea you had in mind, but you have to forget the script when you are on the set, and you also have to involve the actors and let them in.
Speaking with filmmaker Babak Anvari about 2016’s Under the Shadow, he said: “Just a minor adjustment can really transform a scene and so those minor adjustments are how an actor can surprise the filmmaker.” Is a significant part of the filmmaking process allowing for those subtle surprises, which we could describe as organic moments?
What I like about Eva [Green] is she has a strangeness, but at the same time she is an Amazon, in that she has this strength. I thought it was interesting to show a mother [Green’s character, Sarah Loreau] that is also an Amazon. Working with Eva was very inspiring because she has no kids. She was trying to act as the perfect mother, or she was trying to be credible as a mother, and I felt the same as a mother with my daughter. But as Matt Dillon says in the movie, “The perfect mother doesn’t exist.”
We did a lot of rehearsals with Eva and the little girl [Zélie Boulant as Stella Akerman Loreau], and I thought it was moving the way Eva was trying to behave with Zélie. There was a bond created between the two of them and their character looked alike, not physically but emotionally, in that they wanted to hide their emotions. Their characters were both very emotional, but at the same time they feared their emotions.
… The relationship had to be a strong one and the daughter had to allow the mother to go away, but she had to also be a little vulnerable. She had to not be the type of child that would be fed up and cry all the time. The whole film is the different stages of separation, and because the daughter is behaving, trying to also be the perfect daughter, it’s emotional in the end.
How did you employ the camera to communicate the ideas as well as the emotions of the characters?
I’m obsessed by the idea of making the film physical or sensorial, so yes, it’s about the camera, but it’s also about the sound.
The camerawork was very hard in this film because we were shooting in the space centres and military bases. We were like European astronauts and we were training, and we had a special schedule that was very hard to follow. At the same time we had to go through all of those check points to get to the place where we were shooting, sometimes taking hours, and we knew it was hours that we wouldn’t have for the shoot.
Filming in those real places was very inspiring, and of course, I could never have had those sets if we’d had to recreate them. The idea for the film was to be in those unknown places that have never been shown, and we had to constantly adapt the camerawork because of the complicated situation.
For Disorder, my second movie, I was shooting in a house and we were almost in lockdown for two months. We were living together in this house and we had pre-light everything, and so it was much easier camerawork.
Do these experiences offer a transformation?
Once you finish the film everyone should be free to have their own relationship with the film. I’m unconscious of those kinds of things, and of course you’re changing, but you change with everything.