Interview with Estelle Artus, Director of According to her

Copy Editing and Posting by Sabrina Hirsch

This review is part of double feature on the film According to her. Please check out Danielle Winston’s review of the film.

According to her is a female-driven drama about a woman who chooses to leave her successful career as a concert pianist to raise her newborn son instead of hiring a nanny. Various points of view are covered in the film, which gets the audience thinking about who we should trust. Tell us what drew you to this particular subject for your first feature film. What motivated you to tell Veronica’s story?

The context of According to her is loosely autobiographical. I moved from Paris to New York in 2007, leaving behind my friends, family, and a career as a professor of visual arts at Sorbonne University. I made this decision only one year after having been tenured, which made it even harder to make because, in this case, there is no going back to a highly coveted position. I am not an immigrant. I just went from one big city to another, and if you consider my career from the strictly financial point of view, moving to the US was a loss. On the other hand, I was able to exchange my career for my passion, filmmaking, and raising my son.

I had no idea what having a child meant and I could have never imagined that I could go from being a very career-oriented person to being a totally devoted mother. Just imagine a woman with a Ph.D. and grand artistic ambitions who, at a time when she should have been building most of her career, decides that taking care of her child is more important. And it wasn’t even a decision, more like a revelation. It was literally like falling in love.

But during these years of being a full-time mom, I was also observing women with small children around me: how they compromise, how the ones who go back to work feel guilty while the ones giving up their job become socially transparent and dependent of their husbands, how they are always exhausted because they are asked to be three people at once: a mother, a worker and a wife, which is virtually impossible, how the husbands react to that and sometimes couples break because the stress is so hard to bear. And soon it became obvious to me that I had to make a film about it.

Director and writer Estelle Artus

Director and writer Estelle Artus

Your lead actress Irina Abraham did an excellent job in the film. Can you talk about casting and how you came to cast her and others?

I made the casting of According to her myself and I realized too late that posting on professional websites for a ‘young Russian woman’ was a huge mistake. I received hundreds of submissions of very young, very scantily dressed actresses, who were ready to do pretty much everything to be cast. Irina was the opposite of that with her air of saying ‘It won’t work so I don’t care’. She also came to the audition with her son in a stroller, and all of a sudden Veronica was in front of me – although, as I learned later, you should never copy nature in film and it was impossible for her to be an actress and a mother at once. The rest of the cast was much easier to find as most of them had to be French. There aren’t that many French actors in New York and they all more or less know each other so everybody brought their friends. In this case the community factor was a great help.

All of the characters in the film are French, except for Veronica, who is Russian and seems to be an outsider. What made you choose to have her be from Russia?

Not all the characters are French, you still have an American music critic (Howard Wieder), a Turkish nanny (Michelle Pichon), an American painter (Lucas Rainey), and a Canadian poet (Jean-François Poirier). So in fact, it’s very cosmopolitan. As for Veronica she could have been from Japan or India or anywhere else. The exact place of her origin is not important. What is important is that she is a foreigner. I chose Russia because, for a first film, I wanted to work with what I knew well and not add the hardship of having to research my subject. I am a French born person living in a Russian community in New York. It sounds a bit crazy, but it’s very common in this city. New York is so much community-based that even if it’s a not a nationality that defines your community, then it will be a social status or an age group – just look at Williamsburg! So in a way, every New Yorker lives inside a community. What’s a community? A little world that both protects and encloses you and According to her is a study of a community’s mechanism.

In this, Veronica is a bit like the character of Jurieu in Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game: she is the outsider, the one who disturbs a social microcosm. More than everything else, it’s the language that makes her foreign. This is why I choose to have three languages in the film. Renoir also took risks when he gave its lead role to Nora Gregor. He chose her because of her accent (she was Austrian). In According to her, Veronica speaking Russian to her son is ‘what separates’. What ‘brings together or separates’ is at the core of my film. Of course it echoes what I saw not so much in New York, but in France, where segregation is a matter of culture and language more than in any other country in the world.

In According to her you experience three levels of separation that are present both in the structure of the film and in the narrative. Every great movie has a shape. Most of the time we don’t perceive it. Still, this shape or structure is what makes a film hold, much more than a good story or a smart edit. The idea of a ring or a circle, and how you can open it to include an external element shapes the film. According to her is a circle, in a circle, inside a circle. Think about a stone thrown in water – an image that is part of the film, creating circular waves. The first and smallest of these circles is Veronica with her son Keoshka. It takes only two to make a circle. The second circle is Veronica’s husband, Paul, and his French community composed of wealthy expatriates: Adele, Jacques, Amanda, Gael, Romain… The third circle is New York City, its inhabitants, and by extension the audience. Each of these circles has its own language – respectively Russian, French and English, and they don’t communicate well. The problem, and therefore the narrative, arises from the fact that there is no synchronicity between these three circles. Each ring turns at its own pace, with its own time, and when pressure to include one ring into another happens, the mechanic as a whole becomes seized.

Ivann Prunier-Vechio, Irina Abraham, and Pascal Yen-Pfister

Ivann Prunier-Vechio, Irina Abraham, and Pascal Yen-Pfister

New York City is a character in the film, and lushly shot. You yourself are French. What made you set the film in Manhattan? Other than the visuals, how would this story be different if it were shot in Paris?

I’m glad you felt it because this is something I really strived to achieve. Saying that I love New York would be an understatement. For a filmmaker this city is an endless joy. Of course you have to be careful not to fall into clichés, and you must invent a ‘new’ New York every time you shoot. For According to her I wanted the city to be friendly. When you have a small child you do spend a lot of time outside, and you start to see the city differently because you create rituals between you, your child, and the places around you. Maybe one of the first roles of a mother is to render the space around her child ‘intelligible’ to him. This is why the outside, the city, is so important. I always liked filmmakers who shoot in places where they have strong ties: Linklater in Austin, Almodovar in Madrid, Jeff Nichols in Arkansas. If you shoot in a place you love, it shows in your film.

Could According to her have been shot in Paris? Definitely not. Paris is beautiful, but cold, and in many ways much less open and welcoming than New York. If you think you have seen Paris because you spent time walking in its street, you are wrong. Most of Paris is hidden behind its walls and only very remotely accessible to tourists. What you see when you go to Paris as a tourist is a glossy surface, the jewelries of a very beautiful ‘demimondaine’. It can take years for Paris to open its doors, and usually she does it when you stop caring about her. Paris really is the bourgeoisie ‘femme fatale’ type of city. On the other hand, if Veronica were living in Paris she wouldn’t be as lonely as in New York. When I was living in the XVIII arrondissement, I felt that Paris was just one big communal apartment. It was hard to not get entangled in a conversation with perfect foreigners simply because there is less space between people – try to have an intimate conversation in a Parisian cafe! Eventually contacts are much easier. In Paris, Veronica would have made friends within a week and have two lovers within a month. 

You hail from the art world, which is evident in your picturesque directing style. What drew you to making several short films and eventually a feature? Which filmmakers have inspired you in this journey?

For a long time I was a filmmaker without knowing it. When I was a child I had two  obvious talents: drawing and writing. After high school I choose fine arts because I felt it was a more ‘open place’. I had this fear of being put in a little box, catalogued, locked in a profession that was not me. This fear endured until I made According to her. At the Beaux Arts school I learned to paint and sculpt in a very traditional way, then I went to Sorbonne University where I both worked as an artist and studied art history and philosophy. During this time I discovered the booming contemporary art world.

I exhibited my own work as well. I made video installations and several short films that were screened in galleries and museums. Filmmakers should look closely at what happens in contemporary art. It’s impressive what artists such as Doug Aitken, Douglas Gordon or Eija Liisa Ahtila are doing. There is a whole world out there which makes you realize what a ‘film’ can be beyond the theater screening. During these years I also watched a lot of classics and the directors that influenced me most are Bresson, Buñuel, Pasolini, Godard, and Antonioni. The idea of making a feature came after a long stretch of creative hiatus. I think the desire to make a feature grew up very quietly when I was taking care of my child. When I started to write it came very fast and everything fell in place easily. Finally, I could use my writing skills and my talent as an artist in a form that made me feel, for the first time in my life, whole as a person.

Vincent Verdi and Nathalie Bryant

Vincent Verdi and Nathalie Bryant

My favorite scene in the film is where Amanda and Veronica both break out in song at the dinner table. So much is percolating beneath the surface in that scene. It’s like a wildly boiling pot that oozes all over us. Talk about directing and writing that scene. Was it different on the page than it was when you shot it? Were the actors given any freedom to improvise?

I don’t give actors the right to improvise. But if they take this right themselves, meaning if they feel strongly enough about something to do it differently, I let them do it. I know that if they take this risk then it’s almost always for the best. I give them a bit more freedom with their lines because I want the words to ring true but that’s pretty much all. The most important thing in the director/actor relationship is trust. Actors love being given directions, some more than others, it’s your job to understand to what extent. Problems arise when actors don’t really know what they want, which, in fact, can almost always be translated as ‘don’t know how good they are’. For example, Irina wanted more directions but whenever I was giving them she would reject them. I quickly understood that she didn’t need more direction, she just needed reassurance. I think what unsettled her at first was that I don’t follow a known method: I don’t do character studies, I don’t spend hours talking about a character before shooting simply because I think that the character is not there yet anyway. It’s the job of the actor to create it while we are shooting or on their own time. I, personally imagined Veronica as a much lighter and merrier character. Irina played it differently and if, at first, I was a bit surprised, I let her follow her way. Pascal Escriout managed to create a very enigmatic character that I didn’t anticipate at all, and who is much more interesting than the one in the script. Nathalie Bryant also made Adele more touching than in the script. One of my biggest joys is to be surprised in a good way by an actor.

A lot of people don’t realize how much in the dark a director is at the beginning of filming. It’s like sailing by night in high seas, you don’t see anything and everybody relies on you. What makes a director is not that he or she gives direction, it’s the ability to step in the dark and find a path while giving others a feeling of security. In this, there are only two things that help you: your script, which is literally your compass, and the inner light, which is the vision you have of your own film. I think actors feel that. They feel if there is someone at the helm.

Of course it’s not because trust is essential that you share everything. The scene you are mentioning is identical on paper and there was no improvisation, but in this case I didn’t tell Irina an essential piece of information, that Eloise Eonnet (Amanda) is not only an actress but also an opera singer with a very professional command of her voice. What I did is that I skipped rehearsal for this shot, and I asked Eloise to sing first, although I made the DP, Steven Latta, point the camera on Irina. When Irina heard Eloise singing so beautifully a range of emotions showed in her face: she had to sing right after and be up to a part, it was awfully hard. But at this point I knew her enough to anticipate that she would react with pride and sing fiercely, which she did. That way we got the reactions of unease and surprise just right. The first take was by far the best. On set, what you don’t say is as important as what you say.

Can you talk a little about the process of raising money to make your first feature as a writer/director? How long did it take to get the film off the ground? Did you first produce the film in France or the U.S.? How receptive were investors to making a female-driven story, without big-name actors and a first time feature writer/director?

About raising money, I had this little voice telling me: who are you to ask for money without giving guaranties? Would you be able to make a good film? So I didn’t take it lightly, because making short films does not help to understand if you will be able to make a feature. What is it 90 minutes? You can project and understand visually what’s 5 minutes, maybe 10, but beyond 20 minutes time starts to have its own fancy. Again like a boat trip, you know that you can cross a small river, but crossing an ocean is another story.

To overcome my fears what I did is that I secretly started shooting. Only once I had couple of scenes, I felt reassured and I went out to raise the whole budget. I raised the budget both in France and the US at the same time, and it went pretty fast because it was mostly people who already knew me who financed the film. And I think, just like during the shoot, it is also a question of trust. People couldn’t know how good the film would be, but they knew I would finish it. I also put my own money in, and I think it’s normal, and even good, for a first film.

Pascal Escriout and Eloise Eonnet

Pascal Escriout and Eloise Eonnet

What advice could offer to female filmmakers who’ve made shorts and are embarking on getting their first feature produced?

I have only one piece of advice for male and female filmmakers alike: communicate with the filmmakers you admire, even better if they’re dead. For me, the hardest thing in making a first film was loneliness. I knew nobody from the film world when I started, and I wasn’t fresh from any film school, meaning that I didn’t have classmates eager to help. I really had to start from zero, posting crew calls on professional websites and making bets on people I absolutely didn’t know. It was a ‘hit or miss’ exercise but one good crewmember will in turn bring other good people on board. In this case, Steven Latta was a good help.

My biggest disappointment is that I always imagined a cast and crew like a family but it’s not at all what happened. Everybody is busy in New York. Most of my cast was working on other projects simultaneously and a lot of crewmembers, even at key positions, were just rendering a service. Since I was doing both the producer and the director job it was disheartening how lonely it felt. During the whole shooting and editing I had nobody to talk to. So what I did is that I kept talking in my mind with the filmmakers I admire. I would say: listen Robert (Bresson), what would you do for this scene? How would you bring this girl to say her lines right? Michelangelo (Antonioni), come over, what do you think about this point in the plot? Isn’t a bit too obvious? And these guys must be bored because they never failed answering. I’m half joking but what I mean is that in the many hours of despair that await you, always go back to that: the films you love and the directors who made them. If you feel you are part of them, you will make your film.

This is for the mind, for the rest try joining filmmakers groups – and since you asked about women filmmakers I would suggest the Film Fatales and NYWIFT and network as much as you can at events such as the IFP film week or festivals near you. Then go back watching films.

There has been a lot of talk lately about the female gaze. According to her is told entirely from a female perspective. Do you believe this was a film that could only have been told by a woman, if so why?

When I did the cast and crew screening of According to her a lot of people came to me and said: ‘This is a great subject, I never saw it on screen before’, and I thought: ‘How is it possible? How can it be that what awaits at least 80% of American women which translates literally into 40% of the population out there, is not more on screen?’ So if what you call the female gaze is: ‘a narrative that few men would bring to screen simply because they don’t have the same experience’, then yes. But I don’t like this expression: ‘the female gaze’, because it’s something that divides. For me, of course a man could have told the same story. And yes, most likely he would have told it differently, but if it was another woman it would also be different.

The only thing you need to write a story or a role is to love your subject. I have a very strong woman leading role in According to her but it’s not an ideological choice. In fact, it never came to my mind that this was something special. I needed a character to be a mother and it’s just not yet possible for a man. Jokes apart, I feel I could write more about why I will never use the expression ‘female gaze’ about my work but to keep it simple, I believe that when you create, your gender doesn’t count because at this moment you are creating for the whole of humanity. When I film, I am a woman, a man, a street, a dog, and the chair where you are seated; I am all that because I need to feel each part of my film. What interests me is not a male or a female gaze, but an individual point of view on the world, which relates to the whole of humanity.

I think you did a fine job creating complex female characters in turmoil. You recently mentioned receiving a strong reaction after screening the film, from an audience member who felt the film was anti-feminist. Do you identify as a feminist and see this as a feminist story? If not, tell us about that. Did this particular woman’s reaction surprise you?

No. I guess what can be unsettling in According to her is that not only is there no answer to the riddle, but nobody is right or wrong. It’s complex, layered, and it doesn’t impose a pro- or anti-feminist point of view. I think this is what angered this woman. She reacted as a lot of people with strong agenda react, by reducing what she saw to a dual world: if it’s not pro feminist then it must be anti feminist. Well I’m not like that and neither is my film. My film’s two leading characters, Veronica and Adele, are like two side of the same coin. I even made this explicit by filming in one scene the profiles of the two actresses in mirrors. But because I wanted to avoid a duality, I added the role of Amanda along with two small roles: the Russian mother in the street and the nanny. Then it’s not a mirror anymore but a prism, and this is where some people get lost.

The lady who felt my film was anti-feminist saw only one facet of the prism. She accused us of showing, in a positive light, a woman who chooses to take care of her child, but in fact the film can also be interpreted as a warning for stay at home mothers. This lady said that her generation fought for women to be able to go to the work place, and I’m grateful for that. I’m also perfectly aware of the current controversy touching Hollywood’s studios and of the disconcertingly low numbers of women directors in general, but this is not my main concern. In the work place, including the movies, there would be no differences between men and women if not for the child. It’s not so much the narrative of ‘what being a woman’ that is changing in the western world, but the narrative of ‘what’s being (or not) a mother’. And what interested me is that the figure of the mother inherited from a religious view of the world – the holly mother – is being torn apart. Is it good or not? I don’t know. What will replace it? I don’t know. But if I shot Irina in a blue dress in front of a blue star studded wall it was essentially to echo medieval paintings of the virgin (the religious view) and announce the amazing clash between values that awaits any new mother.

Irina Abraham

Irina Abraham

Without giving anything away, I will admit that the film’s end took me by complete surprise. Did you always have this specific ending in mind when writing and then shooting the film, or were there other alternative directions you thought to take the film’s conclusion?

We shot an alternative ending where Veronica wakes up and says that she’s going back to playing the piano. But despite multiple takes it never rang true. For me it was an indication that the film didn’t want one more scene. So I didn’t add it in the final edit. In my point of view the ending is open to interpretation but not everybody thinks so. A big part of the audience, and surprisingly a huge majority of men, are shocked by the ending. Why? And why men? It is likely cultural: when I showed the film to friends in France nobody reacted, possibly because a lot of French films don’t have a traditional happy ending.

The other answer, which I like less, is that this reaction is gender-based. Men have hard time seeing a figure they love – a mother – going down. I think people take Veronica’s meeting with her own mother as an indication that exceed what I imagined. In fact I wanted this scene to close the circle. And the way I did that is that the first and last word you hear in the film are the same: ‘mom’. Look at this amazing word… it’s a palindrome, it’s the buckle in the belt, it’s the point where the film opens and closes.

What would you like people to take away from According to her, after they’ve seen it?

Making a film is a discussion with yourself and the rest of the world. In a true discussion you never know what your interlocutor will take away at the end. What I took away from it, is much more love for people around me. In some cases I used traits of people I know in order to create some of the characters, and this made me feel closer to them. Because Veronica is the figure the most similar to me in real life, I didn’t care that much about her, but I was very concerned by Adele. I really wanted to ‘save’ Adele, meaning to make her likable for the audience. I’m glad Nathalie Bryant avoided making her a caricature of a French bourgeoisie. I personally feel much more attached to Adele although she is the character which is the further away from me. So the film helped me to understand and like people very different from me

Tell us what you’re working on next. Any plans for future projects?

Making a second feature is much harder than a first. Now you know what kind of craziness it is and how small the chances are to get exposure at the end. My main hope is that According to her will lead me to a great producer. I can’t go on making films while talking to the dead; I need some concrete help on the production side. If I find this person then I’m sure I will be able to transform the story that keeps bothering me for the last three months into a second feature. This new film will be much more ‘American’ and the word that comes first to my mind to describe it is ‘western’. Except that it will be a New York western, meaning that I will use the wild side of the city as a set. So let’s call it an urban western, action based, raw, and with less dialogue than in According to her. It will also be much darker than According to her, the kind of darkness you can find in Dostoyevsky or Goya. There will be two very strong leading roles, including one really beautiful role for a woman between 40 and 50, and, as I learned my lesson, I’m looking to work with at least one name cast.

If you are interested you can like the According to her Facebook page where I will post soon about this new project.

Check out Danielle Winstons’s review of the film and the film’s website. You can also visit Danielle’s profile.