Writer/director Muriel d’Ansembourg has been nominated for a BAFTA for her short film, “Good Night.”FMR’s Kristina Simmons has the pleasure of gaining insight about her acclaimed project.
First and foremost, congratulations on your film! I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I look forward to viewing any future projects. For those that are unfamiliar, what is “Good Night” about?
It’s an intimate portrait of two 14-year-old girls on a night where their childhood innocence is being pushed aside by their awakening sexuality. The film follows Rachel and Chloe on a secret night out in London. Dressed way beyond their years, trying hard to be sexy, they give mixed signals to the men they meet. This doesn’t leave the men untouched and when the boundaries between innocent play and dangerous seduction start to blur the girls find themselves pulled between what they think they want and what they can truly handle.
What inspired you to create these two characters?
When I moved from Amsterdam to London in 2007 I lived in an area with a lot of London nightlife. It was January, and I was amazed by the amount of skin most girls would show despite the biting cold. What struck me was that, on one hand, their outfits were very provocative yet on the other there was something quite naïve and playful in the way they roamed the streets in their ‘stripper-chic’ outfits. Some would be so drunk they would simply lie down on the street with a friend trying to pull them up. That friend however would be equally drunk and eventually end on the floor next to her. Watching this while passing I would often wonder how these girls would get back home in one piece. These nights were full of little scenes like this and I felt there was something there.
I believe that being foreigner at the time made me look at these girls and their situations in great wonder. It got me thinking about being a teenager, how confusing life is and how you tend to make things even more confusing with your actions, desperately trying to belong and be loved. You go through such deep insecurities, hormones turning you up-side down, and I started thinking about how these girls were trying to hide all this underneath way too much make-up, fakery and sexy outfits. You can hardly see the real girl beneath all these layers. Maybe it’s a way for girls to cover up the storm that is going on inside of them.
I also started wondering about the confusion it could generate with the men they encountered. What if men find it hard to tell what age they are and feel this strong longing whilst sensing they might be too young? And what if these girls make them feel it’s okay to take things further in their hunger for adventure. I could see how, combined with alcohol, situations could become blurry and a night out could take unexpected turns. This triggered the idea of writing a script about two young girls who manage to transform themselves from the outside yet are still 14 on the inside.
“Good Night” has been nominated for a BAFTA, and has done well in a variety of festivals. Why do you think this film appealed and registered with audiences?
That is a hard one for me to answer as I can only speculate. Some people have said that they feel it’s an original approach to a coming of age story, as it has a real edge to it and takes thing further than most coming of age films do. It’s not something you watch and shake off as soon as you leave the cinema.
I find judging my own films quite difficult, as I’m so close to them. I might hate the things people love and love things other people hate. But what I can say is that I set out to make a film that has got a heart and real human emotions. With a story that keeps you guessing combined with deeply intimate moments in which you go through every touch and sensation along with the main character. From what I’ve heard, the film leaves some people feeling deeply uncomfortable at times, yet they can’t get themselves to turn away from it. This might sound strange but to me that is a great compliment. I believe people feel a genuine concern for the girls and I hope the film never leaves an audience untouched.
What surprised me most is the age range of the people that could relate to the story, young, old, men, and women. That has made me very happy, as you never know if a film with two young leads will have a wide appeal. A festival programmer who invited Good Night to screen at his festival wrote me something similar in an email. It’s great to hear you can pull someone into a genre they would normally never think of watching. And to be completely honest, if you would have asked me five years ago, I would have felt the same. I have however fallen in love with this genre now as I have discovered it’s potential for drama and that it really doesn’t have to be sweet or immature. It can be incredibly tense or edgy and touch you on so many levels, no matter what age you are. It all depends on how the story is told, and it lives and dies by the truthful performance of the young actors and actresses. That is one of the other things I think might contribute to the appeal of this film, the truthful performances of all the cast.
What are you hoping audiences will gain from watching these two characters?
I hope to give the audience an intimate look inside the psyche of young girls so they can see the world from their perspective. Female friendships fascinate me as they can be a source of incredible support, intimacy and joy. But at the same time this deep connection can be the root of unbelievable pain and distress when psychological manipulation creeps in, and you do find plenty of this amongst teenage girls.
There is an alarming loss of self-esteem in girls once they approach adolescence. They seem to lose their sense of self. It is at that age that girls start becoming aware of having to be feminine and there is a lot of pressure to be liked by everyone and to be attractive and sexually appealing. I believe that during puberty girls would really benefit from developing the skills to know exactly what they think and feel and stay true to this, not just to try to please and be liked. For girls to be affirmed in the sense that there’s more to being a girl than beauty and being sexually attractive, but I often find when I watch teenage girls that that seems to be the message they get from the media that is targeted at them. Being smart doesn’t seem to get girls the appreciation and attention that being attractive does. The last thing I want is to preach or teach with this film. But I do hope it opens up thoughts and questions about some of the things I just mentioned.
I hope people will feel like they entered a very private world accompanying two girls on their personal journey. I mean, for instance, there are two ways of writing a diary, one in which you write it thinking someone will read it eventually and you go into your problems without making yourself too vulnerable, or there is the type in which you are completely honest and frank, you really write down all the flaws, every little naked detail, written for your eyes only, writing from your soul. I hope these two characters display the same openness and vulnerability as an candidly written diary.
Were these characters an amalgamation of experiences from people you’ve met in your life, or was there a single inspiration in mind?
I guess I kind of touched on this already in the first question but I know that when my mother and sister saw the film for the first time they said they could recognize me in the character of Rachel, which really surprised me as I wasn’t aware of this at all when writing the film. It felt like all the characters had wandered into my creative brain and started living there, however at the same time I realize that no matter what you write, even if I were to write a script about a 60 year old retired male astronaut, there would still be elements of me in that character as I guess I will always write from the collection of experiences and emotions in my own life. So each and every character will come from my inner world and carry something of me in them, even if at first it seems we are worlds apart. But I can’t pinpoint any particular people in my life that I based any of these characters on.
How were you able to dwell into the psyche of these two characters?
As I’ve been a teenager myself I can still recall that time of great highs and devastating lows. While writing the film I started listening to young girls on the tube, in the park and other random places. I did at times feel like this perverted screenwriter with huge ears listening in on their conversation, while acting like I was feeding squirrels. I would write down the way they talked, the words they used or little comments they made, which helped me with the dialogue in the film. And I would also ask the two young actresses (Anna Hogarth and Rosie Day) when talking through the script which bits felt truthful to them and which didn’t, and make adjustments accordingly.
Puberty seems to be a time you don’t easily forget. I definitely wouldn’t want to go back to that time now, to have to go through it physically and mentally, however I have no problem writing about it as I get to go back there without having all those emotions and insecurities rush through me.
I was a bit of late bloomer, however as a pre-teen I was fascinated by the stories my more sexually developed peers would share about their adventures with boys. But I always felt that these stories were far more interesting to listen to than to actually experience. I felt I was getting all the good stuff without having to deal with any of the bad aftertaste they were experiencing at times. That’s what stories can do, and in a way films can do as well. You experience something without really having to deal with it in great detail. I would ask question after question, encouraging them to go into great detail. However I remember one day my best friend, who was sexually active at quite a young age, said to me: “Muriel, don’t you think it’s time for you to experience your own adventures instead of asking me all these questions?” I never asked her a question again. In a way I guess that is where some of the seeds of becoming a screenwriter were planted. I enjoyed using my imagination far more than having to deal with the difficulties of life. In my mind I could go everywhere even to the darkest imaginable places without really getting hurt.
Since we are on the subject, I would like to get a little more in depth about your two characters, Rachael and Chloe. There were many observations I made when watching the film, but a couple stood out for me. First, I feel that if this film where about two teenage boys exploring there sexuality, and trying to loose their virginity this film would have been a comedy, whereas with two females it is most certainly a drama. How do you feel about women breaking the confines and norms of society when it comes to sexuality? And for your two characters is it a good or bad thing for them to be testing the waters at such a young age?
It is important to me that the film does not try to push a message on people, so this is a tricky question for me, as I don’t want to start moralizing. I simply want people to go on a journey with these girls, accompany them while having their own thoughts and feelings about it. As we all have our own experiences and backgrounds, what seems good for one person might be harmful for another. And I believe that no matter what, life will always be a rocky ride at times, even if you try your hardest to play it safe and stay out of trouble. And the good thing about this is that we grow and learn from these experiences in some shape or form. It’s about trying to be aware of the things that happen to you, to be aware of what you feel and think, and what you want and don’t want, and most importantly, being clear about it to others. Sometimes I’m afraid that young girls try so hard to please and be liked that they lose sight of what they themselves truly want or don’t want, and then situations become tricky.
Looking at the feedback on Good Night from audiences it seems that there is a lot of concern for the girls which suggests that overall people feel these girls are too young for the situations they get themselves into. But I really want people to make up their own minds about this. I provide them with a situation and they can feel and think for themselves.
Another element I noticed is that there are aggressive forces in the film pushing these characters to face certain insecurities, what were you trying to convey during these moments?
As a writer you look for moments and situations in a person’s life that contain drama. Aggressive forces as you call them, can help in this, as they put characters in situations where they have to take action and actions push a story forward. And their reaction reveals a lot about their character, so in this way some of the insecurities of the girls come to the surface The interesting thing in Good Night is that it might seem at first that the aggressive forces are the men, however at the same time I believe it is fair to say that Chloe, the bolder girl of the two, is the instigator of some of their trouble. So she is part of these aggressive forces.
I remember as a teenager how I would yearn for adventure yet at the same time play it safe and would only go too far when in the company of a friend. When you’re young you seem to lose your sense of danger when you are in the company of a friend, especially if there’s alcohol involved. But there is something to say about feeling young and wild. I believe that when you radiate a sense of adventure and excitement, that you draw certain things and people to you. As a writer, those situations carry great suspense and drama. As I set out to write a story that would keep the audience on the edge of their seats, these aggressive forces helped to generate some of these moments. When facing these aggressive forces you expect things to go one way, however the film often takes another route. I love this sense of surprise.
Were there any particular influences that inspired you when making this film?
I know lots of filmmakers use film references when writing and making a film. Somehow I hardly use other films when writing. Don’t get me wrong, watching films deeply inspires me in a way that excites me to make better films or I get a feeling of “oh how I would love to make something like that!” I’ll have deep admiration for other filmmakers’ sense of style or craft and it motivates me to improve myself. But when it comes down to the actual writing I never find myself using other films in the process. The writing has to come from within, from a very internal, private place that might carry other films in its memory without me being aware of it.
It is only when I have finished a script and start talking to cast and crew members that I start looking for film references to give to them. It gives them a more specific idea of what we are going to do, as a script can often be interpreted in many ways. However, it also feels a bit foreign to me when I look for these references, as other films are their own beings the same way my film is its own being. How can I put them next to one and other and say “it will be a little bit like this but at the same time it will be completely different.”
The films that I used as a reference for the cast and some of the crew were “Somersault” (Cate Shortland), “Fish Tank” (Andrea Arnold), “Water Lillies” (Celine Sciamma), “F**king Amal” (Lukas Moodysson), “The Ice Storm” (Ang Lee), “Innocence” (Lucile Hadzihalilovic). However they were all referred to for different reasons, and sometimes I would only highlight a particular scene for instance. Looking at the list again now it’s interesting to see that four out of the six films were made by women. And speaking of inspiration, now that is inspiring to me: to hear woman filmmakers talk about their craft. Having female role models in the film industry really encourages me and gives me hope.
Thank you so much for participating in this interview, my last question is, after certain accolades and critical acclaim for “Good Night,” are expectations high for your next project?
I hope to find out soon. Things have already taken a sudden leap, looking at the amount of interest the BAFTA nomination has generated. From one day to the next my inbox has been flooded by emails from industry people and agents who want to meet and talk about my next project. It’s nice to be seen and to get these chances. With Good Night I set out to make a longer short that showed I was capable of making a feature and I hope others will recognize this and take a chance with me and my feature project. Things have just begun and I look forward to the future, with all its ups and downs, just like teenage life really.
Thanks again for letting us speak with you, and gaining more insight about this picture!
Photos by Luke Varley