By Tom Ue.
Canadian-born Claire Leona Apps was raised in Hong Kong and Indonesia before relocating to Britain. She graduated in Pure Mathematics at Imperial College and then completed an MA at the London Film School, graduating as a director. For a decade her work has been fuelled by a vivid imagination, desire to challenge people’s everyday perceptions, and a fascination with the moving image. Her writing and directing credits include “Gweipo” (starring Francesca Annis, winner of Best Short at Tiger Far East Film Festival and Special Jury Prize at AFIA Film Festival), documentary “Aceh Recovers” shot in Indonesia and charting the effect of charity work on the post tsunami region (Philadelphia Documentary & Fiction Festival), stop animation “Plastic Love” (Filmaka level winner), “Girl Blue Running Shoe” (Arts Council England funded and shown at the Great North Museum, on BBC1 and at the Cork Film Festival), Ruminate (Starring Rebecca Hall, St. Louis International Film Festival) and a selection of noteworthy music videos. With her production company Dog Eared Films, Claire has established a creative hub in Central London: Dog Eared Studios.
In what follows, we discuss her psychological thriller debut feature film And Then I Was French, starring Joanna Vanderham and Lewis Rainer. In it, Vanderham plays Cara, a university student who modifies her physical appearance in hopes to gain the love of Jay (Lewis Rainer). The film has tragic consequences for all involved. It is listed as a must see at the East End Film Festival by both Little White Lies and Hero Magazine and will be released in early 2017.
Thanks for a fascinating feature-length debut! You have made a number of shorts before this: what were some of the challenges of filming a feature?
I really enjoyed it but it is certainly a different beast. This fictional world comes and hijacks your life for a little while. Writing a feature was a joy; I love having the time to make characters juicy and confusing. More like us. However, nothing can emotionally prepare you for the challenges of a longer, low-budget production. It’s a magical and delusional time where you are fueled by passion, ambition, friendships and the occasional booze binge. The other new experience, not a challenging one, was how long and beautiful your relationship becomes with your editor. I previously edited a lot of my own shorts because they are so consumable. It’s the difference between making dinner for your loved ones and trying to cook a banquet by yourself. You need that editor to come in and breathe the story next to you. I was blessed to work Sahil who really understood the story and me.
What inspired And Then I Was French?
Mainly romantic comedies. It’s an alternative view of films that have the moral where women should alter themselves in order to get the man they always wanted. Does self-alternation to this degree leave you happy? Oddly I started writing the film almost five years ago now, but it seems even more valid in the world filled with validation through social media. For a fairly creepy movie, the moral is simple: try to love yourself for who you are. It’s a big challenge. And it can be an exhausting one for many women because we are fighting against a lot of mucky, thick criticism and a narrow scope for what is deemed successful. We are almost taught to self-loath. The film rotates around this idea of extreme aspiration; constant and non-relenting desire to improve – to reach a “happiness”. This quest eventually becomes our own personal monster.
The tagline, “Don’t Expect a Happy Ending,” evokes some of the humor in the film. The horror seems to lie as much on the pressures that individual characters internalize and the changes that they inflict on themselves as it does on the violence. How do you balance the horror and the laughs?
I’m a massive comedy-phile; my personal relationship with the world requires many references to comedy or stand-up routines. To me humor is about survival. In everyday life, we use comedy as a tool to get through the day: laugh in the face of misery, recover from embarrassing moments, keep are egos inline, et al. For me, drama without comedy rings untrue; a parallel universe where people say super serious stuff and everyone just blinks and agrees. Not that there isn’t something wonderful in that. I’m not so hung up on reality. I once heard Park Chan-Wook (who I’m a huge fan of) say “I don’t feel enjoyment watching films that evoke passivity. If you need that kind of comfort, I don’t understand why you wouldn’t go to a spa.” What a great thing to say! Dry wit against heightening tension of a thriller creates an uncomfortable space. Because it’s just a little bit more true. ‘Is there someone in the bedroom about to kill us? Oh of course not you idiot, hahaha”… But here it is more: “Is there someone in your mind that is about to kill you.”
And between the horror and the realities that the film shows?
And Then I was French essentially is a negative fairy tale. A foreboding story that goes to an extreme to invoke some thought. The realities of the film are in the themes and they are universal ones: beauty being skin deep and living for the person you will be instead of accepting who you are and who loves you right now. And these are issues filling our collective minds and intentions: Just flicking through Instagram can be a bigger horror then anything I can make up. The film also falls into a tradition of women gone crazy horror films: Carrie, Play Misty for Me, Eyes Without A Face. All films I super love. And without giving too much away, I have a little fun with the ‘woman gone nutso’ genre. Once a genre is established it’s like a chord on an instrument: there is music in both playing it and also putting a note out of place.
The film is beautifully shot. The different shots are, in some ways, a reflection of the characters’ mental states. The close-ups juxtapose well with the stylized shots of London. How did you decide on the film’s style?
I am glad you picked up on that. I used different strokes for different characters. As two of the primary characters collide the style shifts accordingly. Cara is locked off and when we move with her we track: still and gliding, detached and distant. The boys on the other hand are handheld and raw: we jump and pick up and lose them. My stories play in my head and it feeds the style in an organic way. Close up and wide shots are my favorite toys – I like being a little too close or a little too far away. There was a lot of attention on this film in particular about colours: we created pallets for characters and built and altered them with the story. It was an important collaboration between me, the cinematographer, the costume designer, and the production designer. To create a genre-twisting film, the fabric required for the outcome needs to be inlaid in the buildup. And I cannot speak highly enough about the fantastic heads of department making it happen. I could tell you a mini story about everything from the colour of a pair of tights to the shapes of oil bottles.
The geographies are so well captured and you are as attentive to the hallways in the different buildings as you are to the natural settings. How did you select the different locations?
I like hallways. Again I’m happy you brought that up. I get as excited by the spaces between rooms as the rooms themselves. The university we got all in one lump, by shooting in the massage university room. We changed this and that to make the colours more uniform but essentially that’s how those spaces look and if you put them in the sense of a thriller you get to analyze them a little more and realize they are pretty weird places.
The London flat we constructed; it’s a little strange flat in my head in a hyper London that needed to be made because it’s not completely true. The cottage is real. I kept on looking for a cottage that symbolized a different kind of life than anything I ever knew. Almost something from Hansel and Gretel. The owner fed me freshly baked cake and looks after bees in the back garden.
The film calls for a courageous cast, and yours is consistently strong. How did you cast the different parts?
Joanna Vanderham is such a wonderful actress and it was such a joy to work with her. So much of the success of this film fell on her shoulders and man did she nail it. The casting director suggested her and the first time I met her my initial thought was: how could anyone believe that this beauty wasn’t happy in her own skin? And then I saw her act. I knew almost immediately that she instinctively had a true understanding of Cara. There is a little Cara in all of us, and Jo has the depth and ability to really pull those bits out and breathe her to life. Once we had Jo, the next bit was getting two handsome, talented actors that also could play brothers. It’s a harder task then you might think. The challenge also is that any man that is anyway close to these guys wouldn’t want to play these guys. So in nature both Lewis Rainer and Tom Forbes are far sweeter then they are on screen.
Did the often very sensual material challenge the actors?
I imagine you are talking about the masturbation scene primarily. That’s the sort of moment that you’re screwed if you commit only partially. Sometimes you have to jump in the deep-end and trust. Joanna and I communicated so well that she knew I would protect her. She committed whole-heartedly and the team worked hard to make sure that she was as comfortable as possible. Then there is a very disturbing scene… Without giving too much away. That was really hard. It was a closed set and everyone in the room was staring at the floor feeling awful in their own skin. Why? Because you know it does happen. Essentially not all of what actors do is going to be fun and easy, because life is not always fun and easy. They know it when they take it on and we just run around them trying to make the process as smooth and emotionally safe as possible. Someone needs to get raw and dirty and they take one for the team in that way. I respect them for it.
Let’s talk more about the story. So many parts of the film are suggestive: Cara’s aunt, for example, is consistently negative. How do you decide how much prominence to give these minor plots?
The Auntie! I love her. She is based off an Aunt of a woman I actually knew. Just always taking a little stab, ‘keeping her in her place’. She represents the world of passive aggressive behavior, saying things that are hurtful in the guise of love, to keep others from growing braver then you. It’s dangerous and common. Cara essentially has an angel and a devil on each shoulder. The auntie on one and Zoe on the other. And it’s the contradiction between the two that pulls her apart. She wants to believe Zoe but she in truth believes the Auntie because she’s just more practiced at listening to that side of her brain.
The film’s characters struggle to separate lust and familiarity from love: Cara, for all her interactions with Jay (Lewis Rainer), does not know him especially well, and Jay is engaged quite quickly. Is there something equally problematic about both lust and familiarity?
Lust and love are confused all the time, in life and in movies. Media is simultaneously a reflection of society and something that has a trickle-down effect into society. There is a self-review of the film as the film is going on. Each character is trying to simplify their love to lust and their personality to caricatures. And wouldn’t it be great if love was as simple as the movies, but it’s not, because movie love is lust. Lust is something about sex, yes, but it’s also something about quick fixes and ticking boxes: “If I get you or have you then I solve something in me.” Cara is looking to Jay to make her a success. Jay is looking to Natasha to make him into this great man like his idols with their picture perfect beauties. Lust doesn’t have a lasting power unless the love kicks in. But it’s just not the stuff that movies are made of… or dreams. All that communication and mutual understanding is less glamorous and requires us to inspect and analyze ourself. The most real depiction I’ve seen recently is Carol insisting that Tandy accepts her discussing her diarrhea on Last Man on Earth. There’s some love right there. Or on a super serious note Amour… bjesus and whoopla that’s some love. This film right here is a film about confusing lust for love. There is a lot of discussion about loving yourself. Enter Zoe.
Joanna Vanderham goes through a physical transformation as Cara. What do you think triggered her increasingly erratic behavior?
Society’s projection of what a woman should be. Low self-esteem and self-loathing. Life. Every magazine you ever look at. Everything you hear about what a woman is or what a man wants. It’s a lot. In this way the world does not look after their women: their lovers, wives, sisters, and mothers. It takes an awful lot of will power to stand up and accept your looks and personality the way it is. With your cellulite, and nose shape, and butt, and snoring and opinions and non-passive personality and and and and…. Cara just doesn’t have the strength to do that. Essentially the general consensus is that women are secondary leads in the male lives. And bit players need to shift their performance for the main act. Cara shifts into what she thinks will make her more acceptable to the man she wants because she needs to feed off his affection. She could finally love herself if she can see him love her. It’s a common trap.
What do you think stopped it in the end?
Unhappiness. It’s an ill-fated plan. It’s cheesy but true: you need to love yourself before you can truly accept love from another person. Cara went through a lot and then realized that she didn’t actually find any acceptance in herself. She just confirmed what she thought. As she says: How will I know if you love me for me? Zoe did though….
What project is next for you?
I’m writing my next feature at the moment, I hope to go into pre-production next year. I’m also writing something for TV.
What is next for the film?
The film is about to screen in Middlebury FF in Vermont and I’m in talks with distributors in the US. It hopefully will be released in America in the next four or five months and then we will take it from there!
Tom Ue was educated at Linacre College, University of Oxford, and at University College London, where he has worked from 2011 to 2016. His PhD examined Shakespeare’s influence on the writing of George Gissing. Ue has held visiting fellowships at Indiana University, Yale University, and the University of Toronto Scarborough, and he was the 2011 Cameron Hollyer Memorial Lecturer. He has published widely on Gissing, Conan Doyle, E. W. Hornung, and their contemporaries. Ue is the Frederick Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Toronto Scarborough and an Honorary Research Associate at University College London.