By Tom Ue.
Vladimir de Fontenay’s Mobile Homes follows a young mother (Imogen Poots), her boyfriend (Callum Turner), and her eight-year-old son (Frank Oulton) as they drift from one motel to the next. This nuclear family has been scraping by until they discover a mobile home community which promises an alternative life. De Fontenay’s short films have screened and won awards at festivals around the world and have been showcased in museums and distributed by major cable networks. His short film “Mobile Homes” screened at the SXSW Film Festival and Clermont-Ferrand Film Festival in 2013 and received first prize at the Wasserman Awards – NYU Graduate Film School’s top honor – as well as an award from the National Board of Review. Mobile Homes (2017) has earned An Audience Award in the Athens International Film Festival. In what follows, de Fontenay and I discuss the process of filming Mobile Homes, including the experience of coordinating roosters.
Congratulations on Mobile Homes, your first feature! What led you to write and direct this project?
Six years ago, a mobile home passed by me on a tow track as I was driving on the highway in upstate New York. The vision was striking, and made me think about the different meanings of a home and our changing relationship with it. At the time, I was living in the United States, far from my family and “home.” A lot of personal questions resonated with me. I began writing, and the mobile home became a metaphor for characters that would search for a home in themselves – literally and metaphorically.
During my time in grad school at NYU, I made a short, which later turned into a feature. I felt there was more to it, and I wanted to explore the characters and the true nature of their dilemmas.
There is a kind of rawness to this film: tell us about your cinematographic decisions.
Benoit Soler (the director of photography) and I, both being outsiders in America, wanted to protect our foreign point-of-view. We wanted to film in places that evoked ideas and feelings that we have about America: a place that isn’t our home. In particular, we wanted to capture its infinite space, the variety of its landscapes the architecture.
Our idea was to work from places we would find, adapt to the constraints that came with them, but also to protect our vision and the project we had created of these places in our mind. We worked with a lot of references. Stills from photographers I love (Jim Goldberg, Brenda Ann Kenneally, Mary Ellen Mark, and William Eggleston), but also paintings and films we liked. We shared them with our amazing production designer Zosia MacKenzie and art director John O Regan.
We had a plan for how the colour palette was going to evolve during the film with Ali’s emotional changes. Evan literally changes her world so, every time he shows up, the colours become more saturated. The frame rate changes as opposed to when Ali’s alone with her son. The landscape, the light, and the locations become more desaturated, and we get closer to a more realist monochromatic feel.
We had a similar kind of rule with camera movement. That’s why we alternate between locked off shots to handheld or steady cam depending on the emotions of the characters. Same with focal length and depth of field. We spent three weeks in the grading room with Jacky Lefresne, adjusting colours and texture until the very last day. It was really important that the film didn’t look too clean so we messed around with a lot of different grain filters. We ended up using 35mm grain filters that was pushed two stops.
The film doesn’t dwell on social criticism: it’s ironic (and unfair) that Ali becomes involved in building houses that she can’t afford, yet it’s quite clear that what she did is wrong. Was this your intention from the start?
Ali’s literally building homes after having failed to provide shelter for her own son. As she tries to do it, she’s also rebuilding herself and her family. I find that very often, in life, you’re conflicted and driven to make bad decisions even though opportunities to do what’s “right” stand right next you. Because you’re just human, and deeply and fundamentally flawed. That’s what connects us all.
I like films that make me step into other people’s shoes and simply help me understand them better. Through the cinematic experience of what the characters in the film go through emotionally, I hope you have more empathy for them.
What is your take on the American Dream?
It’s a dream, so it’s up to you to decide to believe in it. What I like about the “American Dream”, whether it’s real in the facts or completely dead, is that it’s an ideal that shapes society in a rather positive way. Maybe I’ve just watched too many Nike ads but I like to think that when you can believe in a dream it becomes more attainable somehow. It’s also a dream everybody’s entitled to have whether you’re born Trump or Cardi B. The idea that everyone can make it in America also allows for second chance, which is so quintessential to the wellbeing of our social fabric. But it’s an idea, and it’s in no way what prevents injustice and inequality. The US is still very much considered a land of freedom and opportunity and the biggest walls will always fail to discourage those who believe in that dream.
Imogen Poots and Frank Oulton were consistently strong as mother and son. Tell us about the casting. How did you cast Frank?
I worked with Susan Shopmaker (a casting director based out of NY I really love). She is the one who brought up Imogen’s name. At the time I was in Berlin for the festival and I saw Knights Of Cups (2015). She was really great in it. Then I saw She’s Funny That Way (2014). It was really great seeing her in these different roles. I had the feeling she could play anything. Then we met and really got along. We started working together, sharing thoughts, music, photos, films…talking about the great detail. And so by the time we met again for rehearsals in NY she had build such a great character already. We fine-tuned and tried things on set.
Callum Turner came later. Imogen and Susan showed me some of the films he’d been in, and I loved him right away. I also liked that he had this previous work experience with Imogen on Green Room (2015). I knew it was going to be helpful for us in terms of making the relationship believable. It helped their backstory too. Callum is so passionate and has so much energy. He came very late in the process, yet he managed to create such a strong chemistry with the kid on screen too. He’s completely dedicated and in the moment.
Frank Oulton we street-casted in a farm in Nova Scotia. I wanted a kid who had never acted before and who could handle animals without being afraid. He came with one of his roosters to the audition.
Let’s talk more about the story. Ali knows, early on, that Evan in not dependable. What attracts her to him nonetheless?
Evan is dangerous, and his plans are somewhat always doomed to failure, but he’s never malicious. He is charismatic, warm, faithful and takes care of Bone as if he was his own son. Because they’re very much in love, she can’t really protect herself from him. Evan’s a fuck up, yes, but he always tries to do his best with Ali and Bone in mind. He’s a very tragic character, I find. I feel a lot of empathy for him.
What, in turn, does Evan see in Ali that makes him seek her out?
She’s strong, funny, faithful, beautiful… They love each other in a very innocent way. Like couples who’ve met at a very young age. She’s also a young mother. And he finds meaning in his own life by helping Ali and her son survive and have fun in situation that can be really harsh.
Evan’s plans are crazy, but so are Ali’s. Are there any ways out for the characters?
I think so. Especially in the second act of the film. Ali could have stayed at the mobile home park, and taken the hand Rob was giving her. She could have gotten every thing sorted out for Bone, gotten a job… But she doesn’t do it. I think, at this point, she’s unable to be “helped” in a way. At the end of the film, things become clearer. She’s understood why she’s living is a threat for her son, and how she could destroy the very home she has and she’s finally ready to move on and do what’s right for Bone.
How does the rooster fit into this nuclear family?
I think animals in film bring a sense of reality and make us more conscious about the kind of actions and decisions our heroes make. Because they are not “innocent,” our characters make choices that have direct consequences on others. Hence the idea to have the rooster, and it being in the family as a mirror, with Bone being the parent to it.
There’s this beautiful scene in The Panic in Needle Park (1971), when Al Pacino and Kitty Winn shoot heroin on the ferry on their way back from Staten Island and the puppy they just adopted falls off the boat and drowns. It’s tragic but, by looking at the innocent animal they’ve just hurt, the characters have to face the loss of their own innocence and get to see where and who they are for the first time.
In some way when the chicken dies in the lake, Bone sees the cruel consequences of his mother’s actions, and it is a warning of what could happen to him next. Hopefully the audience sees it too.
What kinds of research did you do on rooster fighting?
I spent hours on YouTube watching videos of cockfights all over the world. Some videos were shot on cell phones and incredibly gruesome, just impossible to watch. Others make you better understand how, in some countries, it’s embedded in tradition and culture, and it makes you feel uncomfortable and conflicted like with bull fighting in Spain or France or Mexico. I watched documentaries and read a series of articles about police busting cockfighting rings all across the US and Canada. It’s everywhere. I just heard about a case recently in the north of France. We also had a connection in Thailand through my production designer who organizes fights and we were able to get information from him.
Were there specific challenges to filming with the rooster?
So many…. We had one tiny rooster for Frank (Bone character) and about 10-12 fighting roosters for the fight. Our animal wranglers did some research and brought actual fighting roosters to the set for the fight scenes. Some were really big and scary and I had to reassure Frank when he had to hold them. The one he had to handle was so huge he was afraid to take it in his arms. So I had to grab him to show him it was ok. I had actually never done it before and I knew in that moment – in front of the entire crew – I could lose his trust if I showed I was afraid. So I summoned my courage and grabbed the bird. Frank thought, if I can do it, he can do it too, and it went smoothly.
Frank lives in a farm in Nova Scotia where they have hundreds of roosters. When I met him for our first audition he brought one of their roosters in a cage. I knew he’d be alright.
For the filming we covered some of the birds with fake blood. We had rubber on their claws and beak, and the blades were also made of rubber and painted silver. We placed animal wranglers among the background actors to handle their own roosters and make sure it was safe at all times for both the roosters and the actors. I ran very long takes and we would reframe a lot while filming.
There wasn’t real physical contact between the roosters so we had to cut a lot around, but we made sure to have more choreographed pick-up shots of roosters getting rowdy, or pecking at each other. We used longer lenses and slow motion as well as step-printing effects at times to make it look more “real.” The wranglers would blow some air lightly toward them so their feathers would tense.
What kind of future do you envision for Ali and Bone?
I think they’re empowered by the series of choices they’ve made. And that they are stronger to face the new challenges they’ll be facing in the future. They’ve realized that they have each other, and that it’s the only solid foundation you can really build a home on.
What is next for you?
I’m currently adapting Legend of A Suicide by David Vann, a book I fell in love with years ago. It’s about family, home, and survival. I’m hoping to shoot it next year in Alaska.
Tom Ue is Assistant Professor of English at Dalhousie University and an Honorary Research Associate at University College London. He is the author of Gissing, Shakespeare, and the Life of Writing (Edinburgh University Press) and George Gissing (Northcote House Publishers / British Council) and the editor of George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (Edinburgh University Press). Ue has held a Frederick Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Toronto Scarborough.