Director Clermont-Tonnerre makes room for second chances in ‘The Mustang’

This image released by Focus Features shows Bruce Dern in a scene from "The Mustang." (Tara Violet Niami/Focus Features via AP)

Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre creates “The Mustang,” a revelatory film about a hopeless, isolated incarcerated man (Mattias Shoenaerts) who enters into a horse training rehabilitation program.  Gorgeously shot, this evocative and soulful film delves into our penal system as it draws parallel lines between all creatures. Premiering at Sundance Film Festival, “The Mustang” is now playing in theaters. I had the opportunity to talk with Clermont-Tonnerre about the making of this film, working with Mattias Shoenaerts and Bruce Dern, and her hopes for the impact of this film.

Using the vast mountainlands of Utah as a backdrop, “The Mustang” opens with a wild horse roundup – a real roundup Clermont-Tonnerre had to cinematically capture in one take.  “It was documentary style [and] completely unpredictable,” she said. “I came with a very small crew and had two cameras with two different lenses so we could do wide and medium shots.”  The result is harrowing and breathtaking.

This sweeping intensity sets the tone for the film which was supported by the Sundance Institute.  Coincidentally, Clermont-Tonnerre also shot a short film called “Rabbit” which depicted a therapy program at Rikers Correctional Facility.  Both “Rabbit” and her first draft of “The Mustang” were selected by Sundance, but her admission to the Sundance Director’s Lab enabled her to complete “The Mustang” thanks to, as Clermont-Tonnerre said, “… their guidance and expertise, they really helped me to nurture the project.”  

“The Mustang” is Clermont-Tonnerre’s first time in the director’s seat, but she is no newcomer to the filmmaking industry.  “When I started to direct, I didn’t know anything about the techniques. I knew a lot about acting. I knew how to talk to actors and how to collaborate with them because I grew up in a cinephile family. I was very often on set, observing everyone’s work and I watched a lot of films so I felt like I had something instinctive when I came on set for the first time as a director. … I have to admit that my previous life as an actress was extremely helpful to build a connection with actors.  … I have a lot of empathy for actors, they’re so vulnerable and … I always make sure I can create a safe space for them to be able to create. … That’s really a priority for me.”

Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre at an event for The IMDb Studio at Sundance (2015)

Finding the perfect actor to embody the character of Roman was tantamount to the film’s success and she did so by casting Matthias Shoenaerts. He transforms himself from a refined, articulate gentleman into an emotionally broken and hopeless man with a hardened exterior.  Clermont-Tonnerre said, “I needed an actor who had the capacity of [being] very opaque and mysterious, but [who] could also have emotions cracking through the facade. Matthias has extremely explosive and generous emotions but he has this very mysterious look.” She continued, “I really wanted to have this character, this very mysterious closed-off and unreadable character, who then can find himself through the animal and just connect with the emotions which is nature.”

Casting Bruce Dern as the leader of the horse rehabilitation program added levity to this harsh environment.  Clermont-Tonnerre recalled Dern’s extraordinary performance in “Nebraska” and after meeting with him, he exemplified not only a father figure, but a man who could read others and had a sense of humor.  She said, “When I sat down with Bruce Dern, he had something so warm and so funny. He said, ‘This is a great character, but I’m much funnier than him!’ … He had all these jokes and [he] improvised many of the lines and he customized it. … He tailored the character to himself … and sometimes he would just surprise me and he loved that. He would just laugh after every take … It was a very joyful set when he was there.”

Clermont-Tonnerre brings also brings a sense of reality to the film by casting inmates who were once a part of this program.  Thomas Smittle shines in his role and she fondly recalled the progress he made in the two years that passed after first meeting him.  In fact, she shared that he had just been released and working with horses, feeling somewhat lost. She then wrote the screenplay with him in mind to play Tom. “I was so moved by his charisma and also this broken man [who] two years later was much more confident.”  She showed him the script and he was now ready to be involved in the film. She added that having these men who had been imprisoned and a part of the program “was invaluable” in the film, adding a sense of reality, knowledge, and authenticity.

The story itself is an emotionally beautiful and cinematically stunning film, and Clermont-Tonnerre hopes that the film’s message will enlighten those who see it.  “I really hope this film will bring awareness of rehabilitation and the idea of a second chance,” she said. “I hope that people can just understand that prison is not a statement that a man should not be defined by his crime, but any man is capable of empathy…”  She, of course, talked about the exemption of those who are incapable of this due to a psychological disorder. “I feel like education is the key… animal therapy or gardening, there are a lot of therapies that actually exist as programs and they really work. I wish that those programs could be expanded.”

The film brings light to a dark situation, reminding us of the need for humanity and compassion as we look at our prison environment and goals of rehabilitation.  This may be Clermont-Tonnerre’s first time in the director’s seat, but it won’t be her last. From seasoned veterans like Dern and rising stars like Shoenaerts to newcomers like Smittle, Clermont-Tonnerre is comfortably seated as a director.  She brings light to not only this subject but to the world of filmmaking.

© Pamela Powell (3/14/19) FF2 Media

Matthias Schoenaerts in The Mustang (2019)

Featured photo:  Bruce Dern in a scene from “The Mustang.”

Photo credits: (Tara Violet Niami/Focus Features via AP)

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