Interview: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre and Matthias Schoenaerts Discuss Prison Reform and their Film ‘The Mustang’

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One of the dozens of films that premiered at last month’s Sundance Film Festival was “The Mustang,” from director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre. Five years ago, she took her short film, “Rabbit,” to the festival. Learning about pet therapy programs in correctional institutions, de Clermont-Tonnerre was inspired to develop and write “The Mustang.”

“The Mustang” tells the story of Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenarts), an inmate at a Nevada prison. Roman finds himself part a program that rehabilitates inmates through training wild horses that are sold at auction.

The film also stars Jason Mitchell, Bruce Dern, Connie Britton, and Gideon Adlon.

While at Sundance, I had the opportunity to sit down with both Matthias Shoenarts and Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre to discuss their work. Please enjoy these conversations.

Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: I know it’s been a busy day for you. Where would you like to start?

Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre: I have so much to say. One thing is, I don’t know if I’m going to have so much passion for any other work that I’m going to do. This project brought me so much joy and passion. So much knowledge that, myself, I feel like I grew up with this project. I became a better person. By going really deep into researching, exploring character study and tragic stories and listening to a lot of inmates. Arc stories. Anger and violence, versus the nature of the horse, animals. Getting into those invisible dialogues between men and horses. Observing the body language, the physicality of them trying to build respect and trust. And eventually commute into this training and listening to each other. I like the silence of it. There’s no words. No judgment. It’s just visual, and sensorial, and physical.

KP: There are so many moments where there’s no dialogue. It’s just silent and you get to feel what Roman, especially, is feeling, and having these moments with the horses. What was your thought process as you wrote those scenes?

LC: It took me a long time to figure out what was a good script. The first draft was on the surface. I didn’t have any research. I was just trying to write a simple story in prison. I was not portraying that much viscerality. What really changed throughout the draft was the point of view. I felt much more distant. The point of view was much more omniscient because I didn’t really know.

As soon as I got really deep into it and researched and immersed into it the point of view shifted to be a really strong and tight point of view of one character. It was more general, and it became much more specific. It was still about a man, but there were other characters that I got rid of. I kind of gained in simplicity. There were a lot of plots that were unnecessary. I was scared to be so simple. At the end, after everything, I thought this is so beautiful, the simplicity of just this connection. So pure and I got rid of a lot of drafts of a lot of scenes. It was a very short script at the end. Because I knew that it was so much visual and so much time to create those moments that it needed as much space on screen as on paper. I got to be confident and to really get rid of a lot of parasites that were artificial and unnecessary. It took me a long time.

KP: It really is beautiful, visually. There’s so much to enjoy. What were some of the conversations you had with your cinematographer, Ruben Impens?

LC: I needed to have someone who had an immersive camera and sensitive enough to capture the subtle moments between the horse and the man. I needed to have their very light equipment and a loose camera to really adapt to the unpredictable movement of the horses and the men, and this dance. I wanted, really, a dancer. Someone who could dance with his camera, who could really do this choreography of horse trainer, horse, man, and camera. Ruben Impens was someone I wanted to work with for those qualities. I knew he was someone that was immersed and had this poetry and sensitivity that he knew how to angle it and fit the camera into this dance. And also that was essentially for the outside, versus inside which is much more rigid, much more static, much more claustrophobic. And I needed to have this balance between indoor and outdoor that creates a kind of vertigo. Just being in and out, in and out, but still out, but still in. That was the camera language they set up.

And the texture of it, it’s very natural, all the dust and sand that’s there, the color is the color of this explosive nature. Added blue and the orange, that’s the inmates’ color, but that’s something I took the liberty to add the two colors. Usually it’s only blue or only orange. I wanted to have this kind of color code and I thought visually, this bright blue and bright orange in this washed out landscape was very standing out, so that’s something I wanted to add.

KP: It really does give you a sense of how confined these guys are when they’re inside and how free they are outside. Even though they’re still inmates–

LC: Apparent freedom.

KP: Yeah.

LC: It’s kind of like they’re breaking their psychological prison.

KP: How did you cast your actors? They are so specific. What was the process like?

LC: Luckily, this subject drove people’s passion and acceptance toward these characters. So everyone that’s on the film responded extremely quickly, and with huge personal need to tell this story. There was a need to tell this story that I shared with all the cast and I think most of the crew. I never felt it was something like, “Okay, why not?” It was a strong decision. It’s passionate.

Mathias was the first one to come on board. I was looking for this character in my head because I was writing it. It was a ghost, you know? He was on paper, but it was like who is Roman? Who is this face and this body language? I met Matthias. I knew his work. Thought he had something special and when I met him, I could see so much emotion. He’s always on the edge of emotion. So vulnerable and it was obvious. It was immediate. And such a relief. I found my Roman Coleman, this Matthias. And Matthias’ involvement was very precious because he came with me to the prison. He took the time to really observe and study, and got passionate. He wanted to know everything about it. So yes, that was a wonderful collaboration.

Same for Jason Mitchell, who also for very strong personal reason needed to tell this story. His past was kind of close to this field.

Bruce Dern, same. I love the fact that he’s a horse trainer that cannot ride anymore because of his age and because he’s fragile physically. There’s something beautiful about this man who trusts so much these men, who wants to give them the tools to be a man, to be a father. To be a good father. And, actually, he understood so well. He knew about horses, he was a rider himself. He has a house in Nevada, so he brought a lot of those, and sense of humor, also. He was like, “I love this character because he’s funny and I understand him, and a scene can be funnier.” And I was like, “Welcome on board.” And he brought so much sense of humor.

Connie Britton was amazing. She was very involved. She spent time with my friend, the therapist who works in a prison. They had a great conversation and Connie loved listening to people and to be immersed into an authentic world.

Gideon [Adlon], I discovered in an audition.

KP: She’s great.

LC: Oh, she’s wonderful. She also was like, “Oh, I understand this character. My dad wasn’t always around and I feel that.” It takes a lot of bravery to give yourself and to give a very vulnerable part of yourself to a character, and I think she really boldly did it and tried to be very modest about it. I thought when I was doing the audition, there’s so much honesty about what she did and what she’s doing. So much honesty, so much truth.

A lot of former inmates are in this too. Thomas Smittle, a Native American. Tom, I wrote the character for him. I met him when he was just released from this program. He spent fifteen years in this prison in Nevada. He became a horse trainer now. A very successful horse trainer. I met him like five years ago. He was still freshly out in the world, figuring out what he was really going to do. And he kept fighting to work with horses and he’s now working with horses. He first was like, “I’m not an actor.” I was like, “You don’t need to do anything. You just have to be yourself.” I was so excited that I pursued this idea. I needed to have this wonderful, charismatic man that had this kind of past. When he says goodbye to the horse at the end of the film, that’s something he had to do for real. So he didn’t have to do anything. He’s very happy with the film and that he could participate.

KP: What do you do now that this five year journey is over? How do you fill that?

LC: I know, I feel like an orphan. I’m not saying good bye to all those research programs. I want to be in association, do some volunteering. I want the people who helped me to see the film, so I’d like to organize a tour of screening the film for them. I’m doing, in partnership with my producers, a book. A portrait of men, horses, the prisons, and the wild horses. All the benefits go like half for the prison and half for the horses. I’ve been helped by those men. I’ve been helped by those people around and I want to give back. And if that subject of the film can help a little bit to raise awareness and maybe change something in the justice system, that would be a dream. If I can still work and be helpful, that’s what I want to do.

KP: There’s a lot of focus on women directing films, and trying to increase the percentage with the 4% challenge. What has your experience been as far as being able to get films made and being taken seriously as a female director?

LC: It’s funny because I could see the explosion of this movement of needing female directors and fighting for it. And four years ago when I was at [Sundance], which is ahead of all the festivals in the world because this one is really focused on inclusivity and diversity. But still, four years ago it was not the same. Still  there was a big focus on the men. Today, I’m so proud of the festival direction to give voices and opportunity to female filmmakers. It’s 40%, not 50-50, but it’s really improved in the years. I wish Europe would do the same. Cannes, Venice should be that open. I see now in meetings, there’s a lot of interest in stories told by women. And it’s a very exciting moment to be part of it and to keep gathering. I did a female panel with wonderful female actresses, screenwriters, filmmakers. And there was so much solidarity and love and kindness between each other. We feel, all of us, like we’re part of a very important movement that’s going to help future generations. It’s still not completely equal, but it will be. I’m confident.

Matthias Schoenarts has worked in film and television for a number of years. Some of his credits include “Left Bank,” “Suite française,” and “Red Sparrow.” He felt particularly drawn to “The Mustang,” which is where we began our conversation.

KP: What were your thoughts when you first read the script?

Matthias Schoennarts: Of course there’s an obvious relevance. There’s an obvious urgence. It’s a very present theme. There’s an emotional quality to it, there’s a violent quality to it. And all of that together, and the challenge the character offers. It’s quite something to reach out for, that space. It’s something. It’s frightening and it’s interesting. But it’s especially the importance of what I think the story tells. It’s rehumanization through animals. Rediscovering who you are through the sincerity of an animal. Basically.

KP: What’s something you learned while preparing for the role? 

MS: There’s many things I’ve learned. Or that I rediscovered. Things that you know but that you relearn sometimes. It’s important, especially in the prison industry, to develop these programs. There’s a reason that people like Jay-Z are investing $50 million to stimulate the prison reform program. Jane Fonda has been on it for many years. Trying to stimulate change. Most of the penitentiaries… We visited four facilities. Maximum security prison facilities. We spent hours and hours talking to inmates. Some lifers, sometimes people that had a shot at parole. We went to San Quentin, which is like a model facility in terms of rehabilitation programs. They have many, many programs that inmates can tap into.

But a lot of other facilities, they don’t invest shit in that. And they perpetuate the herd culture. It’s very important to raise awareness toward this. Because, also, a lot of people don’t know that, but the American prison system is a multi-billion dollar industry. It’s not state owned. It’s private business. It’s private corporations making gazillions on your pain. And they try to do anything to keep you there because the prisons need to be filled. Otherwise, the prison can sue the state for not having the cells filled. It’s a crazy thing. So the more they can hurt you, the more they can get you psyched up to commit another crime, even within the facility, the better it is for the system. So that’s a vicious circle.

And it’s important to raise awareness and to better the conditions for people. Because it’s such a big industry, people are reduced to numbers, statistics. And we need to rehumanize the people. Individuals. And that’s also why this movie is so important. It’s one of the main reasons, actually the main reason I wanted to do this movie. Besides the fact that it’s a challenge for me as an actor to play that part. Besides that personal desire, the bigger desire is to tell a story that actually matters in today’s world.

KP: As you were going into these different prisons and talking to people, what really stood out to you?

MS: There’s many stories that stood out. I find it complex to talk about somebody’s intimacy. Even if nobody will know who. What stood out for me was basically a pattern that surfaced throughout all the stories. The specifics of the stories were different, but the patterns were similar. They all came from places with lack of love, lack of harmony, disruptive family situations, you know? Drug addiction, absent father, absent mother, alcoholism, you name it. And that kind of imbalance manifests itself and eventually will reproduce itself in some form of crime that makes you end up in, you know. Which is not justifying the crime. It’s just trying to explain certain emotional mechanism that creates a certain disharmony within a human being that eventually leads to more disharmony. So it perpetuates itself. So that mechanism, it’s not shockingly surprising, but to have it confirmed so explicitly, it’s pretty…

Again, it makes you reflect on how you deal with people. How you speak to people. How you act toward people. How you react toward people. Because everything you do and everything you say has repercussions to an extent. Every action has a reaction. And it’s very basic philosophy. It’s also basic chemistry, and very basic physical laws. But it’s true. It’s really true.

KP: So how did you channel all of that into developing and getting to know Roman as a person so that you could play him?

MS: That’s an internal process of identifying or relating to some things and then combine it with other elements. It’s like a painter preparing to paint. He’s creating a mood board. He’s assembling his colors, he’s assembling ideas. At least that’s how it works for me. Some is very conscious, some is very subconscious because when we went to visit these facilities, it’s very surprising how much you absorb without knowing you absorbed it. You have a very conscious process within the verbal communication. But your entire system is just recording so much info that you’re not even aware of that comes out whenever you’re shooting. All of a sudden you feel that your body has assimilated much more than you thought. And I like to feel that, once you’re on set and you start performing, all of a sudden that stuff surfaces and it’s just there for you. You have instant access to it.

KP: What was it like working with Laure as a director?

MS: It’s a passion project. She’s been working on it for five years. You feel that she’s very much connected to what she’s working on. She’s not coming with superficial ideas. It’s not a director for hire type of situation. She relates to it, she’s connected to it, she wrote it. So you know you have a partner when you work with her. And, of course, you know we had a four and a half to five week shoot, which is very short considering all the stuff we had to do with the horses, which is very time consuming.

The creative trinity between the DP, Laure, and myself and the other actors, that was very solid. Everything around was kind of jumpy. Some awkward stuff happened. Yeah, that’s part of movie making. But that heart, that was not jumpy. Because as soon as that starts to get jumpy, then you’re in trouble. Then it might collapse. So we just clicked together and we were very loyal to each other. We did not always agree, but we stayed loyal and open to each other’s opinion, so the creative process was very honest, open, respectful, intense, playful. Because basically we’re happy to be able to make a movie. For her to direct it and me, that’s a blessing. And it’s important never to forget that as you’re working. That you’re blessed to do this.

KP: How do you navigate that, when you disagree with the director on how something should go?

MS: You never calculate it up front. She wrote it. She has an understanding of what she wrote. I have my understanding of what she wrote. And then we try, and when it feels good, it feels good. You just try to get to a point where something feels harmonious and right, and that embodies the right texture and complexity of what it is you had in mind, and then you just try to go off of that. It’s not about, “This is what we’re going to do,” and then try to get there. No, you feel what this is about, I feel what this is about. Now let’s see what happens naturally and then take it from there. And then adjust and tweak and have an organic process.

I don’t like what I call dead art. When you know what you’re going to do already, it’s boring. Of course there’s a level of preparation, but it’s a level of preparation just to be able to swing in the moment. It’s like a boxer, you know? You go to the gym, you go to the gym, you don’t know what’s going to happen in the ring. You don’t know what you’re opponent’s going to do. You just have to adapt. You just have to prep possibilities, and then in the ring, it’s about letting it all out and playing with it and fuck around. And be playful. That’s important. However serious the content is, and the subject is, we need to be playful. At least, that’s what I believe in. Whatever floats your boat.

KP: What was your relationship like with the horse on the set?

MS: I really loved that animal. I chose the horse. I chose the buckskin. I fell in love with it. I was like, “Yes, that’s the one.”

KP: Did it take awhile to get to know him?

MS: Yeah, of course. We had three of the same. We had one very wild, one semi-wild, and then one completely tame horse. Because we needed all three different stages in the movie. That was something. It’s impressive. And emotional as well.

KP: Emotional in what ways?

MS: I love animals, first of all. And you start loving that animal. I love animals way more than humans, by the way. Not that I’m a misanthrope. But most people are asses, you know what I mean?

KP: I don’t trust people who don’t like animals.

MS: No! Me neither! There’s something off with them. People who don’t like animals, I’m like, “Get out of my house! Who are you?”

KP: What is your biggest hope for this movie as audiences get to see it?

MS: What I hope for is that they really feel something. That’s something that transcends the movie. That they go out and they feel something that they’ll never forget that relates to the movie… And then they feel something that is not related to the movie. I hope they just really feel something. That’s it, basically.

We would like to thank Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre and Matthias Schoenarts for taking time to speak about their work.

“The Mustang” is distributed by Focus Features and will be in theaters on March 15.

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