In this session of Lockdown Film School, we talk to writer-director Alice Winocour about her features Augustine, Disorder, and Proxima in this directing masterclass.
Who is Alice Winocour?
Alice Winocour is a Parisian writer and director who studied directing at La Fémis. Her first feature, Augustine, premiered in the Cannes Critics Week and was nominated for the César for Best First Feature. Her second feature, Disorder, which starred Matthias Schoenaerts premiered in Un Certain Regard, and won the AFI Fest Special ury Award for Outstanding Achievement in Direction. Winocour has written or co-written multiple critically acclaimed scripts for other directors, including Mustang, for which she won a César, Home, and Mignonnes. We named her third feature, Proxima, the 14th best film of the decade, and it received a special jury mention at TIFF last year. Each of her films features a single protagonist with a tour de force performance and a strong attention to sound design.
Where can you watch Alice Winocour’s films?
Canada: Sadly, not available to stream, but you can get it from your local library.
US: Stream on Prime, Kanopy; Rent on Google Play, YouTube, Amazon, and iTun
UK: Rent on Amazon and iTune
Australia: Rent on Google Play, YouTube, iTunes
Canada: Rent on Cineplex or iTunes.
US: Stream on Hulu or rent the film on most major platforms.
UK: Rent on most major platforms, including Curzon Home Cinema.
Australia: Stream the film on SBS On Demand.
UK: Opens in Picturehouse cinemas July 31
Canada/US: Will be released sometime this fall
Australia: Now on DVD/VOD (Madman Entertainment)
Read more about Alice Winocour’s films
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Seventh Row (7R): What got you interested in becoming a writer and director?
Alice Winocour: It was a kind of unconscious process. I studied law. Cinema was more like a passion. It was something of my childhood with my little brother. We watched films all day long in a very compulsive way, and so films were part of our lives and our games. It was something that was essential to me, but I never thought of it as a job.
A friend of mine told me, “You should try,” because I was writing stories, but [those stories were] for myself. I have always been writing, sometimes fairy tales and stuff. [My friend] told me, “You should try to pass this exam for La Fémis [the French national school of cinema].” But it was more, again, a game. And then I succeeded. I entered that school, and I realized it was something I really wanted to do.
7R: What do you feel you got out of studying at La Fémis?
Alice Winocour: I discovered that it was going to be my job. First, I was in the school’s scriptwriting department. You can try different things [at La Fémis]. You can also direct. We had cameras for summer and we could film our projects.
I went to Bulgaria, and I did a lot of short films with my boyfriend at the time. It was really fun. We went to a Bulgarian island, and we did so many films — films with special effects and so many crazy things.
In the scriptwriting department, I started to write my first film, Augustine (2011), about [female] hysterics and [Jean-Martin] Charcot’s hospital in the 1800s.
At first, I just wanted to write the stories. I never thought I could direct it. But then, because I was looking for a director and couldn’t find anyone, I thought, “Okay, I’m going to direct it myself.”
7R: What was that jump to directing like for you?
Alice Winocour: I learned a lot writing it [Augustine], because the subject was like a Pandora’s box. This hysteria, this disease that women were suffering, those sexual fits… they were expressing a rebellion of the body. It was something really modern, in a way. I was afraid to do a period film for my first feature.
It was a very long process for me, because I read so many books about those women. I read all reports of real patients of Charcot. I had to reinvent this story to make it mine, and to forget everything that I had read. I think I could have made a book about hysteria, because there are so many fascinating things. It’s also about the essence of cinema: men looking at women with a mix of fear and desire.
Also, before this film, I had directed short films, and I had realized that I felt really good on set.
7R: I know you’ve been inspired by David Cronenberg and also by other horror movies. I’m wondering what films inspire you and how?
Alice Winocour: It’s true; I have a relationship with those films. I understand it may seem strange, but they are part of my childhood. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), for example, was a film that I was watching many times a day with my little brother. It was the centre of games that we were playing with the characters. My parents were not afraid at all that we were so upset by this film. Now that I’m a mother, I feel that I would ask questions, but they didn’t.
It’s funny, because now that we’ve been in lockdown, I’ve re-watched those films that were so important to me — Cronenberg’s movies, body horror movies, as well, like Scanners (1981) or Rabid (1977) or Dead Ringers (1988). They have a strange calming effect on me. I don’t know if it’s because of the virus and my hypochondria, because I am really a hypochondriac. But I feel they are, in a way, calming.
7R: Are you consciously thinking about those horror influences when you’re making your films? I feel there’s a gothic horror element to both Augustine and Disorder (2015).
Alice Winocour: I think that the darkness is something that I felt intimately close to. There is a catharsis that I feel connected to. I’ve been reading gothic, Romanic, 19th-century literature, like the Brontë sisters. I could connect with those girls that were having dreams about worlds they didn’t know. I think it’s gothic.
What I am interested in is also sampling. I think it’s really something of our generation to have multiple influences. My mother was recording on VHS those films that we were watching with my little brother, who was falling asleep. So we had half of a movie, and then we had the beginning of another movie, because she thought the other movie was interesting. So those movies are connected very strongly in my mind forever. I don’t know if that is why I like to mix different things. Maybe it’s the origin of it. But I think it’s a generational thing also, that we are all so inspired by very different kinds of films, like Russian, American, Chinese. They are inspiring. It’s not only that I’m French so I’m inspired by French films.
7R: What were you watching for Proxima?
Alice Winocour: For Proxima, I’ve been watching many different films, but not only space movies, because I was not a space movie fan. I was attracted by space, but more like stars. I was fascinated by this world, but more the real world than the American [Hollywood] version of it. I saw, of course, [Andrei] Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972). A film that has been very important for me is Alice in the Cities (Wim Wenders, 1974), about the relationship between this man and this little girl in Germany. Also, Nanni Moretti’s Mia Madre (2015). It’s always very different kinds of films.
7R: You’ve written scripts for all of your own movies. You also have co-written films with other people. How does that process differ?
Alice Winocour: As I told you, I studied script writing at school, and I have always been writing stories. I felt comfortable in this world of writing, but I hadn’t really thought about writing for directors. It was more that encounters and friendships with the directors I’ve worked with [led to screenwriting collaborations]. Some of them I met at school or at Cannes, where I have presented some of my films [Augustine and Disorder]. It was a very strong desire to tell the story, but it’s very different from writing for yourself. You have to be much more intelligent writing for others than writing for yourself, I think.
7R: I’m wondering if you can tell us a little bit about your interest in traumatized bodies. It’s something that you’ve explored in all of your films.
Alice Winocour: Traumatized or post-traumatized bodies is something that haunts me. Maybe I should go to the shrink to solve this! It’s a kind of anxiety. But I think it’s a wealth for cinema. I’m fascinated by body language when there are no words to tell of your pain or your fears, and the body is talking for you and sometimes screaming in hysteria, like those fits [in Augustine]. You are like a spectator looking at the theatre of your body. To me, it’s really fascinating. So I keep writing about this.
7R: You were talking about sound before, and the sound in your films is always so great. Are you thinking about that even at the writing stage? How does that thread through your process?
Alice Winocour: It’s something I’m sensitive to. I’m blind from one eye; I can’t see, really. So sound is something that is more important to me. I like to get really into sensations. To me, mixing is a very important part of the process. I’m super excited in the editing room when it gets to sound. There’s so many things you can do.
For [Proxima], I was very lucky also to be able to work with [Ryuichi] Sakamoto, the great composer. He worked a lot with sound design and recordings of nature. The astronauts in the film record sounds of nature [so they can play the recordings back in space and remember the sounds of Earth], and that’s what Sakamoto is doing with his music: the sounds of feathers and water and mountains. I thought it was great because opera is more the music that is associated with space, since the Kubrick movie, [2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)]. But my film was more about the Earth, so the Earth sounds [are used in the soundtrack].
I’m also thinking about [the sound] on set and while writing. It’s very important to me.
7R: Your films all have these very different scores that are beautifully integrated with the sound design. How do you pick composers and figure out how to do those scores?
Alice Winocour: For my first film, Augustine, which was about hysterics, I thought about exorcism sounds. I had to stage those fits that, in reality, are completely unreal. It’s difficult to stage something so extreme and to believe it in a movie. So I thought, I have to be inspired by exorcism movies. I was inspired also by Dracula (1992), the Coppola movie. Also I thought about this composer [Jocelyn Pook] who had worked on Eyes Wide Shut.
For my second film, I decided to work with Gesaffelstein, who is an electro-musician, who has a very dark [sound]. I thought that the music had to evoke horror and trauma, and that it had to be the sound of war in a sensorial way. And so Gesaffelstein came on the set and he composed in the house where we were shooting.
7R: Oh, wow.
Alice Winocour: I gave him the script but he said that he couldn’t read scripts, that it was boring to him, which I totally understood. And then he said, “I prefer to come on set.”
When he arrived, he said it was a kind of asylum because we were screaming and because [almost] the whole shoot was in that house. We were not moving. And Matthias [Schoenaerts, who stars in the film as a soldier with PTSD], was really violent. There were violent scenes. [Gesaffelstein] was really inspired by the atmosphere on set. That was fun.
And for my third film, [Proxima,] as I told you, the process to find the right musician was very hard because I knew all the music I was thinking about. I know what I like. I needed something really emotional and, at the same time, really fragile and down to Earth. Then I thought about Sakamoto, and I wrote him a letter, but I thought it was a dream [to think he might do it]. But he was really moved by this idea that astronauts were recording sounds of nature.
7R: What were the key aims in the mixing process for Proxima?
Alice Winocour: To have those details in sounds, like the breathing of the mother and daughter. My obsession in that film was to confront the infinitely small [versus] the infinitely big. The intimacy of a family compared to the galaxy. And so for the music, it had to [reflect that].
7R: One of the scenes that really stood out to me in Proxima is when Sarah is in isolation and she’s talking to her daughter through a glass screen.
Alice Winocour: I’m thinking of quarantine.
Alice Winocour: It’s also something that I saw because I went to Kazakhstan. We shot in real places. It was very exciting to be in those places. It was the first film that was shot [in the real space training facilities] so it was something really new to go there.
Astronauts, before going to space, have to spend two or three weeks in quarantine, and they can’t see their families. They have to see each other through a window. It is, of course, to prevent germs, but also to prepare you to go into another world, to retire from humanity, in a way. It’s a kind of dying, to go into space. You leave this world.
I thought about the Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984) scene in which Nastassja Kinski is talking to her ex-husband. That’s what inspired how, on the glass, you see the reflection of their faces.
7R: How do you cast your films? The performances are so important and they’re always so amazing.
Alice Winocour: It was different all three times.
I really like working with actors. I really admire when I see how frightening it can be to be in front of a camera. I really admire actors who take risks. Soko, in [Augustine], had to have those sexual fits in front of everyone. It was really scary, in a way.
With Eva [Green in Proxima], it was a very strong performance, as well, because she’s not a mother herself. She was afraid she [wouldn’t] be credible as a mother. She’s a real astronaut because she’s not at all afraid of things that had frightened me, like the very difficult training she had to do. It was nothing for her.
What she was afraid of was not to be credible [as a mother]. I think it was also great for the character, because it’s something that I, as a mother, could feel. [A fear of] not being the perfect mother, not doing the right gestures, and being clumsy as a mother. I think a lot of women could connect with that feeling.
We did a lot of rehearsals, also, with Eva and the little girl, and also with Lars [Eidinger, who plays Sarah’s ex and the father of her child]. We saw each other every weekend for months.
7R: Oh wow.
Alice Winocour: Yeah. Spending time together and going to the park and to restaurants. Also having rehearsals of different scenes that were not in the script.
With Matthias [Schoenaerts in Disorder], we spent a lot of time training with soldiers. I have a very good friend who was a TDSC soldier. He was also an inspiration because I was writing the script and constantly asking him questions about the character. It was a therapy for him, as well. Matthias also became close to him. We had training with him and with other soldiers.
We also did a lot of things on Matthias’s body, like [giving him fake] tattoos. I had observed tattoos on soldiers, and then we did them on Matthias’s body.
It’s really about immersing yourself in a world. With Eva, we went to Russia. We worked with Russian trainers. They didn’t give a shit that it was Eva Green. They were really hard on her. We also met so many astronauts. One of them was completely in love with her. I think he was going to faint when he saw her in the training center in Kazakhstan. He thought it was like a dream because he had a poster of her as a teen in his room. He’s a very strong astronaut, very physical. He’s the head of the International Space Station. He’s very controlled, even if he is about to die. But when he saw her, he was almost fainting. That was very funny.
It’s also a process to become very close and to trust each other, because it’s like going on a trip together. I think you need to have this confidence and to know each other. It’s about building this trust.
7R: How do you do that?
Alice Winocour: It’s about spending time together and having strong experiences like the training in Russia and Kazakhstan. It was very hard for Eva, but at the same time, we had a lot of fun doing this. It was really exhilarating, and that builds the trust because we take that risk, together.
7R: I’m an engineer by training, and I’ve never seen people in science and engineering portrayed so accurately on screen as in Proxima, right down to the costumes and the kinds of jokes that they have. It was so real.
Alice Winocour: I worked with real engineers as consultants. I’ve been traveling from Cologne, where the European Space Agency Center is, Star City, and the Russian Space Center in Kazakhstan, for two years. I’ve met so many people. As I was writing the script, it was not like asking for consultants after writing the script. I became friends with astronauts, Russians, Americans… I really immersed myself in that world to understand it more.
I was fascinated by those physical things and experiments. I had authorizations. At first, they thought I was a journalist, but then, after seeing me for months after months, they understood [what I was trying to do]. It was really fascinating to me.
It was also like seeing a mutation. Those astronauts, they have to mutate to be space persons because you can’t go into space [in a normal physical state]. It was very different from the representation you see in [Hollywood space movies]. Some of them I really like, but it seems so easy to leave the Earth [in those films]. It’s this idea of the conquest, or this idea that there is no place for fragility. You have to show that you are so strong and virile and such. But in reality, those guys are really tough, and those women, believe me, are really tough.
To see the training was to experience that human fragility and the limit of our bodies. We are not made to live on another planet. We have been designed for this one. They really have to hurt themselves to become those space persons. That’s how hard it was to leave the planet and to leave the one you love.
7R: You were saying that Eva was doing the training. Is it like everything we see in the film?
Alice Winocour: No, she couldn’t because the training suit is so heavy. It’s 150 kilos.
7R: Oh my God!
Alice Winocour: It’s super heavy, so she wouldn’t be able to. We couldn’t break her. That’s not the idea of it. She had special effects. But still, she had to really train her muscles to have a credible body. She also had to learn Russian, to learn German, to learn so many languages.
7R: The other thing that’s really unique in the film is the way that you deal with insidious, everyday sexism. How did you think about putting us in Sarah’s experience for that?
Alice Winocour: It was the first image that inspired me for Augustine: this woman naked in front of men who look at her as an animal, as a guinea pig. I think I’m really interested in this relationship and this fear of what is being a woman. Of course, it was something in that film that was a bit extreme, because they didn’t know what was the illness [that the women are experiencing], and so [that exacerbated] their fears about women’s bodies. But I think that this mix of fear and desire, and the way men are looking at women, has not disappeared and will never disappear. So maybe it’s something that I’m working on in my films.
I’m really interested in the idea of telling stories from the woman’s point of view, or point of views that have never been told, like in Proxima. I hadn’t seen any films from this point of view. I think that’s what is interesting to me: to tell stories that have never been told, or to tell them in a different way, try to find another way, or to reverse it. In Augustine, when I was writing the script, everyone was telling me, “You should write it from the doctor’s point of view because the woman, she’s crazy! How can you connect with the woman?” And I was like, “No, she’s not crazy!” Also I like this idea of the relationship of power. It was like a sadomasochistic relationship between the two of them.
The idea is to tell these stories even if, like in Disorder, it’s in the man’s point of view. With Disorder, some people told me, “Come on, it’s too violent a story for a woman [to direct].” Or it’s not what you’re supposed to do. And I think it’s really sad that there is just Kathryn Bigelow or so few [female] directors that are considered as credible for those kinds of films. I think women can direct any type of film. I thought it was interesting to reaffirm that you can do any kind of film.
Of course, in Proxima, it was to show a mother that is not a stupid mother or the perfect mother. There are many different types of mothers. There’s a lot of strong women characters that we have seen in space movies, like Gravity. But if they have children, the children are dead. I think the script writers don’t want children to prevent the woman from her mission, when in real life, women have missions and they have children, and have to deal with both. That’s what I wanted to show in the film. One astronaut, she told me that being a mother was the best thing for her to learn multitasking.
But I think it’s also interesting to show complex [male] characters. It was so cool to work with Matt Dillon. Not to have the stupid bad guy, but to know that he’s much more intelligent than this. He’s different from the first things you think when you see him in the film.
7R: Do you feel that there’s something connecting the protagonists of each of your features?
Alice Winocour: Maybe the idea of a liberation. That they all try to liberate themselves. I could say also that I always write stories like this. I like stories of rebellion and stories of liberation.
7R: How has the period of lockdown affected your work?
Alice Winocour: It affected it a lot, because I was supposed to shoot a new film in October that I had written, and it’s with an American actress in Paris. Because of Covid, everything is now on standby, and I don’t really know when the situation will get better. It has to get better in the US and in France. So it’s a bit boring, but at the same time, it has also been a great experience. I feel like life in lockdown is not very different from my life when I’m not shooting.
7R: So that script was finished, and you’re in pre-production?
Alice Winocour: Yeah. It was finished, and I was about to begin the prep. I was starting to work with all the crew, and so they had to move to another film. It was frustrating.