by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)
Over a period of more than ten years, I didn’t live in the same place for more than a year at a time. That much movement and transition made it very hard to answer the questions, “Where’s home for you?” or “Where are you from?” Those are the exact questions that globetrotter Vladimir de Fontenay explores in his film, Mobile Homes.
Starring Imogen Poots and Callum Turner, Mobile Homes was a Director’s Fortnight selection at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. It comes to theaters today and asks viewers to consider seemingly simple concepts like family, home, and parenthood in new lights.
I had the opportunity to speak to Vladimir about the idea behind this film, the limitations of research, and how a cockfight can become a symbol for family dynamics.
Angela Bourassa: This movie feels exceptionally personal, so I’m curious first off if you have a personal connection to this story or this story world.
Vladimir de Fontenay: Well, I hope that somehow my films end up being extremely personal, because you end up directing actors a certain way, deciding on the coloring, deciding on the music, deciding on the words… so even if I was doing a movie about an astronaut it would definitely feel personal.
But with Mobile Homes, it was six years ago now that I was driving upstate in New York, and I was passed by this mobile home being towed by a truck on the highway, and I thought the image was so striking it gave me vertigo. Because I’d been moving places a lot when I was younger – I lived in France, I lived in Italy, and now the US – and I’ve constantly had to redefine my idea of “home.” Is your home your family? Is your home your roof? And all these feelings felt embodied by that image of the mobile home. It conveyed this sense of freedom but also a sense of fragility.
That stayed with me for a while, and I didn’t really know if I wanted to make something out of it, but then during my second year of film school I was making a short film, and I started thinking about these characters who have conflicting feelings about home – they’re looking for an external home but also working on defining internally what it is that we call family and how we build relationships with the people we have around us. So that’s where it came from.
And for some reason I’ve always made short films about mothers and sons. There’s something so moving and universal about that relationship. And, also, I’ve always wondered, when you’re a parent, if you’re not able to provide a safe environment for your child, are you a better parent if you decide to walk away? The idea of abandoning your child is so taboo, but what if actually pulling your child away from you is a way to protect them? Can we think of that as motherly? At the beginning of the film, the mother and child are really not like a mother and child – they’re more like companions on the road following this man that she loves. Then as she starts building a home, filling a home, breaking into a home, she’s really building her relationship with her son, and only toward the end when she realizes she’s putting him in danger repeatedly, she makes a sacrifice that makes her a mother.
So going back to the question, I think it’s personal in the sense that that metaphor of the home came up at a time when I was really debating where to live and how to live and what to do and sometimes feeling homesick and not really knowing where my home was.
That was a very long and unclear answer.
Angela Bourassa: (Laughs) No, it’s great. You gave me a lot to think about. I’m curious, are you a parent?
Vladimir de Fontenay: No, not yet.
Angela Bourassa: Ok, I was just curious because I’m a parent – I have a toddler – and I feel like the way I watch this movie today versus how I would have viewed it like three years ago is totally different. I feel like it affected me more personally because I am a mom. So it’s interesting that you don’t have kids yet but you can still tap into those primal, universal parental feelings.
Anyway, did you do any sort of research to flesh out this story world and these characters who live on these fringes? It’s not the sort of environment you see every day…
Vladimir de Fontenay: In general, when I start writing I try not to do too much research at first, because I want to be just in a fictional world. I want to understand the relationships between the characters and the movement of the film and have an idea of the film that I want to make, so I don’t want to restrain myself with thinking, “Oh, that could never happen in real life.” So I try to think in terms of fiction and get the film working in a way that pleases me. Then I confront reality and do research.
With Mobile Homes, I watched so much underground cockfighting footage on YouTube, and then I met the son of a cockfighter, I read police reports on busts of cockfights, I talked to social workers… But there’s so much research that you can do that at some point, for me, I have to confront the fiction with reality, but then I have to free myself from that, because I’m not doing a documentary. I’m not doing a character portrait. And also, the research never ends. The research only ends with the final, final beat of color correcting. Everything from the costumes, the locations, the words, the colors… when I’m going over the footage of the cockfight and comparing that to real videos and realizing what we have needs to get darker… that to me is where the research really is – it really never ends.
I just try to make it believable – that’s the number one rule – but sometimes its heightened and sometimes it’s not necessarily real. But again, we’re telling a story, so I embrace the fact that we can diverge from reality in order to hopefully better tap into something that’s universal.
Angela Bourassa: Going off of that, could you talk about the cockfighting and how you envisioned that playing into the themes of home and family. How did that piece fit into this puzzle?
Vladimir de Fontenay: Originally, I think it was the idea of having Bone [the son] care for something and also involving Bone with what the parents were doing. But also I think there’s something about the animals that was extremely revealing about the level of care that the parents had for the boy. At the cockfight and with the boy being given that little chicken, you see the full scope of how you can take care of a living thing. It draws a parallel later in the movie with the way they are taking care of the boy and the way that he is taking care of the rooster. It also forces the characters to see the true consequences of their actions. Like in the end, when the rooster dies, I think Bone also realizes that he was in danger of being killed and I think the mother realizes that she’s failed to care for her son in the same way that he’s failed to care for the chicken.
Angela Bourassa: Right, you see how you can love someone and hurt them at the same time.
I just wanted to ask one more question about the structure. It doesn’t feel when you’re watching it like a three-act structure, but I think there might be a traditional three act structure in there. Can you talk just a bit about how you put the story together?
Vladimir de Fontenay: Honestly, the three-act structure – I always have such a problem understanding how to structure things. I just start writing. In terms of finding the end of the first act and the end of the second act, that’s not something I’m very good at. I just intuit it.
But in this case, I see the film as… life with Evan, life without Evan, and then sort of considering life without the idea of Evan. But there’s also this idea of being constantly moving but not changing, and then this idea of suddenly being still and having to change. That’s a duality in the script that I think drove the concept. These characters are constantly on the run but not growing, and then suddenly they’re stuck in a place where they can’t move anymore, so the movement becomes internal – they have to change. And then at the end they’re back in movement, but what have they learned? So that would be the three acts, I suppose.
Mobile Homes is in select theaters today.
Angela Bourassa is the founder of LA Screenwriter and the co-founder of Write/LA, a screenwriting competition created by writers, for writers. A mom, UCLA grad, and alternating repeat binger of The Office and Parks and Recreation, Angela posts articles through @LA_Screenwriter and unique daily writing prompts through @Write_LA.