Paris-based filmmaker Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre arrived at MIA with a feature film project expanding on a short that earlier this year saw her competing in the Sundance film festival’s U.S. Narrative Short Film Competition. Called ‘Rabbit,’ that film told the story of a female prisoner entrusted with the titular animal as part of a correctional facility’s ‘pet partnership’ program. Building on her experiences, the director is now developing a feature called ‘Mustang’, in which a similar program encourages inmates to tame wild horses.
Said De Clermont-Tonnerre, “I read an article a few years ago about animal therapy in prison and I was very intrigued, so I decided to follow a therapist in a prison in a France. I kept researching, and I found out they were doing the same thing with wild horses in a prison in Nevada. First I did the short film, and ‘Mustang is based on all this year’s research. It is a portrait of an inmate who is dealing with some violent issues.”
The director’s project received a boost in January of this year when De Clermont-Tonnerre received the Sundance Festival’s prestigious Sundance Institute/NHK Award, a prize previously given to “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, by Benh Zeitlin (USA), and “Central Station”, by Walter Salles (Brazil). “I’d sent my script,” she recalls, “and it got onto the shortlist. In the same time, I’d also submitted my short film, ‘Rabbit,’ and, luckily, both of them were selected – the script to the Screenwriting Lab and the short film in the U.S. Shorts Competition. I had two interviews with Michelle Satter, at the Sundance Institute, and by that time I had made some research in prison and it really clicked; I had a sense of the location, the people and the emotional impact of the subject.”
De Clermont-Tonnerre is now finishing the script, which is roughly budgeted at €3.5 million ($4.0 million) , and aims to begin casting in December, with a mostly male cast of American and British actors. The idea is to shoot in Nevada in the Correctional Center in Carson City, using actors, non-professionals and real inmates. With Alain Goldman and Vanessa Djian of French production company Légende shepherding the project, however, the director has no plans to go native. “It’s an American story,” she says, “but for me it was really important to keep my European identity. I really felt that I wanted to explore the iconic elements of the West through a European lens. The crossing point of these two worlds was very important. If I have reference, one of my favorite films in the world is ‘Paris, Texas’. Robbie Müller, the cinematographer, and Wim Wenders, the director, really explored this beautiful American landscape and story through a very, very contemplative European lens. The dynamic of that film is very unique and specific, and I feel it’s because they were really faithful to their point of view and their European DNA.”
From the Sundance Institute, Michelle Satter is very excited about the film’s potential. “Over the past nine months,” she told Variety, “the Sundance Institute has enthusiastically supported Laure on developing her debut feature ‘Mustang’ through a comprehensive and customized support system including our January Screenwriters Lab, June’s Directors Lab, Film Music & Sound Design Lab, Creative Producing Summit and more. U.S. audiences discovered her short film ‘Rabbit’ at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and since then Laure was recognized with the Sundance Institute/NHK Award. With authenticity and compassion, ‘Mustang’ explores the American West, portraying one man’s journey through the darkest part of his soul and ultimately towards the possibility of redemption.”