SEX, sheep and Chairman Mao are all brought up as Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge chatted with filmmaker Kate McMullen about her short film Comme Les Roses.
You can see the film as part of Raindance Film Festival’s International short film programme on 30 September and 7 October.
Q: Comme Les Roses takes us back to the 1960s. Can you give us a taste of what we can expect?
A: THE film is set in 1960s Paris, which was just like 1960s London, but with more sex and more smoking. Everyone was angry and in love. You had to be either communist or conservative, a ‘C’ word whatever your convictions.
When the film opens, photographer Charles and his fashion model girlfriend, Bernadette, are fighting about politics. They like that. They’re just getting going, when the phone rings. Then, like in many films, stuff starts happening.
Q: Where did the idea for this story come from and what did you want to explore in the film?
A: IT was inspired by an article I discovered in a vintage men’s magazine, in which beautiful girls posed in risqué communist outfits next to quotations from Chairman Mao.
With a little more research, I discovered that Mao was not only extremely fashionable in 1960s France, he’d even become something of a sex symbol. This being fairly bonkers, I decided to write a screenplay about it. The film is basically a prequel to the magazine article, with the photographer and the model as my fictional protagonists.
One of the things I wanted to explore is how the French got Mao so wrong. Of course, they had no way of knowing what was actually going on in China at the time, but there’s more to it than that. Today, even with our 24 hour media coverage (or perhaps because of it), we’re just as quick to jump on a bandwagon when it suits us.
Q: What can you tell us about your lead characters Charles (François Rousseau) and Bernadette (Clara Camblor)? Were they inspired by anyone?
A: THERE is definitely some Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin in them, but they’re also fairly timeless personalities.
Bernadette is carried along by Mao mania with absolute conviction and very little understanding of what any of it was about. Charles has reached a point in life where his cynicism colours everything he does. Whereas she is determined to be good, he is out to have a good time. Frankly they should never have met.
Q: How was your experience working with François and Clara?
A: IT was a demanding shoot and they did a great job. Few and far between are the actors whose lungs can handle quite so many vintage cigarettes, even in France. I’m very grateful to them both. I think they enjoyed their roles, although François had some reservations about Charles’ ethics (“this guy is a total bastard”).
Q: As well as François and Clara, you have a number of sheep starring in the film. Were they as easy to work with as Clara and François?
A: NO. The thing about sheep is that when they’re scared, they defecate. That was a bit challenging, but we got the shots we needed once they’d emptied their bowels.
Q: We see a lot of vibrant colours and costumes in the trailer. What can you tell us about the visuals and the art direction of the film?
A: 1960s style was carefree and delightfully confused, an attitude as much as an aesthetic. So the film is a mismatch of colours, costumes and references. We borrowed as much original furniture and clothing as possible, and I made a few props myself, including a dozen fake cakes, a wolf headdress and a large pair of bronze breasts.
For a few months my apartment looked like the inside of a three year old’s brain. It was fun.
Q: I had a great time listening to the title song you put together for the film. Can you tell us about putting the song together?
A: IT was written by a couple of bestselling children’s authors who turned their hand to PG-rated writing. The opening line translates as “I am for the tyranny of pretty girls”. I love it. The two actors provided the vocals, and the track was arranged for instruments like the Hammond organ, giving it a hallmark 1960s sound.
Q: I believe you graduated from Oxford and then went to work in Shanghai and Paris. What brought you back to filmmaking?
A: I tend to blame Shanghai for pulling me into film making. It’s such an extraordinary city that it was almost impossible not to make a film about it. So I started there, with a zero-budget docu-fiction, and decided not to stop. Most of my films have started that way, with an itch to explore something.
Q: What does it mean to you for Comme Les Roses to screen at Raindance Film Festival in London?
A: I am honoured, it’s a fabulous festival.
Q: What is next for you? What type of stories do you hope to tell as a filmmaker?
A: I am finishing up a very different project right now, a docu-fiction about abortion rights which I shot on my phone. I always try to convey messages that matter to me, with colour and humour.