Director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre on animal therapy, rehabilitation, and second chances

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Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre has written and directed a uniquely evocative and stunning film that reassesses humanity and our need for connection seen through the lens of a hopeless and withdrawn prison inmate who participates in a horse rehabilitation training program. Starring Matthias Schoenaerts and Bruce Dern who give hauntingly emotional performances, Clermont-Tonnerre creates a revelatory film which was the shining star of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and is now available to see in theaters. I had a chance to talk with the writer and director recently. (Edited for space and clarity.)

PAMELA POWELL: Sundance was an integral part of “The Mustang,” but I understand you had another short film, “Rabbit,” that was similar.

LAURE DE CLERMONT-TONNERRE: I was searching and researching about animal therapy in prison. In January 2015 my short was selected for Sundance, but also my first draft of “The Mustang” [was selected for the] screenwriting lab at Sundance; coincidentally, [they] accepted both stories on the same subject. Then I was selected for the directing lab. Through their guidance and expertise, they really helped me to nurture [“The Mustang”].

POWELL: Tell me about transitioning from actress to director as this is your debut.

CLERMONT-TONNERRE: When I started to direct, I didn’t know anything about the techniques. I knew a lot about acting. I knew how to talk to actors and how to collaborate with them because I grew up in a cinephile family. I was very often on set, observing everyone’s work. I have a lot of empathy for actors. They’re so vulnerable and so I always make sure I can create a safe space for them to be able to create. That’s really a priority for me.

POWELL: Schoenaerts creates a perfect portrayal of an emotionally hopeless and broken man who has a flicker of life as he connects with this program.

CLERMONT-TONNERRE: We really start in complete darkness to then actually find some light. I needed an actor who had the capacity of the very opaque and mysterious but also could have emotions cracking through the facade. Matthias had that. Matthias has extremely explosive and generous emotions, but he has this very mysterious look. He’s so instinctive, very unpredictable, very surprising physically. [He’s a] closed off and unreadable character who then can find himself through the animal and just connect with the emotions which is [natural].

POWELL: Tell me about working with Bruce Dern, such a talented and seasoned acting veteran.

CLERMONT-TONNERRE: I remember obviously his performance in “Nebraska.” The character [in “The Mustang”] was based on a horse trainer who was a little bit younger. This character is so believing and supporting of this program and these men. To find this father figure—when I sat down with Bruce Dern, he had something so warm and so funny and he said that this is a great character, but I’m much funnier than him! He had all these jokes and he improvised many of the lines. He tailored the character to himself and sometimes he would just surprise me and he loved that. He would just laugh after every take. It was a very joyful set when he was there.

POWELL: Thomas Smittle is an actual inmate who participated in this program in Nevada and the audience at Sundance loved him!

CLERMONT-TONNERRE: I met him when he was just freshly out of prison where he spent fifteen years. He was working at a rescue sanctuary for horses. He was completely lost after his release from prison, he was trying to figure out how he would make a living being a horse trainer, working with horses. I wrote this part for him because I was so moved by his charisma. Then I met him again two years later and he was much more confident. We had him and two other inmates from this program where they were working as horse wranglers but also as actors. It was great to have this experienced group of riders coming from … the same background in prison, learning to ride in NV in prison. It was invaluable as a resource for the others.

POWELL: Technically, tell me about that opening scene where you film the horses being rounded up. Is that real?

CLERMONT-TONNERRE: It was a real one. I knew about this roundup in Utah. I came with a very small crew and had two cameras with two different lenses so we could do wide and medium shots. We couldn’t do close because we weren’t allowed to go closer but we could do an adaptation and capture from a distance what is happening. It was documentary style. It was completely unpredictable.

POWELL: What do you hope the film will accomplish apart from being a deeply thoughtful and entertaining film?

CLERMONT-TONNERRE: I really hope this film will bring awareness of rehabilitation and the idea of a second chance. A lot of men make huge mistakes but still are capable of love and empathy, and as long as they can experience that and they can reflect on themselves, [they can] break the vicious cycle they’ve been a part of. I feel like education is the key. Animal therapy or gardening, there are a lot of therapies that actually exist as programs and they really work. I wish that those programs could be expanded.

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