Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Co-writer/ Director Deniz Gamze Ergüven has created powerful, gripping, rebellious, defiant, necessary feminist-forward cinema with her debut feature, MUSTANG. In the film, five young Turkish sisters are locked away by their guardians after it’s been said they’ve participated in illicit activities with boys. Their family home, located in a small village, morphs into a prison – a “wife factory,” as young narrator Lale (Günes Sensoy) calls it. However, their passion for freedom furthers their bond as they find ways around societal constraints.
At the film’s recent Los Angeles press day, I spoke with the talented director, who, incidentally was pregnant at the time of filming, about everything from finding the location, to casting the girls, to balancing taboo topics with humor.
FreshFiction.tv: Where did the inspiration to write and direct this come from? How did you get hooked up with co-writer Alice Winocour? She’s another great filmmaker as well.
Two years before writing the film, I had my curiosity, the questions I was asking, the books I was reading, were starting to focus on the subject of what it is to be a woman and getting closer and closer to what it is to be a woman in Turkey. At some point, you have this drive that kicks in and the necessity to tell a specific story. I had met with Alice Winocour at the L’Atelier. MUSTANG was my second script – I had written another project too big, too expensive for a first film. Alice was at the L’Atelier with AUGUSTINE. We were the only two girls there and we got along extremely well. We had similar problematics because we had two projects as a crazy first feature film projects. Alice first helped me to take that curve first and started this evil master plan for me to do MUSTANG and do that first film afterwards. We wrote this film in one summer. I was writing almost with a hunger for shooting, for actors, for directing a film.
FreshFiction.tv: How did you go about finding the girls? Because it’s so important to have that believable bond.
That was really the most important subject of the film. It was a long process of casting. The casting director saw thousands of girls. I had prepared all these things I wanted the girls to do which really definitely made us see real acting qualities – how well they listened, how well they dived into a scene, used the scope of their imagination- their temper, their color. Eventually when we saw they had all those things, I tried different combinations for months and months. We need the five characters to be like five girls with one head – it’s like a little hydra.
One day we had that magic moment where it clicked. The first time we got the girls together it was very inviting into acting. It was very playful. We made them do exercises where they had to look into each others eyes, all those things that were building the group [dynamic]. They just very naturally became very intimate and adored each other. Now they are literally like sisters. They are like in the film now – they are stuck together, kissing and cuddling. They became that little body with five heads.
FreshFiction.tv: Did anything surprise you that came out of those organic sessions – maybe something that wasn’t in the script but something they felt was integral to the character?
Lale was so lightweight. She was this skinny little thing – like a ballerina. She had a temper of a hardened criminal. She used to bug them but they would chase her like a fly. From the first moment on, they would literally lift her and threw her away when she bothered them. That was like something they invented – it was part of their movements. We didn’t have that on paper.
FreshFiction.tv: Was it always supposed to be Lale as the defiant one? She is my spirit animal. She’s wonderful.
Yeah. In the script, she was even more the front runner of the pack. When the girls came into casting they were more rebellious. It wasn’t like Lale was the only one to fight back – the other ones were doing that too. They became more homogenous than casting on paper.
FreshFiction.tv: You were pregnant when you shot this. Did that deepen your insight?
That wasn’t part of the master plan. It was a beautiful surprise. I’m happy about that. It’s becoming easier now but I think it’s difficult to inspire trust when you’re a woman because there’s all those preconceived ideas that we’re gonna lose it and become emotional. I’m happy to have done a demonstration that all of those ideas are wrong. I can say that after words. The one good thing was it was a very intense shooting. We were shooting 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. It was quite a battle but the fact I was pregnant made me able to be demanding on others too.
FreshFiction.tv: Some of my favorite female filmmakers have been pregnant when they’ve shot their films.
I remember before when I used to do short films I always had a dream of pregnancy at every point – during the writing and during the shooting and editing. There was always something linked to pregnancy.
FreshFiction.tv: How much of a challenge was it to find the home? It was the girls prison, but it also inspired them to embrace their freedom.
You are completely right. The house is really a character in the film. We say a lot of the conflict between the girls and their family through the construction of that house. Not only the house, but of the settings of the film. Once the script was out there, there was this long checklist of things we needed for the set. The aesthetic choices we were going for were looking like it was a fairy tale which was becoming more and more far away from something naturalistic or any kind of realism. Visually the village had to say they were at the edge of the world. We had to have an eerie nature, endless roads on the side of sea for the shots that was like some kind of horizontal wall. The house needed a specific kind of architecture, with openings at front and background. From the house you needed to see the sea. We went through 1000 kilometers of location scouting and it was looking into every single village on the coast of the Black Sea. That was our plan a. There was no plan b or plan c. Maybe we had a plan g or n.
FreshFiction.tv: Was there a challenge to incorporating cultural traditions to make them understandable for all audiences? You really nail this universality.
It’s more something like when you use the language of cinema. That’s more of a surprise when you present it to the audience for the first time that people respond to it in a very strong way. What surprised me the most was the first night we showed the movie at Cannes, people from the four corners of the world… the most striking was this South Korean woman who came along who said, ‘This is so close to my story. This is something I have lived.’ I’m thinking we have no cultural intersection at all – no link between the two countries. That was a beautiful surprise – a little story about girls on the coast of the Black Sea being something for people all around the world. That was a very powerful moment.
We’re talking about freedom – something that’s deeply anchored in every human being. When I think about what film it’s closely structured, I think it’s closest to is ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ. You can completely relate to it because that drive for freedom is a part of us.
MUSTANG opens in New York and Los Angeles on November 20.