It all started when Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre encountered a curious story in a newspaper. Apparently, there were programs in U.S. prisons that would match inmates with small animals as part of their rehabilitation process. Fascinated by the concept, the French actress delved deeper, researching the programs mentioned in the clipping and emerging with her 2014 short film, Rabbit. The short was featured in the short film lineup of that year’s Sundance Film Festival, a connection that would eventually lead to her inclusion in the festival’s famed Sundance Labs screenwriting workshops. De Clermont spent the following years working on a feature-length version of the project in Park City, a venture that had her touring prisons on the West Coast of the United States. Five years later, that project, now known as The Mustang, went on to make its worldwide premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Boxoffice caught up with the filmmaker to talk more about her directorial debut—and why a theatrical release was a crucial priority for her.
How did you find out about this program? And secondly, why was this right for a movie? What compelled you to write a screenplay about it?
I actually found out about it through an article in a French newspaper. It was five years ago and I became really fascinated by this story about a therapist who was introducing animals to inmates: rabbits, chinchillas, birds. It seemed so unusual, funny even. I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of punishment—how these institutions and systems function, the impact of punishing someone. The subject grabbed my attention, so I called the therapist and she invited me to go spend a day with her. I went and it was not fun at all. It was heartbreaking but also wonderful to see how those inmates could connect with love and empathy through little animals.
I was affected by that experience and wrote Rabbit, my short film, based around it. I shot Rabbit in Rikers Island, and very soon after that I traveled to Nevada to explore the horse program they had there. I called journalists who had written about the program. From there, I ended up getting picked up from the airport in Sacramento and going to Carson City, Nevada. I spent three days in prison observing this program and seeing [a horse] auction. I was fascinated; the first draft of The Mustang was born after this experience.
I traveled back and forth from that place for four years, mainly to this prison in Nevada, but we also visited like four or five prisons with different, unique men who had similar paths. That really helped me understand the factors that could trigger someone to violence, to lose control, and how empathy can help these men with this profile of physical abuse.
So you went from reading a newspaper in France, to a five-year journey through prisons in Nevada with violent inmates.
[Laughing] Yes, I know. I love taking a journalistic approach. I wanted to write a story that reflected my experience and all this research.
With the level of research you conducted, and depth of access you had, why not just make a documentary?
A feature on this subject, and in general, allows me to take a poetic license where I can still have this authenticity but still tell an innovative story. It allows me to take something real and be able to make it dramatic, poetic, and reflective. That was my goal. I was so inspired by this program and felt there was definitely a film in this story. Visually alone, there are so many contrasts, from inside the prison to the space outside with the horses.
How many of your characters were influenced either directly or indirectly from your research?
I had some ideas in mind when I started writing the film, but it was all very green. I didn’t know anything; basically I had read an article and knew I wanted to include a female character, but that was it. I knew I wanted my lead to be in prison for domestic abuse, a very common crime that affects so many families. That’s roughly all I knew, but after going to the prisons, everything got a lot more precise.
The characters of Roman and Henry are based on real people, different stories that I heard. Connie Britton’s character, the psychologist, is based on a woman who helped me get access to the prisons and explore these programs. I thought it was interesting to show that there are two ways to handle counseling for violent inmates. Yes, there’s the regular counseling sessions—but there are also programs like this one that help these men get a different connection. I would say that 85 percent of the script is based on real stories.
One of the things that stand out in The Mustang is the diverse casting in the film. You didn’t populate your prison scenes with models and professional actors.
There are a lot of former inmates in the film. The character of Tom in the film is played by a Native American actor who spent 15 years in prison in Nevada. I met him just as he had left prison and was working as a horse trainer. He was so charismatic and had such an interesting story, I really wanted to include him in the film. At first he was hesitant, but eventually came on board once he felt he was ready to tell that story. He was also a wrangler on the set, so he had two tasks: acting and helping us with the horses. There are two other inmates from this program in Nevada that are in the film. I wanted to have as many interesting faces, a diverse group of men for the movie. And that didn’t only mean inmates, I heard about this group, the Compton Cowboys, young men who grew up in Compton and attended this program that introduced them to horses. It’s a program for kids and they ride so well that we invited them to join us in the film—you can see them in some of the bigger scenes. We ended up with a very interesting group of men; some as wranglers, some as cowboys—some actors, some who weren’t. It was important for me to have a group of people who were connected to the story in order to give the film an organic and visceral dimension to it.
We’re going through a curious period in independent cinema, where just because you get acquired at a major festival doesn’t mean you’re going to get a good theatrical release. There are companies with big budgets out there that don’t attach much importance to it. Why was it important for you to have The Mustang, your feature film debut, play in cinemas?
I’m a huge cinephile; I love the experience of seeing a movie on a big screen with strangers. I grew up in a cinephile family, watching films in theaters, sharing emotions in an auditorium. Even though now we have some platforms that don’t allow a big theatrical release, which I think is really sad, we can still insist on having our movies play at a theater. A film like Roma is something I refuse to see on a laptop. I would have been really sad if I hadn’t had a theatrical release. I really believe in the cinema and I want to protect it. Watching something on a laptop kills 50 percent of my desire. We are in a world where we cannot focus anymore; we are completely overwhelmed with so much information all the time. So when you’re watching something at home, and your phone is ringing, it becomes too distracting. I like going to the cinema because it is an appointment. I go there and that’s what I’m doing for the night. That’s what I love about the experience that is different than watching TV in my living room.
What do you hope audiences can take away from your film?
As a filmmaker, I’ve never been very interested in making something so commercial with buildings and stuff blowing up. I feel this is a private and intimate movie, but one with a very positive message about healing that I hope is accessible for a lot of audiences. I hope it’s a film that helps people talk about the criminal justice system.