Writer/director Vladimir de Fontenay’s Mobile Homes is a poignant exploration of a family searching for stability and a place to call home. Premiering in last year’s Cannes Film Festival Directors’ Fortnight section, the film follows Ali (Imogen Poots), a young mother drifting through life with her 8-year-old son Bone (Frank Oulton) and her intoxicating boyfriend Evan (Callum Turner). The makeshift family barely scrapes by as they move from one dangerous hustle to the next, until they discover a mobile home community and the chance to build a stable new life. Here, Vladamir de Fontenay shares his process for transforming an idea into a beautifully-crafted film and the importance of fighting for your vision.
Watch an exclusive clip from Mobile Homes:
S&P: What was the inspiration behind Mobile Homes?
Vladimir de Fontenay: Six years ago, I was passed by a mobile home towed by a truck on the highway as I was driving in Upstate New York. The vision was striking, and it made me think about the different meanings of a home and our changing relationship to it. At the time I was living in the US far from my family and home, and it resonated with a lot of personal questions I had. It then became a metaphor for characters that would look to find a home for themselves both literally and metaphorically.
S&P: What was your pre-production process like? Tell us a little about the process of casting the film’s lead actors, finding filming locations, and assembling the crew.
Vladimir de Fontenay: I worked with Susan Shopmaker, a casting director based out of New York who I really love. She is the one who brought up Imogen’s name. At the time I was in Berlin for the festival [Berlin International Film Festival] and I saw Knight of Cups. She was really great in it. Then I saw She’s Funny That Way. It was really great seeing her in these different roles. I had the feeling she could play anything. Then we met and really got along. We started working together, sharing thoughts, music, photos, films… talking in great detail. And so by the time we met again for rehearsals in New York she had built such a great character already. Then we fine-tuned and tried things on set.
Callum Turner came later. Imogen and Susan showed me some of the films he’d been in and I loved him right away. I also liked that he had this previous work experience with Imogen on Green Room. I knew it was going to be helpful for us in terms of making the relationship believable. it helped their backstory too. Callum is so passionate and has so much energy. He came very late in the process, yet he managed to create such a strong chemistry with the kid on screen too. He’s completely dedicated and in the moment.
Frank Oulton we street-casted at a farm in Nova Scotia. I wanted a kid who had never acted before and who could handle animals without being afraid. He came with one of his roosters to the audition.
In terms of finding the locations, we drove for hours and hours with my DOP Benoit Soler around the Canadian/American border in South Ontario. We wanted the place to have a cinematic appeal and always be echoing what our characters were going through. In some of our locations in the suburbs of border towns you simply just don’t know where you are.
S&P: The film has such a beautiful, intimate atmosphere. How did you work with your cinematographer Benoit Soler to develop this look and feel?
Vladimir de Fontenay: Benoit I wanted to work with since Ilo Ilo. I love his ability to work with kids but also his perfectionism and his ways of always finding creative solutions when we are stuck in rough shooting conditions.
Benoit and I, both being outsiders in America, we really wanted to protect our foreigner’s point of view. We wanted to film in places that evoked ideas and feelings we have about America that is not our home. Its infinite space, the variety of its landscapes and architectures.
The idea was to work from the places we would find and adapt to the constraints that’d come with them, but also protect our vision and our projections of what these places had to be like in our minds.
We worked with a lot of references. Stills from photographers I love (Jim Goldberg, Brenda Ann Kenneally, Mary Ellen Mark…), but also paintings and films we liked we shared with our amazing production designer Zosia Mackenzie and art director John O’Regan.
We had a plan for how the color palette was going to evolve during the film with Ali’s emotional changes. Evan literally changes her world, so every time he shows up, the colors become more saturated, the frame rate changes, as opposed to when Ali’s alone with her son, the landscape, the light, and the locations become more desaturated, and we get closer to a more realist monochromatic feel.
We had a similar kind of rule with camera movement. That’s why we alternate between locked-off shots to handheld or Steadicam depending on the emotions of the characters. Same with focal length and depth of field.
We spent three weeks in the grading room with Jacky Lefresne, adjusting colors and texture until the very last day. It was really important that the film didn’t look too clean, so we messed around with a lot of different grain filters. We ended up using 35mm grain filters that were pushed two stops.
S&P: How did you work with your actors to achieve such realistic, emotional performances, especially the strong bond between Ali and Bone?
Vladimir de Fontenay: On set my idea was to let the situation play first. We would do a blocking with the crew and I would just observe where it made more sense for everyone to move. I would listen to the way they’d deliver the lines and change them with the actors if they didn’t come naturally.
I like to create a space where we can destroy everything that’s in the script basically as long as we know what the scene is about and how to achieve it.
When you work with such talented actors and crew members it’s wonderful because you can use everyone’s creativity and try to create a world that has its own life and dynamics, so it isn’t just the transcription of what’s in the script and it doesn’t feel artificial.
With Frank, so much of my work was to get him to feel like he could just be himself on set and be in the moment. With the animals around him it was pretty easy to get great reactions out of him, and as the shooting of the film progressed, Frank became more and more comfortable with actors and the camera. Toward the end of the film he was “acting” for real, and it was wonderful to witness.
S&P: What was your production schedule like and did you encounter any challenges along the way?
Vladimir de Fontenay: Originally we were supposed to shoot 26 days. But because of the weather and some accidents we had on set, we ended up doing four days of reshoots a couple of months after we wrapped principal photography. We had to fight against snowstorms…it was so intense. I had never experienced anything like this before.
S&P: How did you approach the ending chase sequence and underwater scenes?
Vladimir de Fontenay:We all sat down around a table and brainstormed for days. We realized the only way we were going to be able to do it was to shoot in order (respect the chronology of the story), because we didn’t really know what was going to happen to the mobile home during all these stunts and we only had one. So we filmed the chase and then we threw the mobile home in the lake with a giant tractor. We had a few cameras to cover the action. Then we stabilized the floating mobile home with a crane and shot stunt doubles getting out of it. Then we pulled the house out of the water, cut it in pieces and submerged them in giant trash bins filled with water. We had our talent under it for the dialogue parts and that’s how we pieced it all together. It was a lot of fun. Like building a giant Lego figurine… except you don’t have all the pieces and can only see if it holds months after when you’re in the edit room, really.
S&P: How did you collaborate with your editors, and how did the film change during the editing process?
Vladimir de Fontenay: Our first editor, Maxime Pozzi-Garcia, worked while key scenes were missing so it was really hard, but he found a lot of beautiful moments that are still in the cut. We found the basic skeleton before Nicolas Chaudeurge came with Andonis Trattos, one of his former students, to help and re-edit together. They gave second chances to some scenes or plots we had scrapped, and they really reshaped the second act so it was was more of a break from the first one. The pacing was suddenly slower as Ali gets more grounded in her new life, faster as her world collapses in front of her. Nicolas is so experienced and really instinctive and some decisions he makes are simply hard to understand in the moment, but then you rewatch the film and get more context, and you realize the full scope of his talent because he’s just always right somehow.
S&P: How did you work with your post sound team and composer to finalize the sound and music of the film?
Vladimir de Fontenay: We had Mathieu Beaudin do the sound editing. It was so much work because we had no wild sounds recorded on set, so we had to recreate everything from scratch. I was really frustrated about it but so impressed when I saw Mathieu’s work. He brought Bernard Gariépy Strobl, who had just worked on Arrival, to do the mix. He had to leave the mixing room a few times to go to the BAFTAs and the Oscars (!), but he managed to finish the film and I learned so much from him. I was incredibly blessed to work with such experienced people. We used the same approach with sound as we did with color and camera in the sense that we wanted to follow Ali’s emotional changes throughout the film. The sound of the film is really her point of view.
Matthew Otto composed the music. He was part of Majical Cloudz and I met him through Owen Pallett who did the score for “Her”. I sat down in his studio for a month in Montreal. It was a fantastic experience. I wanted to mix a modern environment where most of the sound would be electronic with more acoustic music for when Ali finds herself in the mobile home park in the middle of nowhere. At that point in the film you start hearing strings and percussion… And then when Evan comes back these two musical landscapes mix. We had Owen Pallett record all the strings for us which was incredible given our budgetary constraints and the fact we couldn’t hire an orchestra.
S&P: What did you enjoy most about making Mobile Homes?
Vladimir de Fontenay: I loved the journey of making the film. From the short to the feature, I spent six years and worked with more than a hundred people. You learn so much about yourself and the people around you in the process — it’s magical. I love that the making of the film becomes a key part of what the film is, and how you handle that throughout your journey is just a fascinating process. It’s super cliché, but the journey is the destination.
S&P: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming filmmakers?
Vladimir de Fontenay: I find that the “learning by doing” approach is extremely effective when it comes to filmmaking. You learn so many things when you screw up. So I would advise to shoot a lot. It’s always good practice. And if the result is terrible, learn from your mistakes and just move on to the next thing.
One thing I always do in my work is ask myself, “Would I want to see this?” It guides most of the decisions I make.
Last, fight for your vision. Even if you’re being told otherwise, there’s ALWAYS a solution.
Watch the trailer:
Mobile Homes premieres in theaters November 16, 2018 and will be available On Demand / Digital HD on January 22, 2019.
Images courtesy of Dark Star Pictures and Uncork’d Entertainment