Below Her Mouth, the TIFF-premiering feature that I directed, was shot with an all-female crew. This allowed each department to bring unique female perspectives and raw sensibilities to the screen, giving the film a vulnerability and boldness that I’d never seen before.
I believe the results of having an all-female crew can be seen on the screen. On set were able to create a supportive environment that allowed every woman to stay true to themselves, and the voice of the film is so strong and honest because of that.
With Below Her Mouth, I wanted to bring to life something audiences had never seen before on screen: an honest depiction of a female’s perspective on desire, love, intimacy, sex and heartbreak. The goal was to capture an electrifying moment of intense chemistry between two people when they least expect it. We get to follow our leads on this escape, a journey of heightened pleasure and deep emotion. The film itself is a whirlwind, all happening over the span of three days. We see the physical relationship and connection between our leads, Dallas (Erika Linder) and Jasmine (Natalie Krill), borne of the need to be close to another human being. Their coming together changes their lives completely. I always found fascinating the fact that we have the ability to fall in love with someone that quickly and have no control over it. I’ve recently experienced this kind of love and could relate to the characters and script in a strong way.
The decision to bring on an all female crew was an easy one: We wanted to depict the film via a “female gaze”—everything from the tone, to the feel, to the intimacy of the sex scenes. It gave the film as a whole an authentic female perspective. It also brought to life a feeling of being a part of something bigger than the film, giving the female voice a stamp on the screen. It was important for all of us on the film to expose ourselves (our fears, our comforts, our strengths, etc.) in order to creatively be transparent with the material.
The female voice, desires, all things sexual (all the way down to the female orgasm) are seldom represented in film, television and advertisements. Ninety-nine percent of my exposure to sex in film, TV and media is written by a man, directed by a man, and made to turn men on. This fact was something that was always on my mind while filming Below Her Mouth. I struggled to stay true to my inner sense of sexuality as a woman, and create a filmic narrative that was free from the usual tropes you would normally see in a male-driven film. I had to constantly remind myself to forget all of the “movie sex” I had seen before. Instead, I reflected inwardly on what turned me on as a woman—what my inner desires were, what made me want to be physical with another person. These are the moments I wanted to bring to the screen.
Once I had my vision intact, I relied heavily on the voices and creativity of my female crew. In prep, DP Maya Bankovic and I worked on our lighting palettes after our locations were chosen. We wanted each sex scene to have a very different and distinguishable look that matched the emotional journey between Jasmine and Dallas at each stage of their relationship. Our sex scenes needed to feel organic, like you were watching them unfold in real time. The lighting needed to embrace a woman’s perspective. It had to feel cinematic, yet not overstated, to amplify the intensity of the performance without ever taking away from our leads. I never wanted it to be about frontal lighting, with which we would see every inch of our performer’s bodies. Rather, I wanted to focus on the connection between the actresses.
We decided Dallas’ world would use a bold palette of reds and blues in her apartment while alone. While Jasmine was at Dallas’, we would use warmer light so she would feel more comfortable and safe. To achieve this, we had one warm source backlight on the bed during the first night sex scene. In contrast, the day sex scene was more exposed, using natural sunlight, as Dallas and Jasmine got closer and trusted one another more. For our final sex scene we used a chandelier to create intense, messy, animalistic lighting that matched the deep yearning and loss our characters were experiencing at that point in the film. I worked with as much natural and practical light as possible, allowing reflections, wall color and shading to help shape the visual tone.
Atmospherically, I wanted to create a sexy, safe place that gave us stunning visual images without ever distracting from the actors and the delicate moments on screen. I didn’t the film to feel polished and perfect. If there was an out-of-focus moment or a camera bump while we were with our actresses in the heat of the moment, it didn’t matter to me; as long as the performances were genuine and magic was happening, I let the camera roll. As a director, I would rather do one or two takes with moments of imperfection and keep everything fresh and unpolished, then do 10 takes and lose the rawness of the moment. Nothing in the film was over-covered, quite the opposite: I let the scenes and shots breathe on set. I wanted everything to feel unobtrusive.
Setting the stage was also a crucial piece of the puzzle to amplify the female touch. For example, production designer Faye Mullen created and installed a metallic wall that reflected light toward our actresses’ bodies and city movements outside the large window. Faye then matted and sprayed down a mirror that she positioned as the headboard for Dallas’ bed, to create depth and allow for some unique shots that wouldn’t seem overly composed.
Another reason why an all female crew was essential to Below Her Mouth? I truly believe that because of our crew, Erika and Natalie were able to let go even further when it came to their performances. They felt safe, trusting and open at all times on set, and were willing to let go physically and emotionally. They needed to connect on a level that transcended normal expectations between co-stars on a film. They needed to indulge in each other and allow their raw feelings to surface. Having an all-female crew made all the difference in the world. There was never any judgment; only encouragement and respect for what Erika and Natalie were bringing to the screen. We were all in awe of their performances.
Natalie, Erika and I spent so much time together, discussing every detail of the film in advance: all questions, motivations and blocking. This bonding time made for a seamless workflow and comfort on set. We were also strongly supported by writer Stephanie Fabrizi and producer Melissa Coghlan at all times, which helped us stay true to our original vision of the film. The five of us hold on to our connection dearly.
True love and its effects are such a difficult phenomenon to depict on screen, and it was a blessing that we were able to give this particular story a female voice. I am so proud of what we achieved with Below Her Mouth. The thin lens, zero filter and female touch can be felt in every frame. I can’t wait to bring every moment of it to audiences around the world. MM
Below Her Mouth premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. The film opens in theaters April 28, 2017, courtesy of Gunpowder & Sky.