I met with director Josephine Mackerras at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival to discuss Alice, her narrative feature debut (which I reviewed for Hammer to Nail). It tells the story of the titular character, whose world falls apart when she discovers that her husband has frittered away their life savings, and their mortgage, via a secret sex addiction. He has also vanished, leaving her to pick up the pieces and take care of their young son, alone. Alice responds to her sudden precariousness in a surprising way, plunging into sex work, herself, and one of the great strengths of the movie is the nonjudgmental manner with which Mackerras views Alice’s choices. It is also a tale of beautiful female friendship. Here is a condensed digest of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Christopher Llewellyn Reed: So, you’re an Australian living in France, and Alice, which is your first feature, is in French. How did you end up in France?
Josephine Mackerras: Well, I was in theater for a long time and went to France to study with Jacques Lecoq, and then I ended up staying and became French.
CLR: Oh, so you now have French citizenship?
CLR: Did you speak French before moving to France?
JM: No, no, no. I didn’t even know what “ça va?” meant. And then, because I’m also an actor, suddenly, when you go to France, it’s very difficult. And then I fell in love with the whole Dogme movement, and knew I wanted to make films, so I went to New York and studied filmmaking at NYU. I then went back to France and then made a short film in the Czech Republic.
CLR: And you’ve made five short films?
JM: Yeah, five shorts.
CLR: So, how did this new idea come to you for your leap into features?
JM: It started actually in a screenwriting class where we did an exercise of putting opposite traits together, and I came up with this pitch, and then started looking into the politics behind it. There was the whole Eliot Spitzer thing in 2008, and I remember reading the account of one of the girls who was outed, who was also a literary professor, and she was writing about her experience; she got fired when she was outed. And then when, a few years later, Spitzer ran for office again, it was as if all had been forgiven.
CLR: Except he lost. He ran for Comptroller and lost.
JM: But I remember reading about how he got his career back.
CLR: Sure, although some of that was his family’s real-estate business. That’s easy, right? Daddy’s not going to fire you. Although, yes, he has been able to continue in other areas, as well.
JM: Whereas she couldn’t get a job, even five years later.
CLR: There’s definitely a disparity there.
JM: That definitely interested me. Once a hooker, always a hooker; once a whore, always a whore. Whereas he …
CLR: Yeah. You can be a john, and it’s fine. But there’s something dirty about a woman doing it.
JM: Yeah! And there’s even a series called Gigolos, and even the name “gigolos” has a more positive ring to it than “whore.”
CLR: Right! (sings) “I’m just a gigolo” …
JM: Voilà! C’est ça. But you don’t sing “I’m just a whore!”
CLR: You don’t. You hear songs that proclaim “Like a virgin,” however …
JM: Yeah, yeah! So, I thought that was really interesting, and that inspired this idea of the “good girl turns bad,” but making it more interesting than that, obviously. (laughs)
CLR: And one of the things I really like about your film is that you in no way make what she is doing seem sordid. She is doing it for very specific reasons.
JM: Which most of them are.
CLR: And it’s a liberation for her, in a way, because she’s making money.
JM: She’s found a solution.
CLR: And your film is a brief exploration of a certain kind of male desire, as well as an exploration of a certain kind of female emancipation, but one thing that’s not explored is actual female desire.
JM: Right! It’s not at all about female sexuality. When I was pitching it, I would get asked if it was going to explore female sexuality, and I would say, “Excuse me, but you don’t go into a room with someone who’s paying you to explore your own sexuality.” That’s not what prostitution is. It was not at all about her sexuality. I’m glad you made that distinction.
CLR: I mean, you could have made a film where, separately from the prostitution angle, she’s also exploring her desire, but that’s not part of this particular story.
JM: No, that’s not part of the narrative.
CLR: I thought maybe you were going to go there with her and her fellow-prostitute friend, since they develop such a close bond, but no. Speaking of that, how did you cast, because I really liked the two women, Emilie Piponnier and Chloé Boreham, and then Martin Swabey, as the husband, does what he’s supposed to do, which is be scummy. The two women are wonderful. How did you find them?
JM: Well, Emilie Piponnier, I found through my casting agent, Elise McLeod. All the French actors came through her. Elise is also an acting teacher and a director, and is Australian, too!
CLR: Wow! All these Australians in France!
JM: (laughs) Yeah! Australians, man! So, she put me in touch with all these wonderful actors. And then Chloé Boreham, I met at a party, and I saw her showreel and she was just great.
CLR: She’s a director, too, right?
JM: She’s a director, too. Yeah. A very talented director and actor.
CLR: And where did you find the extremely blond Martin Swabey?
JM: I actually met him in Cannes, about three or four years ago or so. We met on a boat and ended up having this really intense conversation for about two hours. And then he sent me a showreel. And then a few years later, when I was casting for this, I was actually going through headshots, and I saw his headshot, and I just knew, he was François. And I was right. I thought he was incredible.
CLR: Probably my favorite incidental character in your film is the multilingual madam. I loved that actress and I loved that part. You kind of regret that she’s not using her skills for something else.
CLR: Because she speaks all these languages! How did you cast her? I speak Russian, as well as French, and she’s perfect!
JM: She’s incredible! Even physically, the way I wrote it in the script, it’s her. The long brown hair, a bit heavy, with that large bosom. Elise sent her to me, and then it just turned out that she could actually speak all those languages. I mean, what are the chances?
CLR: And what is her name?
JM: Rébecca Finet.
CLR: And she’s French?
JM: She’s French. And what are the chances that she not only physically resembled the character I had written, but could also speak those languages? How many actresses are that good, of that physical type, and speak all those languages?
CLR: I really wanted to know that character’s story. So, when you make a sequel, it should be about her. (laughs)
JM: (laughs) Right!
CLR: In your film, despite the high drama, you do have these moments of humor, most of them in the sex-work scenes, which are laugh-out-loud funny in a few places. Did you do research for these? Did you come up with them on your own? Did you talk to women who do sex work?
JM: Yes, of course. I did. I talked to women who did sex work, I researched it, and then those sorts of things just came out of my writing. I mean, nobody told me that those specific things actually happened.
CLR: Well, they’re very clever. I was not expecting those moments. She’s nervous, it’s her first time, and then this really funny thing happens that is not so pleasant for the man. I thought that male actor in the scene was great, too.
JM: Oh, my God! Philippe de Monts! He is an amazing actor. He is so truthful. He doesn’t act.
CLR: And in that scene, yes, he’s a john, but he’s kind of trying to make it go well. He can sense she’s nervous, but he’s trying to be helpful.
JM: He’s a nice guy. He just wants to get something. He’s doing the right thing in that moment. (laughs)
CLR: (laughs) So, what were the challenges, for you, in making the leap from doing shorts to doing a feature?
JM: I don’t even know where to start! I mean, a short takes a few months and a feature takes years.
CLR: How about with financing?
JM: I auto-produced everything. This film was made for almost nothing. We shot with my own money, and then Emilie did a crowdfunder.
CLR: Your actress.
JM: Yeah. I mean, she did the page and she put it out on Facebook.
CLR: That’s nice to have your actress doubling as your fundraiser.
JM: Yeah! Well, you know, this is guerilla filmmaking, and we were just financially drowning.
CLR: I once made a film where my actress doubled as my location manager, because I used all her apartments. She had money, so we just shot in her places. I mean, she was also a good actress, so …
JM: Right! Our film was shot in my flat. That’s my apartment.
CLR: Nice apartment! (laughs)
JM: (laughs) It’s a nice apartment, right? I can’t afford it …
CLR: Well, budget or no budget, it’s still nicely shot, with a nice final drone shot.
JM: Yeah! Mickael Delahaie, the cinematographer, was amazing. It was real luck, because he didn’t have a showreel or anything. He’s very young. He had a camera, though. And I just wanted to make this, and then I met up with him and it just turned out to be the best decision I’ve ever made. I mean, you see, he’s great. And he only had, like, two lights.
CLR: Well, Josephine, congratulations on the film. I really enjoyed it and wish you all good things with it.
JM: Thank you so much!