Exclusive Interview: queer Sundance award-winner Ma Belle, My Beauty filmmaker Marion Hill & stars Idella Johnson & Hannah Pepper “we created this really beautiful container in which desire & intimacy can live”

Writer-director Marion Hill’s queer romance Ma Belle, My Beauty had its world premiere at Sundance, going on to win the Audience Award in the NEXT section of the festival. It’s a gorgeously sun-drenched character-driven drama set in the South of France where Lane (Hannah Pepper) unexpectedly visits her ex-girlfriend Bertie (Idella Johnson) and Bertie’s husband Fred (Lucien Guignard). Bertie, who had been in a polyamorous relationship with Lane and Fred back in New Orleans, is grieving the death of her mother, while Lane strikes up a new romance with an Israeli woman, Noa (Sivan Noam Shimon).

During Sundance, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with filmmaker Marion Hill and actors Idella Johnson and Hannah Pepper about shooting on location in the South of France, New Orleans music being integral to the film, collaborating on the sex scenes including explicit moments of consent on screen, and their favourite LGBTQ+ culture.

Marion Hill, director of Ma Belle, My Beauty, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Nkechi Chibueze.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Marion, why did you choose to set the film in the south of France?

Marion Hill: “Mostly for personal connection reasons, I have family roots in that region of France. We actually had a place where we could film in a tiny village where I essentially grew up. It was about bringing together many collaborators who I’ve met all over the place in life and gathering in this one isolated spot to make a film. I wanted a love story in a secluded romantic place that wasn’t full of tourists and felt like a vacuum in which exciting tension could happen.”

For you as actors, why were you drawn to be involved in the film, aside from the beautiful location of course?!

Hannah Pepper: “It’s an actor’s dream to have a character with such a rich inner life and someone whose journey you can chart from the first page to the last page. I immediately saw how much Marion believed in the film but at the same time I could tell that she was also really curious about it and that’s the perfect place to play as an actor. If you have a director who’s confident and curious, so much magic that can happen, so that really pulled me in initially. Then once I’d met Idella I was like, ‘Okay, here we are!'”

Idella Johnson: “Well, New Orleans where I live is a great city but it was very refreshing to get away. I felt this new energy and beauty in the South of France and that definitely helped a lot in playing my character.”

Lucien Guignard, Idella Johnson and Hannah Pepper appear in Ma Belle, My Beauty by Marion Hill, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

There’s a really rich history between Lane and Bertie, so there was a lot of backstory story for you to create among yourselves. What was that like for you to collaborate on as actors, and for you as a writer Marion in terms of what you do and don’t reveal to the audience about their past.

Marion: “That was definitely a big challenge when writing, in terms of how I was going to show the audience what the history between them was, because so much of it happens before the film starts. Trusting the audience is something that is really important to me and empowering them to watch the film and draw their own conclusions was what I was going for across the board, backstory included. When the actors came on board it was so fun to hear their own interpretations. Together we were able to shape that backstory and really live through what we don’t see in the film. The three of us went on a retreat two months before filming and we talked about what we thought their relationship had been like based on the script, but we also explored what we wanted their relationship to have been. It was very collaborative. We played with some scenes of Lane and Bertie back in the day when they were together as an exercise which was really fun.”

Hannah: “Yeah, that was really great because that also became this sensory and emotional memory, both of the narrative that we’d created and also the memory of being with Marion and Idella. We would often laugh about creating those memories, things like, ‘Oh, that’s such a funny name we just made up for your old lover!’ Or when we were taking old photographs, that was fun too. Those are used in the film, but that also helped us to build a connection. When we were shooting the film we could both draw on the factual backstory that we had created as well as the emotional memory of the time that we’d spent together creating that backstory, so that was really cool.”

Idella: “That helped a lot for me because I’m used to doing that work on my own and then you go into a situation where everybody has their own ideas of what they think the backstory is. So having that retreat and being able to build that together made the backstory feel very real and rich. It felt like there was a real history there.”

Idella Johnson, Sivan Noam Shimon and Hannah Pepper appear in Ma Belle, My Beauty by Marion Hill, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Lauren Guiteras.

It paid off and that history is palpable from the first moment that they see each other again at the start of the film. There’s a lot of sexual tension and then there are two sex scenes in the film and in both of them there is an explicit moment of consent where one asks the other, ‘Can I?’ That struck me because I can’t remember seeing that moment on screen being played out in that way before. Marion, as writer-director why did you want to include that and what did you want to do with those sex scenes more generally?

Marion: “I’ve always been frustrated by how often sex is used in film as a replacement for a conversation or as an indication of something. For me, these sex scenes were not so much just sex, but they’re like a conversation between the two characters. Both of the conversations are very different. For the actors, the way we choreographed the sex scenes was really a conversation too between the three of us and with my cinematographer Lauren Guiteras. The whole shooting of it was a conversation, so it felt very natural for the characters to be talking to each other. Consent is of course so important in life in general and people having sex need to be talking to each other, so it was a no-brainer for me to include those moments.”

Hannah: “I think the sex scenes show that consent is really hot. Those moments of ‘Can I?’ and then sitting at the edge of your desire, thinking what is this person going to say? That’s so erotic in a way that just going for something really isn’t. I hope that’s coming through in the sex scenes themselves and also in how we made them. We had conversations on set about what we were nervous about and what we felt comfortable with. We blocked it out and rehearsed it. We talked about what aspects of sex we wanted to see represented that we don’t usually see represented. We created this really beautiful container in which desire and intimacy can live, which I think really pushes back against this idea that sex is best when it’s spontaneous and unrehearsed. In terms of both the experience of being in the sex scene that we were filming and later watching it, I was like, ‘Wow, the fact that we put a lot of love, care, and communication into this created a container in which a really beautiful desire could live in and be seen. I’m excited for what that means for queer cinema and for queer sex to live in that area, because it’s really rich.”

Idella: “Having that tension throughout, but also having those boundaries that you’re trying to enforce, and then once that moment happens, knowing that I could trust the other person was really important. That sense of, you got me and I can let go with you was very beautiful for me.”

Music is obviously very important in this film and I noticed in the credits that all the musicians are New Orleans based, how did you approach that aspect of the film?

Marion: “Music was a key thematic element on screen in terms of what musicians and creators go through. Music has always been a driving force in my work and my stories. I think there’s something very subconscious and subtle that you can create with music. I actually started working with my composer Mahmoud Chouki way back when it was just an idea, before I even had a script. My goal with him was to let him drive me and for what I wrote to drive him. For me, music, visuals, and story all have to be born together. He had actually written most of the score before we shot the film. You hear some New Orleans traditional jazz on the score and also influences from all over the world and that’s really what the music of New Orleans is. The musicians here in New Orleans often come from other places or have drawn a lot of influences from their travels and that seemed to speak to what the story was about so much.”

Audre Lorde lectures at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, 1983. Photo credit: Robert Alexander/Getty Images.

Do you each have a favorite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+? Someone or something that’s made an impact on you and resonated with over the years.

Marion: “I keep Audre Lorde’s work by my bed because she feels like a mentor to me as far as the intersections of her identity go and her activist spirit and her emotional self. I am really inspired by her and these days especially I often return to her words for strength.”

House of Pentacles (HOP) is a Film Training Program and Production House designed to launch Black trans youth (ages 18-35) into the film industry and tell stories woven at the intersection of being Black and Trans.

Hannah: “I’m really excited by the work of this collective of Black trans youth from the ages of 18 to 35 in Durham, North Carolina, they’re filmmakers called House Of Pentacles. They have this documentary called Mama, Can We Talk? about coming out as trans which I saw a few years ago and it had a really big impact on me and so I continue to follow the work of the collective and the films that are coming out of there are really compelling.”

Idella: “I’m very inspired by the people that I know in the community that I work in and by those people seeing the importance of connection and equality and freedom and just having a voice. To see those people really rising to the occasion to fight for that has been very inspiring to me, especially during the time where we’re in right now.”

By James Kleinmann

Ma Belle, My Beauty had its world premiere at Sundance where it won the NEXT Audience Award. It was recently purchased by Good Deed Entertainment.

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