As she progressed in her burgeoning career Emma Branderhorst was pulled to direct a film which not only suited her style but which she had an emotional connection to. Ma Mère et Moi (My Mother and I) came to fruition after she bravely pulled out of a project which she didn’t feel entirely invested in and is a reflection of her passion for filmmaking and telling stories which mean something to her. Ma Mère et Moi follows Kees and her mother on a road trip from the Netherlands to France where their incredibly strong, but perhaps unhealthy, relationship is about to change irrevocably as they part ways. Branderhorst has a strong focus on character driven films which sees her draw you into the worlds she creates with close-up camera work and her personal unflinching gaze. Branderhorst was first featured on DN with her Oscar-qualifying short Spotless, an impressively forthright depiction of the stresses of period poverty, and so we were eager to catch up with her ahead of Ma Mère et Moi’s world premiere at Berlinale tomorrow to speak to her about finding a writer who could also relate to the nuances the mother daughter relationship, the initial fear of abandoning a project mid-stream which didn’t feel right and her hands on role in the edit.[The following interview is also available to watch at the end of this article.]
Can you tell us about the concept and how you came to be working on the script for Ma Mère et Moi?
Ma Mère et Moi (My Mother and I) is a film about a mother and a daughter. Our main character is a 17 year old called Kees who wants to roam far away from home but her mother doesn’t seem ready to let her go. They struggle with a very close almost symbiotic relationship and we follow the paths that are suddenly separating in their lives. Kees wants to go to Marseille to follow a language course but her mother wants to keep her close. I have quite a turbulent relationship with my mother and I think at a certain point, when you’re younger, it’s so important to let each other go and to choose your own path even if it’s difficult for the relationship. My mother wanted to keep me close to her but I really wanted to break free as we’re such different characters. I wanted to capture that particular moment, the moment you break away from your parents.
I could just do whatever I wanted, with no strings attached and try different things.
Nena van Driel wrote the film which was made from a wildcard. Three years ago, I won a prize for my graduation movie from a film fund here to do whatever I wanted to. Right after school, I started to work on a film with another writer but as we went into pre-production I decided it wasn’t the film I wanted to make. It was a great script but it didn’t fit me. I was so worried as I was one year out of graduation and I was anxious about getting a bad reputation but I had an idea to make a film about my mum which I thought would be the perfect wildcard as I could just do whatever I wanted, with no strings attached and try different things.
I really wanted to make a film abroad so wanted to add all those ingredients and started talking with Nena. I told her I had the money, I had an idea about a mother and a daughter on a trip, let’s make it. She also has a very hard relationship with her mum so we really found each other there. We talked a lot about the history with our mums and our relationships and we started to write, it was an amazing process.
I admire you knowing exactly what you wanted to make, did you find the whole process of dropping that initial project difficult?
I thought it was horrible. I had such a wonderful production company and my producers were so nice and everybody was doing such a good job. A lot of research had already been done and we had started to cast when I realised it wasn’t what I wanted to make. At that moment I felt very shit I have to say but I’m so happy I made that choice because now I really think I have to follow my gut feeling, I think that’s what I learned from it. I also had to change production companies as the company for the first script had a big feature starting and they couldn’t work on the new script. So I had to find another producer and had a lot of meetings with the film fund because they didn’t want to encourage this way of working. I’m so happy with the result, it’s a story I really wanted to tell and I wanted to make. The premiere at Berlinale is the cherry on the cake which is amazing. It also could have gone in a different direction but I’m happy that it worked out this way.
In our interview for Spotless you spoke about a preference for working with non-professional actors, was that the case here?
Our main actor for Kees, Celeste Holsheimer, played in one film when she was very young and when I saw her at the casting, even though she was 40 minutes late and hadn’t rehearsed, I immediately knew that she had to play the part. I approached her rehearsal in the same way I did with Spotless, we became friends and she cooked for me and invited me over to her place and we spent a lot of time together. It was different because I had another actor, the mum, who played a very big role in the film as well. It was so important to me, in this film, to create the two character arcs. I really wanted to show that I can work on building two different characters which will help me in a feature or series. We rehearsed together a lot. Hannah van Lunteren, who plays the mum, is a professional actress and so she really lifted up Celeste. In Spotless, I had to get everything from Alicia as the main character but now I had two actors and Hannah could really lift up Celeste and make her a better actress on set, but also in the rehearsing. Hannah is a very professional actress who I was so excited to work with, she is at another level of acting.
The challenging relationship between the mother and daughter feels so real, did that develop naturally between them?
Actually, no. The three of us spent a lot of time together. From the start they had good banter and look-wise, you would think they’re a mother and a daughter but we did a lot of improvisation on set and when rehearsing. I had the script of course and then at certain moments I told them we were going to rehearse a scene that would have happened before or what could happen after this moment which really created a competitive air between them. Because of the improvising they really understood their characters and their relationship with each other. This really helped on set as I would take them back to a certain moment where they clashed and wound each other up which they struggled with as they actually got on so well. It’s a fine line on set.
We also struggled in the edit because at times, Lois was just too nice or Kees was not hard enough so we cut out a lot of scenes in the edit. I’m horrible in the edit because the whole script goes away and I make new scenes and it’s awful for the editor. But I think we really created that tension even more in the editing.
Shooting on the road can bring its own challenges, were you all travelling together?
Yeah, it was so nice but also so hard because we didn’t have any money and I had a lot of expectations. We had six shooting days and we’d been on the road for 10 or 11. All of the interior shots were captured in the Netherlands and then we went to Belgium in convoy. As I was looking for that reality, there was a lot of improvisation such as at the flea market. I wanted it to feel like a documentary. I think we were just 12 crew members so super small with no lights, only natural light. We shot all the driving scenes in Marseille as we wanted to show that they were really driving from the Netherlands. From Belgium, some of us took a plane to Marseille and part of the crew drove on. It was hard and everyone did everything. We were in a real bubble which was so important for the characters’ relationship before we had to rip them apart.
With my camera work I really wanted to forget the world around them. This is why I focus on them.
As a filmmaker, you have a very naturalistic approach and use some beautiful close-up shots which draw the audience in. How do you know what to focus on?
The only thing I’m focusing on is the feeling that I get from the character. There are a lot of films about your mom being fucked up and the girl wanting to get away from the mom but I think there’s so much more nuance in those relationships. It was so important for me to show that they had a very loving and caring relationship. I wanted to make it hard because we have to make a cut and we have to rip the relationship apart because that’s what Kees wants and that’s what the characters need to build to. I think the slow motion shots and the dancing scene embody their relationship. Kees is, of course, embarrassed and Lois takes centre stage but in the end they come together because they love each other. In every relationship between a mom and a daughter there are a lot of irritations and a lot of things you really don’t get but at the end of the line whatever happens, you love your mom. You’re always going to be connected and I wanted to show that. With my camera work I really wanted to forget the world around them. This is why I focus on them in close-ups.
What you’ll also see in my edit is that I have a lot of shots from different angles. I do it on a 50mm and do it on a 25mm and maybe on a 12mm but in the edit, I always end up with 40mm or 50mm shots. That’s how you can really put them in a box and really show their world. I think if you give them, or the audience, too much space, you’re going to be distracted. I really try not to use a lot of wide shots because I think you lose focus on the story. I deleted some lovely wide shots as they are establishing the scene and are unnecessary, you just have to get a feeling of the scene.
How long did the post production process take you?
With Spotless we had two weeks which was more than enough. We started with two for this but in the second week, I realised it wasn’t enough. This relationship is so subtle and whilst you have to understand Kees, you also have to understand the mom. It was a very big puzzle. We had an edit lock after the third week and I took two weeks off to detach from the movie because I was getting fucked and I had to take a break. During that break I realised it wasn’t right and I had to replace some shots. There were too many wide shots which weren’t important. So we went back to the edit and we had another two days and we took out all the wide shots and replaced them with closer shots. Even in the sound design I still had some things I wanted to adjust. I really pushed it to the limits. It’s not that I’m insecure but sometimes you just see things differently when you take a break.
I’m horrible in the edit because the whole script goes away and I make new scenes and it’s awful for the editor.
I think that’s something hard about the post-production process because everything is in steps. First you have the edit, then you have the sound. Of course, you can always go back but it always feels like a hassle. This is what I’ve learnt for the next film, you can edit together instead of seeing it in phases but that’s just me being impatient.
How are you feeling about screening at Berlinale again?
This is my third time, the first time was super overwhelming and now I’m feeling more ready for it. I’m very ready to show the film and feel very confident. The first film Under the Skin was my graduation film and when that one was selected, I was like, “Oh my God, this is so cool.” Then with the second film Spotless, I was of course so happy, but I thought they probably chose it because of the subject matter as it’s such an important topic in society. And now with this film, I feel this is really a film that tells my story, it’s a character study and I thought if it was selected I can believe in myself as a filmmaker. Then they selected it and I was like, “Holy fuck!”, I was going through the roof. I think I felt relieved the most. I felt so much pressure to make another good film after Spotless.
When we last spoke, you were developing a feature film about addiction. How’s that going?
I’m still working on that right now, we’re working on the first big draft now. I did a lot of research and then when I read the first pass I realised it wasn’t personal enough. I really need to put something very personal from my life as a teenager in the film. It’s challenging but I think it’s super important to really tell my story. I’ve also been coming to the UK, I’ve been signed by The Corner Shop who are making commercials and fiction so I’ll be going to London next month to explore the market there.