In what could very easily be the opening of a classic horror film Audrey Mascina – previously featured on Directors Notes with her powerful exploration of sexuality I AM THAT I AM – presents us with a bold and unexpected depiction of what can happen to two women walking home drunk at night. In Ludo, her narrative debut, Mascina eloquently sets the scene, dark pulsing lights, stumbling feet and then that long shadowy stretch of road where the tension of dark possibilities builds incrementally through each encounter these women have as they try to get home. Ludo, instead of focusing on the assumed fragility of these women and the vulnerable position they find themselves in, uses its nocturnal mise en scène to house two potent performances and in so creates a film in which its female protagonists take charge, which is exactly what we need more of on screen. Women are strong, we are fierce and we may stumble home late at night, but why should that automatically invite a narrative of victimhood? As part of Ludo’s online premiere today, Audrey took the time to sit down with DN to speak to us about her move from documentary into fiction, battling weather conditions and the challenges of back to back night shoots, and her strong desire to offer a disparate perspective on the capabilities of female protagonists in her work.

We last featured you with your documentary short I AM THAT I AM and this is your first fiction short, how have you found that move?

Exhilarating. It was my first short fiction experience and I just can’t wait to go further with a feature which I am developing from this. When you work in fiction, you need to dive fully into the world and story you’re creating. Breathe, sleep, eat with your film. I like the immersive sensation of this work process, the type of relationship you build with your actors, your crew. Whilst you do work this way in commercials, the level of passion, dedication and commitment is different in those more meaningful and heartfelt projects.

When you work in fiction, you need to dive fully into the world and story you’re creating. Breathe, sleep, eat with your film.

I work a lot with movement, but for once I enjoyed having more fixed camera shots and focusing on my characters, their emotions, the noise of their silence. It’s so great to see how a script comes to life, evolves and becomes even deeper with their acting, their personality. Directing actors and building up that connection to allow something bigger than words on paper to happen on screen is really challenging and exciting.

Where did the inspiration come from for Ludo?

The film is based on a real story that happened to a friend after a shoot. She woke up the next day and did not remember anything of the last part of the night after the club. She never knew if someone put something in her glass…but she had a total blackout. When she told me the whole story, I knew I needed to shoot it as I saw three interesting dimensions. The very universal character of being drunk out of a club and not knowing how you’re going to go home, with no phone, the cinematic side of the deserted night road and the whole danger potential, the friendship and the end twist…turning an abusive situation into something where women take back the lead. When I heard about the story, I was working with Badass Films, a commercial production company, that also wanted to develop more into fiction projects. I told the producer Marie Bordaz about it, she loved the ‘badass’ side of the whole story and agreed to produce and finance it. So I was very lucky to be able to skip the long and fastidious financing process.

I love the setting, on the side of the bleak deserted road, what were the specific cinematic inspirations you drew from and then implemented into the film?

As I mentioned, this is based on a real story and for me, a duo on a road with potential threats around immediately evokes cinematic inspirations such as Thelma & Louise and their fearless journey, Lost Highway aesthetic…I was also inspired by Promising Young Woman…as the context of the story is somehow similar to mine except that my characters did not fake being drunk but it’s that same idea of having women in a situation of vulnerability with people they meet who try to take advantage of them.

How did you balance the script and improvisation to ensure you got the best out of your actors’ performances?

A casting director’s friend helped me cast the girl duo. The brief was to find two girls, that don’t look fragile or vulnerable, who could express naturally that kind of sisterhood friendship, and exude an innate spirit of craziness. Once the casting was done, I did a lot of work sessions with the actors around the script, to improve the flow of the journey, the evolution of their relationship throughout the film and their clashes.

I wanted to let them own the words of certain dialogue, build up the emotional and body language of their complicity.

There is a hyperrealist dimension to the story that was calling quite obviously for improvisation to be authentic. It was actually the first question the actresses asked me during the casting. What’s the room for improvisation? Reading sessions with the actors to let them appropriate the characters, and infuse them with their own personality and life experiences. I wanted to let them own the words of certain dialogue, build up the emotional and body language of their complicity. We have challenged their journey in the film, how the different encounters they do, shape and affect their relationships, and where it was making more sense to let them flow.

Did you have to use any other lighting apart from the street lights? How much of a challenge did the night shoot present?

We wanted to have a look where the blacks are very black and street lights are the only colour in the film and also the main lighting except for a few portrait shots where we had small additional lights. It was quite a journey to find the right road, not so far from Paris, isolated, graphic, with lighting only on one side to have the right level of darkness. I remember my frustration at some point, I had to cope with certain limitations with the walking distances, which I wanted to be longer to express the passing of time, but we did not have enough equipment nor crew to light them on a longer stretch of road for medium shots.

I wanted lenses that have that amazing depth and velvet texture in the blacks.

How did those limitations affect your cinematography?

It’s all handheld to reflect the naturalist dimension of the film and the hectic body language of the protagonists. The only big technical gear we had was a low-loader, to shoot the last scene inside the car, and a stunt to drive the first car that almost knocks her over. We shot with an Alexa Mini and Panavision lenses. I wanted lenses that have that amazing depth and velvet texture in the blacks. In terms of chroma I originally wanted it very dark, with only the white lamps of the road and the lights of the cars but we turned it into something black and orange, because it’s too heavy to change all the road lights.

There is that tension and grey edge throughout that only women know, that threat even if it isn’t openly evident – how did you manage to convey that feeling so well?

With a mix of different elements that build up and reinforce the sensation of loneliness. Starting with their drunk status and altered perception of things. The location. This unfriendly, dark, isolated road, where you feel that threat can pop out of nowhere. The impossible communication issues, from the no battery to the no network. And of course the noise of silence. It was a huge brief for the composer, creating tension and the feeling of threat with all those ambient metallic sounds and drone sounds and only bringing on melody in very specific moments.

As you shot over two days how did you keep the energy and that same tension over both nights?

I have been waiting for this moment for so long so I did not allow myself to be tired. And even if you feel at some point a bit tired, you’re just driven by this determination to get the shots you want as powerful as possible, so you get over it. The real difficult element of outdoor night shoots is the weather. We shot in early January, so it was cold and rainy. And on the second day, it started pouring like crazy, just at the moment to shoot one of the last and most important scenes. Everybody was really tired, we were already working overtime and there was no way to shoot with the rain. So that was a very tense moment, to get everybody back for that moment and push for shots we technically did not have more time to shoot, but they were essential for me in terms of editing.

I like badass, fearless, WTF, wild at heart, multi-layered characters, both strong and vulnerable.

We need / I want more badass women, strong, independent and able to handle their own shit. What does it mean to you as a female filmmaker making a film about such women?

As a woman and female filmmaker, I want to bring another perspective on feminine characters other than just being fragile, abused and victims. I like badass, fearless, WTF, wild at heart, multi-layered characters, both strong and vulnerable. What I loved in that real story which inspired the film was being able to tell a story that many women can relate to because it’s quite a universal situation. But instead of turning into the expected drama, or letting them be in this vulnerable position, show how they take over, and at some point in a controversial way.

How is the feature film progressing and are you working on anything else at the moment?

I still have pretty much everything to do, but I’m very happy with the storyline and how it unfolds. Summer is going to be a great opportunity to work on the film. I also have a dance film project for which I’m looking for partners to develop.

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