“Film-making is points of view, it’s confrontations of points of views on things. And somehow, being an observer, you’re inside but you’re also kind of outside.” Vladimir De Fontenay
Mobile Homes follows young mother Ali (Imogen Poots), as she tries to escape her aggressive boyfriend Evan (Callum Turner) for a better life with her 8 year old son Bone. Hiding overnight in an empty mobile home, they wake up to find it en route to a new destination, and the possibility of a new life for the two of them.
The film explores classically American themes and symbols: second chances, searching for a place to call home, trailer parks. It’s based on director Vladimir De Fontenay’s own short film of the same name which he made in 2012.
De Fontenay is French, and we talked about “outside in” filmmaking, needing distance to tell stories, what makes a home – and the practicalities of filming a scene set in a half-submerged mobile home. (Check out my review of feature Mobile Homes here)
WARNING – spoilers for the movie ahead…
Mobile Homes is based on your original short film, which I watched yesterday. Obviously the short finishes a lot earlier, Ali and Bone’s moment of hope is when they wake up in the mobile home as it’s travelling along the road. When did you first start planning the short? Because it’s been a long journey hasn’t it.
It was 2012 so I think it was five years. I was in film school, my second year; I was driving around the State of New York and I was passed by a mobile home on the highway. And it was like, such a striking vision, and I thought it was just so poetic.
It’s tricky because only now do people ask me “oh where does that come from, and why did you want to expand, or what were you trying to say with Mobile Homes…” It’s really something that I can maybe now talk about. But as you do it, you don’t know, it’s just instinctive. It sort of presses a button inside of you that you’re not aware of, and only now can I tell people that the mobile home embodies something that I was feeling at the time: that need for constantly escaping responsibility, moving from place to place, that feeling of needing to be unrooted you know?
You need that distance even dealing with your own stuff don’t you, you need a few years to look back and think “that’s actually why I did it”.
Exactly. I felt like I was at a time when I needed to be mobile, I needed to be separated from my family and friends, I could always recreate something somewhere [else]. And on the other hand I felt like I’m missing out on things, and I’m probably not growing up, because I’m constantly running away.
And my connection to the mobile home, I think was that one – it was just a contributory thing.
A home is usually that thing that’s grounded, vertical, and [the one I saw] was horizontal, on the road, vulnerable, shifting with the wind, you know?
Obviously for Ali she’s living in poverty and she’s living in danger, but apart from that did you see something of her in you, and you in her?
Yes I think the way it works, so that was the mobile home, and then I started creating characters who’d have that ambivalence, those two very different forces in them.
That need for constantly being on the move, and necessity, and making plans, and constantly pushing away a certain sense of responsibility.
And on the other hand dreaming big and having a feeling inside of them that they need a home, they need a safe environment for the kid.
So in some ways, what I was telling you earlier for example, if I had something that I was sharing with Ali it would be that feeling of… I guess she’s at an age where you’re no longer a child and not yet an adult, just negotiating with necessity or the desire to be unrooted. And having deep inside a feeling that you need to root yourself somewhere.
Running away to find stability…
I think also with Ali you see her when she’s trying to be a parent, and sometimes she’s trying to be his friend, sometimes she’s kind of exploiting him. And other times, like after the police raid, she’s crying, and it’s the first time you see her properly crying because she’s quite brittle most of the time. And you know she realises that you have to be a mother and you can do that in lots of different circumstances. I read that you wanted to make the longer film to see where the characters…
…and my thought at the end of a film like that is always what happens next! I was so pleased it finished on a bit of an uplift. She’s massively screwed up by running off with the truck, but then later when Bone gets off the bus and comes to find her you think they’ve kind of got a little chance now.
Yes for me it’s – not that I want to explain it – but that’s why I keep going back to the mobile home, because obviously it tells the story of a mother and the idea that she becomes a mother the day she decides to abandon her kid. Which I thought was a very interesting thing.
But the mobile home is the motif of the movie, and for me they only really find a home once that mobile home is sinking underwater.
You know, this idea of the home takes in a lot of different sorts of places, and structures. It’s a freshly-painted mobile home, and it’s this place where we can hide, and it’s this place that we’re gonna build, and then it’s this place that we’re gonna dream about, this place that we’re gonna steal, this place that we can afford, it’s all just different things but it’s also none of these things, and then ultimately they’re left with nothing.
Home is just the two of them together. When the mobile home sinks, we see the things that make up a physical home, the sofa and the chairs, floating off into the distance, and you’re right that’s all they’ve got left.
I have a personal story to share. I studied in New York for six or seven years then I did a lot of commercial stuff. I was writing just to pay the rent and stuff, but the rent in New York is so expensive I put everything I owned into storage in The Bronx.
I lived in LA, then I lived somewhere else, then I was shooting in Mexico, going to a festival, just travelling around. And I thought at some point I’ll bring whatever I have back to the new apartment I’ll have, or maybe I’ll bring it back to France, or whatever.
But it was $19 a month. One day I went back to New York, maybe a year later, and I wanted to grab some stuff from the storage unit because I was going to go back to France, and maybe I could leave some of it at my parents’ apartment. And I arrived and apparently there was a problem with payment on my debit card, and so everything I owned had been auctioned.
And I lost everything. Literally everything. Letters from my grandmother, photos, sweaters, and I think it’s one of these things, again, you’re just so not defined by what you own and what you have.
Was it almost a relief? Maybe not your grandmother’s letters but…
Once in a while you’re like “uh that sweater, where is it”, you know? There’s something cathartic about it. For me in Mobile Homes, it’s when you look at the curtains floating, and the door floating in the water; in some ways they’re all structure, things you built for yourself. It’s a thing that you hold onto but they don’t mean anything.
They can hold you back can’t they. When I was growing up our house was really cluttered, my mum was a bit of a hoarder, and now I’m not really emotionally attached to anything. l love having clothes and I’m quite acquisitive, I like buying things, but I have no emotional attachment to any particular thing. Sometimes I might think “yeah that sweater” but…
Because the reality is that I had been living for a year without anything.
And you manage without it…
Yes, I think it has some [resonance] with the idea that a home is not like property, a home is not a house.
In practical terms, when the mobile home has fallen into the water with the truck, and Bone, he’s just a child, how do you film something like that with a child actor in the water?
We went chronologically because for the chase and the mobile home falling in the water, no one has a book that we can open, and like, okay first step do this, second step do that.
So we really all sat in a room – the stunt drivers, the producers, the cinematographer, the Second Unit, everyone, we all sat in a room because we didn’t know if the mobile home was going to break into a million pieces.
You’ve only got one you can do that shot with, you can’t really get another mobile home!
Yeah exactly. Again, [we had] very limited control, and so we just at some point decided to do it chronologically. And [also] because we’d been trying to shoot Mobile Homes in a very organic way – you know, you lose a location, or there’s something imposed on you, and you have to react.
So basically you’re constantly in a state of improvisation. And when you work chronologically it’s so great as it forces you to be alert, to listen, to react.
So we filmed the chase without the actors then we emptied the mobile home, pulled it by tractor and threw it in the lake. We had a lot of different cameras, cameras on bamboos, to catch everything because you don’t know how it’s gonna fall. And then it was halfway in the water and half of it was submerged, and it sort of stayed there.
We stabilised it with a tractor and we said quick now let’s put the stunt doubles in the water, with long lenses, far away. And then we shot the actors by the edge [of the lake], with blood, drenched in water, looking at the mobile home.
And then we had huge trash bins of water on a parking lot and one of them, we cut off quarter of a mobile home that we suspended on the trash bin, and then we brought the actors and put them in the water. And that’s when we had [Bone] looking for his [pet] chicken.
With the truck, where [Ali’s] sort of half passed-out when it falls, and they’re bursting through the sinking truck, we did that in another trash bin. And then we cut half of the mobile home and we put it in this huge swimming pool and had the actors physically diving under and coming up.
Then I had all the connecting shots, and I could cut all these different things to create one long sequence. And it’s so much fun because it’s artificial, we’re really creating something that’s a patchwork.
You’re French, your two main adult actors are British. But the whole mobile home / trailer park thing is very American, and so is this idea of searching and travelling to create your home. Do you feel that with those kinds of stories, that maybe as an outsider you’re getting a better view? A bit like when you were saying with your own film, looking back at the short you can really see what you set out to do.
Definitely. I don’t know if this makes sense but the Americans always say “do you work from the inside out or the outside in”. I’m very much from the outside in. I’m drawn into environments or places where I don’t necessarily come from, just because I think I have way more of an observer’s position.
I can only offer my subjective look at things. I wouldn’t say I do a lot of research. I’m not doing a documentary, it’s a fiction. The more objective it becomes, the less subjective it is.
Film-making is points of view, it’s confrontations of points of views on things. And somehow, being an observer, you’re inside but you’re also kind of outside.
Some people have a problem with that, some people were like “how come a French guy is making a movie in dahdahdah and talks about the US” and I’m always like “but this is the history of film, of cinema”.
Because obviously I could talk about [Wim] Wenders in Paris, Texas or I could talk about [Michelangelo] Antonioni shooting the Berkeley riots in Zabriskie Point. Go back in time and you see cinema, it’s always been, when Visconti is shooting The Stranger in Algiers with Marcello Mastroianni in Italian.
I think stories – and some people really have a problem with that – stories are universal.
They transcend borders don’t they.
Yeah and in 2018, to think that stories should be told by the people who lived them? It’s just very limiting. Especially from an artistic point of view, from an intellectual point of view. And also when the story is a fiction, you know what I mean? Maybe a documentary about something, that might be far from [your experience], I can understand why maybe there’s an idea of appropriation of somebody else’s story.
But when it’s a fiction, for me it’s a problem. And I love that, yes, we had British actors [Imogen Poots and Callum Turner].
Robert [who takes Ali under his wing in the trailer park, played by Callum Keith Rennie], I thought he was American but he happened to be a Canadian.
You know, the post-production took us from Paris, to London, to Montreal, to New York. I love that at the end of the day you go to the US with a film and they’re like “wow it’s such a European take on this” and you go to Europe and it’s “it’s such an American [view]”.
And then you go to Greece and it’s like “it’s so relevant because with the Greek financial crisis, we’ve all been reconsidering the very concept of home because we’re growing up thinking that our parents might be kicked out of their homes”.
It’s an illusion to think that a story belongs to one specific place, and needs to be told a very specific way, for it to resonate with very specific people.
Especially if you want it to people to watch it all over the world.
Yeah it’s funny. And there are mobile homes everywhere and you can talk about it everywhere. But I think part of the reason why it makes sense to do it in the US is just that I had never been exposed to so many mobile homes.
I think it’s a society that pushes the concept of mobility to extremes. I feel like the US is such a vast area you get a sense that you can rebuild yourself in different areas and different territories.
Yes, you can reinvent yourself completely can’t you.
Completely – and also the culture has always praised the idea of a second chance, in a way that isn’t so prevalent in Europe, and I thought that there’d be no better place to talk about this story.
We talked about what happens to Ali and Bone later, but where do you think Ali comes from? Did you backfill her story as well, or was it “okay, this is where we’re starting from”?
Obviously I’ve written stuff prior to the movie and there’s always a moment where “this is when the movie starts”. But it’s like, I’d be telling you she’s from that background or she’s from that other background; it wouldn’t matter because it’s not in the film.
In the same way that if you said “what happens three days after the ending of the movie?” I can tell you that they are in a good place but ultimately even if I say that, it’s just because I’ve made it so. [The movie is] defined by when it starts and when it ends. And there’s no right or wrong.
My take on Ali is that she’s a person who’s fallen into the cracks of the system and who’s been in a difficult situation with her family. Things went wrong. For me, I’ve always thought of her as a runaway kid, you know? She can deal with people in a way that you can understand she’s not been homeless for 20 years. She’s [had] homes, she’s been with people with money, she’s capable of interacting in a certain way and you see that in the movie I think.
Talking about being an outsider, do you want to make a feature film in France?
That’s a good question! Making a movie in France, there are a lot people people who’ve been asking me that question. I think so, I’ll do one. The next one is not going to be in France, it’ll be in Alaska, but yes I would like to do one. At first I wasn’t so into it, but I think one more.
But again it would have to be in a place and with people that are not… I wouldn’t be able to film in my street.
You’ve got to have some distance, even if it’s within France.
Yeah exactly. If that’s possible!
Watch the Mobile Homes trailer: