Director April Mullen on how “Below Her Mouth” is all about the female gaze

One of the films that’s demanding the attention of queer women at the Toronto International Film Festival this year is most definitely ‘Below her mouth’. This sexy drama about two strangers who fall in love and lust over the course of a weekend is described by its director, April Mullen, as “a landmark in terms of its female gaze.” Let me tell you; her description is very telling (…)

april-mullen-la-times-shooting-11-09-2016-2 What attracted you to this script as a director?

April Mullen: When I first read the script I was blown away because I had never read anything like that before, in terms of its sex and its boldness and what happened between women. I loved that it was not a statement on anything. It was just love for love’s sake. And there wasn’t a huge turmoil or complex plot shifts. It was just this gorgeous depiction of this connection between two people and how that happens. I’m always so curious. I’ve been through that, and I always think, “How does it happen so fast and so ferociously that it changes your life forever?” That you can spend three days with somebody, and you literally jump into a whole new you and a whole new world, and you’re willing to go there. That really drew me to the material.

And there was these gorgeous moments of silence between them, and I felt I could bring a lot to the project. I felt I was ready to, as an artist, bring so much to the project in terms of sharing myself and my experiences and my female perspective with that take on what that instant is like when you meet somebody and sparks fly and you can’t live without them.

AE: How much of that was just a great script and how much of that was genuinely wanting to take on a queer love story as well?

AM: It was a bit of both. I feel so blessed that I was able to do a film like this because it’s not every day where a drama and a love story comes across your desk and it’s financed. I’ve been a genre girl, and I tend to always get pitched a lot of genre scripts because it sells, it’s international and, you know, they’re very successful. And they can be with a low budget and without stars.

So to be able to have a project with such substance and such depth and a special story and meaning to it, I felt incredibly blessed that the project came my way. It was definitely a challenge and something I had never tackled before, at all, in any way, shape or form. But I knew that I had a lot of that side waiting to come out of me, and I couldn’t wait to explode that onto the screen. I was dying for material that was this beautiful and this deep and this honest and raw.

AE: You made this film with an all-female crew. Can you tell me about when the decision to do so was made, who was involved in that conversation and why this was so important to your team?

AM: The decision was made right away. Very, very early on. Our original goal for this film was to show audiences something they had never seen before on screen. Because most of what we experience in terms of the general public and as audience members is predominately sex directed by men, written by men, and usually to turn men on. Now that’s fine because that’s just the way society is and it’s been like that for a really long time. But we really felt underrepresented in terms of the female perspective of what is sex for us, what defines our pleasures, our desires, What turns us on? And how is that depicted onscreen? If it was written by a woman, if it could be directed by a woman, played for women, and if we could have every key person creatively giving that female touch throughout the whole film, what would that look like? What would that truly look like? So that was our goal, was to really bring something new and fresh to the screen. We didn’t know what it would be or how it would turn out. You could only hope for the best and hope that everybody is bold enough and brings the most honest depiction of themselves creatively to the screen. I feel like we were successful in that original intention.

That’s what’s so exciting. It was difficult to find an all-female crew. It wasn’t easy. We’re talking everybody top to bottom. And there are very few females in the entertainment industry and in general, let alone the crew and behind the scenes. So we really worked for five months on never giving up on this idea of finding every single position to be a female. On the floor and behind the scenes. Even for score, editing. Everything. It was so important for us to stay true to our original intention. Everyone was involved in that decision and it happened very early on.

AE: Are you at all worried that the film will be viewed by some as too sexually graphic?

AM: I think it is a really truthful depiction of what happens when you meet somebody and that chemistry ignites this fire inside of your soul where you can’t get enough of the other person. Films only usually have one sex scene because that’s how it goes. But our film is literally about that. It’s about that spark, that chemistry that happens. And it’s amazing to be able to explore that and have several sex scenes between the girls because there’s a real journey. The first one’s about discovery and the unknown, the second one is about connection and quiet, intimate moments, and then the third one is about the raw, like animalistic impact of not wanting to let go of that person.

So I feel like every sex scene in the film offers a very different journey. Like they really are very, very different. And so I don’t think it’s repetitive in any way and I really feel that people will go on the journey with us. I don’t think they’ll step aside and think there was too much sex because I feel like it’s a celebration of freedom and lust and love and desire between two women. You’re so invested in the characters and the chemistry between the two of them and their entire arc of like growing with one another in that three-day span. That’s what you do. When you fall in love, you’re in bed and you just kind of don’t leave the room. You either order food in or eat a burger on the side of the road like I used to do. Like you just are so into the other person you can’t stand to leave them physically because you want to know everything about them and that’s how you get to know somebody initially.

AE: Do you believe most people will be quite aware of the female lens applied to Below Her Mouth?

AM: I think they will never have to be reminded because it’s so in their face. Like it’s so drastically different than anything I’ve ever seen before on screen. The quiet intensity between the two girls and the pauses and the moments of silence… Even the cutting style. The way it’s shot, the way it’s lit, and the choreography and the intensity between the two of them, it’s a landmark in terms of its female gaze. And I feel like there would be no mistaking it.

When you’re watching it, you will be able to feel it just because you’re so enwrapped in it. And you don’t know really what makes it different, but it’s so different and you just can’t help yourself but, you know, want to be drawn into the screen, rather than something coming out at you. It’s a film that really pulls you inwardly, and it pulls people into the journey between the two of them, rather than sort of gratuitous sex or hard impact things that usually jump out at the audience, and you feel like you should be watching it. This film feels like you shouldn’t be watching it because it’s so intimate, because it feels like you’re a fly on the wall, and you’re like witnessing a secret that you shouldn’t even really be a part of. So for those reasons alone, I feel like it will be pretty obvious that, whether it’s female or not, it’s just a unique depiction of love. And sex.

Below Her Mouth Poster

AE: Do you feel the movie takes on a new meaning the more you watch it?

AM: I’ve seen it like over a thousand times now. When I was watching it with the audience on the big screen, in surround sound, the montage where the day turns to night and you know that they’re leaving each other, I started crying. Unintentionally tears just started flowing down my face and I just thought of how beautiful and also how tragic love can be. That you can fall so deeply for someone and then you can also lose them. It’s like the fragility of life. And it’s so universal that when I watched it this time I just thought of its larger impact and how universal the theme of our film is. It’s not even about the sex. It’s about that depth in which human beings have the ability to let go and discover another human being. And we can only connect through physical contact. We have mental and spiritual, but this physical contact…

And then there’s also the tragedy side of losing that person and how fragile life is and that those things happen on a daily basis and how amazing that is. All of those things came into my head while I was watching the montage because it says, “I’m memorizing every part of you.” There’s such a tragedy to that line and also there’s such a sense of gratitude to that line. Like, “I can’t believe I’m feeling these sensations, but oh my god, what if they go away?” Those polarizing things just made me cry. And that never came to me before, so that was like a refreshing thought of the evening. So I do think that every time I watch it something new will jump out at me and have a heavy impact.

AE: From a recognizable gay Village bar to a scene in a very well known city strip joint, this film doesn’t hide the fact that it’s set in Toronto. Even Dallas, a Swede, living here makes total sense because of the city’s famed multiculturalism. So it’s appropriate that the film had its world premiere at TIFF, but I wanted to ask how important the city really is to the film. Could you see it being set anywhere else?

AC: I can’t because Toronto has such a sense of multiculturalism and freedom to it that it makes so much sense that these two feel comfortable enough to go there and fall head over heels in love with one another. Because the city itself it feels to me like it carries with it open arms. It’s a sense of surrender and no judgment. I feel like they would feel very comfortable in Toronto, and that’s so much of a blessing of where we live and where we’re from. I can’t see it set anywhere else besides Toronto because of those twinkling lights and that skyline. It’s very romantic the way we shot it. Even though it has the strip clubs and Church Street, there’s something very cinematic about it. It’s really alive. The city feels alive and like it’s breathing. And I feel like it matches the sex and the intensity between the two girls.

AE: Do you have any particular hopes for the film now that audiences and critics alike have seen it and can continue to see it?

AC: I hope it allows people to have a sense of freedom and break down any perceptions that they might have had going into it, or perceptions they might have had about love or reservations they might have had about same-sex relationships. And to me, if the film makes an impact in a person’s life, personally I feel like we’ve succeeded. And whether it’s one or a thousand, or it’s a strong review or a bad review, those things don’t matter to me as much as a filmmaker as if I make an impact in a single person’s life that day and make them feel comfortable to be who they are and walk the streets with pride. That means so much more to me.

A few really young girls in their twenties came up to me and just said, “Thank you. Thank you for giving us a voice and allowing us to feel comfortable. I can’t wait to show my friends. I feel comfortable coming out to my family.” Those things I hadn’t seen coming. I just feel like the film if it can make that kind of an impact, it’s done its job. Because that’s what our original intention was. So I’m not really worried about the industry and the financial successes as much as I’m so proud that it’s making personal impacts on people and their lives daily.

AE: Finally, can we expect to see you working on more LGBT-themed projects in the future? Either as an actor, director, or both?

AC: I certainly hope so. I would love to do any other projects. I’m not currently attached to any, but I’m definitely looking. If I’m blessed with a great script, and I’m definitely looking, I would be very honored to be a part of it. I think it’s a great community, and there’s not enough strong cinema out there for those voices, so I would love to put more on the screen.

Source : After Ellen (12.09.2016)


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