Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | August 23rd, 2021
Director Marion Hill’s debut feature, Ma Belle, My Beauty (which I reviewed last week), premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Its theatrical rollout began on Friday, August 20, at New York’s Angelika Film Center, and will continue into September (you can check the movie’s website for a list of venues and dates). In the film, the New Orleans-based Hill examines the complexities of human sexuality, as her four main characters navigate the sometimes-treacherous waters of lust and love.
Set in the village of Anduze, in the Languedoc region of France, Ma Belle, My Beauty offers a talented ensemble of fine actors—Idella Johnson, Lucien Guignard, Hannah Pepper and Sivan Noam Shimon—who portray the members of a ménage à trois plus one. Bertie (Johnson) and Fred (Guignard), now married and bandmates together (she is the lead singer), were formerly in a polyamorous threesome with Lane (Pepper). Since Bertie is currently struggling with career motivation, Fred invites Lane to visit them in France, hoping she can help. When Bertie gives her the cold shoulder, Lane takes up with Noa (Shimon), instead. It’s complicated but fascinating. Here is a condensed digest of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Christopher Llewellyn Reed: Marion, I watched the short introduction to your film that was included with the press screener, and in that you state that you wanted to write a love story that was reflective of your own experiences with love. Is what we see on the screen therefore at all autobiographical or is it just thematically reflective of your own experiences?
Marion Hill: I think it is autobiographical in a few literal ways. The setup that they have is one that I have had before, but that said, it is mostly thematic. And I would say that each character embodies pieces of me as well as pieces of themselves as well as pieces of things we’ve talked about. So, whatever my quote in that intro was, for me, it was love in terms of the literal setup, but also love in terms of being cross-cultural, interracial love, or just love where people are speaking different languages, where you’re dealing with bisexual folks and fiercely gay or queer folks at the same time and things like that, as well.
CLR: Speaking of cross-cultural, why set it in France? My mother’s French and I grew up spending a lot of time in France, though I don’t really know Languedoc, where you shot this. How did you choose Anduze to film in? It’s a gorgeous location!
MH: Thanks! Well like you, my mom is of the French “variety.” She’s an immigrant but has been in France since she was a teenager. And so I grew up largely between Paris, where we had family, and also in the south and in that village specifically. So that’s sort of the closest thing I had to a sense of home in terms of being able to call people to help me and knowing the lay of the land on the back of my hand kind of thing. So I felt confident bringing people there, that I had the resources and the people to help me create the safe environment that I wanted for this production, because I really was bringing people really far out of their comfort zones. I had two people on the crew who had never even left the U.S. before. And yeah, we weren’t a huge production so I definitely wanted us to have a really thrilling setting that would give a lot to the story but would also feel really isolated and safe for us.
CLR: Well, how lucky you are that you have access to that location, because it really was beautiful. So, in that same intro that I brought up, you sit with your lead actress, Idella Johnson, and you mention how the two of you have known each other for a while and have shared a lot with each other. So, how did you two meet? It seems like a very close relationship.
MH: It is, yeah. We actually met in the New Orleans film community at the film festival. She had been in a short and I was there and I saw her short and then saw her at a party and we had this very instant chemistry in the way that folks do. And our relationship really kind of evolved. And even now, as we’re doing promotional stuff together, we have this whole new stage of our relationship where our dynamic is always shifting and it’s fun. But yeah, we worked really closely. I mean, it was kind of this interesting dating situation where we would go out and we would talk a lot … a lot, a lot. And I was telling her that I was writing and she went, “Okay.” And then eventually I sent her some pages based on everything we had been talking about. And thankfully, she loved them, and then we just kept having a similar dynamic with our process.
CLR: So would you describe your writing process as a kind of collaboration with Idella, with this back and forth?
MH: Yeah, totally. I would spend time with her and we would talk about things that had nothing to do with the story that were about her background, about artistic depression that we’ve both experienced, about our families, our relationships, our previous partnerships, and music, and it would all kind of just show up in the script somewhere for her. And she would kind of respond if it felt true to her.
CLR: How about the rest of your cast? Beyond Idella, how did you find the other three leads?
MH: Hannah, who plays Lane, was a similar story. We met in the queer community of New Orleans. I kind of knew Hannah from around; Hannah’s someone that sort of everybody knows in town because they do all kinds of things. They have many different jobs, a big personality. And I was always just very interested in Hannah’s energy and really felt that that was Lane’s energy, and that that energy would work really well with Idella’s energy, which was exactly right. So that was kind of that. Sivan, I knew from one of my first film festivals back in 2016. We met in Chicago and I saw her film, Blush.
And we kind of just developed a connection. She’s a filmmaker, too: she writes and directs and she would read a lot of my stuff. And we kind of just had this ongoing pen-pal, voice-note relationship, actually. We would send each other voice notes all the time and then I let her read. And then I told her, “I’m shooting this thing in France, are you interested in being in it?” And she said, “Why, yes.” And then I just wrote her into the script. And then Lucien was the only one who came post-script. I went looking for him and I found him through an acting coach in London and he sent me some tapes and I thought he was great.
CLR: And I assume that he’s able to play an instrument, right? I don’t know how much of that is him that we see on camera and how much is other people.
MH: Yeah. He plays the guitar for real in that opening scene, but the trumpet is dubbed. But he did a really good job learning to really look like he was playing it. And he could pull out a couple notes, but that was pretty fun, actually, when he would blow into it and it was not quite what we were hearing on the track. (laughs)
CLR: So, as I mentioned, your film has this gorgeous visual background, which is as much of a character as your leads, in many ways. Your cinematographer, Lauren Guiteras, does such a wonderful job photographing Anduze and its environs. I see on IMDb that she was the gaffer for a 2014 short, Monologue, where you were the Director of Photography [DP]. Is that how the two of you met? And if I’m not mistaken, this is her first feature just like it’s your first feature, right?
MH: Yes. This is Lauren’s first feature. We met at school, but I was actually her AC [Assistant Camera] when she was DPing, before she was gaffing for me. I learned a lot from her; she is a couple years older than me. And it was still a huge boys club in the camera world at the time and we were kind of the only two women. Not the only, but we saw each other deeply. And when it came time to shoot this, I mean, my whole approach to this project has been working with people that I know and trust, whether or not they’ve done it before or have tons of experience. Lauren didn’t have feature experience, but she knows what she’s doing more than anyone I know. And it was amazing working with her. She’s very strategic and just has such good ideas.
CLR: The music in your film is by the artist Mahmoud Chouki, and it’s lovely. How did you find him and begin that collaboration?
MH: We met in New Orleans in the music world. I was floating around the music world as a photographer and videographer. I worked for a while at a local radio station there. So I used to move around musicians a lot, which was also the inspiration for what these characters are going through as musicians. And what first happened was I asked him if I could use a track of his for my previous short film, Goddess House. And that ended up going very well. I love editing to his music. It’s just so fun. And so he eventually went, “Well, maybe we could do something else.” And I went, “Well, funny you should say that.” So we started writing the music. Well, we started kind of fooling around with a guitar, I guess, in 2018. So before I was even well into the script, he was helping me kind of craft the sound and talk about ideas, talk about what we wanted to do musically and ideas for the song that Bertie would sing in the movie. That was actually his idea, that whole scene.
CLR: And when Bertie sings, that’s the voice of Lilli Lewis, right?
MH: So Idella’s actually singing in the fire scene.
CLR: Oh, that’s her actual voice?
MH: That is her, yes.
CLR: Wow. She sounds amazing!
MH: She does! Definitely. And Lilli sings the reprise, the final soul version of the song at the end.
CLR: So not only is Idella wonderful as an actress in your film, but she can really deliver that tune.
MH: Oh, yeah.
CLR: I thought maybe you had her dubbed in that, but no, that’s really quite nice.
MH: (laughs) I don’t know that that would go very well if we were to dub something like that.
CLR: Well, you wouldn’t be the first filmmaker to do that, but yeah. (laughs) That’s great. So, is Lilli Lewis also from New Orleans? It seems like everybody in your film either comes from New Orleans or Anduze. (laughs)
MH: That’s pretty much right. And yes, she is also from New Orleans. She makes her own music. She also has her own record label. Her songs are under the Lilli Lewis Project and she’s awesome. I love her music. She’s a pianist and singer.
CLR: Well, I really enjoyed the film. Thank you so much, Marion. I wish you all the best with the theatrical premiere at the Angelica in New York. And thanks for talking to me.
MH: Thank you.