‘Below Her Mouth’ Dir. April Mullen Talks About The Female Gaze & Working With An All-Female Crew

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She may not be a household name in the film industry yet, but hold onto your hats because ‘Below Her Mouth’ has just firmly cemented April Mullen into the category of breakout director to watch. The Canadian-born director, actress and producer is part of a movement of women in film who aren’t just breaking barriers, they are kicking them down and demanding a seat at the table with their undeniable talent and creativity.

The film had its world premiere at the opening weekend of the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, no less, and is being described as “one of the boldest and sexiest dramas of the year” by critics. It stars model and actress Erika Linder, who also happens to be the new face of Louis Vuitton’s Fall campaign, and Natalie Krill. The story revolves around a passionate weekend affair between two women.

Dallas, a roofer, and Jasmine, a fashion editor who is in the middle of planning a wedding with her fiance, share a powerful and immediate connection at a club one night which turns into a connection that inevitably derails both of their lives. It’s not just the on-camera performances that are demanding attention, either.

Behind the scenes, April worked with an all-female crew and saw this job as an opportunity to share an intimate portrait of love and connection from a decidedly female gaze. We are at a tipping point in the film industry, where women, minorities and traditionally excluded voices are saying “enough” to the dominance of cis-gendered, white, male-driven content.

To get a sense of just how important the presence of women’s voices and perspectives in Hollywood and beyond are, we spoke with April about her TIFF experience, how she began directing, and why making films to please the male gaze is something she is no longer interested in.

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First off, congrats on being chosen to screen at the opening weekend of TIFF! How does it feel to be part of one of the world’s biggest and most important film festivals?

What a journey! The excitement and joy has been overwhelming and being surrounded by the hype has been contagious. The entire team has had butterflies all week. I’ve watched TIFF grow and grow over the years as I’ve grown in my career and it’s so great to see where it sits on the world stage today.

While attending Ryerson back in the day, I used to watch the lineups outside the Ryerson theatre grow longer every year and I always hoped to one day be a part of the festival.  When Below Her Mouth was officially accepted to TIFF it was surreal. I’m beyond thrilled to be a part of the festival and very honored to be selected. Also (having shot the film here in Toronto), it’s a bonus to bring it to the city of its birth — amongst friends and family.

You have been described as a “triple threat” for your work in acting, producing, and directing. Is there one you prefer more than others?

I love creating, no matter what the aspect of it is, but I have to admit, there’s something very addictive to the filmmaking process; the new daily challenges and the problem solving needed to keep it all alive. I love the process of having something conceived only in your imagination and then bringing it to life on screen. I adore the constant energy changes involved throughout the process — the entire medium is always in flux as it takes on its own voice and outcome.

Creating is like producing magic. I love finding a sense of awe in all I do. I also love working alongside a team — watching them thrive and hit new heights. I love pushing a team to try new things. The entire process is extremely rewarding. While directing, I fall in love with capturing those ‘special moments’ and being able to share them on screen. While producing, I believe so deeply in the film it makes me crazy — I’m always up for the most impossible tasks. While acting, I’m able to connect to the small, stunning parts that make human beings unique.  Every discipline is such a different beast, but gosh darn it, I love them all!

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What drew you to directing in the first place?

Tim Doiron and I started our own production company, Wango Films, while the industry was at a stand still and union strikes were occurring. We wanted to take action and not wait around for the phone to ring. We were just out of school, wildly ambitious and had no idea how big the mountain was we were about to climb. We had our youth and our dreams. We were naive and together our tenacious spirit kept us alive. We wanted to create our own work, our own content and find our own voice.

We’d come up with a concept and run with it. Tim did the writing and I did the directing. We both supported each film from the ground up. We brought the most out of each other creatively. We started with micro budgets features and slowly went up over the years in terms of funding for our features. I love seeing a project all the way through, from script, to screen, and even through the marketing. Directing was always in my blood. When reading a script I see it all in images, shots, cuts, sounds and music – all things needed to create the story. I even love the mathematical scheduling of days, hours, and shots!

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‘Below Her Mouth’ is a different genre to the films you have previously directed, what was it about Stephanie Fabrizi’s script that made you say “yes”?

It’s not everyday you get a bold, raw, intense, love story slide across your desk. This script had a very truthful voice and I was immediately drawn to the material. I found it exciting that it was simple in terms of structure, yet emotionally the most complex thing in the world to depict — the laws of attraction and love. With ‘Below Her Mouth’, we wanted to bring to life something audiences had never seen before on screen: an honest depiction of a female’s perspective on desire, love, intimacy, sex and heartbreak.

The goal was to capture an electrifying moment of intense chemistry between two people when they least expected it.  I always found it fascinating that we have the ability to fall in love with someone that quickly and have no control over it. I’ve recently experienced this kind of love and could relate to the characters and script in a strong way. I found it refreshing that the script wasn’t making a heavy-handed statement about love, rather, it just allowed for silences and creative freedom.

What we love about this film is the dominant female presence, not just on-screen but behind the scenes. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

I believe the results of having an all-female crew can be seen on the screen. On set we were able to create a supportive environment that allowed every woman to stay true to herself. The voice of the film is so strong and honest because of that.

The decision to bring on an all female crew was an easy one: we wanted to depict the film via a “female gaze” — everything from the tone, to the feel, to the intimacy of the sex scenes. It gave the film an authentic female perspective. It also brought to life a feeling of being a part of something bigger than the film itself. It was important for all of us on the film to expose ourselves (our fears, our comforts, our strengths, etc.) in order to be creatively transparent with the material.

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Why was it important to have an all female production team for a story like this?

It was crucial to stay as true to our original goal as possible, which was to bring audiences a female perspective on the story. In every department we wanted to bring a female touch and gaze to the screen when it came to love and sex. This ‘female gaze’ included lighting, sound, wardrobe, camera movement, editing and music.

In order to bring to life something authentic we needed to all expose our female voice, creativity and truth. It was also an essential part in allowing our actresses, Erika Linder and Natalie Krill a safe and comfortable place to reveal their desires and be intimate. They needed to know they were supported and had the trust of all involved in order to go to the extremes the went to in their performances.

We are seeing a movement in the film industry where female actresses are recognizing the discrimination on a number of levels and are starting their own production companies, directing, writing and producing.  What is your perspective on this coming from the Canadian industry?

Well, I am one of those women! As a woman I didn’t see myself represented on screen and scripts written by women, with layered female characters are still a rarity. There’s clearly a trend in awareness now, with many highlighting the low percentages of women in the entertainment industry (in particular, in the director’s chair), but lack of diversity is one of the reasons I started my production company. Once my production company was founded I grew from there. I only know what my journey has been, but I do believe things are starting to change and support for women in film has begun.

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We often see sex and female characters portrayed from a male perspective, and for the male gaze. How are women in the industry, like yourself, changing this?

99% of my exposure to sex in film, TV and media is something that was written by a man, directed by a man, and made to turn men on. This fact was something that was always on my mind while filming ‘Below Her Mouth’. I struggled heavily trying to stay true to my inner sense of sexuality as a woman, and create a film narrative that was free from the usual tropes you would normally see in a male driven film.

I had to constantly remind myself to forget all of the “movie sex” I had seen before. Instead, I reflected inwardly on what turned me on as a woman – what were my inner desires, what made me want to be physical with another person. These are the moments I wanted to bring to the screen. I believe as more female scripts are produced and more female directors are at the helm the screens will reflect a new reality that female audiences can relate to and be refreshed by.

What do you hope audiences will enjoy most about ‘Below Her Mouth’?

The journey.  I hope they leave the cinema with a sense of freedom to be brave enough to surrender to their truth and their feelings.  If we are able to touch people in a way that opens their perception and minds to the female gaze we have accomplished so much.

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