SXSW 2021 Interview: Molly Gillis on Where the Spirit Moved Her in “Plaisir”

You wonder where Eleanore (Eleanore Pienta) has been when there’s clearly such trepidation in where she’s going in the opening moments of “Plaisir,” bathed in the golden light of the French countryside as she rides the train to Provence, but fretting over what she’ll say once she reaches the farm where she’s set to spend the season working the land, poring over the language lessons she’s imported into her iPhone, hoping some of it will stick. Writer/director Molly Gillis never looks backwards in the sensational short in which Eleanore never feels entirely at home in spite of the humbling experience of quite literally finding common ground with those who have descended to the farm alongside her, yet she gains some traction upon learning of her supervisor Sophie’s passion for dance, particularly the expressive Japanese style of butoh, enabling her to express herself through movement rather than words.

Inspired by Gillis’ own experience abroad, “Plaisir” is at once a welcome excursion for anyone looking for a French vacation and a touching comedy about how one can feel out of place even in the most idyllic of circumstances as Eleanore is surrounded by gregarious locals and no pressure at all to fit in yet bends the environment around her to play into her worst fears, having to overcome certain assumptions about herself to find her comfort zone. The writer/director lets Eleanore’s anxieties and eventual ecstasy touch every frame, with Melanie Akoka’s sun-dappled cinematography and the sounds of summertime enveloping you in its embrace, and Pienta, a natural dancer from her days as part of the Cocoon Central Dance Team and generally the personification of joy, gloriously reflecting a personal evolution from confusion to self-acceptance.

As “Plaisir” is making its premiere this week at SXSW in its online incarnation and available now here as part of the Support the Shorts 2021 platform presented by Mailchimp and Oscilloscope, Gillis spoke about recapturing the sensations she had as an ex-pat, opening up her story to the considerable collaboration of all involved and giving herself a degree of comfort with the crew she got to work with.

How did this come about?

In between years of graduate school, I wanted to volunteer for an organization called WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), which places you in different farming opportunities across the world and I worked in the South of France at the location where we ended up filming in with no intention of writing anything. I went naively as the character does in the movie and stumbled upon something really amazing in that it was a crazy location that they didn’t really describe whatsoever. In fact, there were no photos of it that I had seen. I Skyped with the person who was running it and I felt safe about that, and in hindsight, maybe it was not the best idea, but it ended up working out really well, so I Ieft really inspired by the people and I had taken some photographs and I started writing a treatment. I was picturing Eleanore only, and I didn’t know her, but I approached her and asked if I could write this for her, if she’d be willing to do it. She was really down and it was a collaborative effort. We went back the following summer and shot it together. It was like a dream really.

Was the idea of dance always central to the film? Eleanor certainly has a background in it.

I wrote the [main] character to be someone interested in the creative arts in some way and wrote in [Eleanore’s] own passion essentially into the script, but Sophie [Amieva], the actress who plays Sophie is an acting teacher, really a French clowning teacher who had studied Butoh, so it was a really good system that mashes Eleanore’s alternative dance styles and interests and Sophie’s — she teaches experimental theater at NYU — and they were a really good fit. A lot of the performers in the movie are non-professional actors and I wanted to try to incorporate everyone’s natural interests from real life into the movie so that we could create an atmosphere where everyone was playing versions of themselves. Some things were scripted, but the scene where Sophie does Butoh [for instance], she really just was improvising for an hour and we just shot it in a bunch of different ways, so I feel lucky that people contributed that way.

Did the community come along with the farm for you? Were the people in the film actually from that place?

The only folks I brought were Eleanore and Sophie. Everyone else who was living at the castle lived there or they split their time, but they’re all different artists, so it wasn’t such heavy lifting for them for their first experience on film and it allowed me to practice working with folks who were performing for the first time. And Sophie had actually never been in a film before, but Eleanore has had obviously on-camera experience, so she could like steer the improvisation in a really helpful way and I could communicate, so I knew what to expect and I could stage some things without disrupting that natural flow.

When that’s the case, is there anything that you get really excited about that you may not have been expecting?

Yeah, there were two moments like that. One of them was in the very beginning of the movie [when] there’s a scene where Eleanore begins to cry, talking about her experience and that wasn’t written that way — it was a lighter scene, just a little bit of exposition about her origin story of why she’s here and Eleanore got really emotional talking about it because I think she didn’t know anyone. She was really dropped in very quickly into this somewhat overwhelming situation, and she was very vulnerable and the emotion just came up. I was shocked, but also deeply moved and I was really grateful that she was incorporating some of her actual emotions about the experience that she was having into the scene and it totally changed the context of the scene.

We just shot so much. I wanted to get as much as possible before we left because I knew it was kind of a place that we wouldn’t really be able to return to or recreate the same magic. There was a moment where they were supposed to be cooking together in the kitchen, and all of a sudden, Alex, who plays the third speaking role of the movie, turned on music — I think it was my really bad French, and I gave her the wrong direction [laughs] – but they start doing this wild experimental dance together and I have 30 minutes of this dance. There’s like another movie here, but it was the most spectacular thing and I obviously didn’t intend [to shoot all of it], but it was so special. It was like the closest to theater while making a movie that I’ve ever had.

What was it like getting a crew together for this?

I felt really lucky. Of my crew, my French was the worst and everyone else’s was so much better, which is something I’m really grateful for, and it was hard obviously getting a crew available and willing to come, but also I was like, “I have a free ticket to France, do you want to come?” And a lot of people were like, absolutely. Some folks were already in France, so it was just a matter of bringing people who are already in other European countries over. There were only three of us who came from New York. The rest were already in Europe.

Did the weather cooperate? It looks like even the wind contributed to the emotionality of this.

We were really blessed with the weather. Now it’s been two years since we shot it, and one year since I’ve been inside my house basically. I turned 29 while shooting it, and I feel like maybe something about that birthday brought good luck because we didn’t have rain and it was summer time in June, so the days were really long and that was something the DP and I talked about because we couldn’t really afford any lights, so we used all natural daylight. We went for a week before [the shoot] to study where the light would be moving, and just figured out like where on the property the light would be the best at what time of day and built our schedule around that. It was hot during the day, but it’s very cool at night, so we [wore] big sun hats, but we made it work.

You also give a wonderful sense of Eleanore, the character, trying to acclimate to France and conveying her confusion through her recitations of the language tapes she listens to. Was that a strong idea from the start or did that evolves as you were working with the material in the edit?

It was more the latter. I had talked about these dreamlike moments, but generally when I am writing, I know sound is going to be really important, so later on when I was in the edit, we were making these leaps in time, or attempting to make people feel like they had no sense of how many days were passing and the rehearsal of the French, which Eleanore would record on her iPhone and send to me when was in the edit by myself really helped. It was almost like being able to write [the story] again, because even the ending of the movie, I wrote those lines of dialogue last summer, so it was like a collage in a sense, which was really fun to work on. A second chance at the script, basically.

When you’ve carried this with you for some time. What’s it like getting to the finish line with this?

It’s wild. It’s a strange experience sharing it remotely. I feel so excited that my movie takes place outside and is about nature and the sensorial environments, so I hope that it really transports people. I would give anything to see it with the crowd. Every filmmaker probably says that, but I really feel thrilled to share it and I feel so proud of Eleanore’s work in it and everyone on the team who contributed. We were a tiny group of women and it felt like a real achievement. Andto have it at South By, it’s been a longtime dream and I feel really excited that they were the first to champion the movie. I’m excited to premiere on the internet, which is kinda where shorts end up anyway, so I feel I feel all right about that.

“Plaisir” will screen at SXSW through March 20th.

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