Michael Stahl David and Stephanie Beatriz in "The Light of the Moon"

SXSW ’17 Interview: Stephanie Beatriz & Jessica M. Thompson on “The Light of the Moon”

Not long after the premiere of “The Light of the Moon” ended at SXSW, the film’s star Stephanie Beatriz locked arms with writer/director Jessica M. Thompson, co-star and associate producer Ashley Van Egeren, producer Carlo Valayo and cinematographer Autumn Eakin to march down Congress Avenue, leading the audience right out of the Stateside Theater as a show of solidarity against rape culture. Even amidst the busy film and music festival, it commanded attention, but those who had just seen the film recognized that the march was only one of the ways that “The Light of the Moon” could move people.

An elegantly told, emotionally wrenching portrait of a young woman’s way back after being sexually assaulted in the streets of New York, Thompson’s delicate feature debut is a product of meticulous research and ample sensitivity, finding the drama in pinpointing the insidious nature of the crime that forces its victims to continue to relive their trauma even when the well-intentioned attempt to help causes pain and the defiance with which Beatriz’s Bonnie fights against being defined by the experience. Anchored by a fierce, nuanced performance from Beatriz, “The Light of the Moon” shows the weight of every glance from strangers, family and friends as Bonnie recovers from her attack, particularly from her boyfriend Matt (Michael Stahl David) with whom she has to reevaluate her relationship as a result of her changed perspective.

Thompson’s graceful approach to the subject is at odds with traditional narrative treatments of survivors of rape, but proves far more provocative. Every step of Bonnie’s journey brings conflicted emotions as her personal instinct to move on is tempered with a desire to do right by the others in her life who care for her yet are simply on a different wavelength than she is. Her strength is radiant throughout, but Beatriz and Thompson, with the aid of exquisite work from cinematographer Eakin, illuminate Bonnie’s struggle in such a way that the ineffable can be understood and deeply felt, opening up a resplendent path for both the character on screen to follow and for an audience to cling onto as the film deals with the most difficult of subjects. During a busy SXSW for the pair, Beatriz and Thompson took the time to talk about how such a compelling drama came from sticking close to the testimony of real-life survivors, the screenwriting rule that Thompson broke at the production’s peril (but the audience’s benefit), and how Beatriz formed such a strong bond with her co-star Stahl David.

How did this come about?

Jessica M. Thompson: The film is based on two friends of mine who actually had this happen to them in New York City. Seeing what they went through firsthand as a friend, I just felt like this story had not been told before. I felt rape was being portrayed very strangely in the media in that it was almost contributing to and exacerbating rape culture. [In films and TV] it was used as a tool to make a woman more complex, and it was not realistic or fair either to rape survivors or women [in general]. I was like, “I don’t know if we’re going down the right path with this, guys?” So I was very inspired to started writing this raw, realistic, honest portrayal of a sexual assault survivor [and have her be a] strong, sassy woman who is fully complex and fully interesting before this happens to her, seeing how she handles her world [being] shaken.

Stephanie, how did you get interested in this?

Stephanie Beatriz: Jess sent the script to my representation and I immediately felt everything she just mentioned – I’ve never seen a story like this before that’s from the survivor’s point of view. A story about rape is usually about the judicial system or it’s a revenge fantasy or it’s just never portrayed realistically. I’m not a survivor myself, but I know, unfortunately, quite a few women that are sexual assault survivors, this is their story, so I really felt almost a responsibility to take part in bringing this really truthful, beautiful portrayal of a very specific person’s journey to life.

On top of that, in the first couple pages of the script, Bonnie is described as a “young Latina architect” and besides her relationship with her mom where you see her first language is Spanish, the story isn’t really about her being Latina. That, to me, was really important because unfortunately as a Latina, as a woman of color, I’m still really underrepresented in Hollywood. I rarely can find movies where someone like me is the lead of the film and Jess specifically wanted a woman of color in the lead role. When she began developing the script, that’s specifically what she wanted and when did rewrites, she narrowed it down to a Latina because of her own experiences as an immigrant and being able to identify with the Latin experience a little bit because of her own background. I don’t get scripts like that very often where my ethnicity is specifically included in the script, but it’s not about that.

Stephanie, was there a detail that helped you figure out who Bonnie was?

Stephanie Beatriz: There were a lot. Jess dropped so many clues in, even in just that first scene, [Bonnie]’s a fully fleshed out person and then after the attack, you can tell this woman is really tough. She’s a tough cookie and it’s really hard for her to ask for help. She wants to be able to handle all of this stuff on her own and she doesn’t want it to affect her life in every single way that it does, but it does. Everything is touched by it and she hates that. She hates it so much.

For example, the scene where Bonnie is at the hospital and then everyone has to leave the room and she’s subjected to this series of scrapes and pokes and prods and photographs and she has to take her clothes off and stand there naked, that was such a detailed scene. It was exactly what happens to you after this horrible, traumatic event happens to you. Then you have another horrible, traumatic event happen where you’re completely vulnerable in front of a stranger after going through this awful thing. Then you have to repeat what happened to the police officers and write it down [in a report] and they want to take you back to the scene of the crime. Because of Jess’ detail, it’s really easy to go in and fully imagine that you’re in that world because she did so much research and wrote it so realistically.

From the first scene, you also see what a hard worker [Bonnie] is and how driven she is in her career. You see that she’s struggling to maintain this relationship with another really driven professional, which really happens a lot to a lot of people now. All of us are in this world where we’re ambitious and we’re career-driven and yet we want to have love in our lives too, so you see Bonnie and Matt juggling their responsibilities to each other and their priorities at work as well. You can see it in [Bonnie’s] friendships right away – [they] are honest and open and silly and fun and she has a lot of love for the people in her life. So there were clues everywhere, all over the script as to who [Bonnie] was.

As we began rehearsals, I got even more clues about how she’d react with her partner, played by Michael Stahl David, and as an actor, the only thing you can do when you start is read that script because it’s a road map – a treasure map, really. I can’t tell you how many times I reread that script during the shooting of the film. I would go home every night and go over the things we had shot that night and the things we were going to shoot the next day and then sometimes I reread the whole thing again from top to bottom because I needed to go back to the road map.

What was it like to build that relationship with Michael?

Stephanie Beatriz: It was fun. We had a week of rehearsals in Bonnie and Matt’s apartment with Jess and she gently guided us into our fake relationship. [laughs] Jess had us do this quiz, “36 Questions to Fall in Love,” [from] a Modern Love [column] in the New York Times. It was a list of questions developed as an intimacy-building exercise and Jess had us do some of those questions as ourselves and also in character. So before we even started shooting, Michael and I knew Bonnie and Matt’s history. We spent a lot of time together that first week rehearsing and then all of our scenes together in the apartment were shot within the first five days of [the production], so it was easy to build a really solid foundation because we were in each other’s faces basically every day for two weeks. By the end, I knew how Michael ate his food, which is very messily. [laughs] And we knew when the other one was thirsty – like I would look at him sometimes during a scene and I knew he needed water, so I would ask for water for both of us.

Stylistically, it seemed like there were subtle echoes of the attack scene built into the language of the film. How did you go about that?

Jessica M. Thompson: That was something that came up more in post-production. [Stephanie and I] discussed this on set and she was thinking about the rape and what happened to [Bonnie] – obviously you can’t not, so it’s rooted in the performance, but when we were in the editing room, I was working with a sound designer and I was like, “Look, I don’t want to do flashbacks. That’s all cliched and [this] is a completely chronological story, so suddenly doing some cutty flashback wouldn’t work, so how can we help the audience feel like they’re inside Bonnie’s mind?” I had talked to a lot of rape survivors who said when they were attacked, what’s happening is some kind of sleight of sight – a survival mechanism comes in and they take themselves out of the situation and actually float above the situation and they don’t even see that it’s happening to themselves. Therefore they start to focus on other things in the room.

When I heard rape survivors say that, I started to use that technique through the sound design, creating [with sound] where Bonnie is focusing on – the heat pipe during the rape or the texture of the wall, or the buzzing of light. The sound designer and I decided to use a sonic motif throughout the film [where] we had those sounds and added some underwater sounds as well, which we thought were interesting, so that it’s like a sonic flashback. Then we could see in Stephanie’s performance that’s what she’s thinking about and we had these little sonic cues in there. I think it worked really well. Stephanie is on the screen in every single scene, so I really wanted everyone to just identify with her purely 100 percent unadulterated point of view and those elements helped.

One of the refreshing things about the film is that you also shoot a lot on the streets of Brooklyn. Was that a challenge?

Jessica M. Thompson: Just a little bit. [laughs] I have to commend my producers for that because when you make an independent film, especially your first one, you have to contain the locations. That’s taught in screenwriting class — company moves are difficult, when you have to move 30 or 40 people [from one location to another] — and I didn’t listen. [laughs] There was one day where we shot four locations and they were difficult ones – Stephanie was riding a bike through the streets of Brooklyn, which she’s never done before. We had to have a tricycle and our cinematographer [Autumn Eakin] was sitting on the back and had to be strapped in, jerry-rigged, and Stephanie was riding behind them. We were shooting in slow motion and it was funny. We shot the short little scene at the end at the community hall, we also shot over the Williamsburg Bridge, and we did three different things around Brooklyn. Those things didn’t end up in the film – but it was difficult. It was probably our hardest day, but we got everything we needed.

Thank God for Made in NY, a great program for filmmakers. They really support you and help you get permits and they give you tax incentives and things like that, so they’re very encouraging. You have to go through so many different offices and it was difficult shooting on the sidewalk. We did get shut down by a security guard at one point and had to move locations very last minute, and I now know why screenwriting teachers tell you not to move so much. But it adds to an aesthetic to the film. A woman actually came to me after the screening yesterday and said to me, “I’ve never been to New York and I want to go because of the visuals in your film,” and I’m glad it wasn’t like “Don’t come to Brooklyn because look what happens.” You don’t have to set dress Brooklyn. There are so many quirky people walking around and graffiti everywhere and it’s interesting and arty, so I mean all you have to do is roll the camera and you create interesting landscapes, and I’m glad people still saw it as a beautiful place.

“The Light of the Moon” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play once more at SXSW on March 16th at 3:30 pm at the Alamo Lamar.