Director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre first felt inspired to learn more about prison rehabilitation after reading an article about the use of animal therapy. She visited a prison in France and was inspired to make her 2014 film, Rabbit. While digging deeper into this alternative therapy, she learned about wild horses and their role in therapy. It led to her to Nevada to observe inmates train with mustangs. While speaking to prisoners, de Clermont-Tonnerre saw a story develop around many themes, and three years later The Mustang was filmed.
I caught up with her to talk about working with real-life inmates, second chances, and animal therapy and how she felt her own life transform as a result of this film.
Where did you first learn about alternate rehabilitation therapy and this amazing program?
I read an article in the paper. It really struck me because I’ve always loved animals. I grew up wanting to learn about what was happening in prisons and I was obsessed with prison documentaries.
I found it really intriguing and I went to this French prison where they were entrusting small animals and from there I made Rabbit which was about female inmates and rabbits.
By researching even deeper, I found this prison in Nevada that was training wild horses with inmates and I saw a film immediately. I thought I wanted to see the different steps of training and connection. I had so many thoughts about deepening the story. So, I spent time there in Nevada, interviewing and observing them. I watched their training and the adoption sessions which were really heartbreaking.
I was doing it for over five years.
The first draft was done in 2015 at Sundance, right?
Yes, I did Rabbit in 2013 and it’s been some time.
You spent time with the inmates, watching them and the story. You have this great balance of showing how the inmates spend time with the horses and then the interiors.
It’s three to four months of training and I needed to be really specific with the arc and those moments. The first touch was the pivotal moment. You can spend weeks in a small pen trying to touch a horse, but if you have combative behavior, or you’re rushed, or you’re frustrated, it takes more time. I wanted to portray that.
We did all those steps with Matthias and the horse and when he touches him, it’s easy for him to put a saddle on him and to ride him because the trust is just a touch. That’s what I had observed and what I wanted to portray.
Speaking of Matthias, how did you find he was right for Roman? He’s so incredible. The casting of that character was so paramount where you need to see and feel the transformation.
I actually knew him from his work and I had met him a few years back. I was always moved by him because he’s so mysterious. He has these very vivid and explosive emotions and sensitivity that shines through. I really liked that combination of him being contained, but also just holding back and then absolutely see this explosive torrent that he’s going through. This is Matthias and he really reminded me of the unpredictable horse. I liked that he was so similar in that way. I definitely based the horse character on Matthias because they’re the same and they mirror each other’s journey.
Matthias also, on a very personal level had a strong need to tell the story. I was so grateful because it’s so important when you embark on a long journey that you have a partner who wants to carry this movie on his back. He was so invested and wanted to tell the story and we were driven by the same passion and that made things so magical.
Your cinematography has a lot of juxtapositions going from the wide open spaces of the mustangs running to the enclosed fences and then, of course, the prison itself. Talk about the imagery.
It took me a while to find the right DP. I needed someone to really dance with the camera and someone who could portray that invisible dialogue between man and horse. I needed someone to follow that with sensitive frames. We didn’t have heavy equipment. We had bare lighting.
Ruben Impens had those qualities and when I met him, he loved the story and he had this deep quality of being so visceral and so agile. I needed someone who could follow the unpredictable elements of man and horse. Also, inside the prison, we wanted to be static and rigid. We had this imbalance of going back and forth between indoors and outdoors. Ruben was stunning to work with.
With all the challenges we had, he dealt with natural light, the dust and all those elements that could have scared any cinematographer. He was such a trooper.
You look at so many different themes from the criminal justice system. You look at can a person change? Should we be given chances? How did you capture all those themes you’re addressing in that time? What was the challenge in getting them all across in a short runtime?
It was based on my research. I spent a lot of time in San Quentin with the head of the mental health department. She said, “You need to understand anger and violence. You’re going to interview those men.”
I interviewed so many and they were so charming and articulate and nice. After four hours of conversation, they’d say, “I killed my wife.” I didn’t know what to do with that information. I’d spent all that time with them and didn’t judge them. They were great guys and then I learned why they were incarcerated. I thought what do I do? Do I give them a second chance? Do I support them? Do I want to help them? All that made it important for me to help give the audience that? It’s your choice and your judgment. You’ve just spent an hour with Roman. What do you think about him? Do you like him? Do you see a potential for redemption? Do you give him a second chance? You know what he’s been through and what he’s done and that’s what I wanted to do, ask the audience that question. My answer is ‘yes.’ I believe humans should not be defined by their crimes their whole life.
You see in most of the incarcerated men that they are capable of love and empathy but they don’t know it. They’re people with awful backgrounds who made a terrible mistake, but they’re not sociopaths or psychopaths. They just had a distorted path. I believe when they meet a horse or an animal, they realize they’re able to love and can be empathetic. That was the biggest discovery and as long as you have that, you can change your trajectory. I don’t believe that by whatever they’ve done in the past, a man should be defined their whole lives by their crimes.
You really capture that with Roman and by that point we know so much and you see he deserves a second chance. Then you have the scene with Connie Britton and it’s so striking to hear the inmates response to that.
That’s based on a real verbal therapy program up in San Quentin. I thought it was so wonderful to have this intellectual awareness. I thought it was interesting to have that kind of lecture about that kind of therapy too as well as the rehabilitation. I went there and could see the positive impact of it all.
Working with horses, was there a scene that was particularly tougher than you imagined to shoot?
I was anticipating working with them, and we only had 23 days of shooting. I knew it would be s short and condensed shooting time. We had such a wonderful horse trainer and a wonderful horse wrangler who knew how to work with them and set the rules so the crew was respectful.
We got lucky and it was such a blessing.
You cast real-life inmates in the film.
I met Thomas Smittle who plays Tom. He spent 15 years in prison in Nevada. He was working as a horse trainer and I loved his story. He’s so charismatic and yet so broken. I wrote this part for him. He was so reluctant at first to do it, but I think by the time shooting came around, he said he was ready to come on board.
His experience as a horse wrangler was so handy because there was so much truth to what he said. Working with him was wonderful. There were two other men I met while they were incarcerated had a deep commitment to the horses. When I heard about their release, I tracked them on Facebook and messaged them about the film, and they said yes immediately.
They were so nice and grateful and excited. It was so important to feed this story with authentic characters, location, and stories. They were so helpful to have them on set and to collaborate with them.
It’s such a beautiful story that makes you question first impressions and judgments.
It’s not something I want to do. I didn’t want to give lessons. I felt so transformed and changed by this experience myself that I just wanted to give a very objective experience to the audience and let them do whatever they want. If I could plant a seed, then I’m very happy.