Sharon Barnes + SISTER filmmaker Ursula Meier in Conversation
Ursula Meier’s film SISTER is a gnarly, smart, shocking, sort of wrenching look at a pair of apparent orphans – young Simon and his flakey, alcoholic older sister Louise, who leaves him alone in their busted apartment downhill from a posh ski resort for weeks on end. Simon gets by swiping and reselling expensive ski equipment, earning cash Louise pilfers from him upon her returns. But things are not as they seem – they’re actually worse. The movie is suspenseful and captivating, with Lea Seydoux as the sulky, unreadable Louise (you might remember her from a totally nothing role in Midnight in Paris as the French girl Owen Wilson implausibly takes up with at the end) and Kacey Mottet Klein as the intense, persistent, heartbreaking Simon (and, you might remember him as an impish baby Serge Gainsbourg in the fantastical Gainsbourg biopic). It also features a turn by Gillian Anderson – who I didn’t even recognize outside of Agent Sculley drag – as a wealthy ski mom who Simon attempts to get some mothering from.
Filmmaker and Producer Sharon Barnes sat down with SISTER‘s creator, Ursula Meier to talk about her tough and gorgeous film.
RADAR: I saw your film and it was gorgeous. I liked it very much.
URSULA MEIER: Thank you.
RADAR: What kind of inspiration did you draw from to create this film?
URSULA MEIER: In all of my films, the story comes from the place. I am very inspired by what is around me. I need to feel the film before I write it. The location is where I derive my desire and my need to shoot the film. For SISTER, I knew this place very well and was fascinated by the topography- by the industrial plane, with the factory and the smoke. I grew up at the foot of a small mountain in France. I used to follow the smoke and look up and I would see the rich people. As a child, I went skiing all of the time. One time, the ski instructor pointed out a little boy who was skiing. I was very interested in him. He was alone and had no friends and no parents, but he was skiing. But he didn’t look like he belonged to the same class as me. He had the mask pulled up and you couldn’t see his face. This memory came back during the writing process. I saw the location in my head. I was very fascinated by the vertical topography with the cable car- a very simple cinemagraphic element. When writing, I felt this location in my body- this tension of the cable car between the top and bottom of the mountain. I understood that this cable would give the tension of the film.
RADAR: That’s great, so your inspiration was the location and the memory from that moment in your life. Are there any books you read or any music that you listened to that helped inspire you?
URSULA MEIER: For this film, a friend gave me a photograph of a little boy asleep with his skis. This image stuck in my head. I am very inspired by photographs, not cinema, because they are frozen moments. It is very good for the imagination. With my DP, we tried not to speak about other films, we tried to go deeper and be more clever with this project and not be too influenced by other films because I think it could be dangerous.
RADAR: What is your writing process like? Do you write by yourself or do you sit in a café…
URSULA MEIER: No, I am very traditional. I normally like to work in my office in my apartment. I like to work normal office hours. Now I co-write from 9-5pm with my writing partner. We sit facing each other. I write at the computer and sometimes we speak the dialogue together. Sometimes he writes the girl character and I write the boy and sometimes we switch- we do it together… and he knows the technical terms for skiing.
RADAR: How did you meet your co-writer?
URSULA MEIER: He’s a theater writer and a script doctor. I like his classical, technical approach very much. I like that he is very structured with character, plot, and climax. I’m not very structured, so I like it.
RADAR: How long did it take you to write SISTER?
URSULA MEIER It took us 1.5 years.
RADAR: What kinds of words of wisdom would you give a girl or a woman who wanted to be a filmmaker?
URSULA MEIER: Ahhhh! But why not? Why does she have to ask that question- could I be a filmmaker? When I started making films, I did not ask that question. I didn’t have that problem because in Europe and in France there are so many female filmmakers. I met a woman director from Saudi Arabia and for her it is so difficult to be a director. But for me, not so much.
RADAR: Is it something you dreamed of as a child?
URSULA MEIER: Yes, since I was very young! When I was 14, my sister decided to make a film and I acted in her film. After that I was very excited about what was around the camera and the mis en scene. So I saw films and read a lot of books about cinema and was really into theory. It was my desire to make films, so one summer when I was 16 I used my own money and bought a camera. I walked into the supermarket and shot a feature film during two summer holidays. My sister was in the film, my parents, my friends, and my brother. I had the desire to make films very early and I was not thinking that I was a woman and that I could not make films. Of course we have to fight. In Hollywood, we don’t have a lot of women directors for big budget films and that is very strange. Why can’t a woman have a lot of money to shoot a film? You do have Kathryn Bigolow… I like her so much. She is a really incredible director.
RADAR: I agree.
URSULA MEIER: Yeah, she’s amazing.
RADAR: What kind of research did you do on class- on working class people- in order to get the authenticity of the characters at the bottom of the mountain?
URSULA MEIER: I didn’t research too much. I just imagined the character, because it all stems from the character. I saw a documentary about a young mother and I showed the actress Lea. I don’t make social films; it is more of a fairytale. I don’t want to be too much of a naturalist.
RADAR: It is all out of imagination.
URSULA MEIER: Yes, it is a reality of our society because you can find this kind of girl everywhere. I showed Lea the documentary because she at first had difficulty with the character. She judged the character with her own morality and said, “Oh, she’s a bad girl”. And I said, “No, you can imagine how hard it was”. And so we spoke a lot about the character. And I showed her films with very strong female characters- more fiction than documentary- just so she understood. And suddenly (snap) she understood the character so well that she really fought for the character and her cause because she had compassion for her. But it took time to understand and fight for the character.
RADAR: Yes, I really like the relationship between the two characters and loved the scene where Simon pays Lea’s character to cuddle. It was amazing. What I found really interesting was the way you revealed the relationship. You had to do it in such as delicate way so that you didn’t let on to the audience the true relationship of the characters. How did you set up the structure so that you didn’t reveal their relationship too early?
URSULA MEIER: Yeah.
RADAR: If it hadn’t worked out, the film would not have been a success in my opinion.
URSULA MEIER: Yes it was a challenge for sure because the film depended on the reveal. It was very interesting during the writing process because we had never seen a situation like this in a film before. We did not have an example. So for the writing, it was very exciting because we had to build the relationship and the structure in such a complex way. In the beginning some people told us the truth came very late and people thought that the truth had to come earlier. But what was cruel in this film was that the truth did not change the situation. The fact that the audience knows the truth does not change the characters. Lea’s character will not give Simon more love because the audiences know the truth. It is terrible because it changes nothing. Lea does not start to become a mother and Simon is nothing- he is not a brother or a son, he is nothing. So it is terrible for him. That’s why he wants to pay to sleep with her because he is so lost at this moment. The twist gives an energy in the second part of the film to go in a completely different direction, which I like.
RADAR: How did you speak to the actors and work in such a way so that you did not reveal the truth? Because Lea looks completely believable as Simon’s sister and she is so beautiful. Were there any tricks to making her seem this way?
URSULA MEIER: Sure. To trust that she is a sister, we decided that we couldn’t give Lea an age. And sometimes she would look fifteen and sometimes she would look twenty-seven. I played with this idea and worked with the costumer. For example in the beginning, Lea looked like a prostitute. I wanted the first impression of the character to seem like a prostitute so that you aren’t wondering if she is the mother or the sister. Later in the film, the audience needed to trust that she could be the mother, so we worked with the costume designer and the actor a lot.
RADAR: How did you cast Lea and Kacey? You’ve worked with Kacey before, but tell me the process of discovering these actors because they really carried the film.
URSULA MEIER: Yeah, sure, sure. They have the same grace in front of the camera- a command. So for Kacey it was easy because he was in my head and I wrote the script for him. And for Lea, I was thinking about another actress, but I was not so sure, so I made a traditional casting call. I saw eight actresses and I saw Lea at the end because she was in MISSION IMPOSSIBLE at this point. When I saw her, I understood something about the character. Because at this point, I wasn’t sure about the last part of the film, act three. I was not very happy with the end of the script. And I met Lea for three hours and worked with her. With Lea, you don’t know where she comes from. She does not carry a socio economic identity. It could have been easier to have an actress that looked like a certain class. She was like the secret garden. When you saw her, you could imagine the background of the character. I was happy because with Lea, I went more into a fairytale or fable story because you could project things onto her face and you didn’t have to explain everything with her. You could feel the failure, you could feel how lost she was and all of the pain. And without a lot of walls. And sometime she looks like fifteen as I said. You saw all of the pain of the character.
RADAR: What was the most challenging part of the film to make?
URSULA MEIER: There were lot of challenges. Because to shoot a film with a child is very difficult. It is a big challenge to write for a child. He is not a star, so it is very hard to get money because he is not very famous. He is a child and with a child, you have to stop every time he wants… because he’s tired. It is very dangerous. You take a lot of risks when you write for a child and it is not easy. And as a film as a whole… if you do not trust in the Twist, you will not be successful. And the twist is the meaning of the film.
RADAR: Which scene was the most challenging for you? Another scene I really loved was the fight scene where they were sort of tearing at each other and rolling around on the ground. Was that a really challenging scene? What stands out to you?
URSULA MEIER: All of the scenes were challenging. (Laughing) Maybe the end was the most challenging the acting and the cinematography were challenging.
RADAR: When they are crossing on the cable cars?
URSULA MEIER: Yes, because you have to feel emotion. You are far from Lea. And it is very small in the cable car. And it is beautiful on paper- but you have to execute it and it is very difficult. Because with the cable car- it is not on the same level, so you have to shoot with a wide angle and you have to time the cable cars perfectly, because you can’t change their schedule. The rhythm, the acting, the camera- to have emotion- it was all very difficult. And it was the end of the film. If you missed that, then the film would not be good. The challenge was everywhere because the acting- you have to feel that she was a friend and she needs him and they were crossing paths and moving very quickly and at the same time you have to see the face of the character passing very quickly. So at the end it was very challenging.
RADAR: I can imagine. Did you end up mounting the camera?
URSULA MEIER: We were just set up in one cable car, shooting through Kacey’s car. And also, Lea did not feel very well during that part of the shoot.
RADAR: And what’s next? Do you have another idea? I’m sure you have many.
URSULA MEIER: I have many. Sure! But as I explained before- it is a question of desire. I need to feel the film in my body. In January I will start again. And maybe I will make a more popular, commercial film. I would like the challenge and would like to try.
RADAR: Great, thank you so much. It was such an honor to be able to talk to you about the film.
URSULA MEIER: Thank you so much.
Sharon Barnes’s is the writer and director of the films Fighter, Gamine, Confession: A Film About Ariel Schrag, and others. She has produced fourteen film projects including the documentary American Teen and Glory at Sea, the short that went on to become Beasts of the Southern Wild. She lives in San Francisco.