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Alice Winocour: “This is not really a space movie at all!”

The French director speaks about her grounded sci-fi film, Proxima, which is finally out this month.

Image for Alice Winocour: “This is not really a space movie at all!”

The French director Alice Winocour speaks about her grounded sci-fi film, Proxima, which is finally out this month. Photo: IMAGO / Future Image

Best known for her co-writing credit for France’s 2016 Best Foreign Language entry Mustang (for which she won the César Award for Best Original Screenplay), French screenwriter and director Alice Winocour has made a name for herself by showcasing her interest in physicality and trauma. With Proxima, she has subverted the tropes of a crowded genre by crafting an authentic-feeling space movie that stays on Earth.

Starring Eva Green, Lars Eidinger and Matt Dillon, her character study follows a female astronaut as she prepares to leave Earth and her daughter for the final frontier. It establishes links between space and motherhood, and how space is not the only male-dominated field where women are underrepresented.

Was the starting the point for Proxima a desire to make a space film or one about a mother-daughter relationship?

In many ways, it’s both. I was interested in the world of space and I didn’t know why. I like to investigate a world and discover what draws me to it. It’s a very intimate thing. Then I thought of the character of an astronaut, and that the separation with the Earth would resonate with the separation from a child. I had the strong desire to film a mother-daughter couple, which I know very well since I have a daughter who is the same age as the child character in the movie. The two worlds fit – it’s this idea of Mother Earth and we are her children, and beyond the poetical, getting out of the atmosphere is called ‘umbilical separation’ in the Russian space programme…

Was your decision to literally ground the film pretty much entirely on Earth a way of subverting the crowded space film genre?

Yes, it’s more an Earth film than it is a space movie. This is not really a space movie at all! It’s more about the dream of space. And I should say that it’s also a family movie that you can see with your children. While it takes place in this world of preparation for space travel, it’s more a reflection on how hard separation is in all its forms, a film about life on Earth. I think that’s why there are so many space movies recently – we project ourselves and think that maybe there are other places to live. And the film shows that we only have this planet and how we’ve been designed for this planet.

Your film touches upon women in the workplace – only about 10% of astronauts are women – and highlights the topic of motherhood. As stated by one of your characters: “There’s no such thing as a perfect astronaut, like there’s no such thing as a perfect mother”…

Yes, I wanted to write for these women. The family pictures you see at the end of the film of these astronauts with their families are not ones you see very often. The title refers to this as well – “the next one” – and how as a mother, you question what you are going to transmit to your child. I wanted to talk about how the superheroine and the mother can co-exist within the same person, and cinema does not often portray that important pairing.

There is also an interesting parallel to establish between the 10% in the space field and women in filmmaking, who are still underrepresented compared to their male counterparts…

Yes, I think it’s 20% in France, which is nothing compared to male directors. That quote you singled out also highlights this and how the movie is also about liberation: even if it’s hard, you can do both – be a good mother and a good astronaut – and not be tethered to imposed expectations or preconceived roles. It’s a metaphor in many ways about what women have to do in a work environment, and there are parallels between the male-dominated space field and filmmaking in that respect.

One striking element of the film is how it has the soul of a documentary, feeling authentic at every turn.

I’m glad. The fascination I had for that world lead me to the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne. The condition to make the movie was to get authorization to be able to shoot in the space centre there, and it’s the first time a movie has ever been made in this place. No models, no recreated sets – we shot in the real places. They are very secured places, and astronauts were training in the same corridors we were shooting. We had to convince the European Space Agency to allow us to shoot in Cologne, but also at the Astro Space Centre near Moscow and in Kazakhstan for the rocket launch. I was meeting many astronauts and trainers, and spent hours talking to them and discovering so much about this world. They helped me enormously when it came to getting the details right and nailing the technical dialogue. Their input was so valuable, especially when it came to their insight, like one telling me that the hardest part was coming back from space rather than leaving for space. A lot of the astronauts you see in the film are real trainees and real astronauts, so space fans will get a kick out of it. I also saw this one guy in Kazakhstan and I asked him to play a small part in the movie. He was really pissed off and I didn’t know why. Then one astronaut shed some light. It turned out the guy I’d asked to be an extra was the head of the European Space Agency! (Laughs)

Was it difficult to convince these institutions to allow you to film there?

It was hard, especially on the Russian side! There were a lot of security protocols and I often had to give the precise place where I would put my camera, and if I changed my mind or moved the camera by even one meter, I’d have someone from the Russian Space Agency coming over to me and telling me it’s not possible! It was challenging but also very exciting to be there. Especially with actors like Eva Green, Matt Dillon and Lars Eidinger, who made some of the trainee astronauts get starstruck! (Laughs) Still, the real trainees didn’t take it easy on them!

“Many American movies have taught us to see space as American, because of the same representation we see again and again – a predominantly male vision of space that seems virile…”

Your international cast really represents the international nature of the space world…

Many American movies have taught us to see space as American, because of the same representation we see again and again – a predominantly male vision of space that seems virile, for lack of a better word. On the contrary, what I observed was very different – the international aspect of it, as well as the paradox of the astronaut – being an astronaut is more an experience of fragility. The fragility of the human being and the human body, which is tested and changed when you go into space – growth accelerates, your vision weakens… It’s a violence on the body, and this aspect fed into my own obsession with bodies and physicality.

You don’t often get to see that in films, and several elements in the film that show the rigorous training process Eva Green’s character has to go through – like the exoskeleton device – recall some Cronenbergian body horror.

Yeah, we used a real one for that scene! It’s an artificial arm that has been designed for Mars travel, as the body becomes weak from the journey. I wanted to emphasize the physicality of it, especially in that sequence or the scene where Eva Green’s character has to take that shower and becomes some sort of orange creature… It’s a scene that show that astronauts are some kind of mutants – the character even says at one point that she’s become a “space person”, someone who has to mutate to live in space. As for the Cronenberg mention, thank you! He’s such an important filmmaker for me, and like him, I’m very interested in the physical, carnal aspect of things.

Can you talk to me a bit about the score of the film by Ryuichi Sakamoto, whose work here isn’t what you’d normally associate with traditional space films?

I wrote him a letter, telling him that I wanted a very subtle score that wouldn’t be like Kubrick’s operatic 2001: A Space Odyssey score. I needed something more fragile, more organic and Earth-grounded. I had seen a documentary about Ryuichi Sakamoto’s work and it struck me when he recorded weird sounds, like a tremor in Fukushima, water sounds… He was doing what one of the Russian astronauts does in the movie: recording nature sounds before he leaves Earth because it’s one of the things he misses the most when he’s in space. Also, Ryuichi has been sick and he was touched by the story, because you can see Proxima as a ‘Goodbye to Earth’ and he had experienced something similar in that respect through his battle with cancer. 

Regarding authenticity, the dialogue between Eva Green’s character and her daughter is deeply relatable. Did you draw any inspiration from your relationship with your own daughter?

Of course, and more than that, my daughter could have been the co-writer for the movie! I even asked her if she wanted to play the daughter role in the movie opposite Eva. She said that if she wanted to be in a movie one day, it would be with another director! (Laughs) She was right – it wasn’t the right thing to do, but the process of finding the young actor to play Eva’s daughter in the film was hard. My daughter came to the castings, but on the one condition that she didn’t get the part. Then I met Zélie (Boulant), who really reminded me of the little girl I was. That made me realise that it’s not only the story of the mother but the story of the daughter – from the point of view of the young girl, it’s also the story of the liberation from her mother.

What did your daughter make of the film?

She was there at the premiere of the film in Paris, and she was so anxious for me! She’ll need time to see it by herself, but once she saw people were happy with the film, she was happy for me!