Interview with Filmmaker Nicole Vanden Broeck (ELLE)

ELLE played to rave reviews at the LGBTQ+ Film Festival in November 2020.

1. What motivated you to make this film?

ELLE comes from the need to explore female relationships and the thin line that separates friendship from love. It also comes from the nostalgia that I often find myself feeling for my teenage years. For simpler yet complex times, where we wind up understanding where we come from and who we are. From the joy and the pain that come with falling in love, as well as the cloudiness and the vulnerability that we experience when this happens. I guess in the end, the important thing for me was to say that there is not one right way to express love, as long as the feeling is selfless, honest and real. I wanted for people that have had obstacles to communicate this feeling, to know that they’re seen. And for people that didn’t know how to correspond to it, to know that they’re seen too.

2. From the idea to the finished product, how long did it take for you to make this short?

This project is my graduate thesis film from the American Film Institute, so there is a year-long preestablished timeline from start to completion. It begins with submitting a treatment of the story and finishes with the screening of the film at the Conservatory. The whole process in between includes writing several drafts of the script, pitching lookbooks, shooting a video storyboard, scouting, casting, filming, reshooting if necessary, editing, post production and creating all the deliverables along with the promotion materials to begin the festival journey.

3. How would you describe your short film in two words!?

Intimate and vulnerable.

4. What was the biggest obstacle you faced in completing this film?

Fundraising was a big part of it. Despite its grounded and naturalistic style, the film involved a big production and a large crew. AFI really encourages the whole process to be industry standard. And after production, we had to fundraise again to be able to accommodate reshoots into our schedule in order to address some of the feedback that we got on the test screening, which we thought would help make the short stronger.

Another obstacle we faced was casting. I’m interested in actors that can communicate a lot with very little, and that is not always easy to find. My casting director, Erika Flores, found Sarah Sawyer, our lead actress, pretty early on in the process. But we were still missing our supporting actress and I couldn’t find anyone that felt right for the role of Sam. Being close to production and with the rehearsal process soon to start, I decided to search on social media platforms and found Ron Dadon. Ron had experience in a lot of things, but not exactly acting. She is a photographer, a singer, a fashion designer, a model and she also plays the guitar.

When she came into the room to audition, she had exactly the naturalness and effortlessness I was looking for. After doing a chemistry read with Sarah, we both thought she was perfect to portray Sam. It was a great balance to have a trained actor as Sarah, perform alongside a non-trained actor like Ron. They both accompanied and gave each other what they needed.

5. What were your initial reactions when watching the audience talking about your film in the feedback video?

It was amazing to receive the feedback video, especially since our festival circuit has taken place during the COVID-19 pandemic, we haven’t really been able to hear people’s feelings about the film and it’s very rewarding and refreshing to be able to hear these thoughts. Whether they’re positive or negative reactions, I’ve always believed that while a film makes you feel something other than indifference, it’s challenging and shaking the way you think and feel, so it’s having an impact in your life somehow. It was nice to see and hear that the film moved and provoked something in the audience of the LGBT Los Angeles Film Festival.

Watch the Audience FEEDBACK Video:

6. How did you come up with the idea for this short film?

ELLE is a very personal film. Like other artists, I take small moments that I’ve experienced or witnessed and build a fictional narrative around them. I was in a moment in life where I felt the necessity to explore the dynamics of female friendships. There’s a certain intimacy and sensibility that is more easily and freely developed than in male friendships, due to the obvious patriarchal society we’ve been raised in. And I wanted to pose the question of what happens when the lines get blurred, when the subjectivity of deciphering unspoken signals comes into play and when the time and place where this takes place don’t necessarily play in favor of the situation. I believe it’s almost impossible to have clear answers regarding love and relationships in our lives, but it’s the questions they leave us with that are in my perspective the ones worth putting out there in order to connect with people and make them feel understood.

7. What film have you seen the most in your life?

Blue Valentine and Beginners. And now that I think of it, they both came out in the same year. I love films that explore the messiness and imperfections of love, the realness of love.

8. You submitted to the festival via FilmFreeway, what are your feelings of the submission platform from a filmmaker’s perspective?

FilmFreeway is a very user friendly platform, which allows you to submit your film to numerous festivals without spending all this time filling out forms or collecting submission materials over and over again. It is very time consuming when you have to apply through each individual festival site, and FilmFreeway functions as a filmmaker social media profile where you can register all your projects and keep track of their festival run, articles, interviews, press kits, etc.

9. What song have you listened to the most times in your life?

For some reason I find this question to be a bit harder to respond than the film one. If we’re pragmatic and take the years a song has been in the world into account, it’s probably a 90s song I played on repeat when I was young and has somehow found a way to keep popping back into my life as the years go by. In that case I think it may be Here With Me by Dido. Although some of the songs I more consciously go back to nowadays are Open by Rhye and If I Ever Feel Better by Phoenix.

10. What is next for you? A new film?

I’m in an early development stage of two feature scripts and a half-hour drama series. The series is actually based on ELLE, the short film being a proof of concept for the pilot and the first season further exploring what happens one year later, when Sam comes back for the summer and how things have changed in Elle’s life.

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