One of the standout films at this year’s SXSW Film Festival was from first-time writer-director Jessica M. Thompson, an Australian-born filmmaker who has spent most of her career as a documentary editor. The winner of the Audience Award–Narrative Feature at SXSW, The Light of the Moon stars Stephanie Beatriz (Short Term 12, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”) in her first leading role as New York architect Bonnie, struggling to put her personal and professional lives back together after being sexually assaulted after a night out with co-workers.
Rather than take a more sentimental approach to the subjects at hand, Thompson allows The Light of the Moon and her lead actor the chance to play it tough and unaffected by her attack, at least at first. But as her well-intentioned boyfriend and co-workers continue to try to help her without crossing any invisible lines that might set her off, cracks in her facade appear and she must deal with her true feelings as she attempts to regain intimacy and control in her life.
Beatriz has been in the news recently, as her character on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” Rosa Diaz, came out as bi-sexual on the show recently, much like Beatriz herself did over the summer. Next up for her is a leading role in the comedy Half Magic (set for release in February 2018), written and directed by co-star Heather Graham.
I had the chance to sit down with Thompson and Beatriz back in March, shortly after The Light of the Moon premiered at SXSW. The highly emotional Q&As that followed those screenings were talked about a great deal at the festival, so we began by discussing audience’s very vocal reactions to the film.
In the Chicago area, The Light of the Moon is now playing at AMC Theatres Loews Streets of Woodfield 20. Enjoy…
This wasn’t going to be my first question, but since you just came from a screening, it makes it easier to ask. How have people responded to the film? What have people been asking and saying? Because I’m guessing it’s not just questions, it’s probably a lot of…
SB: Statements, yeah. Some really lovely, wonderful, moving things have been said at these two screenings. Both of us are huge allies to sexual assault survivors, and we want to be the kind of people who just listen, and I think the most moving, awesome, special moments of doing this have been hearing people who say they are survivors—some people don’t, but you can see something has happened—and they just stand there and tell you “Thank you for making the movie.” And sometimes you give them a hug, and you just feel like, “Okay, I see you. I really see you, and I’m here for you.” That’s been like the most incredible thing for me.
Was that your ambition, that you would connect on that level?
Jessica M. Thompson: Yeah, I definitely wanted to tell a story that survivors felt they could identify with. I spent so much time researching the film before and during writing, because I come from a documentary background. It was very big for me to meet with many survivors, to go to survivor counseling, ask therapists questions, ask social workers questions, nurses, first responders like police officers. I would ask district attorneys. I met with a lot of people to make sure I was telling the story accurately, so I’m glad a lot of people, especially after today’s screening, came up and said either they were a survivor, or you could just tell because they would say that it was realistic, that they’d had those conversations, that they were so glad that it was portrayed. So I definitely want to get this story out there, and it’s one that’s not been told fairly and not told accurately.
Every person responds differently when something horrible happens in their life. People grieve differently, handle trauma differently. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that has portrayed someone who sees herself as so tough that she wants to brush off this attack and forget about it. It’s strange to see, but I’m guessing a lot of people choose that path, probably without a lot of success in most cases. How did you decide that was the version of this story that you wanted to tell?
JT: Because I think we have seen it the other way, maybe not entirely the other way—the way that it has been portrayed shows these women as fragile creatures. And I mean this with no offense, but it’s usually male writers or male directors who are like, “She’s the little flower.” And I’m like, “We’re full, complex human beings.”
SB: Or she doesn’t get to be a full, complex human being until the rape takes place.
JT: Yeah, I’m sick of rape as a coming-of-age story, like we need to go though that to be a full human. I think it comes naturally to me, because I’m such a strong woman. When I was younger, I was a child actor, and my drama teachers used to always try to give me the weaker female characters like Juliet [from “Romeo and Juliet”].
SB: Jess hates the character of Juliet. It’s hilarious.
JT: Because I would always pick the ones like Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing” or something like that.
SB: Meanwhile, Juliet’s my fucking Hamlet. I love Juliet.
JT: All I wanted to do was play strong women, because I am a strong woman. It felt more natural to me to write something like that, not to say I couldn’t do it the other way, but I also just felt it was more interesting because we don’t have enough strong female leads, and I think it’s more of an interesting story to see someone, like you said, who is an alpha woman, in control of her relationships and her life, to go through something that hurts and can break you. I think it’s a bit more of an interesting story than the other way.
I was also impressed with the language of the film. There’s a line in the film, I think you say it to the boyfriend, something about “Your girlfriend’s purity.” I’m sure there are guys that think that way, but I never heard that said out loud in a movie, especially not by a female character. Was there a bit of a “Let’s come to terms with how people really think” attitude in the dialogue?
JT: She’s a smart woman and she has a good vocab as well and we can use that to play with and express her emotions. I think one of Bonnie’s concerns, which is so real, is that she feels like he is looking at her differently and treating her like this delicate little flower, and that really upsets her. I think she’s getting into her head about it as well, of course, and she feels almost like her purity was taken in some way, that innocence. She has to walk with her keys between her fingers now. So I think with that line, she’s also probably saying it to herself.
She’s projecting a little bit?
JT: Both. Of course, it must go through his mind too.
SB: When I played it, I remember feeling like that line he says right beforehand—“He took something from me too.” And playing that character and hearing that line, it was like, “Fuck you.” A few lines before, she says, “You have no idea. You have no idea,” which is like, so many survivors have trouble talking to people in their lives about this, because people don’t really want to listen. They want to hear it and they want to be supportive, but they also want the problem to be fixed, they want it to go away, because they don’t want to see the people they love in pain. So they say, “Go to a doctor, go to a theory group, maybe you should get on meds.” And the reality is, what they need to do is talk and hear only, “You didn’t do anything wrong.” That’s it.
So to hear somebody say, “He took something from me too,” it’s like “This is not the time for that” in playing the character. I understand that outside of it it’s like yes, both people are going to have experiences. But all I could think was, “Oh, buddy. Keep it down.” That was an easy line to say. I understand it from the writer’s perspective, but for me, it’s like “I just want to fucking hurt you so much, and I know that you, liberal-minded Matt, you progressive Matt, are going to be hurt by hearing this thing that’s so archaic and gross. I know I’m going to hurt you by saying this, because this is exactly the opposite of the man you want to be.”
I also like the conversation, when you’re still pretending it was a mugging, with your friend from work about how you’re bummed that it took something like this to make your boyfriend act like a boyfriend and not be so distant.
JT: And suddenly value her. Someone—a man—did come up to me after a screening saying, “It’s such a shame that it quite often takes men something like that to suddenly turn around and notice the woman in their life. It made me want to go home and hug my girlfriend and be like “Oh my god, I don’t want it to be that. I want to notice you now.” That was a really lovely compliment. It is a bit of a shame that it takes him so long to figure out he’s got this incredible woman, and she’s been asking him to come home, she’s been asking him to be present.
He’s doing all the right things for all the wrong reasons.
JT: Exactly. Isn’t it sad? It’s frustrating, because you do feel for him.
The scene that I wanted to look away from was the first love scene. I knew they weren’t going to get through it. But Bonnie is the instigator there. That was another part of her trying to get through it in her way. Tell me about shooting that scene.
SB: We shot both of the sex scenes in the same day, and it was a very tight, closed set. Jess wanted to make sure that both of us—both myself and Michael Stahl-David—felt really comfortable and safe. Neither one of us had done a sex scene before, but by that time, we’d rehearsed a week by ourselves with Jess, just the three of us, in the apartment, doing a bunch of trust-y games and improvs, and the three of us had dinner together. It’s like the three of us were dating.
JT: Sometimes I would leave them alone, because I was like “this is really weird. It’s like I’m just observing you guys become friends.”
SB: You were like our chaperone.
JT: Yeah. I took you to dinner, and I tried to build trust between them.
SB: You did. We really trusted each other by that point. I do think that we, in a weird way, fell into like an artist’s love affair with each other, because we really enjoyed working together and playing off of each other. So by the time we got to the sex scene, it was like we implicitly trusted each other. There was a little bit of nerves, but not really that much, because we were so fully into these characters by then. Shooting that scene, we were both in like pain, because it was painful. I think we did that one first, so it was also a little bit easier, because it did have an awkward ending. It was easier for us to channel our own like, “Ew, that’s your butt!” [laughs] So there were no weird feelings during what turned out to be a stop-and-start sex scene.
JT: I would never ask an actor or actress to do nudity, and I think Steph completely could tell that it was a woman’s gaze. I do think it is important that women initiate. You never see that, and this is a strong woman. She’s owning her sexuality. She’s trying to regain her sexuality and her intimacy, and I think Steph totally understood what we were doing. Having sex after being assaulted, we hadn’t seen that before on camera. I remember saying to her “It’s going to be so focused on you and how you are feeling during this process,” and I think that made it easier too in that it wasn’t just like a sex scene for sex’s sake. It wasn’t this male gaze thing. We knew that it was such a big part of overcoming and becoming herself fully again. I wasn’t trying to be sexy with the shots.
SB: No, but some were sexy. In breaking down the script, I was thinking about “Why is it now that she wants to have sex with him?” Probably because it’s so pleasureful. When you’re having an orgasm, there’s nothing else you can think about. You’re lost in that moment. It’s like the world disappears and it’s just you and the feeling and maybe the other person too. And that’s the feeling I think Bonnie is chasing a little bit in that scene—“I want to leave all this behind for a minute, have it just be me and you, and have it be this like spectacular moment of orgasm that I know we can get to,” because those two have a great sex life. But unfortunately, they’re not capable of it in that moment.
At the same time, I also got the feeling that you want us to watch them and say, “This is too soon.”
JT: I think she’s forcing it a little bit.
SB: Yeah, totally. She hasn’t dealt with what happened to her yet.
I feel like we’re not supposed to… I mean, it’s two people having sex on screen, but at the same time I’m watching it going, “Just stop, because this isn’t going to happen.”
JT: Someone in the audience today during the movie when you went to initiate, they were like “Oof.” And it wasn’t a good “Oof.” I think that’s why Matt [Michael Stahl-David’s character] is like, “Really? Really? Uh, okay.” Part of it was, I wanted the audience to judge themselves judging her. Not in that moment, but in other moments of the film, like when she does drink a lot. I will admit, I think victim blaming obviously shouldn’t happen, but it does happen. It is a real thing. A thought might pass through your brain like, “Oh, well she was wearing that.”
Stephanie, you say that exact thing to that girl on the street: “You’re practically asking for it.” I didn’t think that was going to come out of anyone’s mouth in this movie.
JT: Yeah, I did want the audience to think about their judgement of Bonnie.
When she says that line, she’s saying it just as much to herself.
I remember the first time I really noticed you was in Short Term 12, which I saw here a few years ago. Since then, I’m not aware of you doing anything as dramatic until this. Were you specifically looking for a film where you could get back to that, and did you think it would be this severe?
SB: I was, yeah, for sure. I had a very open mind. Before moving to LA, I was doing a lot of theater and a lot of very dramatic stuff in theater like Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller. I wanted to do something where I could slide into somebody else’s life. I read a couple of scripts and I read this one, and it was different. It’s very different. A rape in a movie, like we were saying beforehand, it’s usually like some character shift… “And now you’re a real, full human.” Or it’s a plot point or a sexual-revenge fantasy.
I read the script and then sent it to a really good friend of mine who is a survivor of sexual assault, an incest survivor. She read it, and I was like, “Girl, this is going to be real triggering, so just be cool. You don’t have to finish it if you can’t.” She wrote me back like 40 minutes later and was like, “Please do this movie. I really need you to do this movie.” And I was like okay. My friend who has been struggling with this her whole life is telling me she wants me to tell this story then I thought “Yeah, this is the one.”
Has she seen it?
SB: She hasn’t seen it yet. She’s excited to. Because it’s her story too. It’s a version of her story, it truly is. There are so many things in this script that I’ve heard her say over the last couple of years to me in confidence. Like, “Last night we were having dinner, and I made some joke, and he got really upset and left the room, and I was like ‘I can’t even joke about this thing that I’ve been living with every day?’” I can’t wait to share it with her.
Has anyone said anything about the humor Bonnie tries to inject almost immediately?
SB: Yeah, for sure. It’s so dark, right? [laughs]
JT: People like it. Yeah, it is super dark. That was brought up in the Q&A today. I was like, “Thank god, people understood my gallows humor,” because I think I’m a little bit like that. I don’t think I avoid feeling my feelings as much as Bonnie does, but when there’s a funeral, I’m the girl with a lot of jokes at funerals. Not in like a way that’s inappropriate, but that lightens the mood. Or you make jokes about the person and how wonderful they were, so I feel like a lot of me is in Bonnie in that. What was nice to see today, there was a big laugh when she goes, “You’re just gonna sit there and watch me eat?”
SB: And then he says, “They told me at the hospital I’m supposed to be a positive male influence.” And she says, “I don’t think you were supposed to tell me that, you idiot.” [laughs]
JT: And the whole audience cracked up. I think there was a sigh of like “Thank god it’s not going to be heavy for 90 minutes.” I think people looked forward to that in Jack’s character [her best friend at work]. He’s more diverse and complex than comic relief, but I think that’s why that character works so well as a best friend, because it does breathe light into this dark moment, and that’s how life is. Sometimes sex is awkward and funny. Sometimes death is funny, or not funny, but you can see the light side of it as well. I think that makes for a fully complex, interesting person to watch. People have been responding well to that aspect to it.
Best of luck with this.
JT: Thank you so much.
Honestly, I love “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” I watch it religiously. I was at the screening of Joe Swanberg’s Win It All the other night…
SB: So was I! Wasn’t that so good?
I know you were because I saw you in the audience sitting with Joe [Lo Truglio, her “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” co-star], and I thought it was so sweet that you all came out to support him.
SB: Oh, hell yeah! Family support all the way. I’m so proud of him. I was like, “You need to be the best friend in every romantic comedy ever from now on.”
Thanks for talking
SB: This was great. Thanks so much.