Muriel d’Ansembourg grew up in New York and Amsterdam, where she studied screenwriting and ran her own production company. She returned to her studies to earn a Master’s in Directing at the London Film School, graduating with Distinction. Her graduate film, Good Night, picked up a string of awards and a BAFTA nomination, screening at over 200 film festivals worldwide, followed by a theatrical release within the UK, Germany, and Russia. MovieScope and Creative Skillset marked her as “One To Watch.”
d’Ansembourg’s films are typically powerful dramas wherein characters’ transgressive behavior leads to surprising moments of intimacy. They have received reviews and recognition from outlets including The Guardian, The Observer, Little White Lies, and Time Out.
d’Ansembourg has been a guest speaker and panel member at various institutions, including BAFTA, British Film Institute, National Youth Film Academy, and Goldsmiths, University of London, as well as a jury member at several international film festivals. She was also selected for the prestigious Binger Filmlab’s Writers & Creative Producers Lab to work on her debut feature, Truly Naked, which is currently in development as she continues to write and direct short films.
On the inspiration behind Good Night:
At the time of writing the film, I lived in a part of London with lots of nightlife. It was the girls in particular who drew my attention; the amount of skin they were willing to expose, despite the biting winter cold, was quite something. I'd be packed in my warmest coat, looking like a bear about to climb Mount Everest, while they looked ready for a day at the beach or local strip club. Their ‘stripper-chic’ outfits were provocative, yet at the same time, there was something naïve and playful in the way they roamed the streets like drunk giraffes, barely able to walk on those inhumanly high, killer heels. Some of these girls were so drunk they would simply lie down on the cold street, giving into gravity, a friend trying to pull them up. That friend, however, would be equally drunk and eventually end up on the floor next to her, and I would start to wonder how they would get back home in one piece.
This got me thinking about the confusion of being a teenager and making things even more confusing with your actions and hunger for adventure, while you desperately try to belong and be loved. Hiding yourself under way too much make-up, fakery, and sexy outfits, to the point where one can hardly see the real person underneath all these layers. There is something to say for feeling young and wild, radiating this sense of adventure and excitement, drawing things to you. At the same time, it can also generate situations you might not be able to handle, and that's where the filmmaker in me started to explore situations these girls could get themselves into on a night like this: What if they are actually underage, but we can't tell?And how about the boys and men they encounter on such a night—will they be able to tell? Who draws the line? I started to imagine how, especially combined with alcohol, such a situation could become blurry. Many girls feel a great pressure to be liked by everyone and to be attractive and sexually appealing when they hit puberty. I wanted to touch on the feelings lying underneath that sexy ‘act,’ as well and how hard it can be to stay true to yourself. This was the beginning of creating a story about two young girls on their first night out in London, who manage to transform themselves on the outside, yet are still 14 on the inside.
On her exploration of youth and teenage life onscreen:
Female friendships have always fascinated me, as they can be a source of incredible support, intimacy, and joy. But at the same time, this deep connection can be the root of unbelievable pain and distress when psychological manipulation creeps in. It was during my time at film school that I started to explore the drama that lies within those friendships, specifically during our pre-teen and teenage years. As a teenager, you experience many things for the first time, and there’s this hunger—it’s as if your energy is overflowing, every emotion is larger than life, and you push boundaries to see what lies behind them. I believe that these stories can be very interesting for an audience of any age, as long as the characters are compelling.
Being a teenager can feel as if there is no solid ground to stand on. I still feel that at times, you don’t need to be a teenager to feel the ground shake, however over the years I’ve learned to keep my balance a bit more. This reminds me of something that made me smile the other day, when reading the script of American Beauty, in which the main character says the following about his teenage daughter: “Janie's a pretty typical teenager. Angry, insecure, confused. I wish I could tell her that's all going to pass...” Then there's a short break after which he continues: “But I don't want to lie to her.”
On how she found her way into directing:
I wasn't one of those kids who ran around with their parents’ Super 8 camera torturing their family members, friends, or neighbor's pets. For me, it started with a rich imagination as a child and a deep fascination with stories. As I got older, that transformed into looking deeper into people's behavior and their underlying psychology. I realized cinema held great potential to tell these stories on many different levels, and I decided to study screenwriting to turn stories into scripts. I really wanted to bring my stories to life onscreen, but I was intimidated by my preconceived idea of what a director should be. The whole technical side of filmmaking felt daunting. I felt I could do with more life experience to build my confidence before being able to inspire and motivate not just one person, but a whole cast and crew. It took some time, but I finally built up the courage to apply for my Master’s in Directing at the London Film School. I had developed this image that everyone applying had to be a film genius, and my private thoughts when I got accepted were: “How did I manage to fool them, and how will I continue to fool them once term starts?” Yet the films I made at the film school did really well, and looking back, I probably wasn't fooling everybody—I was just fooling myself that I wasn't capable of being a director. Now I can't imagine doing anything else, I love the passion that comes over me when I'm making a film. On set, in the midst of creation, I become a different being: someone I never knew I could be.
On women working behind the camera today:
I get lots of inspiration from women working in the industry. Stories told on screen shape our cultural landscape, so it makes sense that they are told by both sexes. There is no one way to direct—we are all individuals—so a preconceived idea of what a director should be, including their sex, should be outdated by now. Men and women are equally capable, and it has been researched that they get the same box office result when given the same budget, so women aren't a bigger financial risk, either. Women also tend to write and direct more films about complex female characters, which we still lack in mainstream cinema. So this is an opportunity to enrich our cinema and, with that, our cultural landscape.
In the end, it’s about who funds films and for them to acknowledge that women are equally capable, even though they might present themselves differently. [It’s about] taking responsibility in acknowledging talent and striving not to get stuck on the packaging or what one has become used to expecting. Financiers shouldn't measure women's work against a male paradigm. There seems to be a conscious and an unconscious bias, which I believe is a result of living in, and viewing things from, a patriarchal society. This is so normal to us that most people aren't bothered, let alone outraged, that this misrepresentation still exists. It has become the norm. That's the real and deeper root of it all if you ask me, and that's where the big change is waiting to happen. Jane Campion once said (in a 2014 interview with The Guardian), “Women do really well in short-film competitions. It's when business and commerce and art come together; somehow men trust men more.” Especially when it comes to public money, things should to be equal, given that women make up half of the population.
On what’s next for her:
I can't tell you how happy I am to be in the final stage of finishing my feature script, Truly Naked, which I will go on to direct. It's a project I'm deeply invested in, and there have been moments where I worried the writing process was taking too long. It's encouraging to remind yourself in those moments that most films are based on books, which a writer has spent a couple of years writing; then there's the screenwriter, who will spend another year or so on that screenplay. So looking at it in that light, it's alright that the writing has taken me as long as it has. I've developed a deep friendship with my characters, who grew richer and more meaningful with time. You can't rush inspiration or push depth into a story and its characters—these things take time and patience.
I feel I can now look anybody in the eye and say this film is worth the time and money that will go into its next stages. The script is fresh, bold, and has wit, as well as an edge. The topic is relevant and provocative and told with a beating heart. It has deeply intimate and sensual moments, not shying away from sexuality when needed. I believe this film will generate a lot of conversation and, hopefully, stay with people long after leaving the cinema.
I'm lucky my life gives me the freedom to [take on something I deeply believe in]. That to me is what great independent cinema can offer: a little less safe, a little less business, in exchange for a whole lot of heart, soul, and passion. ★