If you haven’t already heard, Marion Hill is an indie film darling based in New Orleans, Louisiana. Her first feature film called Ma Belle, My Beauty is about American ex-pats from the Big Easy who find themselves figuring out life in the South of France. Marion’s a Vietnamese-American womxn with things to say and she has done that with her debut piece of visual rhetoric swept viewers away at the Sundance Film Festival and other cinema world events (like SXSW), which quickly and readily resulted in a sale and distribution deal. The film will move you, through time and space. It feels like a historical film from the 1950s/60s, with an utterly modern twist that could only happen now and only happen with Hill and her collaborators. Get ready to be whisked away to a magical storyland about womxn and their self-discovery.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Thuc Nguyen: What was the seed for the story of Ma Belle, My Beauty?
Marion Hill: I think the seed really was that I knew exactly what I wanted my first feature to feel like. I had a very specific taste in movies as a young person. Because of that, I think I could count on two hands how many films really tapped into the depths of my young soul and sensory yearnings. The films I really loved watching like Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Rachel Getting Married, A Bigger Splash, La Vie D’Adele were all intimate character-driven relationship dramas that were kind of culturally specific. And yes, all were directed by cis men, some by men I can’t even get behind anymore as much as their work was meaningful to me. All the more reason I wanted to add to that world of films that I feel hasn’t been done justice. I had pretty firm plans to film in this quiet part of France that I grew up in, that I had the most emotional ties to, and whose culture I felt closest to. And I knew for sure that it would be a gay-ass love story with womxn front and center. So those were the ingredients I started with: the place and the vibe and putting queer womxn at the center of the story. I saw that as the container that I would fill up with everything else.
T: So, the location and the feeling came first, how did you approach writing the script after that?
M: I had been living in New Orleans for a few years by the time I really committed to fleshing out this script. From the get-go, I was determined to write something achievable -- I’m a very pragmatic person. So I was literally looking around me for the actors I knew who I was interested in working with, but more importantly who would be interested in working with me! It just made a lot more sense for me to work that way. So I was writing the script as I was spending time with both Idella and Hannah who I hoped would play Bertie and Lane. It was kind of funny and cryptic for a while, but they both went along with it! And I really maintained that approach. I was still writing the scenes that take place with the local characters in France mere days before production. I was literally meeting actors in town, finding out their availability, then writing them into the script. It’s so funny to think about now. My Producers Kelsey Scult and Ben Matheny gave me thumbs up on the final draft as they were flying to France for production.
T: It really reads in the authenticity of the film that you were collaborating with your actors in the writing process. Can you tell us more about your collaborative process in developing Bertie’s (the lead) character? She’s a New Orleans vocalist who has transplanted herself to France and is struggling with depression, as well as a clear sense of alienation in her new habitat. What was your process with Idella Johnson in building this character’s experience?
M: In 2018 I saw Idella in a short (Zandashe Brown’s Blood Runs Down) at the New Orleans Film Festival and couldn’t stop thinking about her after that. Then I ran into her at a festival party and the chemistry between us popped off in one of those unmistakable exciting ways. She agreed to read thirty or something pages of what I had so far of a “script”, and then she agreed to meet up with me and talk about it. Things flew from there. We talked a lot over several months and Bertie’s character took shape continuously.
T. How do you think your process contributed to the fullness of her character?
M: That’s an interesting question because it makes me wonder what “fullness” means to different people! I think that what’s awesome is that Idella’s character, Bertie, is this special birth child of Idella’s truths and experiences and also my own. I wanted Idella to be the guiding force behind this character, and I wanted to pull from my own experiences that would allow us both to tap into the character in the most meaningful way. I was drawing very much from growing up watching my mother who was a Vietnamese immigrant surrounded by whiteness and white culture, as she powered through being othered, feeling isolated, and being misunderstood constantly to the point of exhaustion. Idella stepped into my lens of that situation as her own self, as a Black American woman from New Orleans, and thus brought nuance and personal reality to that situation informed by her own experiences. I think because we were both putting a lot of personal honesty into what Bertie was going through, her character feels very dynamic and layered in a very real way.
T: Totally. What about our supporting lovers, Fred and Noa, did you take a similar approach to their characters as well?
M: Very much so. Though it was a little different because they each functioned as much more tangible plot-moving pieces. At first, I imagined Fred to be French-Moroccan, but we were so close to filming and Lucien had sent me a tape and I fell for him, so the mixed Moroccan Fred became Spanish instead.
As for Noa, my story with Sivan, who plays Noa, is a whole story of its own. I’ve actually known her the longest. We met at a film festival in Chicago, we also had an immediate exciting connection, I was still in college at the time and hadn't really had other queer women filmmakers in my life. She’s an incredible writer as well as an actress by the way. I also had never met anyone from Israel before, and having had a pretty strong awareness around the occupation of Palestine since high school, it certainly was an intellectually jarring experience to be falling hard for this person. We stayed in touch quite intimately and always talked about collaborating one day. So, when this France thing started to take shape, I thought - let me just write her a part.
T: How did you go about incorporating occupation into the story? Was there a message behind your choices to highlight her background as a soldier?
The honest answer to this is that I tried not to think too much about it. Well, that was my approach to everything about the content of this film, but in this instance trying not to think too much about it was potentially where I went wrong. I wanted to work with Sivan as an artist, an unapologetically gay womxn artist who I had in my life and who just really inhabited the kind of firm lesbian energy I wanted this film to have, and she already wanted to work with me too. What I did know for sure was that I wouldn't include an actress or character from Israel without including an acknowledgment of occupation in the conversation around her.
I tried to lean into my honest experience. I pulled directly from my own confused feelings about my relationship with someone whose political lens is very different from my own and with whom I have a kind of unspoken agreement to not talk about certain things, and this is someone I have a spiritual attraction and connection with. I took this kind of confusion, the kind that I know a lot of us contend with daily as we move through the world, and let it slide into the story as an ugly manifestation of how I feel activist-minded folks sometimes weaponize political hypocrisy against one another in petty and unproductive ways. Which is usually just a reflection of their own discomfort. It’s definitely supposed to feel uncomfortable.
I want people to trust how it makes them feel. My hope is that people talk to each other and learn from each other. There are of course folks in my own community who cannot get behind the film because of how they feel about the soldier and I get it, and yeah in retrospect I don’t think I pulled this off well as a critique and I certainly understand that it hits differently in a bad way for folks whose relationship to Palestine is a lot more personal. I realize that my lack of a clear intention around that conversation definitely shows. I really felt a responsibility to acknowledge occupation as a given, so I went for it in a way that felt honest to me and relevant to my experiences grappling with it at the time.
T: How was it for your mom being a refugee (from Vietnam) in France? How’s the time you spent there together learning about her life?
M: Oh, France...[laughs] Talk about weaponizing hypocrisy. It’s so interesting to me when my French friends and family look at anything going on in the U.S. and say “how horrible” as though the French got no problems.
Yeah, my Mom and her family had a tough time rebuilding their life. When they got to France during the war, they ended up in this town a couple of hours north of Paris called Amiens. My Grandparents were forced to take all these exams before being able to work. And my Mom and all her siblings went to a French school where the teachers instead of learning their Vietnamese names just re-named them with random French names. My Mom retained the name “Monique” ever since, and raised my sister and I speaking French rather than Vietnamese. The assimilation response to colonization goes so deep.
T: How did you fill out the rest of the cast with people you’d find in the South of France?
M: I really owe it all to one local actor, Annie Corbier, who is also a playwright and acting coach and who appears as Valerie in Valerie’s party scene. She runs a local acting program in the village for folks of all ages, and she had all of her students send me monologues as the script was coming together - from that I was able to write people parts and shape the supporting local roles for the actors. Most of them spoke no English at all. It was great.
The cool thing about shooting in this small village was that everyone was really excited to see it and be a part of it. And they really got behind the gay thing, which I had been nervous about. And I was directing these scenes constantly code-switching, English to my DP, French to the local actors, back to English to the lead actors, back to French for the production designer, my brain neurons were moving at record lightning speed. [laughs]
T: Why did you feel the setting of this story needs to be the South of France?
M: Well, it was a combination of things. I grew up straddling French and American cultures so bringing Americans to France felt like an obvious choice to me. And I knew an American audience would go crazy for the scenery [laughs], so there was a lot of production value I was aware of.
As always, the logistical reasons too, my whole maternal family is rooted there at this point, so I have strong friendships and family over there that allowed me to pull favors and make connections to things like locations, caterers, accommodations, extras, basically, everything that would have otherwise required a very big budget to access.
But it’s funny, I think there are a lot of presumptions about French culture being this very sex-positive and laissez-faire place in terms of love and relationships, but that was never my experience. I’ve always held back from coming out to my French people. Ma Belle was actually my first coming-out acknowledgment to a whole lot of friends and family on that side.
T: And your next film will take place in New Orleans? Can you share your writing process for it so far and loosely what it’s about?
M: Man, I wish I could share more but I really can’t at this stage! There’s so much going on still with this release, I haven’t yet been able to make the complete switch over to creating the next story, so it all exists like floating mismatched pieces of a puzzle in my head right now. What I can say is that I’ve got to figure out a completely new story-development process and it’s daunting. [laughs]
T: So lastly, what’s going on in your mind as you watch your first baby be released into theaters?
M: It’s a lot! I really didn’t see this part coming. For me this film was like an experiment, I wasn’t thinking I was just doing, I wanted to showcase my sensibilities and design a story and world that would show what I love and what I’m good at, and see if people liked it, and have a good time and get into some great festivals.
I wanted to make my queer community proud, make New Orleans proud, make my family proud, that was really it! I didn’t allow myself to imagine that we would get distribution, but then Good Deed Entertainment came along, shout out to Kristin Harris who loved this film so much that she changed our world.
But yeah, the experience of taking what started out as an experiment with my friends and now turning it into a consumer product and putting myself and my world out there to serve the general public, it’s quite overwhelming. Also, expansive and exciting. As a pretty private and very imperfect person, I’m still very much processing how I want to move through this part of the world of movies.