‘Mustang’ Director Deniz Gamze Ergüven on Creating a Sisterhood, Representing France at the Oscars

nullMustang” is both a powerful coming-of-age story and a touching tribute to sisterhood. The story follows five sisters in Turkey who cause a stir in their ultra-conservative village when they’re spotted playfighting with local boys at the beach. After being accused of “rubbing” themselves on the boys’ necks (they are innocently sitting on their shoulders), the girls are put under house arrest, and their home transforms into “wife factory” where their freedoms are taken away. The girls are being married off in quick succession in an attempt to break their spirits and fit them into more conventional feminine roles. The ensemble piece is beautifully acted — Günes Sensoy in particular stands our as Lale, the youngest sister. These girls and their bond to each other will break your heart, and despite of all the tragedy in the film, "Mustang" is ultimately inspiring and hopeful. (Laura Berger)

Women and Hollywood spoke with writer-director Deniz Gamze Ergüven about producer trouble, working with her co-writer Alice Winocour (director of "Augustine" and "Disorder") and the "adopted child’s" reaction she had to her first film being nominated as France’s submission for the 2016 Oscars. 

W&H: I was at the first screening of your movie, and afterwards, there was silence, and then an explosion. What was that experience like?

DGE: It was extremely emotional. When you make a film, you come to say something. For me, it was wonderful to see that whatever you’re saying is coming across, being heard. That same day, we went to the second screening of the film with the girls, who had never seen the film before, and again it was like an emotional explosion. The girls were extremely emotional. It was just absolutely great.

W&H: What is the age of the girls during the shooting?

DGE: They range between 12 and 20.

W&H: This is a very intensely personal story for you, and you had a collaborator who worked with you on the writing. Talk about how you worked with Alice Winocour on creating the script.

DGE: When I met with Alice, we were both [trying] to get our first features done. I was literally giving up. I had told Alice about the treatment I had been writing and that I’d put it back in the drawer because it felt too much like reality and included secrets that were not mine to tell. Alice was the one who encouraged me to start with doing another film that would enable me to make my first feature film afterwards. She was extremely supportive. There was something like a boxing coach in the attitude she would have. She would say things like, If you don’t have a script idea in the summer, you’re dead, and it was literally working on me, and I would be beating on my keyboard for 20 hours a day. I had this very raw momentum. It felt like I was digging a hole in the ground, and she lifted me up and helped me gain a little bit of perspective or said, like, go more in this direction or that direction. It’s extremely helpful to be debating the characters and giving them dimension and light and texture. We’d talk about the girls. I owe her so much.

W&H: Did you always know you were going to direct this?

DGE: Yes, of course.

W&H: The idea for five sisters — why five?

DGE: Each girl is defined in her reaction to the precedent. Our story needed those five pillars. if you take one out, everything falls to the ground. I remember in the discussion with the first producer [who left the film very shortly before they were to start shooting], she kept asking me to cut a character, and it just didn’t work. It was a script extremely resistant to change. You can go deeper into the issue and the theme, but you can hardly change the structure of the five girls.

W&H: That producer must be ruing the day right now, realizing how well the movie has done.

DGE: It couldn’t have gone further with her. It was a troubled experience when it happened, but she had reached her limit, and the film was underfinanced by the time she left it. The producer who came on board found more than one third of the missing financing within just a few weeks. Some producers generate more trust than others, and the producer who came onboard was like that. She said, recently, that she couldn’t have made it. And it’s true. Of course we’re not friends, because everything happened in a not-great way, but I know that was the best she could do.

W&H: That’s very nice of you. I would be very angry.

DGE: You can’t. Plus, I had a happy ending. The producer who finally came onboard, he was the producer I wanted to make the film with in the first place. I have a giant timeline for the film on paper so I can see the whole structure of the film, and I had written a few wishes while I was writing. One was to make the film with him. He was the first producer I had given the script to, and he had passed, because at that time he was in a company that just wouldn’t do this film. After two years, when I was ready to shoot, he had created his own company and was at a point where he could say yes and came onboard. Another producer left the project in the most ugly way while I was pregnant, and she wrote a letter to the producers telling them that, which was completely personal information. I didn’t take very kindly to that. But then the dream producer with the most elegant attitude came along and completely saved the day. It’s fine. If she had killed it completely, I would have been angry.

W&H: As our former Secretary of State says, there is a special place in hell for a women who don’t support women. 

DGE: Yeah.

W&H: So where did you find these amazing young actresses?

DGE: One of them had already acted before; that was Elit İşcan who plays the part as Ece. I thought of her during the whole writing of the film. I prayed that she wouldn’t grow up too much until we were ready to shoot. With the other ones, we had a very long process of casting. It was nine months, and I saw hundreds of girls. But instead of an audition, I had prepared little things we asked the girls to do in front of the camera, which enabled us to see their acting qualities and other issues, like whether they were listening and using their imagination, their capacity to completely dive into a scene — and we could see their temper as well. Once we had that, it was a matter of combination. We also had that extra concern that the girls all needed to look alike. The first time we brought them together, some of them went looking at each other as if they were looking in the mirror. Then we started engaging in a very joyful, inviting process. 

W&H: They had to become sisters.

DGE: Yeah. And it was very playful. I was never authoritative. Once in a while, when I thought there was something wrong with the values inside the group, I’d tell them. And I still do, actually. When I find something which is not what I want in this group, I gather them and I do a little speech. It’s more about when they don’t watch each other’s back or something like that. I engage them to [get them to] respect each other. When it goes off track, which is very rare, I try to set the clock back again. Apart from that, they were very counterintuitive to play, and in a scene where they had a very strong antagonist, and they were uncomfortable with that antagonist, they immediately had extreme solidarity with one another and protected each other. They attacked him together and plotted how to attack him again. All of a sudden, we had a body with five heads.

W&H: Were you surprised when your film was picked by France to be the representative for the country for the Academy Awards?

DGE: Yes. First of all, it’s a film engaged by France. It wouldn’t have existed without France, and it’s a French initiative. As a filmmaker, I owe everything to France — I got accepted at a French film school that takes six directors a year. Once you’re in, you make films under the eye of people in the industry. You grow up in front of their eyes, and I already represented France at the Cannes Film Festival. As soon as we came out of the editing room, it was extremely embraced as a French movie. It was shown at the Ministry of Culture. This choice was a very modern and radical choice. It was a way of embracing me and the film and standing behind the values of the film and stating something, which was great: This is who we are in France, and this is a fight for our diversity in terms of people and cinema. Apart from that, the foreign-language Oscar is something that doesn’t go to the producer or the director; it goes to the country. Of course, it was a very emotional, joyous moment. I was so touched and literally shaken. It really had me very emotional. Immediately afterwards, there was a huge sense of responsibility. I could feel the amount of stress it had given us, and the feeling of giving back; it’s like being an adopted child.

This interview has been condensed and edited. It was transcribed by Freja Dam.