Alice Winocour: “In ‘Proxima’ I wanted to show a mother and a superheroine at the same time”

French filmmaker and screenwriter Alice Winocour (b. 1976) was a guest of honor at the twentieth edition of the Arras Film Festival in France earlier this month to promote the release of her third feature, “Proxima,” starring Eva Green and Matt Dillon. In this film, which was first screened last September at the Toronto International Film Festival and won the Special Jury Award at the San Sebastián International Film Festival, Ms. Winocour follows the leading character of Sarah, played by Eva Green, as she’s preparing to become an astronaut on a year-long space mission called Proxima aboard the International Space Station.

However, the strong and determined astronaut-to-be is facing a growing internal conflict, wrestling with her career as an astronaut combined with her aspiration as a mother of her seven-year-old daughter Stella. As she’s getting ready for her mission in space, she struggles with her daughter’s emotional detachment.

Ms. Winocour’s latest films include “Maryland (2015, a.k.a. “Disorder”), a solid thriller with Matthias Schoenaerts playing a war veteran with PTSD who is hired to protect the wife (character played by Diane Kruger) and child of a wealthy businessman while he is out of town. That same year, she co-wrote the screenplay of “Mustang,” which was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film.

Mother and daughter reunion in “Proxima,” with Eva Green as an astronaut who meets her daughter, played by Zélie Boulant | AKA Agency/Cherry Pickers

A film about female astronauts is pretty rare compared to the total output of films set in space. Of course, we all remember and cherish Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in her five “Star Wars” films, Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in her four “Alien” films, and Sandra Bullock also did an amazing job in space with her stunning performance in “Gravity” (2013), as did Anne Hathaway in “Interstellar” (2014)—just to mention a few. But when it comes their basic training before they’re actually launched into space, female astronauts rarely appear as the central characters.

And that’s where Ms. Winocour comes in with her latest film, “Proxima,” with French-born actress Eva Green as the key figure. At the Arras Film Festival, Ms. Winocour introduced the film briefly before the screening, and asked the audience to remain seated to check out what they would see after the end credits because then she’d show something that was very valuable to her—and when I saw it, it really made sense.

“Proxima” is all about the preparation of astronauts, something that’s also hardly shown in film. Once in a while you get a glimpse of it, like in “The Right Stuff” (1983), which was an outstanding achievement. In real life, astronauts often spend several years to prepare for their journey into space. “It’s all bigger than life,” Ms. Winocour said, “because our bodies are made to live on earth, not in space.”

You can find here what she discussed during her Q&A, after the screening of “Proxima” at the Casino of Arras, in a slightly condensed and edited version, since it also includes a few quotes from the introduction. The film is out on November 27.

Ms. Winocour, can you tell something about how “Proxima” came about?

Ever since I was a child, I was fascinated by astronauts who went into space. Back then, it was more like an abstract and poetic attraction. When I met several astronauts at the European Space Agency in Cologne [Germany], and got to know what their training schedules looked like, how they were being prepared for their mission into space, what they had to do and how they had to sacrifice everything to reach their goals, it was simply incredible. So the more I talked with them, the more I was determined to make this film. Being a mother myself—my daughter is about the same age as the girl in the film—I wrote the story from my point of view as a mother, and then it became very fascinating to me: a female astronaut leaves her child behind, just like any astronaut leaves the earth behind. Like all moms who have a job, the character of Sarah is kind of a metaphor for all women who have children. So as she’s about to be separated from her child for such a long time, I asked myself, how does she deal with it, what about her feelings, and the fact that she’s feeling guilty leaving her daughter behind? Will she be able to pursue her dream while still trying to be a perfect mother? And in the end, the idea of astronauts leaving the earth resonates with a female astronaut who leaves her child behind.

How long have you been working on this project?

About three years. It took about two years to finish the screenplay, also because there was a lot of research and traveling involved, meeting those astronauts from different countries, gathering information about their work, who they are, what they do exactly. It took me a long time to prepare it, but I had no other choice; this was the only way to make sure I would get it right. And the preparation took a long time because we shot in the actual locations where the astronauts get their basic training. We went to the European Space Agency in Cologne where I was able to meet several astronauts, female astronauts too and the people who guide them and train them. When we shot in Star City in Moscow, you see it as it really is; we didn’t change anything. The bedrooms are exactly the way you see them in the film; there are American astronauts too, because all the spacecrafts to the International Space Station are launched from Baikonur [Kazakhstan]. All the astronauts have to follow the same routine, the same protocol. Everything is very strict, so you’re not allowed to just set up your camera anywhere you want and start shooting. Those locations are not easily accessible.

Can you tell something about the casting?

I have cast Eva Green because if you look at her, she doesn’t look like a mother, she’s not a mother herself. She looks a little bit like a warrior, and so it was interesting to see her with a little girl. She has a strangeness and grace; she is a bit like a space person, that’s why I can relate to her easily. The little girl is the same. And Eva is really preoccupied. I also like characters who are very preoccupied with their work—so am I—but astronauts really push everything to the limit. Their preparation takes many years, and when Eva Green got involved in the project, she took it very seriously and trained really hard. She was so devoted to the film; she also worked with real astronauts like Thomas Pesquet. She often got up at five o’clock in the morning to train with them. So with the character she played, I wanted to show a superheroine and a woman at the same time. You don’t very often get to see a character like that—it’s as if a superheroine and a woman are incompatible. When you see a heroine in films, she usually has no children because children would divert her from her work. But in real life, women have children.

What about the choice of Eva Green’s character to get out of the quarantine and take her daughter out to see the spacecraft?

I thought it would be a good idea that she was ready to forget her dream and fulfill her promise to her daughter. I had met an astronaut who told me she had also done this: she had escaped from quarantine during Halloween because she wanted to play trick or treat with her daughter for a moment—she only went to two or three houses. Another astronaut told me the story that he also escaped from quarantine with the help of his doctor because his son had cancer, and he had decided to leave just to say goodbye to him for the last time.

Film director and screenwriter Alice Winocour during her Q&A at the Arras Film Festival | Leo/Film Talk

Did you also get to see the launch of a spacecraft in Baikonur?

Yes, and seeing that is an incredible experience; you really see how it goes up in the sky and out of the atmosphere, it’s like dying in a way. That makes the film a celebration of the earth, it’s really much more than a space movie. Some astronauts told me that when they leave the earth, they realize all the more how connected they are to the earth, how important this planet is to them—also little things that we normally wouldn’t pay attention to, like the smell of a tree, the sound of the birds, those things they really missed during their mission. It was something that [musician] Ryuichi Sakamoto also noticed. He was moved by this idea that one of the astronauts was recording the sound of nature before going to the Station. It makes us realize that we are really made to live on earth and not in space. The training schedule is very tough and very hard for the body, and space is not a place for any human being: your body can grow up to three or four inches. That’s huge, and it really hurts. Your vision weakens, you grow older, you lose your sense of balance, it’s really very violent to the human body. I know all those things now because by including so many of the stories that I had heard, it was as if I was making a sort of documentary because of my own obsession with cinema. And so, when leaving the earth and going into space, I had the opportunity to confront the infinitely small with the infinitely big.

At the end, you show all those photographs, family snapshots really, of several female astronauts with their children, and you mention the flights they were part of.

Yes, they had given those photographs to me. They emphasize what the film really is all about: you see them when they look like astronauts, in their space suits, smiling, but when their children are sitting on their lap, they’re also mothers. One of the reasons why I made this film was to stage the endlessness of space versus the intimacy of the family with all the tiny but very precious details of this mother and daughter relationship.

Arras Film Festival, Arras (France)
November 9, 2019

“Proxima” (2019, trailer)


ORDINARY PEOPLE (2009) DIR Vladimir Perisic PROD Gilles Sacuto, Miléna Poylo, Anthony Doncque SCR Alice Winocour, Vladimir Perisic CAM Simon Beaufils ED Martial Salomon CAST Relja Popovic, Boris Isakovic, Miroslav Stevanovic

AUGUSTINE (2012) DIR – SCR Alice Winocour PROD Isabelle Madelaine, Emilie Tisné CAM Georges Lechaptois ED Julien Lacheray MUS Jocelyn Pook CAST Vincent Lindon, Soko, Chiara Mastroianni, Olivier Rabourdin, Roxane Duran, Lise Lamétrie, Ange Ruzé

MARYLAND, a.k.a. DISORDER (2015) DIR Alice Winocour PROD Emilie Tisné SCR Alice Winocour, Jean-Stéphane Bron CAM Georges Lechaptois ED Julien Lacheray MUS Gesaffelstein CAST Matthias Schoenaerts, Diane Kruger, Paul Hamy, Zaïd Errougui-Semonsant, Percy Kemp, Victor Pontecorvo, Michaël Dauber

MUSTANG (2015) DIR Deniz Gamze Ergüven PROD Charles Gillibert SCR Alice Winocour, Deniz Gamze Ergüven CAM Ersin Gok, David Chizallet ED Mathilde Van de Moortel MUS Warren Ellis CAST Günes Sensoy, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Tugba Sunguroglu, Elit Iscan, Ilayda Akdogan, Nihal G. Koldas, Ayberk Pekcan

PROXIMA (2019) DIR Alice Winocour PROD Isabelle Madelaine, Emilie Tisné SCR Alice Winocour, Jean-Stéphane Bron CAM Georges Lechaptois ED Julien Lacheray MUS Ryuichi Sakamoto CAST Eva Green, Matt Dillon, Sandra Hüller, Lars Eidinger, Jan Oliver Schroeder, Nancy Tate, Zélie Boulant, Aleksey Fateev