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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

‘The Light of the Moon’ director Jessica M Thompson on film's timeliness to Hollywood's biggest scandal

The movie's global release on Amazon looks at the scandal gripping the US film industry squarely in the eye

A scene from the 2017 film 'The Light of the Moon'. Courtesy Imagination Worldwide
A scene from the 2017 film 'The Light of the Moon'. Courtesy Imagination Worldwide

When it comes to timing, you either have it or you don’t. In the case of director Jessica M Thompson, it would appear she has got it. Her latest film, The Light of the Moon, which deals with a young, professional woman coping with the aftermath of sexual assault, is to be released today on Amazon, just days before an Oscars ceremony – like the Baftas and Golden Globes before it – that looks certain to be overshadowed by the #TimesUp campaign which has been focused on sexual harassment in the US film industry.

It’s not the first time Thompson’s movie has been uncannily in step with the times. “We couldn’t have planned the timing, but it’s fortuitous,” she says. “We had a theatrical release in the US, and that came the week the Harvey Weinstein story broke. Now, the global release on Amazon is just before the Academy Awards.

According to Thompson the company owned by the disgraced Weinstein had enquired about buying the film shortly before the accusations against its boss surfaced. “Weirdly, the Weinstein Company were initially interested in buying the film and distributing it and we were like, ‘seriously?’” she says. “We didn’t know about the sexual abuse at that point, but we knew about the bullying, everybody knew about that, but we had no idea how big it would get.”

The director says the extent of the scandal was not a surprise. “I admit that I, too, have kept secrets about producers. I think every single woman in the industry I’ve spoken to has some experience of this,” she says, adding that the growing backlash from within the industry through #MeToo and #TimesUp seems to be leading to a watershed.

“This new movement has made me feel empowered to say, ‘No, I will not work with them again and here’s why’,” she admits. “I shoot almost every day. There are some fantastic men that I work with, but what I love is that this has created this really open dialogue on set and people are actually talking about what is appropriate and inappropriate, and for the first time in history it feels like women on set actually have some power.”

Thompson is determined she doesn’t want that power to become a negative thing, but rather a starting point for a more positive industry. “I don’t want men to be afraid on set, I just want a harmonious set where everyone feels respected and can contribute to the work we’re creating,” she says. “It really feels like there’s real, permanent change taking place. Just the other day, I was working on The Handmaid’s Tale set in Canada and everyone on set had to sign a form to agree that harassment would not be tolerated – that’s just so refreshing.”

Director Jessica M Thompson. Getty
Director Jessica M Thompson. Getty

Moving on to Thompson’s own film, the timing of its cinema and Amazon releases may have won it some extra attention, but it was receiving plenty of plaudits from its festival debut long before the Weinstein scandal broke.

The movie debuted at last March’s SxSW festival in Austin, Texas, where as well as picking up plenty of positive reviews, it also won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature.

For Thompson the win came as a complete surprise. “Usually those audience awards go to a comedy or something, so I hadn’t expected it at all,” she says. “I was actually sitting watching another film when it was announced, that’s how little I was expecting it. My phone started blowing up and I thought ‘Well either something’s wrong or something’s good’. It turned out it was the programmers trying to call me, so I had to duck out of the film and go to get the award.”

Thompson’s approach to the subject of her movie is quite unusual. While films tackling rape tend to be either revenge fantasies focusing on the victim’s vengeance, or gritty dramas focusing on suffering and recovery, Thompson’s protagonist Bonnie (Stephanie Beatriz) takes an almost matter-of-fact approach to getting on with her life.

“I wanted to do something different,” the director says. “It’s always revenge – rape a rapist like in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, or kill a rapist like in Kill Bill. I wanted something more real. The story is loosely based on that of a friend. She was a human rights lawyer, had a good job, had a boyfriend she was happy with. She just wanted to get back to work and get on with life, so I wanted to work with this idea of a professional woman who uses gallows humour to deal with events and goes back to work in a fairly male workplace. I didn’t want any revenge or justice because 98 per cent of rapists get away with it... I just wanted to look at what happens when you don’t get justice, you just go back to work.”

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Thompson notes that her protagonist’s refusal to bow to the stigma attached to her ordeal resonated in some unexpected places. “One of the first people to walk up and congratulate me when I picked up the award was a male who’d had cancer,” she says. “He’d really identified with the whole idea of not being seen as a survivor or a victim, not being pitied or labelled. I think that could resonate with a lot of people in a lot of situations.”

The Light of the Moon debuts on Amazon today