Haifaa Al-Mansour, the first female director from Saudi Arabia and the film star Douglas Booth sit down in an exclusive interview for The Pavlovic Today to reveal what it was like to work together on Mary Shelley.
Haifaa al-Mansour blended into the environment of New York’s accommodating Roxy Hotel when I sat down with her for an exclusive interview, largely because she looked just like a New Yorker.
Dressed in a grey sweater, black pants, and boots, her attire worked with the atmosphere of the Tribeca neighborhood, and the film festival which occupies it annually – which could almost make you forget the Al-Mansour has spent most of her life in a place where women’s features are expected to be covered. Born and raised in Saudi Arabia, she dreamed of being a filmmaker at a time when cinema itself was outlawed, and women were not allowed in the workforce. She had to go to Australia to learn the craft of filmmaking, and at age 38 her first feature film, Wadjda, attained international acclaim. She has followed this up with Mary Shelley, a romantic biopic of the author of Frankenstein, which played at Tribeca and will go into wide release later this month. Al-Mansour was joined by Douglas Booth, the charming British actor who played Percy Bysshe Shelley across from Elle Fanning’s Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and was as vivacious off-screen as he was on.
Al-Mansour, who dedicated much of her film to examining the gendered discrimination Mary Shelley faced in her era, had a lot to say about how much, or little, things have changed.
You’ve already broken barriers as the first internationally recognized female director from Saudi Arabia. How does this film relate to you, and how is it a story about breaking barriers?
Haifaa al-Mansour: When they sent this story to me, I was unsure. I said, ‘I don’t know, it’s about an English woman, I’m from Saudi Arabia.’ But it’s amazing, when I read it, that it’s about this girl trying to assert herself and have this voice, and it’s amazing to see how similar – well, not amazing. England was very conservative at the time, and they wanted women to act and be in a certain way, and it’s not Saudi Arabia, but it was amazing to see how similar the two could be. And for me, it was amazing to see this young person break through all that and make her own decisions and makes her own kind of writing. Very original, very different, she creates a whole kind of genre. For me, that was a great success for a woman. If we look at society, women have to create a legacy we can stand on, and give us the strength to continue. And it’s very important to celebrate those figures.
Absolutely, and this film is a great example of that. In making it, did you find similarities specifically between yourself and Mary Shelley?
Haifaa al-Mansour: Absolutely. She did not give in to what society expects from her. And that’s very important to me. When I began making films, people were making films, but there were no movie theaters. And now there are movie theaters, so anything’s possible.
Douglas Booth: Were there really just no movie theaters?
Haifaa al-Mansour: Oh, cinema was illegal. But it’s now really amazing to see how that changed to see how that changed and it’s amazing to see her, sticking to what she wanted to do and even taking the book to different publishers, and even when she was published she was published with silly stuff. She wasn’t published with the most prestigious house just because of her gender and the subject matter she chose. And I find that’s brave, to break into something new. I also find that her writing is wonderful. This movie starts as such a straightforward romance, and melodrama, but the whole second half is dedicated to getting this book published, and the price of authorship. How did you balance those two concepts while making this film, and balanced those two aspects of her life? Haifaa al-Mansour: I wanted to show how strong the correlation was between her life as a woman – losing a child and getting into this sort of relationship and everything – affected her writing the book. That was really wonderful for me to see because a lot of people say it is a masculine book and stuff like that, but it is directly related to her life.
Douglas Booth: I just feel that these two things are completely linked. I didn’t recognize that when I first read Mary Shelley. I didn’t realize that her life was in the story, I just thought that she sat down and came up with the story. It was the things and tragedies, the strife and hardship and love and heartbreak. She madly fell in love, and then watched that disintegrate and fracture and have all this loss. I felt that that’s all linked. But, you’re right, and one of my favorite parts of the movie is when things start to break down, and they just can’t communicate, they just can’t get it right. She comes back and says, ‘They say they’ll publish it with a foreword from you,’ and I’m like ‘Great, babe, that’s great.’ And she’s like, ‘You just don’t fucking get it.’ And they’re missing the point, but they love each other and they persevere, and she finally finds her voice – she says ‘I will do this on my own.’ And that’s my favorite part of the movie. She says, ‘I will write this, and I will get it published. And I will do it myself, I don’t need any of you men.’ Haifaa always points out that you don’t need any men at any point [laughs]. Haifaa al-Mansour: [laughs] Sometimes.
Douglas Booth: I mean, that’s not true, but you always wanted the girls to stick up for themselves in any situation. If Percy said something or Byron said something, they would need to face it. And Elle [Fanning] just faces it. People say, ‘Why Elle? Why choose her?’ and – you’re right – the story is melodramatic, it’s a melodramatic theme, but you put Elle in there and she can just carry the story so naturally. With such elegance.
That relates to something I wanted to ask you, Haifaa. What advice do you have for women today, and what advice do you think Mary Shelley has for women in this day and age?
Haifaa al-Mansour: It would be to believe in themselves – that it is not going to be easy, and they will be dismissed. But the thing is, to be discriminated against, or to face sexism, should not be their focus, their focus should be their goal and what they want to do with their lives. Focusing on all the obstacles is daunting, and can bring people down. However, focusing on the goal – that always inspires and brings you closer. And for anything great you need to maneuver a lot of things, and that is what women need to know: that it’s tough but you can do it.
You brought up Elle a second ago. What was the process of casting her, and what was it like to work beside her?
Douglas Booth: Yeah, well her age, first of all.
Haifaa al-Mansour: Yeah.
Douglas Booth: I, of course, didn’t cast her. But her age was a major factor and I don’t think many young actors her age could have carried that on – you know she was seventeen at the time? She had her eighteenth birthday just after [the shoot]. And if you want age-appropriate, how many seventeen and eighteen-year-old girls could have the composure to follow that story through from beginning to end with the elegance that she had.
Haifaa al-Mansour: Absolutely, she can shock you with the fact that she’s very mature, and I wanted to play on that and bring that in. I really wanted someone who was very subtle in their performance, because I felt we needed someone who has elegance and dignity in their performance and can carry that. You don’t want to feel sympathy for them, you always want to feel admiration for them and want to be them.
Douglas Booth: You don’t want to be a victim.
Haifaa al-Mansour: You don’t want to be a victim at all. And she really was able to bring me that. And casting Douglas was amazing because we looked all over for someone who can bring Percy for life. And it was amazing meeting Douglas – I remember meeting him at SoHo House, in L.A., and it was so good to see how he can bring in this kind of charm and this kind of playfulness to a character. That is exactly what we want to see in a character that is flawed but still capture all that complexity, and he did a great job, and it was great to see him work with Elle and see all the chemistry that flowed between them.
On that note, how was it to play a character who was based on a historical person, and one which such a complicated historical effect?
Douglas Booth: I’ve played a lot of real-life characters, from Boy George to my last character, Nicky Six – a lot of eighties musicians. I really enjoy when there’s a lot of material to draw on. For Shelley, it’s not like you have video footage so it’s very much that you go to the writing. And that gives you a slight freedom. I love it; for me, acting is time-traveling to a certain degree and so to be able to time travel and stand there in eighteen-hundreds London with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin – it’s pretty amazing. So, psychologically, it’s not hard. It’s my job, but it’s good fun.
I know that you’re a passionate defender of gender equality. Was there something that interested you about this movie before you had signed on? Douglas Booth: What interested me about this movie was that there were three really brilliant women attached. There was Haifaa who – I really loved Wadjda, and I felt she was the perfect person to tell this story. There were many similarities between her life and Mary Shelley’s life and the struggles they had to go through to have their stories told. And also Elle Fanning and Bel Powell, two of the best actors of their generation. So it was a trifecta of female awesomeness that I wanted to get a piece of. And I did.
I was interested in the timeliness of this piece. How would you say that her Gothic era would translate to some of the injustices of today – either in the U.S., across the world, or in Saudi Arabia?
Haifaa al-Mansour: Definitely in Saudi Arabia. But even here, I think that women being intellectually dismissed is very common. And it’s very sad – women almost have to assert themselves to a certain degree when men come on with natural authority and people just accept them. And it is very timely, and I think for the current moment it’s amazing for the movie to come at a time where women’s voices now matter. We are starting a new era, where we’re very critical of our history and in particular the dynamics in the workplace. Given women the respect not to be harassed and not to be dismissed just because of their gender. And I think Mary Shelley’s story is very timely to understand what women have gone through, and why that took two-hundred years and we’re still doing the same thing. It’s sadly still a modern story, being dismissed. Hopefully, the success of her work tells us we cannot do it anymore. There are a lot of Mary Shelleys who can produce beautiful work, and we should respect them for who they are, and give them a chance to shine without pushing them to the side.
It seems that within the genre of romance, period pieces have lately been offering us revisionist histories about the eras in which these romances took place. Is Mary Shelley among these? And where does this mean the conversation about love is going?
Haifaa al-Mansour: Absolutely, and it is interesting to see it as revisionist history, looking at it through the modern lens. This is not a story about falling in love, it’s about the complexity of two creative people coming together, which is really a very modern concept. So history sometimes is how you look into it. As we look back further on, we will see more than we did now, because we are evolving as people and we are becoming more and more sophisticated. I think if we look back at history we will find a lot of stuff waiting for us.
Douglas Booth: I think what’s great about Call Me by Your Name is that it’s a love story, but the fact that they’re gay is just by-the-by. It’s just a love story. You have Love Simon, a movie that’s coming out and it doesn’t make an issue about it. It just is, and that’s what’s so great about it. I think this is a slightly different thing, as [Haifaa] said, it’s about the conflict between two creative people coming together, and when ideals and expectation don’t quite meet. I think this is interesting because it’s not black and white. We all have a set of ideals we like to live by but when we try to stick to them it gets difficult. And also, just to look at what kind of creativity can come from the pressure that is trying to love someone, and loving someone too much.
For Haifaa, I drew a parallel between the isolation that Mary Shelley faces in this movie in relation to the fact that it seems you had to break with your own community to do something that wasn’t accepted at the time. How were you able to overcome that, and what kind of support did you have?
Haifaa al-Mansour: I didn’t have to break with my community, I had to fight with my community. We had our battles, but yeah. I think it’s hard for women, coming from conservative places to see that they can do it or to feel like we can do something, and it takes a lot of putting blinders on, to be able to at least imagine that you can do it. And this is the first step – to imagine that maybe you can do it. And I think that Mary Shelley wanted to write, and all the time wanted to write. But whenever she tried to find her voice, someone else would tell her, ‘Maybe you should write it in this way, maybe you should do it in this way.’ They always wanted to guide her, to channel her, and she needed to find the space to do what she wanted to do, and a lot of women face that. People want to give them guidance.