To say that Zoé Wittock’s debut feature film Jumbo is an odd love story would be a big understatement. After making waves at the Sundance Film Festival this year, the film will have its international debut at the Berlin International Film Festival later this month. That Shelf sat down with Wittock at Sundance to talk about the film.
Wilson Kwong: Jumbo is based off of real-life subjects who fell in love with inanimate objects. What attracted you to make a movie about that topic?
Zoé Wittock: The whole movie started when I read an article about someone who married the Eiffel Tower and called herself Erica Eiffel. When I called her to get some more information, I realized that there was actually a whole community called ‘objectum sexuals’. And from talking to her and seeing some documentaries about it, I started realizing how much of a phenomenon it actually was. Using Erica’s story and taking the fun and imagination of narrative work, I switched it to something with more colour and movement with the amusement park. It felt like a better setting to explore that connection with an object than the Eiffel Tower, which was static.
But what made you choose a roller coaster ride specifically?
With a roller coaster, even if you’re not infatuated with objects, you get emotions and thrills out of it. You get scared, excited and joyous. I think that’s what first attracted me to it. And then, as a filmmaker, you can make a roller coaster move, make sounds, and play with the lights. These were all elements that allowed me to give it a real personality, without giving it an actual voice.
How many roller coasters did you have to look at before you chose this particular one?
Lots! We actually did a whole casting process for Jumbo for about a year. We looked all over the world, and we had to find one so that she [Noémie Merlant] could move around enough to interact with it and walking around it. And once we found it, we had to redo its entire electrical system so that we could control the lights and actually play with it.
Can you talk about the setting of the film? It looks like it might be a small town in a rural area, where presumably, people might be less open minded?
We chose that setting mainly because it’s less dense, so there are fewer people and you can explore the theme of loneliness a little bit more. There is also that cliché that people from the countryside are less open-minded, and I’m not sure that’s quite true. I think it would depend on the people, but I really wanted to focus on the mother-daughter relationship and not on anyone else. So having a setting that allowed for more empty space, that just felt right for the story.
How did you prepare Noémie Merlant for this role, especially given that she had to form a relationship with something that wasn’t human?
Once we decided that she was the one, even before talking about the script or specific scenes, we just worked on her demeanour. We worked for weeks on her posture, and the way she walked and talked. She would come to my place, and we would just rehearse from there and get that intimate space and just play a lot on her physicality. And then from that, we started talking about the script and did some readings together. But I really wanted to approach it in a less intellectual way and a very direct, physical way.
So how much time did she actually spend with the Jumbo ride before filming?
Because the character discovers the machine in the film, I didn’t want her to spend too much [time with it] ahead of the shoot. She had one day before we started shooting to get to know Jumbo. She obviously got to know it as we went on with the shoot. We also left the most physical scene with the machine for the end. Meaning, that the first scenes where she’s just touching and discovering it for the first time would feel more natural.
I also noticed how [Jeanne] the main character’s personality or mental health issue is never identified directly. Was this done intentionally?
It was, because I think if another director had taken the story, they could have treated it a lot more on the psychological level. The idea of not mentioning exactly where she’s coming from in terms of potential traumas or a specific condition, just pushes the audience to stay with the emotions and forget about trying to make it a psychological profile. I just wanted to take someone who might seem crazy to a lot of people, and bring her to our normality. I wanted to treat it with the most classical romance or coming-of-age story without spending too much time on psychological explanations. That would have been an interesting film, just not the one that I wanted to tell.
Do you consider Jumbo a love story?
For me, it’s a love story before anything else. It’s also a coming-of-age story because a lot of the film is about the mother-daughter relationship, how they come to terms with each other and with themselves through this love story with Jumbo. I feel like it’s both a love story and a coming-of-age story.
Why did you decide to premiere this film at Sundance?
I just think it’s perfect. I went to school at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, and when you come out of that, you have a dream of going to Sundance. They have such a talent for bringing out new voices, and you want to be part of that family. And in terms of Jumbo, it just felt like they were the perfect festival to understand what we were trying to do with this film, bringing that perkiness to everyday life.
I know that the film was recently accepted to Berlin as well. Do you think it will be received differently at one festival versus the other?
Each festival is centered on its own culture as well. When it comes to Sundance, you’re surrounded by people from America, and you’re thinking they won’t react the same way as a European audience. You always anticipate, “Is this audience going to be the right one for the film?” But at the same time, the film stays the same, so I’m defending the same story and it’s the same subject matter.
What’s the main thing you want audiences to take way from this film?
If they can be touched by the main character’s story, no matter how out there it is, then I feel that I’ve done my job as a filmmaker. Because my job as a filmmaker is to just make you feel for someone and try to understand them. Whether you disagree with them or not, that’s your story. But I’m always very curious to hear people’s reactions afterwards.