The Movies That Changed My Life: Amma Asante, Director Of ‘Belle’

The Movies That Changed My Life: Amma Asante, Director Of 'Belle'

The quiet little indie sleeper of the summer has been “Belle,” the British costume drama ignored by most of the movie blog world, but which has proven to be a real word-of-mouth hit: at present, it’s taken more than $7 million, making it the third biggest indie of the year (behind “Chef” and ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel”), and is still going strong. The true-life tale of Dido Elizabeth Belle, born to a British aristocrat and a West Indian slave, and raised in high society, but never able to fully participate in it, it’s also terrific, as our review from a month or so back said.

The film looks certain to put BAFTA-winning British director Amma Asante on the international map, and after sitting down with to talk about the film (read that original interview here), she was the obvious next choice to participated in our Movies That Changed My Life series, which has previously featured Terry Gilliam, David Lowery, Kelly Reichardt and Lukas Moodysson, among others. Read on below to see the pivotal films of Asante’s cinematic education, and you can find “Belle” in U.S. theaters right now, or in U.K. cinemas from Friday.

What was the first movie you saw?

Bambi.” My brother, who’s ten years older than me, used to take me to Saturday morning cinema in Streatham, Streatham High Road, it’s still there, the Odeon. And I still have a thing for Bambi to this day.

Did it traumatize you as much as the rest of us?

Yes, it made me cry. I think I was about five. But I loved the spectacle of it all, and I think I identified with the cartoon better than with TV that had people in it. But it really stabbed me in the heart. I think it really did. But all those colors, and Bambi was so child-friendly to look at. My brother kept taking me on Saturday mornings, and I definitely credit him with introducing me to cinema.

What was the movie that defined your childhood:

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” To be honest with you. It was that, and as a book, “The Lion The Witch & The Wardrobe.” I know I used to spend all of my Sundays in my wardrobe waiting for the back to fall down, while my family were downstairs. But as a film, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” because I thought that one day I’d be able to make a car that could fly. In my mind, I believed this’d happen one day.

There’s still time.

Yep, there’s still time!

What was the movie that made you want to be a filmmaker?

Damage” [Louis Malle’s 1992 adaptation of Josephine Hart’s novel, starring Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche] I had that feeling where I was just jealous that a bunch of people had put this together, and it was so clever. I read the book long afterwards, and they were the same, it wasn’t that thing where the book turns out to be so much better, they were just as good as each other. The acting, the class, the metaphors, the simplicity of showing how we self-destruct when we can’t be honest with ourselves. He wanted to get out of his life, he was a doctor, he had this ambitious wife who’d forced him into a political world, and he didn’t want know how to say to her ‘I don’t want this,’ and sabotages his life, to me, by having an affair with his son’s girlfriend and getting caught, and ends up living this terrible life, but in a way living the life he wanted, a simple life. He’s wearing simple white at the end, he’s living in this simple room that hardly has any furniture, he goes to the grocers every day and buys these vegetables. So yeah, I was jealous at how simple it all was.

What was your favorite filmgoing experience?

It wasn’t very long ago. Michael Haneke, “Cache.” Because seeing a cinema audience gasp and jump like that, to be a filmmaker that’s so brave to not put your camera anywhere, to rely on the audience to find where the action is, and what’s going on. To unnerve the audience, to let them coast along, and then suddenly to do that, that’s real directing. That’s directing your audience. When I make a movie, the worst thing for me would be for audiences to leave and go ‘what should we eat?’ you want people talking about the movie as they leave. I remember couples arguing, fighting, ‘didn’t you see, in the corner of the screen?’ and hearing people still engaged in the movie after it finished. And seeing it in the cinema was so important, not just on a BAFTA screener or something.

What film always makes you cry?

From the 1970s, “Love Story”. That moment when he climbs into bed with her in the hospital, and also when he sits on his own in the playing fields. I was very, very, very young, but it was the movie that allowed me to discover that you could lose a loved one, that you had no control over it, and I think it kind of defines everything I do. That sense of loss, that fear of loss, I think is somewhere in all my movies, whether it’s a loss of dignity, loss of a loved one, loss of self. Yeah, that loss is in everything. I could cry now.

We’ll move on then. The film that always makes you laugh?

Meet The Fockers.” No, the first one, “Meet The Parents.” I just laugh at it, I saw it on an airplane, out loud where people are looking at me. It’s a split with that and “Shrek,” cos I embarassed myself on an airplane with that too.

I had the opposite experience, with “Up.” It was the third time I’d seen it, on a plane, and I was sobbing within five minutes. 

With me, I just started laughing so loudly, I had my headphones on. I was traveling with Stephanie James, who played Leanne in [Asante’s first feature] “A Way Of Life,” and she looked at me, she was sixteen at the time, like I was the biggest embarrassment to her. It’s so funny, going from Michael Haneke to “Shrek”!

What film scared you the most?

"Copycat," with Harry Connick Jr. When he puts the noose around her neck in the toilet. And when he makes the throat-cutting gesture to her at the back of her conference. Me and my sister do that to each other on Christmas Day. We do it cos we’d seen it, for the 20th time probably, but it still scares us, but just before Christmas Day one year, and my nephew was about four years old. And across the dinner table, I’d picked up a spoon and done that gesture to her, and then a few minutes later, we saw my nephew doing it to his little sister, and we were like ‘oh no, what have we done!’ But that movie scares the shit out of me, I really felt her sense of being hunted, and how crazy he was. Harry Connick Jr’s brilliant in that movie. But now, I can’t go to toilets that have that gap above the door, cos of the noose.

I feel like it’s one of the few of those mid-90s “Silence of the Lambs” rip-offs that really work.

Yeah, it’s very very hard to find something like that really works, but it really does. I remember my first time watching it, and it was a real fear, but a joyous fear.

What film do you love that people probably wouldn’t expect you to love?

Probably “Love Actually.” My step-daughter is now obsessed with it as well, and had to write an essay on it for her English class at school, she’s Danish. Totally off her own back, she’s obsessed with it. “Notting Hill” didn’t really do it for me, but yeah, “Love Actually,” some people complain and say it’s too long, but I love the length of it. And it does make me cry, I find it heartwarming. I wouldn’t have gone to see it, but I saw it cos I was on a BAFTA jury, for Best British Film, and I loved it.

What film did you not like at first, but then came to love?

The Usual Suspects”. I didn’t get it the first time I saw it. Second time, I was like ‘what the fuck is wrong with me?’ I think the first time, I was a bit tired, a bit jetlagged, and I didn’t follow it, and I feel like a fool now. I’ll call myself a fool before anyone else does.

What was the last film you saw that you really loved?

It’s a toss-up between “August Osage County” and “Dallas Buyers Club.” I’ll go with ‘August,’ which is less obvious. I loved Julia Roberts in it, I loved Meryl Streep in it, and I’m not someone who loves her in everything, I’m not one of those. I loved Juliette Lewis in it.

The other sister, Julianne Nicholson too.

Yeah. It was so not what I was expecting, and I liked that.

“Belle” is still in U.S. theaters, and opens in the U.K. on Friday June 13th.

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