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Director Monika Treut Talks About Making ‘Of Girls and Horses’

Director Monika Treut Talks About Making 'Of Girls and Horses'

Some of the older folks might remember my early films “Seduction: The Cruel Woman,” loosely based on the classic novel on masochism “Venus In Fur”; “Virgin Machine,” a young woman’s journey from Germany to San Francisco in search of her sexual orientation; or “Gendernauts,” a documentary about a group of transgender friends in San Francisco, just to name a few. Now some people are surprised that I’ve made a coming-of-age-movie about teenage girls and their relations to horses.

Well, I started out making films, most of them queer-themed, more than 30 years ago. Since then the world has changed quite a bit and the world of indie film has changed with it: In the 1980’s we all still worked with celluloid – digital filmmaking was unknown then. And of course I’ve grown older and my interests have shifted. Many years ago a queer festival programmer said that I surprise with every new film and that my audience relies on that factor. Change seems to be my trademark – but only at first look. With each film, whether through documentary work or through fiction, whether it was shot in Germany, the U.S., Taiwan, Mexico or Brazil, I’ve tried to investigate sexual and gender identities and tried to create a vision for social change.

With “Of Girls and Horses” I wanted to get away from the noise of city life, away from computer screens and the overflow of information back to experiencing the communication with animals, with horses. The initial idea for this film came about through the distribution company Salzbeber Media in Berlin, named after its founder Manfred Salzgeber, who was also the founder of the queer-friendly section “Panorama” at the Berlin film festival. For some years they’ve also co-produced a number of low-budget features. They asked me to contribute a piece from a lesbian perspective and giving me free reign regarding story, script, cast and crew. At first I wasn’t sure, since I’ve truly had a large dose of low-budget-productions. But then the joy of indulging into my teenage fascination with horses won over, and I embarked on the adventure. Horses were my best friends during my difficult adolescent years. I was fascinated by the community of girls and horses, a community without boys and men, a “bonding” between the animals and the girls.   

As a vulnerable teenager, between apathetic parents and gender and identity issues, the intense contact with the horses and the homo-social contact with the horse girls of my age gave me self-confidence. The physicality and energy of riding, grooming and taming these shy and strong “prey animals” had its own eroticism that charmed us girls and kept us grounded. From this innocent, energetic perspective I wanted to tell a simple story from my own experience: how a “troubled teenager” will slowly be able, through contact with the horses, to take up a relationship with herself and build trust with others.

The small budget forced me to write a short script of just 40 pages – an outline of the basic story in a description of scenes with little dialogue, so there was room to improvise and include actual events into the work. The next step was to handpick the minimal crew of just 4 people: myself as director, a cinematographer, a sound person and a production manager. Each of them had to be able to function in multiple roles. I lucked out and found 3 multi-talented filmmaker friends who were crazy enough to come on board: my girlfriend Sabine Steyer, who served not only as production manager, but also sometimes as camera-assistant, catering, and assistant director. As camerawoman I could win over the gifted filmmaker and cinematographer Birgit Moeller, who I knew adored animals and especially horses. As the only male crew member we had Oliver Goebel, also a filmmaker, to serve as the sound recordist.

Last but not least we needed the cast. I wanted Vanida Karun to play Nina, the lesbian riding-teacher. We’ve been good friends so I knew that she had a special relationship with horses, she’s been riding since her youth.  Finding the two young actresses for the roles of Kathy and Alex was not so easy. I sat on a lot of casting videos and chose a number of candidates who we invited for talks. Quickly I then chose Ceci Chuh (Alex) and Alissa Wilms as Kathy.  Alissa owned a horse and was an avid horsegirl. But would the two fit together? A trip to the countryside, where Alissa’s horse was housed, reassured me. Although the two came from very different backgrounds, their chemistry worked. Before filming began, I spent a long weekend on the set with the three actresses, so that they could familiarize themselves with the local conditions and their roles.

During the intense sixteen days of shooting in the countryside, we were all living together at the farm.  The young actresses in particular developed cabin fever since we were in the middle of nowhere – the next small town was 15 miles away. For the role of Alex, the troubled city girl, cabin fever was the perfect real-life experience for the actress to play “the fish out of water”. But our biggest challenge was the extremely unpredictable weather, which constantly overturned our shooting schedule, so that we always had to be very flexible. Ironically, my biggest fear for the shooting was how the horses – who also were important characters – wasn’t an issue. They enjoyed being on-camera, our attention, and of course the bribes: carrots and apples.

With “Of Girls and Horses” I want to transfer the relaxed atmosphere at the horse farm, and the stark beauty of the horses and the nature to the audience – as if they’d be right there with the girls, experiencing their tension and their subtle process of coming close.

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