Talking Documentaries with Poppy De Villeneuve

Poppy de Villeneuve
Poppy de Villeneuve

“I am interested in people’s starting points, what is it that sends them in a specific direction,” says Poppy De Villeneuve, photographer and director. This appears to be a common theme in most of her work, from her New York Times series, What Made Me, to her Dallas strip club documentary called The Dallas Project. But what is Poppy De Villeneuve’s starting point?

First off, she is the daughter of Justin De Villeneuve, the photographer who discovered Twiggy in the 60s, and Jan De Villeneuve, who was a model. And while it appears her path may have been somewhat pre-determined given her father’s career, she initially followed in her mother’s footsteps. Poppy dabbled in modeling but preferred to be behind the camera, like her father. Ultimately, she knew she always wanted to direct, “I just needed to have a bit of life before I became a filmmaker.”

Your father was a photographer and your mother was a model – quite the match! You tried modeling, but preferred being behind the camera. Would you say you take after your father or mother?

I am a combination of both. My mom’s actually pretty artistic. Before she was a model, she studied architecture and interior design at the University of Michigan, so she has a pretty good sense of space and I think film is a combination of space and visuals. Also, my mom and I are interested in the same things. My father and I probably have a similar visual take on things.

Your artistic upbringing has obviously shaped who you are today. You and your mother would also watch David Lynch films together. When you look back, did you ever think you would be directing?

Yeah I did. It was sort of when I was teenager. It was one of the first things that I wanted to do. I almost applied to film schools and then decided to stay closer to home, and became a photographer. Film is better to come to later in life, when you have a bit more of an understanding of people and their motivations and needs. I just needed to have a bit of life before I became a filmmaker.

On that topic, the ‘What Made Me’ series for The New York Times explores creatives’ stories and focuses on their childhoods. It is a lovely concept! Did your own family influence this? How did you get involved with the project?

One of the main things that I am interested in is what motivates people. I often think if I had done things a different way, how would this have turned out. I am interested in people’s starting points, what is it that sends them in a specific direction. It was that and the opportunity to talk to interesting people. I think that is inspiring. In general, I think the Internet should be an opportunity to connect with people rather than just connecting with ourselves, it is important to tell stories in these spaces where we can try to have some insight or advice from other people.

It’s true. I’m onboard with that! I found this interesting: I read that when you’re behind the camera you feel more connected to whatever the experience is. However, most people disconnect from the experience when they are snapping photos or footage…They are so caught up in trying to capture the moment, that they forget they are in it. What is it that keeps you connected?

That is particularly with film. I have been making this documentary in Dallas with strippers and their customers. You have to be super present in order to correctly convey what someone is trying to explain to you, it is a very delicate thing for us to be vulnerable to express and share more hidden parts of ourselves. It’s almost like you have to mirror the person you are filming or photographing in order to get something honest or authentic. I have to work to do that. You try your best to be present, and often situations and things interfere with that. When I enter a situation I try to let go of myself. I actually studied acting and a lot of the techniques I learned, I apply to my way of working. You get into a neutral space before you start a scene. It’s a good way to work with whatever you do.

In an interview with Wonderland Magazine discussing photographing inmates you said, “I feel intimidated by the things I can’t see.” What are you referring to here? Religion? The things that go bump in the night? Or the unknowns of outer space?

The fear of the unknown is a difficult thing. Not knowing the way things will turn out. Particularly with the work that I do, I have to put a lot of faith in and imagine that it will work out. Also, as I get older, fear doesn’t go away, you have to work out how to bring it with you. I once had a dream where there was a figure with black spikes and that was fear. He was sitting on the bench next to me. He just had to come with me always. I think I am probably talking about that.

It’s funny you should mention the inmates, I am trying to put a book together and I was working on it this morning. I wrote back and forth to a lot of the prisoners and you realise some of them have murdered people, some of them have done really hideous crimes, and yet, they are still people. They are not so different from you and me, and that is quite confusing. You know, we are all not that far away from each other.

Poppy de Villeneuve
Joe Perry

I imagine it would all be hard, you can relate on one level and then can’t relate at all…

Exactly. I think one has to use these people and these environments to reflect things within ourselves, that’s the only way to connect to people as a whole. Those environments ultimately may seem extreme, but they are ones to reference and shine light on the things that we all do

The Dallas strip club is in the middle of the bible belt, the juxtaposition creates for an interesting setting. But could you tell me more about why you were motivated to explore the strip club world?

I had done a project with a homicide detective in Dallas and we were filming in the Grand Canyon. He was telling me about this woman he was on the phone with, about the case and how she was a ‘House Mom’. A House Mom is the woman who looks after the girls backstage in the locker room. It’s about sex and how we feel about our bodies, women and jealousy, and where the boundaries of love are. I had confused feelings about the boundaries of love. Last November was the first time I went to photograph them, it was pretty visual and I was like, ‘Wow, these women are not only beautiful but so streetwise and cool.’ It’s an environment that reflects all our boundaries of love.

Why did you choose the Dallas strip club scene?

Partly because there was a way in. I knew this woman at the club. The clubs are a lot more difficult to get into than they initially presented, but we found one to work in. I worked with my producer Chloe Hall; we chose Dallas because there is this interesting connection between churches and the strip clubs. They are near each other, and ultimately it’s different people sitting in different rooms judging. I don’t mean to be negative about the churches, I think these churches[provide incredible communities for people, but I think that who we are and who we are allowed to show, is pretty confusing in that part of the world. There is a lot of judgment.

This film is not a feminist film though, correct?

Inherently it is. It’s been really hard to know how to navigate that word and that area. Ultimately I do sort of think of myself as a feminist. I just think there is no language around it that works really well, so I make films instead of using language. What is the most common reason women strip? Money is the main one. What was really surprising is it actually gives people security because it is a job you can go back to and you know you’re going to make money. Also, we have these histories within ourselves that consciously or unconsciously shove us towards certain careers – why do we choose anything? One of the reasons women choose to be there has to do with past experiences, some of them negative, sexual or attention related. If your looks have been the way you always got ahead then this was natural, and sometimes it is rebellion. A lot of these women have children and are studying to do other things.

What was the most shocking story you heard?

It’s not one story. I think it’s how quickly relationships shift within the girls. So one week someone will be super close and then another week something has happened. The level of how quick relationships and connections change and shift has been quite surprising. I think I would be better to answer that question at the end, I am still so immersed in it that it is hard to see. Yeah, you are too close to it and you haven’t been able to step back.

When will it be released?

The plan is to have a rough cut by early next year to do festival circuit. Next Spring 2015 is the plan.

You fundraised the film with Indiegogo. Why did you decide to choose that crowd-funding group?

We chose Indiegogo because it is good for independent film and we needed raise a certain amount of money just to be able to keep it going. We had been self-funding before. It turned out to be important to the marketing of the film as well as raise the money, and it’s a good experience just to have to keep defining what your film is about. But it’s not easy – if you don’t like asking for things, which I don’t, you have to be okay with saying, ‘This is what were doing, we need your help.’ That’s great advice for anyone trying to self-fund. Also, people like to be a part of something. I had to remind myself of that everyday. I do think people like being part of community and are supportive.


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So, you mentioned your book about prisoners, could you tell me more about that?

So basically nine years ago I did a series of pictures at Angola, which is the largest maximum security prison in America and I never did anything with the pictures. I had a show at the time and they were published in Exit Magazine but it felt overwhelming to put it together at that point. I am trying to put that into a book because it’s a combination of the photographs and the letters I wrote to some of the inmates, and you sort of get a sense of me being in that environment. At this stage in my life I understand how it could be helpful to see the work and to see the person making the work.

What else you working on right now?

I am actually starting a film project with my dad. It’s very early stages but learning about his life in the 60s versus life right now.


Poppy de Villeneuve

INTERVIEW: Janine Leah Bartels

ILLUSTRATION: Christy McCormick | @Poppyfilms

Images Courtesy of Poppy De Villeneuve