Mélanie Laurent, who broke through in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” and has since made a name for herself as a filmmaker, is back in the director’s chair with “Wingwomen,” coming to Netflix Nov. 1.
The movie, in which Laurent stars alongside Adèle Exarchopoulos, Manon Bresch and Isabelle Adjani, is a rare breed of action-comedy driven by fearless female characters. Laurent and Exarchopoulos star as high-profile thieves and best friends who decide to retire from their life on the run. They recruit Sam, a young and feisty car racer (Bresch) to assist them with one last job, but quickly clash with their godmother’s will (Adjani).
“Wingwomen” could be mistaken as a French twist on “Charlie’s Angels,” but the film boasts timely themes of female empowerment and sisterhood that are reminiscent of Laurent’s previous films, in particular 2021’s “The Mad Women’s Ball.”
Below, Variety talks with Laurent about “Wingwomen’s” feminist themes, the intense physical training she underwent for the role and bonding with her co-stars.
It’s rare to see an action movie with an entire female cast.
Lately there’s been many action films with women, but very few have this kind of laidback comedy. I’ve noticed that in action films, women aren’t very funny — they’re often intimidating. The idea in “Wingwomen” was to portray a group of girlfriends that everyone wants to hang out with.
What’s great is that they’re not the typical action heroes, they’re even quite “girly.”
Yes, and I like the fact that we had this freedom to portray these characters smoking cigarettes and drinking wine when they’re not kicking butts. We wanted “Wingwomen” to be rock ‘n’ roll. It’s kind of our French touch. In American action movies, you don’t see that. Filmmakers are censoring themselves to have the widest possible audience.
Did the fact that you were making it for a streamer give you a greater sense of freedom?
The advantage of working with Netflix was mainly the budget, which would not have been possible for a film like this if I had made it for theaters. That gave us a lot of freedom to shoot the script I had written.
Just like “The Mad Women’s Ball,” “Wingwomen” also falls into the theme of female empowerment.
It’s kind of my favorite topic! The idea for it came while I was finishing “The Mad Women’s Ball,” which was very intense as it explored the condition of women just a century ago, a time when women who didn’t want to marry were institutionalized in psychiatric hospitals. I wanted to continue filming women, and thought I should make a film that captures our times. And as I was developing it, I realized that women are actually facing some of the same issues that they were before to remain free.
“Wingwomen” is entertaining, but it’s also feminist movie.
I tried to debunk stereotypes about strong women. In certain countries like ours, women can be powerful, financially independent, they have fun, they can live together and be free. But are these women finding love easily? Not really, because as they’re becoming more self-sufficient and demanding, men can feel out of place.
The idea with “Wingwomen” was to make a movie about women who are liberated, who can have children and become mothers even if they haven’t found the perfect man who checks all the boxes. I find it very touching to see a beautiful and sexy woman, like Adele Exarchopoulos’ character, who is an elite sniper and at the same time lacks self confidence and continually falls in love with the wrong guys. I just rewatched the film and thought to myself that it reflected what I’m hearing a lot around me. The solitude of powerful women today who still remain naive and very much in demand of love. It’s a real issue in our society, and I want girls like my daughter to grow up with images of these women and feel like they can be all these things.
Did you find inspiration in American comedies with female casts?
I watched a lot of American comedies, but I find that they’re full of stereotypes about single women. They’re often completely desperate or totally vulgar. The girls in “Wingwomen” are professional thieves and killers, they have a demanding job. It’s like the equivalent to running a big business, they can’t get drunk the night before carrying on a multi-million heist. They also exercise a lot, but they do eat unlike in other action films with women. The other difference is the brand of humor. It’s not trashy and it’s not cynical either. It’s an accessible comedy that’s meant to be a crowdpleaser and make men and women laugh. It was important to have male characters [played by Félix Moati and Philippe Katerine] who aren’t total losers, but are rather charismatic because I didn’t want to fall into clichés.
In the film, you and Adele genuinely look like best friends. Did you know each other before filming?
We didn’t know each other, but I wrote the part for her and a miracle happened when we met! I don’t have friends in the industry and I only know people I make movies with, but when we met and had dinner together for the first time I knew instantly that it was for life. I knew she was super talented, but she really blew me away.
We had a blast making this film together and we laugh so much, but she also had this amazing talent to improvise and come up with brilliant dialogue. I like to give actors the possibility to say things with their own words. Sometimes it’s more complicated, for instance on a period movie like “The Mad Women’s Ball,” but as long as the actor’s improvisation is better than what’s in the script I’m all for it. On “Wingwomen,” I insisted that we shot with two cameras because I wanted actors to be free to improvise and I was able to keep filming. Adele had so much fun during the training and experienced an epiphany playing a sniper. By the end of the shoot she was a total pro, she didn’t even blink when firing shots.
The film is really packed with action. How did you prepare for it?
We started preparing three months before we starting filming, and then we had a coach with us during the shoot and we trained for up to two hours a day. We had to look extra fit to look credible for these roles. I started this routine after shooting Michael Bay’s “6 Underground” (in 2021) and I kept going because it changes everything inside and out.
How was it to direct Isabelle Adjani?
I’ve known Isabelle for 10 years, and she’s a very close friend. We’re very co-dependent on one another. She was the first person who visited me at the maternity when I had my son, and she brought a gigantic teddy bear. We’ve always wanted to work together and we wanted to find something special. As with Adele, I wrote this part for her and I discovered her as an actor. She blew me away. When she walked in on set I had the feeling of being in the presence of an icon, even if she was my friend. And she’s so incredibly generous with everyone on set, like Adele. Isabelle brought a lot to the script, she came up with her dialogue which was so brilliant and even surprised me with blonde hair one day! It was truly enjoyable to have this sense of freedom, because we need it these days.
What was Netflix’s input in the project?
Netflix wanted us to create a movie that was ambitious in terms of mise en scène… some sprawling action while retaining this French touch. One of the most spectacular scenes in the film had us jumping out of an helicopter and flying out with wings. I had seen two shots like these in U.S. films, including in “Batman”… I really wanted to make that scene look as believable as possible, so we filmed it with real stuntwomen rather than doing it with VR and special effects. I find the result beautiful. You can see the sky and the sea.
What are you working on now?
I’m in pre-production on a film about a masculine hero, for the first time!
Is it for a platform?
Do you miss making films for theaters?
The world of film has changed a lot. People’s relations to theaters have changed … What matters the most to me is to tell stories and be given the resources to tell stories. I miss theaters, but I will come back with other kinds of films. The reality is that in order to [keep] making ambitious films with big budgets and a total freedom of expression… as a woman I’m not given these opportunities with theatrical movies.