Rie Rasmussen was born in Denmark and moved away at the age of fifteen to pursue a career as an artist. Her breakout came in 2002, when Brian De Palma cast her in his thriller Femme Fatale. She parlayed that role into a successful modeling career, topped by a stint as the face of Gucci . But her passion always lay behind the camera and she wrote and directed short films even as her modeling career took off. Luc Besson cast her as the lead in Angel-A and her connections through him finally allowed her to direct a feature film of her own: the crime thriller Human Zoo. In an exclusive interview with Mania, she spoke about the project, and the experiences growing up which informed its sensibilities.
Question: Where did the genesis for The Human Zoo come from?
Rie Rasmussen: It started early, and forgive me if this goes long. I grew up in Denmark, which is a very cold and rainy country. You end up watching movies all day long; my father and I would watch them together, and my whole life eventually became this homage to film. It was what I did, this was how I escaped, this was how I dressed, this was how I lived: through these films, this Hollywood universe. At fifteen I went to New York City and then to Huntington Beach – the surfer culture and skateboard culture – where I went to the Hollywood Film Institute. While I was there, I was living the basement of these guys who just made a movie called Bottle Rocket: Wes Anderson, Luke Wilson and Owen Wilson. From there I bounced to Paris and Brian De Palma cast me in a movie called Femme Fatale, which really proved an education. This whole time, I’m exploring these worlds and visiting these different universes – many of them male dominated. Aggressively male dominated. From all of that came the germ of this story about a woman trying to survive in a very hostile male environment.
The main catalyst for Human Zoo was my adopted sister Lynn. She’s from Vietnam originally. Her mother was sold into prostitution in Moscow; she escaped, her mother did not, and my family was trying to adopt her. The Danish government kept trying to send her back to Vietnam, which is about the most disgusting and profane attitude for a rich country like Denmark to have. I started looking at life as a human zoo, with different cages that people are stuck in. The ovarian lottery determines which cage you’re stuck in; winning the good ovarian lottery means you were born in North America or Europe. If you lose, you’re born in some Third World country without a chance to have a real voice in the international community. So I wanted to talk about my sister and her experience, and the people who feed on ugly circumstances like war to profit off of people like her.
Q: You took on a big load by writing and starring as well as directing. What kind of challenges did all that present you?
RR: Things happen for a reason in life, and they always happen as a succession of events. I was working on Angel-A with Luc Besson, and I had to spend a lot of time promoting the film. I was working with Luc’s company and making short films with them, and they rapidly became my family. By the time I came to them to make Human Zoo, I knew everyone who I had to talk to. And my budget was tiny, especially compared to the films they were making at the time. It was a period of robust expansion for the company – they were doing Transporter 3 among others – and I was just down in Serbia doing my thing. We cost nothing and I could just push through with nobody overseeing it. I wasn’t within reach, and I was staying under the radar. So all of those three roles – writer, director, actor – just kind of fit together. There was no one else to do them and no one to tell me “no.” I probably wouldn’t do it again – and I would love to have had Luc produce it for me because he’s a brilliant producer – but it’s the film I want. And you get to be NC-17 because it’s what’s right for the film.
Q: There’s a school of thought that says the movie camera is inherently male – that the gaze we see on the movies is an inherently male gaze. Were you aware of that when you were filming?
RR: Oh yes, and there were techniques we tried in an effort to get away from that. A lot of gliding cameras. A lot of movements. I would always keep the main character in a perspective where she seemed small and vulnerable, but also the source of the energy in the shot. But it was mainly the movement of the camera: a sense of fluidity to the perspective.
The other thing that was very important to me – though it had little to do with perspective or gender – was the desaturation of the image. I was a big fan of The Wild Bunch and I loved the desaturated image. Also corresponding colors in shots, which desaturation affords. So the Serbian scenes have a lot of blue in them and the Marseille scenes were sepia. A lot of cinematographers like showing a variety of colors because it gives them more tools to play with, but this kind of imagery worked very well for our story.
Q: What about the challenges of working in multiple different languages?
RR: I didn’t want someone to be speaking English with a bad Russian accent and he’s supposed to be Serbian. Luckily, I had a lot of good actors and they could really do their best work in their native language. Most of the dialogue comes from things I’d heard in life, and I wanted to hear them in the tongue they were spoken.
Q: Considering some of the characters you had, that could get scary.
RR: Yes. I knew one guy for sixteen years, who was the basis for the American boyfriend in the movie. He was a sociopath – a functioning sociopath in today’s society – and he said and did a lot of the things that the character was doing. Scary things, things I was astonished to hear. But he also had a way of charming you and getting you to agree to the most outrageous things. You could fall under his spell very quickly; I was guilty of agreeing with him and then months later saying, “what was I thinking?” He was my best friend for a long time; we can’t be best friends anymore because he’s just too anti-social. It’s just too much; he walks too close to jail time. But that kind of experience gave me a lot of material to draw from.