Of the thousands of applicants at the annual Sundance Film Festival short film competition, only 60 make it into the festival. And, while this year has already provided many standouts, “Rabbit” truly stunned by way of message and execution. The beautiful 16-minute film by French filmmaker Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre follows the relationship of a female prisoner in a maximum security prison and a rabbit she has been given as a part of Pet Partnership program. This is a work of narrative fiction (though these partnerships do exist) and with a striking performance and crisp, captivating cinematography it becomes all the more powerful.
While in Park City, Utah we spoke with Leopoldine Huyghues Despointes, one of the film’s producers (the other being Charles Gillibert). Among her many tasks, Huyghues Despointes locked down two fundamental parts of production: location scouting and securing Riker’s Island (the maximum security prison in New York where “Rabbit” was shot), as well as finding an animal wrangler—and his cast of over 15 pets. “I was the nuts and bolts producer on the project,” Huyghues Despointes explains. “I played an unconventionally important role, finding and negotiating our incredible location. I contacted the DoC of New York, the Department of Corrections. I actually befriended the chief of Riker’s Island,” she continues. Before the crew would shoot in the active prison, surrounded by inmates, Huyghues Despointes had to convince the people in charge of the facility that the project was worthwhile. “They don’t normally shoot short films there, only features. But he was impressed with the project and the fact that I was only 22 years old at the time.”
When the location was secured and a crew assembled, Huyghues Despointes set out to find their “incredible menagerie”—the cast of animals. “We actually had more than 15 animals on set. We had parrots, an iguana and dogs. It was amazing,” she tells CH. The producer did everything according to legal codes, something relatively uncommon in the world of short films. “I applied for permits and I contacted the ASPCA. I got in touch with a few animal wranglers in New York. I found this very cool wrangler in Long Island.” There, an hour and a half away from Manhattan, Huyghues Despointes found the rabbit that would be one of her two main characters. She also notes that, aside from the dwarf bunny rabbit, the wrangler “had all sorts of exotic and domestic animals. He was really nice and had never done a film before, so we were all excited.”
This is not the first time Huyghues Despointes has worked with de Clermont-Tonnerre, but this is their first Sundance together. “I shot ‘Atlantic Avenue’ with Laure, as lead actress and producer.” The film “Atlantic Avenue” was a critically acclaimed short film that made the festival circuit a few years back. The charming Huyghues Despointes actually approached the director about the project, which features a character in a wheelchair, like herself. “I sent her an email telling her my desire to act in front of the camera. I wanted to talk about disabilities and fight categorization and miserablism. I hate when people say, ‘Poor girl, she is in a wheelchair.’ No. I have the best life ever.”
When de Clermont-Tonnerre finalized her script, written in conjunction with Sundance regulars Brady Corbet and Mona Fastvold, and landed the production support of Canal Plus, she then reached out to Huyghues Despointes for “Rabbit.”
“This film is for everyone,” Huyghues Despointes concludes, “But particularly, in my opinion, for anyone, no matter what they’ve been through, people who are open to finding humanity and compassion in the most unexpected ways or places.” It is a thoughtful, visually stunning movie, and the cast of four-legged characters locked in the startling background of a maximum security prison certainly adds to its impact.
“Rabbit” will screen once more at Sundance, on Friday 30 January 2015 at 3PM. It will also be making the rounds of other festivals.
Screenshots courtesy of “Rabbit”