When the Weinstein Co. expressed interest in distributing The Light of the Moon, the sexual assault drama that took home the audience award at SXSW earlier this year, director Jessica M. Thompson and her team knew immediately that the partnership wouldn’t be a good fit. This was back in May, months before an explosive New York Times report would bring the “open secret” of Harvey Weinstein’s behavior out into the light, but Thompson was already aware of the rumors about the company’s now-ousted co-founder and chairman. “Not about the sexual assault, but about his abuse of power more generally,” she told Slate in an interview. “I knew he was [a] tyrant to work for and that he mistreated everyone, not just women, but I didn’t realize the extent and the cover-up even within his contracts.”
That would have made working with the Weinstein Co. an uncomfortable fit for The Light of the Moon, which stars Stephanie Beatriz as Bonnie, a woman whose life fundamentally changes after she is raped by a stranger while walking home from a night out. The bulk of the movie, a compelling, low-budget indie drama set in New York City, examines how that night affects Bonnie’s job and relationships, especially with her boyfriend, Matt (Michael Stahl-David), as she tries to move past her assault.
The Light of the Moon, which marks writer-director Thompson’s feature debut, was inspired in part by one of Thompson’s friends, who was assaulted while jogging on the Upper East Side. But it was also prompted by the disconnect Thompson saw between witnessing the effects of that real experience and the way sexual assault is typically portrayed on screen. “For the last five years, I was quietly disturbed about the way that rape was being depicted in the media, film, television, even in some of my favorite shows like Game of Thrones,” she said. Those depictions tended to fall into one of two camps: films where a woman is raped and falls to pieces or revenge thrillers where the survivor kills their attacker—a subgenre so popular it has its own Wikipedia page.
“Even Kill Bill I rewatched with a different take, because she gets raped in the hospital and she kills her rapist,” said Thompson. “I love that film, but I wondered what message we’re putting out to victims that that’s the only way in movies that they can move on with their lives is with violence. I thought, well, there’s got to be something in between.”
Part of the frustration with that dichotomy came from the fact that while the victims in these films tend to be women, many of these stories are written and directed by men. Thompson said she believes that having a woman behind the camera can fundamentally change the way rape is portrayed on screen. In preparation for writing the The Light of the Moon, she watched dozens of movies about sexual assault, or that had sexual assault scenes, to learn what not to do. She found that in many of the male-directed films she watched, the assault was overly sexualized, with soft lighting and seductive music or with an emphasis on the victim’s naked body, as in the 1988 courtroom drama The Accused. “Her breasts are exposed and the camera is focused on them,” Thompson pointed out, talking about the extended scene in which Jodie Foster’s character is held down and raped by multiple men. “Who are they shooting this for? Not a female audience.”
That’s one of the reasons Thompson brought in a female director of photography, Autumn Eakin. “Even though I know some incredible male cinematographers who don’t objectify women, I just know that our gaze is such a part of who we are,” said Thompson. “It’s that kind of bias that we hold regardless of how aware of it we are. To create a fully female gaze, I felt that the writer, the director, the editor, and the cinematographer should be all women.”
The result is that the rape scene in The Light of the Moon is about as far from sexy as possible. For starters, it’s filmed in a dirty alleyway, and it’s so dimly lit that it’s impossible to see much of anything. Bonnie is almost fully clothed, pinned against the wall, and the camera focuses on her silhouetted, crying face throughout. It’s over in less than a minute, but it still manages to be devastating.
Having a female-run set also affected the way the rape scene was shot behind the scenes. “I’ve heard horrible stories—and we’re all hearing horrible stories lately—about how women are treated within this industry,” said Thompson. “I wanted Stephanie to feel completely empowered and in control and safe.” That sensitivity is not always afforded to actors in Beatriz’s position; Maria Schneider revealed in 2007 that she had been coerced into performing the notorious rape scene in Last Tango in Paris by co-star Marlon Brando and director Bernardo Bertolucci. “That was disgusting,” said Thompson. “I used to love that film in terms of its complexity, but now it makes me sick to even think about it, what they put that young actress through.”
To help her star feel in control, Thompson let Beatriz choose who was allowed in the room for the film’s rape scenes (and for the other, consensual sex scenes) as well as which days of the shooting schedule she’d be filming them. The production employed safe words, and the scene was carefully choreographed so that there would be no surprises.
But the rape itself, while it’s the impetus for the rest of the film, is only one small part. Most of The Light of the Moon is devoted to the aftermath, from an excruciating hospital visit that involves a combination of invasive questions and a thorough physical examination, to the long-term effects. There’s the first time Bonnie and Matt try to have sex after the attack, which immediately becomes awkward when Matt remembers he now has to wear a condom. There’s the guilt suffered by Bonnie’s best friend and co-worker, Jack (Conrad Ricamora), for not walking her home the night of her attack, which he thinks was a mugging. And there’s the legal rigmarole involved in trying to find the perpetrator and the added stress of what will happen if the police do find him. (A well-meaning district attorney warns that even in a best-case scenario, the man would only spend a few years in prison, and “If you were black, or if he was your husband? Forget it.”)
Then there’s Bonnie’s own desire to repress the incident completely, even as we see the toll it takes on her job as an architect and her relationship with Matt, who feels burdened by being the only person who knows what she’s going through and whose newfound protectiveness makes Bonnie, already grappling with self-blame, feel even more stifled.
To get that part right, Thompson spent months before she even started writing the script interviewing social workers, district attorneys, doctors, nurses, and police officers. She also attended sexual assault survivor meetings, where she identified herself as a writer, and spoke to women there about their experiences.
Two of those women had male partners who were willing to talk to Thompson as well, so that she could understand Matt’s perspective. “All they wanted to do was help afterward,” Thompson explained. “All they wanted to do was coddle and be the most supportive partner that they could be, but what I found from speaking with social workers is that you’re meant to give the survivor back control. So even if they’re not doing the thing that you think is healthy for them to do, it’s about helping them make the decisions again, because they’ve had that taken from them.” She says she’s seen a surprising response from male audience members who came in support of their partners or friends and found themselves identifying with Matt.
While Thompson shut down talks with the Weinstein Co. early on, another distributor did seem like the right fit: Imagination Worldwide, an independent distributor with an emphasis on films directed by women or aimed at female audiences. They’ve helped the The Light of the Moon partner with advocacy groups like U.N. Women and He for She, as well as plan an upcoming tour to screen the film on college campuses. The film’s release coincides with an unprecedented moment in the conversation about rape culture, where every day’s headlines seem to bring new allegations of sexual misconduct in Hollywood, politics, and beyond.
“I would like to see a world where sexual assault is not so prolific in stories, but I think the reason we’re seeing so much of it is because it’s prolific in life,” said Thompson. “We’ve become accustomed to this culture of exploiting and abusing women and then somehow turning a blind eye to it. The world is ready for a change. I feel very optimistic about it all. And I really look forward to that era of storytelling where we see women come to the forefront as writers and directors and are able to tell our own stories. I can’t wait.”