Q&A with Gilles de Maistre

We loved the chance to catch up with French director, Gilles de Maistre, before his new film, Mia and the White Lion, hits U.S. cinemas on April 12th. An eclectic director working in many different spheres, Gilles started his career as a documentary filmmaker, now venturing into the world of fiction. Find out what he has to say about taking on this unprecedented project and becoming a filmmaker in a competitive industry.

Emily: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us and for sharing your beautiful film with InQua! But first, let’s rewind. Where did your passion for filmmaking come from?

Gilles de Maistre: I think this passion came from my childhood when I was a very, very young kid. At an early age, my mom used to bring me on the sets of the films of my great uncle, who was René Clément. He was a very famous French director. He won a lot of awards such as the Prix du Jury at Cannes and The Golden Lion in Venice.

One of my first memories, when I was 3 or 4, was of him shooting movies. I recall visiting the set of a war movie called La Bataille du Rail. I remember all the blood and the people killed and the locations where it was filmed in Paris. Because I saw all of that, I think it printed in my brain and maybe my passion comes from that. After my philosophy studies, I went to journalism school where I began to specialize in TV and documentaries. This passion has also inspired me to tell real stories. Eventually, I began to tell fiction stories, but it’s always inspired by reality.

Emily: I think that’s what makes fiction so powerful and connective, that real element to each story. I like that you draw on that with your own work. What inspires you as a director?

Gilles de Maistre:What inspires me is what I experience in life. After I experience something that has shocked me or moved me or made me question something, I want to go further and to speak about what is really affecting me. For me, it’s really an experience that will bring me to a movie subject. In Mia and the White Lion, it was originally a documentary I did on kids having a relationship with wild animals all around the world. I did that for French TV a few years ago. There I met this little boy living on a lion farm. I didn’t know anything about lion hunting or canned hunting. The parents were telling me that they were doing conservation, raising lions to release them into the wild. The species are in danger, and I believed that.

When I left, I discovered that the lion farm was actually breeding lions for hunting. The little boy living there was really passionate about lions and was often playing with the cubs. I imagined what would happen when he discovered that his parents were not practicing conservation, but selling lions to hunters for money. The story of Mia came from that. For this film, what inspired me was this life experience, and that brought me to bring this story to life.

Emily: We’re so glad it did. I loved watching Mia and the White Lion! It was such a sweet tale with real depth and character dimensions. When making this film, what was the most difficult part of production? What did you do to work through those challenges?

Gilles de Maistre:The most difficult part of shooting this movie was knowing that it was going to have to be a three-year production. It’s a very long time and for a director, especially me, I want to see the results immediately. I am very dynamic and I’m always quick to finish projects. Waiting three years to see the final results was very difficult.

We were shooting in blocks of time. Every year we came back to South Africa to shoot the story between this little girl and the lion. When we were not there, we were in France. The main actress Daniah de Villiers and the lion were still together. Daniah was seeing the lion every day to really create an authentic relationship with him, which was the main goal we wanted to achieve. We came every year, saw them growing, and have more and more of a bond together. It was really fantastic but it felt very long to wait one year and then come back.

Daniah De Villiers and Ryan Mac Lennan on set of Mia and the White Lion.
Stars of the film, Daniah De Villiers and Ryan Mac Lennan, near the beginning of the three-year production.

The other challenge was to find a girl (and family) who would be able to commit to the three-year production. We saw 300 kids and we chose Daniah because she was a really good actress and very emotional on screen. We then observed her with lion cubs because up until that point, she never saw a lion in her life. From the get-go, she was very comfortable with the lions, it was really incredible. We knew that she was the perfect choice for this role. We had to make sure her parents were okay with both a three-year commitment and the idea of their daughter growing up with a lion. At the beginning, Thor (“Charlie”) was a small cub but by the end a 200 kilos lion.

During production, it was easier and less stressful because we had time to prepare in between the blocks of shooting. Kevin Richardson, the famed “Lion Whisperer” was on set and he taught Daniah exactly how to handle the lions. The relationship with the lion and Daniah was wonderful and magical. What you can see now on screen is what we saw every day on set. For me, that was really fantastic to see.

Production still with Gilles de Maistre, Daniah de Villiers, and Lion Whisperer, Kevin Richardson from the set of Mia and the White Lion.
Gilles, Daniah, and the rest of the crew on set with the real Lion Whisperer himself, Kevin Richardson.

Emily: That’s what I loved most about the film. The relationship between Daniah and the lions felt so authentic, and it really was! Which of the characters in Mia and the White Lion did you relate to the most?

Gilles de Maistre: I think everyone, myself included relates to the character of Mia. Watching her interact with the lions and create such a love story with this white lion who is so handsome and beautiful. During the process of shooting over those 3 years, watching them grow together, and having the different phases of life – from a baby cub and a child,  and then a teenager, and then to become an adult at the end. It is really fascinating to see the lion and Mia together through all these ages. Honestly, the lion is very similar to humans. He has different phases of growing. He grows from a foolish kid to a rebellious teenager and you get to see that through the eyes of Mia.

Emily: With all the themes and messages underlying the story in Mia and the White Lion, what do you hope audiences will take away from the film?

Gilles de Maistre: Firstly, I hope that they will enjoy this movie and have a good time watching it. That is the main purpose. I want to bring people together for an hour and a half in a theater and make them forget what is happening in their life. I hope that they can jump into the story, travel, and dream.

My second goal is for audiences is to observe the experience between the lion and Mia. I want them to see how they create a real relationship. Audiences can see on screen, that it’s real. I think it’s a strong message for people to see that animals are not stupid. They are really sensitive and smart and that we as humans can create respectful relationships with the animal world. The lion is the king of the animals, really one of the most beautiful animals. A strong creature, people are often frightened by a lion and to see this fragile girl having this special relationship with this magnificent lion is very interesting.

I hope…to bring people together for an hour and a half in a theater and make them forget what is happening in their life. I hope that they can jump into the story, travel, and dream.

Gilles de Maistre

Another message in the movie about conservation and preserving nature because humans have destroyed and exploited it. We have to really communicate and protect nature because we only have one planet and if we destroy this planet, what are we going to do? We cannot be alone on earth, we need animals, nature, trees, plants, we need everything. 

I think this film is something very original that the American audience has never seen. People worldwide see a lot of special effects in movies. Some are fantastic and really beautiful, magical, but I decided to take it another way, which is the way of reality and authenticity. We spent 5 or 6 years working on the concept of a real relationship. It’s very unique and the first time it has been done. I don’t think it can be done again – not like this anyway.  It provides something different to audiences and I think if people want to have a new emotion in a cinema, I hope they will with this movie.

I think this film is something very original that the American audience has never seen.

Gilles de Maistre

I think one of the most powerful messages in Mia and the White Lion, and it’s really important, is that kids can change the world. I really hope the kids who are going to see this movie will understand that. Even if it is a small act, you can change things. 

Emily: I absolutely love that idea. Too often adults underestimate the power a child or teenager can have. But your film reminds us that’s not the case. Now that you have a fictional film under your belt, do you prefer fiction or still lean towards documentaries where you began your career? 

Gilles de Maistre: Surely, there is a big difference in doing a fiction film or a documentary in terms of making the movie. But for me, it involves the same process, which is to connect with the world, understand what is going on around me, and connect with subjects and topics and give them back to the audience in a different way. 

I want to also pass along messages of what I learned from the world to families and kids because I think they are our future. Fiction and especially family movies like Mia and the White Lion are really meant for kids and parents to share something. The educational aspect is also very important because people are sometimes not aware of what is happening in the world. I do my best to educate them in a funny and entertaining way. Using emotion, you can really touch people’s hearts. I will continue to do both fictional movies and documentaries to try to pass along the messages and ideas that I have in hope of speaking to and educating audiences. 

Daniah De Villiers on set of Mia and the White Lion
Daniah De Villiers in her element on the set of Mia and the White Lion.

Emily: What’s next for you? Would you ever make a movie with or about lions again?

Gilles de Maistre:I’m currently working on a documentary for Disney in France about kids changing the world. The title is The World is Oursand it’s a portrait of kids everywhere (in the States, France, India, Africa, South America) who are doing something to really change and save the world.

After that, since you asked about lions, I am doing another movie with a lion! I need to keep the details at minimum for now but we are planning to start shooting in Canada at the beginning of May. 

Emily: I’m glad to hear it! What advice would you share with aspiring filmmakers and directors?

Gilles de Maistre: It’s very difficult to give advice because it is a very difficult industry. There are a lot of directors, a lot of movies, a lot of geniuses doing movies, and to find our own way in this world of all these fantastic movies is difficult. I would say to carry on with your idea because your own ideas will always be something interesting. Maybe it will be interesting to 10 people, 1,000 people, 10,000 people, one million people, ten million people. The most important thing is to just be yourself, and if you are yourself then you will find people that are always interested in what you are saying. If you fail once, do it again, and if you fail twice, do it again. Even if you fail ten or twenty times, one day you will succeed. 

Gilles de Maistre and Daniah de Villiers on the set of Mia and the White Lion.
One last shot of Gilles and Daniah on set in beautiful South Africa.

Emily: Awesome, awesome advice. Thanks again! Check out our review of Mia and the White Lion coming next week to learn more about this incredible film before seeing it April 12th!

If you haven’t yet, check out our review of Mia and the White Lion.

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