Sunday, July 08, 2007

"I don’t want to hear my text because it is not Shakespeare, it is not Molière, it is just Stephane Brizé" - An interview with Stephane Brizé

In 1999 Stephane Brizé made his film debut with Hometown Blues, but then the young writer/director disappeared from cinemas for years, before finally returning in 2005 with his charming romance Not Here to be Loved. The film is finally getting a UK release this summer, and I met Brizé when he was in London recently to promote Not Here to be Loved as part of the French Film Festival.

There’s a six year gap between this film and your debut picture Hometown Blues, what were you doing in that time?

What was I doing? Having a nervous breakdown, or something like that. It was very difficult for me to continue after my first film, I lost my way, and it took a long time to find my way again. In between the two films I made a documentary, I went to a geriatric hospital - not for me, for the film - and it’s a film that nobody saw but I am very proud of it. It was a very important film for me because I saw people who were nearly dying and when I spoke with them I could see that many of them had made a mess of their lives, and when I talked to these people who had not made a success of their lives I realised that I did have the chance to do something with my own life, and what I wanted to do was to make films.

You see, after most directors make their first film, many of them try to make their second film completely different to the first, and that’s what I tried to do when I first attempted my second film, but I lost my way when I tried to do that. So this film is not so far from my first film, it is in the same artistic direction, I made a detour and then came back to find my own path again. It was very difficult, but when I found my way again I was proud of that because I was much more mature.

When you did start working on Not Here to be Loved, why did you decide to base your story around a character like Jean-Claude?

I think the story I just told you is like the story of Not Here to be Loved. At one time I told myself “you have the right to be a director” and Jean-Claude is older but he tells himself “you have the right to be happy in your life”, so it’s exactly the same story, but my own story would not be very interesting on the screen so I have to imagine something else. In all my films I always speak about myself, I am always interested in myself, but when I say that it’s not because I have a big ego. The questions I have in my head are, I’m quite sure, the same questions you have. We are afraid to die, we are afraid to not find love in our life, we often don’t have it easy with our parents - we all have the same problems. So when I speak about myself I really speak about our-selves.

Were you already interested in the tango before this film?

I didn’t know anything before the film about the tango. But when I first wrote the idea for the story I very quickly wrote “Jean-Claude Delsart will fall in love with the tango”, and it was only later that I understood the melancholy of the tango is an echo of his own melancholy.

And how did you work on the music for the film, because it’s a very important aspect in the way it reflects the characters’ feelings and the rhythms of the picture.

In all my films there is music and I thought a lot about the music for this one. I heard many, many records for the tango, and because I didn’t bring in an artistic director for the music I had to do it myself. So I had to find music for the tango lessons and create the music of the film. I had to find the right music for the right emotions and sequences of the tango, and for the film music I met two of the three musicians of Gotan Project. They’re a very famous group, one is French, one is from Switzerland and one is from Argentina, and they have sold records all over the world. It is tango, but with modern rhythms. My producer knew one of the guys and he gave them the script, and they liked it and they said yes. They accepted for almost nothing and they had to create the music before the film because at the end of the film the characters have to dance to the music. I didn’t say many things, I told them “I need music here, here and here”, and before the film they played me two pieces of music, and when I heard that I was very moved because I heard the music of my film. They had understood the feeling of my film and I loved the music. But then I said to myself “I have to make a good film because this music is so good”, so it was another challenge for me.

When you approached the actors to appear in the film did they have dancing experience?

Not at all. Patrick told me that a long time ago he had danced a little, but not tango. But when I saw him I saw somebody who was at ease with his body, and at the very first lesson his teacher said “we have work, but Patrick and Anne have tango in their blood, so it will be OK”. It was amazing for me because when I was in front of my computer I wrote “We see love emerging when Jean-Claude and Françoise dance” but when you are on the set it’s different thing to writing the scene. The heart of the film is the scenes when they dance together, and if we feel nothing there then the film is very bad. It was a big risk. They worked a lot, but the solution was in my choice at the very beginning. At first I chose Patrick Chesnais, and then I chose the woman for Françoise. I didn’t know Anne Consigny before, and I had a few ideas about actresses, so I invited them all one after another and I played a tango record and I asked them to dance with Patrick. I just wanted to see what I could feel between Patrick and the actresses, and when I saw Patrick and Anne together it was incredible. Even if they didn’t dance very well it was already a couple, and we could feel a very strong energy, almost a sexual energy, so I knew it was the right choice. I knew this man and this woman could create something very special on the screen, and it would be much easier for me because the spectator will feel it, even if he doesn’t understand what he feels.

Some of my favourite scenes in the film featured both Jean-Claude and his father, who is brilliantly played by Georges Wilson. How did you cast him?

He’s a great actor who has done many films but is much more known for his plays, he has a big, big career in the theatre. When I chose Patrick Chesnais I had to find his father, and when you see Patrick he is quite impressive, so I had to find a father who was a little bit more impressive than him. There aren’t so many actors in France who can do that, and even though we don’t see him much at the cinema I very quickly thought about Georges. He has a wonderful presence and he never smiles, so I thought he would be perfect. I sent Georges the script and after he read he phoned me and said [adopts very serious, deep voice] “I like your script very much, it’s wonderful, very well-written, but I won’t do it. The character is myself, and I don’t want to play a character so close to myself. It’s too difficult for me and I won’t do it”. I told him “you know, the more we speak the more I think it’s a good idea”, but he said no.

It was difficult for me because I thought it was so perfect; I was very touched by what he said and I need to be touched by the actors, to feel close to them. I spoke to a friend who is a theatre writer and he had written a play for Georges two years previously. I told him what Georges had said and he told me “that’s good news, it means he will accept. He just wants you to insist”. So I insisted and he just asked me to change a few things about the character. He was on the set for four days and on the first day Patrick was very intimidated because they had never played together before. At the beginning of a film even a great actor is a little bit afraid and Patrick being intimidated by Georges was very good for the relationship between the characters. I shot a lot with these two actors and by the second day of shooting I had used the whole week’s film. My producers were very upset, but I knew I was right because those scenes were very strong.

How long was the preparation and rehearsal process before you started shooting?

I never rehearse. We arrive on the set and we shoot with no rehearsal at all. I don’t rehearse the scene of the film, but I rehearse with the actors and I write other scenes for them, because I don’t give the whole script to the actors, I give them the scenes a short time before shooting. I want to capture the life on the screen and for me the only way to capture that is to hear something dangerous on the set. I don’t want to hear my text because it is not Shakespeare, it is not Molière, it is just Stephane Brizé. I know where I want the scene to go but I refuse to let the actors arrive on the set with the words in their head. It takes a lot of time for me to write the text but in the end I must inject life into the scene and we mustn’t know everything. It keeps the actors alive and sometimes I see actors who know the text and they are just repeating it, you know? It doesn’t have to be exactly my words but I get about 70% of my text, and I like that.

Did your actors find it easy to adapt to that kind of filmmaking style?

I think so, they didn’t complain. Well, they didn’t complain to me, anyway [Laughs].

You mentioned that it takes you a long time to write the script originally…

Yes, nine months.

And you co-wrote this film along with Juliette Sales, how do you work together on a screenplay?

First I arrive with the story on three pages. I know the characters, I know the story, at the beginning they will be here and at the end they will be there. So we start with that and together we are going to create complicated characters; where do they come from? who are they? what is the link between them? At the end of this I know everything about the characters, I even know when they had their first tooth. The co-writer and I create a synopsis together and then we stop working together. I write the script on my own and when I am finished I give it to my co-writer, who will read it and then give comments back to me, and then I will write on my own again. I keep giving it back to her and she keeps giving comments back to me until we have the script.

On both of your films you have worked with a female co-writer.

All the time.

Why is that?

Because we always make love at the end [laughs]. No, to be honest it’s because I love how women are honest and I feel very close with women, much more than with men. I think they are much more up-front and I think it’s a good thing for my work. Women know things I don’t know and I know things they don’t know, so it’s a good mix. On my first film it was with Florence Vignon and on my next project it will be with Florence Vignon again, and on the film after that it will be with another co-writer who is also a woman. It isn’t a coincidence, I just really, really need that for my writing.

Before you became a filmmaker you started out in the theatre…

Well, not really. When I was 18 or 19 I went to University and studied electronics and at that time I hadn’t really seen any films or read any books, I didn’t know anything. Then I started working as a technician in TV, and from the start I had a voice in my head telling me “this is not your life here. You are well paid, but it is not your life”. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do but I knew it was acting or directing, something in that direction. So I went to a drama school in Paris for three years and during that time I directed three or four plays, but I could see that theatre was not my language. At the same time I started to write stories and I could see they were more suited to film. I sent my first script to many producers and they said “it is very interesting, we would like to do the film, but why don’t you do some short films first”. I said no, I wanted to make my long feature film because when you are 24 you have many big ideas and are also a little pretentious.

But I did direct my first short film, and I played in that short film. It’s very strange because I saw that film just three days ago, it was about 1993, and it was strange to see that again. Then I directed a 33 minute film which received many prizes in festivals in France. I then got rid of my original feature film idea and wrote Hometown Blues with Florence.

So what was it about cinema that made you choose that direction over the theatre?

I think I can capture the sense of truth with cinema that, for me, would be impossible with theatre. I’m not very intellectual, I feel things, and I think with cinema we can speak quietly and see small aspects of the characters. Also, the stories I have in my head are for cinema because there are ellipses in my films which would not suit the theatre. It is just not my language, and I go to the cinema much more than I go to the theatre.

You mentioned earlier that you were working on another project with Florence Vignon, what stage are you at with that film?

I haven’t started shooting that yet, but a few weeks ago in France I had another film released called Among Adults and I have finished another script which is an adaptation of a book by Eric Holder called Miss Chambon. It is a very simple story, a love story, about a man who has a normal life with a son and a wife, and he has never asked himself many questions about his life. One day he falls in love with the teacher of his son, but this is a real problem for him because it is not his style. She plays the violin and when she plays music it opens some doors within him and creates a big explosion, so he has to make a choice. But I can’t tell you more than that, you’ll have to see it [Laughs].

The other film, Among Adults, I made before Not Here to be Loved. It was an experiment with twelve actors; I wrote the script in ten days, shot it in four days, and edited it in four days, so in eighteen days I had made the film. Then I shot Not Here to be Loved and after that Claude Lelouch saw Among Adults and he loved it. He said “you cannot leave that film on the shelf, we must release it”; so he invested the money to convert it from video to film and to make the mix of the film, and then we found a very big distributor - the same distributor behind La Vie en Rose actually - and we received incredible notices in the press, incredible.

You can’t have expected such a reaction to something you made in just four days.

No, because I just made it as a way to find something. When I wrote the script I didn’t have any pressure, I wrote what I wanted to write and it asked me many questions about artistic freedom. When are we free? We try to be free but it is not so easy with pressure from producers, the TV, etc. It’s an incredible experience because I never expected any spectators to see it on the screen, and it was wonderful for the actors too because it was their first time on screen as well.

All of them were inexperienced actors?

They had all played at the theatre, but never in front of the camera. It was wonderful because they didn’t bring any pre-conceived ideas, they were virgin in front of the cameras. I knew that I had no money and only four days, and I wanted all the actors to have the same time on the screen, so I thought a lot about La Ronde by Arthur Schnitzler which is a play with ten scenes and each scene has one character who was in the scene before, and in the end it comes back to the first character. I knew I had 12 actors so I wrote 12 scenes and it speaks about the relationship between men and women. I love that film because it’s very natural and because I shot it on a video it feels something like a Dogme film. I hope you will see it, I know The London Film Festival wanted the film last October but it was not possible for us, but I think it may be possible to show the film at the festival this year.

I wanted to shoot this year but it was impossible because I would have to shoot at the end of Spring and now it is too late to prepare. I haven’t found the cast either but when I wrote the main character I was thinking about Zinedine Zidane for the part, so I will try to call him.

That would be an amazing piece of casting.

Yes, but is it easy to make a film directing somebody who is a demi-god? I think it would give me a lot of pressure! It would be fantastic for the film because he is exactly the character. He has a kind of light inside of him, an incredible presence, and he would be wonderful on screen. I don’t know if we can get him, but I will try.