Céline Sciamma received great acclaim for her debut film Water Lilies in 2007, a sharp and beautiful exploration of the relationship between two teenage girls in the world of synchronised swimming. Her second film Tomboy also concerns a young girl going through a difficult and confusing period in her life, and once again Sciamma has proven herself to be a sensitive and skilful filmmaker, capable of handling potentially troublesome scenes with remarkable grace. Warm, intelligent and moving, Tomboy is one of the best films of the year, and I met Céline Sciamma in London this week to talk about it.
The thing I loved most about Tomboy is how it accurately showed the way children behave when there are no adults present. What is your process for capturing such natural behaviour on film?
That's the whole challenge. It's about writing first and being accurate about character building and bringing back memories from childhood, but not having that nostalgic point-of-view of an adult and really being at the scale of children. I also had a kind of strategy where they always had to do stuff. The scary thing when you are working with children is that you have these little trained monkeys saying the line in a witty, funny way, and this is what you fear the most as an audience and as a director. So you make them do a puzzle, play with Play-Doh, play with water, and when you are on the set that brings them into the scene and makes them forget about the fact that they have to say the lines. That's the basic strategy. You have to find the balance between being accurate with them as with any actor – talking about the goals of the scene, the goals of the character – and making them forget about the fact that it's a job. That's why we were shooting very long takes, 10-12 minutes, and never cutting, because it's a like a fail when you cut for them, and I was always talking to them and playing with them a lot. When they danced I danced, when they sang I sang, when they bathed...well, I was not in the bath [laughs], but it was all about building this relationship where it's all a big game, even though for you it's a lot of anxiety.
I was particularly touched by the relationship between the sisters, which I think is one of the best depictions of a sibling relationship that I've seen for some time.
I'm glad you say that because it's the most intimate part of the movie for me. Sisterhood is really the thing I wanted to portray with a strong feeling and to show that complicity. And working with a six year-old, you know, it's really not the same thing as working with an 11 year-old. The 11 year-old can focus, she can forget about herself, but the six year-old is tired and then she's unstoppable, so you have to bring those two energies together. They were both only childs so they didn't know that relationship, which was a good thing because they learned together.
I understand you found Zoé Héran on your first day of casting, which was an incredible stroke of luck because if that performance isn't perfect then the film won't work.
Yes, and that was what made it such a great challenge. It is luck but it's also how you create your own luck because the movie was made really fast and I had three weeks to do the casting. That's why I didn't do what I expected to do, hunting the streets everywhere trying to find the perfect little girl, because we just didn't have the time, so I spread the word with casting agencies everywhere that I was looking for a little girl who could be mistaken for a boy. The word came back that Zoé was kind of boyish and was registered in an agency for several years but not really performing because she was too awkward for what you expect from a child on TV or cinema. That was why I said I wanted to see that girl first and she came in the first day.
You never explain the reasons behind Laure's deception. I wonder if Zoé had any questions or ideas about why her character was behaving in this way?
Actually it's easier to explain to a kid than an adult, and Zoé never asked why. Adults always ask why, but the movie never says why and it's more about the 'how.' Zoé understood that she's new here and nobody knows her, this other girl mistakes her for a boy and she's just going for it, simple as that. She really connected to that because I think those questions were too big for her. The plot works on such simple mechanics that she could always relate to the plot and it was a comfortable story for her, actually.
You see the film from the child's point-of-view and while adult viewers know her secret will be revealed when Laure goes to school at the end of the summer, Laure is not thinking that far ahead. It reminded me of being ten years old when you feel like summer is going to last forever.
Yes, you have a very small projection when you are a kid, it's all about the present. I always kept that in mind when I was writing. I remember thinking as a kid that things like, "I want that video game" or "in a week it will be blah-blah's birthday," or else you have very big ones like, "When I am old..." so yes, I think that was very important to stay true to the children's mind.
Why did you go with the English title of Tomboy? Is that a well-known term in France?
No, not at all, nobody knows what Tomboy means in France. In France to say tomboy you would say garçon manqué which means "failed boy," but that would be a terrible title! That's why I didn't want to use that expression. Tomboy is also more mysterious, so people would go into the film not knowing what it is about, although here and the US and everywhere you'll all expect what you're going to see.
When you made Water Lilies you had never directed even a short film before. What were the biggest lessons you learned from that film that helped you prepare for Tomboy?
[Pause] Mmm...that's a good one. [laughs] Well, first I learned that I loved it, which I didn't expect. Also, I really tried to make mixed emotions and I kind of failed. You know, I had fun sequences and I shot them, but I couldn't find the balance and that was something I really wanted to achieve with Tomboy, trying to get those contrasts. Sometimes you can laugh and you have this humorous little character of the sister, so that was my biggest lesson to think about the contrast, and I think this movie is more open and more generous.
Water Lilies was a big success, receiving a great critical reaction and nominations for the César Awards, but when most people make their second film they are expected to make something on a bigger scale. You've gone in the opposite direction with a smaller budget, young actors and a faster shooting schedule.
I wanted to avoid the pressure, I guess! [laughs] Yeah, it was a way to avoid the pressure and it was a political gesture, because people expect that of you and also you expect it of yourself. You have to get bigger but I was thinking that I wanted to be freer, because that's what the success of the first film should give me, more freedom. There are two legends about second films: they are bigger and less sincere, and often they are a failure. I decided to do just the opposite because I wanted it to be fun.
It's a strange paradox about filmmaking, the bigger a budget gets the less freedom a director has.
I think that's something you get to learn. I felt like I was a rookie but now I feel more confident that I could handle a bigger budget knowing how to do it, and I can grow bigger but not be a slave to money or famous actors. It's not that I resent that but I just think you have to find the right moment to do it for yourself.
I saw your short film Pauline that you made as part of a government anti-homophobia campaign and the strong theme that runs through both your features and the short is this idea of young women questioning their own identity.
It is an intimate question that I am not struggling with anymore, but it's part of my own journey, I guess. I am obsessed with it, I can't help it, but I feel lucky that I am obsessed with it because I feel there are great opportunities for fiction. You feel like you are writing a story that hasn't been told that many times; a girl pretending to be a little boy or putting Play-Doh in a swimsuit. It's so exciting and it really brings strong storytelling and strong characters, so that's why I like it. It's original and political and alive.
Obviously a film like Pauline can be used as a great educational tool, but Tomboy could be used in a similar fashion.
It's actually going to be the case because it has been elected as part of the school programme. It will be shown in primary schools and high schools and that's amazing. Pauline was made for this purpose, it was a script written by a teenager and it was political gesture, and Tomboy was not made for that purpose but I'm glad that it gets to reach the kids. That's really cool.
It took you four years to make your second feature. Will we have to wait as long for your third one? Do you already have the idea for your next film?
I don't have the idea yet, but this time I think I'm going to be faster. I want to write in a few months if the promotion gives me some time. I have been working as a screenwriter for other people and working in TV to learn my stuff, so now I hope it won't be so long before I get back to work.
Are you happy writing scripts for other filmmakers to direct?
Oh yeah, I still want to do that. You don't wake up every day with a story idea that you want to spend years with. You have to believe in it really strongly because it's hard making films, you know. I like working for other people. I like the fact that I can be a soldier for somebody else's battle.
Don't you look at their film and think, "I would have directed it this way" or "I'd have done that better"?
[laughs] I haven't been in that position yet. It's the French way to write it together with the director so if you pick him and trust him it's OK. It's his project, it's not like you're writing it and handing it to him, so it's less painful, I guess.
I know you've said a couple of times that you want to work in TV as well.
Yeah, because it's really flourishing in France and everybody wants to make it big on TV now. There's less of a frontier between cinema and TV, when ten years ago this wouldn't be happening.
So many big movie directors are moving into television now, like all of the filmmakers working on HBO series.
And you guys here too, the BBC. I think we should be more like the BBC than HBO, as we're European. I have been writing a TV series for Canal+ and I have learned a lot just being one of the writers, so now I'd like to write my own. I'm already in touch with the channels to talk about it.
Well, I hope we see that series over here.
I hope so too.