Sunday, August 11, 2013

"I believe that teenagers are really fascinating to film because it's the moment when your consciousness is starting to build and exist." - An Interview with Laurent Cantet

With his adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates' novel Foxfire, director Laurent Cantet is making his first film in the United States, but this is less of a departure for the French director than it might first appear to be. Five years after winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes for The Class, Cantet has again opted to work with a largely young and experienced cast, as he tells the story of a group of girls in a small American town who fight back against their male abusers and oppressors. Cantet finds a contemporary social and political resonance in his intelligent rendition of this period tale, I met him to talk about Foxfire in London recently.

How did you first discover Foxfire and what made you decide it was a film you wanted to make?

A friend gave me the book as a gift. I started reading it and I very quickly found the themes that I like to explore when I'm making a film. There was also the possibility of working again with teenagers, because the experience I had making The Class was very positive and the energy those teenagers had given to me had really carried the film. I also believe that teenagers are really fascinating to film because it's the moment when your consciousness is starting to build and exist, and what interested me in this particular story is that you could see a political consciousness that was beginning to emerge. The big themes that interested me in the book were resistance and how you create an ideal for yourself and try to stick to that ideal, and unfortunately this journey, which is quite classical, shows how that ideal can go wrong and lead to terrorism.

You wrote the screenplay with Robin Campillo, whom you have worked with on a number of films. Can you tell me about that relationship and how you work together to develop the screenplay?

First of all Robin is my best friend, and we met a long, long time ago at film school. We got used to working together in a rather informal way. I'm not sure who writes what; we talk a lot, I write a few sentences and he writes a few sentences, we take turns at the computer, and we sort of answer each other in that way. I think we do share a similar idea of cinema, even though the films he makes are quite different to mine, and I think what really brings us together is the idea that a script does not need to be totally logical in order to be a strong script. Each of us are weary of storytelling mechanics that are too perfectly oiled. Another thing that's very important in our collaboration is that he also edits my films, which obviously helps us save a lot of time in editing and helps the coherence because the writing can carry on throughout the whole editing process.

I'm sure you're aware that there was a 1996 film version of Foxfire. That picture changed quite a lot from the book, both in the story and by placing it in a contemporary setting. Were you tempted to make any changes as you were adapting to the story?

First of all, when we chose to adapt this book I didn't know that film existed, and unfortunately I only discovered it when we suddenly had to negotiate rights to a remake! [laughs] There was a tiny little moment when I tried to transpose it to France, because I thought it would be easier for me to direct in a context that I understood better, but each time I tried to do that I wasn't convinced. I think the story is very American – the characters, the landscape that came to mind when I was reading the book, the language, it was all American. There are also certain elements that really weren't transposable to France, like the anti-Communism in the film that becomes the trigger for their actions. I think that there is a greater social control in France – and in Europe, probably – over young people, and had a group of young girls like this tried to move into a house, the cops and social services would have been there the next day.

I also felt that the idea of women fighting to control their own lives has a powerful contemporary resonance when you look at what's happening in America today.

There was this element there and I was always thinking of a resonance with the present. This also meant that to some extent we allowed ourselves a certain freedom with the period aspects of the film. We didn't want the film to be encumbered and blocked by the period, we felt the period should be quite transparent, and that's why I also tried to film it in a very free way. Particularly with the '50s in America there is this tendency to have a kind of deference of respect that I wanted to avoid. The fact that I'm French possibly helped me to do that, because this mythology of the 1950s is something that I never received, except of course through American films.

So was American cinema an influence in the way you approached the film?

It was more of a counter-example. I really wanted to find once more the freedom I had discovered when I was filming The Class. I was very lucky to work with Franckie Diago, the set designer, who I had worked with before on Heading South, and the good thing about her is that she is based in New York and had a sense of American culture that helped. She very quickly grasped the fact that I wasn't concerned about minute details of production, and she helped me keep that freedom by making sure that the set was ready at 360 degrees and the camera could follow the characters anywhere.

You have mentioned that The Class was a great experience for you. What did that film teach you about working with teenagers that you could bring to this project?

The first thing I saw is that if you give them trust they are willing to give everything to the project, and there was a method of shooting that I developed for The Class that really works for me as well. Initially you need to create an atmosphere in which they are ready to create, which means that we spend a lot of time working with them in the casting, and the more we do long shots the more natural the acting becomes. When I start a day I have already rehearsed the whole ensemble, and then having done the scene, rather than filming with different angles – shot/reverse shot – we simply shoot the whole scene again from a different angle. This means that the actor doesn't have to find that moment, he can play naturally through the whole scene. It means we have a lot of rushes at the end of the day, but it's also a method that allows us to integrate any accidents that might happen. That is really the most important thing for me, because things that aren't planned always stimulate me, and if I can integrate it into the film somehow then I find that exciting.

The girls you've cast have very little acting experience. What qualities were you looking for when you cast them?

It's very hard to know exactly why you choose one actor or actress. You are just seduced, it's like falling in love, and you can't analyse it. In my head I have certain character profiles but I force myself not to think of these profiles as definitive, in fact I enjoy the birth of a character that can happen when I meet with the actors. Very deep changes can happen purely from meeting a person and seeing their reaction in a scene. Take the character of Legs, for example; in my head I had this image of a character who was like a bulldozer, always going for it, very headstrong. One day in a school I met Raven [Adamson], and from the first moment I thought she was interesting. I wasn't able initially to place her in the character of Legs because there's something very interior about her, and that didn't correspond with the profile I had of Legs. But because she was so much more interesting than usual, I decided not to try and change her, and instead I changed Legs. I think the character is much richer for it.

These are very difficult roles for young actresses. There are parts when the girls have to be na├»ve and innocent, others when they have to be fierce or seductive. What parts of the film proved to be the most challenging?

I really was flabbergasted by the talent of those girls, because the way we shot took us to places miles apart from each other and was totally non-chronological. Of course, we worked a lot together initially, but that was just in a general way to make the characters coherent, and I felt when we were shooting they had an instant ability to put themselves in the moment and to improvise as the character. They were also very good at taking direction and adapting their performances. I think what carried them and the film is the fact that it was the first time for them. At the same time that they were experiencing the shooting of the film, they were discovering how a film was made and that made it a big adventure. It was different to my experience with the schoolkids of The Class, because they came into it with a different frame of mind. They were discovered through a workshop that was open to whoever wanted to attend, so they just fell into it if they were that way inclined and they didn't have necessarily have any project or ambition behind it. The difference with the girls from Foxfire is that all of the girls had a desire to try acting and they had done some theatre or acting classes already.

You mentioned that your shooting style results in a lot of rushes, and I saw four editors credited at the end of the film.

Not really. In my credits there is no hierarchy so I just put the editors and assistant editors together. During the winter scenes Robin was engaged with his own film so there was a different team used for that part of the film.

What is your process for boiling all of that footage into a narrative?

It's a bit like the writing, I'm not quite sure what my process is! [laughs] What we do is that we follow the initial structure of each scene as we put it together, and we're not really thinking about the end result. It's a long process in the sense that we arrive at a first version that's very long, and then we go back to cut and tweak things. It's quite a classical way of working, really, except that we have too many rushes to look at in one go so we have to focus on each sequence individually. Even if it can sometimes appear that the cuts are very sharp, I'm always interested in the appropriate cut for the moment rather than the cut that feels smoothest.

Finally, have you spoken to Joyce Carol Oates, or has she seen the film?

Unfortunately, not to my knowledge. We sent her a DVD but it didn't work. [laughs] Each time I have had an opportunity to meet her, something has happened or one of us has had a problem and we couldn't make it. I am very impatient to meet her because I'd like to know her reaction.

I think she'll be happier with this film than the 1996 version, anyway.

Oh, have you seen it?

Yes, it's very different and not very good.

Yes, that was the impression I got from the trailer.