Interview: Director Philippe Claudel
Fri, 24 Oct 2008 12:48:32
It’s with quiet composure and poetic eloquence that director Philippe Claudel speaks about his debut project, I’ve Loved You So Long. The film stars Kristin Scott Thomas as Juliette, a woman whose grey skin pallor and hardened demeanor reflect a traumatic 15-year stint in prison for the most unspeakable of crimes. Claudel comes from a literary background, having enjoyed a healthy career as a novelist in France, where he is currently a Professor of Literature at the University of Nancy. The director approaches filmmaking with a true artist’s sensibility, fusing personal experiences with an appreciation of various creative mediums to form his distinct cinematic voice.
I had the opportunity to speak with Claudel about the difficult subject matter broached in I’ve Loved You…, his reverence for women, and how the experience of teaching in prison forever changed him.
You come from a background of writing novels. Were there any touchstones of writing a novel that translated well to creating a film?
I think it’s important for an artist to have different [mediums] to express themselves. Since my childhood, I’ve been very fascinated by literature, painting, photography, cinema, sculpture, dance, and I try to choose the [best] channel for expressing an idea. Sometimes it’s novels, writing, but sometimes it’s painting, because I like that and I can do something with painting that would be impossible for me to express with writing. It’s like a piano. When you play piano you…can [create] different sounds. I’m very lucky because when I started to imagine this story, I was very sure that the best channel would be a movie. But, it’s easy to write. It’s not easy to record. You need money; you need a team; you need an actress. I’m very lucky because I met producers, and these producers believed in me and trusted me and gave me the budget for this movie. At the same time, I proposed the screenplay to different actresses, like Kristin. She accepted immediately because, I think, it was a great chance for her, too. Kristin is a curious case: an international star, she lives in France, but at the same time, in my opinion she was a little underemployed in French [cinema]. This is maybe the first real important part she has had in a French movie. I had the chance to work with her, and she had the chance to take this [French] part. It was the perfect connection.
You’ve spoken about the want to have control over a project from beginning to end, but you've also described filmmaking as an unstoppable machine. During the production, did you feel this machine getting away from you? What difficulties did you encounter as a first-time director?
I think this was the perfect moment for me to direct a movie because I am mature. I’m experienced in life; I have artistic experience; I've had experiences [with] others. It was easy to work on this movie. It was easy because I have very good producers; I have very good actresses and actors; I have very good technicians. When you have the chance to [collaborate with] a great team like that, it’s not too hard to work. [But] when you start to shoot it’s impossible to say, “Stop, I want to take a break.”
Whereas with a novel, you can put it aside for a while.
Yeah, yeah! When I write a novel, I write it over two to three years, not [consecutively]. I take a break after maybe six months, then I start again. But during shooting it’s impossible. You are very excited and very tired, too. But for me, it was high energy. I was the first on set every morning because it was like when I was a child. [For instance,] parents give [children] a wonderful game; it’s for you, this game. The possibility to make a movie is my game; it’s my special gift. Every morning I told myself, “Lucky man. You have a wonderful toy, a wonderful game. Just do it. Try to do your best now.”
“I discovered that the people I met in prison weren’t monsters or animals, but human beings like me.”
How did your personal experiences teaching in prison stick with you, and why did you want to explore in this film?
[Teaching in prison] was a very important [period] in my life. For 11 years I taught language and literature in prison. It caused a big change in my mind afterward. I wasn’t the same man. I discovered the other face of humanity and I discovered that the people I met in prison were like me. They weren’t monsters or animals, but human beings like me with a different way of life [who made] different mistakes. After I stopped in 2000 a producer asked me to adapt a screenplay [about prison life] and I tried, but it was impossible. Prison is a very special space, and when you try to [communicate that] on the screen, suddenly it’s almost a caricature. I preferred to give up that project. Time passed, and when I started to imagine the story of Juliette, it was just the story of a woman, but immediately [the idea of] prison came [to mind]. When I finished the screenplay, I read [it] and told myself, “Maybe [this is] the best way to show the [reality of] prison and the effects of prison on a woman, on a human person.” I think the first image in the movie—the face of Kristin, very close [up], gray, sad, strong, closed and caged—is a true way to show the results of prison on a human being.
The story is largely about secrets being kept and secrets being revealed. There’s one very big secret that I won’t spoil, but it seemed like it had to be handled very delicately so that it didn’t come out of nowhere. How did you build up toward that in writing?
I think my guide was a sense of modesty and sensitivity. I didn’t want to view this as a romantic story. I wanted to put [together] different pieces—like a puzzle—different scenes, different pieces of her life and the feelings of this woman with sincerity and modesty. It was like cutting a piece of skin with a scalpel and putting this skin on the screen. It’s an impressionist’s view of building a screenplay. The movie and the screenplay are exactly the same. Maybe two scenes were cut, a few words [here and there], but the editing process was not difficult because it was just the screenplay [on film]
You talk about the strength of women and having reverence for women. Do you approach writing women differently?
I believe in the strength of women. I’m very fascinated by women. Since a young age, I've lived in a female universe. I have two sisters, grandparents; I’m married; I have a daughter. I like this feeling. I don’t know why. I’m very [comfortable] when I’m with women. I think I have the best connection with women. All men have, deep inside, femininity. Maybe inside me, it’s a big part. For me, during my artistic process, my creative process, I see women like very large windows. With the help of these windows, I can see the world with precision. It’s like a medium, you know. Women, for me, are like a medium. With their help I can have a real connection with others. I wanted to explore that, and I’m not finished. I want to explore it again because it’s unlimited continuity. I admire the capacity to rebuild. Women have the biggest capability to rebuild themselves. That’s not the case for men. We are very poor and fragile and imperfect creatures. We are nothing without women.
What type of preparation do you do with your actors, and what preparation do you ask of them before coming to set?
With Kristin we had two readings of the screenplay. We talked about the screenplay and I asked Kristin to read my book about prison. After, during the first two weeks of shooting, I had a strange communication with Kristen, writing sentences on paper [and passing them to her] right before shooting, without words. I think my role was just to go with her to the border—the border of an unknown country. I wanted to show her this unknown country and I wanted to ask her to, please, go [there]. After this, it was her trip—very personal, with personal matter. She made this trip and she came back for me and the camera and she [shared] her discoveries. My role was just to put my camera in the right place to catch her gifts.