ANATOMY OF A CONTENDER: A cinema verite of life in a Paris high school in 'The Class'In May, Laurent Cantet had the surprise of his life when his low-budget docudrama "The Class" won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, the first French film to do so in more than 20 years.
"The film was just finished, and we hadn't even had time to show it to anyone," the director says. "We couldn't imagine that this film, that was supposed to be very French, could speak to an international audience."
"The Class" has been doing that with resounding success, and now it has a chance to speak to an even bigger audience as France's official entry in the foreign-language Oscar race. (It is being released domestically by Sony Pictures Classics.) But such thoughts were a million miles from Cantet's mind when he first explored the possibility of addressing the woes of the French educational system on film.
It was 2004, and Cantet had been planning to make a movie set in Haiti, "Heading South," only to find that internal strife made shooting there impossible.
"(President Jean-Bertrand) Aristide was being expelled from the country, and I didn't know if I could make the film," he recalls. "So I was trying to find a new story, and I thought of looking at what happens in a classroom between 25 students and a teacher."
He adds, "It is a sort of secret place, where just the teacher and the students know what it happening. But all the issues that society has to face are concentrated in that community."
In France, and in the sort of poor urban high school Cantet was thinking of, those issues were severe. Riots broke out in these immigrant-heavy areas in the months before Nicolas Sarkozy was elected president. The subject matter was close to Cantet, being the son of school teachers -- though his own experiences in school were very different. He had grown up in the provinces, culturally and socially a very different world from working-class Paris.
In those early days, Cantet thought of exploring one character in particular, a rebel from an immigrant African family who damages his own future by challenging the one person who truly tries to help him, his teacher.
Before Cantet, who directed 1999's "Human Resources" and 2001's "Time Out," could get to work on exploring this new story, a chance encounter led to its radical re-imagining. Invited on a radio show, he met Francois Begaudeau, a former high school teacher familiar with exactly the kind of environment Cantet wanted to probe. Begaudeau, now working as a Playboy movie critic, had just written a book about his own experiences there, "Entre les murs" (2006's "Between the Walls," the movie's French title).
"I read the book that night," Cantet notes, "and I saw that it was able to give me all the documentary aspects I really wanted. Francois was able to give me an insider's point of view that I could never get by myself."
With the support of Caroline Benjo, Simon Arnal and Carole Scotta, producers who had worked with him for 15 years, Cantet obtained the rights and started working on a screenplay, collaborating with his longtime editor and co-screenwriter Robin Campillo.
For months, the two debated just what kind of story they would tell, hammering out a structure and presenting it to Begaudeau for his approval. As the project advanced, they decided that Begaudeau himself should play the main character, Monsieur Marin, a teacher struggling to do his best against overwhelming odds. They also decided that the movie would never leave the confines of the school where he teaches; it would never follow the pupils' individual lives, never show Marin outside his work environment.
With a structure in place, Cantet then needed to find a school where he could shoot -- and just as luck had helped when he encountered Begaudeau, so luck stepped in once more.
"There is a school I drive past every day," Cantet says, "and one day with a friend, we just rang at the door and asked to see the principal. We discussed it for a few minutes, and he was very interested."
To Cantet's surprise, the principal said yes with "no conditions attached."
At that point, however, Cantet barely knew he was making a film. All he wanted was the chance to create a workshop with some of the school's students, largely the poor and immigrant members of Paris' 20th arrondissement.
Without funding, he began a weekly workshop at the school, putting students through acting exercises that in turn would shape the final script.
"The workshop took place from October to May (2006), each Wednesday afternoon for three hours, maybe four hours sometimes because the kids were asking for more," he says. "There were 50 students, and the most interested ones stayed. We ended up with 24 in the film."
Once Cantet was satisfied he could indeed make a film, he set about raising the money.
The film's entire 2.4 million euro budget came from French sources, precluding the need for presales -- a standard element of independent movie financing in which producers sell off the rights to foreign territories before the movie is made.
"We convinced Canal Plus and France 2, the French TV broadcaster, as well as CNC (the government-sponsored Center National du Cinema)," Scotta says. The CNC allowed the production to access a French subsidy known as avance sur recettes or advance on revenue. Money also came from the government body that runs the Paris region, Ile de France. "Roughly 20% came from each one," she says.
Adds Cantet, "It was one of the cheapest projects I've ever done, so we didn't have to go and find money from somewhere else."
Shooting kicked off at the start of the French summer holidays and went from July 4-Aug. 15.
Filming was limited to six hours per day because of laws limiting child labor. But that helped, Cantet explains, because it allowed him every night to rewrite the script based on work done that day.
With three cameras filming simultaneously, using high-definition to allow long scenes to be filmed without a break, Cantet's biggest challenge came in the editing.
"We had 150 hours of rushes," he recalls "The editing took 4 1/2 months. It was difficult but very exciting."
Not as exciting, of course, as winning the Palme d'Or. Given that his movie was barely finished in time to submit it for the leading film festival, Cantet was stunned when he won.
But perhaps not as stunned as he was by what he discovered along the way, working with the children themselves, many of whom came to Cannes to pick up the Palme d'Or with him.
"What surprised me was the power of concentration of the children," Cantet reflects. "We are used to stigmatizing them as idiots incapable of concentrating -- and here, during three hours each week and during the shooting, they were able to really work and concentrate and listen."