Dialogue: Erick Zonca

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It's been nearly a decade since Erick Zonca's debut feature, "The Dreamlife of Angels," projected him onto the international stage. In the interim, the French director has made a television film, worked in advertising and spent many years writing and putting together his English-language debut, "Julia," which screens in Competition here Saturday. The thriller is loosely inspired by John Cassavetes' "Gloria," which earned Gena Rowlands an Oscar nomination. Zonca's film stars Tilda Swinton as an alcoholic whose desperate situation pushes her to commit a desperate act, and co-stars Saul Rubinek ("Unforgiven") and young Aidan Gould in his first major role. "Julia" comes out in France on March 12 and world sales are handled by StudioCanal. Erick Zonca talked to The Hollywood Reporter's Charles Masters about the long road to bring "Julia" to the big screen.

The Hollywood Reporter: "Julia" has been a long time in gestation. Why did it take so long?
Erick Zonca: I took a long time to write this project. It was going to take place in Siberia, with an English couple that kidnap the son of an oligarch. Then we transposed the action to New York, but given that it's a fairly somber story, I wanted a backdrop of sun, so it was transposed again to Los Angeles. There, we decided to get rid of the male character and just keep the woman, who's an alcoholic. I've consumed quite a lot (of alcohol) in my time, although I've calmed down now, so I wanted to deal with that. I wanted a portrait of this woman who is still flamboyant but who starts to mess up due to alcohol, manipulating, lying, borrowing money, and so on.

THR: How close is the film to John Cassavetes' "Gloria"?
Zonca: I wanted to evoke that. I adore Cassavetes' films, but it's more a nod towards the story. You'll see it's quite different. It's not at all a remake. It recounts a character who's at the end of the line, who's morally empty, and who goes through something that will bring her back to her humanity. It's a thriller, and it's through the succession of situations that this happens. She's caught in a sort of trap, a headlong chase -- that's what makes her change, rather than a sudden realization.

THR: Why did it take so long to bring the financing together?
Zonca: It was very difficult to put the film together. First off, it's in English with Mexican, British and American actors. That, in France, didn't interest producers. They found it scary. Once you have American actors, they think they're going to have the film taken out of their hands by American producers. Then there was someone in the U.S. who was very interested, Bingham Ray. Once we had a version translated into English, we sent the script to New York, he read it straight away, he said: "O.K., I'm onboard." A fortnight later he was sacked from United Artists. Then we turned to Ted Hope. We introduced him to Francois Marquis (Zonca's French producer of "Dreamlife" who by now had come on board). Ted was going to co-produce - except he had found zero centimes from the U.S. No one wanted to come in. Ted said it was difficult to find money for a script like this, about an alcoholic woman, child kidnapping, the Mexicans and their violence. People said they couldn't touch it because it was too dark. So Ted pulled out of the project. Francois went to see StudioCanal and they produced the film with 4 million euros.

THR: At one point you were talking to Julianne Moore for the lead role. Tell me how you came to cast Tilda Swinton?
Zonca: From the start we had two ideas, either Julianne Moore or Tilda. Julianne had us come over to New York three times. We needed 10 weeks to make the film. She said she could only give eight weeks, she wanted to bring her kids, everything got a bit complicated, so we ended up abandoning that. We knew Tilda from her films. We were very attracted by the physique of a tall flamboyant woman like her. We met with her and right away we were won over. She had us over to her house in Scotland and we had dinner with her family. She greeted us with a hug. We loved Tilda's expressiveness and energy. And she really, really wanted to do it. In fact, Tilda doesn't drink. But she does know some alcoholics.

THR: How did the shoot go?
Zonca: We shot a lot in Mexico; Mexico City, Tijuana, in the desert and mountains. We recreated the Los Angeles apartment in studios in Mexico because it was cheaper. We only shot for eight days in Los Angeles for the exteriors. We fell in love with Mexico. We had a crew of about 80 Mexicans who were very nice, but I have to admit it was tough. For example, we could never do a traveling shot because the key grip wasn't up to it. We tried, but he didn't stop at the right time, or else started off wrong. The standard (of technicians) there isn't great.

THR: Have you started on your next project?
Zonca: The next one I've decided to write very quickly! I've got a project that's set in New York with quite a surprising role for Tilda. She doesn't know anything about it yet, but I think she'll be excited about it. I can't really tell you the story because it's still being written, but it'll be a pretty violent, insane comedy. And I've also got a little idea for something set in Mexico City.
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