Tragic Piaf film could see happy ending at Oscars

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Picturehouse powerhouse: Driven by Marion Cotillard's stunning performance as Edith Piaf, Picturehouse's "La Vie En Rose" is heading for Oscar and Golden Globes nominations.

Written and directed by Olivier Dahan and produced by Alain Goldman, its adaptation and dialogues are by Dahan and Isabelle Sobelman. "Rose," opening June 8 in New York and Los Angeles, also stars Sylvia Testud, Pascal Greggory, Emmanuelle Seigner, Jean-Paul Rouve and Gerard Depardieu.

"Rose," which tells the story of French legend Edith Piaf's tragic life, looks like it could be an awards powerhouse for Picturehouse. It started out in February as the opening night film at the Berlin Film Festival, where it was a Golden Bear nominee. To qualify as an Oscar contender for best foreign language film, the film must first be named France's official selection for the Academy Awards. Given the fact that it's a memorable movie and that Piaf's a French superstar, it's not much of a stretch to think it could wind up as France's entry in the 2007 Oscar race.

It also can't hurt that the movie's a blockbuster in France and was well received by the French critics. Since opening there Feb. 14 moviegoers have spent a huge (for France) $40 million on tickets to "Rose" with over five million admissions. It's known in France, by the way, as "La Mome," a reference to Piaf's nickname, La Mome Piaf, which roughly means The Sparrow Kid. That's a fitting description considering her slight build and her height of only about 4 feet 8 inches.

No matter what happens in terms of the film becoming France's official selection, by the way, Academy members can consider it for all categories other than foreign language film -- including best actress where Cotillard should have a good shot at a nomination. Cotillard should benefit from the fact that last year Oscar voters gave a best actress nod to Penelope Volver for her performance in the Spanish movie "Volver." As with any foreign film, of course, the challenge Picturehouse will face is to make sure that Academy members get around to seeing the film.

On the Globes front, it should be easier. For one thing, there are no official entry restrictions in terms of country sponsorship so "Rose" is automatically eligible for consideration across the board, including for best foreign language film. And unlike their Oscar counterparts, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association members who vote for the Globes see movies all year long in the course of doing their work as journalists. "Rose" is certainly going to be on their radar and because it's so good it should resonate nicely with them.

After enjoying a very early look at "Rose," I was delighted to be able to catch up Monday with Olivier Dahan to ask him about the making of the film. He came up with the idea of doing a movie about Piaf at precisely 3:46 p.m. on Jan. 22, 2004, a fact that's known because it's when he used his cell phone to send a text message proposing the project to producer Alain Goldman. Goldman and Dahan had previously worked together on the 2004 French thriller "Crimson Rivers 2: Angels of the Apocalypse," written by Luc Besson and starring Jean Reno.

"When an idea comes it's always a little bit mysterious," Dahan told me. "I was actually in a bookstore and I had just found a book of photographs (of Piaf) and began to look at the photos. I didn't know about her very early years and (there was) a photo that really made this first impression for me. It was a photo of her in a street when she was something like 17 years old and she really looked 'punk' (in terms of her) clothes and everything (and her) attitude. This photo was so far from the iconic image that I had (of Piaf when she was older). I just started to imagine something very quickly -- what was in between that very early photo and the iconic image of her in the black dress and everything. That's the first impression (I had).

"So I just sent an SMS, a text (message), to the producer, Alain Goldman. I guess he still has the text with him (on his phone) three years later. In that text I said, 'OK. I want to make a movie about Edith Piaf.' But at this time I didn't know so much about her except some photos, one or two songs, not so much. He answered me very quickly -- 'OK. Let's do it. I'll go for it.' When I came back to my home at night I was wondering myself, 'OK, now it's going to start and do you really want to make this movie about Edith Piaf?' Everything started very quickly."

When Goldman sent a message back that they should go ahead with the project, did that mean the money was there to make the film? "No, no, of course, no," Dahan replied. "At this time, it was too early to talk about money. But just the idea and the way I sent this text seemed to have impressed the producer. It was very quick. I didn't really have time to think about it. But just after that I started to buy every book, every biography, everything about her. We did some research and then I started to read. And that was really the working part of it. I didn't know so much about her so I just had to research and to read everything. I knew that I didn't want to make a biopic. I didn't want to just adapt (her) biography. I wanted to make my own version of the story. So that's why I really needed to know everything about her."

It goes without saying that Piaf's story is tragic, indeed. It began with her birth in 1915 and her impoverished childhood in a dysfunctional family where she was abandoned by her mother and then was left for several years by her circus performer father (who went into the French army) in the care of his mother, who was running a brothel in Normandy. Piaf was blind for about four years as a youngster due to conjunctivitis and then she suffered from deafness for about six years after that. Things took a turn for the better when she was discovered singing in the streets of Paris in 1935 by nightclub owner Louis Leplee (played beautifully in the film by Depardieu), who put her onstage and named her Piaf, which a Paris colloquialism for sparrow. Leplee was murdered soon thereafter and the police accused Piaf of being an accessory to the crime, although she was acquitted.

Unfortunately, Piaf's life was so tragic that at this point we haven't even gotten to the really tragic parts of it. Suffice it to say here that her addiction to drugs and the way in which she physically destroyed herself brings to mind any number of contemporary music superstars. In the end, Piaf died at the age of only 47 in 1963, leaving a legacy of unforgettable recordings. Her funeral drew hundreds of thousands of mourners into the Paris streets where they brought traffic to a complete standstill.

I asked Dahan if the fact that we basically approach the film already knowing that Piaf died tragically and at a young age affected him in how he wrote the film's screenplay. "When I started to write I didn't think so much (about that)," he said. "I just let my intuition go. I was reading and when I stopped reading I started to write. Actually, the movie that you've seen is my first draft. I never rewrote one sequence once it was written.

"Let me explain. The first draft was something like 200 pages. The movie you've seen is 140 pages. So the 200 pages was just the first draft and the draft I shot was just a reduced (version) of it. I just cut some pages off, but I never rewrote any sequence once it was written. So it's really the first draft."

Asked how he approached writing the screenplay, Dahan confided, "I didn't want to write this script about Edith Piaf. I wanted to find a scriptwriter. The producer was pushing me to write it and so I started to write it. I just tried to (do) the first 10 pages. I was in L.A. and I started to write the first 10 pages of the script. I sent it to the producer and he said, 'OK. You really have to write it now -- the entire script.' Because my time of concentration is quite short, for me the writing process is sometimes very difficult. I was just writing every day -- in the morning, in the afternoon, evening. One year of writing. I had a schedule for myself that was like from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and then again from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. and sometimes more than that. But then I didn't write at all during one week, for example." His screenwriting, he added, was done using a computer.

The structure Dahan uses in "Rose" takes us in and out of Piaf's life over the years rather than telling her story in a more linear biopic way from childhood until her death. "It was intuition," he explained when I asked why he took that approach. "I didn't think so much when I was writing. During the writing process I just tried to make myself concentrate. After that, the script really came to me naturally. This was not an attempt to intellectualize the process. I didn't try to do that. I really wanted to make something very emotional with a kind of transition between the sequences that could only be emotional. So that was the main point for me. I found that way of going backwards for a while in her life was a good way to juxtapose the emotions more than the facts. I was feeling more the emotional line rather than the actions and the facts. From the very first page I just knew that I didn't want to write a biopic of her, but an intimate portrait."

Another difference between "Rose" and the way biopics are often done is that we see a lot more of Piaf's childhood than we might otherwise have been told about. As a result, we have quite a good sense of just how terrible a childhood she managed to survive. "For me for everybody -- for (people who are) artists or not artists -- everything really is settled during childhood between, I don't know, zero and six years old," Dahan observed. "Everything. That's the period for me and for everybody where the mark is made on the psychology of the character. It was very, very unfortunate (for Piaf). I didn't want to cut that part. I never really cut that part when I was cutting the script to make it a little bit shorter. Just one or two sequences (from her childhood) were not enough for me."

While he was writing did he have Marion Cotillard in mind to play the role? "
"Marion actually was my first idea," he said. "But she was not aware of it."
It's interesting that he could envision Cotillard starring as Piaf because there's really no resemblance between them in real life. Cotillard, who starred in "A Good Year" opposite Russell Crowe, is actually quite attractive while Piaf was anything but beautiful.

"It was a strange process because (we) met each other at the very end of the writing process," Dahan told me. "I gave her some books (about Piaf) because I didn't want to make any rehearsal. I didn't want to make any reading. And we really didn't have the time to make it anyway. So we just started to work during the shooting. It was not really working. I had to try to put her on the same level of intuition (about Piaf) as me. So we didn't really work (doing rehearsing) during the shooting. It was strange. It was something quite different from just working. She was a little bit in a trance (which meant that the star and director were both caught up in the same emotional level of creation)."

With so many highly emotional scenes in the film, did he do many takes to get them right? "No, I don't like to make a lot of takes," he noted. In some key emotional moments "we did two or three or maybe four takes. Most of the time we just did four takes."

Shooting took place over four months and was made all the harder because the film is a period piece set in Paris and the city has changed so much in the decades since Piaf's time. Finding the vintage Paris that they need for the movie was achieved, he said, "by my art director (production designer Olivier Raoux). I must say that I was very well surrounded. My crew was the best crew that I ever had. It was real streets, but everything was all remade in it (by dressing those streets to look as they used to look rather than as they are today)."

Looking back at the biggest challenges he faced during production, Dahan told me, "You know, sometimes the interesting thing is that the scenes that you think will be the most complicated that will end being the most complicated. Sometimes you have something you think is a very simple shot and it turns out to be very tricky to get right. For example, it was very easy for me to do the boxing sequence (a key action piece with Piaf watching the love of her life Marcel Cerdan, played by Jean-Pierre Martins, in a tough championship fight), but it wasn't so easy to (get a much simpler) shot when she's crying with a fortune teller. It was just a little shot and I spent hours on just that one. It was quite difficult to do. (Working) with children was very easy. Usually, it's more difficult with children. But in this movie it was very easy with children and sometimes it was more difficult just with (adult) actors."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From May 12, 1989's column: "With the majors releasing so many mega-budget originals and sequels to blockbusters this summer, it's not surprising that most independent film distributors are avoiding what promises to be an intensely competitive period.

"An exception to that strategy, however, is New Line Cinema, which has its own blockbuster sequel in 'A Nightmare on Elm Street V,' opening Aug. 11. New Line also will go out this summer with two originals -- the wrestling action-comedy 'No Holds Barred' (June 2) and the animated feature 'Babar' (July 28). It believes both films are positioned to avoid being swamped by product from the majors and that their appeal is to specific segments of the moviegoing audience.

"'I think we have a very exciting and ambitious summer coming up for an independent, especially in the face of this particular summer,' New Line Distribution Inc. president and chief operating officer Mitchell Goldman told me Wednesday. 'We are using guerrilla distribution techniques in order to make this summer work for us.'

"The plan, Goldman explains, is 'positioning the pictures carefully, as of course everyone does. But we are acknowledging the fact that we are an independent. We have to be extra careful. So even though initially we were going with 'No Holds Barred'...Memorial Day weekend, when the only picture in the marketplace at that time was (Paramount's sequel) 'Indiana Jones,' after Warners decided to go with Clint Eastwood ('Pink Cadillac,' May 26) and MGM decided to go with Patrick Swayze ('Roadhouse,' May 19) and Fox threw in a picture ('How I Got Into College,' May 19) we decided to draw back a week to June 2...'

Update: The summer of '89 turned out to be disappointing for New Line. "Nightmare 5" opened Aug. 11 to $8.1 million, averaging $4,266 per theater at 1,902 theaters. It went on to gross a modest $22.2 million domestically. By comparison, a year earlier "A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master" had grossed $49.4 million domestically. "No Holds Barred" opened June 2 to just under $5 million, averaging $3,761 per theater at 1,318 theaters. It wound up grossing just $16.1 million domestically. "Babar" opened July 28 to $0.3 million, averaging $582 per theater at 510 theaters. It ended up doing only $1.3 million domestically.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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