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Gael Morel started his film career in 1994 with an acting role in Andre Techine’s “The Wild Reeds” and was nominated for a Cesar Award for most promising actor. He made his directorial debut in 1996 with “Full Speed” and followed it with 2002’s “Under Another Sky” and 2004’s “The Clan,” about three brothers mourning the loss of their mother. He arrives in Cannes with “After Him,” written by the director and his “Clan” co-writer Christophe Honore. It stars Catherine Deneuve as a woman who becomes dangerously obsessed with her son’s best friend after the former dies in a car accident. Morel talks about what it was like to boss around “Belle de jour” herself.
The Hollywood Reporter: Did you have Catherine Deneuve in mind when you wrote the script?
Gael Morel: What’s funny is that I wrote a part for her around 10 years ago and she refused it, but I wrote this part without her in mind. We met during one of my first films. I’ve always been fascinated by her work, her career, her filmography. When she said she’d be willing to work with me, I started writing for her; I let myself go, I wrote from my heart, but she refused. When I was writing the part of Camille, I didn’t think of Catherine Deneuve. I wrote the character, and the idea to hire Deneuve came afterward. I think that the fact that I wrote the part and then thought of her pleased her. An intelligent actress seems less tied down to something not written particularly for her. I was hesitant at first to go back to Catherine. It was Christophe Honore who said, “You know, this is a role for Catherine.” I never expected her to say yes.
THR: Did she accept right away?
Morel: She accepted rather quickly, but she was very doubtful afterward. She was scared of such a big investment and what the role would mean for her because it had been a long time since she made a film where she played such a central role. She said that she had never had a role where she was so “present.” She was there every day of the filming.
THR: It’s also a very unglamorous role for her.
Morel: It’s a tough role. She has no accessories, no handbag, nothing. It’s a pretty raw role. She’s wearing makeup, but it’s only to make her look tired, worn out.
THR: She’s a big star. Were you at all intimidated to direct her?
Morel: Oh of course. To direct Catherine Deneuve, anyone would be intimidated. For me, it was the most joyful, happy filming I’ve ever done. She came in with the idea that it would be very difficult, so did I; we were very apprehensive. We told ourselves so much that it would be difficult, so we lived that out before filming even started. So on the first day of filming, since we were all conditioned to the fact that it would be difficult, it was much easier than we thought it would be. Catherine had an extraordinary relationship with the production team — it was truly incredible. She told me at one point it was one of the most beautiful film shoots of her career. And for me, too. I’d never experienced that before. It was easier than my previous film, must less difficult in terms of the relationships between everyone on set.
THR: How did the on-set ambiance affect the film?
Morel: The very warm, welcoming ambiance of the filming was necessary to arrive at the tension that pervades the film. Catherine has a very human quality — she’s very generous, accessible. There needed to be a confidence on the set in order for her to be able to accept giving herself up to the rawness and toughness of her character.
THR: Deneuve has been acting for a long time. Did you adapt your directing methods to her?
Morel: It was her 99th film. It was my fourth. But she was completely open to me. Everyone warned me, “You’ll have this, there will be that.” I finally stopped listening to advice — it was tiring, people telling me, “You need to do this, you need to do that.” I finally said, “We’ll see.” She really listened to what I asked, she was very attentive — it really surprised me. She never imposed herself upon anyone. I had a complete freedom with her. It was a real pleasure.
THR: Did the experience live up to your expectations?
Morel: I liked the idea of directing the actress who instilled in me the passion for cinema because that’s the dream of every director — to direct the person who made you fall in love with movies. The other fantasy is to discover someone. I love that the film tells a real story, a story that tells the story of the characters but also a real “cinema story” — an actress at the peak of her maturity and someone who is just starting out. It’s rare to be able to give homage to the person who started you out.
THR: Your films are typically more independent, more artistic, but making a movie with Deneuve makes the film inevitably more for the general public. Was this your aim?
Morel: The idea was to make a more open film, but at the same time, the desire to work with Catherine wasn’t a desire to attract a large audience. I’ve made a lot of films about youth with young actors. Here, I had this subject, and I knew it would be better carried by an actress with this sort of experience. At the same time, it was this actress in particular that made me want to make movies. The first time I saw her was in “Belle de jour.” I discovered Truffaut and Techine from Catherine Deneuve. A subject like this appeals to a wider audience because it’s a very simple, open subject. I liked the idea of seeing Catherine Deneuve as I’ve never seen her, in a film from the beginning to the end where she was the central figure.
THR: Speaking of the end, it’s very ambiguous. Why this ending?
Morel: It’s a film about an obsession, and there’s no ending to an obsession. It’s something that consumes you. There were only two possible endings: Either she lived or she killed herself. If she had died, for me, it would be against the idea that I injected into the film from the beginning. It’s a film about life, not a film about death. In reality, she’s alive, but she has to learn how to live her life now that her son has died. The end of the movie, it’s just Camille’s “regard,” and then it’s the music that tells everything. We’re really in her head, we’re truly with her, on her side. I knew that an ending like this would only work if the film itself worked. The spectator needs to be empathetic with her. If the spectator isn’t … the end doesn’t work. This ending was more effective emotionally than if she had killed herself. That would have been taking the easy way out.
THR: That leaves room to make the sequel, “Still After Him.”
Morel: In the sequel, we imagine that she’ll still be troubled. Her obsession with this boy will never fully disappear.
THR: This ambiguity is ubiquitous throughout the film. You might say it’s very French.
Morel: The body of the film is this ambiguity in terms of the feelings Camille has for Franck. There’s a real mystery in terms of what motivates this woman to act, but I think that it’s not necessarily a French film because French films are more psychological, more clinical. With French films it’s more about the psychology of the characters; here, it’s more about the mystery of the characters. It’s not at all introspective; at no point do the characters say what they’re feeling. All of the dialogue is very factual. I was very inspired by American literature, people like J.D. Salinger … dialogue that doesn’t say anything about interior emotions. There’s not one moment when the characters say what they feel. And that’s very French — dialogue where people talk about what they’re feeling: “You understand, since we’ve been apart, I feel this way, I think that ….” In this film, people talk only about what they’re doing. It’s only factual, factual, factual.
THR: You co-wrote this dialogue with your frequent writing partner Christophe Honore. Do you two have a specific writing method that works?
Morel: I knew Christophe before he was a director, when he was a writer. I would have been less inclined to work with him if I had first known him as a director. It was because he was a writer that I decided to collaborate with him. I come to him with an idea, we talk about it, and after, we never write together. We go our separate ways, write, and after we re-read, bring everything together. The idea is that a screenwriter isn’t a professor; working with a screenwriter is inventing, finding out things, it shouldn’t be laborious to work together. The goal is to keep working, to never stop, whether it’s in a cafe, anywhere. When we’re writing, we try to do it in a very lively way because we’re not writing a book.
THR: In addition to the dialogue, music plays a very important role in this film — both to accompany the emotions but also oftentimes as part of the action of the film. Why, for example, did you choose the song “Mysteries” by Beth Gibbons for the scene where Camille listens to a CD her son’s girlfriend brings him?
Morel: Catherine loves music. You have to imagine the set: It was really incredible, we’d always talk about music, every day we’d bring songs to share. She talked to me about Beth Gibbons and she bought me the CD as a gift for the end of one day’s shooting. She introduced us to the song “Mysteries,” which was a very nostalgic song for her. She explained that it was like a perfume for her that brought back feelings about her past. And I said, “Well, let’s use it for the film.” And she said, “But Gael, how can we? It’s expensive ….” But it was really out of my emulation for her that I chose this song. I really wanted her to feel comfortable.
THR: And the Tatianas?
Morel: The Tatianas are a group of young French kids who I discovered on MySpace. France has a problem with youth. When the French press talks about “young rock groups,” they’re usually talking about 30-year-olds. When I saw the Tatianas, I thought they look like children — they’re young, 16 years old, 18 years old — and I wanted to use them. I was really happy about putting really young people in a movie like this.
THR: Will you work with Deneuve again?
Morel: To work with Catherine again would be great, but at the same time, I don’t want to work with her just to work with her again. It would have to be the right character for her.
Nationality: French; born: Sept. 25, 1972
Selected filmography: “Full Speed” (1996); “Under Another Sky” (2002); “The Clan” (2004)
Notable awards: Toronto International Film Festival FIPRESCI award, “Under Another Sky” (2002)
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