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Frederic Auburtin has had to put up with a lot of abuse lately. As the director of United Passions, the movie about the founding of world soccer body FIFA, the French filmmaker behind such titles as The Bridge (1999) and San Antonio (2004), has received the worst reviews of his career. The film is “a ham-fisted … cringeworthy, self-aggrandizing affair” wrote The Hollywood Reporter critic Frank Scheck about the $30 million period drama starring Gerard Depardieu, Sam Neill and Tim Roth. Jordan Hoffman of the Guardian goes further, saying the movie, which purports to tell this founding story of world soccer governing body FIFA, is “pure cinematic excrement.”
Then there’s the Internet commenters, who, in the wake of new criminal investigations into FIFA — including the arrest by the FBI of several top FIFA executives last month — have railed against the director for, in their minds, being a propagandist for a thoroughly corrupt organization.
In the wake of United Passions‘ disastrous U.S. debut — where the film grossed only $918 over its opening weekend — Auburtin spoke with THR‘s about what went wrong.
Did FIFA interfere with the making of United Passions?
OK, so just to make some things clear, because I’ve read so much gossip: I was not hired by FIFA. I was hired by a producer named Louisa Maurin, she’s a first time producer, and she is the woman who had the idea and initiated the project in 2010. She apparently had an agreement FIFA, but during the creative process and the preparation and even the beginning of shooting, FIFA was co-financing the film for around €10 million (at the time around $13 million), around 40 percent of the budget. She was working with Christine Gozlan, quite famous in France (her production credits include Michael Haneke‘s The Piano Teacher and the Oscar-nominated Vera Drake), and a professional who has made a lot of films with Thelma Films. And for me it was, “OK I don’t know Lousia Maurin, she’s a first-time producer I’ve never heard of, but she’s associated with Christine Gozlan and that makes sense.”
What made it even more sense for me was it was Gerard Depardieu who called me to be involved in the project. I’ve known Gerard for 30 years, and we’ve made a lot of films together when I was an AD. He’s called me many times, sometimes as the guy you call at the last minute to save the ship. He called me for The Man in the Iron Mask. I was the first AD and replaced the other first AD at the last minute. So I got this phone call from Gerard and he says, “Fred, I need you. They have proposed to me to play (FIFA founding president) Jules Rimet.” I thought it was weird to make a film about FIFA, but because it was Gerard, I met with these women and said, “why not?” (At the time) it wasn’t FIFA saying, “we are producing this film.” At this point (the main) challenge was that it was late 2012, and the film had to be ready for the opening of the World Cup in June 2014.
What was the biggest challenge at the start?
Our strategy was to try and say things with subtext, subtly. Everyone is focused on what is happening right now with FIFA, but the film was supposed to tell more than 100 years of history. So we already had a narrative problem, because we didn’t have a lead character. We are making a biopic, but a biopic of an institution, an organization. We cannot have one character through the years like Salieri in Amadeus telling Mozart’s life or the historian in Little Big Man. We knew that everybody was focused on the (present-day) reality, but the reality is really the last 30 or 40 years; the corruption is the last 25 years.
Another difficulty was to tell a story about executives, because all these people are executives in suits having meetings in boardrooms. That is not an action movie at all. It’s a film that’s about the history of football without action.
Was FIFA directly involved in approving the script or censoring the movie?
My first contact with FIFA was late 2012 with [co-screenwriter] Jean-Paul Delfino and Louisa, and that was the first time we met for an informal meeting in Zurich with Sepp Blatter and other people from FIFA. The budget of the film was still the same — with FIFA putting 40 percent and the rest coming from Azerbaijan and other sources. We had the script ready around March 2013. We sent the script to FIFA around March, and the deal with the producers and FIFA was: we don’t want any historical mistakes. This was FIFA’s one condition. When we presented the script to FIFA, and of course FIFA made some comments. But not only historical, it was also: “Don’t push too much on this.”
Push too much on what?
Well, what is touchy for FIFA? Envelopes, bribes, corruption, money. It was in the script. The first treatment had us following an investigator looking into FIFA corruption. We were not so stupid as to push too much, but we said, “It’s a motion picture; take some distance from it and it will be good for your PR.” But they are a little bit paranoid about everything that’s around envelopes, corruption.
We thought that it could be interesting to follow this investigator as a recurring character looking into the past of FIFA, searching different elements, but not only the eventual recent scandals. This character was searching in the deep past of FIFA, between the World Wars, in the archives, the footage, the games, the rules, the annual Congresses, etc., to try to understand why this small federation in 1904 became such a [huge] organization and brand 100 years later. In a certain way, like Citizen Kane’s process where the journalist is meeting different people to try to get some keys to open the mysterious Charles Foster Kane’s life. Of course the treatment was ending full circle, with the investigators leaving FIFA with files, some answers, but mainly more questions than when they arrived. Louisa Maurin advised us not to follow this track for different reasons … What we did [then], conscious that this option would maybe be too “sensitive,” was we switched to the kids playing soccer on this no man’s land field.
So it was very difficult, but the script was approved by the people we met with, and we started to carry on preparation and shooting.
What I have to say is that we shot in Zurich and never ever was FIFA on the set, behind me, behind the camera. I have to be honest, once the script was approved, everything was fine. The only thing that was difficult was the production, because 60 percent of the budget was still missing. We had to stop shooting, the money wasn’t there. FIFA just wanted to get the film done, so they stepped in and their commitment went from €10 million ($13 million) to €20 million ($26 million).
How did that change things?
We finished the shooting around September 2013 and it was already a rush for post production, because if you look at the film we have more than 500 CGI shots. So I was totally focused on post production because I wanted to respect my promise to get the film finished by the opening of the World Cup, and we knew that it was possible to have something at the Cannes film festival in May so we were focused on this. When the editing was finished, we had to show the film to FIFA because they were the main investors in the film. And of course they asked for some little changes, little things just to adjust. At first not too far from the original script but little things, and little by little it added up.
And I was a little bit lonely with all of this, because I was trying to keep my own ideas to suggest things around corruption, around bribes, around the envelopes (but) in the end, the film (became) totally pro-FIFA. I read some of the reviews. I am trying not to read anything any more because I don’t want to become totally insane, and I think all of this shit is very unfair for just a filmmaker doing his job. I don’t regret it, but I did my job.
What scenes did you push for?
People say I’m a propaganda man, and I made Blatter a hero, and of course Blatter is the hero at the end. There is a part where [Joao] Helevage is a rotten guy, and when Blatter arrives as the president, he’s the hero. This is the very straight perception of the film, but there are two very important scenes which make me totally proud.
The first one is when Blatter becomes president of FIFA …The first time I show Blatter is in the big room of FIFA. It looks like a James Bond room with all the guys sitting behind the desk, like the old James Bond movies where you just push a button and there’s a trap behind the guy with crocodiles. The first speech of Tim Roth’s Blatter is, “Listen guys, the French World Cup has just finished, now I am the president. The game is over, the bullshit is finished, I am the president, I will not accept anything unethical in FIFA, and from now on everything has to be clean.” This is the scene. Of course, you can watch it the way it is and say, “Fred Auburtin makes Sepp Blatter a hero.” But if you think about the reality, I didn’t make the film in ’98, I made the film in 2014. If the character says in ’98 everything from now will be clean, no more bribes no more corruption, and when you see the news — what does this mean? You know the reality. This is my way of making FIFA accept the scene, which was very difficult as well.
There is a second scene that is very very important for me. It is just before Blatter’s first reelection as president, which is exactly what happened two weeks ago, the executive committee members at FIFA are for Blatter and the others are for someone else. Blatter is in trouble; the English press is on him and the English journalist has published a book, there are problems with the TV rights, there are problems with the organization, there are problems with a lack of money. Blatter has a lawyer with him, and he needs to win the election. And there is a scene we totally invented, with [former FIFA president} Joao Havelange and Blatter on the empty deck of a boat on Lake Geneva sitting like in a John La Carre novel. No witnesses, just the two of them. Havelange starts the scene, ‘It was not a big gift for you to join FIFA with these events right now,’ and Blatter says ‘I knew I wasn’t joining the chess club.’ I love this line. ‘What do you need to be reelected,’ asks Havelange. And Blatter says ‘I need five more votes.’ Havelange’s advice is ‘I’ll give you the key. Have files on the members. Make them fear you, make them hate you. They will hate you, but at the end you will hold them by the balls.’ And the scene after is the big committee and Blatter is reelected. I did a slow motion kind of Tarantino thing with Tim Roth. You think I’m naïve enough to not know the craft and the job? It’s my life, I love cinema. I’m not a genius, I’m just a filmmaker, but I love cinema, and I love that scene.
What was the initial reaction to the movie?
At the American Film Market in late 2013 and in Berlin in Feb 2014, the film had good buzz. But the production didn’t find a French distributor, and from what I know the distributors wanted to release the film in time for the World Cup but there wasn’t time to do marketing, so in the end, the film was just released on VOD in France in July during the World Cup with no publicity, no nothing. Which is what happened again in the U.S. last week.
I was not involved in in it. It’s very weird for me, it’s the first time in my life there hasn’t been no communication or marketing plan for a film of mine. I’m sorry to say that I haven’t spoken with the two producers for more than a year.
Do you regret being involved with the movie?
It was challenging, but I was doing my job and so happy to work with such great artists. But in the end, the film was dropped without any PR, any marketing. It’s a mystery for me, but in cinema, you have plenty of stories like this. I don’t want to be cynical; I hope I am being professional. I hope you understand the reason I accepted this film. I was trying to get a very personal movie made at the time, and it was difficult and I have a family as well. But I was didn’t make it just for the check, which, by the way was a normal-sized check, I didn’t’ get a gold watch or even tickets to the World Cup.
Was it a good idea to produce the film about the history of FIFA? That’s another question, but it was not a question at the time they offered me a job. Because I like football and I like Gerard and I got to work with great actors, it was not a problem for me.
Do you think the reception has been unfair?
The reception of the film is that it’s just propaganda. But it’s just a film, you don’t have to watch it. And this wasn’t public money, not tax money. It’s FIFA’s money, they can do whatever they want with it.
What’s very hard for me is that I’m not a stupid director that took the job for a big check. I tried to do my best, and little by little because of the way the production went and because of FIFA’s involvement and because there was no marketing, now when you Google it, the film is the worst ever and biggest box office disaster.
You can watch the U.S. trailer for United Passions below.
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