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If you don’t frequent the Cannes, Telluride, Toronto and New York film festivals, or at least your local art house movie theater, you may not know the names Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne. But, as someone who does, take my word for it: These soft-spoken, unassuming sexagenarian brothers from Belgium are as talented and consistently on-the-mark as any filmmakers in the world — and they have been for years.
That’s why I find it so utterly unbelievable that the Academy has never even nominated one of their projects for the best foreign-language film Oscar, even though four have been submitted by their motherland over the years — and why, I must confess, I am crossing my fingers that this grave injustice will be corrected, or at least not extended, when the Academy, sometime in the next 48 hours, reveals the names of the nine films that its foreign-language committee or executive committee has deemed worthy of this year’s Oscar shortlist. As I see it, the Dardennes’ latest, Two Days, One Night, deserves to be among the finalists as much as any of this year’s record 83 submissions from around the globe.
It has been nearly 40 years since the brothers began making films together. They started in the world of documentary filmmaking, but enjoyed telling their subjects what to do so much that they decided to work with actors instead. In so doing, they didn’t abandon documentary filmmaking altogether, but rather, in a sense, merged it with narrative filmmaking, achieving a sort of neorealism in their narrative films that is as powerful as the most famous examples of the genre, on which they were raised.
Their first narrative masterpiece, which came together when they were already in their 40s — Jean-Pierre is 63 and Luc is 60 now — was La Promesse (The Promise, 1996), which put them on the map for cineastes. International fame was subsequently secured with two Palme d’Or wins in seven years — only six other filmmakers have ever won that Oscar-like prize twice — for Rosetta (1999) and L’Enfant (The Child, 2005). In-between, they made another special film, Le Fils (The Son, 2002). And recently, they maintained their extraordinary batting average with the similarly powerful The Kid With a Bike (2011).
In my humble opinion, Two Days, One Night is as good as any of those earlier titles. The first of their films to showcase an international star, Marion Cotillard (they tend to cast people from their region who, as often as not, have not acted in any capacity before), it offers a powerful and timely look at the strain that the global economic downturn of the last few years has placed upon working-class people. It is, in an odd way, a companion piece to the western High Noon (1952), of all films, centering around a person in need of help who has the courage to ask for it, but — for understandable enough reasons, in many cases — doesn’t come by it easily.
Like all of Dardennes’ films, Two Days was shot on a shoestring budget in the brothers’ hometown of Seraing and presents moral dilemmas that provoke great emotion in a viewer without ever employing any sentimentality or soundtrack to do so. That, in itself, is quite remarkable in this day and age. But the economy and craftsmanship of their work is what is perhaps most impressive about it. They don’t use fancy equipment or big crews, but they have a style and sensibility that those who do frequently lack.
So why have all of their films been set in Seraing? Why do they always focus on society’s downtrodden? What is with the handheld cameras and extended takes? How do they juggle responsibilities, resolve disagreements and decide which stories they want to tell? Can they imagine a scenario in which they might make a film in Hollywood? And is it fathomable that they might ever — dare I even say it — work apart from one another?
These are just a few of the many questions that I’ve wanted to pose to the brothers for years and that I had the good fortune of asking them during two separate interviews, totaling about two hours, this fall — one in New York during the New York Film Festival and the other in Los Angeles during the AFI Film Festival — during which they were open, playful and never ceased to make eye contact with their interviewer, even though they were speaking through a translator. I hope that you will find their answers as interesting and enlightening as I did.
* * *
Many siblings, including me and mine, bicker. You two seem to get along very well. Has that always been the case?
Jean-Pierre: You know, there’s not a great deal of difference between us — we’re three years apart — but, of course, there were little scuffles and whatnot. But I don’t remember any fights with Luc when we were growing up. I mean, there was a point, since I’m three years older, when I started to shoot up into adolescence and he didn’t, and our friends were a little bit different, so there was a little bit more of a distance. But then we found each other again. When Luc was 18 and I was 21, we started working for the same theater director, and so we started to connect again.
Luc: I had a little bit of a temper. (Laughs.)
Jean-Pierre: I was a good guy. (Laughs.)
Luc: There was one time when there were strawberries that were in a planter where the water could come out, and it was on a table, and the radio was on, and Jean-Pierre was saying, “Turn off the radio!” And I said, “Keep it on!” “Turn it off!” “Keep it on!” My mother listened to Jean-Pierre and she shut it off, and I was so angry that I picked up my knife, which I guess I was going to use for the strawberries, and I threw it in the middle of the planter, and it broke — and it was a wedding present. But you’ll note that I did not throw the knife at my brother or my mother!
Growing up, did you go to the movies? And if so, what were the kinds of movies or filmmakers that were most important to you? Were De Sica, Rosselini, Rohmer and Loach — people whose films yours are often likened to — favorites or influences?
Luc: It’s true that neorealism has influenced our whole generation, and that films that we saw when we were 15 or 16 had an influence on us.
Jean-Pierre: Masterpieces like Umberto D. and Rome, Open City and Germany, Year Zero and Journey to Italy and Stromboli. Those are films that we saw and, without a doubt, they affected us, even if it was subliminal. The films that we watched over and over again were the films of Rosselini, Kieslowski, Pialat and Bresson.
This was when you were quite young?
Jean-Pierre: At 3, 4, with our mother. (Laughs.)
Luc: No. Maybe 30, 35. And today. We see all kinds of movie — we see all the movies that come out today.
Jean-Pierre: Our relationship with cinema when we were growing up, when we were kids, was peculiar, because the village that we come from — which is not far from where we film all of our movies — had two movie houses, which are now gone, and we come from a Catholic family, and at that time, the Catholic Church had a great deal of power and were able to say, “This movie you can take a kid to and this movie you can’t.” In the newspaper, there was a list of films that were approved or not, and our father would look at the list and say, “OK, you can go see that but you can’t go see this.” (Laughs.)
I understand that a man named Armand Gatti had a great impact on you two. Who was he and how did he shape your career path?
Luc: With him, it was really theater. We hadn’t seen his films — he made three. He did work with video, and that got us interested in the process. But he was really, sort of, our spiritual father, in terms of leading us toward being together to do movies. But what we did with him was really theater.
When you started making films in the 1970s, why did you initially focus on making documentaries? What drew you to that?
Jean-Pierre: Well, in the beginning, it was because we wanted to follow in Gatti’s footsteps. He had used video to nourish his writing, and so we really were following him. In the beginning, we were working in industrial locales and we were focusing on portraits, really, of people in these locales. We didn’t have any kind of editing facility. Our main aim, in terms of how we chose the characters — or the people, really, not characters — was finding people who had opposed themselves to some kind of injustice, whether it had been in the workplace, in the street, whatever. They had confronted a situation and opposed themselves to it. Because we had no editing means, we did, like, trigger-editing. So, you know, we would be filming a person, he’d be talking, and then we knew that that person had some photographs that were interesting and germane to what we were talking about, so we would stop the camera, then we would film the photographs while the person was speaking and then we would stop the camera and come back to the person speaking. And we would show these little films every week in a church basement, in a restaurant, different places, a bistro in a backroom.
What was it that ultimately made you decide to try narrative filmmaking? And what happened with your first two narrative films, which I believe you’ve sort of distanced yourselves from? I got the sense that they were not the happiest of experiences …
Luc: The first was a good experience; it was the second one. We did the portraits, and then after that we wrote about seven or eight documentaries, and there we had editing means. (Laughs.) In terms of our documentaries, we were working on things where the departure points were things that were actual today. For instance, in the early ’80s, we had one guy who had worked in the Belgian resistance as a leader, and he had document after document that were kept in boxes that he used to bury — after they finished a task, he would bury them in his garden — and he had kept all of these boxes and all of these documents, so we were able to film this and to use this for the documentary. Then we had a woman who killed German soldiers who were occupying the region — Nazis — and what she would do is she would attract them by pretending that she was a prostitute and then there would be two shooters that would bring them down. So these were actual people that were able to tell the stories now. That was the departure point — it wasn’t just archival footage with no real people to work with. So then, in order to build our film, a certain amount of direction started to be included. Like we would say, “OK, at this point, you can turn your back” or “Turn around” or “Move over here,” etc., in order to be able to build our film. Anyway, in the ’80s we went and we did a movie in Ireland, and we found that people were getting tired and we were getting tired of using the people in that manner — we were encountering resistance. They’d say, “Why do you want me to move there?” “Why do you want me to do this?” And that engendered a certain lassitude, in terms of the effort that was involved. We were using them a little like actors, and so we started to want to tell our own stories and to work with real actors. So the first film (Falsch) is a little bit of a hybrid between documentary and fiction, because we used the writings of Rene Kalisky — the play was called Falsch. So it’s a documentary, but we used the play and were able to lean on the play to create the structure of the film.
But your second film, Je Pense a Vous, was not a documentary and was not a pleasant experience. What happened with that? My understanding is that it almost turned you off from narrative filmmaking altogether …
Jean-Pierre: Yes. It didn’t go well for several reasons. Being autodidactic in the cinematic world can potentially give you a lot of freedom in your mind but, despite that, it’s kind of bizarre because you sort of feel like a usurper. I think what we were thinking when we did Je Pense a Vous was, “OK, this is going to be our first full-length feature, and real moviemaking is a serious business.” Well, it was the second one, but it was with an original screenplay that we had written with [Jean] Gruault, and so it felt like a new stage in our trajectory. So we behaved a little bit as if we were elephants in a china shop.
Jean-Pierre: And we would have been better just acting like real elephants in a real china shop. That’s the principal reason it didn’t work.
My understanding was that when you subsequently went to do La Promesse, you said to each other that if that one were like the one before it, you would not make another. So what was different about that experience?
Luc: We said to ourselves, “We just made a movie where our spirits weren’t there. We didn’t really understand what we were doing. But we were, nevertheless, responsible for everything that went off. So we said to ourselves, “OK, let’s go back to what we liked about doing documentaries. What was it that attracted us and that we liked?” Because here, we’d just spent a year being miserable making this movie. And that’s what we went back to. There were a lot of things that we were sick of. We were sick of having to pay attention to the traveling. And “Uh oh, there’s a little noise over here” and “Uh oh, there’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that.” And one of the technicians saying, “Hey, the stand-ins are here,” etc. We were just sick of that. So we decided that we just wanted to tell a story that interested us, that was simple. We did not think about actors. We just said, “Let’s just write what we want to say and we’ll see.” It was kind of a reaction to the fact that we felt that something had escaped us, something had slipped through our fingers, and so now we wanted to do something that was really close to us, that we could hold on to. We said, “All right, we’re gonna get rid of the traveling, we’re gonna get rid of a technical mediator, we’re not gonna be bothered if the sound isn’t perfect — I mean, sure, you have to have good quality sound, but if there’s background noise or something else that interferes, we’ll work it in.” We simplified things in that sense. We wanted to set it up so that nothing was out of our grasp, and we said, “If it doesn’t work, then OK, we won’t make movies.” I’m gonna give you one example from when we were doing La Promesse. It’s always important to have sequential shots and, at some point, it was out of focus. It was blurry — not hugely, but slightly out-of-focus. And we said, “OK, nevermind. We’re gonna continue,” in terms of the sequence. And the cameraman said, “You can’t do that. It’s not in focus, and this is my first job and I’m gonna have a bad reputation.” And we said, “OK, you know what, you’re not gonna sign off on this. We’ll take the responsibility and say, ‘We shot this part.’ ” And then he changed his mind and finally he said, “You know, actually, it’s OK.” And he ended up signing. And that’s another thing: We were working with friends. I mean, the chief-op, the cameraman, the soundman — all those people were friends and they trusted us. When we asked something, they didn’t say, “Oh no, we don’t do that.”
I was curious where the ideas for your projects have come from. Almost all of them have dealt with morality, so I wonder if it’s perhaps your religion?
Luc: I would say that when I discussed Emmanuel Levinas’ philosophy, which has to do with what happens when you meet another human being, in terms of your moral or ethical responsibility — you know, there’s something that calls you to treat the person a certain way, to save them, to nourish them, to be responsible for them — I would say without a doubt that when I discovered that philosophy, it did have a deep impact and influence on what I wanted to say, what we wanted to say in our films.
And when and how did you discover that philosophy?
Luc: It was when I was studying — I mean, I still read philosophy, but when I was studying I actually took a course with him. That was in the late ’70s. It’s a source of inspiration, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say that we consciously apply the philosophy to our films. I mean, we talk a lot between ourselves, but we also talk about, you know, films that influence us and a lot of other things. So it’s not a direct application to the film, but it’s a deep influence.
If it’s not too personal to ask, are you religious? Because so much of your films deal with not only philosophy but also moral questions, and I’d love to know where that comes from …
Jean-Pierre: We did have a Christian education — this is a work-in-progress that I’m gonna be doing here — I mean, “Christian,” in the sense that our important principles — Our parents are still in that; we broke off with the tradition. But let’s say that, in our house, the door was always open, and we were never pushed or encouraged to just go after financial gain. That’s to say that what we see in the film with Sandra, who is seeking solidarity and is striving to, sort of, find a common thread with other people, is not something that I discovered three years ago and now am putting in the film; it’s something that was profoundly there during my child. It’s a principle that we were raised on. And I would like to underscore that we had friends and our parents had friends that were secular and had the same value system. We grew up in an environment where working-class solidarity was something that was part of daily existence. What I’m saying may sound a little bit idealist, a little bit too rose-colored, but the fact is that, basically, that was the atmosphere.
Many of your films — La Promesse, Le Fils, L’Enfant, The Kid With a Bike and even, to some extent, Two Days, One Night — revolve largely around parent-children relationships. Why do you think that is?
Luc: I don’t know why exactly, but it’s true that the generational relationships in our films are very important. It’s a little less present in this last film. But I don’t know why exactly that is. When we wrote La Promesse, there was a first draft where we had a scene where Igor, the child, met an older man who said to him, “Look, you can’t trust your father anymore.” And when we thought about it, we said, “You know, nowadays that’s not really the relationship.” We eliminated that character from that first draft because we realized that today it doesn’t really operate that way. The relationship of authority and mentorship that was there in the past is no longer present. In Seraing, we saw a lot of kids and young adolescents that were alone, and we realized that they really have to go through that journey — looking for solidarity and trying to find reference points — alone. It’s a solitary journey to try to reach for that solidarity.
Within your own memories, Seraing, where you grew up, has changed a lot. Does that fascinate you? Is that why Seraing has been the setting for every one of your narrative films?
Luc: I would say that Seraing, in the past, was where, from one generation to the next, from one human being to the next, there was a transference of a lot of solidarity through work. Sometimes it was even a job — you know, transferring knowledge in training for a job. But that was very present in the Seraing of the past, but it completely disappeared at the end of the ’70s and early ’80s because of the economic crisis. It went from 40,000 workers to 8,000 workers in five, six years. The steel mills closed, so they shut down the train station, and then downtown was abandoned. So we thought, if we keep, sort of, looking back toward the past and saying, “This is what you have to do to be able to overcome this; we’re going in the wrong direction,” because that’s not where things are at now. We have to look at a solitary individual and say, “How is this person who is alone gonna make it?” So the people in the films are going to meet people — except with The Kid With a Bike, where someone’s substantially older, and also Le Fils — that are generally gonna be asking them for help. And, initially, our characters are gonna turn a blind eye to these people that are reaching out to them for help, but then something takes hold and they become conscious of their moral responsibility toward another human being, and that is what affects a change in them.
In making films about Seraing, what is it that you are aiming to achieve, aside from making a beautiful film? Are you hoping that they will cause people who live in Seraing to behave differently?
Jean-Pierre: It’s not really a conscious desire to do that on a grand societal scale, but we could say that the person in the audience, when they’re watching the person on the screen and living through the struggle that they’re living through, watching them do that, we hope that it’s gonna touch a nerve in them, and that it’s gonna resonate and, perhaps when they walk out of the theater, something in them will have been slightly altered. All our characters are from Seraing — we put them on the same location — I don’t know why exactly, but I suppose that, on the one hand, maybe it’s because our ghosts are still there, the ghosts of our childhood and the ghosts of all of the other people that were there. It’s as if the town was calling to us and saying, “Hey, guys, why don’t you talk a little bit about what’s here and relate it to what else is going on? Why don’t you take from here, since there all these ghosts that are omnipresent?”
Can you imagine, in the future, ever making a movie outside of Seraing, or do you think you’ll always make your movies there?
Luc: I don’t know. We don’t know what the future holds. But, for instance, yesterday we did a Q&A at the University of Southern California, and we were going through the neighborhoods that were near there. I could see myself making a movie there.
I don’t mean to suggest that you change the formula, since it’s so great, but I do think that there are a lot of places around the world that are going through similar things …
Jean-Pierre: Yeah, sure.
This next question is one that you’ve probably had to answer a million times, but I’ve asked the Coen brothers and I’ve asked others, so I have to ask you: Logistically, how do two people co-write and co-direct one movie? Do you do everything together? Or do one of you specialize in some areas and the other in others? I know that Luc is sometimes credited as the producer and Jean-Pierre as the director, but does that actually mean anything? How does it work?
Luc: That is not true. (Laughs.)
So how did that happen?
Luc: I don’t know.
But you guys did not approve?
Luc: No. I mean, we’re the producers of our film, in the sense that there’s a certain point where we decide where we’re gonna put the money, but we don’t do the production work. When we start to discuss an idea for a film, we talk a lot, a lot, a lot, and then we have a general structure that emerges. I write the screenplay off of this structure, of course with a lot of phone calls to my brother, and a lot of things change as we go along. Once I’ve done a first draft, I give it to my brother and he sends it back with comments. Then we do another seven or eight drafts. And then we send a draft to Denis Freyd, who is our co-producer and really a third eye and a third brother. He’s a friend. And he then gives feedback. We’ve been with him for about 13, 14 years.
How did he come to be in the picture?
Luc: We’ve known him for a very long time. The first time we met him was on a project with Gatti. He was a producer at LINA in France. And then, after that point, we do everything together. We look at the costumes together, we do the rehearsal process together, the directing is completely shared, everything is completely together. Then, once we’re on the set, sometimes one is behind the monitor and one is directing the actors, but more and more, I’d say, we’ll find ourselves both behind the monitor, both with the actors — it’s very fluidly welded. Also, the fact that we shoot on 360 degrees makes it so we kind of have to be circumspect, we kind of have to hide from the camera. (Laughs.)
Jean-Pierre: While we’re in the rehearsal process, it’s really one behind the monitor and one on set, because we’re constantly moving and adjusting and making changes.
Luc: There’s the rehearsal process with the five weeks before, but then, once we start to shoot, in the morning there’s a rehearsal without the technical crew, and then the team comes in and we orient them into setting up the shoot. For that, one of us is behind the monitor and one of us is on set. And after that, when we eventually shoot, we’re both behind the monitor.
What happens when you have a creative disagreement?
Luc: We always basically agree. We’re not there to, sort of, be the one that’s right and to hang on to our point of view. What can happen is that if we’re doing a setup for shooting a scene, one of us can say, “Hey, you know, I think it might be better if we did X,” and the other one might say, “Well, I’m not sure,” but we’ll always try. We’ll always, “Well, okay, let’s try.” I may say, “Well, I’m not sure, Jean-Pierre, you know, I think that maybe we should do X, Y and Z,” but it’s never a disagreement. It’s, sort of, “Should we try this or should we try that?”
Jean-Pierre: We both have same common intuition for the film, so if, at a certain point, of us says, “Well, made we should do it like this” or “Maybe we should do it like that,” it’s not really because, fundamentally, there’s a disagreement—we’re both aiming for the same thing; it’s because maybe that’s gonna propel us to be able to realize it more fully or more precisely, in terms of what we both wants.
You guys have to be the two most well known people in Seraing, so what’s it like when you’re working there? Do the locals try to observe?
Jean-Pierre: Very friendly.
But now that you’re better known, do you have to tell people, “Please, you’re in the shot!”
Luc: No, no, no.
Jean-Pierre: No, no, no.
What about when you’re not making a movie but just going about your life in town? You guys must be big celebrities there…
Jean-Pierre: It’s not to say that Seraing is different than every other place in the world and they’re not people-conscious or celebrity-conscious, but I would say that that’s not a big factor for us. We melt in with everybody. We’re like everybody there. Yes, maybe we have a few more people that say “Hello” to us than might have in the past, but it’s not over the top.
Luc: We have a few groupies that are in their sixties or seventies that know we’re coming to shoot and are like, “Hey!” And some adolescents—they change. If we’re shooting during summer vacation, we have a few adolescents that say, “Where are you shooting tomorrow?” and then follow us around—but mostly it’s for the catering table. [laughs]
What is your secret for getting such naturalistic performances from your actors, whether it’s somebody who has never acted before or somebody who has been doing it forever? Do you rehearse? Do you shoot in-sequence? Do you encourage improvisation?
Jean-Pierre: We don’t improvise. We have five weeks of rehearsals—we always have long rehearsals, but for this film it was five weeks. And we shoot, as you probably were able to see, sequentially. Our obsession is— We work a lot on the physical life of the characters.
What do you mean “physical life”?
Jean-Pierre: How to drink, how to bring a bottle to your lips—so that things can happen in a way that it doesn’t look like we’re trying to show that they’re happening. It’s so that things are as immediate as possible, so that they’re not, you know, demonstrated.
Luc: So what we’re aiming to achieve is that what the audience member is looking at is something that he can’t quite get a grip on. What we try to do, in a certain sense, is have the camera not really in the right place so that you’re surprised, so that, as an audience member, you go, “Whoa, what is going on there? And is the camera going to be able to catch that action?” For instance, in Rosetta, there’s a point where she gets on a bus and she sees Olivier Gourmet, okay? So she gets on the bus and she sits down and we are with her when she’s sitting down—and then, all of a sudden, she gets up. It’s sudden, and the way the camera is angled, it’s as if, “Wait a second, what is she doing? How are we gonna be able to know what she’s doing?” The audience member has to deal with that. And that creates life.
Jean-Pierre: And it’s by working with the actors over and over again on gestures, movements and physical actions that the movements become totally natural, the movements become automatic and they don’t think about them anymore.
I believe that the cinematographer Alain Marcoen has worked with you on all of your movies. How did you and he arrive at the style that people associate with all of your films: handheld, super-16, tight close-ups from behind, etc.?
Luc: This way of filming came from a failure, the film that we did before La Promesse, because in that film we were really, sort of, “in the movies,” with the whole mechanism and machinery that goes with it. We were cinema entrepreneurs, but we didn’t quite know what we were doing, and when we did La Promesse we felt like we really wanted to be hands-on, we wanted to have the least possible technical interference between us and the actors. That was a way of reappropriating our method and to recoup what we had failed with previously.
Why do you guys shoot so many takes? I’ve heard that you do dozens. And why do you tend to shoot very long takes? That can’t make your job easier…
Jean-Pierre: Easier for us to cut! [laughs] The challenge with long takes is that you need to find the right rhythm, and that takes a lot of takes.
And do you like that? Do your actors like that?
Jean-Pierre: We like that. And the actors. Before we start, it demands a lot of attention—probably not entirely in the negative sense. Because we do the long takes, the actors, the technical crew and everybody knows that if there’s one hitch in the whole thing, you have to start all over again and do the whole thing all over again.
It’s like Birdman, which is out right now—they do, or at least create the appearance of doing, the whole film in one take…
Jean-Pierre. There you go. The thing with the long take is that it has to be right, in terms of the movement and the rhythm, but, on the other hand, it can’t look too well oiled, it can’t look like it was too fabricated, it has to stay alive.
Luc: As an audience member, you want to have the feeling that as it goes along, it’s possible that something is gonna escape the camera, which creates an intensity that renders the character more vivid. And that’s why we build things on our set that normally wouldn’t be there—a little wall, a little circuitous thing that you have to go around, and all that, because then it’s like, “Oh, you see him! Oh, where did he go? Oh, you see him! Where did he go?” And that creates substance.
One thing that you guys do not do is sentimentality. There are no cues—music or anything else—that tell the audience, “You should feel this way.” That’s unusual these days…
Jean-Pierre: We never really consciously decided to do that. It’s just something that was not necessitated. It’s an avoidance of kitsch. And it makes it more present, in a way, and more alive.
How much did winning the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or for Rosetta change things for you guys?
Luc: The first thing that changed something for us was not Rosetta, it was La Promesse. I was 42, he was 45 and it’s starting from that point on that we started to earn a decent living because the film was sold in 23 countries. With Rosetta, that we won in Cannes brought us international recognition and appreciation. You know, with La Promesse people could say, “Well, maybe it was just luck and I don’t know if they’re gonna be able to repeat that.” But with Rosetta we had affirmation that we could do it, and that gave us confidence.
And then to win the prize again for L’Enfant—could you guys believe it?
Luc: No. [laughs]
I want to turn to casting. Several times—with Jeremy Renier on La Promesse, Deborah Fracois on L’Enfant and Thomas Doret on The Kid with a Bike—you guys have cast someone in a major role who had never acted before, but who did an amazing job. How did you find them? And how do you direct people who have never acted before?
Jean-Pierre: Well, first we put an out in the press, maybe on the radio, and we get back a lot of resumes and headshots, and then we do a first, sort of, triage. Then we call on a certain number of them and have them do an initial, sort of, meeting or audition—very simple things like opening a door, sitting down, lying down, turning around—those kinds of things. And then we eliminate a certain portion of those, and then we have a little group, and those we work with in more depth and more detail. At a certain point, we whittle that down to maybe two or three and then one. Why did we pick that one? Because we felt that that person had a certain interior strength that interested us. At that point there are two things: the things that we steal from that person because it’s him or her—that person—since this is the first time that he or she is in front of a camera and he’s not really aware of what he has to offer and there’s a certain innocence there. And then we work on all of the scenes with that individual and it’s the same thing—we work on all the movements and it’s a very long work process. Well, it’s not very long, it’s normal. And for us it’s very beautiful to see an actor born.
It must be particularly special with someone like Jeremy, who you gave an opportunity to and who turned out to be so good that you bring him back again and again. I know that you have had similar situations with Olivier Gourmet and Fabrizio Rongione. Is there something nice about working with some of the same people on numerous projects?
Jean-Pierre: They work for free! [laughs]
Luc: Well, I’d say that they are always in the back of our minds, but if it doesn’t feel appropriate to the movie that we’re working on then we don’t. We don’t automatically integrate them—with one exception. That’s Olivier Gourmet. [laughs] Sometimes it’s a tiny role, but he always comes back.
He’s your lucky charm?
Luc: Yeah. [laughs]
How did you first meet him Olivier?
Luc: The first time? Jean-Pierre was on a jury at the drama school in Liege. And we were looking for an actor that didn’t look like an actor, an actor that was really banal. At first, when Jean-Pierre saw Olivier, he thought he was a teacher there or something, but then he was introduced to him and he realized, “No, he’s actor!” And he said, “Maybe we should see him because he might be good.” We’d never seen him act. So we called into the office, and then we had him work for about two hours—inside, outside, this and that—and he conquered us immediately. He really didn’t look like an actor.
I believe that you guys had always worked with only local or regional actors until The Kid with a Bike, at which point you cast Cecile de France, who was well known throughout Europe, and now with Two Days, One Night, for which you cast Marion Cotillard, an internationally-known star. What made you decide to make those moves?
Jean-Pierre: We’re not really in the game of going from being with the least known to the most known—that was never our aim. I mean, it’s true that here, what we wanted was really to work with Marion Cotillard, but the question was whether or not we were gonna be able to integrate her into our film family. Were we gonna be able to make that work? That’s something that we had never challenged ourselves with; sometimes it’s interesting, as a director, to create challenges for yourself of that type. And she’s a great actress—okay, in the first place, she’s a star, but she’s also a great actress.
What were the movies of hers that made you feel that she was someone you wanted to work with?
Luc: I’d seen her in several films. Of course, she did beautiful things in La Vie En Rose, the Edith Piaf film. But it really wasn’t what I had seen in the movies that was gonna make a difference. We felt we needed to meet her. We were co-producers on Rust and Bone, so we went to see her on that set and we said, “If we feel something when we meet her, then maybe we can move forward. But if we don’t, we don’t.”
Were you the reason she was in Rust and Bone?
Luc: No, not at all. We went to the set because we needed to see her in flesh and blood. We thought that that was what would determine whether we were gonna work with her or not. And when we met her on the set, something happened, we felt something very strongly and I would say it was cinematographic love at first sight. We said, “We want to work with you,” and she said, “That’s a good coincidence because I want to work with you, too!”
And she transitioned into your way of working without problems?
Luc: Without problems. Flawless.
Jean-Pierre: Without problems. It was a real pleasure. She works hard. She was on time. She was generous with the others. And when she said, “You can do what you want with me,” that was true—she’s available, really available. And, for us, it was so nice to meet so great an actress who is so available.
Luc: She’s very invested in the details and doing extremely detailed work. She brings an enormous amount to the floor—you know, if it’s a little gesture, a difference in holding a hand, a difference in picking up a pocketbook, all those little details which enrich the process so much, she really is able to aid and to create the rhythm, which is so crucial for us. We’d say, “Marion, can you speed it up a little bit in this dialogue, and then in this moment over here can you just stretch it a tiny bit?” And it was just—boom—flawless. She would be able to deliver immediately, and she was also able to carry the other actors. She leads the team. She’s very in tune and sensitive to the other actors. You know, some of them had never acted before and were pretty intimidated about being vis-à-vis her, but we know that she helped them—I mean, we know that she talked a little bit to some of them, that she guided some of them. We don’t know exactly what she said, but she was really there for them, and that was really fabulous.
Could you ever see yourselves making a movie for a Hollywood studio? And could you ever see yourselves making a movie apart from one another?
Jean-Pierre: First, it depends on the movie—if they give a lot of money, maybe. But both, together.
Luc: I’ll have the producer come to Seraing, look at the location and then say, “Can we reproduce these sets in Hollywood?”
With Tom Cruise, right?
Jean-Pierre: Good actor!
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