Marrakech Fest: Bertrand Bonello on Oscar Race Entry, French Cinema System Reforms

Bertrand Bonello - H 2012

"We have to adapt the film economy to the economic reality," says the director

French director Bertrand Bonello’s epic Saint Laurent was a dark tale of legendary fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent’s descent into drugs in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The director’s third Cannes entry did not go home with a prize, but is now France’s submission for the foreign-language Oscar.

He didn’t have a chance to shoot in the city that inspired some of Saint Laurent’s most creatively prolific periods, instead opting for a studio outside of Paris for budget reasons.

“I’m actually happy that we didn’t’ shoot here, because there’s a risk you are tourism in cinema. It becomes, ‘Oh I have to put that in here,’ and I think when you shoot abroad you have to spend a lot of time in the country, you can’t just arrive and say, ‘Oh I like this or that,’ because you are looking at it as a tourist,” he said.

Read more Marrakech Fest: Cristian Mungiu Talks About Festival's Boost for Regional Cinema, Young Filmmakers

Now he is serving as a juror at the film festival here in Marrakech, where he spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the film’s Oscar submission and the problems plaguing French cinema.

The Hollywood Reporter: What was your reaction to Saint Laurent being the French submission for the foreign-language Oscar?

I was not really expecting it so it’s of course a very good surprise and a great honor.  I know that the road is long and I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but still I’m very happy. Everything that has happened to that picture since Cannes has been really great. I’m pleased. The film is traveling a lot; it’s been sold all over the world. For me that’s the biggest joy. We had so many problems preparing the film that when shooting started it was a great pleasure, and the actors gave 150 percent. So I’m just happy that we got it made.

If it is nominated, will you head out to LA to do a campaign?

I would. I took it to New York and LA, the New York Film Festival and AFI. If in January we have good news, I’m sure Sony will bring us back to do the promotion. … The problem is that you have to do 20 interviews that are shorter and shorter. When I go to a country and see the list, instead of doing 25 interviews of 10 minutes, can I do 3 interviews of one hour?  But they say no. This ten minute stuff is painful. 

It’s not always easy for us, either! … Has the submission boosted the profile of the film?

It depends on what happens. I owe a lot to Cannes, really. I’ve been selected three times. The film travels much more when you go to Cannes in terms of international sales. I get offered bigger budgets, but it’s for films I’m not interested in.  Money has always been a problem since cinema started. It’s an art and it’s an industry, and it’s a marriage between the two. It’s always been a problem and will always be a problem.

Are the bigger budgets for U.S. films?

I’ve received a few scripts, yes, but it’s very difficult for a French director to go to the US because it’s totally different way of thinking and working and we are very used to and attached to our freedom. Even big indie productions in America, you have to be very sure of your script and yourself. Otherwise I’ve seen many friends of mine spend 1, 2, 3 years there and coming back with nothing. I know it’s a dream because you have so many fantastic actors, but it’s difficult for the dream to come true. It’s not an aim for me. Almost ten years ago I spent almost three years on a picture I wanted to direct in English in Canada with American actors, but after three years I didn’t do anything. It’s difficult.

What is your next project after Saint Laurent?

It’s called Paris is Happening which is going to be very different from the last pictures which were period films. This is going to be quite contemporary and quite short, done almost as an action movie. It’s about young people planting some bombs around Paris. I haven’t starting the financing yet, but the writing is finished. We’re going to go to the CNC and Arte and CanalPlus is reading the script now, so we should have answers in January. If everything goes as planned we should shoot in June. I’ve started the casting already because it will be non-professional actors between 17 - 22, which is always a long process to find them.

That sounds like it might be controversial.

I know the subject will be a little tough, but I hope the success of Saint Laurent will help me.  But I am going to keep the budget quite low.

Lowering budgets and cutting state financing has become a big debate in France recently. What are your thoughts on the issues?

We had a fantastic system that worked for a long time, but the world is changing and the public is changing, so the system has to change. There’s less and less money and one of our big problems is that our cinema costs a lot of money. If you see a budget for an independent American film or a Romanian film for example, the French film is always the highest. So we have to find other sources, because we cannot continue to rely on CanalPlus or French TV [channels which contribute to the cinema fund].  It’s just not enough. When CanalPlus started they had an obligation to finance film, maybe this obligation should be extended now to Free, Orange, Google – where the money is.  They should become the big financiers of movies.

Is the CNC move to cut the salaries of actors the best way to cut budgets?

The rule that just came out says that you cannot get money from the CNC for the actors, and I really agree with that. If you pay an actor €1 million, the CNC should not have to pay for that, even if the CNC is not public money exactly. It’s just a way to say to producers that if you want to pay a lot of money you can, but you find the money. That’s a huge salary for a French actor. If you want to pay an actor €1 million, then you can go to TF1 or M6 and ask for the money and get the money. I think they have a good point. It’s just to protect smaller films.

The biggest problem isn’t making films, it’s showing them. You have between 15 – 20 pictures every week released in France, and if it’s not a hit immediately it’s a problem. Maybe they can limit screens, forbid a film from being released on more than 400 screens so that each film doesn’t struggle to reach an audience.  When you have two films coming out on 900 screens, it’s killing the rest. But these are not popular positions or decisions for the government to make.

Many directors are moving to television because independent film has been so impacted in the U.S. Do you think the same pattern will evolve?

It’s different.  We do still have creative freedom in cinema, so we don’t need television for that freedom. In America a lot of directors don’t have a lot of freedom with the studios, so television has become a place to have their ideas and work expressed. As we have freedom in cinema, TV is not that important for us. We have started to make a lot of shows to compete with the Americans, and that’s not the same thing. It’s not a real creative need.  That’s my point of view.

Would you consider doing television?

I’ve been offered a couple, and at first I said, ‘Why not?’ But then the shoot is in two months, and that’s not a great way to work. The great American TV series that we like, there is so much preparation and work before even writing one word.  [Creator David Simon] was in Baltimore for a year, just hanging out in bars, so of course the writing is fantastic and beautiful.  But it costs a lot of money to take the time to develop stuff.  The Wire was just brilliant, very clever, and it was a reflection of that mentality.