'Les Cowboys' Director on Releasing Film After Paris Attacks: "We Cannot Let ISIS Decide" Schedules (Q&A)

Antoine Doyen
'Les Cowboys'

"It’s too easy to let fear drive us," Thomas Bidegain also says. "It’s too easy to say it’s a war of civilizations, to say let’s close the borders."

The terror attacks that hit Paris on Nov. 13 killed 130 and shocked the world. The repercussions were felt immediately across the French capital, with government leaders calling on residents to restrict their movement and high-profile concerts and films being canceled.

Theaters across the city closed in the immediate wake of the attacks as the local government called on private companies to curb public gatherings. MK2 and UGC screens went dark for more than a day and Gaumont-Pathe’s remained so through the weekend. Paris premieres for Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, Natalie Portman’s Jane Got a Gun and Tom Hardy’s Legend also were called off.

By Saturday afternoon, posters for Made in France were being taken down from bus stops and metro stations. Nicolas Boukrief's controversial thriller about homegrown jihadists from Paris’ suburbs, which had already been bumped from theaters following the Charlie Hebdo attack in January, was quickly pulled from its Nov. 18 perch.

So it would have been no surprise for Pathe and director Thomas Bidegain to cancel the planned Paris premiere of his Les Cowboys – scheduled for the Monday immediately following the attacks – and postpone the Nov. 25 release of the film, which follows a father’s years-long search across the globe for his daughter who has run away with her radicalized boyfriend to join jihadists.

Bidegain, who was just steps away from the attacks in the city’s 11th district, has been one of France’s most prolific screenwriters before directing his first film. He spoke with THR about tensions in the French capital and why he decided to go ahead with the premiere last week and the release on Wednesday of this week.

Following the Paris attacks, how and why did you decide to go ahead with the Monday premiere?

We talked about it with the producer and the distributor and we all absolutely agreed. It took 10 minutes to get everyone on the same page. The only principle that there is is to go on with the release. And so we had a big premiere on Monday in a 700-seat theater. That was the first question – what do we do on Monday? Then, what do we do about the release? But the only thing that we agreed on was that we had to go ahead with everything as planned. Even if there were only 12 people, because we had no idea at that point if anyone would show, and we had no idea if the theaters would even be open. We said, "If the theater is open, we will be there. We have to release it because we cannot let ISIS decide the agenda of releases in France." That was the only principle.

Everyone involved was unanimous on this?

The question was, if we postpone the release, until when? Until there are no bombings? But when will that be? Until the end of this war that has been called [by French president Francois Hollande] now?  So we have to go on as planned and especially after that, because it was really a horrendous thing that was specifically aimed at people who go out to concerts, who go out to cafes. They are really fighting against our way of life, against our culture, against going out, against life. And so what do we do? That’s our job, to provide entertainment.

Was the premiere a full house or did you end up with 12 people?

Sure, a lot of people didn’t come because it was a time of mourning and a difficult time, but a lot of people did come and made it a point to come. There were about 400 people in that room, which was great. It was really a nice crowd. A lot of people from the industry came – producers, actors, directors – that were not initially invited. They came to show support and to go out and be amongst friends and to be together. It was also a time for people to just be together somehow.

What was the atmosphere like? Was everyone tense?

I presented the film and we had a debate after, and because of the subject of the film and what it is about, it was really moving. The reactions were very strong. People were very moved by the film, and more than usual. The film is not a film about jihad or ISIS and it’s not about people who leave, it’s about the people who stay and the community and how you can go crazy and things can make you lose your mind. It’s also about the time that it takes – one, two, three generations – for people to find an equilibrium, a new balance and a reconciliation for the community. That’s really what the film is about, and so it’s the exact problem that we are facing after the bombings.

In an interview with THR before Cannes, you said the “Muslims are the Indians.” What did you mean by that?

It’s a take on The Searchers. That’s why we knew when we were writing it that the story would have to take place over several generations [and] that then the son will see the world differently. The beginning of the film is set in 1994 and it ends in 2011 with the execution of Bin Laden. In 1994, no one knew of Al Qaida or Bin Laden, and so it took us time to understand the world changed, but the father doesn’t understand what is happening around him. The son will realize. The son will not see it as cowboys and Indians, he won’t see it as a war of civilizations. He will see people as individuals. He will see them as human beings and treat them differently from one to another and then reconciliation will be possible. And in that sense, the film is terribly optimistic, because we always hope our sons will be smarter than we are.

It is set in the time period of 1994-2011, but how does that relate to current-day France since we are now a few years after that?

We are still in that process. What I’m trying to say about modern France, this vision of a war of civilizations, this vision of cowboys and Indians, will lead to no peace. It will make reconciliation impossible. That we need to be a little bit more discerning, we have to choose people for who they are one by one and not as a group. So we have to be extremely strong against some of them and nice to others. The more we have to be tough, the more we have to be discerning. And that’s what the son is doing, he will kill someone and he will love someone. He will not see them all like Indians, he will see the guy he hates and he will see the guy he loves.

After the Paris attacks, do you still feel optimistic?

I think we have to be optimistic. It’s too easy to let fear drive us. It’s too easy to say it’s a war of civilizations, to say let’s close the borders, to say let’s circle the wagons to go back to that metaphor. We should not circle the wagons, I believe. Because that is our advantage, I believe, that we are a democracy and that we are tolerant, and we should live that. We are on the side of freedom and that is our advantage. If we lose that, we lose the war.

Did you get a sense from other filmmakers that they feel the same way, or are they perhaps less optimistic?

No. I don’t know if it’s optimistic, but the point of view is that we have to keep on providing entertainment.  But this is what I believe – that our job as filmmakers is to represent the world, to try to make sense of what the world is, and when the world is catching up with us we cannot escape from our responsibility. And it’s not that we are brave, we are just doing our jobs. Because we made this decision to go ahead with the film, in interviews people are, ‘Wow, this is a brave decision.’ No it’s just a principle. It’s not like all of a sudden we are very brave. It’s not like we are Jean Moulin in the French Resistance fighting underground. No, we are above ground making movies. And we have to keep on doing it.

Do you feel Paris will recover fairly quickly, the way it recovered after the 'Charlie Hebdo' attack in January?

I don’t know, because we were shooting in Rajasthan [India] the part of the film that is set in Pakistan. Everybody told us, ‘Careful because it’s such an unstable part of the world.’ And we were prepping our shoot there, and then it was our homeland that was under attack. So I don’t know if there’s any place safe. So because of that, we have to keep on living. There’s not much you can do about it. You can’t stop, you have to keep on living.

There are several films touching on this topic of jihad here in France right now. Do you think that will continue or will filmmakers back away from the topic?

There have been a lot of films on this, but France has had a lot of problems historically to deal with its recent history, the problems with the Algerian war. … The fact that several films right now are caught up in the turmoil of the world is not only because they are trying to represent the world, but it is also a different way of trying to deal with our history. I think it’s a good sign. There are several ways to envision our job as filmmakers, but the idea that we have to deal with the world and that we have to represent the world I think is a very valid one.

So directors will not back away from these types of challenging films?

No. I think they’ll continue. I see no reason why they should. And I think people will go on financing them. Which is the point, because as filmmakers you can have an idea but you need the industry to follow you and the financiers to follow you. We’ll see. We really have no idea so far. We have no idea what the market will be for this film. We know that some people will be driven away because of the subject matter, but some people will be attracted because of the subject matter. And I think people are watching closely the reaction to the film.

Cohen Media has taken the film for the U.S. Do you have any sense that they are nervous about it following the attacks?

No. I received a message from them, they asked if we were OK. But it was really messages of support.

Do they have a timeframe for when they will release the film in the U.S.?

They were planning, before this, to release it in early spring.

Has there been any discussion about moving that date?

So far, none.

So you feel supported by Cohen in the U.S.?


After the Paris events, it wouldn’t have been unexpected for you to cancel the event...

Yes, but if you start, where do you stop? I do interviews all the time. What do you say to the press? ‘We were scared,’ or ‘We were concerned.’ All decisions are driven by something, from commercial interest to fear. But the only principle is to say OK, ‘We’re sure.’ And we made a film called The Cowboys, so we have to stay in our boots.