Q&A: Mathieu Amalric


Known for his turns as eerie bad guys in such international hits as "Quantum of Solace," Steven Spielberg's "Munich" and Luc Besson's "The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec," Mathieu Amalric has balanced out his dance card with such auteur-driven titles as "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" and last year's Festival de Cannes Competition titles "Wild Grass" and "Visages." This will be his 10th time in Cannes presenting a film, but his first time bringing a film he has directed. In his fourth directing effort, "On Tour" (Tournee), Amalric stars as a former TV producer who tours France with a group of burlesque showgirls. THR's Paris correspondent Rebecca Leffler spoke to Amalric about his film, the secret perks of playing a bad guy and the pleasures of lighting up a cigarette at the top of the Palais steps.

The Hollywood Reporter: What drew you to this particular story?

Mathieu Amalric: It comes from a Colette text called "l'Envers du Music Hall." Colette was an actress and, in her 30s, was part of music hall shows. Her performances were pretty scandalous -- pantomime, where she was a little bit undressed. I always loved her way of writing and what she said. I was looking for something contemporary that resembled the freedom that she had, but I didn't find it. Then one day, I saw an article that talked about the American New Burlesque movement, which I wasn't very familiar with. I found a link between the two. I saw that it was close to what Colette was trying to do. Plus, I'm fascinated by producers. I always wonder how they manage to keep going and take such responsibility. You have to be crazy to produce a movie. So these different themes came together and I invented a story about a French TV producer and the women who were courageous enough to come to France with him. It's a mix of the American myth in France and the Americans who fantasize about coming to France.

THR: This will be your 10th time in Cannes presenting a film, but your first time as director. Does it feel any different?

Amalric: Yes, it's very different. Arnaud Desplechin invented me as an actor. I never imagined I'd be acting in movies. I first started working in film when I was 17. I was a director's assistant, an editor. I did all different jobs because I wanted to make films. It's an incredible gift to be in Cannes, especially with all of these women who aren't actresses.

THR: After all of your years in Cannes, what's the best experience you've had at the festival?

Amalric: One never forgets the first time. I'd never been in a film before and I was in Cannes with Arnaud Desplechin's "My Sex Life ... or How I've Gotten Into an Argument." The walk up the red carpet steps is fun, but it's daytime and there are photographers everywhere. It's fun, but not magical. What is magical is the actual screening -- to see people who like the film, to hear the applause. Then, the film team leaves the theater before everyone else and we step outside and it's nighttime, and we're at the top of the Palais steps and we light up a cigarette and I swear, it's an incredible feeling. The walk down the red carpet steps is more exciting than the way up. We're completely alone there before the audience leaves and it's such a beautiful moment. I'll always remember the first time. There's a Cinderella effect. The girls all wear expensive dresses, the men are like princes and then, at the end of the night, we all have to bunk together because there's no budget. It's just like Cinderella.

THR: And the worst?

Amalric: If you approach Cannes with a sense of humor, nothing is that bad. You have to take it for what it is, otherwise it's silly. Cannes is a circus, so you have to have fun with it. Everything suddenly becomes funny. And the promotion of a movie -- that's where you really need to be a good actor. You need to make journalists believe that what you're saying is just for them and you've never said it before, even when you're talking about the same film over and over again.

THR: The press can make or break a film in Cannes. You're the son of journalists. Does that influence how you feel about the press?

Amalric: The dialogue between critics and filmmakers is something very important and very prestigious. Sometimes it's magnificent to read unexpected things. I don't mean simply bad or good critiques but moments where I say, "Wow, I never knew one could see the film in that way."

THR: "On Tour" is the first time you star in a film you also directed. Is it easier or more difficult to direct yourself?

Amalric: For this film, it was very logical and a lot of fun. It's not a psychological drama where I'm sitting alone in a room suffering. I was with the girls the entire time. There was a sense of complicity between us in the shots. In the end, it was a good idea that I acted in the film, but three weeks before the shoot I wasn't planning to act in it. It just happened. Everyone knew I'd star in it but me. It was fun in the end, but because of the girls.

THR: Surrounded by beautiful American showgirls all day and night -- was it a very difficult shoot for you then?

Amalric: I couldn't go out at night because I work very early in the morning when I film. I'm up at 4:30 a.m. rewriting. I was very, very serious. The film crew however, well, they definitely had fun.

THR: In what genre would you characterize this film? Is it a comedy or a drama?

Amalric: It's hard to say. The women have this incredible power to turn everywhere they go into a celebration. My character is rather desperate. There's a great deal of tension and emotion. It's like daily life. There are moments when we laugh and moments we don't. It's also a road movie. I don't know if it's a comedy or dark humor -- what the French call "la politesse de desespoir" (politeness of despair), that's closer to Jewish humor than anything else. There's a lot of vitality and a lot of energy. It's a very warm film.

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THR: You play a mean bad guy. Do you like playing the bad guy? Does it ever rub off in your daily life?

Amalric: It's definitely more fun to play around with bad feelings than with good ones. Playing the bad guy allows me to do everything I'm not allowed to do in real life. I like that a lot.

THR: How is Hollywood different from the French film industry?

Amalric: Well, I've never actually made films in Hollywood. I filmed "Munich" in Budapest and for Spielberg that was a small movie so there was a great deal of freedom involved. For ("Quantum of Solace") all of the crew were English and we weren't in the U.S. at all. And Schnabel filmed "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" in France in French. So these aren't necessarily Hollywood movies. What attracts me is the director of any project. Sure, for the American films, you may have 400 technicians instead of 25, but on set you feel like everything is possible. I never felt a big difference.

THR: "Mange ta Soupe" was a film about your family. "Wimbledon Stadium" was about the woman in your life. Is "On Tour" autobiographical too?

Amalric: That's not a question I ask myself when I'm making a film. Even when I make personal movies, I want to turn it into spectacle. Perhaps my character's courage or cowardice, the fact that he decides to leave everything behind and never go back, maybe ... but it wasn't the driving force behind the film.

THR: Do you think the film will spark more interest in the New Burlesque movement?

Amalric: There's something we can't copy from America -- this a sense of spectacle, this way to fool around in a professional manner -- we'll never have it here in France. We can't imitate it; it's very marvelously American. That's also where the desire to make the film came from. This will to bring to France everything I love about America.

THR: You shot the movie in the French provinces. What was the reaction of the people there when you arrived with the showgirls?

Amalric: We realized that to recreate the energy of the shows, the girls needed to perform, not just for the camera but for rooms filled with people. So we started a real tour with real shows. We performed for free and the audience members had to sign a paper saying they were OK with being filmed. The girls are incredible. Well, not all girls -- there were five girls and one guy, Roky Roulette.

THR: What were the girls like?

Amalric: Actually, by "girls," I really mean women. All of the New Burlesque dancers are around 30-35-year-old women who have the bodies that go with women of that age living their daily lives, but they love their bodies and it's contagious. The shows play on humor. The women don't have perfect bodies; that's what's so touching and beautiful about them. It's a political film without being at all political. These are women who say, "I don't care about the magazines that say I need to have this type of body."

THR: When Cannes is over, what are your upcoming projects?

Amalric: I'm finishing the editing for a feature film that I just shot in 12 days, based on Corneille's "Illusion Comique," for the Comedie Francaise. I'll also work on Marjane Satrapi's "Poulet aux Prunes" based on another one of her comic books. My friends keep making movies so now I'm screwed. I have to keep on acting even if what I really want to do is direct.

THR: What are you expecting from this year's festival?

Amalric: I expect nothing, I just live for the moment. I am looking forward to the screening with all of the girls since they'll see it for the first time. We'll be 40 people on the red carpet steps -- all of the girls and the entire crew is coming. Plus, it's the first film of the Competition to be screened.

THR: You must be used to walking up the Cannes Palais steps by now, but are you scared at all this time?

Amalric: I'm still not used to it, of course, but I'm also not scared because I'll be surrounded by all of the girls from the film. It will be like we're back in Cannes during the1950s. It will be festive. Plus, it's already a gift to have been able to make this film. I'm not scared at all.