Gilles Paquet-Brenner on adapting Dark Places

Dark Places is a dark mystery thriller adapted from Gillian Flynn’s 2009 novel that preceded her breakout hit Gone Girl. Writer/director Gilles Paquet-Brenner has created a taut character piece out of the work while also assembling an impressive cast that includes Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Chloë Grace Moretz, Christina Hendricks and Tye Sheridan.

Paquet-Brenner came to the attention of art-house fans with his 2001 film Pretty Things starring Marion Cotillard. Recent English language works include 2009’s Walled In and 2010’s Sarah’s Key.

Dork Shelf spoke to the director from his home in France.

Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get attached to the project, to the book, and to the amazing cast?

I read the book 5 years ago now when I was finishing Sarah’s Key. Gone Girl was not even written at that time, so it was just a book from a great writer that I didn’t know at the time. I fell in love with it, I really thought that it could be my next film, so we checked on the rights, they were available, and so we started the arduous process to get them. So that was that. 

The reason I fell in love with it was the incredible story and characters, the mystery plot, blended in an incredible world that I was not very familiar with – Kansas, the 80s, the farmer’s crisis – and it felt also very relevant, as a social comment because. I read that in 2010, just in the aftermath of the financial crisis, with all of the home foreclosures and stuff. It just felt like the perfect movie to make for me.

I met with Gillian Flynn and we became friends. She drove me around Kansas City so I could have a better idea of all of the places she had in mind when she wrote the book. 

Once we had our first draft, we went out there and there was a lot of interest on the script and I guess it’s because in Hollywood there is a lot of big tent pole projects, but there are not so many very interesting characters, so those very strong female characters attracted the interest of big movie stars.

One of them was Charlize. 

Coincidentally Nicholas and Charlize had shot Mad Max together.

Actually I had just met Charlize as she was just back from Namibia. They had already made the movie together and Nick came into the conversation at one point, I don’t remember exactly how, I think his agent loved the project for him and so I met with Nick and then Charlize. She loved it and she loved working with him, so she pushed for it.

There’s a weird connection now between Mad Max and this film, inadvertently perhaps, but I’m wondering if they were adrenalized after the insanity of that production. 

You have to remember that we shot at maybe 8 to 10 months after they finished with Mad Max so those characters were so different, the situations were so different. In Mad Max they were driving all day in the desert, and here it was just in a laundromat so it has a different atmosphere and circumstances. I don’t know, you should ask them, but it’s true that I didn’t need to break the glass, they were so comfortable with each other obviously.

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Had you been to Louisiana before? Why the decision to shoot there?

Well, in the U.S., there is all these tax credits and Louisiana probably has the best. I’d never been to Louisiana before, and so we scouted different places in Louisiana, and Shreveport actually had to look a lot more mid west than say New Orleans or Baton Rouge. Shreveport is a two hour drive from Dallas, for instance, so it was pretty appropriate in terms of landscape and atmosphere to set this mid western film.

There’s Chloe, Tye, Christina, they all came through a normal casting process, or were these people who had seen your previous work, had touched base with you directly and you had written some of these parts for them?

It was really a regular casting process but obviously, when Charlize signed in, all of a sudden, all of the agents in Hollywood were after the project. You just meet these actors and you get along well and all of a sudden they are in your movie.

If you take Tye Sheridan or if you take Chloe Moretz, in terms of, I think they’re some of the most talented actors of their generation and were interested in the project, so why not hire them? I would be stupid not to do it. 

Christina, that’s actually a funny story, because originally she was supposed to play another role. We were on set the second day of shooting and Christina was there at hair and makeup to try on wigs for this role because she was coming back the next day or a couple of days later and then I got a phone call where I lost my actress who was supposed to play Patty. It’s the second day of shooting so what do you do? We sat down with Charlize and said, OK, let’s offer the role to Christina. We actually called her from the trailer and so she came and we said I have something to tell you, sit down, and offered her the second role.

Christina was amazing, but I am not that smart, it’s the universe maybe.

She’s an exceptional choice.

Oh yes, she’s extraordinary. In Drive she really had 5 minutes on screen or something and 3 lines of dialogue, and what you could see though is that she had an incredible gravitas. We really needed that from Patty because we needed her to give some emotional angle for the movie. I felt very confident but I have to say she exceeded almost all of my wildest expectations because I think her performance is truly exceptional in the film. 

You shot Walled In in Saskatchewan, so you have bravery. 

Yes, we shot in the U.S. and in Regina, in Canada. I just go to all of the best places.

Your move from French language to English language has been a steady increase. Has that been deliberate and how have you found the transition between making Franco-cinema into more mainstream, more international cinema?

It came pretty naturally. The experience on Walled In was really not a good one – not because of Canada, Canada was great – but because of the financier. The movie as it exists is really not my movie, the cut is not what I shot, so that was a bit of a disappointment. 

Apart from that, when it comes to working on the ground, I really enjoy working both in Canada and the United States. There are obviously great crews, and making movies is a universal language, so once the crew sees how passionate you are, everybody brings their A game. When it comes to international, it’s really the same job to make movies for France or outside of the country. It’s just universal.

But is the response the same?

There is something very exciting, shooting English language movies because all of a sudden, your audience is potentially the world. I mean, it can happen on a French film, but it’s very rare. I guess statistically, you have a better shot being seen by a lot of people with English language movies so yeah, there is an ambition there. 

This exact same film in French – would it be treated differently by international and French critics, than it being in English? In other words, is there a certain limitation for doing it in English, where it may not be treated as an art film, and it will be treated more as a populist film, is that a fair statement?

I think when it comes to the movie itself, Dark Places, it’s definitely in the middle of that. It’s not a real art film per se, but obviously for a commercial film, it’s extremely dark and bleak and with very difficult characters. I would say number one it’s not really for me to answer that question because it’s really the audience of journalists who express how they feel about it. I think it’s a bit hard to put the movie in a box for sure. If I had done it in French, would I have done it differently, as a French film, yes, of course, but then it would not be the same film anyway, because culturally, we’re different from the United States. Some stuff in the movie wouldn’t really work in France. 

The fundamental challenge is maintaining that tone, maintaining the balance between dark and light, when you were adapting it, could you talk about the challenges of that, of keeping it on set, and how much during editing did that actual structure change?

Well, adapting it was definitely a challenge because the book is very solid with a good plot, but it’s very dense and there is so much in it, so cutting it down to a two hour film is definitely not very obvious, so you have to really give up a lot of things that you actually love. It was a long process and first, it’s an American movie, so obviously, you have to struggle with a lot of different people, and I was no exception. I was picky, but on top of that, so it’s been a bit of a challenge to find the right balance between the past and the present, and the darkness of it all and setting the arc so that we can give a ray of hope at the end. 

So yeah, it was a bit of a process.

Was that process mostly worked out at the script stage, or was that still something that was very much at play, both in terms of the type of performances you elicited and then after shooting, sitting in the editing room and realizing, oh, we need to take this down or when actually put together, this isn’t dark enough, we have to tweak it a little bit more? 

The biggest challenges were definitely in post-production, but not necessarily because of what we shot. I mean, just look at the list of producers on IMDB and that will give you an idea. As a Director, you become this politician who tries to keep this movie alive after the corps of these horrible producers, but you get my point.

I’d like to get into that, the challenge of maintaining your artistic vision and keeping in mind what it is you love about the project, especially as a writer. You wrote this one. 

Look, as you can imagine, I cannot go too deep into that, I’m not even allowed as per my contract, but the only thing I can say is that yeah, that was a process and sometimes definitely a challenge and a struggle. now, in the end, the movie you see, is, for most of it, I can own it really, I mean, some things could be different, in terms of my tastes and stuff, but I can own it.

Are the specific films you look to in terms of doing the adaptation and how will this film go on to affect your next project?

I watched a lot of black and white movies and noir films, so Night of the Hunter definitely was an inspiration, especially the last third of the film, where it becomes a bit more eerie, sometimes even operatic. Then I watched more realistic movies like Grapes of Wrath for the Mid-West in the great depression, it was very interesting for me to revisit that. In Cold Blood, obviously, because the book itself was comparable to Capote’s storyline.

When it comes to my next films, I think what I learned the most is the politics of Hollywood. 

The film would make a great double bill with Lost River, with the twin performances by Hendricks. 

What’s so funny is that those movies were out the same day in France. The day Dark Places was released I was actually paying a ticket to see Lost River! Then I realized she was playing almost the same role and I was shocked, I had no idea really, it was just by chance. That was interesting for sure.

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