Although the French writing and directing duo of Olivier Nakache and Eric Tolenado had been familiar with the true life story behind their latest effort – the comedy drama The Intouchables, opening this Friday in Toronto and expanding to several other cities over the next two weeks – they felt they were initially too immature to tackle the story of a Parisian street tough (played here by Omar Sy as a Senegalese man, when in reality the inspiration was Algerian) who begrudgingly takes on caretaking duties for a rich and once thrill seeking parapalegic man (François Cluzet) who takes to the young man for his inability to comprehend pitying someone.
The duo were first inspired and made aware of their film’s dynamic friendship by the documentary A La Vie, A La Mort in 2006, shortly after making their first film, a romantic comedy named Just Friends (Je prefere qu’on reste amis), and neither thought they would be able to do the film’s larger than life personalities justice. Adding to the level of difficulty was the fact that both men being profiled were still alive, well, and in contact with each other. The real life counterpart for Cluzet’s character had even written two books on the subject and had already fended off advances from several fictional filmmakers in the past.
In separate rooms during a stop in Toronto, Andrew Parker sat down with Olivier and Brandon Bastaldo with Eric to talk about the journey of bringing the story to the screen, their own fears going in and now that the movie is seeing release, and how sometimes tragedy can lead to the best comedy.
Dork Shelf: We’ve read that your film has become the second most successful French film of all time. How does that make you feel?
Éric Toledano: It’s strange because we were just a couple of directors six months ago, and we made three movies (each one was acceptable at the box office) and suddenly you have something like a storm. You have the cue before the theatre and all the news speaking about the movie. It’s heavy to take first, to be honest. It’s like a tsunami in your life, it’s a changed reaction. It’s strange first, and after when you accept this and assume that, you feel happy. If it was another movie it (being happy) could be perhaps harder, but with this movie it speaks about really interesting things: disability, education, society, about neighbourhood projects.
DS: Was it hard to approach and convince Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and his former caretaker Abdel in real life since the documentary had already chronicled their life?
Olivier Nakache: No, not really. He had written a book, not specifically about this story, but about his life. At the end of the book you can find his personal mailing address. So we mailed him, and he said that we weren’t the first. So he asked us to come and see him in Morocco, where he lives now, and he said he would see.
We went without producer to Morocco and we spent a full day with him. We laughed a lot and at the end of the afternoon he said “Done. This is for you.” We sent him our previous movies and he said he trusted us and told us to make what we wanted to make. He said he wanted us to make people laugh a lot.
Then our producer went to draft up a contract with him and asked what he wanted and he said he didn’t want anything aside from taking 5% of the profit from the movie and putting it into his foundation for persons with disabilities. Now with the success of the film in France, he’s very happy. (laughs)
DS: I remember reading that you guys were first inspired by watching a documentary almost ten years ago now, but you said at the time that you felt you weren’t mature enough to make a film like this. What changed over the past decade that made you come back to it now? Was it more of a mental change or a change in your physical filmmaking abilities?
ON: Both. Totally both. We didn’t have the cinematic tools. At the time we had only made just one movie and we didn’t feel in any way ready. We found that it was a great story for any movie, but we were just too young to really understand it. We found that after our last movie, So Happy Together, which wasn’t released here, I don’t think, and working with Omar (Sy) again, and after the end of that we said we wanted to make something special just for him. Some sort of lead role. Then we came back to that documentary.
We went to see if Omar was interested and we said if he agreed we would make this movie. If he turned it down, we would have made something else. It was specifically for him or nobody.
DS: What can you say about you and Olivier’s process of reforming this documentary into a major motion picture?
ET: You know in France, we say that you have ‘true cinema’ on one side and then comedy on the other side. Comedy is considered mainstream and to make it into the box office- and you have true cinema. We thought from the beginning, from the start, that comedy is an important style of cinema so we tried always to have a deep subject, a deep film with comedy on the top. In England they did it, in Italy they did it in the past, so we were looking for this kind of subject. Speaking about true things, true life, true sufferings of people but with humour. So when we discovered the documentary we just tried to reach the guy and show him what we’re going to do with his story. At the end he trusted us and allowed us to write the script, and that’s the process.
DS: The Intouchables often alternates between events of the past and present, while the film could have been told in a much more linear fashion. Why did you decide to tell the story this way?
ET: You know it’s pretty simple. When we saw the documentary and when we met the guys, we understood one thing. Their relationship is weird-it’s not easy to describe. If we went in a chronological way, it would be so classical. So we were thinking , how can we express the way we feel? You know the first scene when Driss is driving Phillipe to the Emergency Room in Paris very fast, we thought: this is an unconventional start for a movie and you don’t know where you have arrived. Is this an action film? Is it a comedy? Is it a drama? We put the audience where we were when we discovered the story. The story is odd, and because it’s odd we thought let us begin at the middle, not the beginning. It was not that when we were editing the movie that we decided to do this, it was from the beginning that we said ‘let’s take the audience and put them in the middle of this relation’.
DS: A few publications have tried to call out its The Intouchables’ representation of race relations, and it seems that the film has received a more cynical reception in North America. What do you think about this backlash?
ET: In France and Europe we have almost 35 million people who have seen the movie, and the fact that the American’s are the only guys to ‘understand’ the real sense of the movie seems weird. But with the Americans you have to pay attention, it’s always difficult to understand. The Americans can be really full of paradoxes. For example, they have a black guy as the President, but the relationship between black and white is always very complicated. When you speak about the white and the black, it’s full of stereotypes. So I think that they have a problem because they try to understand the movie with their own culture, with slavery and ‘Uncle Tom’. We have no ‘Uncle Tom’ in France, we have another story that is completely different. We have immigration from another colony- Africa was French. So the link between immigration from Africa and people from France is completely different, so we don’t have any moment when people talk about this in different countries, only America. And perhaps this is a vestige of the political correctness in America, because people say ‘you don’t have to say that the black are poor’. But indeed the blacks are poor, and it’s not my fault that this is a fact. When you depict France, you have to say the truth. When you go into Paris you are going to see the Eifel Tower, you’re going to see Dior, Lancôme, Chanel- all the luxury boutiques. But if you go 10 kilometers, to the high rising project, the poor neighbourhoods, there are only blacks and Arabic people. It’s not my fault, this is the truth. And out of this film? This is the first time that a black guy has won a César in France, the first time a black guy is the lead actor of a film. So they don’t understand at all what has happened in France.
DS: That’s interesting, because while watching your film, race representation wasn’t really on the top of my priorities.
ET: Right, and you have to know that in France all the people from neighbourhoods all over came to see the movie. All the French people came to the cinema, and if they felt hurt about anything they would tell. But if anyone said anything, it was a consensus in France. I think the problem of America is that they have analysis that considers their culture, and it’s a problem of open mind. There is a reason why they are not buying a movie with subtitles, they just want their culture. For example, here in Toronto the release is with subtitles, but in America there will be a remake. I like America, but sometimes I don’t understand them, and here in Toronto it’s a median because we are a little bit in Europe- we are on the ‘bridge’. But I have to say that in America we went to Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York for the release and the screenings were wonderful. It’s really just a small part of the reaction.
DS: You’ve worked almost exclusively with Eric. What keeps drawing you to work with him?
ON: With Eric it’s almost inexplicable the kind of working relationship we have because it’s such a special connection. Eric and I always write together and we practically live together because we’re always working together. We began together through short movies and by having the same kind of taste in movies. You’ll never find one movie that he likes that I don’t like. It will never, never happen. We connected when we were 16 years old about very specific movies, and it was rare at our age to know about Italian comedies and Woody Allen movies. I don’t know how it happened, but it works. Now we’re going to begin a process of writing a new movie, which we actually started on the plane on the way over here. Maybe one day we’ll make a movie separately if we find a topic that fits one of us more than the other one, but I do know that even then we’ll write it together to some degree. That’s the important point.
DS: So the writing duties generally take precedence over the direction for you guys?
ON: Yeah, because it’s the material we have to work from and the story’s always most important to us. When we saw this documentary we saw the story first. We never wanted to make a story about disability or about this guy from the suburban housing projects. We wanted a full story.
We also like to use comedy when talking about a deep subject that talks about society. That’s what we like. That’s why we like comedy from England, or from here in Canada where you have people like Ken Scott. It’s human.
DS: I think other filmmakers would have tried to make this story as serious as possible, which is interesting to see. Was the biggest challenge to set that tone originally, especially since you knew these people and what they had been through already?
ON: Yes. Yes. You are totally right on this point. It was a huge challenge. We were motivated by the story, but we wanted to show the love and keep it light within this deep subject. It’s tough. This guy has suffered a lot. Both of them have experienced a deep sense of loneliness, and we wanted to put the humour in this story.
On the plane when I came here I saw the movie 50/50 for the first time. It’s a great movie, and I watched it because a journalist in Montreal told me I should and that I would love it and he was absolutely right. It’s a very hard story to tell, but they make lots of jokes, and it’s funny how it affects people more when you use those kind of jokes to touch them, you know? Like that scene where he’s cutting his hair and Seth Rogen says he looks like Patrick Swayze and he remarks that Swayze’s dead. That’s the kind of thing that cuts both ways at the same time. That’s real.
I think that now we as screenwriters and directors have to be audacious to move forward, you know? Because we have seen a lot of movies and we know we could make this movie without any humour at all. It could be just like My Left Foot, which is a great movie, but now we have to find new ways to tell these stories. We are lucky because right now in France, actually, cinema is moving forward quite a lot. It’s shaking and shifting and a new generation is coming. We are all tackling harder issues today than ever before. I mean, there will always be the blockbusters and American sequels, and that works all around the world, but we should always be striving to break new ground.
DS: You guys were already familiar with working with Omar, so he knew what to expect, but he also has to form this bond with François. What did they do to sort of build that bond between them?
ON: We sort of had them go through an orientation period where they traveled to see Philippe, and the first time they met was at the airport on the way there for four days. Francois knew that we all knew each other very well and that we were from the same generation and that all of us joked around a lot. At the beginning Francois sort of said to himself that maybe he should feel on the outside of all of this, like it was them and me, but then we told him to come out and join us. Immediately when he did we could tell the link between them was just electric. Francois wanted to play with Omar and try different things, and Omar was very touched by that because Francois is a big, big actor in France and really respected. It was a great thing to see. Neither of them wanted to take the rug out from under the other one. They loved to share and to play and act, and Francois is a very easy and humble person to talk to. The first time we met him he said he knew that he can give life to the film and that he knew immediately that it was a film for Omar. He knew it without us telling him. It was great for a big actor like that to be able to accept that.
DS: But it also helps that Francois role is also a great part. It’s also a lot more physical of a role than most people probably realize since he can’t rely on gesturing to get his point across.
ON: That’s where all of your emotions. I mean, I talk with my hands a lot and most people like myself can’t understand what it would be like to only be able to communicate using your face. But only one time ever during rushes did we ever see Francois break character by wiggling his fingers, and it wasn’t a useable take, anyway. It never happened. I asked him how he could do it and he never really told me. Even in scenes where Omar has to pick him up and physically move him, he would remain still and stiff over the course of five or six takes each. It was a great experience for all of us to see.