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Interview: Rebecca Zlotowski

By Nicholas Elliott on March 07, 2014

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Rebecca Zlotowski’s Grand Central pairs two of France’s leading young stars, Léa Seydoux and Tahar Rahim, as illicit lovers working in a nuclear power station. Fulfilling the promise of Belle épine (10), about a young woman coming to grips with her mother’s death, Zlotowski broadens her horizons to immerse the viewer in an infrequently depicted world and create a bold metaphor of love as an irresistible force as dangerous as radioactivity. With its larger-than-life characters and steamroller emotions, Grand Central harks back to the era of French poetic realism, when stars like Jean Gabin and Michèle Morgan defied the odds of a film’s grim social setting to create icons of glamour and romance.

FILM COMMENT spoke with Zlotowski last week to discuss the balance of documentary and fiction in Grand Central, which screens in Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, and the diverse influences that nourish her filmmaking.

What came first in the conception of Grand Central, the desire to tell a passionate love story or to set a film in a nuclear power station?

We had been trying to write a love story before the nuclear power setting came up, but it only became clear that we had the subject for a film once we had both. I don’t think one or the other would have been sufficient on its own. When my co-screenwriter Gaëlle Macé told me about people who work in nuclear power stations, it had a big emotional impact. Then we created a dialogue between the love story and the nuclear setting through the idea of contamination and radioactivity.

How did she become interested in nuclear power?

A novel had just come out on the daily life of nuclear power workers. It was a magnificent novel, but not very narrative, closer to being purely documentary. Gaëlle showed me the novel and a couple of interviews with nuclear power workers and by the next day I knew we would be heading into that world.

How did you gain access to nuclear power stations?

It was difficult, of course. The subject’s peculiarity is that it is a secretive one. The fact that it is transgressive and forbidden is part of what drew me. Part of my director’s libido was that I was dealing with a closed door and that with cinema I could crack open that door. It’s also a very masculine world, so for me as a young woman it was an opportunity to go into a place that was doubly forbidden. The unusual thing is that normally you write the script and then you do a location scout. Here, we wrote while we scouted. I didn’t have any preconceptions about that world, since I didn’t have any idea of it at all. We started before the accident at Fukushima turned the spotlight on nuclear power. Before Fukushima, we worked like journalists, meeting people who work in nuclear power stations and visiting the stations to learn the protocols: how you dress, undress, what are the safety measures. I quickly met someone very important to the film, Claude Dubout, who had self-published a book about his daily life in a nuclear power station. He became our technical consultant. I wanted to do a lot of research so the film would be credible. Of course, I was interested in achieving that so I could get rid of it later and create fiction. I could never claim that the film is documentary, but it is very well researched. That part of our work took a year.

Then Fukushima happened. I was in Los Angeles at the time, so I was close to Japan. There was an atmosphere of terror. The people I was staying with even went back to New York! That made our writing jump ahead, not in terms of the narrative, but as far as the documentary background. Before Fukushima, there wasn’t much, we had read practically everything available. It also created a new curiosity about the subject among financiers.

What was your angle on the love story before finding the nuclear power station setting?

We were writing a love story that took place during a war. A big love story with cannons and everything, set against the backdrop of the Spassky-Fischer chess game during the war in Bosnia. It was a very bad script, I would never have shot it. But the basis for the project was a love story in hostile times. I was interested in the hostility of love, the idea of love as a danger or a threat, not as something tender which you’re supposed to welcome with open arms and which consumer society sells you as an objective. I wanted to show love in a nearly baroque, sickly manner, as a symptom of a serious illness that you don’t quite know how to get rid of once you’ve caught it. So there was always this idea of a hostile world. I wanted to create real heroes, to reconnect with a tradition of heroism, rather than depict anti-heroes or mediocre people you can easily identify with. I wanted real heroes you have to try a little harder to identify with. And I wanted them to be in contact with death and danger every day.

It sounds like no matter what you were going to do, you wanted to expand to a greater scale than that of your first feature, Belle épine, which is very intimate and far closer to what we expect from French auteur film.

When you put it that way, it makes sense, but I didn’t think of it like that. I don’t think of directing as a career. It’s really one film at a time, when I find a subject that resonates both in a familiar way and in a way that belongs to society and the now. Having said that, it’s natural to fight your first film with the second one, and I’ll probably fight Grand Central with my next film. I am fond of Belle épine because it’s the first thing I directed and it resembled me both in its flaws and its qualities, but one thing I really hated about it was its elitist aspect. It was truly a colossal box-office flop. You really have to be French to be able to make a second film after such a bomb. It was thanks to the critics and the world of cinephiles that I was able to make a second film. But I recognized that the people who liked Belle épine were always people with whom I could already be friends, people who have a sensibility for its ellipses, austerity, and non-linear aspects, which requires a certain cinephilia. Grand Central is totally different, I tried to open up its narrative.

But I never thought in economic terms, whether about the film’s scale or its budget. In fact, the budget is not that much higher than my first film’s, it’s still in a modest range. In France, we have what we call small-budget films and mid-range films. Grand Central isn’t even considered a mid-range film because it was made for less than 4 million euros. The most important thing was to touch more people—I thought Belle épine was only emotionally involving to people who were already emotionally involved.  

Grand Central does operate on a broader level, down to details like the fact that the male lead is called Gary, which makes me think of Gary Cooper, and the female lead is Karole, like Carole Lombard. You seem to be working with a different set of references than in Belle épine

I’m from a generation that is drawn to sampling, we go looking for inspiration in music videos, contemporary art, pop culture, subculture, television, music, as well as the great classics. If you cite a single reference, you have the impression of erasing an entire volatile path. Of course, when you mention my characters’ names, I recognize American cinema’s powerful influence on people of my generation in France and all over the world. American cinema’s hegemony, evocative capability, power to fascinate, glamour, and sexiness has led my generation to be highly attentive to American culture in all its forms, going all the way back to the 1930s. But my character is called Gary because Gary is a Russian name which means “it burns.” So it’s not Gary Cooper, but the combustion of the character’s emotions. I should add that I don’t find Belle épine and Grand Central so different stylistically. They are both inspired by B movies and vast American spaces, as well as a very French cinema of tropisms and bodies rather than narration, which was particularly evident in Belle épine. I think I’m developing a style, which includes not having to choose between things. I don’t feel like choosing between digital and 35mm or between a film that is inward-looking or has action film stakes. I don’t want to decide between the portrait of a woman and the portrait of a man.

In fact, you decided not to choose between digital and 35mm for Grand Central.

Absolutely. Before you shoot your movie, your producer asks: “Are we doing it on film or on digital?” Now it’s rarely a question anymore, he just tells you you’re doing it on digital because it’s cheaper. But I’m lucky enough to have a producer who is as attentive to the film’s art direction as I am and knows that its visual dimension is as essential as the casting. Belle épine was shot on 35mm and in CinemaScope, which was truly luxurious for such a modest film. For Grand Central, my DP and I realized that since all of post-production is digital, we didn’t have to choose between shooting on film and digital, they would be treated the same way in post. Digital is really beautiful in artificial light and if you want depth of field and a really sharp image. But if you’re shooting bodies, warm tones, exteriors, anything in natural light, film is sublime, there’s no comparison. So when we were inside the power station, in artificial light, we shot digital and whenever we had natural light, we shot film.

That followed my initial desire for the film to have really violent contrasts. Everything is in stark contrast: the two leads don’t look alike, the interior of the power station is oppressive while the outdoors is bucolic. My composer Rob and I worked from the same concept: inside the power station, the music is very metallic, while outside we use woodwinds and strings.

The film’s central metaphor is explicit but the characters’ emotional lives and histories are more implicit. Was that intentional?

I don’t know. Sometimes you’re acted upon by the film’s form. The film’s form was to capture many characters in a relatively brief moment of crisis. When you capture a lot of characters, you have limited possibilities for showing their trajectories, unless you make very explanatory, heavy-handed scenes, which I wanted to avoid. But it also has to do with the way the characters were written. If you want to be mean, you can call them stereotypes. If you want to be nice, you can call them archetypes. Those are the terms I was thinking in, even on a visual level.

For instance, the leads only have one costume from beginning to end, which fits with the idea of creating legendary characters. That may be inspired from the Western, where you see a stranger turn up in town and you don’t know anything about him. He has one costume and a single action. So the film’s form inspired a kind of character whose emotional trajectory would be told over a period in time without reference to their past or future. We don’t even really know what happens to them. But my co-screenwriter and I know everything about the characters: when they were born, who their parents and first loves were, how they all met. As the Dardenne Brothers say, you build your film with scaffolding and then you burn the scaffolding, leaving something very strange.

We get little sense of Tahar Rahim and Léa Seydoux’s characters, or of why they do what they do. We’re very far from so-called psychological cinema.

Yes, though I have nothing against psychology. There’s a terrible prejudice against psychology, as there once was against sociology. You have to fire on all cylinders when you make films. I think those two characters are so archetypal because I believe in Pasolini’s statement that there is a cinema of prose and a cinema of poetry and that in the cinema of poetry you have the right to put in place bodies that are irresistibly drawn to each other. But I think there is a limit to that approach and that I may be reaching it with this film. Some people are really moved by the couple, but others can’t understand the intensity of their love. It seems arbitrary to them. I’m really questioning this now that I have some distance from the film. I think I went as far as I could go with telling about characters’ inner lives from a very instinctive, emotional, and sentimental point of view, without having to provide information. Now it might be time for me to invent something new.

Do you use all this biographical information when directing the actors?

Yes. We do a lot of rehearsal ahead of time, and I think it helps the actors that I know their characters’ biography. It gives them a different perspective, a way of behaving, of talking and walking. And it really helps me with them because it allows me to give them answers. Actors always ask questions. All the time! Because the people who are most afraid on set are the actors, which stands to reason given that what we’re asking them to do is so huge and demands such commitment. The more answers we can provide them, the better prepared we’ll be. That’s how I work now, but maybe I’ll do things differently on another film. I admire directors who don’t rehearse at all. That creates a different feel.

You have a strong relationship with Léa Seydoux. Did you write the film with her in mind?

I didn’t write it for her. So far I’ve never written a character and immediately thought of an actor. I need freedom and abstraction. I also create composite images in my head that may consist of one actor’s prosody and another’s gait. But it would be a little hypocritical if I said I hadn’t thought of Léa pretty fast because ultimately I didn’t hold any auditions for her part. Same with Tahar Rahim. I like to go after a single person. The idea of doing auditions for the main part worries me. Your impact on the actor is more powerful when you’re only approaching a single person, especially when you’re a director like me, who isn’t famous and isn’t going to make them a lot of money. The only card I have to play is how much I want them. I wasn’t done with Léa after I made Belle épine. Then she acted with these major directors, so for Grand Central it was as if I was reunited with a family member who was enriched by her work with directors I would never meet.

But Tahar Rahim was really the foundation of the casting. It was once I thought of him that I realized that associating him with Léa Seydoux was like creating a legendary film couple. I was also influenced by their position in the French film industry at the time. I knew that I would be creating a couple that people in France wanted to see kissing each other. When we went to Cannes with the film and they both had bigger films there too, it confirmed my intuition that they were at a special moment in their lives and in the industry. I really saw them at the point when they switched from being promising young actors to movie stars.

Translated by Nicholas Elliott.

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