Interview: Arnaud Desplechin
Last fall at the New York Film Festival, the filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin talked with FILM COMMENT about his latest work, Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian, which opens next Friday. Benicio Del Toro stars as a shell-shocked Native American veteran of World War II, alongside Desplechin regular Mathieu Amalric as his analyst. Based on an actual case study, the idea, Desplechin revealed, had been occupying his mind for quite some time, and his two actors, in their approaches to performance, proved to be a prime fit for the roles.
How did you come up with this project?
It’s a book I had read decades ago—one decade ago, something like that—that I had loved, and I remembered I had used bits and pieces of it in Kings and Queen. I knew that there was a project—this idea which haunted me. After A Christmas Tale, there was this big fear of making a remake of La Vie des morts—it was this threat on me, and after that the plot was just all these people coming from the same family trapped in a house, so it was really between the characters coming from the same background, all of them being Caucasian, being from the North of France, Roubaix. So I guess that after this film or during this film, A Christmas Tale, I said I wanted to escape to this sort of thing, to deal with characters who do not share the same background, and that’s the bottom line with Jimmy P.: the friendship between a Jewish guy and a Native American guy, so two guys coming from two different universes. I thought that perhaps I would be mature enough now to try and work on that, even if I read this book so many years ago. I used bits and pieces from the book in Kings and Queen. I love the dialogue between the patient and the doctor. I used these dialogues and transformed them to work with actors on the previous films. The more I worked on it, the more I realized that it was fantastic material.
You have an ongoing relationship with Mathieu Amalric, but why Benicio Del Toro?
This is the first time in my life when I’m writing for actors. Usually when I’m writing characters—perhaps it has to do with the fact that these characters did exist in real life, perhaps that committed me to writing for actors. But I remember explaining the project to the producer, and he was saying: “Yeah, but who would be Dr. Devereux?” So I looked at some Hungarian films, and I thought it would be a fraud not to work with Mathieu, even if Mathieu is French. He’s from a Jewish family, coming from Poland, so I thought it would be nice to use him.
I saw a lot of films done in the reservations, or films coming from Hollywood, and looking at Native American actors or non-Native American actors playing Native American parts—Truman Capote, those kinds of films. And still, I was never happy. I never saw my Jimmy in these films. I could see victims, but I couldn’t identify with them. What a movie star is bringing to me is that I can see my own life depicted on screen. I thought it would be nice to have two movie stars coming from two different backgrounds, and coming from two very different traditions of acting, because it is also a film that deals with the difference of acting—the French way of acting and the American way of acting.
And I was really struck, more deeply than I express here, by the performance Benicio gave in The Pledge—where he was playing a Native American. I haven’t seen a Native American role in recent American film as deep and as violent as what he gave in The Pledge. It’s just a stone of pain that you can see on screen. This mumbling that Benicio had, to me he had the ability of being Jimmy. And after that, thinking about his life—what a strange fate it is to arrive in America at the age of 14 and to become American, and never to be an American—always an outsider. Still, wanting to be part of the Hollywood system. I thought in his own life, he was sharing something with Jimmy.
You mentioned something interesting: the film being about, in a way, French and American styles of acting. Would you talk more about that?
With Benicio, it seems me there are two movements in the acting process or the directing process. The actor needs to have some loneliness with this character. He needs to make the character his own, so he needs to get rid of the director at one point of the process. That’s his character, not your character. But also, to bring the character to life, at one point in the process, you need to share the character with the director. You need to expand this wonderful moment where you don’t know who is the character—is he the director or the actor? It seems to me that during the shooting, you have this tradition coming from the Actor’s Studio, that the character belongs to the American actor. But during the prep, you have all of this intense discussion and preparation in the American process because Benicio is such a hard worker, and he’s really a genius. We had all these sessions working on the script together where we could share the character, and then I had to give him the character during the shooting.
It seems to me that when I’m working with Mathieu, the process is the opposite: during the prep, Mathieu wants to get rid of me, he has to find his way with the character: why did I accept this film, why did I accept this part? What do I share with the character? With Benicio, all these sessions are so intense, but during the shooting, as soon as Mathieu has a problem or difficulty or pleasure that he wants to share, there’s an exchange, one to one.
Your films tend to be rooted in a sense of place or ethnic identity. This particular film is rooted in a place—Topeka, Kansas—which isn’t really home to either of the characters. Did you try to get away from or push back against your own work in a way?
I think that the film has to do with identity for sure, but with exile too. There are two levels of exile. Jimmy is an exile because he is Native American, and obviously Devereux is exiled because he’s a Jewish European. They have nothing to do except work on this cure and become friends.
Topeka is a desert. I sent an assistant there to do some scouting and to see the real place where the plot did happen. Topeka is nothing, it’s really nothing. It’s a nowhere place, it’s absurd.
Did you find your process changing working with an English-language script? Did you take fewer takes, more takes?
Very few takes. Was it because of the American acting—this idea of being a spectator, of taking one shot and not trying to influence it and just receiving it? Was it because of the plot itself? The words have to appear for the first time. I was asking the actors not to play their lines before the first take. We also shot the film in six weeks, and so during the prep and the shot list, I thought to shoot it this way, to have one or two takes, if I wasn’t happy with it, I had to change my angle and come up with another way to film the scene. I can’t have ten takes of the same thing. I guess it brought me back to the Eastwood way or the John Ford way—a few takes, and that’s it.
Is it true that you watched The Exiles at the beginning?
It’s funny, I remember that when I met Benicio. I sent him the script, and then he came to Paris and I gave him the book and I brought him a DVD of The Exiles. I remember when we started, he told me: “The Exiles is a good film.” We were working during the day on the script, and after that, during the evening, I would go back to my hotel. And on the second day, Benicio saw The Exiles again during the night. And he said to me: “It’s really a good, good film, no?” And after that, the third time, he saw it again and he said: “Actually it’s a masterpiece.” Because there’s so much information about what it is like being an assimilated Native American and all of the paradoxes that can mean. So this film is crucial. It’s also that when I saw The Exiles, it was really a shock to me. During the writing process, I was working with a French writer, Julie [Peyr], and I was saying to her: “Don’t be too fascinated with the exoticism. Remember that what we have to tell as a plot is a French doctor in Roubaix working with a Roma patient. Try to bring the feelings back to something we can experience in France.” That’s what I saw when I saw The Exiles. I saw that, even if it’s a period piece, it’s incredibly modern. I’m sure Benicio used it a lot.
Did you have a lot of input on the accents in the film?
I’m able to impersonate the Hungarian accent, so I could work on that. On the Native American part, the differences were too subtle for me. I could hear that there is something beautiful that wasn’t slang. There was something noble in this accent.
Benicio asked during prep to meet with someone from the Blackfoot tribe that he could work with. He met a lot of guys there. He met this wonderful guy, Marvin Weatherwax, a teacher of Piikani at the University of Browning—“university” is a big word for what it is, it’s on a reservation so it’s a small school. But the guy was raised in Piikani, and he’s a Vietnam War vet. The meeting between the two men was incredible. After that, Benicio was doing his job with Marvin Weatherwax, and I was excluded from that, and that was their business. The elocution and last changes in the dialogue were done with Marvin Weatherwax.
The character of Jimmy is a lot bigger, physically, than the character of Dr. Devereux. Is that from the book, or is that what happens when you cast?
In the book, it’s the reverse. Devereux was tall, and Jim was short and chubby. We exchanged the relationship. We had to have a difference between the two characters. It was quite useful in the storytelling—Jimmy’s nice, and the savage is Devereux. I love the scenes where he’s concerned with the health of his doctor. I love when he’s shaking the hand of his doctor after the doctor has had the flu, asking if he’s feeling better. He’s really concerned. But at one point in the story, he’ll be really pissed at his doctor. With Benicio, there’s this wonderful threat on Devereux because you think as a spectator that if Jimmy slaps Devereux on the face, Devereux will stick on the wall because Benicio is so powerful and Mathieu is so humble. This difference became a possible violence between the two of them and made it quite cinematic.
Both Jimmy and Dr. Devereux are displaced people trying to fit in, but you leave it at the level of subtext.
I guess that is because it’s a theme that breaks my heart, and I had to be very humble about it. It’s a thing that matters to me so much that I don’t dare to speak about it loudly. Obviously there is something in their meeting which is heartbreaking: the fact that Devereux just survived the Holocaust and Jimmy just survived an ethnocide. But they’re never saying it. Devereux was always trying to escape any identity, even if he was paying a lot of attention to others’ identities. He was disgusted by his own identity: he was baptized as soon as he arrived in France. He was saying: “I don’t want to be Jewish, I don’t want to be Hungarian, I don’t want to be Romanian, actually I don’t want to be French, either. I don’t want to be anything.” So there was this idea of refusing any assimilation into an identity, but the idea of paying attention and respect to others’ identity. Almost as if it was a definition of friendship on the deepest level.