A classical storyteller, Thomas Bidegain has emerged in the last decade as one of the most versatile screenwriters of contemporary French cinema. Called “the man in the shadow” by Le Monde for his customary self-effacement in his collaborations, Bidegain is perhaps best known as the driving force behind Jacques Audiard’s genre-bending prison epic A Prophet, which won him a César Award, shared with Audiard, for Best Original Screenplay in 2010.

Bidegain has been a devoted writing partner to Audiard ever since (Rust and Bone, 12; Dheepan, 15) and continues to be drawn to hardboiled, noir fantasies. But his flexible approach to storytelling and instinct for the zeitgeist have landed him in directorial team-ups as diverse as Bertrand Bonello for the spellbinding fashion symphony Saint-Laurent (14); Joachim Lafosse for Our Children (12), the fictionalized account of a modern-day Medea story; and most recently, visual artist turned filmmaker Clément Cogitore, for the military psychodrama The Wakhan Front, the 2015 Critics’ Week highlight being released in the U.S. this summer as Neither Heaven Nor Earth.

With Les Cowboys (15), Bidegain makes the riveting transition to directing. Unlike A Prophet, which was largely set within four walls, this family drama chronicles the decade-long search by a Frenchman, Alain (François Damiens), for his runaway jihadist daughter, Kelly, across two continents, Europe and Africa. What begins as the father’s destructive obsession becomes for his son, Kid (Finnegan Oldfield), an opportunity to blossom and reawaken to the world.

Shortly after the U.S. premiere of Les Cowboys at The New York Film Festival last fall, FILM COMMENT spoke with Bidegain in New York about the film’s genesis and his meticulous process of extracting fiction from actuality. The conversation was enlivened by Oldfield’s surprise participation.

Les Cowboys

What was the initial reflection behind this film? Did it stem from a need to evoke reality? A desire to represent contemporary anxieties within a purely Homeric fiction, the journey of a hero in the mythological sense?

TB: Absolutely. You used the right word: there was the desire to “represent.” When we started writing, no one talked about the jihad. And it was really important to represent a community, which is ours. These people are dressed as cowboys and behave in the American way, so we push things a little, but it’s still us. So there was a desire to create images which represent us and the world as it is. The film begins with a country party and later at another point in the film, there is another country party and in the midst of it, there’s a veiled woman. And that’s our world. That image was present very early on and when we look at it this way, we cannot help but see ourselves in it. There are people who tear off her veil, others who fall in love with her, and then there’s the sheriff, this guy’s who’s there and who’s just helpless. He doesn’t know how to react. And so there was the desire to talk about the world in this light.

I always think that if we’re very close to the characters, we can talk about the world. And there was the idea of recounting a family drama that would involve a hero’s mythological ascension. We also wanted to study this community over multiple generations, to show how a son can surpass his father, because they’re going to have the same quest but the father in this quest is going to isolate himself from the world. He is going to lose everything: his home, his job, his family, his wife. And his last tie with the world is his son, but he’s going to lose him too. And the son, in the same quest, is going to open up to the world. He’s going to get close with his mother, fall in love, discover the world. He’s going to expand his vision and understand.

The cowboy/Indian metaphor we’re spinning really concerns the father because he sees the world that way—what we used to call the war of civilizations. And as long as we see this as a war of civilizations, there is no reconciliation. On the other hand, the son won’t see civilizations, he’ll see people. Whereas the father thought he was a cowboy, the son will truly become one. He’s going to ride a horse, shoot a pistol…

Kid pulls out that pistol by instinct when he shoots Ahmed.

TB: Yes, exactly. So when he’s with his own son, he shows him how to make a bow, how to become an Indian too. He opens up to the world. And because there is this, there is a possibility of reconciliation and a possibility not to judge. The advantage that we have on the intolerant is that we can speak. We don’t chop heads. We speak and try to understand. And that takes two generations. But at least the second generation becomes wiser and opens up to the world.

You set the opening apart from the rest of the film by presenting it like a dream. Kellys bathed in sunlightshe looks like a heavenly creatureand listens to her father sing. When she dances with him, she stares at his face at length as if trying to memorize his features. Then suddenly everything crumbles and we are dragged into a bottomless well: an instantaneous transition from dream to nightmare. Were those the images you began with in the script?

TB: I knew that I wanted to start with a party and a wordless moment. We see the characters, we see a world, and we are in it. In fact, I always wanted to start at the parking lot. Not at the party but at the parking lot. Because we go into the party. I have Renaults and Harley Davidsons, I’m somewhere in France—but then we go in with them. If we were already at the party, it would have been something that I needed to sell. The father’s so proud to dance with his daughter, and she already knows that she’s going to leave. Everybody else is in costume: her mother, her father, and her brother is dressed like a cowboy. The film begins with the Indian standing in front of the waterfall and it’s almost as if he were telling the story: “Once upon a time… One day, this happened…” And then we’re backstage. And that was the idea of the parking lot: it’s backstage. Alain fixes his tie and the mother wraps the bandana around Kelly’s neck—the only concession that the latter makes to this country thing.

That bandana becomes an extremely important accessory afterward so you need to plant it.

TB: Yes, we plant all those things. But I really wanted the first line in the film to be: “You haven’t seen Kelly, have you?” It begins with that and we are in the story right away. And it was interesting to buy that moment. So we go in, we start there, we have a few clues, we understand that we’re in France, that we speak French…

Les Cowboys

But its not exactly an ordinary setting.

TB: I think we accept it because it’s the first thing we see. I always think that at the beginning of a film, we have a carte blanche of cinema, that in the first five or 10 minutes, we can do whatever we want. And then, we pay. But when people leave the theater, it’s never during the first 10 minutes. After the first 10 minutes, they’re authorized to leave. [Laughs] There are a lot of films that begin like this. I’m thinking of Cimino’s films. It’s the same in Deer Hunter. There is a song, then they dance and then another dance and then suddenly… The parents are worried right away and we step into the drama. This is a film that progresses over multiple parts. The first part is: “A woman disappears.” So we present a community and then we introduce a major change.

Theres also The Tennessee Waltz, which seems to encapsulate the whole essence of the film. You infuse it with a haunting quality throughout. In the opening, it is the ultimate celebratory tune, but as the story unfolds it becomes this nightmarish lullaby, a kind of death chant. It embodies Alains downfall.

TB: Exactly. There is a magnificent version by Connie Francis, which has this ancient quality to it. It almost feels like the memory of a song. It’s haunted, just like it haunts the character. And I really wanted “The Tennessee Waltz.” Back then, I wasn’t familiar with country music at all. During the two years that I spent writing this script, I listened to a lot of country songs. I find this music especially beautiful when it’s sung by women. There’s just something magical about that. I hesitated between two songs but this one felt just so obvious in terms of the theme and the story it told: “I remember the night and ‘The Tennessee Waltz.’ Now I know just how much I have lost.”

It feels like it was conceived for the film.

TB: The entire script is in this song—though it was difficult to make François, who’d never sung before, sing. [Laughs] I wanted the film to have a very melodic feel and I was lucky to start working with Raphaël [Haroche, the French singer-songwriter who composed the soundtrack] very early on. We started working from the first draft onwards, and so I had music during the location scouting, before the film was even shot. And that’s something I really want to try and repeat every time. Because when you’re selecting locations and moods, the music makes you imagine the rhythm and scope of certain scenes. We have a melody and the script becomes the lyrics that accompany it. It’s really a guide.

Youve often said that what frustrated you the most as a screenwriter was not being able to work with actors and shape performances, which you describe as what cannot be put on the page. In this film, youve created a diametrically opposed father-and-son pair. Alain is an extremely virile character, an erupting volcano (we witness an exponential growth of his anger in almost every scene), whereas Kid is more withdrawn, someone who internalizes his emotions. How did you work out the characters and their relationship with François Damiens and Finnegan Oldfield? Finnegan, feel free to jump in please.

TB: There was this idea that there were two moments for Kid: a moment where he absorbs, where he is with his father.

FO: He listens and registers.

TB: And he becomes his father’s guardian in the second part of the film. And afterward, he’s going to externalize everything he’s absorbed.

FO: When we worked together, Thomas saw that I was a bit quiet at the beginning because I didn’t feel comfortable yet.

TB: Finnegan is very mysterious. He brought a mystery to Kid, which is wonderful. And that was really what attracted me to him in the first place, because I said to myself that this mystery, this silence—which I found very profound—is going to make everything much more difficult for the mother. We don’t know what he’s thinking. We don’t know whether he’s sad or… He’s a good son, he tries to be there, to glue the pieces back together, to help his father and his mother… He is the victim of the situation and he is isolated from the world. And so I said to myself that this would make things much harder for the parents. It’s difficult to understand a kid. I really wanted him to preserve this mystery.

FO: He wasn’t supposed to be sad either. From the very start, he needed to be smiley and appealing, not too weird, you know? If he’s there in his corner suffering, he just becomes a follower. It’s true that at the beginning, he’s pushed around a little by his father but then when there is the [narrative] ellipsis, you realize that—okay, he wakes up and it’s difficult but—he helps out his father. So he’s not this uncaring teenager.

Les Cowboys

No, he carries everyones weight on his shoulders.

TB: Exactly. His sister left and stole him his youth. And his father stole him his youth in this quest. When they’re fishing together, the Indian tells him: “You should go hang out with people your age.” And that’s why I think the moment he says no to his father is really a survival reflex. What he’s really saying is: “You won’t drag me down with you.”

Its his first rebellion.

TB: Right. Also the origin of his guilt.

FO: He’s already an adult. He’s not a teenager. It’s not a little adolescent’s furious outbreak. It’s a very important moment because the father falls in and the son says: “I’m not going to fall in with you.”

TB: He says: “Go ahead on your own.” So it was important that Kid keep something juvenile about him, that he not have a depressive personality. He is on life’s side, but he waits for life to come to him. And they stole it away from him.

Finnegan, did you feel comfortable in this characters shoes?

FO: Not all the time. [Laughs] At the beginning, I felt a lot of pressure—though I tried to be casual about it. I’ve been acting since I was 10 but this was the biggest project I’d been in and Thomas pressured me a lot and harassed me. [Laughs] I put pressure on myself too. But I was very happy to consolidate myself in this character’s body, to wear his stuff. I had wigs for instance, to convey the time changes… So at the beginning I was a bit shy, not too much at ease. It took me some time to connect with the crew, even with Thomas. We looked for each other a lot. Actually, this matched the initial situation in the film perfectly. And little by little, I began to open up, just like the character does. I gained confidence and started getting to know the people around me. And then it all went without saying, like on roller skates.

Thomas, Id like to talk about your stylistic approach, this way of filming a world that collapses on the characters and damages their faces. Im thinking especially of that shot of the mother when she learns about Kellys child. She looks so worn outshe has dark rings under her eyesthat you could take her for an old woman. Were there any cinematic or pictorial references that inspired this bleak vision?

TB: I really wanted to tell a story about simple people who find themselves in the din of the world. Everything was constructed at the level of the characters. It was really important to maintain everything at their height. We enter this party with them. We discover the world with them. When the narrative ellipses happen, we are a bit lost but then we get the necessary information and find our way back in the story. So it was important for me to remain at their level the whole time and therefore, to keep this dimension of a family drama. I wanted there to be at once very “wide” and very intimate moments—because in the end, you could even argue that this film has a kind of melodramatic quality to it.

So we really thought of the film as made up of four films, of four moments. The first part is “A woman disappears.” The second part is darker and the majority of it takes place at night. We are in Northern Europe: it’s raining, it’s cold. And this part will conclude with death. The third part is an adventure film in which we can exchange a woman for a bracelet, in which we ride a horse and kill people.

And in which we have moments of laughter as well.

TB: Absolutely. We switch dimensions just like that. And the fourth part is a love story. And so we tried to think of these four moments quite differently. But obviously we needed to maintain a unity within. My fear was that we change directions completely and the whole feels inconsistent. But I don’t think it came out that way and that really has to do with the cinematography. Arnaud Potier did a remarkable job. We got along really well and he was a great ally on this project. We decided right away that we wanted to shoot in ’scope. It was important to be in that format. And when you’re in ’scope, you have to think everything through.

Its like looking through a telescope.

TB: Yes, exactly. So we had this idea to film the inside of the house for instance in a very large way and then to move closer to the faces at certain moments. But always to remain at the level of the characters, without ever getting ahead of them. We don’t see anything that they don’t see. So we have this partial vision of the world, which is theirs. We only see little bits of things at a time.

The imagery of the film is largely grounded in the Basque and Middle Eastern landscapes. How did you reconcile the contrasts between these remote geographies? They really become two sides of the same coin; they mirror each other.

TB: Absolutely, this is especially due to the locations we chose. We did a lot of location scouting and a lot of production design. And there are always mountains in the background. The crew was fed up with mountains! [Laughs] Because you know, when you see mountains on one side, you don’t see any on the other. But here we always needed to have mountains in the background. There are a lot of mirror scenes in the film, parallels between the father and the son, always with this idea that the son is going to understand more. Like when Shazhana [Ahmed’s wife, whom Kid takes to France with him] says: “Don’t go,” Kid stays. The father has this same scene with the mother who tells him: “What are you going to do? Why are you leaving?” and he leaves anyway. There is this scene with Ahmed’s father, who comes back to speak with Kid. It was a really curious scene to shoot. It felt very incomplete in the script.

Les Cowboys

This goes back to the idea of what cannot be put on the page.

TB: When you were talking about the locations and this idea of having multiple continents, there was a desire from the very start to combine history and geography. There is this idea that every western shows the state of the nation. So when you watch a western, you get to know the world of the farmers or the world of the Indians or the moment of democracy. Every time, it’s a state of the nation. All the good westerns do this. And so I had this idea of showing a certain state of the nation and using this model to talk about us and relate how the situation has progressed. And I talked about it a bit like a musician: “We have to make the music heard. We have to reflect the state of the nation.”

The final scene is very moving because it trusts the actors faces rather than words to communicate the end noteits the most subtextual segment of the film. Kid seems to say: I spent all my life searching for you, and when you think back to the first scene, you really feel the weight of time passed. You realize just how much has been lost and gained along the way.

TB: The last word Kid says is “Thank you.” “Thank you” because she has given him a possibility to open up. And in the end, his life has been much “larger” than it would have been had she stayed. And it ends on this idea of acceptance, this idea that “You are my sister” despite everything that’s happened.

Its moving to be able to imprint that idea on the face.

TB: You know, we always have a lot of pressure from producers to put dialogue in the scenes. So it was a bit of a challenge to make that ending happen because we don’t exactly know what’s going on. I think that one must always resist this pressure and let the images speak. Similarly, there’s always a pressure to make the characters likable. And if the characters are likable, they can’t evolve. And if they don’t develop a little, you don’t have a story. Not everyone is likable, not everyone is Christian Democrat. There are people who don’t care about the world. And the father is like that. He’s not interested. And there is this scene where the guy tells him: “It’s good that you came. That way, you’ve seen how we live. You’ve seen the terrible conditions we live in.” And Alain says: “I don’t give a shit.” He says: “We are not in a social film.” That scene really served that purpose. It comes at the beginning and it’s the first time Alain expresses himself that way: “I don’t care about the world. I’m just looking for my daughter.”

I remember Iliana Zabeth, the actress who plays Kelly, from Bertrand Bonellos House of Pleasures. And its funny because the character she plays in your film feels like an extension of the one she played in Bonellos, in which she was this young girl who comes to the brothel in search of freedom. There was this line by Noémie Lvovsky that moves me a lot: Were in a brothel here. Freedom is outside. And its almost as if Zabeth has taken the advice and gone outside in your film. But sadly, theres not much freedom there either

TB: Right. She finds herself caged. I really wanted to have three frames in the story: the story of the family and the story of this girl, Kelly. We follow her life more or less but we never see her. We just see a few pictures of her as she ages. And in the background, like a wallpaper, there is the story of Al-Qaeda and of the war, as if it were the first World War of our generation. And the film ends in 2011, when Bin Laden was captured. It’s the end of that war.

I’m not sure Kelly would have been happier had she stayed. In any case, the world has stayed the same way. And so I really wanted to show that Kelly’s departure would change, not only the family’s life, but also that of the community. Always this image of the country party with a veiled woman… And then it’s up to us to accept or not. So Kelly’s departure has changed the community and it’s even changed Shazhana’s destiny. And in the end, all these characters find themselves together in the din of the world. It’s like some kind of ripple.

A butterfly effect.

TB: Exactly.

Translated by Yonca Talu.