Philippe Claudel writes novels, short stories, and screenplays; his most well-known writing is Grey Souls which won him the prestigious Renaudot award in France. He is also a professor of literature at the University of Nancy (in Alsace-Lorraine), a painter, a first-time feature film director, a father and husband, and a rabid movie buff. Fiercely intelligent and coming from the background of an academic, the thoughtful Claudel knows all of these pet subjects inside and out and has incorporated bits and pieces from each diverse, busy area of life into his highly personal directorial debut I’ve Loved You So Long. Come Oscar nominations morning, in a just world, he should be able to also add “Academy Award Nominee” to his resume.
On the eve of the film’s limited release in New York City (it will expand gradually in the coming weeks), Mssr. Claudel was kind enough to sit down with me to discuss his interest in being pushed outside of his comfort zones as a writer, the challenges and rewards of helming a French indie, and how the women who have surrounded him his entire life proved to be, along with an unlikely pair of Australian superstars, the best inspiration for this particular kind of daring, modern feminist parable. “I’ve Loved You So Long is a film about the strength of women,” Claudel has said. “Their capacity to shine forth, reconstruct themselves and be reborn.”
Author: Philippe Claudel
Book: Grey Souls
US publication date: 2006-04
“I think my most important surprise during this adventure, there were two surprises: I was surprised to observe an amazing talent – Kristin Scott Thomas’ talent,” said Claudel. “It’s a very big chance to have every day the opportunity to observe the actress doing this work. She’s very demanding, and I am very demanding too. I think we had, for this reason, and other reasons, a very good understanding and very good connection. It was a great opportunity for me to have Kristin make this movie and play this part of Juliette. And the other surprise was the final cut of the movie is exactly what I imagined at the beginning.”
With a meticulous eye for intimate drama in the everyday that immediately conjures up the close-up filled, emotionally turbulent world of Ingmar Bergman’s ’70s canon, Claudel’s refreshingly assured debut is indeed more than promising: it seems a full-out guarantee that his cinematic voice will resonate again in the future. And if he has his way, it will be with Naomi Watts.
I don’t think you get to see as many good movies about a woman’s experience, in general. What made you want to center this work around women, specifically?
Immediately I chose the medium of ‘movie’ because I wanted to work with actresses, I wanted to work with technicians, I wanted to express something with the light, with the color of the wall, with the dresses, you know? I wanted to really explore the female universe. I wanted to change because in my novels, constantly, I explore a male universe, and I like that, and it’s a natural position for me when I start to write.
Every type of moment with male characters, there are female characters, too, but in the background. When I started to have this idea for the screenplay, it was a familiar thing, a desire to a story about women. Yes, I wanted to explore the female relationship. I am constantly, since my childhood, fascinated by the woman’s universe. I grew up with women – mom, sisters, aunts and grandmother. I am married. I have a daughter, she’s ten. In my work, as a writer, I am constantly with women at my publishing house, and I like that. I like this feeling, this connection I have with women.
I am very fascinated by their ability to stay, to have strength, to be able to have rebirth after tragic events. I’m not sure we have this strength. I know different women who lost their husbands, and after this death, she continues. When a man loses a wife, he becomes like a little child, he is totally lost, and he is totally depressed. Many times, after six months or a year, these men get married again. It’s strange.
How do you think men will respond to the film’s subject matter in comparison to women?
I was very surprised in France, by the reaction of the men. Because when I finished my editing, I knew that the movie had a very high potential for emotion and I saw around me, with different “test” people – I invited friends of mine, I was always in the theater, observing their reactions. I saw the tears.
But I was very surprised by the reaction of the men because they cried too, and many, many men have told me that it was a really raw experience for them to be intensely moved by a movie. I remember in France, my producer made a trailer of just reactions of people in the audience, and it was a good idea. We saw men for whom it was impossible to speak; they were totally destroyed by the emotion when it was over.
I’d like to hear more about the rehearsal period with Kristin and Elsa.
We met for two readings, Kristin and I. In one reading, there was Elsa with us. It was very important for me to show different ways, different lines, and different notes. I prefer to give freedom for these actresses to explore themselves this way. If they found a great thing for my movie, and if, during the shooting, for example, Kristin, she expressed what I felt, what I wanted, I was totally happy.
And if it was not the case, at the moment, I tried to direct in other ways. It was important to, every evening, to have in my camera a movie that I wanted. I was ready for that. I was ready to kill for that. That’s a metaphor, but…(waves his hands). So, it was a very great ambiance during most of the shooting, but sometimes it was a little electric. We had two, three, or four fights, Kristin and I. I told her during this fight: this is my movie, ok? She’s a wonderful actress but it’s very important for the director to not give the power and sometimes actresses try to test you! Especially Kristin!
So, it’s normal, but at the same time, it’s important to tell ‘it’s my movie, you’re in my movie.’ You are wonderful, but without you there is no part, but without the part, there’s no actress.
What are some of the films you admire? Directors? Performances?
There are many, many people. For this movie, in the background, there is a big shadow of a French director, Claude Sautet. I’m not sure he is very famous here; he is a very important director for France. I like his exploration. I like his work because he constantly explored intimate stories but at the same time with his story he gave a portrait of our society. I like Nanni Moretti. I like the work of Alejandro Amenabar.
I totally enjoyed the last movie from Bent Hamer’s O’ Horten, I saw it in Telluride and after in Toronto, he’s a director from Norway and its very surrealist. I like the work of Alejandro Gonzales Inaritu, especially with 21 Grams, I think it’s a masterpiece. I’m a big fan of all the movies of Woody Allen. Manhattan is a masterpiece and Broadway Danny Rose is wonderful. [Stanley] Kubrick, [Ernst] Lubitsch, [Frank] Capra.
Sounds like you’re just a big fan of films in general
(laughing)Yes! Yes! That too! I remember, I don’t know why exactly, an American movie without success in France, a very small audience saw this movie, The Assassination of Richard Nixon with Sean Penn and Naomi Watts, like in 21 Grams. Very great screenplay. Very great performances by Sean Penn and Naomi Watts. I fell in love with Naomi Watts.
One day I hope to work with her because she is a very inspiring person. When I saw her performances in Mulholland Drive and 21 Grams and in this movie, and in other movies, I liked the perpetual challenges she chose. I like to work with different faces in my mind. I remember four years ago thinking about Nicole Kidman was very inspiring for me. And the result is not a screenplay with the possibility to have this actress [acting in the film], it was a very strange alchemy, you know?
And I like to imagine this woman in different parts in my mind. And later, with this intimate material, I write different short stories or a character in a novel. When I remember for myself, my opinion, the most famous, amazing performance of this actress is in Eyes Wide Shut, especially in the wonderful, dramatic scene in the bathroom, when she explained the beginning of this dream love affair. And she’s beautiful. It’s very precise playing, and so, it’s because on the stage there was a generous director like Kubrick.
So, you can be inspired by certain actors but not necessarily want to write a part specifically for them?
Yes. It’s like a translation. A translation of mood. But I hope one day, if in my mind, I start to write with the face and the feeling of Naomi Watts then I hope, maybe, we will come together and work.
I like the meeting. I like the connection. I like the idea we are in a big world and there are two people, and one day maybe these two people can have a connection through work.