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A Conversation with Director Regis Roinsard
This is your first full-length feature. What's your background?

I've always wanted to tell stories through images and at school I used to photograph the kids who were considered weird. To be honest, I must have been one of them since I spent all my time recording films from television so I could dissect them later. I studied cinema, then did many different jobs in film: grip, sets, sound, etc. I wanted to confront the technical realities of filmmaking. I shot my first short early on, then three more, then ads, promos and music-related documentaries for singers like Jean-Louis Murat, Jane Birkin and Luke. These were commissions but they became mine, and my intention was always to make a full-length feature film. If I took my time it's because I was waiting for the right story to come along.

How did the idea of a speed typing competition come to you?

In 2004 I came across a documentary about the history of typewriters, which included a very short sequence showing speed typing competitions. These thirty short seconds were so fascinating that I saw their potential right away. I immediately drafted the main story lines. This world of the typewriter seemed crazy to me. I thought it was incredible that it could have become a sport and I was captivated by the rapport between man and machine. At first I only had the young female champion character; the male character didn't exist. But I'd already imagined her to be from a small village and had given her the name of one of my grandmothers. I should add that, like Rose, I come from a small town in Normandy and that Paris represented the big metropolis, out of my reach.

How did you gather information from that point on?

I started to research the 'sport' of speed typing, and the schools that taught typing and shorthand. This was back in 2004, and it was very difficult as all the schools were closing down and there were hardly any archival documents. I was only able to find short videos showing typing competitions on the Internet. Among the most interesting documents I found was a photo of an American championship happening in a place like a velodrome in front of thousands of spectators. I also found some old advertisements: typewriter manufacturers used to organize speed typing competitions. They had made a census of regional championships and I met exchampions, male and female. They all told me about the mental pressure they'd been under and about destabilization techniques between opponents using the eyes, which confirmed for me the notion that this was a true sport. But at that stage I didn't know if the film would be a comedy or a drama.

Then you started to write?

Yes, with the idea of finding my own personal tone. First I wrote some thirty pages, creating characters who revolved around Rose, and with my friend Daniel Presley, who is a music producer and great American '50s comedy movie buff, we created the characters of Bob and Marie. As a result we decided to write the screenplay together. Daniel has very high standards and a Woody Allen kind of humor. We thought we'd write the dialogues in English and that I would adapt them into French so we could have some alchemy between American comedy and the "French touch." I loved the fact that Daniel made very relevant observations on dialogue and rhythm. We wrote a first draft but were only 60% satisfied with it. We thought that the psychological arc of Rose's character needed more depth. I had read screenplays by Romain Compingt, who is 26 and a great fan of Britney Spears and Marilyn Monroe. Curiously, I thought he had the right kind of sensitivity needed to enrich Rose's character. So I called him and three weeks later he produced his version of the screenplay, with which we were 85% happy. He made the love story more daring. The three of us then worked together, wondering if a collaboration between an admirer of young fallen stars, an American musician and me would work - it wasn't so simple!

At what stage did Alain Attal get involved?

He was the first to read the screenplay. We gave it to him on a Friday and the following Tuesday he told us he wanted to make the film. We met and it became apparent very quickly that his vision of the film was the same as mine. What's great is that he himself acts like a coach. He gets directors in condition so they can give the best of themselves. Alain is my Louis Echard! He is also driven by a real kind of madness and artistic obsession; he pushed me and encouraged me to question myself, which I love. Furthermore he's a great film buff and we share tastes and visual references. We were able to talk about Nicholas Ray, or Godard, about whom he knows everything, or the color films of Joseph Losey.

Did the project come partially from a desire to evoke the late '50s?

That was a part of it, even if it wasn't my overriding intention to pay homage to that era. In fact the '50s fascinate me aesthetically: music, literature and film. But I also like more recent films that are set in that time, like PLEASANTVILLE or PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED and I wanted the direction and the editing to be modern.

What do you like so much about the '50s?

It's when teenage consumerism began - with the birth of rock 'n' roll and the evolution of dress codes - and the very beginnings of the entertainment industry and sport sponsorship. In France it's the post-war boom years (from 1945 to 1975), where there was hardly any unemployment and the future looked rosy, even if the state of the world was a lot darker than anyone wanted to admit. Because it was a strange decade where people who had just emerged from the war preferred to avoid having to face tragic events happening in the world. It is only during the following decade that they had to confront them.

It was also a turning point on a sociological and cultural level.

Yes, since 1958-59 immediately preceded the beginning of women's liberation. Two or three years later, skirts will get shorter and women's position in the workplace will start to change. I like this era because it's a crucial time that announces the next sixty years. It's also true regarding fashion: today we still wear the iconic Ray-Bans. It's also an era obsessed with speed: car speed records are established; the first supersonic planes are developed. The obsession with speed that characterizes the '50s touches me all the more so since we are still affected by this quest today.

What were you aiming for visually?

We worked on the artistic direction peripherally. We wanted to recreate the '50s by mixing a documentary aspect, movies of the era that I love - American movies in particular - and people's fantasy of that time. Everything to do with the lead characters is inspired by cinema and fantasy, by drawing on the works of Billy Wilder or Douglas Sirk; the further you move away from these lead characters the closer you get to documentary. The supporting roles and the extras for example are more anchored in a realistic vision.

What about the color?

We researched many '50s American and French advertisements and watched most of the color films that were made at that time in France. It wasn't easy since most French films were still being shot in black and white and the few that were in color were shot in studios! THE RED BALLOON and ZAZIE DANS LE METRO were a source of inspiration. But we cheated a bit, since we also watched nouvelle vague films like Godard's A WOMAN IS A WOMAN.

Did you have other references beside cinema?

We had a reference work by Alex Steinweiss, an illustrator who designed many record sleeves of the period. His work encompassed the entire chromatic scale - for costumes and sets - we used for the film. I also provided the artistic team with the names of certain designers and stylists. I insisted that the film be my own aesthetic vision of the '50s. Most challenging were the exteriors. So we looked at archival color images to stick to the desaturation of the period. We noticed, for example, that cars were always monochromatic since body colors hadn't yet been industrialized, or were reserved for a rich clientele. We opted for a desaturation while keeping red, green and blue as dominant colors. I wanted the eye to be constantly stimulated.

Jacques Demy comes to mind. Was he also a reference for you?

Absolutely! I love stories that seem rosy but aren't when you look close-up. That's probably what links POPULAIRE to a fairytale. And if Demy's films sometimes have a happy ending you have to be able to detect the irony between the lines. Demy uses magic and illusion to slip in a message deeper than it appears. I love DONKEY SKIN above all, but THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG was also a source of inspiration. That said, POPULAIRE is also a swashbuckler. The last scene was inspired by George Sydney's SCARAMOUCHE: when Louis arrives in New York we find ourselves in a swashbuckler or gladiator fight.

Why did you give a wink in the direction of VERTIGO?

It wasn't deliberate at first...the dominant red and blue come from BUTTERFIELD 8 by Daniel Mann, where an adulterous couple goes into a motel. Then we watched A WOMAN IS A WOMAN, which also has a red and blue scene. I was inspired by a fantastical vision of Hitchcock who was influenced by other directors. I play with it of course because when Deborah Francois comes out of the bathroom, I thought I was seeing Kim Novak. We had our composer listen to the VERTIGO score and it became impossible for him to move away from it.

How did you develop the characters?

When writing Rose, I thought of all the women in the '50s who wanted to become emancipated, like my mother. She was a farmer's daughter who left her parents to work in the big city. She met my father who was the director of an insurance company, closer to a country doctor in his relationship to people than to what an insurance man is today. He was a catalyst in his relationship with his clients, and in a way with my mother whom he helped become liberated. When I was born my mother did the same with my father: she became his 'coach' when he retired. I like mutually beneficial relationships between people. In POPULAIRE, Louis helps Rose, he has a desire to be her coach, and little by little the roles are going to reverse. I thought I could find a balance in this link between the characters that become catalysts for one another by turns. Besides, I kept telling my crew: "You are both coaches and sportsmen." I've always loved both.

Please tell us how you chose your actors...

I wanted to have a cast where each one would bring his/her own particularity, like a conductor who chooses musicians who will communicate with one another and try to stay in harmony. A little like Tim Burton who blends famous actors, some lesser-known ones and theatre actors. I knew exactly what I wanted since the characters are very well defined and my actors come from diverse backgrounds. Romain Duris was an obvious choice because I'm very impressed by his gift for comedy and rhythm. He got really involved in his character and asked for parts of the screenplay to be re-written to give more depth. He also conducted his own research: he met a football coach who explained what his work was all about to him. Romain constantly looks deeper and ends up knowing more about his character than you do. I love the fact that like Louis is quite mysterious and doesn't say much about himself. This fuels me and fascinates his partners.

And Rose Pamphyle?

Alain Attal and I thought we needed an unknown actress from the start. But when it came time for casting we decided to keep an open mind. We auditioned about 150 actresses, some of them novices, and Deborah became the obvious choice for everyone. She blends fragility with touching absent-mindedness that can evolve into something glamorous - and that's exactly what we wanted for Rose, this country girl who becomes a star. I was astounded when she actually blushed during our first tests. She was Rose Pamphyle. We had to be able to place her photo among photos of the stars of that era without it being shocking, so she could become a new icon. I wanted to tremble when I saw Rose Pamphyle. I like Deborah's independence and resilient character. And we both had in common the fact that POPULAIRE was a chance to work on a big film in which we invested a lot of ourselves.

How did you direct her?

At times I was a sort of Louis Echard for her, particularly during her training as a typist; then Romain took over from me quite naturally. He even went to Liege to watch her train and learn to type with ten fingers. I asked Deborah to watch Billy Wilder comedies with Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine but I also wanted her to stay close to Marilyn Monroe. I gave her a lot of images of that era so she could understand how women in the '50s held their bodies, how they kissed, sat on and got up from a sofa, etc. Deborah doesn't imitate; she absorbs everything you give her and re-interprets it in her own manner while managing to let go entirely. Only her ponytail is directly inspired by Audrey Hepburn. We even stuck a poster of her on her bedroom wall.

Why did you want Berenice Bejo for the role of Marie?

I discovered her in THE ARTIST. I found her particularly moving when she grabs Jean Dujardin's coat in his dressing room. I understood you needed to have great sensitivity to succeed in such a scene. I also wanted a beauty, the kind of girl we all admired at school. We had to be able to believe in the relationship between her and Romain, between him and his ideal woman. Even if Romain is totally in love with Rose and Marie is married to Bob, Louis and Marie are together forever. I also knew she was able to play the role of a mother who is perfectly happy, without being duped by the position of women in society of that time. Romain was amazed during their first reading together at how he was able to perceive both her reassuring-motherliness and her 'ahead-of-her-time sexiness.' As her shoulder-length hair betrays, she's a modern woman who is already in the '60s.

Why did you want Louis Echard's friend to be American?

In the '50s, the French used to fantasize about Americans. I also wanted him to symbolize the switch from a consumer society to entertainment industry in France. I was also able, thanks to Bob's character and to Shaun Benson who portrays him, to highlight the musical comedy side of the film since Shaun reminds me so much of Gene Kelly.

How did you choose the pre-existing music tracks?

First of all I didn't stick to the year in which the action takes place. I preferred to give myself a margin of about three years before and after 1958. I love American lounge music and light jazz like Les Baxter or Martin Denny. I'm also passionate about '50s composers who wrote for Sinatra and other crooners. And I wanted to have French songs, but in post-war France the dominant music was Yves Montand, Leo Ferre, Georges Brassens and Edith Piaf. I couldn't find an equivalent of American popular light jazz. Then I discovered little-known artists such as Jack Ary, who led a cha-cha and mambo orchestra. He released about twenty 45s and that's how I unearthed "The Secretary's Cha-Cha."

What about the original score?

I realized that I needed one, as the pre-existing material wasn't enough for me. I called Rob, who works with the band Phoenix and who's great with melodies, and Emmanuel d'Orlando as well. Together they composed an original score that brings great emotional impact to the film. I've always thought that if I were going to do melodrama I'd really go for it. I was inspired by '50s and '60s recording methods, including the positioning of the microphone. We recorded in France and the musicians who are used to playing opera were delighted to play pop while watching images from the film. The end result is close to a musical and I'm delighted since Stanley Donen and Bob Fosse are favorites of mine.

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