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POPULAIRE

A Conversation with Producer Alain Attal
How did you get involved in the project?

Thanks to an appointment at Cannes Film Festival, two years ago, with the agent, Lionel Amant. We were finishing lunch and getting up to leave when he mentioned another project, adding immediately: "But you don't do first films any more?" That stung me into action and I replied: "I'm not against it if it's a good subject." And the proof is that I was at the time prepping Romain Levy's debut feature. He briefed me on the story in a few words and I sat down, fascinated. I thought the theme was astounding. I didn't know speed typing competitions had ever taken place and I got really excited about what a cinematographic object a typewriter is. The theme of speed typing also appealed to me since my mother worked as a typist and I remember that the number of words per minute she could achieve was written on her CV, a selection criteria at the time. I told Lionel I wanted to be the first to read the script.

And then?

Lionel told Regis that I was enthusiastic, but at first Regis thought it was just talk, as is often the case in Cannes. I called Lionel again to tell him I was very serious and a couple of weeks later I received a nearly completed version of the screenplay. Which is very rare. Usually there is a whole phase of developing the work and re-writing it before you receive the first script. But Regis' screenplay was astounding and very moving. There was one more thing to do: to meet the director since we had never met. And I loved him immediately: he was completely possessed by his subject, he knew the era by heart - he literally lives in 1958. The blend of romance and sport competition was tremendous. I immediately saw a kind of female ROCKY.

Even if the screenplay was already successfully completed, did you work on it again with Regis?

I tried to understand where he wanted to go. In fact I always try to adopt what the director wants to do: I insist on knowing what he has in mind as clearly as possible, to the point of getting to know his artistic intentions almost more than he does. Which leads to lengthy discussions on the narrative, the rhythm, references, etc. Regis knows '50s and '60s cinema inside out, which suits me since I'm a big fan of auteurs like Billy Wilder, Nicholas Ray, Douglas Sirk and the Hitchcock of that era. We had to define the film's key scenes that had to be re- written in order for them to follow his approach as a director.

Which changes did you suggest?

We put a bit more flesh on the couple. Since the first draft there were four competitions - regional, coaching for the following year, the National that Rose wins, and the world - but the romantic mood had to be enhanced. So we spiced up the reasons Louis doesn't want to commit, and we dug into his past and his relationship with his best friend's wife. We decided Rose and he would make love, which wasn't the case at the beginning. This magnificent love scene has strengthened the film. Afterwards when Louis leaves Rose, the emotional tension isn't the same. It has decreased. He is now so much more than her coach.

Was it a great financial challenge to produce such an expensive first film?

It's one of the biggest budgets - some 15 million Euros - for a French first film of the last decade or so, and one of the most expensive films I have produced. But it has to be said that since it's a full-length feature, you can see the funds right there on screen. On some big-budget movies that aren't first films, much of the budget is absorbed by the cast, the writers, the director, leaving less room to manoeuvre for the sets, and costumes. Such a budget for a first film is heavy to manage because almost all the funds are available to making the film itself.

How did you convince your financial partners to follow you?

It was a challenge. I instinctively thought the script was going to lead to an astounding movie, but putting a first film together for 15 million Euros is almost impossible. The first step for Regis and me was to convince a name actor to make the project credible. As luck would have it Romain loved the script and committed immediately to the project. Then it was imperative, to reassure our partners, to surround ourselves with big names for the crew. Regis and I agreed to attempt to convince Guillaume Schiffman who was finishing work on THE ARTIST. After we had assembled a solid technical and artistic team I met the investors and then I realized I had been right to believe in this unusual project, because all the potential partners to whom I presented the screenplay supported it. They then went into fierce competition to be a part of it. The Canal+ committee was unanimous and Wild Bunch was enthusiastic. Then I met several distributors, who all said yes. If I chose Mars it is of course because of their great competence and the fact that they liked the project but also because I had just finished POLISSE and favored a distributor who had supported me on a more difficult project. Finally the television channels were won over by the project. I finalised an agreement with France 2 and France 3 who committed to the project together, which is quite unusual.

What were the biggest production difficulties?

As soon as you're shooting a period film and trying to be as realistic as possible, you have to be able to make the right compromises. You have to find the correct balance between striving for artistic excellence, what serves the story and what pleases the director who wants to cover himself. These questions come up every other second. As a producer I have to help the director to make choices as to how to spend the money. For example, you can choose to have 300 extras for the world championship or to have less and favour a wide-angle shot in New York. An extra in a period film costs about 1,000 Euros per day as opposed to 130 Euros for a contemporary film (make-up, costume, hair plus the necessary staff soon raise the expense). Similarly you can decide to have 40 American cars in front of the theatre in New York or a few hundred but if you chose the second option you'll have to do without the crane, the night shoot, and so forth.

POPULAIRE exudes happiness, like some of the great American classics.

I think it's because the audience identifies itself easily with the emotional twists and turns into which the characters are thrown. Louis is the driving force at first, while Rose is more of a follower, and then the relationship reverses. To me POPULAIRE can be related to certain Billy Wilder or Douglas Sirk films, where heroism can be found in ordinary people, as portrayed by the likes of Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart, and Kim Novak. Jack Lemmon's character in THE APARTMENT is typical. You wonder how this guy can be a hero when he really is a coward, but the writing is so good that you identify with him. There was something of that in Regis' script. To me it's a great saga about people who meet, who love one another, and who move away from each other. If the film works, when you come out of the cinema you'll feel as if you've been a part of these characters' intimate life.

There's a sociological dimension (women's liberation) to the romantic comedy.

This is one of the factors I liked. The issue is quite clear in the film: in 1958 feminism consisted of wanting to become a secretary and trying to find a place in the world of men, which is to say in the workplace. Rose embraces perfectly the era in which she lives: she portrays a woman who refuses what has been dictated to her by her upbringing and her father. In this she is a true feminist: she takes her destiny in her own hands and, thanks to her perseverance, she finds a job, a coach, and ends up winning all the competitions. And when Louis leaves her, she doesn't fall apart - she's a fighter. I even think she is more liberated than Marie (Berenice Bejo) who is a lot more modern in style but has chosen to remain a housewife.

When you produce a first film, do you have to invest more of yourself?

I think you invest yourself in the same way. The slight difference is that your help is requested more. There is the same trusting atmosphere that you have with experienced directors but the director who is making his first film will probably have more questions - all the more so when the film's budget is high. Regis was so grateful that we gave him the chance to realise his dream that he was anxious during preparation and often sought my advice. But as early as the first days of shooting I realized that he knew exactly what he wanted and what he was doing, that he had his story in his hands from beginning to end and was without any doubt going to achieve a great film.

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