(Originally appeared in The Film Stage on Jun. 1 , 2015)
How did this project start for you?
[whistles, pointing to right] This is my screenwriter (Noé Debré).
It didn’t start with the director?
Sure, but if a director talks, the screenwriter remembers the conversation.
What drew you to the project?
It’s probably the guy who sells roses at cafés. When you send them off, you don’t look at them, but they do have their own stories. That’s what we’re telling here.
Why did you choose the civil war in Sri Lanka as background for the film?
I’d say the film is about war in general. Noé [Debré] was the one who chose the location of Sri Lanka. In France, we hardly ever hear anything about the war over there.
Debré: There’s something very striking for us in Europe, specifically in France, about this subject matter. Ours is a very diverse population. In Paris you meet a lot of Sri Lankans – no, actually you don’t meet them, you just see them. You have no idea what their stories are. They are not represented in cinema, at least not in French cinema, or even in western cinema, especially not in genre movies. That’s what made the prospect interesting to me. Immediately you think, there’s going to be pictures that we’ve never seen before.
This is no doubt a very human story. Do you see it as a political film as well?
The film’s not political because it deals with the projects or immigrants. It’s political in the sense that it’s a French production with unknown, non-professional Tamil actors, co-produced by French national television. To me this fact is politically significant. And also just the fact that it shows how we live today in France, with faces that are not necessarily familiar because they’re from different parts of the world.
This film is also about how a fictional family becomes a real family.
I do think the real subject of the film is the family. And if you look at that family from a distance, you realize the film also becomes a comedy in a way, like a comedy about marriages. From there you arrive at a truth that’s even better than ordinary truths. In a way, the comedy supports the whole narration. The rest of it, like the depiction of the projects, is just background. It’s like making a film about the vigilantes by way of romantic comedy.
What often happens with your films is that, one thinks they’re watching a certain kind of movie, only to finds out later that it’s something completely different.
I’m not necessarily aware of that, nor is it something I try to do deliberately. But I do realize that there’s a structure in screenwriting and a way of shaping the story that’s recurring in my films because it’s effective. The genre element, for example, is an effective means of storytelling, but there are people who take genre too literally and they end up making bad movies. It’s a matter of balance. Having too much action in an action movie can be counterproductive.
I recently re-watched "Straw Dogs" and I was very disappointed. I didn’t like it anymore. It aged in a bad way. It’s far from being the best Peckinpah film. I thought it was the perfect film but it’s not.
The depiction of the projects in the film is quite shocking. Were you going for a realistic portrayal or an exaggerated version?
It’s a reflection and, as such, an exaggeration. It’s a stylized portrait of what is, at least from the point of the view of the characters – the idea of the film is that we see the majority of the events through the characters’ eyes. In cinema there’s no such thing as an objective view anyway.
Do you think there’s a moral code within the world of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam)?
I wouldn’t be able to say. I know that it belongs to a completely different culture that’s very structured and has ancient myths. I know that the LTTE are fighters. They’re an army which has killed a lot people. Yesterday I also learned that Antony (lead actor Jesuthasan Antonythasan) was a leftist-communist, a Guevarist.
Can you talk about the choice of music for the film?
The song Dheepan sings in the film is the actual hymn of the LTTE fighters. The other Tamil songs were chosen by Antony. As for the rest of the score, it was composed by Nicolas Jaar, an American-Chilean musician. I wanted him to also use classical tones and notes, which is why we had the Vivaldi piece.
Many European directors presented English-language films at this year’s festival. Will you also consider doing one?
I’m no doubt the first French director to work in Tamil. [laughter] And that would be my answer to your question.
How important is the fact that your main actor has actually lived through the Sri Lankan warfare?
You should ask him that question. For me it wasn’t an essential factor. I only found out that he used to be a fighter afterwards. In some respects it was good that he brought with him this experience, because he could provide me with details like the correct names of the places etc. Otherwise it wasn’t important.
Is it true that you’re inspired by Montesquieu’s The Persian Letters?
What Montesquieu asked was how to be a person. It was a great question that certainly interested me.
You have worked with both established actors and non-professional actors. Did you notice any difference and do you have a preference?
After “A Prophet” I became more and more inclined to work with non-professional actors because, first of all, I don’t know their faces. Also, allow me to exaggerate a little bit here, when a professional actor gives a bad performance, it’s just plain bad; whereas you can often still get something out of a bad performance by a non-professional actor. Someone who does things that you haven’t seen before can always surprise.
Your films tend to have a happy ending. Did you find it justified or necessary in this case?
In a script, you often have two endings. One is the ending of the characters, one the ending of the story. Often they don’t coincide, which is why you have epilogues or additional scenes in films. In this case, the end of the story is of course the violent fight and the end of the characters is the episode in the UK. To me that episode also functions as a vision of Dheepan, of this tranquil, quiet happiness.
You mentioned at the press conference yesterday that the film rejected many things by its very nature.
Yes, the film rejected every attempt at aestheticization, for example, both in terms of using special lighting and narrative tricks. I could actually make a catalog of the things I said no to. Simply put, whatever went beyond the point of view of the characters was uncalled-for, because it would be excessive. When you think about it, this is really a film from the point of view of the three main characters. That doesn’t change throughout the film.
When you choose new project, do you look back on what you’ve done already and go for something vastly different?
I’ve only made seven films in over 20 years, which is not a lot. What I know is that every film meant something to me. I’m sure if you ask John Ford what he’d learned between his 68th and 69th films, he’d be puzzled and surprised by the question as well. For me, it’s always about looking for something that makes me question and re-examine what I thought I knew, but I can’t really specify what triggers the inspirations in me.