With My Golden Days now playing in limited release, I recently sat down with veteran French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin, who has written and directed a vibrant follow-up to his 1996 My Sex Life…or How I Got into an Argument. The intensely personal origin story centers on Paul Dédalus (Mathieu Amalric/Quentin Dolmaire), an anthropologist in Tajikistan who’s about to return to France. He looks back on his life through a series of flashbacks that reveal his troubled childhood in Roubaix, his teenage trip to the USSR on a covert mission, and his university experience when he first met Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet), who became the love of his life.
In an exclusive interview, Desplechin talked about his desire to direct a new generation of actors in his films, what appealed to him about the character of Dédalus and inspired him to do a coming-of-age film about him, what led him to cast two unknown and inexperienced actors to play the lead roles, how he chose scenes from David Gordon Green’s All the Real Girls and Clint Eastwood’s Bird to help prepare his actors, what surprised him about their performances, what it was like shooting on location in Tajikistan, the contributions of DP Irina Lubtchansky and production designer Toma Baqueni, and his upcoming project, Ishmael and His Ghosts.
ARNAUD DESPLECHIN: I’d never worked with adolescents before, with young, inexperienced actors. At one point in my life, when I finished Jimmy P., and after that, I did a small film for the French TV with very experienced actors, and it was a real pleasure to do that, I thought, “Yes, okay, I know that I’m not that bad at inventing good, clever lines for experienced actors and movie stars. I’m okay with that.” But it’s vain, and it means nothing to me, if a new generation can’t come and embrace my lines and think about themselves in my films. It was a great wish that I had to make a coming-of-age film. I remember the first time I saw Moonrise Kingdom, the Wes Anderson film, where you had these two young characters. I thought Wes Anderson is so great, because he worked with all these amazing American movie stars, and he’s dedicated his films to newcomers. I wanted to open my film to newcomers. I started writing, thinking, “Arnaud, will you be able to direct young and inexperienced actors when you’ve worked with so many experienced ones?” There was this great wish and this great appetite to film the youth. That’s how it started.
How hard was it to get a project like this to the place to make it all happen?
DESPLECHIN: It was not that difficult. Actually, I had old notes about this character and a few spare scenes, and I certainly had the idea for the structure of the film, that it wouldn’t be one whole, but just bits and pieces about the man plunging into his memories. Then, everything was possible. I knew that it would be a period piece, because I think it’s nice for a coming-of-age story that it’s always in the past. I thought that it would take place during the fall of the Berlin Wall, which is such a big event that’s strangely disappeared from our memories. I grew up in a world which was split in two parts, and now we are experiencing a different world. I thought it was nice to go back to this moment of worldwide history. Everything was easy to write and the characters were so full of life that it helped me a lot during the writing process. I was just following them.
What appealed to you about the character of Paul Dédalus that inspired you to write and direct an origin film about his coming-of-age?
DESPLECHIN: What I loved about Paul Dédalus, and what attracted me deeply, is the fact that he had this sick relationship with his mother. He’s losing his mother. After that, he had a very embarrassing relationship with women. Even when he was young, he behaved as though he was 50 or 60 years old. He’s too reasonable, a little bit too shallow. He doesn’t know if he’s the right guy. But what I love and what I think is deeply generous in his character is the fact that he accepts that a woman is the one who has the key to who he is, that a woman and the fact that he loved a woman is the definition of who he is ultimately, and that he has the modesty to disappear in front of Esther. I’m saying it in a very complicated way, but it’s said by the character in a very simple way when he says, “I’m shallow,” and he’s writing to Esther and says, “…and you exist like a mountain.” I love this clumsy guy who is stumbling over a girl who is solid as a rock. I love this relationship between this man who is so fragile and this woman who is so powerful.
Can you talk about your cast and what it was like using these unknown and inexperienced actors in the main roles? What did Quentin Dolmaire and Lou Roy-Lecollinet bring to the film?
DESPLECHIN: We met with 900 guys and girls in Paris, or Roubaix, and everywhere. These two had a special gift. First of all, they were the same age as the characters. I didn’t want a girl who was 22 playing the part of a girl who’s 17 years old. Lou was 17 and she had this ability to say my lines. Perhaps, because she had some experience acting and she’d had classes, she felt free with the lines. Some actors want to improvise. It’s not that they are not good. But these actors would express themselves through my lines. Quentin was so mature for being so young. He was 19 years old, and he was so serious at the same time, and funny and poetic. It was obvious that he would be part of the film. When I think about Lou playing the part of Esther, I remember her waiting in the corridor during the casting process, and I saw her face, and everything was too much in her. She had too much eyes, too much cheeks, too much chin, too much nose. I mean, she was too much. I thought this “too much” is perfectly not enough for my camera. She exists like a mountain. She was sharing that with the character, and so, she could provide me with a great Esther.
Did you do any preparation with your actors prior to the start of shooting?
DESPLECHIN: I never rehearse because I’m superstitious. Plus, I’m full of anxiety before starting a film. I would be afraid if they were great during the rehearsal, that suddenly, on the set, they might be terrible. I’m too suspicious to proceed that way. What we did, because they were inexperienced, was we had to practice. I stole scenes from other films and we worked on those scenes. I remember we worked on a film that I love, which is All the Real Girls. We took scenes from that film and we worked on the scenes. I remember we used a lot of material coming from the Clint Eastwood movie, Bird, about Charlie Parker and his love story with Chan, because it was a love story. There was this man and this woman who came from two different worlds – Charlie Parker being Afro-American and Chan being Jewish. It’s a perfect match and an adjustment at the same time. I thought it was exactly the story that I wanted to tell. I loved the writing of it. We used the scene from Bird, and we played it again and again and again. For them, it was training, sort of a class. We worked on other scenes. After that, we had just one simple reading through the lines of the whole script to see if they were embarrassed with some lines. They felt comfortable and we did well with it.
Was there anything they revealed in their performances that surprised you?
DESPLECHIN: Quentin, it was obvious. He carried the film in such a great way. His art was obvious on the set. What surprised me was Lou in the part of Esther, because she started the film as a second part, not as a main part. She’s just the girl outside of the school, like a statue sitting on that rock in the schoolyard and saying, “You will never forget me.” She’s so proud and she’s just like a goddess. But, what I told her at one point of the shooting was, “You are the film. You have to become the film.” You are the reason why I’m making this film. So, you have to become the very soul of the film. You have to take the power.” She took it. Her last scene was excruciating for me, scenes about her loneliness, writing a last letter to Paul. It was just the cameraman and me and her in the same room, and she was crying, and she was becoming the film. I was astonished to see her power. I loved that, because also it’s the plot that I wanted to express. It’s that, in a way, Esther took all the room in Paul’s life. Esther is ultimately the definition of Paul. Who is Paul? Paul is the guy who loved Esther.
Were there any surprises during production? Anything you wish you’d known on day one?
DESPLECHIN: Nothing that surprised me. I remember one issue. I wrote these lines, and after that we improvised a lot on the set, but I wrote this line saying, “Now Paul is in Tajikistan.” I wrote it just for poetical reasons. I know nothing about Tajikistan. I just thought it sounded nice. Then, the producer came to me and he was terrified. He said, “Do you mean that you will go to Tajikistan?” I said, “Yeah, for sure. We’ll go to Tajikistan and we’ll improvise scenes there.” So, we took that trip. We had three planes which arrived in Khujand, which is a small, beautiful city in Tajikistan. All the production company was terrified that it would be impossible, and actually it was so easy to film that landscape, and these people’s faces, and track the loneliness of Paul in his exile. It was great and it surprised me. The trip was really exciting, and the producer realized that it was the right way to do it. If you wrote it for stupid reasons in Tajikistan, then you have to go there and show Tajikistan to the audience. That was fun.
What scene or situation in this film was the most memorable or fun or challenging for you to direct?
DESPLECHIN: I’m always wary of traps, because they were so young. I’m not from the same generation, which sounds stupid and cheesy, but this is their first kiss. For them, she’s 17 years old and he was 19 years old, and they had to kiss in a film. They don’t know each other that well. I had to direct that, and I wanted to have a precise result, and I wanted them to be shy and full of excitement at the same time, and warm and cold in the same moment. I love that after that Quentin asks Esther, “Did someone love you more than his own life?,” and she says, “No,” and he says, “I will love you that way.” It’s the seriousness of love. I was afraid to embarrass them. I was quite shy with that. I dared to do it, and I was overwhelmed with what they gave me. It was funny, because they were as shy as their characters at this very precise moment.
How would you describe your directing style?
DESPLECHIN: I like to change. I try to be playful on the set. I like to improvise a bit, to invent solutions, to use all the tools that cinema offers me, and I try to be playful with the actors in order to amuse you and to surprise you. That’s how I would try to describe it. I always think if the actors are bored, the characters will be bored, and you will be bored in the audience. So, I have to be funny on the set. I’m trying to be light and playful and to say, “And what if we invent this? What if we do this tracking? What if we use split screen? What if we use iris? And what if …?” I’m just trying to be playful and childish.
How long was your first cut? Did you have a lot of deleted scenes?
DESPLECHIN: The first cut was not that far off. Perhaps eight minutes longer or something like that. We changed a lot of things, but it didn’t change the length of it. We didn’t reduce it. You saw almost all the material that we shot. We just cut one scene which was less good that was without Paul and Esther. At that point in the storytelling, we just wanted to see Paul and Esther. So, I suppressed that scene, but the film is quite close to the script.
Can you talk about the contributions of your creative team, your DP Irina Lubtchansky and production designer Toma Baqueni, and how they helped you realize your vision?
DESPLECHIN: Oh yes, Irina Lubtchansky. Her father is a very important figure in the French cinema. He was one of the most famous DP’s of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and she had been an assistant for a while for her father. She is really used to the 35mm techniques, because she did all the great French films in 35mm when she was still a kid with her father. She was the one that introduced me to the digital camera. It was my first film on digital, but the great thing is that she’s working just like she would with a film. She’s a really powerful cinematographer. She was a great help to me. Also, I am always working on location, which means that things could look banal or like a documentary piece. I think the style of the sets is really great. The production designer I worked with was Toma Baqueni, and the job that he did, what he achieved, was really great. I was quite proud when we had the Cesar Awards in France, which is like a small Oscar ceremony, and we were nominated for Best Cinematography, Best Set, and Best Music. I thought, “Wow, it’s great. We did a good job.”
How does the final film compare to what you originally envisioned?
DESPLECHIN: My writing is sometimes dark or rough or tough. What Paul has to go through is really tough — the loss of his mother, the story of him in the USSR, and for Esther, the lack of Paul and the loneliness. But what surprised me when I was editing the film is the light that the two young actors brought to the film. The film is full of hope and vivid and full of happy times when the writing could be darker. They brought a freshness and a light that I was expecting, but I was not able to define it. I was just hoping that they would bring that dimension. What was overwhelming for me was the fact that they spoke for their own generation. They spoke about themselves through my words and it was beautiful to film that. They embellished the film and they gave it a full dimension.
What are you working on next that you’re excited for audiences to know about?
DESPLECHIN: I can only tell you that it’s a film about three women. It’s not a period piece. It’s today in France. It’s about three female characters which are so surprising. I’ve never worked on such characters before. The writing of it was quite inspiring. I can tell you the title. I love the title. It’s called Ishmael and His Ghosts. It’s a portrait of this man caught between these three women. I’m supposed to shoot it this summer.
My Golden Days is now playing in New York and Los Angeles.