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François Ozon has never been one to rest on his laurels, as the French filmmaker attempts something new with each and every project and with his latest feature: In the House, theatrically released on March 29, he presents a somewhat satirical black comedy starring Fabrice Luchini, Kristin Scott Thomas and Ernst Umhauer in a tale about a student who systematically submits a story to his teacher describing his ventures into the middle class abode of a fellow classmate.
Of course In the House is an adaptation of the play ‘The Boy in the Last Row’, why did you chose this particular play to adapt? And how much did you change?
FO: I was invited by a friend of mine who is an actress and she was in the play, and she insists that I come to see the play because she said it was a play for me, and I didn’t want to go. All the actors always invite you to see them and you don’t know if it’s for the play or for them, so I didn’t want to go. But when I discovered the title ‘The Boy in the Last Row’ I was intrigued, so I decided to go, and she was right – the play really interested me and I thought it was very clever, funny and so I decided to take the rights of the play. The Rights were in Spain taken by a Spanish director, so I was afraid because I thought maybe it’s Almodóvar who wants to do it as a film – but thankfully it was an unknown Spanish director who didn’t find the money to make it, so I kept the rights and do my own adaptation.
What do you think you can accomplish through the film that you couldn’t in the play?
FO: You know when you do an adaptation you can’t keep everything, you have to follow your instinct and keep what you like. In the case of this film, because it’s a story about storytelling and the process of working and writing, I decided to take what was close to me, you know, and because the author of the play Juan Mayorga was very nice, he said to me “I respect your work, do what you want”, he didn’t want to control the adaptation, and let me be totally free, to do exactly what I wanted. So I cut many things because the theatre language and the cinematic language are totally different and I changed the characters and the ending, I did many transformations – but I tried to keep the spirit of the play.
So why the title change?
FO: In French, ‘The Boy in the Last Row’ is too concrete, it was just one situation of the film, and I had a feeling the film would be larger than that. In the House is abstract enough to put exactly what you want in it, and because of my other films are very often about houses, I think it was a good metaphor, you know, entering in the house, like entering a film – it was perfect with what I wanted to do.
Following Potiche, this is the second adaptation of a play in a row, is there something that appeals to you about transferring stage material into film?
FO: This time is different, you know. For Potiche I didn’t want to lose the origin, whereas in the case of In the House, if you don’t know it’s an adaptation of a play you can’t imagine it as a play, because I tried to make it very cinematic because for me it’s really a film about the mise-en-scene of cinema, so it depends on the project, but each time it’s different.
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Talking of different; on the surface, your films appear very different but do you think there is something that unites them all? A common thread, or a style particular to you?
FO: I don’t know, maybe. Don’t ask me these kind of questions [laughs] I don’t analyse too much of my own work, it’s your job to do that. I try not to repeat myself, I like to try new challenges and to go in different directions, I guess there are maybe links between all my films, and sometimes I am shooting a scene and I think, I’ve done this before, but I try to have a new experimentation each time. Especially because I do a film a year, if it’s always the same thing it can be very boring.
I assume you identified with the young writer in the film, did you also identify to any extent with Fabrice’s character Germain?
FO: I identify more with the student in the film than to the teacher. I feel that myself, I am still like a student, learning. But yes I am close to the two characters, just a bit more to the young boy because he is the storyteller, and in my mise-en-scene I try to follow the route he goes in his story because he tries to follow the advice of his teacher but very often he doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing. Is it a parody? Is it a melodrama? A comedy? A thriller? For me it was very exciting to play with these different genres.
Did you have a teacher who took you under his wing when you first started your career?
FO: Not like Germain, not someone so close. But yes, there are some people who were very important when I was a younger, cinema student. The fact I discovered some directors, for example a big retrospective of Fassbinder when I was a student was very important, because suddenly I had the feeling he was talking to me, you know, and his work and way of working, and the different genres he was able to do, was very helpful because when you are young and you realise you have different influences you can be a bit afraid, you don’t know exactly what kind of film you are going to do. So to suddenly see a master who is totally free, it’s very helpful.
In terms of influences, a lot of people have talked about Hitchcock with this film, for obvious reasons, but the way Claude talks about class seems to relate somewhat to Claude Chabrol. Were either of those filmmakers influences on you?
FO: When you speak about storytelling it’s an obligation to speak about Hitchcock because he was the first one to think about how to tell a story, how do you play with the audience with the idea of suspense?
FO: So for me it was obvious to do references to him, especially at the end of the film, with a shot that is like Rear Window. As for Chabrol references, no I didn’t have him in mind, and what amused me was to show the point of view of Claude and this middle class family, and how it’s very ironic at the beginning and then cynical and step-by-step as he follows the advice of his teacher, he learns to like his characters and at the end it’s more like a melodrama and he falls in love with the housewife, so I liked to show this evolution. For non-French audiences not only are we looking into somebody else’s house and different class, but we’re looking into a whole different culture. Do you think that changes the meaning of the film, or how it can be perceived in different countries?
FO: Yes. I guess it must be. Even for the French the film must be very strange because the middle class doesn’t look like a typical French middle class, it looks more like an American middle class. Even the school, we don’t have uniforms in France, it’s very unusual and so actually my first idea when doing the adaptation was to do the film in England, to make it in an English school because you have uniforms because I thought it would be a good idea to have all the students like a herd of sheep, always the same, except for the one in the back row who is different. I realised it was too much work though, and I didn’t know the English education system enough to set it in England.
In terms of the casting, you do seem to give quite prominent roles to actresses over 40, the likes of Charlotte Rampling in the past and Kristin Scott Thomas this time around…
Over 50 [laughs] I’m sorry! Do you think that French cinema is more accommodating to older actresses than perhaps Hollywood is?
FO: Yes of course. But I think it’s sad for the American and English actresses and that is why so many of them come to France to work. When you see the parts that Kristin has in England, very often she is a supporting part, she is the auntie, the grandmother, or the mother – in France she has lead parts. In my film she is a supporting part but she has a very strong part, even if it’s short she has the possibility to take on a complex part. I don’t know where it comes from, perhaps because in France cinema is an art first and after it’s an industry so we like to give parts to everybody, for women over 40 and 50 years old, and maybe that is why actresses like Isabelle Huppert or Catherine Deneuve are still working a lot as the leading parts.
Charlotte Rampling is in your next film as well, what is about her that appeals to you? Would you call her your muse?
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FO: She has a small part. But yeah, it was really great to meet Charlotte when we did Under the Sand, it was amazing meeting work-wise and then we became very good friends. She was very important because the film Under the Sand was a real fight, you know, everybody was against the film, they would say Charlotte Rampling is over, she’s too old, nobody will be interested in a film about death and a film about grieving, and we fought to make the film against everybody. When the film was released and it was a huge success in France and proved to be the comeback of Charlotte Rampling, so it was a real pleasure and we were very happy with that. We began a professional relationship because after that we did Swimming Pool, Angel and now the one I’ve just finished.
What do you think the film tells us about storytelling?
FO: The film says nothing, you know, I don’t have a message, I don’t do propaganda in my movies. I just want to share with you, the experience of the storytelling and the process. I want the audience to be engaged and it’s only when I speak with the audience that I realise that people have different interpretations of the film and I’m very happy with that because that’s what I want. In the beginning of the film it’s very clear what is real and what is fiction, but step by step I mix everything and decide to treat everything on the same level and it’s up to you to decide what is fake and you do your own film, and that was the idea, to make an interactive movie. I have no message, I just show things and give you the freedom. When I go to the cinema I don’t want someone telling me I have to think something, I am not Michael Haneke. I’m not a teacher, I try not to be a teacher.
The student-teacher relationship in the film reminds me of what it may be between a writer and producer, were you able to draw on your own experiences as a writer within that relationship?
FO: Yes, I need to speak with people when I’m working. The process of creation in movies is not lonely, you need to work with a crew, you don’t stop speaking with the others. When I’m writing a script I like to give it to friends, my producer for different point of views, because it’s a process that is always moving. If I’m not in the editing process I do some test screenings to see if people are bored, what they understand, for me it’s very important.
Speaking of editing, your films are very fast paced…
FO: When you tell a story you have to keep your audience captive, especially in the editing process: we didn’t want to lose time but to make it quick and make it funny and to have a good rhythm.
So when you direct do you keep up that pace on set?
FO: No because it’s not so quick. Maybe between Kristin and Fabrice, because it’s very wordy and I wanted a comedy tempo between them. I had in mind Woody Allen and Diane Keaton.
There isn’t actually that much drama that takes place in the house itself – was that a challenge for you?
FO: I asked myself many questions, because I think if I was a Hollywood director I would have put a murder in the film, make it like a thriller. But I think it was interesting to have nothing in the house. It was a challenge you know, but it’s not so much about what happens, but how do you describe what is going on in this house?
This is your second time directing Fabrice Luchini and you do seem to work with a similar cast of actors multiple times – is that something you find helpful, or comforting?
FO: It’s just that sometimes you work with an actor in one way and you know this actor is richer than that and they have more faces, and for Fabrice in Potiche he was the main character, and the part was like a caricature, but I wanted to give him the opportunity to show another face of his personality, so when you like someone you want to show difference faces of their work and personality.
As you said earlier you make a film a year and you’re incredibly busy – do you ever take a break or do you just love working?
FO: I like to work but I have time to take a break too? Do you want me to take a break? A long break? [Laughs]. I like to do movies, I don’t like to do promotion but I like to do movies. If I didn’t have to do promotion I would be able to do two or three films a year, but it’s not the case.
What was the last film you saw that you really enjoyed?
FO: Hmm… The last film I saw, oh my God. [Pauses] I saw a film on the plane called The Life of Pi, which is not the sort of film you should see on the plane, but I really enjoyed it! Each time I am on the plane I love the films because I am drunk because I get afraid, so I love all the films. But yeah, I liked Life of Pi because it’s a film about storytelling. I was surprised by it as I didn’t know the book, so I liked the ambiguity at the end. It was a beautiful idea.
You speak about doing the promotion for films, is it quite nice though, that when you make a film a year or so earlier to then travel the world promoting it, you almost get to relive it by talking about it?
FO: It’s easier because I have a distance, you know. But now I have a new film and already I have turned the page so it’s like talking about your last love. So yes it’s easier.
You’ve said that like to work on very different things and try different genres – is there something that you haven’t been able to do yet that you would like to?
FO: The West End. No, I don’t try to do do something different each time, I’m not like Kubrick who wanted to do different genres, I just follow my instinct, I don’t have a career path, I just follow my instinct and my pleasure, that’s all. SP
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