I think every film critic and journalist has a list, whether on their head or on paper, of reasons they got into this line of work; the people who inspired them, and the things they want to do. At the end of last week I got to put a tick next to one of the major items on my list.
When I was young I was lucky enough to have a neighbour who was a huge film buff, and who introduced me to my first films from outside the American mainstream. One of those was Ozon’s first feature, Sitcom, which I loved. I’ve since seen every one of Ozon’s feature films and all but a handful of his shorts, and have come to consider him the best director currently working, so when I got a chance to join a roundtable and interview Ozon with five other journalists, ahead of the opening of his new film, In the House, I leapt at the chance.
My own questions are indicated below.
Ozon: Actually I was invited by a friend of mine who is an actress, she was in the play and she insisted that I should come to see the play because she said it was the play for you but I didn’t want to go because actors always invite you and you don’t know if it’s for the play or [to see] them. But when I discovered the title The Boy in the Last Row I was intrigued by the title. So I decided to go and she was right, the play did interest me and it was very clever, funny and so I decided to take the rights of the play but the rights were in Spain, taken by a Spanish director. So I was afraid ‘Oh my God maybe it’s Pedro Almodovar who wants to do it’ and it was an unknown Spanish director that didn’t find the money [to make the film] so I kept the rights and I decided to do my own adaptation.
Q. What do you think you accomplished in the film that is different from the play?
Ozon: You know when you are doing an adaptation you have to admit that it is a betrayal, you know, you can’t keep everything. You have to follow your instincts and to keep what you liked and in the case of this film because it is a story about story telling, the process of working, the process of writing – I decided to take what was close to me. Because the author of the play Juan Mayorga was very nice and he said to me ‘I respect you. Do what you want’ you know, he didn’t want to control the adaptation, he let me be totally free. So I was free to do exactly what I wanted so I cut many things because the theatrical language and the cinematic language is totally different and so I changed a little bit [of] the characters, I changed the ending. So I made many transformations but I tried to keep the spirit of the play.
Q. Why the title change?
Ozon: The title? Because in French, The Boy in the Last Row [Ozon says the title in French] was too concrete. And it was just one situation of the film and I had a feeling that the film would be larger than that. In the House is abstract enough to mean what you want it to me and because my films, very often I do films about the house, I think it’s a metaphor like the entire film. It was perfect for what I wanted to do
24FPS. This is your second adaptation of a play in a row; Potiche and now In the House, is there something that particularly appeals to you about transferring stage material into film?
Ozon: Each time it is different. For Potiche I didn’t want to lose the theatrical origins. In the case of In the House, I think that if you don’t know that it’s adapted from a play you can’t imagine it was a play because I tried to make it very cinematic because for me it’s the way you feel about the mise-en-scene in cinema. So it depends on the project. Each time it is different
Q. On the surface, all of your films seem very different but do you think that there is something that unites them all, a common thread or a style in particular to you?
Ozon: Maybe but don’t ask me those kinds of questions [laughs] because I don’t analyse too much my work that’s up to you [film critic] to do that. I try not to repeat myself, to try new challenges, to try to go in a new direction. But I guess there may be links between all the films and sometimes I’m shooting a scene and I think ‘oh I think I have done that before.’ But I try to have a new experimentation each time, to not have the feeling of repeating especially because if I do a film a year if it’s always the same thing it can be very boring.
Q. I assume you identified with the young writer in the film. Did you also identify to any extent with Fabrice’s [Luchini] character in terms of this is what might have happened if your career hadn’t [taken off]?
Ozon: I identify more with a student than with a teacher. I feel myself still like a student learning many things doing films. But yes I’m close to the two characters but feeling more towards the young boy because he is the story teller and in my mise en scene I try to follow the different genre into which he goes in the story because you know, he tries to follow the response of his teacher though he [Claude] doesn’t know exactly what he is doing. Is it a melodrama, is it a comedy or a thriller and for me it was very exciting to play with these different genres in the same film.
Ozon: Not like Germain, not someone so close, but yes there are some people who were very important when I was a young cinema student. Someone like Eric Rohmer was very important for example. And to discover and to see for example a big retrospective of [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder when I was a student was very important because suddenly I had the feeling that he was talking to me. His work, his way of working, the theme of his film and the different genres he was able to do, it was very helpful. When you are young and you realise you have a different influences you get afraid you don’t know exactly who you are going to do. And suddenly to see a master, who is totally free and it’s very helpful.
24FPS: In terms of influences, a lot of people have talked about Hitchcock with this film for obvious reasons. One thing that struck me was the way that Claude talks about class, this seems to relate somewhat to Claude Chabrol’s films. Were either of those influences that you saw or wanted in the film?
Ozon: You know when you speak about story telling, it’s an obligation to speak about Hitchcock because it was the first one to theorise about how to tell a story, how do you play with your audience with the information, the idea of suspense. So for me it was obvious to do references especially at the end of the film, the shot is like Rear Window. After Claude Chabrol no I didn’t have it in mind. What amused me was to show the point of view of Claude of this middle class family which is very ironic at the beginning, even cynical and step by step because he follows the influence of his teacher he learns to like his characters and in the end it is more like a melodrama, he falls in love with the housewife. So I like to show his journey. His evolution.
Q. For non French audiences, we are not just looking into someone else’s house or class, really we are looking into a whole different culture, do you really think that that changes the meaning of a film or how it can be perceived?
Ozon: Yes I guess it must be very, even for the French the film is very strange. You know the middle class doesn’t look like the typical French middle class. It looks like more like the American middle class but it was the idea to style it. Even in the schools, you know we don’t have uniforms in France. It’s very unusual and so actually my first idea when I began was to do the film in England, to make it a public school because you have uniforms and because I thought it would be a good idea to have all the students like a herd of sheep always the same. Then I realised that it would be too much work and I didn’t know the English system of education enough to make it in England.
Q. In terms of the casting, you do seem to give prominent roles to actresses over 40, Charlotte Rampling in the past and Kristin Scott Thomas and I was wondering…
Ozon: [Corrects] 50.
Q. Over 50. Do you think that French cinema is more accommodating to older actress than perhaps Hollywood is?
Ozon: Yes of course. But I think it’s sad for the American and English actresses. That’s why so many English actresses come to France to work when you see the parts that Kristin [Scott Thomas] very often has in England she’s the supporting part, she’s the auntie, the grandmother, I don’t know what or the mother. In France she has the lead part. In my film she has a supporting part but she has a very strong part. The way that it is shot she has the opportunity to have a very complex part. I don’t know from where it comes, because in France we are less obsessed with the cover. [In France] Cinema is an art first and after it is an industry so we like to give parts to everybody you know, so there are parts for women after 40 and 50 years old. And many actresses like someone like Isabelle Huppert and Catherine Deneuve are still working a lot being the leading part.
Q. Charlotte Rampling is the lead in your next film [Jeune et Jolie]
Ozon: She has a small part.
Q. What is it about her? Is she almost your muse would you say?
Ozon: It was very strong to meet Charlotte when we did Under the Sand. It was very good. It was amazing meeting in my work and then we became very good friends. I think she was very important because the film Under the Sand was a real fight. Everybody was against the film. Everybody [like] the financier said Charlotte was too old [the film] was for old people, nobody will be interested in a film about death and grieving. And we fought to make the film against everybody and when the film was released it was a huge success in France and it was the comeback of Charlotte Rampling and so it was a real pleasure. We were very happy in fact. And we began a real professional relationship after Swimming Pool and the last one that I’ve just finished.
Q. The art work that used in the film, was that commissioned for the film or is that a real artist’s work?
Ozon: What do you think? [Laughs] It was our invention. But you can imagine the dolls would come from an exhibition of Jeff Colts and those kinds of people, it’s quite realistic. I asked for the verbal paintings, but I think that they did exist. ['Paintings' which exist only as the artist's description of them, and are 'seen' via headphones]. It’s a good idea actually verbal paintings.
Q. What do you think the film really tells us about story telling and how we interact with it on an audience level?
Ozon: I think the film says nothing. You know I don’t have a message. I just want to share with you the experience of the storytelling and the process. I try to let there be a place for the spectator to the audience to be engaged in the process. It’s funny when I do some Q&As and I speak with the audience, I realise that people have different interpretations of the film and I’m very happy with that because it’s what I wanted. At the beginning of this film it’s very clear what is real and what is fiction but step by step I mix everything and I decide to treat everything on the same level. It is up to you to decide what is fake. You do your own film That was the idea to make an interactive movie.
Ozon: Yes for me the idea of message, I have no message. I just show things and after I give you the freedom. When I go to the cinema I don’t want someone to tell me you have to think that. I am not my character. I am not a teacher. I try not to be a teacher.
Q. The student teacher relationship in the film it reminded me of a writer/editor relationship. I was wondering were you able to draw on your own experience as a writer/director in that relationship?
Ozon: I need to speak with people when I am working. The process of creation in movies is not lonely. You work with a crew. You don’t stop speaking with the others. When I am writing I like to give the screenplay to friends to have a point of view because it is a process. Even at the editing process I do some test screenings to see if people are bored, do they understand. For me it’s very important.
Q. Speaking of editing, you films are very fast paced do you also say to your actors ‘Come on!’
Ozon: No. When you tell a story you have to captivate your audience so the idea especially at the editing process is not to lose time to make it quick and funny and to have a good rhythm. Maybe between Kristin and Fabrice, it’s very wordy and I wanted a comedy tempo between them like Woody Allen and Diane Keaton.
Q. She [Kristin Scott Thomas] even wears a tie in the film.
Ozon: Yes that’s why, it’s a reference to Diane Keaton.
Q. How did you make it interesting to ‘just’ have people talking on the screen?
Ozon: I hope that the lines are good enough and after it’s a question of actors, it’s the job of the actors. For example between Kristin and Fabrice you know, I think it worked. You have pleasure to watch them speaking but you never know that’s something you realise when you are editing. If it’s not good you cut.
Q. There isn’t that much drama that takes place in the house. Was it quite a challenge for you?
Ozon: I ask myself many questions because I think if I was a Hollywood director I’d have put a murder in the house or something more like a thriller. But I thought it was more interesting to have quite nothing in the house. It was a challenge, it was quite dangerous for the story but it was not so much about what happens but how do you describe what is going on in this house?
24FPS: In terms of actually making the film, this is your second time directing Fabrice Luchini, and you work with a lot of actors multiple times. Is that something you find very helpful for directing people? Does it give you a short hand on set?
Ozon: Just the fact sometimes you work with an actor one way and you know this actor is richer than that and they have more faces. For Fabrice in Potiche he was a very characterised part and I wanted to give him the opportunity to show another face of his personality. So when you like someone you want to show different faces of his work and his personality.
Q. You make a film a year, do you ever take a break or do you keep working? It is amazing how many films your producing compared to other directors.
Ozon: I like to work but I have time to take a break too. Do you want me to take a long break? [laughs] But I like to make 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 movies a year.
Q. Is it quite nice when you are doing promotion, when you are travelling the world talking about the film that you get to almost re-live it talking about it long after it’s first made?
Ozon: It’s easier because you have a distance. I’ve done a new film, I’ve already turned the page. It’s like talking about a last love, an ex-love. So it’s easier.
24FPS: You’ve said that you like to work doing a lot of things, doing a lot of different genres. Is there something that you haven’t been able to do yet that you would like to?
Ozon: A Western? I don’t try to do a different genre. You know I’m not like Kubrick wanting to do different genre. I just follow my instincts and my pleasure that is all.
Q. What was the last film that you saw that you really enjoyed?
Ozon: [Thinks] I saw a film on the plane, The Life of Pi it’s not a film that you should see on a plane. I love films on a plane because I’m afraid so I love all the films on the plane. [laughs]. I like The Life of Pi because it is a film about storytelling and I was very surprised about that idea and I didn’t actually know the book so I liked the ambiguity at the end, if it’s just fiction in the end. It was a beautiful idea.