Sometimes the story behind the making of a film isn’t as good as the film itself. That’s not the case with “Declaration of War,” France’s official submission for this year’s foreign-language Oscar, currently playing in the Spotlight section at the Sundance Film Festival and opening in limited release this Friday. Both the basis for the drama and the final beguiling product are fascinating in equal measure.
Here’s the gist: Writers Jeremie Elkaim and Valerie Donzelli (who also directed) were once an item. Now they’re just close friends and artistic collaborators. But back when they were living together, the two had a child who was diagnosed at a very young age with brain cancer. The boy survived in the end, but Elkaim and Donzelli’s relationship did not. Out of that painful experience came “Declaration of War,” a heartbreaking and thrillingly alive retelling of what they went through together.
Prior to Sundance, Indiewire caught up with the good-looking French pair in New York to talk about working together and why they chose to share their story with the world.
No doubt one of the most fascinating aspects of the movie is the fact that it’s such a personal story for you two. How autobiographical is the film?
Donzelli: The autobiographical portion is the fact that we had a child that had this illness and therefore we know sort of the road that you go down. So there’s an aspect of precision in terms of the medical side of the film. And thereon in, the film was made to be really a movie. It’s cinematographic. We took this story and used it to talk about a love story and the road that the love story takes them on.
Elkaim: It was a way for us, we felt, to talk about love, family, our contemporaries through this story. It was linking all of those elements.
Did it occur to you to write something of this nature back when you were going through this journey with your child, or did the impetus come after?
Donzelli: It was more after, once we lived through the experience.
Elkaim: With Valerie, everything becomes material. So in that sense, yes, but you could say the same thing about other things that are a lot more banal. And in fact, we were a little worried because the subject is so powerful. Because sometimes when you have a subject that’s so powerful it’s easy to make a film that’s not going to come up to the level of the subject.
You didn’t hire actors to play yourselves. What was the reasoning behind you casting yourselves in these parts?
Donzelli: That’s our way of working, really. I mean in “The Queen of Hearts” [Donzelli’s first feature], I had worked with Jeremie and I wanted to work with him again. That’s just kind of the way we work. It also was a way to find an intimacy for the couple and that intimacy, we have. We know each other so well. So we felt that would bring something additional to the film. Sometimes it’s easier for us to act in the movies. We wrote the screenplay together, we know exactly where everything is positioned. Sometimes it’s hard to direct actors that you don’t really know.
Elkaim: Also, it was important for us to be a very small team. Especially since we didn’t change anything for the sets. The hospitals were as they are, functioned as they are and it’s easier with a tight, small team.
So let me get this right – you shot in the same hospital where your own story transpired?
Wow. So I’m curious to know, since the film already came out in France and it’s been a huge success there, what was your experience like on the French press circuit?
Elkaim: We immediately decided that we were absolutely going to tell the truth, so from the onset we said it’s autobiographical so that question could be put aside and we could dive into the cinematic aspects of the film. What was interesting was that the press rather than behaving in a traditionally sort of press type way, acted like audience members in responding to the film. It just felt like once the film was out there that it belonged to everybody else.
What inspired all the fantastical elements in the film, Valerie? Was it to make the tale more mythic and not solely focused on your own journey?
Donzelli: First of all, the primary and first wish in making the film was that it would not just be about our little story. So we tried to distance ourselves from that when we were working on the screenplay. So the elements — that the characters are called Romeo and Juliet, the fact that there’s a narrator — are a way of distancing it from us so that it could be identified with on another level. What happened in the process was that it became as if it were other people. It wasn’t us. And that’s what happened in the creation, through the screenplay and doing the movie. And in fact, the pain and the pathos that the characters go through was no longer us. It was separate from us… it was other people. And we were observing it, so rather than being subjective it became objective.
Elkaim: We didn’t want to have a movie where the audience would feel as if they were being held hostage. You tell your powerful story, you throw it on the table and somewhere it becomes uncomfortable. We wanted to have fun with the material and Valerie was able to change registers. So it’s fun. We wanted to have fun.
Yeah, a lot of the film is fun. A lot of the joy I had in watching the movie was that I never knew what to expect next, not story-wise but in the method used to get the story across – a singalong here, a magic trick there.
Donzelli: Actually, when we were writing it I had thought it would be even more of a comedy than it turned out to be. But then during the shoot I realized that didn’t work all of the time.
Elkaim: It became evident that that was the way it had to go.
Donzelli: But the work is like that. It’s a series of layers. And as the film is being made, those layers sort of go on top of each other so you end up with a product that is of a certain color.
Elkaim: Valerie is very singular. She’s unique in the way that she does films, so there’s a real pleasure in sharing that particularity in working with her. She has the humility of an artisan. She doesn’t intellectualize the film. There’s a quote from Wong Kar-wai that says “Making a movie is resolving problems.” And there’s something absolutely mind-blowing and fantastic when, in your work ethic or work method, you’re able to accept accidents and surprises. To always make something of them. Saying, “OK this happened? It must need to be,” rather than saying “Oh no, that is not the way I planned it” and needing that level of control. She’s not like that. And that’s almost an inspiration for her.
What are you two doing next?
Donzelli: We’re shooting right now. I can’t say what it will be yet because it’s not done yet. But it’s a film that deals with grievance, bereavement. We’re brother and sister in this film. We wrote it together. And also Jean Marchand wrote it with us.
Elkaim: Valerie wrote most of it, but then we collaborated in conversations.
So from lovers to siblings, that’s interesting.
Elkaim: You’ve noticed that we don’t like things that are “normal” and you didn’t ask us about the separation of the two characters, which is very nice. Everybody talks to us about that a lot. People really need to know what our status is.
You’re like the Jack and Meg White of France.
Elkaim: (Starts humming tune of “Seven Nation Army”)
Donzelli: All of the above.
Elkaim: We really enjoy being able to do whatever we want in the way that we want it and consequently society always feels the need to define it. It may be a little idealistic for us to think that way, but we do.