We're at the time of year where we're starting to think about annual Best Of picks, and one film that's certain to crop up on multiple Playlist staff lists is "Rust & Bone," the latest film from writer-director Jacques Audiard. Having made two of the most impressive crime movies of the last decade with "The Beat That My Heart Skipped" and "Rust & Bone," Audiard has taken a left turn into romantic melodrama with his latest, which premiered back at Cannes in May (read our review here). The film maintains the brutality and power of the filmmaker's earlier work, but there's a tenderness to the relationship between bouncer/boxer/single father Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) and amputee killer whale trainer Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) that's more pronounced than in earlier films, not least thanks to astonishing performances from the two leads that deserve recognition come awards season.
The film's been making the rounds on the festival circuit for a while, and will finally hit U.S. theaters this Friday. We were lucky enough to get to sit down with Audiard, his co-writer Thomas Bidegain and star Schoenaerts (one of the most notable breakout stars of 2012) at the BFI London Film Festival back in October to talk about the genesis of the project, how Audiard found his lead, the challenges of the material and much more.
According to Audiard, the shift into a more romantic mode was a very conscious one, after coming across the short story collection by Canadian author Craig Davidson that provided the basis of the material. "The short stories came at a moment when we were finishing 'A Prophet,' " the director told us. "And we wanted to build a love story. I thought we could use two of the short stories to make a love story. What we liked about them in the beginning was Marine Land, the amputation, the kid on the ice, and the universe that it came with."
And while only two of the stories from the book are directly adapted, Audiard and Bidegain tried to capture the spirit of the entire collection in their film. As Bidegain says, "We included something that was present in all the short stories, a description of a world in crisis, in economic catastrophe, and then characters inside that world fighting, one way or another." Further into the adaptation, taking Davidson's characters and inventing a new romance involved changing the sex of a character to create Stephanie (she is based on someone who is male in the book). "There was one short story about a guy who lost a leg with an orca, and we transformed that character into a female character, and built a love story between that character, and another from another story. So what's left is that universe around them, the toughness of the characters, and their bravery in trying to extract themselves from a tight corner that life put them in."
Audiard and Bidegain say that they didn't have any names in particular in mind during the writing process, but once the script was done, Audiard says "I very quickly thought of Marion, because I'd wanted to work with her for a while." Schoenaerts wasn't on the radar at that stage, though. "First, I thought of using a non-professional actor, we did a lot of casting with boxers, but it didn't work," the director said. Schoenaerts picks up the story from there, saying, "I know the casting director saw 'Bullhead' [Schoenaerts' Oscar-nominated Belgian-breakthrough] and invited me for the casting, and spoke to Jacques about it. And then we met, and he realized I spoke French, which was important. By then, I know he saw 'Bullhead.' " Audiard concurs: "I saw 'Bullhead,' and that was it."
Schoenaerts' screen persona is, for U.S. audiences at least, that of an intimidating physical presence, so it's easy to assume that the films were shot close together, but the actor — noticeably slimmed down when we met him — says that the films were shot some time apart, and required two separate bulking-outs. "'Bullhead' was two years before," he told us "so I'd lost all that weight again, so I had to regain weight. And this role required a totally different physique; massive, but in a different way, not so artificial looking. More just naturally strong, and with a belly, because he doesn't eat properly, because he doesn't have the means. So yeah, I got into a very specific diet. A lot of ice cream, a lot of burgers, a lot of pizza."
Carb-loading might have been one challenge of the role, but for the actor it was far more important to ensure that a character who does some pretty awful things maintained the audience's sympathy. "It was all about finding the right balance, finding a way to make the character somehow… you have to attach yourself to it, without losing what makes it specific. Sometimes he's brutal, he's rude, he's stupid at times. But at the same time, he shouldn't become repulsive, so I was thinking about how to balance that out. So I thought he had to be something very sincere," he explained. "He's very straightforward, and pure, and honest in a very particular way. He mustn't have any bad intentions…Sometimes he's irritated, he hits his kid, that's a bad thing, of course. But that's not the way he meant it. He can be bad in one second, and very tender the next, and they coexist just like that, and that, to me, was very important… If you screw that up, the audience goes 'What kind of guy are you?' It's very simple. And that's what we came up with finally. But that was the biggest challenge, to stay on that line."
Balance was also clearly something that was on Audiard's mind in a film that he describes as his most challenging to date, even in contrast with his ambitious and epic previous film. "'A Prophet' was a very heavy film to make," the director told us, "but it was extremely dynamic, we'd go to jail in the morning, and light a match, it would ignite. Here it was different, there was a big difference between the realism and the stylization, it was always a game to find the balance, if you're too realistic it gets boring, and if you're too stylized, you don't believe it anymore. So finding the right tuning, the right balance, you had to be extremely careful the whole time."
It wasn't just walking the line tonally, but also in finding the structure that proved difficult; the script saw Cotillard and Schoenaerts' characters as more equal, but in the editing room, Ali and his son Sam became the beating heart of the film. "'A Prophet' was complicated," Audiard continued, "we had a huge amount of material, and a long story, so it was very difficult to build, and to work out how to make time pass, in the writing and in the editing room. Here, the complicated thing was finding that balance, but also finding the balance between the two characters. Because for a while, both characters were equals, but not now. Now the main character is the man, he's the one who gives the complete arc to the film, because of the kid. We had this idea that the kid was like a silent narrator, because you see him with his eyes closed at the beginning, and you see him wake up at the end. That story, with the incredible and monstrous images, with the orca and the fights and the woman with no legs, is like seeing through the eyes of a lost child."
As such, Sam, played by young Armand Verdure, takes the most prominent role for a child in one of Audiard's films to date. It marked another new challenge for the director, but he cracked it eventually. "It was very difficult, very complicated" Audiard admitted. "Armand is a great kid, but it's very unstable on set. So I understood it shouldn't be several people talking to him, it should be just one. When he was acting with Matthias, it would be Matthias directing. When he was with Marion, it was Marion directing him."
To hear from Schoenaerts, it's this kind of commitment to the performances that sets Audiard apart as a director. "Jacques is really all about his characters. Because he knows a story gets told through its characters, so he's all over his actors. He wants to work with actors who are artists, who feed him with ideas. So he can have that permanent, electrifying exchange. He's very alive on set, everything has to be discovered in the moment. It's about the here and now, it's not about what we thought of before. So that's very, very exciting. And intense. And when you find that, it's euphoric." And the results are certainly reflected in the finished film.
In addition to the accomplished work behind the camera, the music in the film is first rate, with a lovely score by Alexandre Desplat mixed with cuts from the likes of Bon Iver, Lykke Li and, most surprisingly of all, a key emotional scene scored to Katy Perry's "Firework." According to the director, the song and score serve quite different purposes. "There's a score composed by Alexandre Desplat just for the film," Audiard told us, "and that really helped me with the characters. The other music, was to let time pass, for the atmosphere, but mainly for the story. So the score was for the characters, and the additional music is more to tell the story." As for the actual song choices, none were planned from the script stage, falling into place either because they were inspirations for the film, or in the case of Perry, happenstance. "Bon Iver, we listened to a lot when we were writing. Katy Perry is the actual music of the show [at the water park where Cotillard's character works]. The animals have to listen to Katy Perry four times a day… that's why they can get aggressive!"
As we reported before, Audiard is considering both a musical and a western for his next project, but for the time being, he's focused on promoting "Rust & Bone," which Sony Pictures Classics have high Oscars hopes for, not least for Cotillard. One category it won't be competing in, however, is the Foreign Language prize, the French selection committee having picked out global smash hit "The Intouchables" instead. Audiard isn't too fussed, though. "They chose us last time, for 'A Prophet,' so that time they rejected the other films. This time, they rejected us, and chose another film, which is fine. They're doing their job. 'The Intouchables' was such a phenomenon in France."
As for Schoenaerts, he's got the remake of "Loft" and Guillaume Canet's "Blood Ties" on the way in 2013, and "Rust & Bone" is sure to only make him more in demand. We asked if there were any directors he hoped to work with down the line. "Will they read it?," he joked, before continuing "Let's put five down as an exercise. Darren Aronofsky, David Lynch, Paul Thomas Anderson, Michael Mann. And let's put a European director in there… Fatih Akin. That's a good list, I could come up with more, but that's quite diverse." So, Mr. Anderson, if you're keen, get in touch…
"Rust and Bone" hits theaters on Friday, November 23rd, in limited release.