Alfred Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren, Stanley Kubrick and Shelley Duvall, David O. Russell and Lily Tomlin. At the Los Angeles press day for Palme d’Or winner “Blue Is The Warmest Color” (our review), we were given these precedents by a publicist for the film’s increasingly heated behind-the-scenes controversy, which began at Cannes and has slowly unfurled ever since, and was presumed to be one of the key topics for our roundtable conversations with director Abdellatif Kechiche and his lead actresses, Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos.
The interviews took place minutes after a tense press conference in which Kechiche chided his two leading ladies—Seydoux in particular—about their comments made to The Daily Beast about the making of the coming-of-age drama; understandably, each party—Kechiche and the two actresses arriving separately—trod carefully as they fielded further questions. But allowing the film’s public spats to dominate the conversation is unwise when there’s such an illuminating piece of work behind them; aspects of the controversies are necessary and relevant, others are not, but here we thought we’d chronicle the entire journey of the film alongside the words of Kechiche, Seydoux, and Exarchopoulos.
Given all of the controversy behind the film it’s surprising to hear that for Kechiche, whose last film (2007’s “The Secret of the Grain”) won the French César for Best Film and Directing, his next project was in fact intended as a lighter affair. “[‘Secret’] had really drained me emotionally,” he said, “because I identified so much with the main character [played by Habib Boufares]. So I went into [‘Blue’] saying I’m going to do a love story—not with rose-colored glasses but still not as heavy–and it turned out to surprise me with the places it led.”
He says “suffering and pain” unexpectedly crawled into his screenplay adaptation of Julie Maroh‘s graphic novel, which the director took as initial inspiration but then quickly forged his own path through the material. Kechiche said he stayed more consistent with his intentions for the film’s unconventional protagonists—15-year-old dreamer Adele (Exarchopoulos) and college student/aspiring artist Emma (Seydoux). “I didn’t really think in terms of what was cliché and not cliché [with the characters]. My aim was to let my intuition guide me so that these two would not be seen as two women, but just two people.”
He added, “The film is about two people going through a relationship that everyone knows will end in a breakup, and the pain that that entails. Anybody can see that story and identify with it. As a filmmaker I wanted to construct this identification process, so that you fully connect to [the couple’s] emotions and their breakup.”
In the final film, this arc runs just under three hours, with nary a frame running without Adele front and center, and oftentimes with Emma beside her. Obviously, Kechiche needed two actresses who could effectively sustain an audience’s interest through this journey, and convey every subtle shift in attraction, betrayal, and jealousy. Luckily, he quickly found his first with Seydoux, who has continued to dazzle through her work in French dramas (“Farewell, My Queen”) and international studio efforts (“Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”). Upon being cast, the actress immediately dove headlong into the intensive process that would soon become commonplace. “Abdel cast me for the part ten months before shooting, and during those ten months I was already meeting with him and being directed,” Seydoux said. “We would spend hours talking about women and life; I also took painting and sculpting lessons, and read a lot about art and philosophy.”
Kechiche says he related to the character of Emma in her struggles to become a painter and finds an audience, and also that of Adele’s, who comes from the “proletariat working class” in which he grew up. For the role of Adele, a naïve teenager who falls hopelessly in love with Emma, Kechiche took a longer approach with Exarchopoulos. She was first spotted by casting director Sophie Blanvillain, and then met with Kechiche for discussions over the course of two months. As the actress would soon find out, Kechiche was after a very particular chemistry when selecting his leading ladies. “[When you see an actor or actress] there has to be the desire to work together so intimately and for such a long period of time,” he described. “What I saw in them was what they could bring from themselves to the role, and the generosity and the beauty of who they are.”
During pre-production, Kechiche and the actresses slowly formed their characters—Seydoux dyed her hair blue many months before starting, while Adele decided on using her real name, which means “justice” in Arabic. Official production began in March 2012 around Lille, Roubaix, and Lievin, and over the course of an extended production that wound up taking five months, Kechiche employed an around-the-clock working style that found the actors always in character, and the crew reportedly stretched to their limits as they negotiated the director’s strenuous demands.
“Abdel worked the entire day,” said Seydoux, matching crew descriptions of frequent 16-hour days (to be clear, a normality for most film productions). “Toward the end of the shoot, we were working 7 days a week.” This full schedule wasn’t helped by the inclusion of additional scenes that Kechiche would build around the actresses’ behavior, like when—as Exarchopoulos described—“you both took a train to the shoot, and he would shoot you having lunch.”
It’s a testament to the film’s naturalism that these spontaneous moments then blend wonderfully with scenes rich with naturalistic dialogue: a heated schoolyard argument between students, or Emma and Adele’s first flirtation in a gay bar. As off-the-cuff as they seem though, don’t bring up the notion of improv to Kechiche. “The writing of the script is a continual process: there’s the first draft, and then when it comes to making the scenes concrete and shoot them, I want the freedom for it to exist,” he said. “That means adding or subtracting, modifying—the important part is getting to something truthful, and only in that moment. I don’t like to use the word improv, but it’s a continual writing of the scene during the filming process.”
Having starred in films such as “Sorry, Haters” and André Téchiné‘s “Les Innocents”, Kechiche has a considerable body of acting experience himself; however, he doesn’t feel like his training has made him an expert in directing performances. “There are many directors who connect with their actors without ever having to act, who lead their actors to excellent performances,” he said. “What really enthralls me is working with the actor and seeing where you can go with that in the exchange and relationship. At the end I reflected maybe it is useful to have had that experience, but it’s not necessarily where I’m coming from as a director.”
In finding their inspiration for their characters’ relationship, Seydoux and Exarchopoulos had different approaches as well: Seydoux used the sensory motivation of someone that she “deeply, deeply, loved,” while Exarchopoulos opted instead to remember generalities—“how many states you can be in while in love—especially a first love, where you think you’re going to die.” This emotional awareness was challenged when it came to one of the most discussed elements of the film—the sex scenes, which have garnered attention due to their prolonged length, graphic nudity, and reports of behind-the-scenes discomfort. “Abdel shoots with three, sometimes four cameras, so we were surrounded,” Seydoux said. “It was difficult to find an intimacy sometimes. [The sex scenes] are an important part of the film though, so I had to escape from those moments and try to think of something else other than myself.”
Again, Exarchopoulos found herself using a different approach than her co-star. “We just had to let it all go and trust Abdel and the film and not try to escape because I couldn’t escape. I was there, so was the camera; I was naked, and I just tried to stay focused and concentrated. That’s all… Even though it was hard, the fact was I knew Abdel would use the best take, just the emotion and nothing else.”
She added, “They are supposed to show the evolution of [Emma and Adele’s] sexuality together, so one day we would have the scene where Adele hasn’t experienced any lesbian sex—she’s very shy—and then after she takes more responsibility. It was difficult, but with Abdel even food is so intense. He shoots food as art. One day I had to eat a kebab at 8 in the morning, and I ended up eating about five.”
Seydoux also found Kechiche’s repetitive tendencies both trying and desirable in equal measure. “You lose yourself after 100 takes, which is a good thing, but it’s also very disturbing. Like the [party scene] where we eat a plate of pasta. You can imagine we ate a huge amount of pasta, but it was not just one day; sometimes you could spend several days on one scene. But it’s unique because as an actress I was interested to see how far I could go.”
Both actresses have gone on record in saying they’re unlikely to work with Kechiche again, but with reviews like ours calling the film “absolute cinema” and a work “bursting with empathy and life”, they seem satisfied at having taken the initial plunge. (And since those comments, Exarchopoulos has tempered her statements about working with Kechiche, keeping a door open for a sequel).
“Sometimes when we weren’t shooting, we would see Marion Cotillard in Hollywood and just say, ‘She’s so lucky—she’s there and we’re here, smelly, making this movie doing so many takes, we are naked and it’s not working,’ ” Exarchopoulos said. “But we stayed because we felt we were making something where there is no fabrication, no makeup—it was just you, your skin, and your emotion. It wasn’t like a conventional shoot; we felt free, even if was definitely hard sometimes.”
“Blue is the Warmest Color” opens in theatres on October 25th from Sundance Selects.