With the Cannes Film Festival currently underway, last year’s winner of the Jury Prize, Maïwenn’s ensemble drama “Polisse,” hits select theaters today. The film, which marks the actress’ third feature as a director, explores the personal lives and daily grind of the Parisian Child Protection Unit.
Maïwenn, known best for her turn in “High Tension” and as the opera singing alien diva in Luc Besson’s “The Fifth Element,” also co-wrote and stars in “Polisse” as a photojournalist sent in to document the unit.
Indiewire sat down with Maïwenn in New York shortly following its screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, to discuss her inspiration for the project and her experience interning for the Unit during the pre-production phase of the shoot.
What inspired “Polisse”?
I saw a documentary on the subject that intrigued me. But I said, OK, don’t get too carried away too quickly. It was like falling in love and your friends say, “Wait, hang on you’ve only known him for two minutes.” So then I thought I have to get to know them, I have to find out more, I have to take one step at a time.
What about the Child Protection Unit intrigued you as a filmmaker? Had you been aware of their line of work before coming across this documentary?
Before I saw the documentary I didn’t know anything. I did however want to do a film about the police force before seeing the film. But before seeing the documentary, I didn’t even know this brigade existed. Delinquents, police..I was was interested in doing something on people that transgressed the law.
I had decided that I wanted to bring into it a love affair between either a policeman or a delinquent and a Bourgeoisie kind of woman, to have that kind of culture shock.
How close is this film to you? Despite it being about a subject matter you didn’t know much about initially, the film seems to come from a very personal place.
I don’t separate things out between what’s personal and what’s my work. My passion is personal. People will say, watch out be careful. Separate work from your personal issues. It’s impossible for me. My work is through my emotions, so everything kind of goes together.
The role that you play in “Polisse” mirrors the journey that you went on in developing this film. I read that you yourself interned for the organization prior to shooting?
I was not like that at all when I was interning at the police unit. Maybe I’ve become a little more Bourgeoisie, I don’t know. But I wanted to understand everything. I was very hands on, trying to soak everything in. That’s not what the character really does.
I was also very different in the sense that the character is attracted to the action, to the flashy aspect of the job. The drama. That’s really not what I wanted. The cops kept wanting to drag me to crises that were going on. I preferred to just be with the cops, even if they were bored or just laying back.
Was it difficult getting their permission to make this film?
They didn’t want to cooperate.
So how did you get inside?
Before the shooting I was there as a journalist. And then when I asked them if they wanted to cooperate for the movie — to have policeman on set as artistic consults — they didn’t want to help. As soon as they found out that I was giving the part to Joey Starr, who is famous for being a ‘violent’ French rapper, they got very upset. They didn’t want to be represented by Joey Starr.
Have they seen the film since it’s come out in France?
Yes, they’ve since apologized. But I had a lot of conflict with a lot of the higher ups, not with the cops so much. The cops actually asked for authorization to work with me on set, but their superiors didn’t give it to them.
Did that play in to why you negatively depict the higher ups, while the police force are portrayed in a much more complex, positive light?
No. I was with the cops during my internship. What’s in my film is what I felt and what I saw. That’s all. I didn’t do anything out of a vengeful place. In fact, I wrote the screenplay before I had ever even dealt with their superiors.
You ellicit some amazing turns from your child actors. How did you go about directing them?
Working with the kids was very difficult. First of all I had to get permission from an organization that you have to go through to use kids for film, theater etc. And they are extremely strict. When I went initially they didn’t want to give me permission for anything. The whole screenplay had to go before them.
The process was very long. I had to cut many lines, scenes, and alter some of my script. When they gave me the permission I started to look for kids everywhere. Some were actors, some weren’t. I had to meet their parents to gain their confidence, and also to gage whether the parents were pushing their kids to act. When I was a younger, I was a child actor. My mom pushed me so much and it hurt me. I didn’t want to engage that same kind of situation.
Little by little I started to find kids. Some of them were shy like the little black boy. He was so shy in the casting, he didn’t want to talk. But when I told him the story, he said he wanted to do it. In the casting session he was crying so much, he was like a jewel. Anytime I touched him, he reacted, responded. That was his mother in the scene with him. But she didn’t really have an investment in her kid taking the part or not.
That was the most difficult scene to watch.
I thought it would be the most difficult part to shoot. It was done in one take. He was so ready. I think he didn’t want to go through that again and again, so he gave it his all in one shot. Everyone was ready for him.
Before we did the take I said to him, “Every take gets a reward. What do you want as a reward for this shot?” He said a remote controlled helicopter.
Did your work as a child actress influence the way you directed the children?
Yes, maybe. The best way to direct kids is to be natural and honest. When it wasn’t good I just told them we had to do it again. There’s no blah blah blah with me. No bullshit. Kids are like adults. If they feel that the team have to retake a shot, they start to feel guilty and it’s not good. They’re like adults really.
A lot of critics, especially American ones, have been harping on the fact that “Polisse” resembles a slew of “The Wire” episodes strung together into a single feature. What do you make of that?
I feel neither flattered nor wounded by it. I’ve never seen the show. But my film culture is really from the street or from television because I’m really not a cinephile. I come from a poor family, so really the culture I know best is the street, TV, school.
What were your reasons for “Polisse”‘s episodic structure. You go from case to case with nary a breath. You don’t provide the audience with closure on the cases.
Because that’s the way they live with the cases. They don’t know what the end of the story is.