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Extraordinarily Normal: Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne on “Two Days, One Night”

Interview: The Dardenne Brothers on 'Two Days, One Night' and Marion Cotillard

Propelled by the need to save her job, support her family, and recover from
paralyzing depression, Sandra goes on a pilgrimage to convince her co-workers
to choose her over the bonus they would get if she were fired. That’s the basic
premise. However, when it comes to the Dardenne brothers, things are never that
clear-cut.  The dynamic duo of
Belgian art house cinema have the ability to transform even the most pedestrian
of situations into riveting and thought provoking drama. Their morally ambiguous
situations often place their characters at the crossroads between heroes and villains.

Rather than using a non-actress or virtually unknown talent,
the Dardennes opted for Academy Award-winner Marion Cotillard to star in the
film. This was unquestionably a wise decision. Cotillard’s dilutes herself into
a woman whose self-esteem and purpose have been stripped away, and whose only
hope to get better is to find the inner strength to at least fight for what’s right. The outcome is irrelevant as long as she has the courage to make her
case. “Two Days, One Night” is yet another
seemingly small, but brilliantly nuanced gem from the charming filmmaking siblings.

We had the chance to talk to Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne
recently in Los Angeles.

Two Days, One Night
is now playing in L.A. and NYC.

Aguilar: While many filmmakers focus on spectacular stories, epics, and stories about extraordinary, larger-than-life, people, you keep on finding interesting and emotionally charged stories in the unlikeliest of situations. It’s an outstanding feat. How do you do it?

Luc: That’s what interests us [Laughs]. We find them in everyday life, but we also create them. We like to find people that are witnesses of the time we
are living in. We might meet them, we might read about them in the newspaper, but there is really not an answers to why we like these characters. We like to
see ordinary people do extraordinary things. We like to discover the extraordinary in the ordinary. When I say extraordinary I’m no referring to anything
supernatural or cataclysmic. I’m referring to someone who might have voted to keep their bonus over keeping Sandra, but who can change and vote the
other way. That metamorphosis in a human is what I consider extraordinary.

There is also a negative aspect to it in the sense that we work like this because we are going against something we don’t want. We know all the rules and we could make a bigger or greater production. The way stories are constructed in cinema around the world, whether is Hollywood or Europe, are very similar. However, with our little, ordinary,
regular people we don’t feel the need to insert them in a typical dramatic structure.

We need to be able to look at the character, to look at their face, to look at their hearts, and for that we can’t be in the middle of some huge disaster
or huge event. We have to have the time to be able to breath and to create situations that are quasi-ordinary so we can really appreciate the characters.

Aguilar: Given that Marion Cotillard is an internationally recognized actress, was it a challenge to transform her into this subdued character and make it work for the film?

It’s a challenge because of the way we work. Marion is a great star, but more important a great actress. We needed to integrate her into our family and to
be able to have her melt into the character of Sandra so that Marion Cotillard would disappear. But I wouldn’t use the word “difficult” to describe the work
process. It was a process where we had a lot of complicity with Marion in order to reach this. She latched on to it and we took enormous pleasure in
working with her. She is such a great actress. She is able to make people forget about her movie star image.

Aguilar: Since the supporting characters have much less time on screen, the actors needed to present all of that character’s emotions into a single scene. How difficult was it to cast these actors?

There are no small parts in the film because during the five minutes that they are there we are really focusing on them. They are in the lead in that scene, because
what really interests us is seeing their reaction to Sandra. I wouldn’t call them small or supporting parts. It was really important to choose those actors well.
Casting was crucial. We worked with them with was much detail and as much restrain as with did with Marion.

Aguilar: Tell me a bit about your writing process for this film. You had to build a journey for this woman that has to endure several encounters with people that have the power to influence her life.

It’s a process that took a long time. This is a project that started 10 years ago. We were attentive to the fact that we had
decided Sandra would have these sequential encounters with her co-workers. Therefore, there was a little bit of trepidation in the sense that it is a
repetitive action, but we couldn’t have it be so repetitious that it would become boring. We were extremely careful so that would not happen.

It couldn’t be that each encounter represented something different, “This is a symbol of this, and that one is a symbol of that.” In the writing we were very
aware that in each encounter you need to have a real human being. You go through this process with each one of them. You have to go through this meeting to find the
resolution or the answer. The repetition could have been the film’s weakness, but we turned into its biggest strength.

Aguilar: There is a moral struggle that all the character experience in the film. Should they choose between a helping out a friend or the useful extra money for their families. Do you think human nature thrives on the need to survive, to fend for oneself?

: It has more to do with solidarity than with friendship. Sandra has two friends who are in solidarity with her at the onset, Robert and Juliette, and
then she finds another person who might eventually become her friend, that’s Anne. In the big picture of life, the conflict here raises the question, “Am I
in solidarity with others or is it kill or be killed and I’m just going after what I need to survive?”

What’s terrible today is that a lot of films focus
on characters whose only goal is to survive at any coast. They’ll do anything to survive. This type of survival is defined by the things people hold on to, which,
from an objective point of view, may seem superficial or unimportant. What has happened is that now people feel like they need to hold on to those things
at any coast. They see those superficial things as the key to their survival.

Aguilar: There are only a couple instances in the film where music is present. In both sequences the characters are in the car traveling somewhere. The music is definitely very specific to those moments. What was your intention with each one?

This is a road movie. The fact that Manu was driving with a very specific route and purpose in mind, he wasn’t just wandering, gave us the idea for the
music. The firs song in the film, La nuit n’en finit plus by Petula Clark, was already included in one of the previous drafts of the screenplay.
It’s used in a scene that allowed us to show that this woman was fighting melancholy. She’s struggling against it, but her husband is there supporting her.
It was a little moment of intimacy and complicity between the two of them.

The other song, Gloria by Van Morrison, is used in a much more collective
scene. It was no longer just the two of them in the car; there was a third person. It was a way to show solidarity between these people. The music
underscores this because the refrain in the song gives them the opportunity to sing it together.

Aguilar: At the center of all your films there is this nuanced and truthful quality to your characters. How are you able to achieve this with your actors? What do you do to help them find this truth?

Lots and lots of work

We work a lot on the details. In Marion’s case, she had done a lot of prep-work before she came to work with us. She came with a suitcase full of prep-work. We try
to get rid of stereotypical attitudes, forced mannerisms, and even an unrealistic way to look at another person. We strip the actors of all that. It’s a
lot of work that is done during rehearsals. Some people say that a certain cinema is realistic or naturalistic in the way that it imitates life, but that’s
not really true.

Our dialogue is not real life dialogue. The dialogue we write is very bare-bones. Our actors don’t move like people would in real life. In real you
might move around a lot or do a certain gesture. If one of our actors tries to do that we tell them, “No, you can’t do that, we are not in real life.” It’s an
imitation of life, not real life. You have to strip away a lot of what you do in real life to find life on the screen. It’s a good idea right? [Laughs]

Aguilar: You’ve found tremendous success with your films throughout the years.  At this point in your long and fruitful career what continues to fuel your work? What keeps you you going?

Jean Pierre:
We are like old sharks, if we don’t move forward we die [Laughs]. We could stop at any point. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. But we have a few
characters that we still want to bring to life. That’s what keeps is going. I wouldn’t say that making films is all a party and joy, it takes a lot of work
and it has its ups and downs, but that’s what I’m hooked on. It’s my addiction.

Aguilar: How has your relationship as brothers and collaborators evolved with each new film? Are the any conflicts over creative decisions or do you know exactly what the other wants?

We need to talk less and less with each new film. We intuitively know what the other wants. All of these things we are talking about right now we never
discuss between us. We never talk about this stuff with each other. [Laughs]. We want to make the same movie. We are after the same movie. We put in all this work in the casting
process, the sets, the costumes, so there are really no conflicts. Our only conflicts are about, “Should we have a beer or a glass of wine?”

Jean-Pierre: The more we work together we become increasingly more interested in what we are creating, in what we are really trying to do with each film.

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