READ MORE: Review: Melanie Laurent’s ‘Breathe’ Is An Insightful, Layered Teen Drama
American audiences probably know Mélanie Laurent best as the vengeful theater owner Shoshanna in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” or from her supporting turns in “Beginners” and “Now You See Me,” though she’s about to leave her boldest mark yet in the states despite not appearing on screen at all. “Breathe,” Laurent’s second feature film as writer-director, is adapted from the French novel by Anne-Sophie Brasme, and, while it deviates in plot from its source material, it absolutely stays true to its stirring psychological atmosphere.
The drama focuses on the blossoming friendship between two high-school teenagers — the mundane Charlie (Joséphine Japy) and the effortlessly cool Sarah (Lou de Laâge). What begins as a fast friendship and intimate sisterhood slowly turns into a psychological battle for superiority, and Laurent excels at bringing the unnerving themes of jealousy and betrayal to life through a sensitive visual and audio palette. Joining Indiewire in New York City to discuss her latest project, which toured the festival circuit last year at Cannes and TIFF, Laurent opened up about learning from greats like Tarantino and navigating the relationship between acting and directing.
“Breathe” is now playing in select theaters. Read the full interview below.
When did directing become a priority for you?
I love acting, but directing and writing have always been just as important. I started to write so many things when I was even a child. I wrote my first play when I was, like, seven years old. That was me — a writer — for years. When I read this book I was 17 and the main character was 17, so I actually called the author and told her that I loved the book and that I wanted to do the adaptation. She said, “Okay, you’re the same age, and you have to do it.” A lot of people wanted to adapt the book at that moment, so I went to the producers saying that I really wanted to adapt “Respire,” and they looked at me and said, “Okay baby,” looking at me as if I was a child, and the problem was that I was! [laughs]
It never happened, and thank God it never happened! To do this movie I had to do short films first. I had to be matured in the industry. I had to do a first feature movie, and I even had to have distance from the original novel. I needed all of those years. If I had made it then I think it would have been the worst movie ever! I was so into it at the time that it would’ve been terrible.
So what made you feel mature enough to finally pick the project back up all these years later?
Well, I did short movies, and I met one producer and he said I was ready and that I should do it. It’s because of him. He had produced “Les Adoptés” and knew from that experience I was ready to do “Breathe.” He pushed me to be ready. He was ready for me. When I was shooting with Tarantino and Mike Mills and amazing directors, it made me think that I would never be a director. It’s obviously too hard because it seems to be so easy for them — and they have years of experience — which means it’s going to have to be hard for me. But I quickly learned I was in the front row of the best cinema school ever. They inspired me so much. After working with them and studying how they make these movies, one day you’re just like, “I can do it.” And I’m so happy now. I’m a happier actress now that I’ve directed.
Has directing changed your skills as an actress in any way?
I’m still inspired by the people I work with, but now I understand them so much more — not just the director but the crew and all of the people on set. I’m no longer needy. I can look at the crew or the director and say, “I know. I’ve been there.” I used to get upset when we’d have to take a break for little script things, but now I get it. It’s a problem in our job — directors understanding actors, actors understanding directors — and so many times we don’t speak the same language and it can be so complicated, just like the relationship in this movie, really. It can be perverse sometimes because the director wants something really special but can’t communicate that to the actor, or can communicate it but is so much more theatrical than it needs to be. There’s so many stories of beautiful movies that were so hard to make.
And I’m sure your experiences as an actress have helped directing in some way.
The best part of it I think is that I’m able to understand my actors so much because I am one. When they showed up on set, I knew exactly what was in their minds. I would tell them to take breaks and they’d be like, “Wait, really?” and I would make them because I’ve been in that position before. I know when they’re worried because of this, or concerned because they don’t know how to play that, or worried about this line or that blocking, so we talk and we talk. I can’t work with tension. I don’t know what it is to scream or manipulate anyone, I just don’t know how to work like that. Now that I’m directing, when I meet a director who is working like that I’m so happy and thankful. When I’m seeing a director who doesn’t know how to talk to an actor, it’s not a good thing. I’m over it.
I think the key for being a good director — especially in the point of view the actor — is having confidence. Even if you’re trying something and it’s not good, you have to be confident to go to something else and try it a different way. You have to work a lot and work hard before you bring everything to set. The directors I really love are the directors who let you free as an actor. I think they’re clever. I think it’s clever when directors say, “Well how do you feel that?” in regards to a particular scene or moment. It’s the job of the actor to take the part and make it better in a way, because if you’re only job is to say the text in the way the director wants, it’s not going to be inspiring with each take.
Is there anything in particular you took from working with Tarantino, Mike Mills and more and applied on set?
As an actress, I love when it’s going fast. Tarantino does three takes. Mike Mills does one. Those are my two best souvenirs of moviemaking, and they work so, so fast. When you know it’s going to be two or three takes maximum, obviously when you do the first take you do everything. You give all of yourself to the take. You give everything you have. That’s what those directors gave me. If you do the same scene for 20 takes, so what? It becomes more programmed that way. If we did the slap scene for that many takes, by the tenth time the actress would know exactly when the slap was coming, or the kiss or when to laugh, and it becomes so programmed. It’s important as a director to make your actors know that you’re going to be fast. After that, they know every day it’s going to be fast so they know they have to give everything on the first take. But there is no method
You read the book when you were 17 years old. Was it a different experience for you picking it up again as an adult in order to adapt it?
The funny thing is I met the author 17 years later, and she was pregnant and a teacher. We met and we talked, but I didn’t want to read the book again. I wanted to adapt the book solely on the memories I had 17 years ago. The last scene was still stuck in my head, and the entire tension of the novel, too. I wrote the script and then I read the book again and I was in shock. It was like I had only kept the names the same. I changed Sarah’s mother — she’s really friendly in the book. The book also takes place in Paris, but I didn’t want that. I wanted everything for Charlie to be a trap. The movie is set where it’s the only high school Charlie could go to. Had we stuck with Paris, she could’ve gone to so many different schools. She could’ve changed when things got hard, but in the movie there’s no way out. For me, the adaption process was about losing the book and keeping the tension and the atmosphere around the characters.
So much of that tension comes through the visual atmosphere, but also through the performances from Lou de Laâge and Joséphine Japy. They are electric in the most silent of ways.
Yes! They inspired me every day. I wrote the parts for them actually. I had seen previous films from them. I was blown away by Joséphine in a movie she had done where she was so young and had to do all of these very difficult and mature scenes. She performs so much older than her age, it’s incredible. I saw Lou and she was always doing the romantic, very nice girl, and I knew there was something more in there. When I met them, they had done the worst auditions ever. Joséphine was playing Charlie so empty and quiet — whispering. Lou was doing something so theatrical with Sarah. It was the worst version of “Breathe” imaginable.
They left and it wasn’t what I wanted, but I knew I wanted these actresses, and over the night I realized that that’s what my job is. It’s my job to take what I’ve seen them do and help them explore more parts of themselves for the role, so it didn’t bother me that the auditions went not as I expected. There’s no reason not to cast them because there’s no reason they can’t be amazing if I’m doing my job as a director. I wrote it for them, and I was sure we could do it.
The film centers on teenagers and is set in high school, but its tone is so singular. We’re miles away from the “high school movies” many American audiences are accustomed to seeing.
The key was always knowing that I’m not going to do a teenager movie, I’m going to make a movie. When I was writing the script, I wasn’t really thinking of these characters as teenagers. I brought the script before we started shooting to all different kinds of women and people in their 50s and 60s were telling me it reminded them of their relationships with their husbands. People said it wasn’t a teenager story, and for me it didn’t really matter. I was going for atmosphere.
I had looked at the teenagers in “The Virgin Suicides,” for instance, but my big reference point was “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” which is not my subject at all, but the tension is just insane. I loved that movie so much, I was crazy about the sound and the pictures in it. If you start to say it’s going to be that type of genre or essay, it gets in the way. It’s very personal, again, but you have to make a movie you’re going to love. If you’re starting to think about what people expect or the type of movie you have to make to fall into a particular type, well, then you’ve fucked up.