youth fueled by the poison of resentment, as consequence of neglect, is a social problem ever-present around the world and in turn has been at the center of countless cinematic escapades. Yet, by constructing her study on the subject armed with honest notions of the teal obstacles faced by the affected young people and those desperately working to help them, French director Emmanuelle Bercot
attained truthfulness grounded on a brutal and revelatory lead performance in her latest work “Standing Tall
By combining the malleable talent of newcomer Rod Paradot
, the elegant nuances of veteran star Catherine Deneuve
, and a plot that is unafraid to go into the darkest and most unappealing shades of a violent delinquent’s life, Bercot eludes oversimplification and sugarcoated resolutions. She looks at a system that attempts to apply rational rules to matters that are charged with heartbreak, and in doing so questions society as a whole, parents, and the individual himself about the role each plays in shaping a child into the person he or she will become.
” was the Opening Night
Film at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and received 3 Caesar Awards this year all in acting categories, a clear testimony to the work of its accomplished director.
Aguilar: Youth in trouble is a subject that we see recurrently in cinema, but in "Standing Tall
," your approach is profoundly raw and realistic. Was there a particular case, story, or idea that you felt personally connected to or that served as catalyst for you to make this film?Emmanuelle Bercot
: Actually there were two main things that really were reunited when I made this film. One is my interest in childhood in general and then also my interest in injustice. In this particular case there was also a more particular link because I have an uncle who works in this field. He works as one of the counselors at one of these camps for juvenile delinquents and it was through him that I really learned about what kind of work these people do, how much time they devote to it, and what their job is like in trying to do something for these kids. He also spoke to me very specifically, which is included in the film, about this idea of the trio. He also had worked with a young man for about ten years, so he had developed a relationship with him, and also, in that particular case, he was working with a woman who was a judge and who was at the point of retiring. Those three characters are the three that are reunited in this trio that appears in the film.
Aguilar: Were you able to interact and speak with people that have been part of this system in order to depict this facet of the French judicial system and how it affects young people? What sort research did you conduct to reach this authenticity?Emmanuelle Bercot
: First of all, it was a subject that I really didn’t know anything about all. Most of what takes place in this particular field takes place behind close doors. It’s something that people don’t generally know about and don’t have any idea of what really takes place there. At first I was just reading tons and tons of books on the subject, and then through my uncle I was able to meet some people who work in the field including a judge and some counselors like himself. Talking to them I was able to develop what was basically the structure for my film. Once I had that idea in my head of what I wanted to do, I realized that in order to portray this world I had to portray it as truthfully as possible, so that somebody who was part of that world would know that this was really a truthful portrayal when they saw it. I did a lot of on-site visits. I spent a lot of time in juvenile courts. I spent time in several judges’ offices. I also visited some of those youth centers like the one portrayed in the film. It was over the course of several months. After that I was able to feel that I would be able to portray it in a way that would be honest.
Aguilar: Tell me about the process of creating the protagonist Malony with your lead actor Rod Paradot
. This is an incredibly angry and often violent young men who is erratic, dangerous, but always vibrant.Emmanuelle Bercot
: Normally what I like to do when I work with adolescents and non-professionals is to really choose them as close as possible to the character that they are going to portray. Unfortunately in this case I was not able to do that. I just could not find the kind of young adolescent that I was looking for to portray this person. In fact when I chose Rod Paradot
, I was dealing with somebody that in his own personality is really quite different than the character he is playing on the screen. It really required a great deal of work on the set. I worked with him to elicit from him that level of anger and violence that was necessary for the character. It really required me to push him to the point where he went out of himself and beyond himself to become someone else. It’s very unusual to demand from a young actor, particularly a non-professional actor, something like this, to compose a character, to put it together, rather than just play a version of themselves. It was a lot of work on his part so that we could arrive at the character the way I wanted it to be portrayed.
Aguilar: You’ve worked with Catherine Deneuve
previously and clearly know how to use her experience well, why did you feel this role as a judge was a fitting role for her? She is a motherly judge who balancers her sympathy towards these kids on an emotional level and her duty to do what is best for them and society.Emmanuelle Bercot
: I wrote this role specifically for Catherine and in many ways it reflects what she is like in reality. She has both the side of her that has a natural authority and at the same time she has another part of her that’s very maternal. I felt that this duality was what I really needed because this was the kind of humanity I wanted her to portray in the role of the judge. The role of the judge is actually rather difficult. In the film we don’t see anything about her personal life. We only see her through the prism of her job, so it’s very difficult to create a character without having any back-story. I knew that Catherine would be able to do that, but what she also then needed to know was how to use the right terminology and the right words so that she would actually sound like the judge that she was playing. Just like I did, she also did some observation in real judges’ offices and the courts so that she would become more familiar with what they sounded like and how they behave in those situations, so that it would give more credibility to her performance.
Aguilar: In your opinion what's the reasoning behind Malony’s behavior and his way of relating to those around him? Is it only the resentment and fear because of the constant abandonment or is there something more?Emmanuelle Bercot
: Yes, most definitely. I certainly thought of both of those things and it’s one of the things that I think its very important to show. That’s why I had the film begin with him where you see him as he is being abandoned at a very young age. I think that most children in this position have come from very difficult backgrounds. They are brought into this system, which is to provide them with educational assistance and also to help raising them because here, as you can see, the mother is incapable of doing her job. She can’t raise him properly and she doesn’t really know how to ground him or to give him the structure that he needs in order to be able to relate to society. No child is born a delinquent. Delinquents are made. They are not born. From what I saw and what I’ve read I think that 95% of them are from families that are difficult families like this one and of those I think 100% of them are cases where the father is absent. There is no father figure present in their life, and as result they grow up with a sense of not having any protection, tools, or grip that is necessary to deal with their everyday life. I think that the fact that Malony in this case resorts to violence is because violence is often the only vocabulary that these young people know how to use in order to express what they are feeling.
Aguilar: Occasionally, it seems as if these children and their mothers who can't take proper care of them feel as if it's a battle between them and the system. Even if the authorities seek to do what's best, they seem to perceive the help as invasive.Emmanuelle Bercot
: What I was trying to portray is not an “us against them” kind of situation between the system against the mothers and children. This is a system that really tries to be there for the child when the parent is unable to do it. I think education is a fundamental right for every child and when parents are unable to give the child that education then it’s the responsibility of society to step in, to take over the role, and to provide it. I think that in this case the system and everything that the system implemented and tried to do for Malony was really something for his own good. Of course he is going to feel like this is not something that’s good for him because it’s almost like a punishment for him. Eventually, he comes to realize that it’s not really a punishment but that what they are trying to do is something that will be helpful for him and will actually benefit him in the long run. It’s really the opposite of “us against them.” It’s the system with the child trying to give him what the parent cannot.
Aguilar: In a film like "Standing Tall
" that emanates such a sense of truth and honest performances is there room for improvisation or is it all about an arduous rehearsal process to achieve the gravitas you are after? Every cast members provides an intense humanity.Emmanuelle Bercot
: None of my actors are ever improvising, but also we never do any rehearsals. I prefer to work with them directly on the set. We don’t rehearse but what I do is work individually with them while we are on the set. I’ve already spoken to you about how I worked with Rod to try to get this character out of him, which is very distant from what he is in real life. It’s about working with the actors in the moment and it does put a great deal of pressure on the director. It’s a lot of work because in addition to knowing where the camera is and where everyone is placed on set, you are also trying to direct the actors to get exactly what you want them to give you. I think that’s when your original choice of actors is a very important thing because you have to know that these actors are going to be able to give you what you are looking for. In this particular film for example, Sara Forestier
, who plays the mother, plays a character that she pretty much created herself. That’s not the way she is in real life. On the other hand, in the the case of Benoît Magimel
, his character is actually much closer to what he is really like in life. It’s less of a composed character or a created character on his part. Again, there is no improvisation, I have a very tightly written script and everything is said exactly the way it’s written, but the process of working during the takes is really one of refining the dialogue as it’s spoken so that it really conveys what it is that I wanted it to convey.
Aguilar: Tess, Malony’s girlfriend played by Diane Rouxel
, is not the typical feminine figure that is often seem in films in the same vein. Why was it important to have someone completely opposite in personality be Malony's strongest ally?Emmanuelle Bercot
: She is a rather atypical character, but I think that what we see in her is somebody who is a very balanced person, somebody who is very educated, and you'd look at her and think, “Why was she attracted to a guy like this? What is the attraction? And in many cases it’s inexplicable. That’s often the case. You don’t understand why people are attracted to each other. In this case it’s almost as if she is a person with a mission. She devotes herself to him almost like a saint trying to pull him out of this spiral that he is spinning down in. She really wants it to work. If you think about it she is the one who initiates contact with him. She is the one who wants him. She is the one who wants to keep the baby. She is the one calling the shots here. She is the stronger figure and she works hard to try to bring him out the spiral he is in. Of course, it may also have something to do with her own mother. Maybe on an unconscious level her attraction to him is a subconscious way of provoking her mother, who is one of the counselors at this place, because her mother plays a role in that particular structure.
Aguilar: Following the Cannes Film Festival, what was the reaction of the general French audience towards the film given the difficult and very current themes it deals with? On the other hand, how did people who work in the field and deal with this issues daily felt about it?Emmanuelle Bercot
: The film was very well received in France and I think that for a difficult subject that's really exceptional. I think part of the attraction to the film was that it was showing an unknown world. Most people don’t know what goes on in the world of juvenile delinquency. It was exposure to something that was completely new. I think that by portraying the system as it really is and trying to show how it tries to help these young people, it enables you, as a citizen, to feel that this is something that you are proud that your government or your country is doing. Now you can discover how it works. I went to a lot of places that most people will never have an opportunity to go to, but through the film I was able to show what I saw in these places. I think that for a lot of people who saw the filmit changed the way they see delinquents. They come to understand what’s involved in how these young people become who they are. Also it helps them to understand what the system is trying to do for them. Many people have been affected by the film, especially by the paththat this young man’s life takes from the beginning till the end.
To answer the second part of your question, about how people who work in the film received the film, there have been quite a number of screenings that were done specifically for groups like that. In fact, the Minister of Justice was actually present at a number of them and there were lots of discussions about what takes place in the film and what the system offers to young people. I think that overall they were very happy that finally some light was being shun on the work that’s being done - which for the most part goes unnoticed. It’s really something that people don’t know about, and this gave them a chance to see it. It was important. They were touched in many ways by the recognition that we gave them and their jobs. In many cases these are thankless jobs in which people are never recognized. The film also helped the families of these people that work in the field understand what it is that they do and what their jobs entail. What I’ve also heard is that whether is the judges, the counselors, or the social workers that work in the system, they were all unanimous in feeling that this really did show the daily reality of what they do.
" opens in L.A. and NY on April 1st from Cohen Media Group