Exclusive: Laurent Cantet Teaches The Class

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For his fourth film, French filmmaker Laurent Cantet (Heading South, Time Out) decided to take an unusual departure from his previous three films, bringing his cameras into a typical junior high classroom to create a film version of François Bégaudeau’s novel The Class (Entre les Murs).

The resulting movie is very much a slice-of-life pseudo-documentary about an average classroom, which might not seem particularly interesting first, but it’s the process Cantet used to make the film that makes it so unique. Using a similar approach to filmmaking as Fernando Meirelles did when developing City of God, Cantet enlisted François himself to play the teacher of a diverse class of outspoken teens, all played by young non-actors. At times, the results seem almost too realistic in the way it shows what goes on behind closed doors as teachers and students challenge each other in the tough education system. What might seem fairly innocuous at first turns into a riveting story as François finally meets his match in a couple of strong-willed students.

The movie won out over a lot of other films to become France’s selection for consideration in the Foreign Language Oscar race, after winning the coveted Palme d’Or Prize at this year’s Cannes Festival and opening this year’s New York Film Festival.

A few months ago, ComingSoon.net sat down with Cantet shortly after that to learn more about his film and the unique way it came together. Since then, the movie has been picked as one of the five finalists for Best Foreign Language Film, up against films from Germany, Israel, Japan and Austria.

ComingSoon.net: You see a lot of American movies about teachers and classrooms, but you don’t see a lot of French films about the subject. Had you seen a lot of the American movies in that genre?
Laurent Cantet: Not that much. I saw “Seeds of Violence,” which is quite an old film, or I saw “Dead Poets Society” and it was more a counter-example for me than an example. We always try to make a teacher character that’s not a hero, that can make a lot of mistakes and just try to find a way to create a dialogue with the children and not this guy whose from a book, and who can give the right words to the children and raise them.

CS: Which is very rare in the actual school system…
Cantet: Unfortunately, it’s rare.

CS: Had you been thinking about this and then you read François’ book and was he very honest about what really happened in classrooms?
Cantet: Yes, and I was interested by the way he accepted to present himself like someone who is not a God, who can make… I think (being) a teacher is always an improvisation in front of the class, and you don’t have one question to answer, you have hundreds of them, and you have to answer in the second, because they won’t give you time to think or anything. So sometimes you aren’t as perfect as you’d like yourself to be.

CS: Did you have to change the way you approached the movie or envisioned the movie you wanted to make once you knew you were going to use François’ writing as the basis?
Cantet: In fact, the writing process was always linked with the workshop work and François was in each workshop, improvising in front of the children, so I learned to know him. At the same time, I learned to know the children. I don’t really know exactly the way you build all that. You try some situation, you test them, you learn to know each other, and all that leads to a script which I don’t know exactly how it was built.

CS: But you had an idea to do a movie about this subject even before meeting François, so your ideas must have evolved as you got involved in the workshopping with him.
Cantet: From the very beginning, I had the idea that this class could work like a microcosm that would describe the whole society. Even if you stay between the walls of a school, you have all the issues of the society that comes inside of the walls, just because it’s a moment where children are learning to think. They’re looking for themselves, they are trying to know who they are, and which role they can have in all that. I think it’s a concentration of questions that can take place in the classroom.

CS: This school you found where you did the workshops, that wasn’t a school where François worked as a teacher, was it?
Cantet: No.

CS: So how did you find the school and convince them to go through this whole process of workshopping and filming there?
Cantet: It was quite easy to do. In fact, I chose the neighborhood. I wanted the neighborhood to be as diverse as the class I was expecting. We met the administration of the school, and it was the first school we tried. We met the principal and the vice-principal, who is the one playing the principal in the film, so that’s why I wanted to mention him. We met them and they were really interested by the experience. At that moment, we didn’t even know if the film would exist at the end. We didn’t have money, we didn’t have any precise script, so they accepted the workshop. They managed to get the authorization from the Board of Education, and in two weeks, everything was done. What was also very interesting for me, was that a lot of teachers were interested by the project, and involved in it, and they are the ones who are in the film.

CS: And this was all building up to the filming, and you weren’t filming while you were workshopping the material.
Cantet: No. Well, I had a small camera and I was filming just to keep some memory of all that.

CS: It seems that in that classroom, French is not the first language of many of the students. I didn’t really understand what kind of class he was teaching.
Cantet: It was a French class. For most of them, French is their first language, because most of them were born in France. In the class, we only had two or three people who were recently. Wei the young Chinese, Boubacar and Souleymane, whose been in France for ten years now, so he’s not a new immigrant. For example, Esmerelda, even if she claims her Moroccan or Tunisian culture, she’s a real French girl. She was born in the street close to the school, but I think she felt that she is not really desired by French society, so she claims her parent’s nationality, just because it’s a normal reaction when you feel you’re not a part of a place. You try to say, “Okay, I don’t care. I’m from another place.”

CS: But that was the character she built in the workshop, rather than something from their own lives.
Cantet: Esmerelda is quite close to her character in life.

CS: I watched the movie not knowing anything about it beforehand, not knowing François was a teacher beforehand, or that he wrote a book. I really knew nothing about it at all.
Cantet: So maybe it’s better not to say anything about the film.

CS: I don’t know, but I do want to see it again now knowing what I do know about the movie, because the process you used was very similar to what Fernando Meirelles did in creating “City of God” and the TV series “City of Men.”
Cantet: In this case, I never chose. I never said “You, yes, you no.” We took all those who stayed. What was interesting was that the class couldn’t be full of Esmereldas. It would be impossible to speak, so you have those kids who stay a little bit quiet at the back of the class, you have people who don’t speak a lot, you don’t even notice them.

CS: Funny you should mention that, because the girl at the end, I don’t remember seeing her almost at all before that point in the movie.
Cantet: However, we showed them quite often, just dreaming. She’s the one asked to choose a word and she said, “Nevertheless.” She’s here without being here.

CS: Yes, she’s very unassuming, so it was surprising.
Cantet: And that’s interesting in the way that we created that character. We were looking for the character of that last scene, this girl who would say. “I don’t understand anything.” We met during the rehearsals with different girls, and so Henriette was really impressive when she made it the first time, so I proposed her the role telling her “So the problem is that you will not be able to really exist in the whole film. You’ll have this scene and during the rest of the film, you will have to be just away.” And she accepted that, knowing that.

CS: I’m curious about the shooting technique of the film. I know you had three cameras. You had to make sure they were on and catch the people talking and make sure they were hidden.
Cantet: The classroom was square and we changed it so the classroom became a rectangle, and we had two meters all along, about 6 feet to have the three cameras, two boom operators, three sound people, me, my script, my assistant, all the materials.

CS: So you were all in the classroom with them rather than in a separate room watching on monitors.
Cantet: No, because I was watching the monitors, but I was also watching what was happening in the room, telling the cameramen through the microphone, “Try and go and see what will happen there.” I was just trying to imagine who could react to something, where the camera should be at that moment, and it was really driving the three cameras in real time.

CS: It sounds a lot like how you might shoot a live TV show.
Cantet: So that was true for the first shot, the first take in fact, and then after that, we knew a little bit more what would happen, and the cameras were able to arrive at the right time on the right kid. In fact, sometimes we chose to… I didn’t want to be always as ready as we could have been on the one who was going to speak, so just to keep this impression of reality, of documentary style, the camera was preparing itself and then when the kid was starting to speak, arrived on him a little bit later.

CS: As far as the documentary style, when I first saw this, not knowing anything about it, I felt like this really was just some random classroom being filmed, not really knowing where any of it was going.
Cantet: I think that you can feel through the concentration of events in one scene show that it’s not a real documentary film, I think, because a documentary film could happen, but at different moments during a year, then we decide to put it all together in a five minute scene.

CS: I thought they were done mostly in real time, but that wasn’t really the case and you did end up cutting together different takes?
Cantet: Yes, and each scene has been done at least five times and sometimes ten times, and we also made some short close-ups and one sentence that I never had in what they proposed. It was really rebuilt in all the scenes and they become more and more precise at each take.

CS: So was there a structure that was developed as you filmed? I was curious about having all those cameras there and doing improvisation, I was wondering how you were able to get these actors who are on camera for the first time just jumping in with things.
Cantet: The fact that we had three cameras helped maybe for that. They were possibly being filmed at any time, but they never knew when they were on, so they were playing all the scene without stopping and without waiting for their movement. I think that’s also why they’re so energetic and so great in the way they act.

CS: I haven’t read François’ book, but he doesn’t come across that well. Obviously, he’s a good teacher and he listens to the students—some teachers would just say “shut up” or “go to the office”—and he actually talks to them and gets involved with them. It’s interesting that he’d want to put himself out there like that as a teacher who has flaws. Can you talk about how you approached him about playing himself as a teacher and being on camera?
Cantet: We decided that quite early, and it was quite easy for me to decide (to ask) him to act. It was obvious for me that what interested me in the book was this character, so why should I ask another teacher to be this teacher, since François accepted to be it. It was also important, because we were very close together and he was able to drive the scene from the inside the way I was expecting him to do. There was a lot of complicity between us.

CS: While you were filming, was he ever like, “I wish my character didn’t do this or react this way”?
Cantet: That’s what I was expecting from each actor, so of course, I could accept it coming from him, but he wasn’t like that and there was no competition between him and me or any problem. He was an actor and he accepted to be it.

CS: Do you know if any of the kids or François have decided to go on and do more acting?
Cantet: François I don’t know. He maybe had some proposals, but he didn’t tell me exactly what he wanted to do. One of the kids already made another film last summer. I didn’t see it, for the moment it’s not finished. Others had some casting sessions, too, but at the same time, they’re not fantasizing about being stars. Even during the Cannes Film Festival, they could have lost their minds, and they really stayed very calm and very happy to be there together. None of them tried to go in front of the others, just because they have the same feeling as I do. We made this film all together. It was a real team work, and they didn’t want to break this process.

CS: I wondered when you found this school and put this project together whether these were kids who wanted to be actors anyway.
Cantet: No, no. Some of them now would like to, but without building all their life on that.

CS: What would you like Americans to get out of the movie? And who do you think would get more out of seeing it? Teachers or students?
Cantet: I hope the film makes justice to the work of all the characters and one side, I think that teachers can see that it’s not easy to be a teacher, but it can be great work, too, and if you really make it with faith like François is doing, it’s not easy, but wonderful. On the other side, I hope that people can feel all the intelligence of the children, even if they’re not adults would expect them to be. I would also hope that you can feel they’re really working when they’re in school, that it’s not very easy for them to understand one thing. I hope that you can feel that the learning process is not just teaching or lecturing. Everybody has to be active in the learning process. There is one thing also, there is a sort of misunderstanding sometimes about the film, which is that François is not doing this kind of lesson every hour. It’s a very specific moment of the year when he accepts the children to discuss what they’re doing here, to negotiate what they’re learning, and it’s not the whole learning process, of course, but it’s so important to have these kinds of moments.

The Class opens in New York and L.A. on January 20, 2009.