Exclusive: Mesrine Comes to America

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Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather and Goodfellas are all classic crime dramas that have created larger-than-life characters whose attitude and behavior have captured the imagination and admiration of filmgoers for decades. Pretty soon, another film may be joining that prestigious group as Jean François Richet’s two-part crime epic Mesrine: A Film in Two Parts, starring Vincent Cassel, will finally be seen in the United States.

The title character, Jacques Mesrine, is already legendary in France for his criminal actions during the ’70s that included bank robbery, kidnapping, murder and more, often done in an audacious and highly public manner. ComingSoon.net first heard of the man when we spoke with Vincent Cassel three years ago, just as he was preparing to make the film, the first half which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last September. (At the time, ComingSoon.net had a chance for an early look at the second part as well.)

The film itself is nearly as ambitious as Mesrine’s crimes, covering a lot of ground over its two parts, as it follows Jaques Mesrine from his days as a soldier in Algeria through his early petty thuggery in Paris, teaming with the beautiful Jeanne Schneider (Cécile de France) for a series of bank robberies and kidnappings, before being imprisoned in Quebec. After making a brazen prison escape, Mesrine had the audacity to return to try to free his fellow inmates. Years later (as the second part opens), Mesrine returns to France, where he becomes “Public Enemy #1” after kidnapping a judge to cover another escape, before partnering with François Besse (Mathieu Amalric) for even more amazing robberies. Besides de France and Amalric, some of France’s most highly regarded actors including Gérard Depardieu and Ludivine Sagnier show up to play off Cassel’s Mesrine, who himself changes his looks dramatically over the course of the two movies.

After a successful run in France, Mesrine is coming to America, playing as part of the Film Society at Lincoln Center’s annual Rendezvous with French Cinema and it couldn’t be better timed, considering that Vincent Cassel and Jean-François Richet each won a coveted French Cesar Award a few weeks back for their part in bringing this crime epic to the screen. (Senator Distribution will be releasing the film in August.)

ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk to actor Cassel and director Richet last September at the Toronto Film Festival, where we got to learn more about what was involved about bringing Mesrine to life.

ComingSoon.net: I interviewed Vincent three years ago for “Derailed” and he mentioned making these movies back then. It’s obviously been a long time coming to make this movie, so back when you decided to do this, what was the first step? Did you have to get the rights to Mesrine’s book or get his family’s blessing?
Vincent Cassel: Well, the real beginning of the story was Thomas Langmann, the son of producer/director Claude Berri, he was eleven years old in boarding school and he read the book and he said, “One day, I’ll be a producer, and I will make this movie.”
Jean-François Richet: It’s a true story.
Cassel: Six or seven years ago, I was shooting a movie called “Read My Lips” and he came and said, “I want to make two movies about this gangster.” I knew about the gangster, because he’s a very known figure in France, and “I want you to play the part.” Then I said, “Okay, who’s the director?” The first director who came was Barbet Schroeder, except that the script the wrote at the time was about making a hero out of the character, and I couldn’t relate to that. So after like two years of research and blah blah blah, I just decided to go and jump… actually, it was a bluff, but I just decided to drop out of the movie. I wrote a letter saying, “I’m sorry.” They went and tried it with other actors, didn’t work. Great. Barbet went away and then I called Thomas and said, “I’m still interested” and then they saw “Assault on Precinct 13” and they said, “What do you think about Jean-François?” and I said, “Of course, that’s a great idea and Jean-François got on the train. He found the writer Abdel Rouf Dafri, who didn’t want to write the story about the character because of what he did on the war in Algeria, and discovering the character, he decided that he found him very interesting, so they did a lot of research together, and they really found the tone between the dark side and the panache and the bright side of the character. They came to me and said, “I think we should do two movies.” I wanted to do only one, and I read the first script and suddenly I could relate, so yeah… The process was altogether seven years.
Richet: And before that…
Cassel: Jean-Paul Belmondo got the rights in the ’60s. Godard was supposed to do the movie. It’s been going on for a while.

CS: It’s surprising that no one had made a movie about this guy before.
Richet: They did. A very bad one. In 1983.
Cassel: They couldn’t say everything at the time, because it was too close to his death.

CS: When you came on as a director, you knew all the stuff Mesrine had done, it must have seemed like a really ambitious project, the fact that it would have to be two movies. How did you approach it?
Richet: First, I said like Vincent, “only one movie” and I tried to work on that script with the writer, and I said to Thomas, “You’re right. Not one movie, but I want three,” and Thomas said, “No, just two.” So yeah, we did a lot of research, I met everybody I think and we built the script with that.

CS: Well, it’s nice because usually you have to make one movie and see how it does before you make the second movie. I think because you made the two together, it made a huge difference. I understand you filmed most of the second movie first because Vincent had to gain and lose weight in a certain order?
Cassel: Yeah, I put on 20 kilos and I knew that I couldn’t gain that weight while we were shooting because on the set you don’t gain weight, you lose weight because you work too much, so I asked Jean-François if we could start at the end and go backwards until my 20s… and we did.

CS: How did that work, shooting someone’s life backwards, as far as getting into the character? You probably knew his whole story already.
Cassel: Yeah… plus you never really shoot in order in a movie, so it doesn’t really change a lot.
Richet: Ah yes, a lot. For me? Yeah, it was really difficult for me to shoot from the end.
Cassel: Oh, yeah? I’m sorry.
Richet: I tried to convince you. “Are you sure? Are you sure?” Yeah, it was difficult.
Cassel: I didn’t realize. I mean, for me, I had no choice anyways.
Richet: Absolutely. But it was a shock for me.

CS: Did you start with the death scene very early on in the shooting?
Cassel: No, the only moment where we could blow the whole neighborhood, because this is the (place where he died) was the 15th of August, because it’s a national holiday and it’s the middle of the summer, so that’s the only moment in Paris where suddenly, Paris is kind of empty. That’s the only moment, and we had one day and a half, so it was really, really tight. Because we started the movie in May and we shot that scene on the 15th, the moment we blocked the crossroad, it could only be that day.

CS: I wanted to ask about your different looks for the movie. I don’t know how much facial hair you grew and how much was fake, but you had so many different looks, it seems it would be hard to jump around and keep track of which stage of Mesrine’s life you were shooting.
Cassel: Keep track of the character, too, because if you change too much, you lose the character, so we had to find the right balance between the time that passes, because it’s 20 years altogether, and the fact that he had to change to hide, and find something that doesn’t look stupid. Otherwise, if every scene, you come up with a new face, people can laugh about it, so once in a while, it can be interesting to make a joke about it, but most of the time… I think when my father dies and I see him, I have this stupid wig on, and I don’t know how it was when you went to see it, but most of the time, people see me walking into the hospital and there’s a little laugh, and then (snaps fingers) it’s not funny anymore. We really had to play with these kinds of emotions through the whole movie… movies actually.

CS: He’s a really interesting character because he’s not really a hero, but he does get fans because of the nature of the outrageous things he does. Did you get any flack while you were making the movie or now before the movie comes out about making a movie about this guy? He’s still a criminal who killed a lot of people.
Cassel: Well, the problem is that first of all, in the movie, he killed a lot of people. Still today, there’s not one murder proved against him, so we don’t really know. We had to make up a reality between what he wrote, what people around him and people knew him wrote, and it’s like we don’t really know what happened. This is a guy who really created his legend.
Richet: It’s possible he kills these three people in the beginning, like the pimp and the cops at the end of the first movie, but we don’t really know if he did it.

CS: Right, because of the fact he wrote his own memoirs in jail, which is what you’re basing the movie on. Obviously, anyone can make up their own story however they want.
Cassel: I don’t think in the movie we really present him as a hero. He does things and we took the risk of losing the character, I mean for example when he tortured the journalist, when he smacked his wife in the face and put a gun in her mouth. There’s quite a few moments, when he has to be an ***hole, we really went for it. But then if you like him, I think the idea first of all, what you think about the character at the end of the two movies really depends on who you are as an audience and plus, if you hate him and can’t forgive him, eventually, you will like him and feel guilty about it.

CS: I don’t know how many movies have been influenced by Mesrine’s stories, because a lot of people must have heard his story and swiped bits for their screenplays, but did you try to avoid watching movies like those to keep those from influencing this one?
Richet: I tried to avoid (them) but for me the reference in reality is not those movies, so I tried always to imagine the character’s situation and I adapt my directing with that.

CS: I was thinking for instance in the scenes with Jeanne (played by Cécile De France), they even call them a “Bonnie and Clyde”… so did you try to avoid visuals from movies like those?
Richet: Yeah, but it’s logical to think about “Bonnie and Clyde” when you’re one man and one woman and they rob banks, so it’s okay. It’s “Bonnie and Clyde” just for that.
Cassel: There’s something really strange that I’ve noticed, because I did quite a few gangster movies in my life already, is that real gangsters are influenced by movies. They want to look like they’re in the movies. They want to be Robert De Niro, they want to be James Cagney, and they act like in the movies, so what is influencing what at the end? I’m not quite sure.

CS: That’s right. So many of the most famous gangsters loved the movies and so they went about putting on costumes to become different characters.
Cassel: Because it’s ego tripping.

CS: Do you think that Mesrine’s arrogance was his undoing eventually? It seemed like he was getting away with so much but there’s a certain point, where he obviously thinks he’s unstoppable.
Cassel: I think you’re totally right. Knowing that no murder has been proven against him… for me, the process was like this: He was doing what he was because he needed to justify his real nature, like he had a cause, but he was a rebel without a cause. He grabs on causes like the war on Algeria, it’s the fact his father got caught by the Germans, then it becomes the high-security prisons, but the truth is that he never really had a true cause. At some point, the left wing press, newspapers like “Liberation” for example, they used him as a counter-power symbol. Suddenly, they were talking about “L’Etat Policie,” a police state, and suddenly he became the symbol of that, but they used him, and I think he was flattered. First of all, he was flattered, and then suddenly he realized how he could use the media and flatter his ego a little more. I think he died because of that really.

CS: What about this amazing cast? I realized that they don’t really make many gangster movies in France, at least not that often. Did everyone just jump at the chance of making a gangster movie, because they knew these stories and characters?
Richet: I think if the script is good, you can have everybody.
Cassel: Yeah, but there was something around the movie. It’s been going around for so long, and plus, in France at least, you say “Mesrine,” everybody knows. At 6 o’clock in the morning, I go out of my house to work and the guy who is driving the garbage truck goes, “Hello, when is the movie coming out?” It’s like the people know about it. It’s not about the movie industry, it’s not about moviegoers. It’s like people want to know what’s going on with Jacques Mesrine. I think a lot of actors knew that. To be part of a real popular thing is always very gratifying for somebody who works in this business, isn’t it?

CS: And every single actor has a great character to play, partially because they’re good actors but also because these really are strong roles. Can you talk about balancing them with the film’s main focus, Mesrine, in order to get the most out of your cast?
Richet: What was interesting, especially in the second part of the movie, which shows Mesrine’s evolution, it was through the totally different characters.
Cassel: We talked about it so many times. He’s using the eyes of the other characters to define Mesrine, because Mesrine was really different. When he’s with François Besse, he’s learning something, because he doesn’t have a cause, so those guys are more of a conscience than he is. Plus you know what? As an actor, I really felt it because on such a long shoot, suddenly to have Gérard Depardieu, to have Roy Dupuis, to have all those guys, it was a new energy, and I had to adapt, and that’s exactly what Mesrine was doing with the people. One thing that (Jean Francois) was saying would complete the answer is that he never really wanted to film the actors. It was always about the character. Known or unknown actors, he didn’t way to say, “Oh, let’s have a little more Gérard Depardieu.” If it’s not useful (rubs hands together to symbolize the term “Gone.”)

CS: Even someone like Cécile De France, she doesn’t look anything like we’ve seen her in other movies. Maybe that’s what helped them become these characters, and you do want to see more of her, but of course, you can’t, because this is his life you have to follow. How much more do you have to do on the second movie?
Richet: For me, it’s only one movie. He’s the same character but with two different periods, because in the first movie, he builds himself, and in the second movie, he is “Public Enemy #1” and I tried to adapt my directing with the character.

CS: Even though you were shooting the movie sort of simultaneously and made both halves at the same time.
Richet: Yeah, we never stopped. Nine months in a row.

CS: If you were shooting things for different halves of the movie, how did you keep track of that?
Cassel: We never did that because we had to follow my weight, so we finished the second one and then the next day, it was already the first day of the first one.
Richet: When I decided when the character changed his mind, I think just after the end of the first movie, at this moment, Mesrine is another person, so I have to change my directing at this moment. When you know exactly when we have to change, it’s easy to do.

CS: You two have worked together so long making this great project, so do you think the two of you might try working together again on something completely different? I think you’ve certainly created something special by making this movie together.
Richet: I want to, if I can find a good script.
Cassel: Yeah, once we find something.

CS: Do either of you have anything else in the pipeline?
Cassel: I did a movie in Brazil this year that’s going to come out after this one, but honestly, I have stuff but I really want to promote these two movies, send them around the world, do my job really well, then we’ll see. I’m not a workaholic. I like to take my time between things because otherwise, if you work all the time, it’s nothing special anymore.
Richet: I’m writing a script with the same writer.

Mesrine: A Film in Two Parts will be playing as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Rendezvous with French Cinema program, playing separately on March 10 and March 11 and then both parts back to back on March 14. The films are scheduled for theatrical release in the United States by Senator Distribution this coming August.