Filmmaker Jacques Audiard is one of France’s exports–along with Pierre Morel, Jean Pierre-Jeunet and Olivier Assayas–who has found a way to break out of what is commonly expected from French films, delving into genre territories but giving their American influences a distinctively original twist. That was certainly the case when he did a French remake of James Toback’s Fingers with The Beat My Heart Skipped and with the crime-thriller Read My Lips before that.
His new film A Prophet is a prison movie unlike any other you’ve seen, following the journey of a young illiterate Arab named Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) who enters prison with but the shirt on his back, and is inducted into the crew of a ruthless Corsican mob boss named Cesar (Niels Arestrup). The gritty realism to how Audiard tells this story and where things go over the course of the next two and a half hours has really struck a chord with audiences, winning a number of awards at festivals before receiving France’s blessing as its coveted selection for the Oscars, of which it’s one of the five nominees in the Foreign Language category.
With that in mind, ComingSoon.net sat down with Audiard (center in above photo), his co-writer Thomas Bidegain (right) and actor Tahar Rahim (left) a few weeks back to talk about the riveting crime drama. (For the sake of transparency, we had some difficulty transcribing the interviews due to ambient noise and the translation, but we tried to capture the spirit of Audiard’s responses as best we could.)
“Jacques received a screenplay that was written by Abdel Raouf Dafri, and it was called ‘Le Prophete,'” Bidegain began by telling us about the film’s origins. “It was about a gangster, more of a rise and fall kind of story, and the first thirty pages took place in jail. At the same time, we were invited to present Jacques’ latest film ‘The Beat My Heart Skipped’ at a jail in Paris, so we went there and I went with him, and we were very impressed by the population we saw there. Not because they were gangsters or criminals but because they were poor people, really the poorest. It was very impressive for us and we said that we had to tell the story of those people.”
“When Jacques handed me the original script, I thought it was very interesting when the character was in jail so I had the idea he should stay in jail,” he continued. “The movie should start when he gets in jail and finish at the end when he gets out of jail, because that creates an irony. The minute he gets out of jail, then it becomes a regular gangster film. As long as he’s still in jail, he can do the most horrible or horrendous thing outside, but at 7PM, he has to come back and bend over.” (That last bit was a reference to the character being searched by the guards not something more nefarious.)
That visit to jail made a fairly large impression on the filmmaker, although he didn’t necessarily create Malik based on anyone he met there, using them more as an “impression” while creating a similar world and finding a character who could bring the viewer into this environment. It took him a long time to find the right actor to play Malik, eventually coming to Tahar Rahim, the subject of a 2005 documentary who previously had a role on a French television show.
“I met with Tahar before casting and there was something I liked in him, but I went to see other people in order to support my decision of Tahar,” Audiard admitted. “I had to see a lot of other people to make sure that he was the one.”
Rahim felt like he went through six to eight auditions before he even had any sort of script to read. “At that point, I wasn’t totally sure of the character,” Audiard said in response to that. “You know, the character only really appears as you work on him. I think if we had an idea of an actor for the role as we started writing, we might have ended up with something very different than Tahar.”
“Of course I had no idea. I just didn’t realize,” Rahim told us when asked about his impressions of the character and how he felt about carrying a movie. “I really only had one thing in mind, and that was to get that part, so when Jacques picked me and we started rehearsing and then I started realizing how heavy that machine was. During the first days of shooting, it was still going but then he wanted to shave my head in the beginning of the second week, and then that was like a wake-up call for me. Things became more obvious, not simpler, and then pressure became less important. You don’t think about the whole film but you think about your scene, more scene-by-scene–you work on a brick, not on the wall.”
“I don’t remember this,” Jacques joked on hearing the part about him wanting to shave Tahar’s head.
Even so, when it came to shooting, they couldn’t really shoot the movie in chronological order because of the whole head shaving thing. In the film, Malik has a shaved head as we meet him and then his hair grows out over time, so to do this, they would shoot the second half of the movie first. “Those kinds of elements are important so we had to shoot all the parts where his head is shaved at the end of the film,” Audiard confirmed. “Anyway, if we had to shoot Malik’s murder scene at the beginning, we weren’t prepared for that; we weren’t good enough at that point to jump into that.”
That said, they also couldn’t really shoot based on the locations either, which is normally the case. “It was all mixed. There were long segments in jail and then we would go out and then we’d come back to jail. We had to shoot during the fall and winter and we didn’t have that much light, so some things had to be moved around the schedule so we’d have as much light as possible.”
As far as his process, Audiard said, “I do a lot of rehearsals, we rehearse a lot, but I don’t think I do anything special. What I do is I write new scenes for the rehearsals; I don’t use scenes that are in the script, I write other scenes. It happens that sometimes the scenes I write for rehearsal, they become scenes that will get into the script. A script is a very facile tool, so you don’t want to overuse it, it’s not Shakespeare.” That said, Jacques admitted that if he had his way, Thomas would write more so that he could focus on his directing.
Audiard’s previous experiences working with two of France’s strongest dramatic actors, Vincent Cassel and Romain Duris, made us wonder whether this process was any different working with a less-experienced actor like Tahar. “With Tahar, it’s not different because I realized one thing is that it was like he had a lot of experience, because it was really easy to work with him. I really thought a lot about Romain Duris and the way I worked with him, because they had the same kind of experience and the same kind of approach to the character with a lot of body language. With other actors than Tahar, it was difficult on the shoot. Sometimes you have the feeling you won’t be able to make it, because the actor may be scared or you see that he doesn’t understand what you’re asking from him, and that is terrifying.”
“All the extras were very good and most of them were ex-convicts,” he continued. “They knew how to move in the jail as a group so they brought a lot of reality to the film. They also set the tone for the leading actors. I would start directing the background and the extras before I would start directing main actors. This way the main actors had to play with the background actors who knew about jail, so it would create a realistic effect. Normally, I would do the opposite, I would first work with the leading roles and then the extras, but here, it was different.”
While the director wouldn’t necessarily consider A Prophet his most ambitious film, he did think it was the heaviest due to the number of characters as well as the length of the shoot. “When you make a two and a half hour film, everything is longer, the editing, the sound editing… everything is longer,” Bidegain confirmed.
There’s so many different things that people can get out of the movie, so Audiard was hesitant to elaborate on his own thoughts on what he thought the moral of the film was, instead giving us his most enigmatic response. “I don’t know about morals, only truth. I really don’t understand what it means. In terms of morals, we can ask ourselves how do we use cinema? Are we using it to show reality or to play with reality? How do the actors act–do they act like actors or like human beings? For me, that’s the moral question is the use you make of cinema.” (If you can figure out what this means, please let us know.)
“It feels more like the end of a cycle. I think I’m done with something,” Audiard opined when asked whether he thought A Prophet was a logical extension of his previous work. “I don’t know exactly what, but it feels to me like the end of a cycle like ‘men amongst themselves,’ that’s what I call that period. Now I’ll do ‘women amongst themselves.'” With that in mind, Audiard does hope to do a movie with a woman in the lead for his next movie, being that it’s been ten years since Read My Lips; he even joked that maybe he’ll have a few animals in the next one, but he admitted that he’s not ready to work with children just yet.
Considering how different this experience was for the director, we thought it would be interesting to see some sort of “Behind the Scenes” doc, something that Audiard is not necessarily a fan of. “For the first time, there’s one for this but I don’t like that at all,” he said. “It’s like you watch yourself directing that and I don’t like that. On the DVD, there’s a 1 hour and 20 minute making-of and it’s quite interesting, but when I saw that for the first time, me in the ‘making of,’ I didn’t recognize myself, talking with the actors. It’s not my voice, it’s not me.”
For many people, A Prophet will be their first time seeing a movie by Jacques Audiard, but he’s gotten used that. “A lot of time, it’s like that. You make a film and it’s the first time someone has seen it. My mother has Alzheimer’s and she has the feeling I’m always making my first film,” he joked in a characteristically dry manner.
A Prophet opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, February 26, and in other cities throughout March.