Interview: The Makers of The Intouchables


A year ago, very few Americans had heard of French filmmaking duo Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, despite having made three movies, but the duo’s fourth film The Intouchables may change all that, as it’s already an enormous global sensation, grossing over $300 million before even opening in the United States.

It reunites them for the third time with French comic Omar Sy, this time playing Driss, a Senegalese-born guy from the projects who gets a job taking care of quadriplegic millionaire Philippe, played by François Cluzet, even though he’s not nearly as experienced as other candidates. Over the one-month trial period, Driss helps Philippe to learn to live life again and even helps him reconnect with women, the two very different men becoming the best of friends.

We talked to the two filmmakers in early March, less than a week after the Weinstein Company’s other French film The Artist pretty much swept the Oscars, and the duo had quite a few questions about how things worked in America and were anxious about how the film might be received despite having enormous success elsewhere.

You can also read our earlier interview with the film’s stars François Cluzet and Omar Sy here. I know this is based on a true story and there was a documentary about the relationship between the millionaire and his caretaker and how they became friends, so how did you guys find out about it and get involved with adapting their story into a comedy?
Olivier Nakache:
We actually saw a documentary about this in 2003. We were really impressed by the story, but we knew back then that it was too soon for us. We felt that we did not have the right weapons in our arsenal as filmmakers and as storytellers, but we did know that it was something that deserved to be used as a subject. It included all the ingredients we like – a strong story and a lot of comedic potential.

CS: Having seen this documentary and waited to do something on it, did you yourselves get the rights to tell the story or did you have a producer who did that?
Eric Toledano:
We asked our producer who had made three movies with us, “We are interested in this story. What can we do?” Philippe wrote a book and at the end of the book was his Email. We sent him an Email and he said he was living in Morocco now because the weather was better for his health. We sent him an Email and he said, “I can’t move but if you come to me, we can speak.” We took a plane with the producer and he said, “Many people are interested in my story and there are many screenplays written but none of them are very good so I didn’t give the rights. I want first, a comedy; secondly, I don’t want something oversimple or cheese; and third, I don’t want any money. I want you to give 5% of the profits of the movie to an association,” and now she’s a rich association.

CS: I was going to say. That was probably the best deal ever made on behalf of a charity.
They’ve already received one million Euro, more than one million dollars and that’s only the beginning. We visited the association that allows handicapped adults to live together in a beautiful environment.

CS: I know you worked with Omar before and François mentioned you wrote this character based on him, which changes the story because now his character is from Senegal, so can you talk about how you decided to make that change and write it for Omar?
We wanted to work with Omar again and we wrote the first part for him. Omar was the most natural choice. Basically, the two people, Adel and Omar, even though they may be physically different and come from different ethnic groups in a way, socially and culturally in France, they belong to the same group of immigrants who live in the Banlieu, which is like the projects, the ghettos. They come from that same cultural group so for a French audience, there’s no difference between the two.
Toledano: In 2005, there were big riots in France, like what happened in Tottenham, England so recently, and this was a special time for France because it was unexpected and when we saw on television the group of the riots, it was always the same people – blacks and Arabs. This is the same group, so it was more important to have the good actor than the good nationality and Omar was so natural and spontaneous – his fantasy, his way to dance, his sense of humor.
Nakache: He’s got funny bones.
Toledano: To tell someone in a wheelchair, “No handy, no candy” or some kind of joke, you have to be sympathetic and have empathy from the audience and more important, it was the actors, not the origin of the actors – black or Arab would have been the same for our audience.

CS: And you wrote the character of Driss more towards what you knew Omar could do? Did you know he could dance so well?
Yeah, because we made three movies with him and we knew his qualities, and when we wrote the script, we wrote it especially for him so we knew that we’d have a scene of him dancing. We used his qualities.
Nakache: We made a custom-built suit for him.
Toledano: He used to say when he did the promotion in France that “They made me a costume that was as comfortable as a costume, beautiful as a costume and I felt like as if I was wearing underwear because it was the uniform of the projects.” They always like baggy things.

CS: By creating this outfit for him, he was able to get into the character very easily.
It was easy but it was not without any risk, because we are on a small frontier of what we can do and what we can’t do, and it was fragile. You don’t know what the reaction will be of people in wheelchairs when we make a joke, they might not be happy about that. We don’t know how the people of the projects will react about how you represent them in a feature, so it wasn’t without risk. At the beginning, when Oliver and I were being asked “What will be your new movie?” “It’s about a paraplegic…” “Wow, why? Why?” They were scared.
Nakache: “No more comedy for you?”
Toledano: There is one guy from the projects who was saying “This subject is untouchable. You don’t make a comedy about this.” And last year in France, all the movies have in common are that they’re about subjects we don’t have to touch. For instance, to make a film without dialogue today, at the time of 3D, is amazing. To make a movie about very tense subject like pedophiles (“Polisse”) and there’s another movie that’s very successful in France (“The Declaration of War”) that’s about a couple who have a love child. The common points of all these movies is to choose some subjects that are very subversive.

CS: Why do you think that’s going on right now in France?
I think it’s a reaction about America. The Top 10 box office movies in America are sequels – it’s “Harry Potter,” it’s “Twilight.” This is not movies for us. We learn from America and we send a message to America. “The Artist” is a message, a message of love. We made a buddy movie between a black guy and a white guy. This is a model of America. Remember for example, “Trading Places.”
Nakache: “48 Hours”… “Midnight Run”
Toledano: The buddy movies like this.. “Rain Man.” Buddy movies are very strong. The big story between two strong characters who have nothing in common and they’re going to live together. It’s from American movies. So we have an exchange between France and America, because we’re always discussing. We invent cinema and some critic’s review mentioned that at the same time “Hugo Cabret” hails Meillies as “The Artist” pays homage to Hollywood movies.

CS: Oh, believe me, I interviewed people from both movies and wondered if they realized there was another movie from the other side of the Atlantic about their country.
We grew up with “Trading Places” with Eddie Murphy, with the big buddy movies like this and these are our references really.

CS: I wanted to ask about the title, which you kind of answered when you talked about how you combined two subjects that were considered untouchable.
Nothing to touch. A comedy about a paraplegic, we can’t touch.
Nakache: You know the Indian caste system with the five different castes? The people who aren’t in society who live on the margins? You can’t touch them. They have no position, no place in society, like our characters, so we wanted to laugh about this fear of society – the handicapped and the projects.
Toledano: The choice of the title is that we’re always on the verge of the subject and “The Intouchables” is really about being on this limit. They’re intouchable because they’re behind the lines about their social class.

CS: I’m not sure if any of your previous movies were released here at all.
In L.A.
Nakache: There was a French festival and our second and third movie, they had a little success in France.
Toledano: But nothing compared to this.

CS: With that in mind, has anyone come to you about releasing your other movies here? I know I’m interested in seeing the other movie you’ve done with Omar.
In France, they made a new DVD and wrote “By the directors of The Intouchables with Omar Sy.”
Nakache: You have to know that Omar is very, very famous in France because he’s got a show on TV every night, a very funny show.
Toledano: A small show, only five minutes but it’s at the biggest hour of Canal + and it’s a very trendy channel.
Nakache: You can compare it to 20 years ago when Eddie Murphy made “Beverly Hills Cop,” coming from “Saturday Night Live.” It’s exactly the same with Omar.

CS: That’s funny, because this was literally the very first thing I saw him in and he was great.
And everyone says he looks like a black American actor. He moves like Will Smith and the model for him was an American black actor.
Nakache: Yes, he has grace in the way he moves, the way he talks.

CS: It’s funny because before “The Artist,” Michel Hazanavicius made the OSS117 movies, and while I saw those, very few Americans have seen them.
And now “The Artist” is working here? Really working?
Nakache: People like the movie?

CS: More or less, but I have a feeling they’ll like this movie more.
Because it’s in color?

CS: No, it’s not just that, but like you said, “Trading Places” is a great buddy comedy and people love seeing two characters who shouldn’t be together…
It’s more commercial I think.

CS: Exactly and as long as they can get past reading subtitles, I think they’ll be fine.
The only question I have is do the Oscars generally give prizes to commercial movies?

CS: It depends. The most commercial movie at this year’s Oscars was “The Help” which made $170 million and only won one award.
“Titanic” for example had so many Oscars.

CS: Yeah, but that’s a rare example. It’s different every year.
This is the first time in France where a mainstream film were awarded a prize.

CS: No, I think a lot of people noticed when Omar beat Jean Dujardin just two days before Jean won the Oscar. I knew your movie was opening “Rendezvous,” but I only saw it a couple days after the Oscars, so the timing was perfect. I want to ask about taking license with telling the story including how Philippe meets this woman through love letters…
It’s all fiction.
Nakache: It’s true that in real life Abdel reconnected Philippe to women.
Toledano: Philippe thought it was over for him to have a love affair and it’s really because of Abdel that it was possible. In true life, he relocated to Morroco and found a new woman in Morocco.
Nakache: And they were together for ten years, this is true.
Toledano: We detailed six months approximately but the truth is that they spent ten years together.

CS: What did Philippe think of the movie? He gives you the rights to make a comedy and you have a different story.
He was really open. He said, “You do what you want. You are the directors. I just want a good movie and a funny movie and a deep movie.” He saw the screenplay and sometimes he was saying, “This is not possible. Your situation isn’t available because I can’t do that.” It was more of the medical authenticity that he was concerned about, not on the deep meaning.

CS: From a technical sense, you start the movie with a scene that happens much later and I was curious why you did that. You get the idea of the relationship but it kind of gives away that they’ll be reunited later, so I was curious about why you made that the opening scene?
Because we think that the audience is smart and if you see a poster with Omar and Cluzet, obviously going to be together during the whole movie. It was Billy Wilder’s saying, “Allow the spectator to sum up 2 plus 2.” This relationship is very, very undefinable, so let’s start with something very undefinable. It was odd for us to have a chronological story, so they begin, they meet, so we preferred to deconstruct the story and to catch the spectator with a powerful first scene with car chases and the policemen. That part of the story is actually true; that actually happened, and when Philippe told us the story, we knew right away it was going to be our opening scene.

CS: You mentioned the relationship between American and French cinema, which is an interesting one. I’ve been writing about movies for ten years and I’ll never understand why tehse great films from France don’t get bigger audiences here and they always want to remake them into English. Where do you guys go from here? Do you want to make an American film?
No, no, we stay in France. We make comedies and we use the French culture to make comedies. It’s true, you’re right. When we show our first, second or third movie in the U.S. for one screening, the audience liked them very much and laughed. Every time the audience asks us where can we see your movie? Why aren’t your movies released in the U.S.? Maybe this will change with “The Artist”?

CS: It’s just an odd phenomenon where Americans see a French film and think “This is a great movie, let’s remake it into English with Dustin Hoffman and whomever…”
That’s what we think but I think for the cultural problems of subtitles, they have to make it again for North Dakota and Minnesota. I don’t think for New York it’s a problem for the real American audience, they have to see American actors speaking in English. Maybe it will change, but it’s more cultural than ideological. Dubbing is not an option? There is dubbing in America?

CS: It’s kind of weird. They do dub movies for when you see them on airplanes like with “Crouching Tiger,” if you see it on TV, it will be dubbed and it’s terrible and almost unwatchable.
I don’t like dubbing.

The Intouchables opens in select cities on Friday, May 25.