Denis Dercourt • Director
by Fabien Lemercier
23/06/2009 - A Political Science School graduate with a degree in philosophy, who currently teaches viola and chamber music at the Strasbourg Conservatory: we met with the extraordinary 44-year-old director who is emerging as a French filmmaker to watch closely.
When did you discover these fans of Napoleonic historical reconstructions, who provided the inspiration for Tomorrow at Dawn [trailer, film focus]?
Denis Dercourt: A long time ago, when I watched a report. I found it rather cinematic and I’d also read that in Napoleon’s army, musicians were known as "Far from the bullets" because they kept away from the front. Putting these two pieces of information together, I thought to myself there’s a subject for a film. But I abandoned the project then started over again several times because it’s very difficult to make a film about people who are putting on an act, to make people iconic when they are playing at being iconic.
How much historical research did you do?
As a musician, I’m very familiar with the problems of reenactment and faithfulness, and I’m also very much influenced by contemporary art, which is concerned with these concepts. By nature, I like to be well-informed: I aim for meticulousness, precision, and authenticity and the film is pretty accurate historically. If something wasn’t right, I always had someone on set to tell me: we hold that on the right side, not on the left. For 80% of the soldiers in the film are people who don their costumes every weekend.
What attracted you to the film’s central theme of sibling relationships?
As the story is quite complex and unfolds on two levels of reality (the real and the virtual/role-playing), I had to combine it with an emotionally powerful theme with which viewers could identify.
The Page Turner [trailer, film focus] explored that primal feeling of the childhood wound. Tomorrow at Dawn is about looking after a more fragile brother, which is a rather universal feeling, even if we realise that the more fragile of the two isn’t necessarily the one we imagine.
Were you influenced by other cinematic works when making the film?
I drew inspiration from Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in terms of identification with the heroes, who are characters undergoing a period of turmoil and a somewhat "borderline" experience. This is one of the reasons why I cast Vincent Perez. Tom Cruise and James Stewart are very handsome and play really normal people in these films, although we realise that deep down they’re not so normal.
How did you direct the two lead actors?
Vincent didn’t want to make any more cloak-and-dagger films: it’s a little like the hero of the film who doesn’t want to play the game. As for Jérémie Renier, I wanted his performance to be very physical and directed outwards, whereas Vincent is more restrained and inward. I was particularly lucky in that right from their first meeting I could see they would make a good pair of brothers.
What was your approach in terms of the visual style?
It was essential that the film was beautiful. As we discover this world of historical role-playing through the eyes of a pianist, we must understand that there’s something rather hypnotic about it, that the beauty is alluring. We worked a lot on the set design, costumes and cinematography around these notions of wonder and excitement.
Moreover, my approach to cinema is very subjective. When we’re with Jérémie Renier, we find ourselves in the beautiful and perfect Napoleonic world he imagines. The most difficult aspect of this type of film is the transition from one world to another and we needed visual coherence: for example, the same colour tones for the clothes when we shift from contemporary to period costumes. I also worked a lot on the backlighting effects.
You live in Strasbourg and still work as a music teacher. Are you the "far from the bullets" of French cinema?
I think it’s more fulfilling to have diversity in life. I’m keen to continue being a musician, seeing lots of contemporary art, and not making films just for the sake of it, because there are already a lot of them. And I think it’s worth trying to push the boundaries a bit further each time.