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Emmanuelle Bercot • Director

“I had to push Rod Paradot into a state of anger and rage”


- At the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in New York, Director Talk discussed Standing Tall with director Emmanuelle Bercot; it will have its US release on 1 April via Cohen Media Group

Emmanuelle Bercot  • Director

In Emmanuelle Bercot’s Standing Tall [+see also:
film review
interview: Emmanuelle Bercot
film profile
, Rod Paradot makes a breathtaking screen debut as Malony, a tough kid who’s thrown in and out of corrective institutions until he finally lands in jail at the age of 16. His painful path through the French juvenile justice system is smoothed by his corrections judge, lovingly played by Catherine Deneuve, and a tough-but-tender social worker (Benoit Magimel). The film opens on 1 April in New York City, with national rollout to follow.

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Director Talk: Let’s begin by talking about the French juvenile justice system, which is the setting for the film. It’s far more generous than the one we have in America, but as France becomes more and more racially diversified, is there any kind of backlash against the system, as there would be in America?
Emmanuelle Bercot: The juvenile justice system we have in France is one of our great strengths. It promotes education and protection, as opposed to repression. It dates back to a law that was put into effect in 1945. Each time a right-wing government comes into power, they’re looking to cut back on what the system allows and doesn’t allow. The tendency there is to try to make it into a more repressive system, so while the system as we have it now dates back to 1945, there’s always going to be some kind of variation depending on which government is in power.

What inspired you to make Standing Tall?
It dates back to a childhood memory. My uncle was a counsellor and educator for delinquent youth. When I was eight years old, I spent one day in one of the juvenile rehabilitation camps that was close to where we spent our summer vacation. It was then that I realised there were kids who didn’t have the advantages or the liberties that I did. It probably came into my mind then, so it’s been a maturation process over a long time.

The departure point for making this film was a discussion I had with my uncle when he talked to me about how he had formed a very close relationship with one of the delinquents. It was a relationship that lasted over ten years and also involved a woman judge who was approaching retirement. It was this triad of the adolescent, my uncle, and the judge that formed the basis of the triad in Standing Tall

So your uncle was Benoit Magimel?
Kind of, but less handsome.

For me, your amazing performance in Mon Roi [+see also:
film review
film profile
[for which Bercot won the Best Actress Award at Cannes] resonated with Rod Paradot’s performance in Standing Tall. I felt like there was a certain crossover in the performances, since you were working on the two films at basically the same time.
There’s very little connection except for the fact that I began working on Standing Tall the day after I finished Mon Roi. Maybe the connection was the fact that I had been pushed so hard and so far in Mon Roi that that in turn enabled me to push Rod further, but I think that’s the only connection.

Because of Catherine Deneuve’s persona when she was younger, I was surprised to find that she has such an affinity for working with children, which also came out in On My Way [+see also:
film review
film profile
, your previous film. Can you talk about working with her, especially in the context of working with kids?
She has a very maternal side, which she shows not just to the children but also to other adults. Maybe it’s not the first thing you think of with her, but I think that many actors never lose the part of them that is a child. They continue to play – acting is play – and maybe this is what’s connecting them. 

Also, the three adults all started acting at age 13 – Benoit Magimel, Sara Forestier and Catherine Deneuve – and perhaps because they themselves started so young, they tended to look out for the younger actors, because they knew what they were experiencing. 

Rod Paradot reminded me of a young James Dean, not in looks but in the physicality of his rage. How did you find him? What kind of work did you do with him?
We found him doing street casting. He was at a trade school studying carpentry. We did a lot of tests over the months, because he was very far from the character I wanted him to portray, and I was really looking for a kid who would be much closer to the character of Malony. I kept looking, but I couldn’t find anybody. It was a month before the shooting was going to start, and I realised I would have to take Rod. I wasn’t really convinced. We did a lot of work on the side. Very hard. 

How was he different from what you imagined?
He had nothing in him in common with the character as it was written. He was the opposite of everything I wanted. He was very polite, very warm, very social, very well brought up, very calm. But primarily he didn’t have that violence I was looking for.

So what kind of work did you have to do with him?
It was very different from the kind of work I normally do with adolescents. Normally I just put the camera in front of them and ask them to act like themselves. With Rod, it was as if I was his acting teacher at the same time I was the director. I had to bring him to the point where he could actually put this character together, compose his character, which is something that is very rarely asked of brand-new actors. And it was necessary to push, push, push until he gave me what I was looking for. 

What did the pushing consist of?
It was more a question of creating an emotional state, and I had to push him into this state of anger and rage. I was obliged to be a little cruel in order for him to produce the kind of characterisation I was looking for, so that what you see when you see the film is really his rage and his anger against me. 

How did Deneuve and Magimel respond to your pushing Paradot in this way?
She didn’t like it at all. 

I don’t imagine she would.
I think she thought I was too harsh, too hard. While I was trying to destabilise him, she was trying to console him behind my back. Benoit Magimel was also very protective of him, probably because he had started acting at the same age. He really identified with Rod. In his case, it was more a question of identification. With Catherine, she was more like a grandmother figure – the parents are harsh while the grandparents are indulgent.

That’s funny. The film is often compared to the Dardennes’ social realist films, and I was wondering if you looked to them as a model.
Oh yes. I love their films, but it’s not exactly comparable. They inspire me because they have this realistic approach, but their way of looking is very different: they do lots of shots, I do lots of cutting, so it’s a completely different way of working. 

How about Ken Loach?
Ken Loach is my favourite filmmaker.

Which film?
Sweet Sixteen [+see also:
film profile
. It was very close to me – not my story but character, even the link between the child and his mother. But I love all of Ken Loach’s films.

Me too. My Name Is Joe is my favourite. Can you talk about how you researched the juvenile justice system for Standing Tall?
At first I read tons and tons of books on the subject because I really wanted to become imbued with that whole universe before I actually went out into it. Once I had done the reading, I observed judges’ office, juvenile courts, and some juvenile detention centres, so I had that whole experience around me. I really had to become very, very familiar with the penal code as well, because when I was writing I wanted it to be truthful to the actuality of the penal code.

A lot of the reviews I read began with: “Standing Tall was an unusual choice to kick off Cannes.” Do you agree, and how do you feel about that?
It’s true. This film is the opposite of what we’re used to seeing on the opening night at Cannes. Opening night is a big gala night. It’s sequins and dresses. Even I myself hesitated, because this is a film on a very serious subject, and it didn’t seem to jive with all the fancy dresses and the sequins. I hesitated, but when I discussed it with Thierry Frémaux, he said this is an opportunity for a film like this to be highlighted so that more people will know about it. 

After the press screening, a bunch of us were talking about the film. Some people thought it was a very hopeful ending and that Malony would take great care of his kid. Other people thought it was horrifying and that he’d beat the kid the first chance he got angry. I was wondering if you thought the ending was ambiguous.
I honestly don’t have a specific way for it to end. I didn’t want it to end on a completely pessimistic note because I think there really is hope. I have my own idea about how it ended, but I wanted to see other people’s ideas as well.

What is your idea?
I think that for a lot of people, becoming a parent is something that enables them to change their lives around, and I think that in the case of Malony, it might be just the trigger he needs. He may end up being a good parent. 

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