Breakfast with Les mauvais garçons [One and Thousand Nights]
Can you tell us how your film, Les mauvais garçons, came about? It’s the story of three young men whose friendship is thrown into chaos when one of them is set to become a father.
I first wrote the story as a radioplay for France Culture. A series of ten episodes that initially dealt with four characters. The format was quite close to a stage play made up mostly of dialogue. I decided to adapt the project for film when I wanted to do a very simple scene that needed to be filmed: at the same second, all the guys receive the birth announcement from their friend on their phones. I liked the contrast of the moment that juxtaposes the sovereign order of the world (birth rate) with a very trivial aspect of modern life (a text message). It’s the story’s climax. The rest of the film’s sequences came later, made up of missed appointments that parallel the pregnancy we don’t see. To develop those moments, I drew on anecdotes and people from my own life. I need to keep a pretty tight connection with the real, which is the only way for me to be sure that things sound authentic.
One of the film’s successes is the portrait of the characters and the friendship that unites them. How did you approach writing the characters?
I didn’t try to force the similarities between my two characters to induce a friendship. It pretty much develops from the situation, from the fact that they’re both caught in the same “difficulty”. One member of the group of three friends is suddenly cut off, and the two remaining ones find themselves together, uneasy with the situation. So their friendship itself is endangered and actually becomes the film’s subject. In this sense, I think their sort of melancholy, awkward way of preserving a connection at all costs shows their friendship better than a connection in the present. In short, it’s the story of two friends who try to continue being friends… which is what gives their friendship a slightly extraordinary dimension.
How did you work with the actors to get them to embody those complex ties and embody that difficult moment?
The three of us did several read-throughs and rehearsals. That allowed me to test the script, the rhythm of some of the lines, rewrite a few details, and so on. But in truth it was basically a way of getting to know Aurélien and Raphaël better, so that I could direct them better. They’re very different. Aurélien learned all of his lines meticulously, with every nuance and verbal tic that I’d included; he asked about the point of each scene, each line, so he was able to embody them fully, like a stage actor. Raphaël was the complete opposite, he was more instinctive. We didn’t rehearse much together, because I soon realized that he wasn’t particularly interested in that; he was just going round in circles. On the set, though, I did force him into a pretty strict structure (there’s no improv in the film) that his boundless energy was constantly trying to escape from (in the words, gestures, movements, etc.). With him, I think that tension produced a captivating effect. You could call it a controlled skid. They’re both incredible actors, both very professional in their own ways. I’m eternally grateful to them for having been so generous with the project.
On screen, we only see male characters; women are only present through the messages they write or their voices on the phone. Your decision to show the three men (then just the two) devoid of an external world is very interesting and effective. Could you tell us a bit about that?
I think if you want to talk about emptiness or boredom without boring the viewer, the most effective way is to create a strong expectation on the part of the characters, even an abstract one (as in Waiting for Godot). My characters are waiting for Victor, and that almost turns into a gimmick: I think it becomes clear pretty quickly that he’s not going to reapper. But we continue to wait for him, and the film’s pacing is based on that. As for loneliness, it’s sort of the same thing. A total, absolute absence seems necessarily a little bit less tragic than a “nearly” total absence. So I wanted to keep traces, clues, suggestions on the margins of the story. That’s where Victor’s mute silhouette at the beginning of the film comes from (a big thanks to Jonas Bloquet who stamped the film with his charisma), Nora’s voice, the reference to Claire Kaplan, and so on. There were two other female presences in the original script (a silhouette and a voice-over) but they gradually disappeared during editing. The film had to be a “guys’ movie”, but also a film about fantasizing. My characters tend to harbor illusions about what is not there (like the enfantôme [‘ghost-child’] that Cyprien invented). That was also the point of the chapter headings, like a list of memorable nights out that will never really happen. Someone recently mentioned to me the imaginary basketball at the end of the film, seeing in it the last variation of the theme of absence. I wasn’t conscious of that, but I like that reading very much.
What do you think the future holds for short films?
I’m a very impatient viewer, very much in sync with the overstimulated (I’m not sure we can say that) world we live in. I’m fully aware that programs are getting shorter every year, that shows that used to last fifty minutes now last twenty-two and that we would probably rather they last fifteen. In the midst of all that, you can very well see how short film fictions could find a space and become an alternative norm. Watching one or two shorts on a streaming platform before going to bed could become a commonplace habit. That is not yet the case. We clearly still view the genre as a sort of “laboratory” or “springboard” and not as an end in itself. I can’t see things changing on that level, even if I’d be thrilled if they did.
If we were to go back into lockdown, what cultural or artistic delights would you recommend to alleviate our boredom?
I’d say reading a comic by Brecht Evens (they’re all excellent) while listening to Mansfield Tya (who just released an album). Louis CK and Blanche Gardin’s podcast (Long Distance Relationship) is a good laugh among friends before bedtime. The reports from Les pieds sur Terre (on France Culture) and the interviews from Thinkerview are vital for staying connected to the real world. You can take care of the imaginary world with a monthly subscription to OCS (with no commitments). That said, what really saved me during lockdown was coloring with felt markers, my plants, chess and wine. I wrote a lot during that period, so my mind needed time to rest.