Philippe Claudel is the award winning French novelist turned screenwriter-director of I’ve Loved You So Long. The film, starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Elsa Zylberstein, is a powerful and intelligent portrayal of a woman reconstructing her life and rebuilding family ties after serving a 15-year sentence in prison. Claudel talks to LWLies about his transition from the role of writer to director, the importance of life experience and the value of controlling the microscopic details.
LWLies: Could you tell us what your initial inspiration was for the project?
Claudel: It was very simple at the beginning. I wanted just to compose a film of portraits, I wanted to explore filmic dimensions, and I wanted to tell a story about women, because I wanted to change. In my novels I constantly tell stories about men.
LWLies: So what made you decide to make this particular story into a film?
Claudel: When I knew I had a desire to write about women I was immediately sure it would be a movie not a novel. Maybe because I wanted to work with actresses. I think I wanted to be very close to faces and to work without words. I wanted to use the face and the expressions of my actresses like the words. Maybe that was the reason it was a movie and not a novel.
LWLies: From when you conceived of it as a screenplay was it always your intention to direct it?
Claudel: This one yes, absolutely. It was the first time. In the last 10 years I’ve written maybe 12, 15 screenplays for French producers and directors but always without the desire to direct myself. But this one I did and I still don’t know why. Actually I do know why. Immediately I imagined the movie in my mind and how I wanted to compose each scene, which light, sound, movement of the body, movement of my camera and the framing. And I felt ready to direct. I needed time. I published my first novel when I was 37 and made my first movie when I was 47. There is no rush in life. When I was 20, 30, 35, I didn’t have talent because I didn’t have human experience. To write I need to have these human experiences, observe my life, observe the life of others. It is important to love, to have lost friends and to feel pain, to feel beauty and joy. Then you can write with sincerity. It does not have to be based on real life but it is important that my work is sincere.
LWLies: But there are autobiographical elements to some aspects of the film?
Claudel: Maybe in two directions. Like the character of Michel [Laurent Grévill] who was a teacher in jail for 11 years, I also have experience of teaching in prison. It was also important for me to shoot the movie in Nancy in the northeast of France. It was important for the reality of this story. It is not a Parisian movie. Life is very different in the small towns. There is more time for others. I wanted to compose an autobiographical landscape. I chose different sets just because my private life was connected to these places. It’s not important for the audience but it was important for me to work in my environment.
LWLies: The structure and detail of each scene is notably controlled and precise. Did your ideas evolve at all during the filming process or was everything preconceived?
Claudel: People say it is a default condition to want to control everything on your first movie but I think in my case this was not the sole reason. For my next movie it will be the same and if I make 10 more it will be the same. It is important for me to control and to be very precise. Before shooting I made, not a real storyboard, but a drawing for each scene especially for composing the framing. I did this because I wanted to use each microscopic detail and element to express one thing. There is action between characters and behind that there is a set that the audience sees but doesn’t consciously register the details of. I am sure that during an unconscious process the audience recalls these details. It’s like a subliminal story.
LWLies: The set is fascinating, particularly the details in the architecture of the house and how they relate to the idea of imprisonment.
Claudel: You know I chose this house for this reason alone. The first time I entered it I saw that very strange staircase and it looked like a prison. I thought it was very ironic to show a woman who has come out of jail to her sister’s house to find herself in another jail. Her room in this house is very sad with the depressing colours. It is like a cell. And throughout the movie I put into the set different echoes of the prison. Especially the symbol of prison bars, which are echoed in the floor, in the trees in the square and in the swimming pool. I used my framing in the same direction. I wanted to be very close for the reason I previously explained but also the framing is like a prison. Juliette is totally encaged in the framing. It is impossible for her to escape but little by little throughout the film the framing opens up. During the first section the camera on Juliette is still. There is camera movement for the other characters but only gradually does the camera on Juliette allow for movement.
LWLies: And the soundtrack, does that work in a similar way?
Claudel: Yes. At the beginning of the movie the sound is very poor without complexity and little by little we add in different elements of complex sound. At the beginning there is just the voice. It was important to give this impression to the audience that Juliette [Kristin Scott Thomas] is very far from the human world and that little by little she comes back.
LWLies: Was the editing largely determined by the screenplay?
Claudel: It was not difficult to edit. We had time, two or three months, and I could try different things but with the editor we followed the screenplay. The most important job was just to achieve balance and to cut just before the scene became over emotional. I wanted the audience to stay deep inside the scene but not on the screen.
LWLies: I have just finished reading your novel, Brodeck’s Report, and I could see a concern with some similar themes like silence, imprisonment, and trauma. Despite the very dark subject matter of both works, the film feels full of hope.
Claudel: The film and Brodeck’s Report are not the same story but in both there is the importance of the child, the idea of trauma, and the break in life. The real centre of the novel is the division between individual life and history. How do you come to be a man in an inhuman period? But Brodeck’s Report is a tragedy without hope. I wanted to start the film with a very dark and strong atmosphere and little by little go into the light. I finished this novel one week before shooting this movie. It was a big work that took two or three years. But I very quickly forget what I’ve done.
LWLies: Do you now make a distinction between your role between your role as writer and director? Would you now, for example, consider directing a screenplay written by another person?
Claudel: I don’t think it would be a problem. If the story charmed me it would be possible. I was discussing this with Nanni Moretti three days ago. He told me he needs work with other people to write now. This was not the case for my first movie. It would be nice to meet another sensibility and to compose a real piece of art with another person. I like to write alone though, to explore my personal expression and universe. The pleasure of the writing process is to take the place of the other. When I wrote the part of Juliette I became Juliette. Maybe tomorrow I will write the part of a dog and become this dog. It is a real pleasure to have different incarnations.
LWLies: What are you working on at the moment?
Claudel: This film is one piece of an intimate diptych. I want to compose the other piece, observing another case of a family dealing with powerful events. I don’t know what the next one will be. I have different ideas but now I need the time for normal life to write these screenplays. It is a great adventure when you have a movie or book that is a success but at the same time it is not a human experience. I think it might be dangerous for the creative process.