Grand Central Interview with director Rebecca Zlotowski

Flicks And The City sat down with young French writer-director Rebecca Zlotowski to talk about her second feature film, Grand Central, at the London Film Festival.

Grand Central delves into the lives of French nuclear power plant workers, exploring the costly risks they face daily in a struggle to sustain their livelihood. Gary (Tahar Rahim) is young and unemployed with little to fear. He takes his chances as a worker at the power plant, receiving an induction by supervisor Gilles (Olivier Gourmet) and veteran Toni (Denis Ménochet), and he soon finds that the daily contamination hazard isn’t his only problem, when he becomes precariously attracted to Toni’s girlfriend, Karole (Léa Seydoux).

What attracted you to a script about nuclear power plant workers?

grand-central-tahar-rahim-zlotowski-1600x1066I wrote it, the script did not come. It was with my script writer (Gaëlle Macé) who I’ve been working with since the first film, we were writing a love story but it was a really bad one, something was lacking. She had read a book in France, we are talking about a time before Fukushima, so it was really a virgin field. The book was about nuclear workers, it was just like, story set, and she told me that there would be something interesting to film and to see those guys and meet them because everything was just aligning cinematically in the story and politically.

When we were talking about those guys we were saying the words; heroism, brave, dangerous, secret, exciting, and we realised we were talking about love. So the idea to create an analogy between a love story and a trip into a nuclear plant formed the subject of the film.

Certain elements in the film are reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, tell us about his influences.

Yes, Stalker is really beautiful film and it was an inspiration, a distant one. I didn’t see the film again during the script writing. It was about that invisibility and danger and what happens when you enter a zone, the zone around the nuclear plant, so it was absolutely relevant. But the inspirations came mostly from how cinema had filmed the working class. For instance Pasolini with Accattone was a very big inspiration, the mix between something very naturalistic and something very lyrical, artificial, symbolic and stylised. And so I watched mostly French poetic naturalism from the 30s and 40s, to Harold Oakes and Raymond Walsh, men and their environments in the US, Cimino’s Deer Hunter.

How did you go about casting?

I’ve only made one film before and I wasn’t confident in my acting direction, I just wanted the best ones, so I just came to the best ones of this generation [laughs]. There is like a secret path that leads you to someone, the first contact is either good or not. That’s why I like to work on something obvious, evident, something strong and real between two people. It didn’t take long to cast the male parts, I went with my first instinct. grand-central-26-06-2013-2-gI didn’t do a casting for Léa, just a rendezvous. She was in my first film so I knew her a little already.

Compared to your first film, Belle Épine (2010), this is a very male-based cast. As a director what challenges did this bring and was your approach different?

Absolutely, it was, the big moment of direction, the most sacred thing and the most important thing is the actors, and you can be very frightened by this. Even if you know, I think there’s still a lot of fear and desire and anxiety because they have the power to make your film exist or not. You can have this amazing script, DP, set designer, but if the actors are not right it’s not there. So I was afraid, especially because there was so many men older than I, and when I made Belle Épine we were like a bunch of teenagers making a film, so it was people who were in their twenties, our generation and I was 28. This film taught me how to work in group scenes and then how to work with men and how to ask men to carry a certain idea of humility that I had and they maybe didn’t. I would say “No I want the virility to be like this and they were like, mmm…” [laughs]. Especially because it’s a very technical place and I was very specific about what I wanted to have because of course as you can imagine I had been documenting it before so I had to tell a guy who was 52, your screwdriver, actually you have to use it this way and so it lead us sometimes to some very funny moments but basically it was the same as the first film, but more challenging. When you have seven or eight actors in the shot it just takes extra time to talk to them all.

How did you choose the setting for your film and in what way does it affect how we experience the characters?article_grand-central_4b

The particularity of this film was that the script was written while researching the location, because as soon as I knew I wanted to shoot in a nuclear plant I had to know what it was like. So I visited a lot of nuclear plants from the beginning and was thinking how can we do this? I mean you know you can’t film inside as they’re active 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

We had to look at the trailer parks and the nuclear plant, so as I travelled it influenced the script a lot and it was literally written for those places. We fortunately found a place in Austria where we could shoot the nuclear plant. There was an empty plant, built to completion but they had decided not to use it as they were against nuclear plants. So they had it and we could shoot inside, it was the perfect set up for us.

The music is almost like a character in the film, how did you approach the score and why did you decide to work with Rob?

I am very minimal, I am very connected to the sound design of my films. To answer your question is like answering how do you write the script, it takes a long time and requires a really strong collaboration with the musician, like a dialogue. The specificity of my way of working is that I ask the composer to go very early on location, before I even have the script. And if he wants, he makes one or two tracks that I can play on the set.

Of course it is totally different once we have the recorded image, so it’s a long process and a very rich process, because I am not a musician I speak in almost barbaric words for him so it’s like speaking another language and he translates it. He is very talented and also part of my generation, he plays the keyboard for the band Phoenix. So he is very connected to pop and electronic music, which was the way I met him. He can add some lyricism to the film and it’s a complex and long conversation that we have. I think he is one of the best composers of his time. My first film was actually his first score and he’s been working very hard since.

The film appears to be just as much about the hardship of love, as modern day social issues. Were you trying to make a political statement or focus on how this generation experiences romance?

grand-central01Yes, I wanted to make a political statement but the statement would be that catastrophe doesn’t come from a nuclear plant but love.

What do you hope that audiences will take away from your film?

It’s a very difficult question for me to answer, although it’s really interesting and we should ask ourselves this question before we write, it would be more intelligent [laughs]. I think I want them to shake, to touch on the fact that love is something heroic. But I failed, I wanted people to come out of the movie crying and they never cried, but that’s not good to say for the press! [laughs] It’s a really bad catchline.

Ideally, what kind of story would you like to work on next, do you have anything in the works?

Yes I have something but it’s too soon to talk about it. I am also writing for another director, Teddy Lussi-Modeste, we’re writing his second film about the gypsy community in France. Sometimes I feel like I am in a psychiatric place when I direct [laughs], so I love writing for other people too.