Transcript from the 2019 Screenwriters' Lecture Series: Céline Sciamma, Monday 2 December 2019, Curzon Mayfair London
Jeremy Brock: Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Welcome all of you, I’m Jeremy Brock. On behalf of BAFTA welcome to this the tenth anniversary edition of the Screenwriters Lecture Series; this is our second lecture of this season. We work in conjunction with Lucy Gard and the JJ Charitable Trust to whom we are eternally grateful for the funding. This is also part of BAFTA’s Learning and Events programme which is an amazing part of BAFTA’s programme, and you’ll see people dotted around here, incredibly hard-working people, who come here on behalf of BAFTA to film these lectures and they’re then available online to anyone, anywhere in the world. We now have over fifty lectures by the world’s greatest screenwriters, we’re enormously proud of that work that they’ve done.
We’re also terribly grateful to the Curzon of course, who are housing us while BAFTA undergoes the flashiest facelift since Vladimir Putin’s one that he didn’t have. We’re thrilled also to be hosting tonight one of France’s foremost screenwriters and directors, Céline Sciamma. From her debut film Water Lilies, through Tomboy and Girlhood, Céline has written films that beautifully and subtly challenge received notions about sexuality and gender while simultaneously interrogating ideas around identity and love. Her glorious 2019 film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which I’ve been lucky enough to see, I don’t know how many of you have but those who haven’t are in for an extraordinary treat, rightly won Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival; you can imagine that’s an incredibly important award to us!
The zeitgeist would have us believe that the difference between film and television is almost invisible now stylistically and in terms of content; one of the wonderful things about Céline’s screenplays is that they beautifully deny that fact by their unapologetically cinematic manifestation, and it’s a gift to have a screenwriter of her talent and her natural cinematic flair to come and speak to us tonight. It’s an enormous honour for us. We’ll begin with a montage from all of our lecturers this year, Céline will then lecture, followed by a Q&A with the utterly wonderful Bryony Hanson, Director of Film at the British Council, and we will then—as we always do—open it up to questions from the floor. So if we could cue the montage please, thank you.
Céline Sciamma: Thank you. Can you hear me? It’s really weird not to have a—OK so this is a really good episode on my personal YouTube channel, I must say!
OK, I thought it would be cool if this lecture had a title, and I think it’s going to be ‘Ready for the Rising Tide.’ I hope this is English, you tell me. But I’m not sure of that title yet and we’ll see as we go along because yes I’m still in the process of writing this pitch and that’s because—and I’m being honest here, and it’s totally my fault, not at all your fault—I discovered about this lecture four days ago. I’d said yes to come here to meet you for weeks, but I just thought it was a classic Q&A, which it will also be. So it’s OK! If I’m really bad, it’s OK. The letter which actually mentioned the term lecture took weeks to arrive and arrived four days ago, so it’s not because I didn’t take things seriously that I’m in that position. I care a lot about this invitation from the BAFTAs in a tremendous 2019 and beyond line-up, and I care a lot about being invited by the British industry, written about by British critics, and meeting the British audience, because you people here get my job the most. Here I feel deeply understood, supported and I am personally fragilised by the fact that you would leave Europe, and I’m telling you French people are going to hate missing you.
So four days ago I read the letter describing this performance and there were links to previous lectures and I was immediately frightened because of this [gestures to lectern]. This is scary, imagine offering this as a gift to people for Christmas and wrapping it; they would be scared, like what do you want from me? Anybody super happy to get this would be labelled as suspect because it is scary. This puts you in a position of solitude and a position where you have to stand for something. It might be the only object that embodies that, and also that puts you in the presidential mood. So with this podium, the word that I learned yesterday as a lecturer, I understood that I had the opportunity to say something about screenwriting in front of you today. And now I needed to find what, because I think a lot of things about screenwriting, in fact I believe I am a screenwriter because I like asking myself questions about screenwriting; I do this job to have the opportunity to reflect and be a part of the invention, the defence, the politics of writing for cinema.
But I don’t have a big synthesis and formulated theory; maybe it’s time I tried, with you, here, and now. I guess explaining how I write so far has always been in contradiction with my belief that movies should be prototypes and invent their own language. Still this argument doesn’t stand because even within an experimental dynamic, you still have to find a way of doing it, a method or process for searching and finding the ideas.
The paradox is that you have to find your method because you don’t need one, or at least you feel you don’t need one. As a screenwriter when somebody pitches you something or when you think freely about a plot, ideas come in very fast; you find some narrative arcs, some obstacles, this scene—where?, this character—who?. I mean in hours, minutes, sometimes. I’m sure screenwriters in the room know that feeling very well. There is no blank page syndrome at the beginning of writing because it’s your job, it’s a craft with tools for building stories. And it’s a thrilling sensation. Screenwriters know how to write and sometimes this might be our biggest problem, because this knowledge comes from a culture of storytelling. I think writing is all about questioning that, that’s why you need a method.
I do have my way of doing it, I guess at this stage I could drop a central notion here: Desire. To me, writing is about having desire for ideas, therefore it is always about trying to build an architecture of multiple desires. The word desire is traditionally linked to cinema; it has long been called the industry of desire. This idea is polemical on a lot of levels in 2019 if you want my opinion, but it is our culture, the one we grew up in at least. Yet desire is not a word we associate with screenwriters, or words. It is associated with the idea of images and making images. As a writer, you are only asked about desire as an initial spark that puts you at work: The desire to write that story, or in the more introspective psychoanalytic question: The desire under your story, your secret desire. It is pretty rare that you get to refer to your present desire, or desire building up. Also because the process of writing is so long, it’s like it doesn’t have a present because it is constituted of layers and layers, and it’s all about rewriting. But to me that’s actually the point. The fact that screenwriting is the opportunity to work on your desires rather than acting immediately on them.
Here I must say that putting desire at the centre isn’t about making it organic or personal; that would be feminine and despised; it is to make it sharp and uncompromising. It is about the construction and being radical with yourself, not self-indulgent at all. It’s about resisting easy pleasures and resisting the temptation of belonging. At that point I’m sure that feels quite abstract, mostly because desire doesn’t feel reliable as a method. Desire doesn’t even have the reputation of being accurate; can we trust someone’s desires? It seems like a very vast and mysterious feeling or sensation, but make no mistake, it’s not because it’s white, it’s because it is hitting hard somewhere and having a strong echo. Like I rising tide I might say, and that leads to the title.
I think desire is super accurate, but you have to locate it. My job as a screenwriter is to work on locating that place where desire is precisely hitting. For myself if I write for myself or for my colleague director if I’m writing for somebody, it’s about finding the point of impact and getting accurate about what you want, rather than thinking of desire as a romantic mystery about yourself.
So there’s three step: The first step is identifying and locating your global desires for a film, understanding them and being honest about them. This takes time because there are several impacts on different zones; political desire, aesthetic desire, production desire—you have to locate them and trust them enough to deconstruct them.
For Portrait of a Lady on Fire I had several big desires, for instance, that once located were designing the map of the film. I wanted to write the present of a love story, how it is born and how it grows patiently, but I also wanted to tell about the memory of a love story, what is left of a love story. Both these levels were equally desired and not compromising means crafting the storytelling that would allow both dynamics. I wanted to show an artist at work and write an artist, model collaboration that would depart from the fetishized muse tradition; I wanted it to be a period piece but tight budgeted because I didn’t want it to be dusty and meticulous and mundane; I wanted it to be a contemporary form even though it’s set in the past. Those desires are mostly political as you can see, and it can seem a little bit cold but political desire for the film is at the heart of the decision to actually write it because it will be about finding a hard solution to these theoretical desires.
And there starts the second step. The second step is about working on the local level, which means the scenes. The scenes are the centre of my writing process; each scene as a unit of desire. Technically this is how it works: It is about having two files opened on my laptop, two lists. The first list is very free, it’s a list of ideas for scenes, sometimes images, a line of dialogue; they have no connections with one another and are often not connected yet with the plot of the film. For Portrait of a Lady on Fire my first list was: Having Adèle Haenel running fast towards the edge of a cliff, actually setting fire to the character, an abortion being painted, a group of women singing an unknown tune in the night, a sentence: ‘Don’t regret remember,’ and the last scene of the film, a long take on a character listening to Vivaldi’s Summer in a concert hall. Those are the desired scenes, the ones you don’t have to look for; they are your compass, the ones you make the film for. Those belong to the list of scenes you desire, they have the point of impact. Sometimes you don’t even know why, you just know they will be in the film. And you should respect that a lot.
The other file is a list of scenes you need, the steps that are inevitably building the story, the ones that are logically unfolding your pitch or plot. That list goes like this: The scene where the painter is commissioned by the mother, the scene where the painter arrives at the castle, the scene where the painter sees the sitter for the first time, the scene where the painter starts to paint, the scene where the sitter discovers a portrait, the scene where the maid gets an abortion. I’m going through all the film like that. Those scenes seem much simpler to write because they belong; they are needed. But actually my work is all about making them belong to the other list, they must become desired, every single one of them. My rule is that not a single scene must stay on the ‘needed’ list, because it’s cinema and then I’m going to direct it.
Everything you write will have twenty people working on it, so that means hundreds of questions you’re going to have to answer and some of them will seem pointless but you can’t leave one single question unanswered. Your absence of choice will have an impact, so for instance I can tell you things from a simple scene that is a very simple breathing moment in the film: The three women, the painter, the sitter and the servant, are in the kitchen. They are silent, Eloise is making dinner, Sophie is doing embroidery and Marianne is serving some red wine. Writing the scene is five lines, making the scene is answering to what time of the day is it? What the weather is, what’s the menu? What shade and shape of plates do you want? Where should the glass be stored? Looking at plans of the table, giving the actress lessons in embroidery, designing the embroidery weeks before with an artist. If the scene is not important to you, it will get the same amount of questions, so you have to want every scene very deeply. It is about caring. You have to care about every detail. So no scene should stay in the list of the scenes that you need. Every scene has to have its own desire within it and the biggest job is thinking strongly about each scene in that list and finding something that hits you accurately, which means deeply.
This takes most of my time in the writing process, because I don’t actually start writing the continuity of the script until those two files become one. The painter will arrive by boat and jump into the water to save a canvas; the model will surprisingly be critical when she sees her portrait for the first time, rather than intimidated. The abortion scene will take place with the baby sharing the frame with the character terminating her pregnancy. Sometimes you don’t find an idea that you have a strong desire for because sometimes a scene is about getting from a place to another place—what do you do then? I used to think useful scenes should at least be shot for editing hypotheses, but now I don’t anymore. I am being radical with this belief. At the stage of my fourth film, I decided to get rid of the scenes which had been sticking for too long in the ‘Needed’ list; I just erased them. It puts you in a position where you have two scenes you want without the bridge of the scene you need, but it actually produces editing in the script and confronts you to new narratives, a new rhythm, makes you be more experimental, new power dynamics between the characters. It actually helps you be brave and depart from the comfort of a solution that has been tested, that works and that’s reassuring. It makes you depart from convention.
The hard part of that process is that when you go along with the convention and the rules of storytelling, you feel you are writing, it looks like you’re writing, because it’s efficient and understood. It takes a strong will to go deep; you have to accept the fact that you are choosing unsatisfaction for a while. You are not writing, you are thinking about writing. When the list is done on this one file, I start to write continuity in the dialogues, and I must say I don’t work at all thinking about character design, it’s not part of my process. I never think about characters as fictional persons; I don’t think of them out of the timeline and the context of the scenes, like ‘what would she do?,’ ‘how would she think?’—characters are never hypotheses. I don’t think about back-stories for them, I don’t even give them surnames. When I’m asked about the future of my characters, I honestly answer that they don’t exist, I don’t think about their resume I just know how they act and what they go through in the present of the narrative, which means that here again I focus on their desires. The characters are desire driven.
I think this method can be applied to every type of film and character, but I’m pretty sure it’s linked to the fact that I’m writing female-driven stories. Women have been objectified by fiction and by the patriarchal lore throughout history, so giving them back their subject status, their subjectivity, is giving them back their desires. Heroines don’t have the same opportunity as heroes to have project freedom. Fiction is not a safe space for female characters. They don’t get rid of oppression there, you can’t artificially free women in fiction so if you want to tell their stories it’s not about where they live—because they rarely have the opportunity to live freely, especially in a period piece—it’s about what they experience. Portrait of a Lady on Fire only looks and tells about its characters desires because they don’t have the freedom to project themselves, so it’s about how their desire will be fulfilled for a moment. Desire is female’s opportunity for fiction, and at that stage maybe I could change the title of the lecture to ‘Female Gaze at the Stage of Screenwriting,’ don’t you think?
So technically, even though Portrait can be pitched as an impossible love story, it is not written that way. It only tells about the possible love, their experience of it. It’s not about their relationship facing the world and the rules; it’s about the two of them facing each other. Of course, the story is impossible but their love isn’t… Or is. Isn’t. Isn’t. Their love is possible. So I decided not to tell about the obstacles, the enemies, the traps, men. Leave the impossibility outside the room, because it will be waiting for them anyway when they get out. If you take a moment to think about it, this big rule we totally follow, telling the obstacles between the character’s desire and its fulfilment would be more interesting and valuable than telling about the desire itself. It’s weird, but this is how we learn screenwriting, as the art of conflict.
And that leads us to the third and final step of this process: Once you have all your scenes as a list of strong desires and local solutions, you then have your narrative and you can ensure you read your film and go back to this global scale. At that moment, you have the opportunity to fully see and understand the desire you have for the narrative. If you now see a pattern between the local desires you found in the scenes that tell you about your higher desire, your desire for storytelling, your reflection on cinema. For Portrait it appeared quite clearly, the desire was to break the narrative of conflict and once you make that diagnosis, you should go for it all the way. And going all the way with this script was writing a love story based on equality, breaking this narrative of conflict was made possible by the fact that it is two women meeting so there is no gender domination, and then I decided there will also be no intellectual domination even though it’s an artist and a model, and also never to play with social hierarchy. It was a decision I had to take because we are born and raised in cinema being taught that conflict is the natural dynamic of the storyteller and that a good scene is in a way a good bargain between characters.
So no conflict, boring? I got the Best Screenplay award in Cannes.
So maybe, but also I guess not. Lack of conflict doesn’t mean lack of tension; lack of conflict doesn’t mean lack of eroticism; lack of conflict actually means new rhythm because of a dialogue not built on bargaining. Lack of conflict actually means new power dynamics that allows new surprises and suspense. That’s what is at stake in a story with equality actually. Equality brings unconventional power dynamics to the screen. So basically as a viewer you don’t know what is going to happen, which is the base of being both entertained and committed to a story.
I’m going to end this by trying to embody this whole reflection into one example. So there was a scene on the list of the ‘Needed’ scenes, the first kiss scene. I needed to fill that with an idea that I would feel strongly about and that you would feel strongly about. A desire that would actually talk about desire. So I began the list of first kiss situations and ideas, having in mind that a good first kiss scene is about the choreography that will lead you to it. That’s what you remember from a first kiss more than anything, and also having in mind that a good first kiss scene must feel new. It must feel like a first time, like if I try to think about who did it well in the last few years, Spiderman comes to mind – Spiderman in French – the backwards kiss. I have no clips! There was an idea that felt new because it engaged both characters in another dynamic of power. I’m obsessed with this. We’re not sure what it is but it does feel different, and it’s unforgettable, so it is a good first kiss scene. I also wanted to challenge politically the kissing scene, which traditionally either has the surprise kiss scene thanks to a rain shower for instance, or the obvious kiss scene thanks to mustard on the corner of the lips, for instance, and it is generally carefully scripted as ‘They kiss.’ Or ‘They passionately kiss.’ And then it’s on the actors’ shoulders. It seems to rely a lot on them because its their bodies and fluids and interaction, but it shouldn’t be. It’s fake. It’s not about finding the magic. Actors should always be part of the elaboration of an idea, especially with intimate scenes.
So I wanted to craft a scene that would embody the sexiness of consent. Here again working with narrative. People who are questioning the idea of asking for consent in France, they do exist. They are brave fighters for the culture of French gallantry who say that asking for consent would not be sexy, it will break the mood. Some of the French critics thought the film lacked flesh, precisely because to them eroticism is about conflict. I wish some day why in life being kissed by surprise feels weird and clumsy whereas hearing ‘Do you want me to kiss you?’ feels like being in a film. Anyway. At some point I came up with the idea of them having to unveil their mouths like they would undress themselves. So I put a scarf, justified by a strong wind, pressed on their lips and thinking you would see their heavy breathing through the moving cloth. Let’s watch it now.
That wasn’t a bad choice actually. Not because I haven’t seen it—I wanted to take the bonfire scene also because, well, it kind of embodies the things I’ve been telling you, you see the initial desires, women singing in the night to an unknown tune, the character actually set on fire, the fact that there are no bridges between these two scenes it’s just this hand thing and there’s another day and we don’t need it, we’re trying not to use this. Not bad!
So when you put so much desire into a scene, you also have a strong anticipation of the moment of shooting it, especially intimate scenes. You want it to go smoothly, to share with your cast, care for your cast. That day came. First we did the very long travelling by the sea with their hands touching and then Héloïse disappears and you find her in the grotto. We had trouble finding the right way to do it, we lost an hour, so when we began shooting the kissing scene I only had fifteen minutes ahead of me because the water was rising and strong waves were already coming out of it. So the shooting of this intimate scene became five takes in a row with me basically shouting at the actors from a distance being totally frustrated with strong waves coming closer. Reality to harden the process of shooting a film; it’s about compromising and knowing your priorities. That’s why you must take writing so seriously, be radical in screenwriting, because if you are radical with your ideas in a scene nothing will take it away and you will always be ready for the rising tide. Thank you.
Bryony Hanson: Thank you, Céline, thank you so much for that. It’s my job now to make you keep talking, which I’m very happy to do.
I’ve actually—there’s been ten years of these lectures, ten editions of these Screenwriters Lectures, and I’ve never heard anybody describe the concept of the two lists, the kind of need and the want. Does that make you a very scientific writer? Do you think you’re a very analytical, scientific writer?
CS: I think so, what do you think?
BH: It’s strange that you say that. I’ve been having my own personal Céline Sciamma festival this weekend and I would have said you were a very instinctive filmmaker, you speak from the heart, but actually there’s something much more analytical about it.
CS: I don’t think the heart is about instinct. It’s like I said about desire, I don’t think it’s this thing… you should analyse it. Knowing your desire is basically knowing your project and speaking with the heart doesn’t mean it’s obvious; you have to work with what you film. It’s not cold—the beginning, when you begin to write, it’s super hot, and then you think about it and become super cold and then you have to find hot solutions to cold ideas and it’s about this, this back and forth. But I like to think I’m analytical all the time, with my work, with my life, with everything. It’s fun. It’s not being—I don’t have the word in English—austere? Any French people in the room? No, of course.
BH: Going back to your two lists, the list of stuff that you need, I understand where that comes from, but the list of the stuff that you want—the images, the abortion scene, the dress on fire—where do they come from?
CS: That’s the mystery.
BH: But I mean are you a person who runs around with a notebook and sees a beautiful image and looks at a picture in a gallery…
CS: Definitely. The process of wanting to make a film is about not thinking about the film. So it’s basically watching something else and not even going to the cinema. Cinema doesn’t inspire me for cinema. I’m not trying to have a dialogue with the history of cinema, I’m not trying to belong. I’m a woman, I won’t, so why bother? No.
It’s mostly about seeing, reading essays. Fiction doesn’t really put me in a fiction mood. Going to the museum a lot, it can be a botanical museum. Reading the press each day; I don’t begin to write until noon and I wake up at eleven. No, my whole morning is dedicated to the news mostly and reading, and then at some point I write for the afternoon. Which is also a lifestyle because I think you choose your job because of the mode de vivre—the lifestyle, and I like the like the idea of first being nourished and active and searching for just information, it can be the news but it can be a character…
BH: Do you have multiple projects on the go at any one time?
CS: No. Writing do you mean?
CS: Not anymore. I used to always have my own project and a project for another director, but now I don’t think I’m going to write for other directors anymore. If a newcomer, I think I would still do first films, that’s for sure, but you don’t know when they’re going to come along—but I don’t have, I’ve lost not interest… There’s five years between Girlhood and Portrait and it’s also because I’ve been doing things for others I’ve been passionate about, but it’s hard to do both, I think.
BH: Do you enjoy the process of writing?
CS: Oh yes. I enjoy it very, very much. I think it’s not my favourite part because I have no favourite part, but I enjoy the contrast. It’s also the beauty of the job is that you’re so lonely for sometimes months or years and then you have more and more people and this whole crew when you shoot and then it becomes new and it becomes a dialogue with the crew and then you’re by yourself again and you get to leave all those things which I think is cool. I really enjoy the intimacy of writing and the everyday routine it creates; I think it’s the moment when I’m most steady in my life, when I’m writing, even though it kind of isolates you because it puts you in kind of an obsessive mood. Those lists, lists are about obsession also, I’m quite an obsessive person.
BH: Is there a part of the process that you like better than the others? Do you think your better at? So you can write the characters or you can easily do the dialogue—are there parts you’re very comfortable with?
CS: Dialogue is something that comes quite easily but also because I’ve been buffering for so long, like for instance Portrait I’d been doing this list thing and thinking about the film for three years before I actually wrote the script, so then when I began to write the script it was two months writing, but that’s because it was two and a half years thinking about writing it. And the dialogue is not something I rewrite because when I’m at that point of going with the words, with the dialogue, I’m mostly done. I’ve done a lot of thinking. This is always a moment I enjoy very much, especially with this film because it was a love dialogue between grown characters—
BH: Which is very unusual for you
CS: Yes, and also because there was kind of a more literary side to it, so I could allow myself to be more, I don’t know, they could play smart, this kind of dynamic with lots of tension and humour. I felt I could give it a real go, even though it’s—well it’s not talkative, we can’t really say that.
BH: You don’t really do talkative, do you?
BH: What about the structure part? It must be kind of hard when you’ve got your fractured lists and you’re trying to put them into a kind of a cohesive narrative. How are you with structure?
CS: Well I also have this… Portrait is sixty-nine sequences, sixty-nine scenes, which is very, very few. Tomboy was fifty scenes. I kind of have also these games because it’s about the pace, the rhythm you want to create, because it’s two hours and sixty-nine scenes; an hour and a half film is usually 120 scenes. Kind of. So also I think a lot about that. I’m looking for this balance between the evens and the time we’re going to take looking at the impact and how everything is going to be super meaningful and full, and that’s also why sometimes I try to mix different scenes and ideas that could have created five or six different scenes and they’re going to be just one. Like the bonfire scene, for instance, the fact that the stake of her being pregnant and you get the abortion and there’s also the love thing, there’s this social moment and bridge to love finally happening and being acted on. Those kinds of fusion, syntheses, those are the kinds of things I’m looking for, but it’s not about finding it each time, it’s about finding a kind of pattern. That’s the thing I’m thinking about the most, like some films for instance in Courgette I thought about it, I thought about the first scene for a long time and then when I found the first scene the rest came like that because the film was to me—the riddle, the enigma of the film was in that first scene. Sometimes you find things that then just spread all over the script. For instance, a good example for this in Portrait is the Orpheus dynamic. There’s a scene in the film where they talk about, they read the Orpheus and Eurydice myth and they talk about the meaning of the story and have different hypotheses and this is something that came very last in the process of writing the script. I think we’d already begun financing with it and I felt something was missing, and I needed a scene, a Netflix and Chill scene between the women, so yeah really! I had them playing cards, I had them drinking, but I thought I wanted fiction in their life because the film is also about that, how art is an education to love, love is an education to art and now fiction, well you know… And so I thought they must read something and I was thinking Netflix and chill and I was thinking ‘OK so it must be really climactic,’ this huge suspense and some things you can debate, and Orpheus and Eurydice is perfect for that because come on. Then I discovered, learnt, that it’s a myth that is really, really criticised. It’s one of the myths that feminist lecturers have been playing with a lot because it’s actually about the male gaze, a man basically killing a woman because he’s looking at her at the wrong moment, bad timing. And so I wanted them to talk about this and this idea of yeah, Marianne saying ‘he’s making the choice of the poet and not the lover because he’s choosing her memory rather than herself,’ and Hélo is saying ‘well maybe she said to turn around, maybe it’s her decision.’ So I kind of liked that thing, and sometimes it happens like that, frankly two minutes and it was like oh my god, this is going to be a great thread in the whole script, just like that. It just happened. I was just looking for something to do the link between those two timelines I’ve been telling you about in my amazing speech, the present of the love story and the memory of a love story, and this Orpheus thing was perfect to actually connect those two timelines, so that’s when the idea of Héloïse’s ghost appearing came, for instance. And that’s also when at the end—have you seen the film—when she sees her for the last time and it’s this image she’s been haunted with and Héloïse says ‘turn around,’ and it’s this whole Orpheus dynamic which is so important in the film. Some people like the film only for this… it just came in this hotel in Trouville, within five minutes and that was it. Sometimes it happens and it’s because you’re ready for this, it’s not a miracle, it’s not about drugs. It’s about…
BH: How far forward were you before you knew what the end was?
CS: The ending ending? This is the weirdest thing about this film, I made this film for the ending. The ending was the first thing that I had, the Vivaldi scene—I made the film for that scene. I had that scene, this idea of somebody looking for a former lover in a concert hall listening to a piece of music they would have advised…
BH: This was the first thing on your want list?
CS: This was the first thing. And also I gave up on this film, I thought about it for two years and I gave up at some point, completely gave up, called my producer and said I’m not doing this, it’s too bad but I think it’s better. And it’s because of that scene, that last scene that I thought I had to do that scene. I have to do it, I just have to find a way to make it work.
BH: Why were you at the point where you might have stopped? What was blocking you?
CS: Well I think something between—I think I was afraid.
BH: Because it was so different from what you’d done before?
CS: No, I was afraid of how it made me fragile. It’s a love story, I’d never written a love story. I’ve written a coming of age story where there was a strong love interest, but writing a love story puts you in a very—put me in a very fragile, naked—you feel like you’re totally exposing yourself, like you’re going to make a fool of yourself and even that scene, the Vivaldi thing, like come on you’ve got to make that work and it’s three minutes of looking at somebody… You’re full of doubts and yeah, it has a lot to do also with life, you’re like ‘is this a good idea in my life? I should also pay tribute to this story.’
BH: Traditionally up until this point then do you think you’ve been looking outwards when looking for your inspiration? You’re looking at other people’s lives and then this time you’re being much more personal?
CS: Have I been that curious about other people’s lives? Girlhood, that’s it. Otherwise Water Lilies is shot in my hometown, it’s about the rise of a lesbian desire with a girl looking better than me, the cinema version of myself—
This is basically the definition of French cinema. Tomboy… I could totally relate to everything I’d been telling; Girlhood, I also grew up in the suburbs of Paris, in a new town with a strong political identity and very mixed environment and kind of a utopia where you could connect to other journeys, so it’s kind of—I don’t think of, I’m not looking at… I’m super bad, for instance when people say ‘you should do this.’ Sometimes I receive super scripts or a lot of people are telling me ‘this woman is incredible,’ and of course all these incredible women their stories haven’t been told so there’s a lot of things you could… But I find I have trouble finding the spark if it’s not coming from—not my story, it’s not that, but something that you never know when it’s going to hit you. The idea for my next project it hit me in an awards ceremony. I was bored—it wasn’t the BAFTAs—
BH: Hastily said!
CS: Those are super cool. Yeah, I was thinking about something else and at some point I had this idea. And I was in the room, stuck in this room. And you don’t know why, it was just a moment when I wanted to escape, I guess, and I found this very small idea that just like unfolded itself, really violently. I had to take notes! I’m never looking for the next project, never, never, and I never have a next project until I have one. I’m super bad at answering to other people’s stimulus, really, really bad. That’s why I’ve worked with the same producer for years and years, because she’s never saying this or that, she’s just waiting, being poor for like five years and she’s waiting. That’s kind of—it’s not that I don’t want people to wait for me, but when I talk about a project it’s basically done.
BH: Has this always been the way? Can you remember back to when you were first doing Water Lilies and how the genesis of that project started? Were those—was that twenty years worth of ideas that you threw into one film, or did it happen the same way that it does now?
CS: Water Lilies is different because Water Lilies I wrote in film school and it was my first original screenplay, because in film school, the National Film School in France it’s four years where you study screenwriting in a country that doesn’t believe you can actually study writing, so…
I was passionate about working with directors at the time and so didn’t commit at all to the idea that I should take a moment to actually craft and get my diploma. You’re not my therapist so I’m not going to analyse this, but—
BH: Go on, tell us.
CS: I’m sweating! I think I was also being, of course, shy that I was about to say something original because so far we were in that dynamic where they’d hand you a subject and you had to craft it thinking about dialogue, adaptation, bla, bla, bla. So I was working, I was the assistant director and the script and basically the mother of a director and wrote this basically on the side; school was pissed off, was actually telling me ‘you shouldn’t, you should commit to what you do.’ At some point I decided to do it for a whole month, thought I would be a director, definitely wanted to be a screenwriter because I was also very shy, I think, about my own desires, and so the script happened kind of like that—I was hiding. I think this script was really radical, I think the film is really radical, I saw it the other day and I was like ‘this is radical!’ If you see pictures of me at the time you wouldn’t think this girl is radical, no, no. Still.
Because I kind of did it like that on the side like a pirate thing, that’s how I used to work. Now I’m trying to be more dedicated and also feel legitimate and now pretend like it’s a game. Like Tomboy for instance, I didn’t know I wanted to do a second film after Water Lilies even though it was, I don’t know about success, but acclaimed and I didn’t know. When I decided I went to my producer and said ‘I don’t know if I want to do a second film but if I do I’d like to do it differently so I want to do it cheap and fast and I’m going to write something in two weeks and we’ll be shooting in two months. Can we do that? Can we make films like that? Can this be not as serious?’ First Water Lilies was in Cannes and you’re thinking I’m going to be more bourgeois, I’m going to have more money I’m going to have casting and I was like no! I don’t want that. I wanted to make it cheap, we got like €300,000 to shoot it, we found some money but it was less than a million, and got some small kids and did not do the casting thing, and if we have the chance to play again then we should play differently. It’s always kind of the mood when I’m searching for a project, it’s also a dialogue with what I’ve done and what are you supposed to do that you’re not going to do.
BH: And did you do your lists for Tomboy, or hadn’t you come up with that yet?
CS: Yeah, yeah, of course. I hadn’t modelised this, because I’ve been doing this in my shower before. Be glad I have this list thing now! But yes definitely. Plus there was this challenge of the—fifty scenes is really… It’s fifty. It was going to be fifty because it was twenty days of shooting with kids, and with kids if you respect the law you can only shoot like five or six hours a day so it’s basically crazy.
BH: And the experience of getting a script out in twenty odd days as opposed to doing it on the side at college, which—did you know what you were doing at that point? Did you feel kind of confident and comfortable because you’d had this acclaim and you’d had this experience and you were just doing it as a sort of shorthand, or did you have doubts?
CS: Also I had—also it’s about pleasure. We don’t talk—that’s also why I wanted to talk about desire in that when I meet students in screenwriting I tell them ‘ you should be excited, it’s not about if it’s good, am I working enough? It’s also about libido.’ Writing, I mean, it should really be about—it should be fun. You should trust your sensations and it shouldn’t be that serious. Also I think I got more humorous with this whole thing and feel less pressured, weirdly, and felt more free. And also found that—because Tomboy for me was going to be a radical thing, about a young girl performing being a boy and in France regarding gender studies which we partly invented but all the women, the lesbian feminists who invented this were in the US, we’re not into gender studies at all. When Tomboy was released and there was the debate around gay weddings and people were protesting with pictures of the film, the film was in schools and parents were taking their kids out of schools because they didn’t want their kids to see the film. So there were strikes, you know, it was something.
BH: It’s just like Britain now.
CS: Yeah. So it’s, I mean of course it’s a sweet film with kids but it’s radical. And that’s what I mean when I think of radical. We’re not always looking at what’s radical, it’s not about having radical ideas but it’s about, I don’t know, I don’t have an ending…
BH: We’ll have a clip in that case! So you made—your first three films were basically about coming of age and the third of those is Girlhood. We’re going to have a quick clip just to remind you all and just because I love it, so let’s see that and then we can come back.
Have you watched that again recently?
CS: No, I haven’t watched it since it came out. This was the first day of shooting.
BH: People talk about these three films, Water Lilies, Tomboy and this one, as being a kind of formal trilogy. Is that the sort of thing critics say afterwards or did you have a sense of that?
CS: I had them say it because I wanted to stop. It’s like saying to your lover ‘we’re getting a divorce,’ and getting a divorce. Because I felt I wanted to—I wanted to have grownup characters and I wanted to work with professional actors because I felt a new kind of closeness. It was also about the narrative, because Girlhood is totally in between, as you can see this is a bargaining scene, this is the bargaining scene. Plus she just got kicked out of school so it’s high levels at stake. She meets them, you come with us, but no, and then there’s the love interest—it’s totally classical negotiation and storytelling, American storytelling. But Girlhood was built around this idea of classical storytelling, mythological even, because when you’re looking at youth it’s kind of always documentary, especially if you really have a young cast, if you’re not taking twenty years-old to play fifteen. If they’re really this age it’s always documentary and it’s always mythological. So the project of Girlhood was actually to have this experimental form of five episodes of mythology, and with storytelling that was more in the American way of storytelling, this bargaining thing, but with a very French mythology with them. It’s five episodes of twenty minutes which is kind of like a sitcom, like How I Met Your Mother—
We’d play with that craft but within small episodes, and each of those episodes would allow the character to experiment one part that society can actually give her, so first part is this rebellious gang and then I mean I’m doing it backwards but there’s a part where she’s totally lonely with one of the boys, there’s a part where she’s kind of a child and she becomes more aggressive and it’s about what she’s up against with the queen—playing with the storytelling of teenage-hood, but make them really, really intense and concentrated within episodes. So it was a mix within this yeah, classical storytelling and this very experimental form, which made it, you know, sometimes difficult for people, especially this last part. To end the final frame of the film, and the final frame of the film is a long take of her going home and—how do you call, interphone?
BH: Intercom thing.
CS: Yeah. And her sister saying ‘who is it?’ and she can’t say, she can’t even say who she is, she has no answer to ‘who is it?’ And she has regarding how she’s dressed and everything all the different layers of the different performance that French society actually offered her, so she has the braids of childhood, the earring of this feminine side of her, but she’s dressed like a boy. She has everything, she’s everything, but she doesn’t answer and she leaves and we follow her and then she begins to—she stops and the arcades that when we first discovered her she was at these arcades, and then she begins to cry and the camera goes in her back and the camera just forgets about her and goes to the horizon and still everybody thinks the film is done, but then she gets in the frame and she has no more tears, and she goes this way which is not the way you go; when you go, you go this way and she goes backwards, because she’s getting back in the frame.
This was, I think, the most political thing I’ve done in my life this last take, it’s also about that. I mean I’m kind of always trying to land somewhere; I don’t get when people are like ‘I’m looking, I’m searching for the end of my film.’ I’m really like ‘you shouldn’t be. You should know where you land.’ Sometimes I don’t know where I’ll start, but you should always know where you land because otherwise you don’t know the politics of your storytelling and this is dangerous; you should know where you land. And it’s not about the message, I don’t care about a message, if I wanted to give messages I’d send a letter or do official politics, I know where to send messages. It’s not about that, it’s about what do I want you to leave the room with? It’s not a message, it’s about not wanting you to leave the image in the room. I want you to carry this character, I want you to care, and I want you to think about her. It’s not about the message, it’s about the communication between you and the film. I think what evolved the most in my writing from film to film, which is extreme with Portrait I think, is that I think about you all the time; I think about you all the time.
BH: You think about them? Us?
CS: Yeah, yeah. All the time from film to film. Water Lilies I don’t think I thought much about you, I don’t think I thought much about the idea of cinema. Tomboy I became a bit more involved with the idea of what are you doing with the viewer’s gaze? And Portrait is all about—it’s not only about your gaze it’s also about your body. Now I’m even thinking about your body because—and, you know, when I’m asked about male gaze, female gaze, etc. it’s about that. It’s not about objectifying people, it’s about sharing their experience; it’s not about filming the boobs of an actress, it’s about is there a subject in the room, and do we share her experience or are we just taking pleasure in the fact that we’re watching her, specifically her body? She doesn’t have a say. And this has also—and so it’s about sharing her experience, and you can go very far in this because it’s about intellectually sharing her experience, but it’s also about sensually what do we do with the bodies? There are bodies in the room, this is cinema, we have to ask ourselves these questions today because this room is in danger, we know this, because we have other ways of seeing fiction—which is quite cool actually, and sometimes has more politics than what we get in this room. This is about the collective experience and the bodies in the room, and for Portrait for instance I was obsessed with this, and this is not only about screenwriting; it’s about sound, do I hear myself breathe? Do I hear the person sitting next to me breathe? That’s why we want the room full, also, because it’s not about the figures it’s about if there’s someone living this experience next to me and how do I feel about that, and how do we connect the bodies on the screen with the bodies in the room? This has a lot to do, much more to do, with the sound than the storytelling. It’s about finding this—I’m getting totally lost—
BH: I’m loving it!
CS: OK, because you look like my therapist right now.
So that means this is good!
BH: OK just go back to—if you were making this film now, there would be questions about, or somebody would push you, about who has the right to tell who’s story.
CS: Of course.
BH: Would you still make this film now?
CS: No, I wouldn’t.
BH: But tell us why.
CS: And I think it’s good, I’m really happy that I wouldn’t, actually. Sometimes I’m not happy that I did it. I’m listening, I’m listening, I hear you, I hear. The weird thing about cinema is that you’re always working on two timelines: You’re making a film, it’s obviously about today, I’m always trying to think about today. That’s why I can say I wouldn’t make Girlhood today because it would be like why? But in the end it’s also about making it through time and hoping that lack of representation—you know, France is not… That there would be films that would fill a void that would give this film its chance back in a different corpus that would not only be white people telling about black people. Which wasn’t at all my project anyway.
But also when you are—it’s about the moment of who’s looking at you? Who’s talking about you? And I totally understand the fact that frankly, French journalists had a very bad way of talking about the film, so I totally understand the fact that, you know, I was also pissed off. It’s—I wouldn’t do it today but I’m glad I did it, and I hope in five, ten years it will be part of a wider body of work around representation and it will be meaningful. But no yeah, it’s not because you’ve done it that you shouldn’t be mobile about it always.
BH: Thank god you did it. Let’s take some questions from the audience—I can’t actually see them. There’s some mics on either side I think. There’s a question down here, hang on a moment, then we’ll line up one on this side, as well.
Q: Hello. Bonsoir. [Speaks French] It’s my very favourite film, and my question is in the film there is a scene where Héloïse asks Marianne about how she knows when she finishes a painting and she just says ‘in the instant it stops.’ Did you write this before you encountered the Orpheus and Eurydice story or plotline? On top of this, the process of writing as an artist, as a viewer, has this ever felt too close to you based off of these inspirations and such?
CS: I didn’t get the scene you were talking about.
Q: When you’re talking about gaze and creating, has this ever felt too close to you, too meta or too reflexive as a filmmaker or a screenwriter?
CS: And what was the scene you were referring to?
Q: Oh when she asks how you know when you’ve finished a painting.
CS: When you’ve finished a painting, yes. Um, no actually I think I’m always trying to be—even though it seems like an intellectual, very intellectual process, once you find what is fun you should harvest it. You should go all the way for it; the metaphorical side of it, when do we know when a film is finished and the fact the movie—when I’m in the editing room editing this scene with the editor we like look at each other and we’re like ‘this is about us,’ and the camera team was all about ‘this is all about the DoP,’ and the actors are all like ‘this is all about us.’ It’s cinema talking about cinema. Which isn’t a happy few thing or masturbating idea, I think this about—because fiction is important and cinema is a very, very democratic way of telling fiction, so it should reflect on itself and be aware of it, fully aware of it, and playful and generous with it. No, once I looked at the fact that my desire was also to be meta and go all the way for it, I went all the way for it because it should be super intense and super fun and even—the only thing that surprised me in that process, and I didn’t have that Orpheus dynamic, to answer your question, was that then on the set it also happened, which was totally crazy because I was like telling Adèle things and Noémie was looking at me telling and then during the takes I would see that she was definitely like kind of stealing stuff from me. But there was this crazy circulation, super collaborative; that is fun, that is alive, so it’s not because it’s theoretical that it’s… I’m kind of repeating myself, which means I agree with myself, which is cool.
BH: Question down here? Somebody had their hand up. No, you’re shy. OK back at the back, sorry to make you run up and down.
CS: Who’s shy?
BH: Somebody put their hand down.
Q: Hello, and congratulations on the movie. I wanted to ask you, in terms of acting—so the actors you said you didn’t really explain everything around the story of the actors; how was the experience for the actors? How did they actually deliver what you were looking for?
CS: Well we didn’t rehearse at all, and like I said I could really, I think, have a panic attack if somebody were to tell me like ‘OK but Marianne, she said she had an abortion but who was her lover?’ I’d be like aaaah, I don’t know! Really, they don’t exist. This is fan fiction and I love it, come on do it, write it for me. But they don’t fucking exist, I don’t know. I had this discussion, I did this master class with a French screenwriter man and he was telling me ‘I really like to think about where they’ve been, what’s this guy, why would we look at this guy.’ And I’m like, I never—maybe I never ask myself this question because I never have to ask ‘why would we look at a woman,’ because come on, we should. Yeah, why would we look at this guy who is cheating on his wife and like being an Uber driver at night because he’s getting a divorce; yeah, maybe why, I don’t know. You tell me why.
Maybe you have to think a lot about this, maybe you have to think ‘yes it’s because his family….’ Yes you have to think and motivate yourself as to why we’d actually look at this guy. I don’t have to do that because it’s obvious to me why you should be looking at these women, and I know what I want to look at and I don’t have to justify myself; they don’t exist in body they’re ideas; cinema is ideas. Sometimes when we forget about the fact that it’s ideas we’re lazy, we’re abusive—it’s ideas, our vision of the world, our political vision—and I’m not trying to be intellectual here, I’m trying to be responsible. This is important. That’s what I’m telling the actresses; I’m talking to you as if I’m talking to them.
It’s the same project, the actors they don’t have another project, it’s not about their part. I don’t care about—I’m not asking them to do research; I asked Noémie Merlant to read books about the sociology of her character and be aware of who these women were and also asked her to work with a painter and look at a contemporary painter’s work and spend time with her. This is work. Otherwise thinking ‘yeah but her father…’ they don’t exist. They fucking don’t exist. It’s about the presence, what we’re making together, and being on the same page, which means knowing the same thing. That’s why I’m not also thinking about the whole Portrait-verse, because we should be equals also, and it should be about the moment. I’ve done rehearsals for Girlhood and Water Lilies, didn’t rehearse for Tomboy. You wouldn’t say ‘OK, kids we’re going to rehearse,’ no, because you want to be equals with kids. We should all be super scared of what’s going to happen because they shouldn’t work, they’re kids—so ok this is going to happen. Whereas with Girlhood we rehearsed a lot because we had to be equals, so I was part of the group. When we rehearse I hire a coach and I’m one of the team, I’m not overseeing things like that, no. It’s about being equals, always, and sometimes to be equals you have to not rehearse because it’s going to happen in the moment. That’s what we did with Portrait because it’s about the two of them meeting and we really wanted it to happen. Am I answering your question? I’m not.
CS: But they are totally aware—I mean the thing that I’m doing, even with kids, even with puppets in Courgette; we all know the same things. I don’t have a hidden agenda, I don’t have this intellectual reflection on my side. You have to commit; your actors have to be politically committed to what you do. They have to know why you do this thing and share it fully, otherwise—it’s not a power dynamic I’m interested in and that’s how also they surprise you. Not with something they bring, but with something you all bring. It’s…
BH: We’ve probably got time for one more questions. There’s a couple over here and one more here. OK we’ll do two, very quickly.
Q: Bonsoir. So my question is, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a lot about female arts, like cooking, witchcraft, embroidery, and also about a female artist in a male world, and I was wondering if you thought filmmaking was a female art and also if that matters if it’s taken over by female people?
CS: All arts are female arts. We can see that historically, if you take embroidery for instance, it was an art and then women were mostly doing it so then it became an artisanal—an artisanal, it’s not an art it’s a craft, yes craft.
So everything, sewing, everything we do is going to be not an art. Cinema—of course I chose painting not as a metaphor for cinema, because I really thought about painting itself and chose a painter at work, but obviously it’s the art of portraying and so it’s definitely given me thoughts about cinema. What was your question.
Q: The question was just a question about is—obviously the craft you were talking about, the artisanal, is always relegated to a second range of arts, and we as females have to go inside the male art. The question is do you think it’s harder and also do you think that even is an important question?
CS: Yes of course it’s harder; it’s the art, but it’s everywhere. We’re dying because crash test dummies are made out of men. We’re dying of heart attacks because we don’t know what it’s like to have a heart attack as a woman, we think it’s like [does impression]; no that’s a man’s heart attack, if you’re a woman you don’t have that. We don’t know, we’re not being represented.
Eighty per cent of the budget dedicated to scientific research regarding health is not about women. We’re having cramps every month; nobody gives a fuck. It’s harder, of course. Everywhere. But we have, let’s see where we can have an influence, and obviously I think cinema is very important, and not only cinema, I’m thinking more so—I mean, cinema is important because cinema is a bourgeois industry. Cinema costs a lot of money; I think it’s important and I don’t expect much out of it I must say because like, if I want to have a kind of—my hope is always literature because literature or music you can do in your room, you can do without money. Cinema, and that’s why cinema is important, you have to have money, you have to have somebody, a crew, a producer, all these things. It’s super important women actually get there because it’s not the obvious, there’s a lot of money there, politically we have to be there also because it’s a democratic art. It’s a paradox, because I’m still always—I know that the shock can come more from something that you can do in your room because that’s what we’re given. But that’s why we have to fight to make cinema, that’s why we have to fight to put other—to have an industry, especially in France, in France we have like the best system, we have a lot of money, I mean we’re making fifty first features a year, 250 films a year; in Sweden it’s twelve. Here you’re doing fifteen first films a year I think—yeah? Well nobody’s going to contradict me, anyway.
BH: Fifteen films?
CS: Yes, first features.
BH: More than that.
CS: Really? Good for you.
BH: But it’s not 200.
CS: No first feature. 200?
BH: How many did you say for the French?
CS: Fifty. Which is already a lot. But we should fight for this because it’s about the money also. Do you get… So I’m not expecting much, but I’m fighting for it to happen.
BH: Last question.
Q: [Speaks in French] My two favourite scenes in the movie are the last, final scenes. Obviously one in the concert hall and the previous one in the gallery when Marianne enters the gallery and see the portrait of Héloïse with her small daughter, and the position of the daughter in the right lower corner is exactly the position where artists normally put their signature, and when we see the face of the daughter, surprisingly she reminds me a lot of your face. I was thinking about—am I right that it’s kind of a signature under this masterpiece? Or perhaps I had too much Chablis before the screening…
BH: Is this your personal signature?
CS: No. I’ve had that a lot! I’ve had ‘it’s you,’ I’ve had, weirder, it’s the child you and Adèle would have which is—
Why not! It’s not at all, but I’m really enjoying the fact that it means you’re an active—when I was talking about thinking about you guys, it’s not just how are they feeling? No, it’s about your gaze. It’s about that you’re not objectified as an audience, you’re not in this voyeuristic position where it’s this authority telling you ‘this is the message, this is where you should feel aroused, this is…’ You know, I even want your look to be moving through the frame and thinking you belong. The sex scene, for instance, in the film, the French critics said there was no sex scene. I read this in London I’m not going to do it again. But yeah you can be active, and this particular scene, the page twenty-eight scene with this kid, I see people responding very, very differently to the kid. Some of them are super moved by the kid; I’m not even looking at the kid! Frankly this kid we picked because we did a picture with a kid and it was like this kid and I was like ‘OK it’ll be this kid, why not?’
BH: Was it ‘anyone will do it as long as it looks like me?’
CS: No! She doesn’t look like me at all; I’m not blonde. No, no, no. I find it amazing. This is also, this particular scene in the film with the page twenty-eight, is definitely also not a tribute but an idea that could be tonally nineteenth century novel, and I like the Romanesque of all this interpretation and I think this frame within the frame brings dialogue within the arts, within the times, and also between us and the fact that you could be excited and finding this playful enough to actually have theories because I receive a lot of theories, for me means this is a good relationship, we’re having a very good relationship. It might be me as a kid because you’re convincing me!
BH: Well it’s clearly a great relationship. Céline it’s been such a pleasure being your therapist this evening—
CS: Thank you.
BH: And actually I’m super glad I came for many reasons, but this afternoon rather terrifyingly I read an article in a press conference about Portrait where you said ‘I don’t think I’ve got anything left to say,’ and I was paralysed with fear that you might not, but you’ve relieved us all, we are going to hear from you again. Thank you so much, it’s been absolutely wonderful to speak to you.
CS: Thank you.