Q & A: Writer/Director Philippe Claudel on “I’VE LOVED YOU SO LONG”

Philippe Claudel

Philippe Claudel on the set of his film “I Loved You So Long”.

With the awards season underway ZAMM.com’s MARTIN GROVE’s focus is on films likely to end up in the Oscar and Golden Globes races. In today’s Q&A Conversation he talks to director-screenwriter PHILIPPE CLAUDEL about Sony Pictures Classics’ French drama “I’ve Loved You So Long“.

“Loved” stars Kristin Scott Thomas, who has a best actress buzz building for her performance as Juliette, a woman who’s spent 15 years in prison for murdering her six year old son and has recently been released. Thomas, who received Oscar and Globe nominations in 1997 for her performance in “The English Patient,” is being talked about as a strong contender for best actress nominations for “Loved”.

Juliette, a doctor by training, goes from prison to live with Lea, her younger married sister played by Elsa Zylberstein. As Juliette starts a new life, the film examines the question of why she murdered her child.

Claudel, who’s written nearly 20 novels and is a major literary figure in France, made his feature directorial debut with “Loved”, the second screenplay he’s written. Previously he wrote the 2002 French drama “At My Finger Tips” and also wrote a French television episode and dialogue for other films.

Q: Why didn’t you write “I’ve Loved You So Long” as a novel rather than as a screenplay?
A: I think it would have been impossible for me to write a novel with this story. When I started to imagine the story of Juliette it was with a real and very strong desire to capture faces. I wanted to work with pictures. I wanted to show (Juliette’s) destroyed face. Immediately, I knew that it was a story for a movie and I never tried to write a novel with this material.

When I start to imagine a story I know immediately if the story will become a novel or a screenplay. In this case I wanted to use silence to tell many, many things and it’s impossible to write (a novel using) silence. It’s easier and the impact is more important when you work with silence in a movie. You place your camera in the right place and you catch the face of the actress and you are able to capture many things without words.
Q: What are some of the differences between writing novels and screenwriting?
A: When I write a novel I use language like a precious carpet. I want to show the light, the color, the material. I use a metaphor, a parable, etc. You know when you write a screenplay that the language is not very important except for the dialogue. The language is just there to give an idea (of what’s happening) to the reader of the screenplay. The final goal is a picture and you work for the birth of the picture when you write a screenplay. It’s maybe more bureaucratic work. It’s not poetic work. It’s not easier, but you use the language in a different conception and it’s just an instrument for (creating) your picture. It’s not a poetic instrument (like novel writing is).
Q: How long did it take you to write the screenplay for “Loved”?
A: It was a very short period — maybe one week — but it’s not the most important moment. I had this screenplay in my mind for a few years. But the writing process was just during one week.
Q: Do you take longer to write your novels?
A: Sometimes for a novel I write for two or three years. Not every day. I (work over) a very long stretch — sometimes six months — but I write only when I have the desire to write. When I write a screenplay I’m able to write every morning from 8 a.m. until noon. That’s not the case during the writing process of a novel. I want to have the idea to write. It’s a passionate couple of months. It’s not similar with a screenplay.
Q: How did you manage to write the screenplay so quickly?
A: It was a very strange circumstance. I was in the north of Sweden during the Christmas period because I wanted to show the real Father Christmas to my young daughter. It was a very strange atmosphere because in this period the day is just two hours and it's a long, long night with cold, with ice, with snow. I like that. It’s a very precious time for me. I live in the northeast of France. We have a very big winter with rain and snow. It’s a very promising period for writing for me. It’s not the same case in the summer because when the days are very sunny I want to go outside (and play sports). For me it’s very important to have great (winter) weather conditions for writing.
Q: I understand you had Elsa Zylberstein in mind to play Kristin Scott Thomas’s younger sister while you were writing the screenplay. Why was that?
A: Because I knew her before and she’s a friend. I’m like a big brother to her. With Kristin it was later during the pre-production process that I made my mind up about casting. I chose Kristin because I knew that she is a very great actress (and also because she’s lived in France for about) 28 years. She speaks very, very good French with a little delicious accent. I thought it would be a good idea for Kristin to accept this character. I think now that it was the perfect casting for this story. It was a great adventure for me to show another face of Kristin — not glamorous, not a (movie) star, but like a whole woman.
Q: Considering that you’re well known in France as a novelist but had never directed a feature film, how did you manage to get to direct this one?
A: I was very lucky because when I finished writing the screenplay I met these French producers (who) wanted to buy the rights to a novel of mine. They knew at the same time that I wrote a screenplay and they were very interested in reading (it).

They read the screenplay and liked it very much. Afterwards, it was like a dream for me. I liked the human dimension of teamwork (with the actors and crew in making the film). It’s very important for me. It’s not the same thing with a novel because I’m (working) alone.
Q: Were you comfortable working as a director?
A: When I was a student 25 years ago I made different short movies with friends. They were very bad short movies, but it got very exciting. The first day of shooting I remembered this time. My conclusion is that it’s easier to direct a professional movie with a great team than an amateur movie with friends.
Q: Did you work differently with Kristin and Elsa?
A: With Kristin we did two readings together before shooting. She read an essay of mine about my experience in prison (as a teacher for 11 years) and we talked about this universe. During the shooting we had a very mute communication at the beginning just with a few sentences. I wrote different sentences on (small pieces of) paper and I gave her (them to read) just before shooting. Kristin is a great professional and a very talented and intelligent person. I think my role was just to show her the way, to show her the country that I wanted her to explore.

I tried to put my camera in the right place (during production) to catch her expression. It was wonderful for me every day to have a chance to see this great actress. She is like a rainbow. She is able to have different variations on her face. Sometimes she’s very engaged, very dark and sad and suddenly there is a sunset on her face and beautiful light. I think there was between us a real faith relationship that was very important. I wanted to give her a good (amount of) freedom. At the same time I knew exactly what I wanted and after I had my take, I told Kristin, “Can you try other feelings for the same scene?” And it was great because during the editing process I had different variations for the same scene.
Q: How was it rehearsing with Elsa?
A: (It) was a little different because she's more sensitive — like a frightened animal — and she needed to speak more before shooting. When I said, “Cut” it’s not “cut” for her. Kristin is, maybe, a more rational person with a more functional approach to a director. It’s different with Elsa in that during shooting there is confusion between her life and the character. It’s like a frightened and beautiful animal or a little child. I know she needed (that approach). I’m very close to her and I touch her. I kiss her. I take her in my arms. I was like a father to her during shooting (to steer her through it).
Q: How do you feel about the 11 years you spent teaching in prison and that played a part in your being able to write and direct “Loved”?
A: It was a very important experience in my life. Every week I was in prison two or three times and I discovered an alternate universe in our universe. My most important discovery was that these people are hurt. (They’re) not monsters or animals. They’re hurt. I tried to translate these experiences in a screenplay (but) it was very bad. I gave up this project and a few years later I wrote the screenplay for this movie. It was important to show the result of jails on human beings. I think with the first picture of the face of Juliette with great sadness the audience is able to (sense) the smell of prison and the destruction a person (suffers) in prison. I wanted to show the possible or impossible rebirth of a human being after this experience. With the little pieces (we see of Juliette’s) life, I wanted to show that.