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EIFF 2019: An interview with Emma Peeters writer & director Nicole Palo

What brought you into filmmaking in the first place?

Well, it started a long time ago when I was a little kid, 11 years old. I started watching films - we had a pay channel in France and they were showing all the good Fellini movies, the retrospectives and Woody Allen. I was taping them on VHS and I was holding sort of a database with film cards. I started being a cinephile as a kid, and I really loved it.

I started thinking in film and wanted to transform everything into film - but it took me a while before I actually went into film studies because, as a kind of safe sort of person I wanted to have a real diploma in case it didn’t work out you know. So I studied journalism and also script writing, film analysis and film theory. I also went to a film school in Denmark - a practical school called European Film College and I made a few films there - and then it took me some more time before I actually made real films. I first had a job in the European Commission Media Programme - an administrative kind of job.

Finally, I decided to quit that and try it out and I made a short film. After that, I won a low-budget film contest - actually, a micro-budget film contest. That’s how I made my first feature film Get Born. It was in 2008. It was a learning experience because we had to do it in a very, very short time in 1 year with EUR 140,000 - which is nearly nothing - in 20 days of shooting. It was all like, crazy you know with like, being on a high-speed train and trying not to fall down.

Then it took me a long time before this one came out - 10 years exactly, so it’s difficult to stay in the business, you know.

So, were you doing various other things in your time between the previous film and this one?

I had to earn some money, so my speciality is writing files, dossiers, applications to producers to ask for money - to help them write a good application in a convincing way. So that’s what I do to earn some money. So, this film took a long time because - I don’t know, for some reason after my first feature, the producers were not lining up to work with me so I had to struggle a lot and I was very frustrated as well.

So - it actually gave me the idea of writing this film, from this frustration of feeling that I didn’t exist, that I couldn’t live from my passion. I imagined my character was going to be living that but as an actress, because I think it’s even worse when you’re an actor because it’s your own image, you know, your own body that you’re selling. So, it’s even more difficult when someone tells you that you don’t fit. You know, they’re looking for a blonde or brown head, or whatever. So, that’s how I got the idea of writing this film - to let off all of my frustration into a character and bringing a lot of irony and sarcastic views on life.

How much truth do you feel there is in the assertion that an actress expires at age 35?

It’s actually, unfortunately quite true. If you haven’t made it through with something before the age of 35. It’s not that you cannot become famous but you have to have done something. If you have done nothing at the age of 35 you are already considered old in the business, you know, you’re not a newcomer anymore. You cannot break through, it’s already too late.

That’s a bit exaggerated - hopefully if you work for some people with believing in yourself you will manage but it’s tougher for the actors because of the looks, you know, especially for women. They have to look young and pretty, yeah. So that’s the difficult age. It’s also the age where you are supposed to start thinking of having a family and this kind of thing. It’s a really crucial age and most of the people who start up at that age they decide to do something else.

I’ve noticed there are some actresses like Jessica Lange and Meg Ryan - they were very popular up to a time when they disappeared from public view very quickly

Yeah - or they went to too much surgery and they don’t look like anything anymore (laughs). Yeah, it’s a difficult age but I think it’s something that even other people can relate to - not only actors. You’re supposed to have achieved something in your life at the age of 35. Let’s say you’re a journalist, you should be able to say “OK, I’m a journalist” and not doing the coffee in the office, you know what I mean? You’re supposed to have managed to do something and this poor Emma - she just has one ad for laundry detergent. There’s nothing that she can cling to, to say that she is actually an actress.

Suicide is a very sensitive subject. Were there any specific concerns you had in terms of dealing with it in a film?

Yeah. I didn’t want only to laugh about it but also to be true that we could also relate to the character’s sense of failure and solitude. So, I wanted to be psychologically true as well. So that was tough to manage both things but I think, in the end, there was both things in the film. What I discovered that, when I had a scene there were actors talking about death and suicide I made it comical but before that I tried to have one emotional scene so that we could believe that it is true.

It’s a balance between that make the film what it is - but in a way, it talks about suicide in a more symbolic way because it’s more the idea that you imagine that you’re going to die tomorrow to enable you to live today. That’s the idea, you know - it’s not really about suicide [but about] letting go. If you believe you’re gonna die you can go and live your life.

I noticed from IMDB that the film was a Canadian/Belgian co-production. Were there any specific rules that you had to abide to in order to get this co-production funding?

Yeah, when you have a co-production you need to have a certain number of artistic points. The actor Monia Chokri is Canadian, also part of the team is from Canada and we did all of the post-production there. Other than that, I’m Belgian and most of the film was shot in Belgium and France. You need to meet those requirements. At first, we wanted to co-produce with France because the film happens in Paris but in France it is very difficult today to find financing. When we had this idea of Canada it opened the doors to the film actually happening.

Monia Chokri - I thought she was really good in the title role. What (apart from her being Canadian) led to your decision to cast her?

I had seen her in a film by Xavier Dolan called Heartbeats I think in English (in French it is Les amours imaginaires) and I remembered her from this part which was a bit similar to my Emma - a kind of out of place girl who is clumsy and in love with a guy who doesn’t look at her. She had this humour but very subtle. I thought she could fit the part and she’s also charismatic and I thought she could be good - but then I had to send her the script and see if she liked it. She did - so it’s a meeting. You have an idea and it has to come through to the person in front and here it happened.

It was the same thing with my actor Fabrice Adde who plays the undertaker. I also remembered him in a film Eldorado. He played a very awkward guy, a drug addict so we said “ok, we have this guy in Belgium and he could be really fun for the part” and I sent him the script and he told me “Alex is me” and it’s true - he’s exactly like the character I wrote.

Were there any particular challenges associated with filming in Paris?

Oh - many challenges. It’s a difficult city, first to get authorisation to shoot and then you don’t really have the full authorisation. You have cars passing, guys on scooters and the garbage truck and whatever so it’s a lot of noise and being interrupted all the time - but I had chosen all the settings a long time ago because of going to Paris and seeing. I knew the locations where I wanted to be shooting. We were able to shoot there so that was good but it’s a difficult thing logistically. Other than that - nice place!

The main character’s cat features heavily in the film.

Yeah - I liked your comments! (laughs)

Was there just the one cat used for shooting or were there several depending on the requirements?

There’s only one. If you see his face you can know it is only one - he has a stain on his nose. You cannot have two cats exactly like him (laughs).

Was it a challenge getting him to do things?

You cannot really train a cat you know, he does whatever he wants - but it was two trainers on set. One under the bed and at the side with a plume, the other with some smell to get him to go back and forth, so you could sort of guide him to do things but we would never know exactly what the cat was going to do. Sometimes he did exactly the opposite of what I had written in the script but it didn’t really matter because we had to have the cat live on screen. That was the most important that we felt that Emma liked the cat. Monia Chokri loved cats so that was good. The cat felt comfortable with her and otherwise it would have been difficult. The cat was a very good non-obedient actor (laughs).

I liked the animated opening title sequence. Whose idea was that?

I had the idea of having animation in my script so I had written a canvas of what could happen in it. I had these two girls who really did a wonderful job because they took the ideas that I wrote and they really made them this wonderful little animation. They had got the idea of the symbolic where Emma is enclosed between the two characters and then she falls into pieces and she’s brushed away. [With] all these symbolic things you can do with animation they got the ideas. I wanted to symbolise in a minute the psychological situation of the character. You put it in animation when it takes much longer in a film.

The other thing that I thought was fun with the animation was that it put the audience right away in the idea that this film is playing with a bit of a fantasy. It’s not going to be completely first degree, if you know what I mean, it’s just going to be a little bit of fun in this film. It helps the audience get into the humour and feel the tone.

Do you have any firm plans yet for another cinematic project following this one?

My first film was about being 20, this one was about the crisis of 30s and now I want to go back to what it is to grow up as a girl between 5 and 20. It might be called Girlhood. I don’t know if you saw the film Boyhood?

I’ve heard of it though I haven’t actually seen it.

I want to take the point of view of a little girl who doesn’t look like a girl - she looks like a boy. What is it to be a woman? For me it is a social construct. The kid is just a kid. It’s what society imposes on people that they have to be feminine or masculine but at first you’re just a neutral person in the world and you’re capable of anything. It’s society that makes you believe that, as a woman, you cannot do what you want. It’s a feminist point of view on growing up as a girl. It will also be a kind of comedy-drama because I like that tone (laughs).

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