It’s a fitting setting for an interview with Audiard, who is a little bit of both. At 63, the French director is something of a cultish rock star figure among cinephiles. First deemed the “French Scorsese” after a late-career breakout with the epic gangster drama A Prophet (2009), Audiard has nevertheless distinguished himself as a figurehead for cool French cinema for decades now, following his work on dark crime dramas like A Self Made Hero (1996) and The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005). At the same time, Audiard is, himself, a fanboy. In interviews, Audiard speaks often about deriving inspiration from iconic Hollywood antiheroes. He has said The Godfather’s Michael Corleone inspired Malik in A Prophet, and has cited Gary Cooper in City Streets (1931) as an influence on his characters’ signature sensuality. Audiard is equally passionate about the music that hints at his characters’ interior lives. He told The Guardian in 2009 that his wish to end one of his movies with Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s version of “Mack the Knife” determined the end of A Prophet.
The iconic antihero is an archetype Audiard revisits in Dheepan, this year’s winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. In his latest project, Audiard tells the story of three Sri Lankan refugees who pretend to be a dead family to secure safe passage into France. Under the assumed name Dheepan, the “father” of the family (played by the Sri Lankan author and activist Antonythasan Jesuthasan) takes a job as a caretaker of a low-income housing project in Le Pré, just outside of Paris. There, he and his “wife” Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and “daughter” Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) start a new life. But when two factions of the project’s thuggish residents erupt into a violent turf war, Dheepan’s memories of his traumatic background as a soldier for the Tamil Tigers terrorist group resurface. It’s due to his desire to protect his new family and life in Europe that he ironically, and horrifyingly, begins sliding back into the behavioral patterns of a guerrilla fighter.
In person, Audiard is a stylish dresser and expressive personality. When I met him on a Monday morning in November, he wore his signature trilby and a jean jacket over a cashmere cardigan and maroon polo. Both, however, came off over the course of our conversation when Audiard wanted to make a point. With the help of his interpreter, Fred Cassidy, Audiard discussed troubles with diversity in French film casting, the challenges of working with non-professional actors, and what it was like to screen his films in front of former colonels from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam terrorist group.
KATIE KILKENNY: You’ve said in previous interviews that Dheepan originated as a remake of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. How did this movie evolve from an adaptation of a cut-and-dry vigilante story to a tale about immigrants and family?
JACQUES AUDIARD: The vigilante theme wasn’t very substantive [on its own], and it wasn’t something that I really wanted to develop. It had to evolve, and how it started to evolve particularly for me was when I asked myself: where do these people come from? I wanted to take from Straw Dogs the idea of an outsider, somebody who comes from another place. My idea was to explore the theme of an immigrant. That led me to explore and look around — who would be these people who would come from another place? The second theme that separated it from Straw Dogs was the theme of love and a false family. [Dheepan’s French family] is together in the film, but they’re not a real family. To develop that aspect was another way to distance myself from Straw Dogs and develop the heart of what the film was about.
In this country, we talk a lot about the diversity — or lack thereof — of characters onscreen. Something that’s truly remarkable about your film is that the three main characters are Sri Lankan. Do you think about issues of representation when you’re casting and writing your films?
That, for me, is a reason to do a project. If a group of people is not being represented in film, that’s an entry point to spark my interest. If I, and others like myself don’t know these stories, my energy is channeled to discover who these [underrepresented] people are. If I find interest in a story, I can communicate it as well throughout the film.
As I was doing the initial research for the movie, and as I was beginning to question where my characters would come from, I wanted to explore a culture that had nothing to do with francophone, French culture. That meant nothing to do with French colonial culture, either, excluding the former colonies in North Africa and in Southeast Asia. So, it was really by deduction that I came to explore this Sri Lankan culture and its history. But then it hit me all of a sudden: I discovered a conflict [the Sri Lankan Civil War] that I had totally ignored, and that was not at all represented or covered by the French press. Actually, no images existed: The only ones that I could find were of English origin, from the BBC, because of Sri Lanka’s history as an ex-colony. As I followed this lead, it was like pulling a thread, and all these points were coming out.
In your more recent works, there seems to be a theme of outsiders — your main character in Rust and Bone is a paraplegic, for instance, and you’ve previously written about an Arab immigrant in A Prophet, and a near-deaf girl in Read My Lips. Do you always start with a character who’s absent from mainstream movies?
I wouldn’t say my characters are outsiders. It’s not an issue of under-representation or people who are outside of the norm — they are people that are totally different from me, my social milieu, and my culture. I’m not interested in telling stories about myself or people that I know. Rather, I want to go out and discover other characters who have different physical attributes, are of different colors, have different languages. Sometimes I feel restricted by le casting français, the casting in France, which resembles me a bit too much.
Do you have the same issues of representation in France? Does it come up in the conversation the same way it does here?
[Laughs.] I have that conversation. Sometimes — and I love my country’s cinema enormously, I love French cinema — but sometimes I feel that it’s too closed off. There’s a narcissistic feeling to it that fatigues me. I need other things.
Even in recent cinema?
Maybe less in recent cinema. In the last five or six years, the lines have moved, widened a bit, in French cinema.
Do you think you’ve played a part in that?
I don’t know. No, I really don’t. I would need to know my place is in French cinema, and have that kind of awareness, but I don’t see it that way.
The actor who plays Dheepan, Antonythasan Jesuthasan, has a backstory that is remarkably similar to Dheepan’s. Is the story in part biographical to his experience?
No! I learned it rather late! There was not originally an intent to exploit Jesuthasan’s own past because he was cast very, very late in the process. Right before shooting, actually. I was totally unaware of his past; it was only while shooting one of his scenes, one where he asked me to explain his motivations, that he told me. “I get it,” he said, “The film, it’s my story, and the character, it’s me.” He gave me his book Gorilla — he’s a writer — about his experience, comment on dit?, as a “child soldier” when he was 14 or 15, very young. But if you want to know if his backstory helped create the character, you should ask the actor. Perhaps he used some of his experiences, but that’s not the work I did with him.
When you choose a non-professional actor, oftentimes the problem is that that person thinks you’ve chosen him because he is the character, biographically. But that’s not the case. That actor, even a non-professional, has to create the character. The work for the actor is to penetrate this person’s psyche. I helped him a bit to create this person. It’s one thing to have your past as a warrior. But to push the trash can like he did [in one scene in the movie], up a ramp like a hero, that’s something he had to learn. And that’s where I came in.
Like Dheepan, Jesuthasan was also in the Tamil Tigers, and when he came to Paris he also had a lot of odd jobs to get by. Those similarities are just serendipitous?
What happened in the Antonythasan’s case is that he came to France as a political refugee. He was protected by the French government very quickly, within three months, and [granted] the papers to stay there. They do that when it really is a case of life or death. And so he started doing little odd jobs — in essence, he was protected. He started writing in France — books like Gorilla that were translated into English, and plays.
There’s an interesting dynamic in the Tamil community in France. It’s very small and it’s also very paranoid — these are people, after all, who have been persecuted. The Tamils arrived as refugees not because they were soldiers, but because they were persecuted by the Sinhalese but also by the [Tamil] Tigers. In France, some the old dynamics remain — there are different factions.
So, on one hand, some people thought that if Antonythasan [a former Tiger] was going to be in the film, they could not be associated with it. So when I approached the community, I had to go in with white gloves on — they are very defensive and wary of that representation. On the other hand, he’s gained some prestige as a writer. The mother of Claudine [Vinasithamby, the actress who plays Illayaal], for example, thought that Antonythasan was a hero because he was the first to have written a French book. He could either be a pariah or a hero in that community, depending on what you bring back from the homeland. It’s very paradoxical.
Have you heard from the community about the film?
Before the film, the community was nervous. After — well, these are people that no one talks about. They were proud! Finally, a representation! I know because I went to a screening in Toronto with Antonythasan — and Toronto happens to be the biggest expatriate community of Sri Lankans in the world, along with France and England. When we showed the film in Canada, there were a lot of members of the Sri Lankan community there, including the colonels of the LBTT [the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] that were above Antonythasan. There was even a minister from some department from the Sinhalese faction present. The [colonels of the LBTT] made a speech. [Antonythasan] was super nervous, but they were all thrilled. It was frankly charming. I didn’t understand it, because it was very contradictory, but there seemed to be a united acceptance of the film.
Dheepan is deeply entrenched in Sri Lankan politics, yet it’s difficult to watch this film in 2015 and not think about recent events elsewhere. The central theme of arriving in another country with traumatic baggage has resonance, in particular, with the crisis going on in Syria. Did you think about current events like that when you were writing the screenplay?
The inception of the film actually came right after A Prophet, which was about five or six years ago. I wouldn’t presume to say I have a particularly effusive imagination, but the connection with current events didn’t actually occur to me. However, imagination, ideas, and creativity — they always come within in a context. These ideas were already present within the air five or six years ago.
The final film is a way, just like A Prophet, to give a face, a name, a body, and thought to people who are invisible, unidentified, and unqualified, and thus to give them life. To put them in a cinemascope of a genre film, and not just a documentary — that’s my declared purpose from the beginning. After, that the cinema presents certain images that history will later recapture — that’s the virtue of cinema.
You’ve expressed some hesitation about making a Hollywood film before, but it was recently announced your next project is The Brothers Sisters with John C. Reilly. What changed your mind?
It’s not a Hollywood film, it’s not going to be a studio film or anything. That’s not my idea. It may be shot in Europe or outside it. I have to finish writing it.
What was the draw of the project?
The book by Patrick DeWitt and the period of time it’s set in. It takes place in 1849 during the Gold Rush, just when people start losing their minds with cupidity and greed. That moment when humanity because folle, crazy, and when San Francisco was born.
Any special preparations for your first English-language project?
Yes — learn English! Or Tamil, I don’t know. No, I’m kidding. Tamil or English, it’s the same to me.
Editor’s note: an earlier version of this interview quoted Audiard as saying “Senegalese” instead of “Sinhalese.”
Katie Kilkenny is a writer based in Santa Barbara, California, where she is an editor at Pacific Standard.