Tribeca: This was an incredible film. After having seen it, I said, “This is why we go to the movies!”
Cédric Jimenez: Oh wow! That’s really cool of you.
T: You chose to film in 35mm, which is a little rare, these days. Was it simply because you wanted to capture the time period? Did you know from the beginning this was the way you wanted to shoot the film?
CJ: A little bit, yeah. I had a hard time imagining the film shot digitally, because you never really have the same smoothness that you have with film. The 1970s were a little bit garish; colors were bold, suits were very particular, the hair… Digital cameras make the time period seem false. Plus, 35mm allowed me to work very freely with the actors. They could easily move how they wanted, when they wanted. They were completely free so far as movement. 35mm allowed them that. The focus is really easy, so if an actor goes off in one direction, the camera can follow them—the focus stays on them. That’s harder with a digital camera. It allowed me to be a lot freer while filming, and a lot lighter, in a sense than a shoulder camera. It was about 50% aesthetic reasons—it’s prettier, it’s softer—but also because it let me do things that would have been a lot harder with a digital camera.
T: Why this film and why now?
CJ: Go ahead, Gilles.
Gilles Lellouche: Oh, yeah, thanks for sticking me with this. “Why this film and why now?”
CJ: Well, start with why this film, and the rest will follow.
GL: I was talking about this a little earlier, but it’s not really the same question. Why now? In France, we’ve radicalized the divide, meaning there are two types of cinema and two types of audiences. On one side, there’s popular cinema, which is all comedy. Comedy. Comedy. Comedy. Not all of it is particularly smart, but who cares? And on the other side, there’s auteur cinema, which is more so for an educated, cultivated audience, but leaves out a lot of French people. The Connection is a bridge between these two worlds. It responds to auteur cinema, but it’s for the public. I think, in France, this is the direction cinema should be taking, because otherwise we have the two extremes. It shouldn’t just be comedy or radical auteur cinema. We need that bridge between the two. Then, so far as I’m concerned—and I think Jean Dujardin is with me on this—this film is very mature. What I mean by that is that this is the first time I really have a man’s role. He’s a forty-something year-old man, with a wife, and family, and responsibility. For Jean, it’s the same thing. We saw the film, and said, “This is really our first film as adults, as men.” There’s Before The Connection and After The Connection. It’s the beginning of the second half of my career.
CJ: As for me, exactly the same! No, no. I was born in Marseille, so I know it well. It’s connected to so many memories and particular emotions, to my roots. The film is filled with the places and people that I knew, so it’s very personal. As Gilles said, it was about using something personal to create an epic film. I didn’t use these very personal things to make the film more intimate, but to make it truer and more sincere. I wanted to mix these things into the characters. The story fascinated me, and made me dream of a film. That’s probably a little bit of what makes it popular. The audience gets to see my personal film; that’s definitely one of the answers to “why this film?” Why now? There isn’t really a reason. I think I could have made it before, if life had allowed it, but I could have also made it five years from now. It was just the right time. I met a producer who told me to write it. I met the actors, who said they really wanted to make it. The planets just aligned at the perfect moment. We make films, sure, but I think there’s also there’s also this unknown thing that we’ll never take hold of, but makes these things into little miracles. The Connection is one of these miracles.
GL: Often times, the films that take a long time to make aren’t good films. It’s true. I’ve lived it as an actor. There are some projects that have taken five or six years to make, but have had trouble the whole way through—with the writing, the casting, etc.—and then when it’s finally made, it’s too late. It’s lost its momentum. Cinema is quick, fleeting. You have to capture it in the instant it was meant to exist. It’s really something quite special.
This is why I became an actor, to play roles like this one.
T: When we talk about gangster or mafia films, we usually talk about Martin Scorsese, Sergio Leone, or Francis Ford Coppola. Your film, however, is very Marseillais. Where did you draw your inspirations for this film?
CJ: I don’t really like to focus on references. I love cinema, especially from that time period. I’m a huge fan of Scorsese, obviously. I’m a fan of Coppola, of Brian de Palma, of Sergio Leone, of William Friedkin, of Pekinpah—all these directors from that time period that have shaped me. But, in making a film, I avoid watching other films. I already know them, I have them in my mind, and they’ll come to me, obviously. I wanted to make films because of these films, so they’ll show up in my films but it’s not on purpose. I prefer to put myself, as a person—my likes, things that interest and excite me, what I like about the characters I’ve written—into my films. Perhaps it’s because I’m from Marseille, but it’s also because I’m French; there’s Verneuil, Melville—these French directors who made their marks on the genre. Italian directors…But, you have to make your own film with its own identity. It’s all mixed up together, but it’s not on purpose. We have all these things in us, and we have to direct it into our own films, our own vision. The Connection is my version of the story. There’s these images and feelings that might reference other films, but that’s normal. I’m not trying to point to these other directors.
T: And you, Gilles, your performance as Gaëtan Zampa managed to be both terrifying and charming. It was easy to see what drew people to him, but what about the character on the page attracted you to him?
GL: Exactly what you’ve just said. He’s a very complex character. There are several scenes in the film that show this complexity. He’s very much an authoritarian, but on the other end, he’s almost schizophrenic. He can be very gentle, very charming, very well dressed. He always has good advice and is close to his friends. He’s very much in love with his wife, and very close to his kids; he’s a firm believer in education. Yet, he’s this hardened criminal and a very violent man. For an actor, having a role like this is a dream. I’ve always dreamed of playing a role like this one. If I’d never had this chance in my life, I’d be frustrated as an actor. It’s done now. When I was a teenager, I only watched Scorsese’s films, and I love it. I still do. I’ve always, always dreamed of a role like this one. When Cédric gave me the script, I just wanted to eat it up. I said, “How did I get so lucky?” This is why I became an actor, to play roles like this.
T: What do you like about working with Cédric? And you, Cédric, with Gilles?
GL: Uh… Well, when Cédric spoke about the planets aligning, I think I know exactly what he means. At our first meeting, it was like love at first sight. At our first meeting, he spoke with me about his film and I said, “Either he’s crazy, or he’s possessed by this film and he’s going to make something great.” From the beginning, I knew it was going to be something great. In fact, after having met to discuss the film, we started talking about other things and connected on a human level. We agreed on everything—the clothes, the characters’ motivations. We agreed on everything, always. It was incredible. It was so smooth, and then we arrived at the plateau, and he just energized the team. He juggled the humanity with the profession, with an incredible dexterity. He was very much at ease with such a large production, even though it was only his second film. I never saw him anxious, or scared. If he was, he had the maturity and discipline not to show it. Above all, he had this energy that everybody benefited from. I put myself in his hands, and we just went from there.
CJ: That’s so nice of you! The meeting was the same for me. Gilles did a great job of explaining it. It was absolutely love at first sight. He always had this great energy while on set, but also off camera. Gilles is really the type of actor with an incredible instinct. He’s a serious force because he’s always on point, but can just keep reinventing himself. After each scene, we didn’t even need to talk. I’d say, “Hey, Gilles—“ and he’d say, “I know what you’re going to say. I know.” And he really did know. He’d redo it, exactly how I wanted him to do it, without me having to tell him how I wanted him to do it. It made things really easy. He’s incredibly generous, as well, which is not the case with all actors. Being generous as an actor means trusting your director, and having a lot of things to bring to the table. During filming, if you give your director different options, you can’t be sure which ones he’ll play with. Gilles gave a different option for every take. It was so great, because that meant that we could take the best from everything he did—and so much of it was so good. It was a gift to work with an actor like him. He’s such a powerful actor, who really does love what he does and truly applies himself. He has an exceptional talent, but even more than that, he has a generosity, which really adds something to his characters. He creates these magical moments and I really owe him a lot. He was there, and all I had to do was look at what he’d given. It was an exchange, sure, but the actors are really the face of a film. More than simply agreeable or nice, it was something very fine and precious that create a powerful complexity. It was useful on set, but also in life, because it’s about an exchange and the quality therein that creates that connection. Working with Gilles was a pleasure that I wish every director could share.
GL: No! Really?! I think once is enough.
It’s a revolution in storytelling.
T: You’ve already touched on this, but so often when we talk about French film, we only talk about the Nouvelle Vague. What does today’s French cinema look like? What is “contemporary French cinema”?
CJ: Personally, there are a lot of French directors that I really like a lot. Jacques Audiard, for example, who sometimes makes very artsy films, but doesn’t exclude the grand public. They’re very intelligent and emotionally driven—which for me is one of the great motivators in cinema. Someone like him represents the modern French cinema, and presents a model for what it can be. [Xavier] Beauvois, as well. Today, the state of French cinema is still a little stuck in the Nouvelle Vague, even though it’s trying to escape that. I think we’re really at a turning point.
GL: I think cinema is really made by the people who watch the movies. In France, we’re in a weird mood. We’re not doing well. We’re unhappy. The people are a little lost and worried. We’re really in a somber time, and it’s strange. The cinema is a reflection on our lives. I can’t tell you that there’s really one singular director who’s taking the lead, but we have a collection of incredible directors. At the Césars, for example there was Les Combattants, a very well made film. There are producers like Pierre Guyard doing incredible work. On the other hand, we have the working cinema: the cinema of pure entertainment. People need these comedies. Whether they’re bad or good, it doesn’t really matter. They need to laugh. When people need to laugh, producers finance comedies. I think the country needs to be feeling a little bit better before we can balance out the scales. Right now, French cinema is unbalanced. I’m having a hard time pinning it down exactly. There’s so much talent on both sides. The younger generation at La Fémis—France’s most prestigious film school, which used to produce very elitist filmmakers—represents a change. There’s a lot more humor coming from their recent graduates. There’s a revolution taking place.
CJ: Yeah, it’s a revolution in storytelling.
GL: There are a lot of true stories being told. It’s hard telling stories based on various facts, but we’re managing more and more. French audiences and French press aren’t exactly used to it, yet. We’re very fractured, so the cinema is a reflection of this.