It's the story of Herve and his mates, high school students in Rennes, Brittany. Outcast, unattractive, a bit dumb, obsessed with girls. It's a film about the secret world of boys, as I experienced it with my friends. Many boys have trouble expressing their adolescent crisis, unsettled by the end of their childhood. Their bodies are changing, not the way they had pictured it... they feel very inadequate in the world.
Is there a difference between the story and that of your graphic novel 'Back to High School'?
Yes, this is an original script. 'Back to High School' came out of an experience that I forced upon myself - going back into a classroom amongst students.
Your trademark is sexual frustration, clumsy youngsters misguided by their instincts and who get nowhere; the disasters of puberty. Is it autobiographical?
It's not an autobiography. I was a shy, ordinary teenager. The story of my life would have been too boring! My mother is nothing like the one in the film... but the relationships that I had with my mates were similar to the ones I describe. We had very high-pitched voices, ridiculous names (me in particular) and frail physiques.
It was unthinkable to smoke joints, to spray-paint in the streets or to run away; we were petrified of getting caught or going to jail. That natural anger has to come out, but it was invariably turned inwards. What's fascinating with adolescence is how wild the urges of life and death are. I didn't want to make a film about the codes of today's teens, the way they talk, their arsenal of elec-tronic devices... I wanted to make a film about the intensity of their emotions.
We wonder precisely when the film takes place. There are no mobiles, iPods ... but it still feels current.
I wanted to find a balance between my experience and that of my actors. I didn't want to make a realistic film, I wanted something slightly askew, to "build an environment"... to be honest I find it very boring to listen to talk about mobiles, computers, text messaging. And not all kids have ac-cess to that technology. My characters are excluded from progress, in a way! My actors, who were my best advisers, would say: "These people are complete losers, we'd never talk to guys like that..."
How did you arrange the casting?
It took three months to find Hervé and the other characters. I explained to Stephane Batut and his team - experts in casting teenagers - what I was after and they sent me a tape with 500 kids, selected from high schools in Paris.
And you'd approach them how: "Hi there, young man, you look like a virgin with lots of pimples, do you want to do a screen test?"
I didn't want models: good looking, wild; the nymph, the gypsy, the rebel, the jock etc...I wanted ugly ducklings with unusual features, and their own way of talking, of walking. We gave them small scripts... those who managed to stay natural, to express feelings without "acting", I kept. Vincent Lacoste (Herve) was super shy, forlorn, with a baby face hiding behind a deep husky voice. But he imitated his teacher with finesse. Anthony Sonigo, who plays Camel, was an obvi-ous choice from the start. Alice Tremolieres (Aurore), is very different from the role she plays in the film. She's a bit of a bohemian, shy, a dreamer... who also plays many instruments. I imme-diately thought that, at 14, I would have fallen deeply in love with her!
Being a super-shy ex-maniac, how have you directed these young guys?
We rehearsed! It was quite instinctive. During casting, I turned off the lights and asked the boys to light a match and bring it close to their partner's faces. I chose Vincent Lacoste to play Herve because behind his awkward look, he nearly burnt the girl he was with! He was not afraid of any-thing. Then I drew out the animal in them; we played monkey. Like in a sect, we weren't allowed to talk, we were monkeys. They'd rehearse whole scenes as monkeys. They managed to ex-press very subtle emotions as monkeys, using their bodies - much better than with words... it freed them. During the shoot, when they couldn't express certain emotions, we'd sit aside and play monkey, trying to find a way to unlock things; we don't think about that often enough!
OK. And for a first film, everything went amazingly well?
Well, yes. Except that three days before the shoot, Vincent Lacoste broke his knee at a rock concert that he was forbidden to attend, by the production and his mother! The film nearly didn't go ahead. But I took him despite the limp - he was too perfect. The limp has even added some-thing to the character.
Did you have references, films on teenagers that inspired you?
Not really...Of course, I love THE 400 BLOWS, POCKET MONEY... I was obsessed by the idea of getting the kids to act spontaneously. I cast Noemie Lvovsky before I saw the film PETITES she directed. It's one of my favourite films on teenagers because of the intensity, the untamed and unrestrained qualities it has. I wanted to show how the unattractive physique of my teens was beautiful. I wanted to be very close to them, hold the camera so close that you could feel their oily skin, every imperfection, and smell their BO.
I understand you were voted the "ugliest kid" at school. The haircuts, braces and pimples, were they your way of taking revenge?
The pimple on Vincent's lip evolves during the shoot from white blob to a scar...the make-up artist was following it very closely! Camel's hairdo is the one I was dreaming of harbouring in ninth grade, but my hair was too curly. It wasn't revenge - I enjoyed myself!
There are some hilarious scenes; the séance and the gym are terrific.
I had mates in Rennes who dabbled in séances. Somehow, when they connected with spirits, it was always famous baddies...Napoleon, Hitler, Jack The Ripper...or Satan, Lucifer. They must have felt so pathetic. And sport appeals to all. It's a moment of competition where you need to prove something with your body. You can experience moments of utter humiliation. I didn't want to fall in the trap of the typical film for teens: morons, good at sports and who succeed in everything on one side, and the nice little maniacs on the other... that's why my main character is so cruel sometimes - that was intentional. He's not perfect. Everyone is just doing what they can to get by.
Camel likes heavy metal; the deputy is black; on paper you run the risk of cliché, but the film touches on multiculturalism and integration without falling in the usual traps. You were born in Paris, have lived in Libya, Syria... and came to Rennes aged 11. Is this 'your' France?
When I was at school, there was one black kid, and I was the only one with an Arabic name. It wasn't a private school, that's how it was... for my film I didn't decide: let's take three blacks, five Arabs and a couple of Asians... I didn't write the script with that in mind. The deputy is black as it happens, and Camel's name is Anthony Sonigo and I think he does a great impersonation of the little Arab who likes heavy metal. What I find funny is to mix all these references. Herve loves rap, his mother scolds him for listening to "Arab music", his mate who's Arab, listens to Metal... I don't care and just wanted to have fun; these questions are so serious! People often don't give a damn about their origins; it's society that sets all these labels. Lots of youngsters are dull: not good, not bad, not violent, not dunces, nothing - they're 'lacklustre'.
Can we talk about socks and masturbation?
Masturbation: I love it. I have no problem discussing it for hours, it's my favourite subject. For me it's the expression of life's impulses. As for the sock, everybody knows, it allows to get rid of the sperm without leaving traces. You put it in the washing and your parents don't see a thing. Voila: grand household mystery solved!
Anthony and Vincent were very comfortable while shooting these scenes. 25 people around them? No worries! They'd ask: do we really put our dick in the sock? And I'd answer: are you nuts? You're 14, it's not allowed. We'll pretend. And they'd say "bummer, it's my favourite scene!"
The slow kid in class, is he the one for our guilty conscience?
You're talking about Mahmoude ... He goes through hell and we don't know what will become of him; he's trying to survive. There was one like him in my class...the others were merciless. That guy was a martyr. His parents refused to put him a different school. Kids would bully him end-lessly in the schoolyard. It was hard to witness.
The film starts with an unforgettable kiss.
I find teenagers kissing incredibly violent; I wanted to start the film with a bang, something super real to throw the viewer right into it. And it's a wink to Larry Clark's KIDS.
Were these scenes difficult for your actors?
Not a bit. Pashing is like a hug. They kissed with their mind elsewhere. At their age, I would have had a heart attack!
You chose the adults after the teens?
I wanted unknown actors. I had a phobia of stars. I wanted the actors to be mine. I love Noemie Lvovsky in ACTRICES. There's something very uncanny and sensitive about her. She's an amazing actor who brought to the part things I would have never thought about. Yannig Samot, Herve's stepfather, makes me happy, no one has seen him before - he's mine! As soon as I look at him: he has this virility, but also so naive and relaxed in his perversity. Fred Neidhardt, the depressed sports teacher, is so handsome, and can suggest incredible things with small ges-tures, his beard ...
But then I thought I might never make another film in my life... so I set a list of all the actors I loved: Emmanuelle Devos, Irene Jacob and Valeria Golino - of course - she's my muse! And they all accepted. So lucky! I love them all - dumb, hey?
And you decided to ask Valeria Golino to do a porno scene with
In my producer's office, there was a huge poster of RESPIRO. The very first film I was allowed to see on my own at the cinema was HOT SHOTS. Valeria Golino is the prettiest girl in the world, but also an amazing actress. When she accepted to work with me, I thought to myself that nothing better could ever happen.
Explaining the scene to Valeria was a bit tricky: "Well, it's a fake porno film about a mum who screws young teens, and I'll play the teen". She laughed and said "not rrreally sexouel?" I said, no... She agreed saying: "Ok, u're so founnny"!
Your comics 'The Secret Life of Teenagers', 'The Book of the Virgin', 'Back to High School' and 'Pascal Brutal' are legendary, but are totally unrelated to cinema. Why did you want to make a film?
I didn't really want to. I love cinema - I nearly see everything that comes out - but I was certain that making a film would be something exhausting: writing a project, finding producers, convincing them (they are so spineless...), rewriting a script 100 times, deleting what could shock a Catholic group... but in fact, I didn't have to do any of that.
What do you mean?
Anne-Dominique Toussaint, the producer, contacted me after reading my cartoon 'Back to High School'. She had a film on teenagers in mind and asked me if I wanted to write the script. I didn't know her, no friends in common, but she just happened to like my cartoons. We immediately connected. She had produced films that I really liked; Respiro, Emmanuel Carrere's films... It sounds like I'm brown-nosing to say so now that she has produced my film but I realise it was a unique experience. She tended to want me to add things instead of deleting.
And then?
Then I said that the person who wrote the original script should be the one to do the casting, choose the technical team, the sets...she agreed straight away.
We did it in stages and we could stop at every step. I wrote a synopsis, then a longer one, it was OK so I kept going. I wrote the first version of the script. When I got stuck I called Marc Syrigas to the rescue and we started all over again. He's a friend and a great scriptwriter. Until we started shooting, I couldn't believe it was actually happening.
What makes you laugh?
Very hard to say. Serious shows on TV, very serious people, politicians… partner-swappers make me laugh. I laugh about sad things to make them less sad.
What did you really enjoy during the shoot?
Making my actors cry for real!