Interview with

PAUL CALORI and KOSTIA TESTUT

 

How did you come to the idea for a musical on a social subject?

Everything started with a short film we directed together in 2007, Le Silence Des Machines. We had just graduated La Fémis that same year (Paul with a major in direction, Kostia in screenwriting) and we decided to work on a short film commissioned by Arte on the theme "You are fired." Kostia had the vision of workers whose machines were relocated and who revolted by singing: "The machines have flown to China!” A few months later, the film was screened at the Clermont-Ferrand and Angers festivals. We then had the opportunity to develop the same idea into a feature film.

We were convinced from the outset that there was a cinematic link between the universe of social revolt (demonstrations, slogans, occupations) and the musical film genre. Jacques Demy demonstrated it brilliantly with the opening sequence of Une Chambre en Ville, where protesters and the French riot police confront one another. The Pajama Game, by Stanley Donen, is also set against a background of social conflict in a garment factory. But this path has rarely been pursued; the treatment of social conflicts in France generally passes through the prism of naturalism.

What does a song permit, that a naturalistic scene would not allow?

A musical piece is cinema concentrate, a way of reaching a total art, like opera: the raw emotion of music, the thought and poetry contained in words, the choreography and camera movements. A song can express a character’s essence in three minutes: their feelings, dreams, frustrations, fantasies, ambitions, and past. It’s like connecting directly to their brain, by bypassing the usual rules of exposition and characterization. The character becomes ten times more expressive. At the same time, it’s a very exciting artistic form and an exceptionally dramatic tool. Our models on this subject have been Bob Fosse’s films as well as Steven Sondheim’s musicals; our tastes are very eclectic.

What are the challenges specific to a musical?

There are all kinds of challenges, but there is also enormous gratification in the end. First, writing the songs with different lyricists and composers required several months of work, and lengthened the writing of the screenplay just as much. After that, we had to go into a studio with the actors to record the songs before shooting, in order to play them back on set. Singing them live would’ve been too technically difficult.

In addition to this, during the months preceding the shoot, an incomprehensible amount of time was spent on casting the dancers, on dance rehearsals, and on the actors’ choreography and vocal coaching. Finally, the dancing and singing numbers take a special place during the shoot, because they cause a physical fatigue multiplied tenfold. They require warm-ups and rehearsals, intricate takes, etc.

The specific constraints of the musical also explain why there had to be two of us to make the film. When you need to pay attention to the dancing, the song synchrony, the acting, and the camera movements all at the same time, two aren’t too many to share the workload: the crew on one side, the cast on the other.

Why did you choose to work with different lyricists and composers on each song?

We wanted to avoid the score that could become too repetitive and monochrome. Almost every song gives the floor to a different character (or a group in the case of the female workers), and none has the same musical universe as the other. Varying the styles and the authors seemed to us a way of making sure that each character would really have their own identity.

How did you choreograph the dance numbers?

The initial idea behind the film was that social revolt could be sung and choreographed. Choreography was not, therefore, an ornamental or gratuitous element, but it had to be the logical form to express this revolt: a dramatic dance that does not illustrate, but acts. If a character dances, it is because (s)he has a specific reason to do it, a goal.

Therefore, we sought a choreographer who had a strong sense of dramaturgy and a familiarity with cinematic language, and we discovered Nasser Martin-Gousset, whose shows are mostly inspired by cinema genres: epic, slapstick, action. To avoid being too demonstrative, illustrative, or gratuitous, Nasser constantly forces himself to anchor his dance numbers in the character’s logic of action, even if that means reducing them to a minimum, to a few moves, shocks, or simple gestures. “The Warehouse Battle” between the workers and the truckers, which revolves around the collection of shoeboxes, wasn’t treated in a highly stylized way like West Side Story but rather as a slapstick saloon battle.

When the conflict emerges, Julie takes a back seat. Why is she the protagonist?

Rather than the workers of the Jacques Couture factory, we made Julie our protagonist: a young woman who is used to part-time jobs, without any real structured class-consciousness, without any activist or union experience, a free electron in search of stability. She’s without a doubt a character that represents modernity rather than the working class. And as she has no strings attached, identifying with her is more immediate.

Julie is representative of a generation accustomed to uncertainty, used to being bandied from temporary jobs to internships and fixed-term contracts. Her life, even in its most intimate aspects, is structured by this rhythm, this absence of horizon or long-term viability. When Laurence Parisot was leading the MEDEF (the largest employer’s union in France), she said: "Life, health, love are precarious, why should labor elude this law?" It’s a daily struggle for Julie's generation not to let this vision control their entire existence.

Samy is a character of the same generation, who claims he’s satisfied with this instability. He takes pride in his freedom, his independence, his absence of strings, and sees no problem in chaining short-term contracts. He represents an interesting alternative to Julie, who dreams of stability, comfort, and a permanent contract. Their dreams are incompatible, at least at the beginning of the film.

Why did you cast Pauline Etienne?

We had seen her intensity in The Nun, her sparkle in Tokyo Fiancée, and here, we wanted her to be touching. Pauline has a particular energy, very much like our protagonist: moving and resourceful, talented and full of desires. She loves the technical aspect of cinema – she’s also a writer and director – and to challenge herself and get her hands dirty. She doesn’t have an aerial, fluttering and fantasized point of view on cinema. Moreover, she’s simple, down-to-earth...

Why did you set the story in a luxury shoe factory?

Cinematically, a shoe has enormous potential. It is a marker of social status that immediately characterizes a character: "show me your shoes, I will tell you who you are." It is a metaphor for the character’s journey, for its uprightness, its dignity, its endurance. It is an ancestral symbol with endless levels of interpretation: a sexual symbol, subject to fetishism and fascination; the thread of many traditional narratives, like Cinderella. And of course, it perfectly fits with musicals and choreography: playing on the themes of feet and dance.

It was also important for us to establish our narrative in an existing and precise industrial pool. Romans-sur-Isère is a city that had its glory in the post-war era thanks to the luxury shoe industry, which suffered from globalization. Many of its big factories did not make it, the most famous being Charles Jourdan. But there are still some factories for internationally renowned brands, like Robert Clergerie, which Michelle Obama wears. Other smaller workshops, like Pierre Caty for Laure Bassal, are famed for their craftsmanship and resemble magicians’ lairs. It is also the location we chose to set our workshop stage, and where we shot the number “The Female Workers Revolt”.

How do you address a delicate subject like outsourcing?

This is a complex question. We’re not claiming that we’re setting out a turnkey model to save a threatened factory from relocation. Relocating is often a drama for everyone involved, and one shouldn’t interpret the light tone of the film as casualness on our part. We are not here to give solutions, but to tell a particular story with particular characters.

For the anecdote, we ourselves, in the course of the film, have been confronted with the increasing temptation of relocation, particularly with tax credits in bordering countries that incentivize shooting abroad; the cheaper East European orchestras to record the score; props and set designs from countries with low labor cost...

The film is "made in France": it has been developed, shot and post-produced in France. Even the footwear boxes were made on site in Romans, for quality reasons that preceded cost killing. This is the advantage of the short supply chain: fast delivery, flexibility, control, quality. There is hope: there are still workshops in Romans, such as the Laure Bassal brand, a family-run business, on a human scale, in a beautiful historic building, with sophisticated and faithful clients.                      

Why are the factory workers exclusively women?

It is a distortion of reality: at least half the workers in the shoe industry are men, a legacy from the traditional division of work: sewing the "rod" for women, the "assembly line" and its dangerous machines for men. But we wanted to plot a gender war in our narrative: facing several men who are fickle, self-centered, and liars. Our female workers constitute a unified group that defends loyalty and sincerity. The subtext is that the conflict between the employers and employees mimics the stages of a conjugal disunion: infidelity, suspicion, treason, and divorce.

We have voluntarily applied to our universe the contrivances of fiction; our social conflict is simpler than in reality. We were particularly inspired by the tropes and their archetypes in the Western film genre: a faithless and lawless land, an abandoned province that endures the diktat from the capital magnates, mercenary truckers for hire to the highest bidder, lying-in-wait female workers who transform their occupied factory into Fort Alamo. And Julie on her horse/moped…

Are the actresses playing the female workers also professional dancers?

We had been asking ourselves this question for a long time: should our workers be actresses who dance, or dancers who act? We eventually chose to work with professional dancers, to ensure the choreographic quality of their dance numbers. So many talents jumped out at us. They had very diverse acting experiences, different techniques, personalities, and body features, and we composed a variegated ensemble. This diversity and strong physical energy, it seems to us, can be felt on screen and brings a nice dose of freshness to the film.

How can one embody a boss character without caricature?

In French fiction, “boss” often equates to “bad guy”, especially in the comedy genre, which is the business of simplifying. In our case, we wanted to respect and express the specific points of view and rationales of each manager: Félicien Couture, director of the factory and son of the brand founder, must prevent his factory from closing in Romans, even if it means downsizing and entering into conflict with his female employees. François Morel makes the character immediately likeable, even though he is fairly angry and sneaky. We sympathize with his dilemma.

Xavier Laurent, C.E.O. of the luxury group that owns the brand, must maximize his shareholders’ dividends. The caricature would have been to portray him as an arrogant and frosty sixty-year-old… We preferred a modern thirty-something, charming and smart, smooth and skilled, an excellent communicator who always lands on his feet. Loïc Corbery possesses all these qualities.

Tell us about "L'Insoumise"...

Originally, the design called "L’Insoumise" (it means “The Rebel”) was an overbearing and pungent stiletto, a symbol of women's superiority, self-confidence – of conquering femininity. On second thought, we realized a stiletto was quite a stereotyped and sexist symbol, which confines women to a rather male fantasy. "L’Insoumise" has the particularity of being a Derby, a rather unisex shoe, which suggests gender equality. "L’Insoumise” is both convenient, easy to wear, and feminine with its glazed red leather.

"L’Insoumise” is really made in France. To create it, we entered a partnership with Pierre Caty, founder of the Laure Bassal brand in Romans. We found in his collections a particular Derby design that we liked. About twenty pairs were produced for the film, in the same workshop where we shot the iconic number “The Female Workers Revolt”. We won’t give names, but sizes range from 4 to 11...

Is the resolution of the social conflict a happy one?

The female workers’ victory is quite relative: admittedly, the C.E.O. Xavier Laurent yields to"L’Insoumise” and brackets the downsizing. The workers won a battle, but the film isn’t saying that the factory is saved. We don’t decide between the happy end of a brilliant victory and the tragedy of a closure: we leave this to the real world, when the parenthesis of our musical closes. 

As for Julie, once she’s reached her goal to get a permanent contract, she eventually chooses a path of dreams, risks, and unknown future in leaving for adventure with Samy. Almost all of our songs speak about the characters' larger-than-life aspirations, the primacy of desire and imagination over the constraints of reality (“A New Beginning”, “The Trucker’s Ballad”, “The Director’s Blues”, "L’Insoumise"). Julie is finally carried away by this impulse of freedom, this call of the sea. Nothing says she's right, or it's going to work. Samy has been dubious enough not to embody Prince Charming...