Romain Gavras: ‘I see this film as almost the anti-Scarface’
French filmmaker Romain Gavras is best known for his various collaborations with MIA, directing some of her most well-known promos, and also making a feature film – 2010’s Our Day Will Come – that was inspired by the controversial video he made for her track ‘Born Free’, in which ginger-haired boys are hunted for sport.
Following nearly eight years away from the feature film game, he returns with the comic-hued gangster film The World is Yours, about a low-rent French-Arabic hood and his desire to do what it takes to become the exclusive North African distributor of Mister Freeze ice pops. His greatest champion – and also his greatest hindrance – is his mother, played by French grande dame Isabelle Adjani, whose overzealous assists are down to her desire to make sure her son succeeds. We met Gavras in Paris to discuss working with cinematic royalty, and also how you bring comedy to the time-worn gangster epic.
LWLies: Can you tell us how you got Isabelle Adjani on board, as she hasn’t made a film in quite some time?
I love mysterious people. Adjani dips in and out of the film world. She’s there one moment, and then she disappears. I absolutely adore her. But I didn’t know her before making The World Is Yours, so at the beginning she didn’t say yes straight away. She asked, ‘Why me and not someone else?’ And it’s weird because usually I’m quite articulate as a director, when it comes to justifying this type of thing, but I just couldn’t bullshit her. At that point, I didn’t have the answer to that question. For three weeks I was talking to her and she kept saying, ‘go back and do your homework and tell me why me and not someone else’. And I was like, ‘Isabelle, I don’t know what to tell you except I’m fucked if it’s not you because I don’t know who else. And that’s a genuine answer.’
Once she said yes it was amazing because, you know, you hear a lot of stuff about huge icons being difficult to work with, and it seems bullshit to say this, but she was an extreme pleasure. Really invested from the moment we started – you know how some of your crew, like your DoP, become your lieutenant on set, well she was like a that to me. Completely on it. We built the character from going out shopping at Versace and Gucci. We bought lots of head scarves and talked about the character, and I told her a lot about my own mother. She has an insane potential – it’s in there somewhere. When you see her she’s clever, funny and precise – and then when she turns it on it’s very interesting.
What was it like to direct her?
I hadn’t done a film in eight years and lots of the stuff I had done was more visual, so working with actors was the bit I was… not scared, but I knew it would be the biggest personal challenge because the tone is very specific. I had to find the music for the film, so we did a lot of rehearsing with the actors and I was writing a lot of side scenes. With her and Karim (Leklou) and Sofian (Khammes), we did a lot of rehearsing and she would bring stuff to the table. Sometimes she would go over the top and it would be amazing. But it was really collaborative – when we arrived on set, we knew what the voice was. And that was good because sometimes we would create surprises, or sometimes I would change stuff last minute, but everyone was in tune with their characters.
The lush visual style of this film draws on your work in music promos, but also mocks it a little.
Yeah a bit, but the film is quite light and has this sense of not fun-making but being endeared by a lot of stuff. If you like Daft Punk, you make a Daft Punk album. If you make a folk album, it would be fucking weird. So for me it was not so much, ‘I’m going to make a film that doesn’t look at all like a music video’, it was that I wanted to embrace it and sometimes play with it and make fun of it and go over the top with it.
It’s a hard film to describe. You want to call it a crime or gangster film, but that doesn’t quite cover it.
No, it’s a hard one. You know like when you have those sites where you have to put comedy or gangster – it is kind of all those things. And for me it’s the films that I like the most, like some Italian neorealism, or some of David O Russell’s movies, where you don’t know where the fuck you are, but you still enjoy it like you would some candy. So yeah it is a hard one to describe.
The title references a line from Brian de Palma’s film Scarface, which has become iconic in certain cultural circles. What is your relationship with that film?
I think it’s a great film that people maybe didn’t understand. Tony Montana dies at the end and he kind of wants to fuck his sister, he is not a role model and has never been to me. And so here it was interesting to play out almost the anti-Scarface. Tony Montana wants the world, but our guy just wants a little house with a little swimming pool. He is kind of like the anti gangster. So it was interesting to play on that, but it’s almost like the reference stopped there and it’s just I’m very bad at coming up with titles and so at some point this title came along really well, it felt good. Scarface is a good movie, but it has been misunderstood.
Did you speak to Vincent Cassel about La Haine, because there’s a whole thing in La Haine where they see a big billboard that says ‘The World is Ours’?
Yeah, yeah. And there are also many French songs that use the same catchphrase. And the idea of the character of Vincent was it was almost like his character from those days if he spent all of the 2000s in jail – he hasn’t seen internet and comes out into the world after taking too many pills in prison and then discovering the everything. That was the idea.
The film is centred around a mother-son relationship which is strange for a gangster film.
Yeah this is why it’s there, because we had all those different stories and I wanted to make a film in that world, but then I had the realisation that I need to make a film about my mum and cover it in a gangster movie. And I can say that because I know she wont see this, but in the french interviews I would never say it. But there are scenes in the film where it is literally my mother speaking. She is not a gangster, she’s a film producer, she produces my dad’s films (Costa-Gavras), but for such a small person, she is very, very tough.
So will you make a film about your dad secretly then?
Maybe one day but. It’s funny because my dad is obviously a very well known director, but my mother is the one who has the most power. He wouldn’t be my dad without my mum. She is really something.
The World Is Yours is released 26 April. Read the LWLies review.
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