Julie Gavras, Blame It On Fidel
Anyone wanting to prove that a there is a “cinematic gene” need look no further than Julie Gavras. The daughter of legendary director Costa-Gavras, most famous for films like Z (1968) and Missing (1982), and movie producer Michèle Ray-Gavras, Gavras initially resisted working in film and enrolled in law school. However, her desire to tell stories on film proved irrepressible. After a stint as an assistant director in France and Italy, Gavras started making documentaries, most notably The Pirate, the Wizard, the Thief and the Children (2002).
When Gavras read the book, Tutta Colpa di Fidel, by her Italian writer friend Domitilla Calamai, she associated so strongly with the story that she knew she had to turn it into a film. Set in the early ’70s, it is the story of a precocious young French girl, Anna (Nina Kervel-Bey), who is forced to bid farewell to her comfortable bourgeois life, large country house and beloved catechism classes when her parents (Stefano Accorsi and Julie Depardieu) become politically enlightened and turn into Communist activists. Gavras makes us see the film’s events from Anna’s perspective, and as she begins to understand and warm to the complex ideas her parents have embraced, viewers cannot help but be won over by the charm of the film and the fantastic performance from Kervel-Bey, its young lead.
Filmmaker spoke to Gavras about being part of a filmic dynasty, the frustration of working with child actors, and an unfortunate teenage experience involving Bo Derek.
Filmmaker: You studied law before you decided to become a filmmaker.
Gavras: I’m from a movie family — my father’s a director, my mother’s a producer and I have brothers who work in the business — so at some time I decided that I was not going to do it, so I went to law school. I didn’t decide to become a film director, but I met people who had a story that interested me so I did a documentary. I started directing documentaries, which was fine with my first decision not to be like my family, because nobody [in my family] makes documentaries. I finally found this Italian book, Blame It On Fidel, and decided that I was going to do a movie.
Filmmaker: So you didn’t want to feel in the shadow of your parents.
Gavras: It’s not the shadow thing, it’s just that it’s so difficult to know if you decide to go into the business just because you’re so used to it, or because you really want [to do] it and you really love it. It’s really difficult which one it is, or both, and I still don’t know but since I’ve done the movie and really enjoyed doing it, I don’t care anymore what the real reason is. But I wondered for a long time, so knowing I couldn’t answer that question I decided to do something else.
Filmmaker: What prompted your decision to leave law behind and start working in film?
Gavras: I guess I realized that law didn’t interest me so much. My mother was producing a movie about gypsies around the world, and they had to send some film and some [equipment] for the movie camera, so they sent me [to take them] because I was on vacation. They were shooting in Egypt, so I thought I was going to have a week vacation, but the day I arrived the 1st A.D. got sick, so I took his job for a week. When I got home, I said, “OK, I’m finishing law and then I’m going to try something else.”
Filmmaker: When did you first discover the book of Blame It On Fidel?
Gavras: Actually I knew the author because I lived in Rome for a year and when I asked about what she was doing, people told me she had written a book. I read it and I loved it. What’s in the movie is not my life, but it’s so close to what I could say I felt as a child, so I decided try and make something out of it.
Filmmaker: How much of the book did you change to make the film closer to your own life? I know that the part about President Allende and Chile was something you added.
Gavras: I think I kept a third of the book, which is the events of the beginning and the main idea: a little girl from a very bourgeois family who sees her life completely transformed because of her parents’ political activities. I added the Chilean parts because when I was 12, my father did a movie called Missing, and Missing was like my political awakening. I was 12, and for the first time I understood one of my father’s movies. Before, they were not movies for children but I understood what a putsch was. Also, the story was simple for a child to understand: it was a father looking for his son.
Filmmaker: In the film Anna feels very neglected by her parents. Is this something you felt too when both your parents were off making films?
Gavras: In the movie, it’s not that she’s neglected, it’s just that her parents are living something very strong and it’s very hard for them to understand exactly what’s happening themselves, so it’s even harder to try and explain it to children. I always wanted to have the parents sympathetic, I didn’t want people to think they were horrible parents who didn’t take care of their children, although they do make mistakes. But I guess everybody does when you’re parents.
Filmmaker: You were only a few years old at the time the movie takes place, so how much research did you have to do to recreate that period detail?
Gavras: I don’t know how it is in the States, but in France when there’s a movie about the 70s, it always shows people living in orange houses with plastic furniture and only wearing brown pants. I don’t believe it was like that, and my set designer and director of photography agreed that it couldn’t be that way because people don’t live like stereotypes, so we decided to go for something a bit different. Of course we were cautious to make sure that everything was from the 70s, but we also tried to give it a different vision.
Filmmaker: How closely do you associate with the character of Anna?
Gavras: I used things from my childhood when I was writing the script, but I stopped relating to her when I was directing Nina; that was mainly during the writing of the script. When Nina started embodying the character, I related more to her than to myself. Nina has the kind of personality that’s very strong and very close to the character of Anna.
Filmmaker: Anna is very wise and precocious, though she still has a lot to learn. Is Nina similar to that?
Gavras: Exactly. We tried to explain a lot of the background to her, but a few months after the shooting [finished], when [former Chilean dictator Augusto] Pinochet died, I realized we still had many things to explain to her because she was still a bit confused.
Filmmaker: What was it like working with child actors?
Gavras: I really knew them very well when we arrived on the set because I had spent six months doing the casting to find the children and I had seen Nina and Benjamin [Feuillet] at least 10 times before. Three weeks before shooting, we spent three days together at the country house near Paris so the kids could have a brother-and-sister life: have dinner together, sleep in the same room together, things like that. When I was directing them on set, I never gave them the big picture, I just told them what to do precisely for that moment. It’s not like for an adult actor who wants to know at what stage in the character’s [arc] he is at that moment.
Filmmaker: Were there any moments where you became frustrated by either of the children?
Gavras: [I did] with the little boy, Benjamin, but I can’t recall the precise moment. It was just so difficult with him, because he was five and a half. At some points, we would laugh because we just couldn’t get [the take]. You know, it’s the twentieth take, he’s five years old and he’s tired and he forgets what to do.
Filmmaker: What is your favorite book?
Gavras: I’m very bad at favorite directors and favorite movies because I don’t have a favorite anything, but I can tell you the last book I loved. There’s a book I read while writing the script for Blame It On Fidel called What Maisie Knew by Henry James, and it’s exactly the same thing, a story told from the unique point of view of a little girl. Though it doesn’t tell the same story at all [as my film], it was very interesting.
Filmmaker: Which actor would you pay to see in anything?
Gavras: I think it would be Meryl Streep, just because I think she is amazing because she can do so many different things. In France, we like actors that are more characters than actors, actors who have a big personality instead of actors that have their own personality disappear and become another character. But Meryl Streep has that amazing ability to become someone else.
Filmmaker: If you could travel back in time and be able to make movies in a time and place of your choice, where and when would it be?
Gavras: Even before the movie camera was invented? I guess I like the romantic aspect of the 19th Century, but the good thing about making movies is that you can go back in time without a time machine.
Filmmaker: Finally, what’s the film you are most embarrassed to have seen?
Gavras: It’s a movie called Bolero by Bo Derek. It’s wonderful, you should rent it. I don’t know why [I saw it]. It came out in France when I was 14 or 15, and maybe it was a thing like, “Let’s go and see a grown-up movie.”
Filmmaker: And you loved it?!
Gavras: No, no, I didn’t love it, I felt very embarrassed. That was one of the very rare times that I walked out of a movie, which I never do. Even if I hate the movie, I stay until the end because I hate to not know the end of the story.