“When I Write a Script, I Am Making a Hypothesis of What the Film Could Become”: Laurent Cantet on The Workshop
Laurent Cantet’s The Workshop boasts a concept that in another picture might result in a piece of twisty, intellectualized metafiction: a semi-successful novelist, Olivia (Marina Foïs), teaches a writing workshop to a multi-racial group of young students in La Ciotat, a small town just south of Marseille. She encourages the students to explore the concept of genre — to conceive of a murder mystery — and to also connect to the working-class history of the place itself. One student, a young white teenager named Antoine (Matthieu Lucci), seems both engaged and roiled by the assignment; his cooly disturbing writings sit stylistically between a flat, dispassionate sort of existentalist prose and the kind of violent musings that might be found on some subreddit board. As his writings provoke both Olivia and his fellow classmates, Cantet’s film itself becomes, as the director says below, “contaminated” by Antoine’s introduction of anti-social rage into this otherwise idyllic educational setting.
With a title echoing the director’s best-known work (the 2008 Palme d’Or-winning The Class, which also featured a teacher struggling to connect to the daily lives of a diverse new generation of students), The Workshop plays with genre ideas and generates real suspense while remaining grounded in Cantet’s socially-engaged, documentary-tinged realist style. Speaking directly to vital issues surrounding socialization, radicalization, and the ways in which young lives can be changed in both positive and detrimental ways, the film’s themes, as we discuss below, are enabled by the director’s method, which employs non-actors who are asked to internalize their characters and bring their own experiences and ideas to their parts. Indeed, despite the film’s sustained, sunlit ominousness and flashes of violence, The Workshop is, as Cantet says, his most “optimistic” film yet.
The Workshop is currently in theaters from Strand Releasing.
Note: our dialogue below contains spoilers in its second half.
Filmmaker: Let’s start with the obvious question of how you developed this film.
Cantet: We started to write this story 20 years ago. At that moment the ship yard was already closed, after ten years of heavy fighting between the workers and the city. It was just after I made Human Resources, and I thought it was interesting to look at the way the people could feel connected to this memory of a working-class culture that was already disappearing. The working class had been very proud, and after a while this pride disappeared. At that moment, if I had made the film, it would have been about the relationship young people have [with that idea]. The real workshop had happened [in this town], and we thought it would be interesting to make [the students] think about their relationship to this past, even if they didn’t remember it. With [writer] Robin [Campillo], we had already started to write a story that could take place around a table — that would just listen to what young people had to say at that moment.
But then, a few years ago, after the first attack in Paris on Charlie Hebdo, I thought it was important to think about how difficult it was to be 20 years old in this world [that my generation] had built for our children. And also to look at the mechanism of seduction that extremism can have on young people who don’t have any purpose in their life, or who are just left to themselves — who don’t have desire for anything. I thought it was interesting to go back to the idea of the workshop, just to give [these young people] a space to think and talk and confront. And [the idea] I didn’t find 20 years ago was that fiction arrives in the film through the desire of the characters for fiction. The film is contaminated by what’s happening around the table; that was the moment when I found the film.
Filmmaker: Through what process did you integrate the character of this violent young man, Antoine, into your original idea? Did you interview teenagers like him?
Cantet: Not really, but I’m living in the society and listening to what’s happening around me. My children are in their twenties. I’ve met a lot of their friends. When I write a script, I feel like I am making a hypothesis of what the film could become. Casting is quite long, so I see what they propose for the improvisation in the film. Then I work with actors for quite a long time before shooting. And rehearsal is not just working on the script, it’s also spending hours speaking of the film. And whenever we start a scene, I don’t give the [actors] the script, I speak of the scene, even sometimes read it to them once, and then I ask them to appropriate themselves to the scene. They bring a lot of things at that moment.
Filmmaker: When casting, how do you ascertain whether your actors will be able to bring this level of independence during the shooting?
Cantet: It’s difficult to describe, in the same way that it’s difficult to describe why you’re in love with someone. It’s something that you feel. And you also make a bet on someone. What was important to me is to find people who know the milieu better than I do. For example, I don’t know how young people in the south of France speak together. I have never witnessed the way they exist together. So, it was important to me to find them in this small city, because it’s also their history — not all of them, because some of them came from Marseille, but the of the ones who came from La Ciotat, one of them had a grandfather who worked in the shipyard. They have a very strong relation to the landscape of the place, so for me it was important to find them here.
Filmmaker: And what about the lead boy, the teenager with violent fantasies? How did you find him?
Cantet: We found him on the first day of casting. My daughter, who is 23, made the casting, and on the first night she called and said, “I think I’ve found Antoine.” I said, “Darling, maybe you should go on looking.” And then I met [Matthieu Lucci], and from the very first moment I knew he was the character. It was so easy [to find him that] I doubted it, and I wanted to meet other guys. But was really impressive about him is that I didn’t explain to him anything. He understood everything from the very beginning. Something that was significant to me is what he told me after a few days of rehearsing. He told me, “This guy is a jerk, an asshole, but I love him, and I feel guilty of loving him.” This complexity of relation he has with the character makes the character complex too.
Filmmaker: Had he acted before?
Cantet: No, no, my daughter found him in front of the high school where he was preparing for his BA. He’s very different from the character. He’s quite clever, and he can communicate very easily. But he told me that he has some friends who can be quite close to the caracter, and he thought of them.
Filmmaker: What are the things you do as a director to make the set accommodating for actors like this?
Cantet: First of all we spend a long time together before shooting so everyone knows each other, can trust each other, and can trust me. And then every morning when we start [shooting], I try not to be directive. I just ask them to find their position, and we play the scene once without any idea of where the camera will be. Then from what they propose, sometimes I say, “It’s better if you go here and you go here,” and then after that, I think of the camera positioning. And then, what’s important for both me and them is that I shoot all the scenes from the beginning to the end. I always shoot with two cameras, so I choose the first two angles, and make as many takes as necessary, and then we move the camera to the other angles and we start again from the beginning to the end even if [we only need to pick up] two sentences. It’s very difficult for a non-actor to remember the level of the emotion he had in one take, and [by doing this] it’s natural.
Filmmaker: There’s that famous quote from Chekov, that if you have a gun in a play, or in this case a film, it has to go off. You play with a lot of suspense ideas in the film that don’t always pay off in expected ways. Could you talk about how you thought about the concept of violence here?
Cantet: Once more, it’s the subject of the book they are writing that contaminates the film. I thought it was important to have a continuity between what [the students] say around the table and what really happens outside. Also, Olivia, the writer, is not very clever in the way she deals with that violence. She makes a lot of mistakes, like coming to [Antoine’s] bedroom. When I wrote that, I thought that will be difficult to accept, but when we did it….
Filmmaker: It’s funny you bring that up. In America there’s such a tradition of movies about teachers guiding and inspiring students. I think when I started watching the film I was programmed almost to accept Olivia as this authority figure. But it was in that scene that I began to really doubt her.
Cantet: She has been wounded by Antoine’s way of speaking about her book, and all these things show that she is not really a good teacher and maybe not a good writer either. But she accepts that teaching is also being reached by the one you are teaching. This exchange is important to me: that that the only way to transmit something is to accept that this will change you too. And this is what she finally accepts. And even if she’s maladroit, she is also very strong for accepting that she will be changed by what’s happening during this summer. I think she will be a much better writer after this.
Filmmaker: Did you have any sort of model for Olivia?
Cantet: No, but Olivia can embody our feeling of impotency in front of those young people. After the attacks in Paris, we had this slogan, “We have to find a way to live together.” Many of us tried to find a way to create this “vive l’ensemble,” and it’s very difficult for someone who is a writer or filmmaker or philosopher to build the conditions in which this “vive l’ensemble” can exist. It’s difficult to imagine a way to really act, and she represents me and a lot of people I know who felt disarmed in front of this reality.
Filmmaker: The idea of the violent story contaminating the more realistic story — could you talk more about the sequence towards the end, which begins with almost a classic horror movie scene of a woman at home alone at night with an intruder outside her house in the shadows. The film really shifts its style then, but not in a metafictional way.
Cantet: What’s important to me is, at that moment, if she wouldn’t have seen Antoine, nothing would have happened. I don’t think Antoine has any idea of what he’s doing. He’s just there, maybe doing like what he does with his cousin — pretending to shoot. But she sees him, and he feels obliged to go on with the story. He’s writing the story in life. He doesn’t know why he takes her in his car and goes to [the cliffs] — he’s just looking for a strong experience, and this experience is for me a poetic experience.
Filmmaker: Do you think he gets that experience, the experience he needs?
Cantet: I think so. I think he is moved by being with her in this landscape with this strange moonlight that he only knows during the day. Even the fact that he shoots the moon at the end is a literary gesture. He manages by living this experience to go further within his own violence and create something that is like an art piece.
Filmmaker: It’s very romantic with a capital R, like in Romantic literature.
Cantet: This location, they call it the calanque, the rocky bays between Marseille and Cassis. When I was 20 years old, Antoine’s age, I used to walk in this place under the full moon with my friends, which was a very mystical experience. You have this strange light, with your shadows very neat on the ground. It’s like you’re on the moon. I always wanted to film that.
Filmmaker: As a producer, I’ve worked several times with non-actors and have sometimes been confronted after the fact with this criticism that maybe the actors were somehow exploited by being in the film as non-professionals. Do you ever encounter that?
Cantet: We share a lot of things with the actors — we are working together, not exploiting them. A lot of people ask, what are the actors doing after you finish the film? They think that you are taking them and then throwing them away. When I start a film, I am really clear with them. I say, “This film is important in your life as an experience, and don’t think of what might happen after.” One of the guys in The Workshop told me at the end of the shooting it was the best summer of his life. He said, “For the first time in my life I felt I could speak about myself and my position in the world. In two months I changed a lot.” So the film is not just an abstraction. What it explains can happen in the real world.