“You Think I Should Die?”: François Ozon on In the House
When François Ozon first started making features some 15 years ago, with films like Sitcom, Criminal Lovers and the Fassbinder adaptation Water Drops on Burning Rocks, he showed himself to be a raw, edgy and insistent talent. His ambition and style were at the fore in those early efforts, but over the years as he has continued to make movies — at the breakneck pace of almost one per year — he has visibly matured as a filmmaker. During his career he has done everything from colorful, large-scale retro musicals (8 Women) to bleak, formally rigorous relationship dramas (5×2) to lavish period romances (Angel) to emotionally acute examinations of grief (Under the Sand), refusing to restrict himself creatively in the work he takes on.
His latest film, In the House, sees him returning to provocative territory, but with a sophistication and restraint he lacked in the early days of his career. Jaded high-school teacher Germain (Fabrice Luchini) is revitalized by one of his literature students, Claude (Ernst Umhauer), when he shows some talent by writing about his attempts to insert himself into the life and, yes, the house of a fellow classmate, Rapha (Bastien Ughetto). Claude, encouraged by his teacher to “push the narrative forward,” further ingratiates himself with Rapha and his family (and Rapha’s comely mother, played by Emmanuelle Seigner), all the while blurring the line between reality and fiction. While most directors would take the action into well-trodden psychological thriller territory, Ozon wittily plays with the tropes of the genre but ultimately focuses more on the complex game being played by student and teacher. While Ozon was in New York for Rendez vous with French Cinema, he sat down with Filmmaker to discuss his new movie, what he has learned over his career, and his dislike of interviews.
Filmmaker: I’ve been a huge fan of your work for many years, and one of the things I really enjoy about your films is you’re constantly doing different things. There’s this quote from the Coen brothers years ago, who said, “We’re going to make a film in every single genre and then stop.”
Ozon: Stanley Kubrick said that too. I don’t want to try different genres, but I try each time to tell a different story. And I don’t realize my works so much, I don’t know so much always the same themes. But I try to each time to have a new challenge for me. I try not to repeat myself, and I try each time to go in another direction. I realize [that] there are things which come from other films; there are some links, of course.
Filmmaker: You seem like somebody who is always looking to challenge himself and to try different things, not repeat himself.
Ozon: Yes, that is what I try to do. I consider myself not so much an auteur, but a storyteller. Each time I try to tell the story differently and to have the opportunity to try something new. If I’m not excited to try something different and do something new, it’s boring. When you do a film a year, you need to have the desire there.
Filmmaker: How far ahead to you know what you’re going to do? Where are you with your next film, for example?
Ozon: For me, it’s very important to begin something new. So, for example, when I finish editing, I know I can begin to think of something else. Many people think I have five scripts at all times. Absolutely not. I have some ideas, of course, because I am always thinking of films, but I need to finish something to know exactly where I want to go after that. And I finished In the House a long time ago so I’ve gone on the new film already, shooting.
Filmmaker: How quickly do you write? Does it come easily to you?
Ozon: It’s a long journey, you know. I really believe in the work of the unconscious. You have an idea, you think about it. You dream about it. But, for me, it’s my way of working, it depends on writing of course. I don’t need to go every day in front of my computer and write something. It’s always a surprise. In the moment, it’s a necessity. You need to write, so you write a thing.
Very often I do a first [draft] and I give it to friends. I ask them to read it, to give me their suggestions; what they think, what they understand, what works or not for them. I work again and again, and I don’t stop working until the shoot. And very often during the shoot, I change the script. It’s a process work, you know. Very often my scripts are not good enough so sometimes it’s difficult to find the money and the producers make a big stir. And always they say the film is better than the script. That’s a very good thing, because when it’s the opposite, it’s a problem. [laughs]
Filmmaker: So you said that you finished writing In the House a long time ago. Does that mean you’re writing while you’re working on something else?
Ozon: No. when I do something, I do just one thing. I’m not about to do things at the same time. When I finished the editing of Potiche, I decided to work on In the House. But In the House was an adaptation from a play I saw five years ago, so I had time to think about it without doing the real work. I kept in mind the story and I imagined how I could do it. Some things come into your mind and I thought that maybe it was better to do the film in England, because it’s more English than French. It takes time. It’s in your head somewhere and it doesn’t stop working.
Filmmaker: How do you feel about the process of adaptation? You’ve done a number of adaptations in the past few years.
Ozon: The first adaptation I did was with dead people so it was easier because nobody asked me or said, “You have to keep that,” or “You have to be faithful to my work.” So, it was freeing and I try now to be very free. The [writer] who wrote the play [on which In the House is based] is alive and he’s Spanish. He was far away from me and gave me total freedom. I said, “I want to change things,” and he said to me, “I respect you. Do what you want.” I was very sure with him, I kept many things, I changed characters; the end of the film is not the same. But I think the spirit is there, which is the most important.
I think when you do an adaptation, you have to admit that it’s a betrayal. And for me, my way of working is to try to keep what touched me. When I did the Fassbinder play, I had a feeling it was my story. So I keep it for myself. You have to make the material your material.
Filmmaker: When you adapted Fassbinder for Water Drops on Burning Rocks, was that an intimidating project to take on?
Ozon: No, because it was not a very well-known play; it was a play he wrote when he was 19. And the play was unfinished. The play had never been shown in Germany, so I felt free to adapt it and be totally free to do what I wanted. And actually I changed many things, and I used the other films of Fassbinder… The story of the transsexual, which is not in the play, I took it from another film of Fassbinder. So it has the spirit, which is important.
Filmmaker: Because you do films that can be so different from one another, does that make it more difficult to get your films funded. You’re not like the guy who just makes marital dramas or thrillers.
Ozon: I think now it’s easier, because it’s not always the same thing. And because I did something that was very successful, they trust me. And I think my strength in France is to make low-budget movies. My films are not expensive. The most expensive was maybe Angel, which was my big flop. But all my other films, they made money. Even if it was not big box office, they were not expensive. They were a good balance.
Filmmaker: With everything you’ve learned in the last 20 years or so, what would you tell the Francois Ozon who made Regarde la Mer?
Ozon: What have I learned? Many things. I don’t have lessons to give. I know each film is a portrait of time. There is not one way of doing things. That is the challenging thing, and the exciting thing. If it was always the same rules, it would be boring. So each time you have to adapt yourself, get stronger, face a new problem. I think with time I am more comfortable with the work of making a film, less anguished. When you are young you have a feeling that it’s your life. When you die, the film is unfinished. But now, when you have a problem with the film, it’s not so dramatic. Everything is dramatic when you’re young. Now I’m not as problematic when I think about the situation. Things always happen.
Filmmaker: It’s interesting that you talk about that anguish and the importance of everything, because looking back at those early films, that tension almost comes through in films like Sitcom, Regarde la Mer and Water Drop on Burning Rocks. They feel like…
Ozon: More aggressive.
Filmmaker: Maybe aggressive, but heightened as well. There’s sort of a sly wit to In the House and a feeling that is much more relaxed. And it’s funny because—
Ozon: I’m older [laughs]. I’m older. When you are younger, you have many ideas about things. You are sure of many things. I didn’t want to be provocative but I wanted to take my place in French cinema. I was a little bit…I’ve learned with time, I can be very classical in form and be very subversive in many things in my film. And sometimes it’s stronger to be like that. At the beginning maybe my films were more shocking and provocative.
Filmmaker: I saw those early films in my teenage years when I saw them, and they felt appropriate for me as a viewer. And now as I’m in my thirties, watching In the House, again it feels in step with where I am.
Ozon: Yes, I think you can see In the House like a film about my beginning. I’m like the young criminal and the part about the middle class family at the beginning, it’s really close to my family in Sitcom, these kinds of movies. But you can see the journey of the character in the film, he has a real evolution. His outlook at the beginning is very cynical and ironic. Step by step, he changes his character to fall in love. With time you learn to understand more; the character would be maybe less violent and less ironic.
Filmmaker: Do you feel as you get older maybe your ability to make the subject personal to you grows?
Ozon: it’s always been very personal, I think. The films have been very close to the period I was doing the film. So, each time I have to…that’s why I don’t like to stop to do interviews, because I think that everything is in the film. You know, when I meet people they want the film to be naked, but maybe they don’t see exactly things, but for me it’s clear.
Filmmaker: So the scene with Rapha in In the House – when Germain gets Rapha to read his story about Claude in the class, and he says he feels “undressed” – is that like you talking about the interview process?
Ozon: Ah, yes yes. Absolutely. [laughs]
Filmmaker: Looking back at a film like Sitcom, which is wonderfully outrageous and goes to places a lot of films wouldn’t dare, are there places you wouldn’t go as a filmmaker?
Ozon: No, I’m afraid of nothing, actually. Maybe there are some genres that I would not feel uncomfortable with. I’m not sure I’d be able to do a western or a science-fiction film, but you never know. I have an open mind. I like cinema in different forms — some arty movies and some more commercial, American movies. I like the idea of cinema in general so I have no restriction actually.
Filmmaker: I would imagine you’ve had offers to make films in the U.S.
Ozon: I was here first after Swimming Pool. But, it was not very surprising. All the scripts were quite boring and I’m not sure I could work in the American system, because in France I am totally free; I have the final cut, and as the director I’m really in the center of the operation. I have the feeling that in America, it’s the producer. The producer has the final cut, the real power. And the director is often considered a technician. I would have loved to be in Hollywood in the ‘40s of ‘50s, when the projects were maybe more artistic. But today, I am not sure I would have a place.
I actually think there are many American actors, especially older women who don’t work anymore, I could invite them to come to France and work in one of my films.
Filmmaker: So were the scripts you got after Swimming Pool almost identical to Swimming Pool? Sort of psychological thrillers?
Ozon: Yes. Psychological and sexy thrillers.
Filmmaker: That somewhat goes back to what I was talking about before, that in France maybe people don’t have to be put in a box, whereas here people are more comfortable doing that.
Ozon: We are put in a box too. It’s the same everywhere. But because I did comedies like 8 Women and Potiche that were big hits and after I did some small films, they knew I could do many things.
Filmmaker: Who are the filmmakers sort of within your community that you share ideas with?
Ozon: I’m not alone, but I think in France I don’t have really… I have friends that are directors, but I don’t really share my work with them. I prefer to share with people who are not really in the business, who are pure audience.
But I need to show my work during the process. In the editing room, very often I invite friends and I do some test screenings with friends or people I know: editors, journalists sometimes. I ask them, Is it boring? Is it too long? What do you think? If I got a question, you’ve got [to solve] it during the editing. For me, it’s important to communicate. I want to share the film with a large audience all the time.
Filmmaker: You seem like someone who is open to other people’s views rather than some directors who make their films and say, “This is what I made, and if you don’t like it, then tough.”
Ozon: You have to admit when you do a film, that sometimes what you wanted is not on the screen. And to admit that, you need the point of view of someone else, because you are so involved in the film: you have written the story, you have filmed the story. And suddenly, someone else comes and says, “For me ,it’s not love scene.” And maybe you realize, “Ah! Maybe it’s not a love scene. I’ve missed something.” So I have to change, I have to adapt the film. It’s important to have some other point of view and to find the right distance from your work. That’s why the process of editing can be long sometimes. Very often, I do a first edit and I go back, one month after, and I work and rearrange things.
Filmmaker: What was the last good film that you saw?
Ozon: I love Zero Dark Thirty. I didn’t like the torture scenes, which were not realistic enough for me. I didn’t like the close-up of Jessica Chastain [During that scene] – I think it was bad – but overall the film was very strong, I think.
Filmmaker: Last question. What do you still want to achieve in your career? You’ve done a lot – what keeps you going?
Ozon: You think I should die? Hurry up and die? [laughs] I just want to go on walking, you know? I like to continue my work of movies and just go on with the capacity and opportunity to do exactly what I want. To stay free.
Filmmaker: When you get up in the morning, you’re still excited?
Ozon: Not always. Actually I like to do movies but I’m quite bored with all the work around. All the promotion. Actually, when you’re successful, all this work around is quite difficult. But, I have to deal with that. One day I hope I won’t have to do it anymore.