Les Cowboys Writer/Director Thomas Bidegain on Contemporary Westerns, His Journey to Directing, and the Importance of the “B-Book”
In theaters now from Cohen Media, Les Cowboys is the directorial debut of acclaimed French screenwriter Thomas Bidegain, best known in recent years for his collaborations with French director Jacques Audiard. (He has co-scripted all of Audiard’s films following The Beat My Heart Skipped.) In an age when the value of the cinematic medium is being challenged, Bidegain has made a haunting and bold first feature that is both intimate as well as epic in scope. It’s a film steeped in the history of cinema, drawing both visual and narrative inspiration from classic American westerns. At the same time, Les Cowboys is no escapist work, nor is its political allegory achieved through indirect metaphor. While classic films by John Ford and Howard Hawks inspired Les Cowboys, the storyline is ripped from the headlines.
For an American audience, Les Cowboys has a familiar introduction as a family strolls through a country and western fair. But when the singer on stage starts singing, something is off. As his accent reveals, we’re not in the States but in France, where French cowboys and cowgirls dress up, ride horses and do the two-step at local carnivals. Alain (Francois Damiens) is one of these men, and one day, at the fair, his teenage daughter Kelly disappears. Soon he discovers that she’s had a secret Muslim boyfriend and, that rather than been kidnapped, she’s run away and converted to Islam.
Like George C. Scott’s father in Hardcore, Alain violently ventures into a world he knows little about — not just to Syria and Afghanistan but to the Muslim community living, at times invisibly, within European borders. To say more is to ruin the film’s twists; suffice to say that even though Les Cowboys ends with a quiet two-hander of a scene, it earns a sense of epic grandeur while simultaneously acknowledging the divisions between the West and Islam today.
I usually don’t interview filmmakers I’ve worked with as a producer here at Filmmaker, but with Bidegain, I’m making an exception. That’s because I feel I was there at the beginning of his journey from a producer — which he was in New York in the mid-to-late ’90s — to screenwriter, and I know that his story is one that our readers will appreciate. Bidegain, along with Olivier Glass, had produced Michael Walker’s debut feature, Chasing Sleep, which Robin O’Hara and I executive produced. Robin and I saw him frequently as he was hustling what would have been Oren Moverman’s first feature, a drama that was to star Ian Holm. One evening, Robin and I had dinner with Thomas, the director Jesse Peretz, and a couple of others, and at the end of the night we all vowed to make a movie, The Chateau, that Jesse would direct. Three months later — and based on a story idea Thomas pitched at dinner — we were shooting that film, which starred Paul Rudd and the French actress Sylvie Testud. I was happy to catch up with Thomas on his recent trip to New York to talk about Les Cowboys, its personal themes, how he became Audiard’s screenwriter, and that evening over 15 years ago when we all decided to go to France and make a microbudget feature.
Filmmaker: Your film has beautiful widescreen compositions, but what’s interesting about them is that they explicitly reference the Western genre even as, the audience understands, the word “Western” has kind of a double meaning in this film.
Bidegain: That was part of the ambition, to use the storytelling and formal elements of the Western. That’s why it’s called Les Cowboys. Also, because it was my first feature, I thought using the Western form would be like a guide, a map that would get me through the journey.
Filmmaker: The map was for you?
Bidegain: Yes, exactly. There are a lot of [Western-inspired] scenes. Smoking the peace pipe with the Taliban, or the Indians following, not over the hills —
Filmmaker: — but looking over the alleyway.
Bidegain: Yes. It’s all based on a metaphor, because, I think, Alain [the father, played by Francois Damiens] is a cowboy, and he believes that the Muslim community are the Indians. You know, I’m Basque, and when I was young watching films with my older brother, we were watching Westerns, and he said, “Look at the Indians and imagine they are the Basques.” You can use one community to portray another one — that was the idea. And also because the metaphor of cowboys and the Indians is a valid one for the father’s point of view. That’s why [the film] starts a bit like The Searchers, but it’s really [referencing] Red River — that was a big influence because of the father and the son and because you have ellipses. Fifteen years — phew, it can go by just like that!
I also think all good Westerns give you a state of the nation. [They dramatize] a moment in the creation of the United States. Democracy is rising, there’s the war against the Indians — things like that. That’s also what we wanted to do, in a modest way — to give a state of our nation. It was to tell the story of that first world war, but not the one of our grandparents, but our world war, the one that happened at the beginning of the century. And the fact that we did not understand anything until the second plane. You know, when the first plane hit the first tower, we thought it was an accident. And then, there was the second one, and we said, “Oh, it’s war.” We’d been naïve up to that point.
Filmmaker: There’s such a strong metaphor girding the film. But were there more dimensions, or complications, to that metaphor that you discovered as you were making the film or in the editing?
Bidegain: Yeah, I discovered a lot. You know, when I work with a director, I always try to think, “What does this film that we’re writing, what does it tell me about him or about her?” And here, because I was the director, I didn’t ask myself that question until very far in the process. Tasio, my son, he was the age of Kelly, when I was writing. You know, kids, they see the world through your eyes until they are 14 or 15, and then, well, they go into their rooms. [Before then], you show them films, or give them music, and they’re very excited. And then, that stops, and you don’t know anything about them. It’s like when somebody dies — you’re mourning. It’s like losing someone for a couple of years. You can try to hold on — that’s what the father [in Cowboys] does — or you can have a little more trust in your kids. That’s really what this film is about.
Bidegain: Yeah, mourning. If you take away the cowboys and the jihad it’s really about what do you do when the kids grow up. Also, I realized as I was shooting, that it’s really a film about transmission, because that happens over the course of several generations. I realized that with the scene at the end where the kid teaches his son how to do a [bow and arrow]. And it’s where I come from in cinephilia — it’s a way to transmit that, also.
Filmmaker: I don’t want to do spoilers on this, but we could talk about the ending a tiny bit? Do you think a kind of balance, or a resolution, is achieved at the end of the film? And can you discuss your decision to end the movie with such an intimate, quiet scene?
Bidegain: I think [a resolution] is achieved. Like The Man Who Would be King, we wanted to end up in the simplest location with shot-countershot. Just two faces — the simplest use of cinema — so the emotion can come. It was a fight with the producers who said, “How can you leave me dry? There’s no dialogue? You have to put in something!” And I said, “No. [The audience] has spent 15 years with these people and now you have to be able to leave room for the audience to project themselves into [their situation].”
Filmmaker: We first met when you were a producer, and I’ve watched you become a screenwriter and now a director. Can you talk a bit about that transition, because not many people are able to make it.
Bidegain: Not many people do make it, I know. And I’ve been a distributor, too. I think I was a lousy producer, but I was an okay distributor. But distribution is very boring. I’ve learned a lot. When you’re a distributor, you ask yourself all the time, “Why are people going to spend $10 and see that film?” [As a filmmaker], the sooner you ask yourself that question, the better, I believe. What is the promise of the film and why would people go and see it? When I came here [to New York in the late ’90s], I was trying to put together the first feature of Oren Moverman. I spent one year on it, and we had a great cast. It was for [the Paris-based production company] Why Not, and we went into a pre-production, and we had to stop. I made Why Not lose a lot of money, and it was very painful for everybody. I had lunch with [the cinematographer] Tom Richmond, and he said, “I’m back from Los Angeles, and we shot a feature in one week.” And I was like, “Wow.” I had been in development hell, really, with Oren’s film, and I went back to the hotel said to myself, how do you make a film in one week? What kind of story do you tell? And I came up with The Chateau. Three days later I had lunch with you guys, with Jesse, and I told you the story. And you said, “Let’s do it.”
Filmmaker: So it’s interesting, our memory of this, because I remember it being this very organic thing. We were having dinner, I remember, not lunch. It was me, you, Robin O’Hara, and Jesse. I think Jim Denault, the DP, was there. And I remember the conversation being very fluid. Jesse had been doing these cab driver spots for MTV with Donal Logue, which were improvised. Robin and I had done Harmony Korine’s julien donkey-boy, which was improvised from a treatment. We were all discussing whether you could do a more straightforward narrative feature that would be improvised.
Bidegain: I remember it was about having 60 [scenes].
Filmmaker: Yes. And how you could do something that had more of a plot. I remember you said, “You need a simple idea, like an American guy inherits a chateau in the South of France.” I didn’t know that idea was one you that you had three days earlier. It seemed like you were coming up with it on the spot.
Bidegain: I had really thought about it. And what I learned [from The Chateau] was that you have to think about the film. If I had thought, what is this story I need to tell, the one that is in my heart, I would still be writing it. But if you think about the film itself — like, how do you make a film in one week? Or, what is the metaphor and how do you tell [a story through] that?
Filmmaker: When you say you have to think about the film, what do you mean?
Bidegain: How the film works — about the economy of it, about the genre, and how it has to do with cinema. If it’s just the story, then it’s very difficult, and you can spend your whole life trying to make the film. I remember Jesse was trying to develop [screenplays], and it was very complicated. But [The Chateau] was a simple idea. A few situations with the diversity — black, white, French, American, rich, poor. You put all that together and then you shake it. That was the idea of the film more than the idea of the story.
Filmmaker: What were the reasons the Oren Moverman film didn’t come together?
Bidegain: It was the end of an era, I believe. When I started, and when we did Chasing Sleep, for instance, it was still a time when it was easy to get money in Europe [for an American independent movie]. Independent cinema was a label that still had some value. Three or four years later the label was not as strong, and there was not that much money in Europe for that. I remember, I went to see the same people who helped us on Chasing Sleep, and there was no more money. The good thing is that Oren became Oren Moverman, so I was not wrong about the guy.
Filmmaker: It was around 2000 that we made The Chateau. How did you then become a screenwriter working with Jacques Audiard?
Bidegain: I [wrote] another film, a story of a father and son. I was still working with Why Not, and I knew Jacques Audiard from a while back. I introduced Pascal to Jacques because Jacques wanted to change producers, and he was looking for a new subject for his film. Jacques read the piece, and he said, “Think about Fingers because it’s a father and son.” Pascal had just bought the remake rights for Assault on Precinct 13, the John Carpenter film, and re-shaped it. He said to Jacques, “Why don’t you make a remake of Fingers,” and he did The Beat My Heart Skipped.
Filmmaker: I can’t remember — was that a formal remake? Did you get the rights?
Bidegain: Yeah, actually. I did all the development. I actually got the rights. It was very complicated — nobody knew where they were.
Filmmaker: So that film of Audiard’s was sort of where you transitioned into screenwriting?
Audiard: I was working on The Beat My Heart Skipped, and that’s when it started. When we started the production, Jacques said, “I don’t want to see the dailies. Would you like to see the dailies for me?” And so, I would see all the dailies and make two, three pages of notes every day. We would talk every morning. He would read my notes and ask me constantly about the form of the film. And then we did reshoots on that film. The writer was not able [to write the new scenes], so I wrote a few scenes for the reshoot. That’s how it started. And then Jacques got the screenplay called The Prophet, and he made me read it during editing. It was just the first 20 pages of the screenplay [set in the] jail. Then they went out of jail, and it was a classic gangster film. I thought, the first 20 pages are interesting; it should be a film about jail. He enters the first frame and leaves the last frame. And that’s how I got the job. Then it took three years to write. It was long writing, and Jacques got fed up of our Prophet because we never succeeded in putting the story from A to Z. So he left, and I wrote the first draft. It took three months, and when he read it, he was like, “Oh wow.” And that’s how I really became a screenwriter. That’s how I really got respect from Jacques and from the producers and all of that.
Filmmaker: So what were you calling yourself before that time? Were you a producer?
Bidegain: Yeah, I was a producer. I was doing development and things like that for Jacques. I remember at the end of The Beat My Heart Skipped, it was the last day I worked with Why Not, and I said goodbye. I had no idea how I was going to make a living. And then, that day, I got a call from Pathe, and they hired me for a little rewriting job. And then, I had that idea for A Prophet. And on A Prophet, I wrote a lot during shooting. I watched the dailies, and because one scene would be different, more violent, then the following scene should be different. Writing scenes during the shoot — I did that on Rust and Bone also. It’s a different way of seeing. It’s like the film keeps on writing itself as we shoot it.
Filmmaker: Which coming from American independent film, where schedules are so short, can be a difficult thing to do.
Bidegain: But it’s easy on a film like A Prophet, because it was a single location. Any scene you will write will happen in cell A, cell B or in the corridor, more or less. There’s another thing [Jacques and I] developed together, which is that we have the screenplay, and then we have what we call “the B book.”
Filmmaker: The B book?
Bidegain: It’s the scenes that if you put them in the screenplay, they will slow the thing down. But they are the scenes that you’re so happy to have in the editing room. Sometimes they are just images. Sometimes they are a monologue. We started doing that on The Beat My Heart Skipped because I did all the development. I kept scenes from past drafts. The opening scene of that movie is a B book [scene]. There are a lot of those scenes in Les Cowboys. For instance, there’s the scene where the kid talks about Kelly: “I remember when I saw Kelly, and she needed a haircut. And that’s when I realized that time passes and that the hair grows, you cut it and it grows and you cut it.”
Filmmaker: It’s funny, it’s that scene that, I think, let’s you do the ending scene without dialogue.
Filmmaker: So these are scenes that you don’t put them in the screenplay.
Bidegain: You don’t put them in a screenplay because you want the screenplay to be a page-turner. On the first day of the shoot, or when there’s a little [pre-production] party, we give the B Book to the actors and the AD. Everybody says, “What’s that?” And we have to explain it.
Filmmaker: So are these scenes “time permitting” on the schedule?
Bidegain: It’s kind of a nightmare for the AD. We talk with the AD at the beginning of the day, and we say, “We’re going to try to do this and that [from the B book] today.” And he tells you, “Okay, if we do this, then no, we cannot do that.” It’s something [we figure out] day by day.
Filmmaker: Normally you’d have these scenes in the script and then cut as you go along.
Bidegain: Exactly. If you put them in the script, people will say, “Oh, this is the bad part of the screenplay.” But if you put it in another document, people will say, “Oh, that would be interesting to do.”
Filmmaker: So where are you now after Les Cowboys?
Bidegain: Well, I want to keep on writing for others because there’s not that many directors who write for other good directors, you know? There’s Oren Moverman, but not many people like him. I’ve just finished a screenplay for Jacques, and there’s a film for the Belgian director Michael Roskam that Noé [Debré] and I wrote for him. And I’m writing for myself now. But I still do consultations or writing for others, and I enjoy it very much. As long as they’re good directors, it’s nice. If someone asks me, “What is a good screenwriter?” I always say, “It’s someone who works with a good director.”
Filmmaker: What are your broad thoughts about writing and directing cinema at this historical moment when the primacy of cinema is being challenged?
Bidegain: In France, people don’t realize that yet. We live in a very different world. When I came here for the New York Film Festival, I talked with Oren and I realized that all the friends I had who worked in the films now work for TV. People watch films here on their cell phones and don’t go to theaters. But in France, it’s very different. We still have the record highs of attendance of box office. People don’t see it as changing that much. And, it’s true, we’re very lucky to make films. Cowboys [cost] $7 million, so it would never get made here. People would never make a first feature for $7 million, unless you have a very rich uncle or something.
Filmmaker: So much American independent cinema looks like television even as you watch it in a theater, you know?
Bidegain: You have to deserve the theater, somehow. I think about that more and more. Also, American cinema doesn’t care about reality anymore, really. When I was kid, and you wanted news about New York, or news about America, you would go to the theaters and see, I don’t know, Taxi Driver. Now, if you want news about America, it’s really through TV. If you want to know what is to be a teacher in America now, you see Breaking Bad or whatever. In France, it’s different, because cinema still takes care of reality and still is interested in it.