AFFAIRS OF STATE: AN INTERVIEW WITH ERIC VALETTE
Frédéric Ambroisine: How did you discover the book that inspired "Une Affaire d' Etat"?
Eric Valette: I discovered the novel "Une Affaire d'Etat" in 2003. The original title was "Nos fantastiques années fric" (1) [Dominique Manotti; 2001]. I was called by a French producer, Eric Névé, who produces a lot of genre-oriented movies in France. I got involved with two screenwriters I knew from my previous movie, "Maléfique": Alexandre Charlot and Franck Magnier, and we all liked the book very much. Eric Névé had the rights. We decided to become involved, as screenwriters and director, in trying to do an adaptation of the novel in a French noir crime genre.
FA: Let's talk about the characters. What did you like about them in the book and how did you and the scriptwriter transform them into cinema characters?
EV: What we liked about the characters of the novel was the fact that they were shades of gray. Nothing was really black or white and they were all pretty ambiguous and complex. We decided to keep that edge for our material and keep the subtleties of the characters. But what we mainly changed was the character of Nora, the female cop, the "Action Queen" of the movie. We made her a little more physically involved in the action since most of the time in the novel she is more like a witness: she observes a lot, she learns a lot. She's pretty cerebral; she doesn't do a lot in the novel, especially in the second half. So we wanted her to be a little more physical, and also to provide a certain level of entertainment. We decided to have her more involved in the movie. Not being heroic in a silly way but in a kind of logical way. So that is what we changed quite radically in the second half of the movie.
FA: Is the novel plot different than the movie plot?
EV: There's no difference. The storyline of the novel and the movie are pretty similar. Basically, "Une Affaire d'Etat" is a story of the web of corruption in which three characters are entangled. One character is Victor Bornand. He is a secret adviser to the French president. He is a man of secrecy, a man in the shadows. He deals with all the dirty business of the state: weapons smuggling, blackmailing, all that stuff. He has a right hand man who does the physical side of his actions, who is more like the nerve (laughs), the belly. This guy's name is Michel Fernandez, played by Thierry Frémont. He is a kind of contract killer to some extent, so he will do all the dirty work for Bornand.And there is a third character named Nora Chahyd. She is a female cop. She is just a busy cop who is doing some kind of routine investigation on the murder of an escort girl in a parking lot. Through her investigation she gets onto the trail of Fernandez, and ultimately Bornand, in the highest levels of the state. She then becomes a threat to national security. It's all about corruption, danger, and how to survive in a political environment where everybody wants to take the biggest part of the cake and everybody is trying to survive.
FA: How did you work on the adaptation with your scriptwriters?
EV: Basically we tried to cut some parts, get rid of some characters and some of the novel's backstory, in order to keep the tone and the general storyline intact. It's all about making choices; trying not to soften the edges of the novel in order to make it an edgy movie. So that's how we work with the screen writers. Mainly we tried to have a meeting once a week or once every two weeks, and we used a lot of post-its (laughs). We tried to establish a structure, and tried to see what is inside of every scene's structure: the characters involved and the information we want to give out. It's pretty complex, it's like architectural work. Once this work is done, I don't get involved much in the next part: to work on the dialogue, the characters... I get involved in the action stuff: choosing locations for some scenes, bits of action... So let's say it is a collaboration. It is pretty structured but it takes a long time to make right because the political thriller is a complex genre. It is not completely linear. You have a lot of characters to deal with, so the writing process is pretty long. It's not like doing a zombie movie.
FA: How was the choice of the lead actress [Rachida Brakni] made?
EV: Rachida Brakni... It is not easy to find a thirty year old French girl with North African origins who has bankability in terms of casting a movie and is pretty good with the physical side of acting. Rachida is the first name that comes to mind. Rachida earned a French Award, the César, in 2002 for a Colline Sérreau movie called "Chaos". So she is kind of popular. Also, she is married to Eric Cantona, a famous French ex-soccer player. So for some reason she is kind of popular because of that. She is also a very, very good actress; she does a fantastic job. When she was a student she was pretty high ranking in athletics. She did a lot of high level competition for the Olympics: pretty serious stuff. So she was perfect for the genre, especially taking into consideration that you don't come across many actors in France who have this physical ability. Most French cinema is about dialogue and psychology. A lot of the time you get people who are talking heads. They do not really care about their body, they just speak. Most of the time they speak well but still, there is something lacking when a movie deals not only with psychology, obviously, but also with the physical ability of the actors. That is why it is pretty interesting to have people like Rachida or Thierry Frémont, who also won an Emmy Award in New York in 2005. He won Best Foreign Dramatic Actor for his performance as a serial killer, Francis Heaulme, in a French miniseries called "Dans la tête du tueur"  which means "In the Head of the Killer".
FA: I want to see that! Do you have a copy?
EV: I don't have a copy but it's very good.
FA: An International Emmy Award for a French actor: that is rare.
EV: He is the only one.
FA: What is your opinion of the female action image in French cinema? I have the impression that they are rare. And when you see them, it is usually not very good...
EV: That is true. If you look back in time, action girls, action female characters are pretty scarce in French cinema. I think the name that first comes to mind, especially for foreign audiences, is "Nikita" [Luc Besson, 1991]. After "Nikita" then you can consider Cécile De France in "High Tension" [Alexandre Aja's "Haute Tension", 2003]. Aside from that, there are not a lot of names that come to mind.This is why it was interesting to try to humbly add a new building block to this genre. But it is very tough; there are not a lot of action films, thrillers or adventure movies in France. And most of them do not have a female lead. Most of the females are just spice, just the love interest or the whore. Basically what you see in most of the EuropaCorp movies [Luc Besson production company] is that most of them do not really deal with female characters in a serious way. They do it in a pretty standard way: either the love interest or the whore, or she is there just to add a sexy female spice into the mix. But they are not really considered to be characters.
FA: They are action whores.
EV: Action whores, yeah. Frederic, have you seen a female action lead in a EuropaCorp movie?
FA: No. But there are many, many female cop characters in French TV.
EV: That is true, but they are not action leads. That is the French tradition of the female TV cop. It is true that we have had a lot of series since the mid 80's with female cops but most of them are more like social workers dealing with problems of drug addicts or people in distress. They are not really involved in serious action most of the time. It is more like a social worker kind of character, or a seated cop kind of character: with a big butt on a chair in an office. Luckily for foreign audiences, most of these series did not make it to other countries, so I guess that's something you are safe from. I don't see a "Julie Lescault" box set being released internationally with [English] subtitles, but there might be a niche and you might find a DVD company interested in trying to put that out. But I'm not sure.
FA: Have you seen any of those TV series?
EV: To be honest, I don't think I have ever seen an entire episode of "Julie Lescault" [1992-present]...
FA: "Les Bleus"? [2006-present]
EV: Yeah, or "Clara Sheller" [2005-2008].... I don't think I have seen any of these shows in its entirety. Just one episode, maybe fifteen or twenty minutes.
FA: Why? Because they lack realism?
EV: I think they are lacking a lot of elements. They lack scripts, they lack characters, they lack directing; they lack a lot. Most of the time I would say they lack scripts. I think the strongest point of American and English TV shows, over the French, is, even before directing, cinematography or acting, the strength of the script.
FA: What did you bring to the characters during the shooting? Did you exchange ideas with the actors?
EV: Yes, definitely. For me, a movie script is a guideline with a spine. You have to follow the spine, especially for a thriller because it has a structure. You don't fuck with the structure. But in between this guideline and spine, you have a lot of flexibility for characters. This is why I like to build characters with the actors. Not necessarily on the shoot, because on the shoot you lack time and you have to rush through everything, especially when you're short on money and shooting time. So what you can do is to prepare everything during pre-production. You can discuss the characters, you can tweak and change the dialogue, you can change certain action details if the actor has an idea because of some prop, or some wardrobe element. If the actor has an idea, you then discuss with him or her, and you change something in the scene. I would say there is a lot of room for flexibility, but right before the shoot. There is a little bit of room during the shoot, but I think you have to adapt everything to the actors right before the shoot in order not to stumble on some kind of weird surprise on the specific day of the shoot. All of a sudden you have an actor say, "Well, I just can't say that line, it doesn't work." If you have already been through all the dialogue, if you did everything in a very methodical kind of way before the shoot, then it is pretty easy to go through the shoot. You don't have to tweak the dialogue anymore. It has a lot to do with preparation.
F: Let's compare your movie with a western. Let's take a famous one like "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly"...
EV: Oh! This is nice. It's better than "Blueberry" (laughs). [2004 western starring Vincent Cassel, Juliette Lewis & Michael Madsen, released in the US as "Renegade"]
FA: Nora Chahyd's character would obviously be The Good. Bornand is The Bad. Fernandez is The Ugly. I feel that you have sympathy for The Ugly.
EV: Yes. Somehow, yes.
FA: I feel that the female character is the less complex character. She's a rookie cop. There is not really any surprise with this character.
EV: That's true. Hmm. It is like the cop character, Nora, is more of a guide. This is a very classic way to establish a plot. The guide of the movie viewer is going to be Nora. But it is not as simple as that because Nora is not a classic "good" character. She is pretty violent, a little bit stubborn, a little bit racist somehow; it's not like she is a perfect angel and a very nice, sympathetic girl. You have to get used to her and understand her anger, and the way she will shift her anger into something more like reflection and wit. I would say she is not as simple as she seems. Regarding the two other characters: The Bad is obviously The Bad because he has a plan; he works for the dark side, in the dark corners of government power. Yes, you can see him as The Bad in "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly". He can be Lee Van Cleef, no problem. The Ugly is a little bit different because in "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly" The Ugly is kind of funny. There is a lot of irony to him. He speaks a lot, he tries to manipulate and cheat people. That is not really the case with Fernandez. He is playing a strange game but he's pretty much the opposite arc of the Eli Wallach character. The Eli Wallach character In "The Good, the Bad and The Ugly" is kind of sympathetic at first sight because he is funny. Then you realize he is a son of a bitch. Fernandez is pretty much the opposite kind of part: he is a cold blooded killer in the first half of the movie, but then you gain sympathy because you realize he is trying to get out of the shit he's in. He is thinking about moving to the next step and maybe changing his life. I think there is some kind of grandeur to him, which is not the case in terms of The Ugly character played by Eli Wallach. The main relationship I can see between "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" and my movie is that the three characters in both movies are sociopaths. They are all sociopaths. They are miming sociability because they have to. Otherwise they would die, or kill somebody. They are all sociopaths, and I am really interested in sociopaths. These are people I really like (laughs).
FA: Did the actors surprise you during the shooting?
EV: If you expect a lot, you're not really surprised. I had really high expectations, which were reached. They are all great actors. That is what I love: they are professional, very serious, and they don't have all the stupid ego problems or insecurities that you can see with other actors. It is also a choral movie, which means there is no star. There are three people; most of their screen time is equal and their name is the same on the poster. Because they have all been stage actors they know how to share a scene. All in all, you can see that these people are not defending their territory; they are defending the movie and their part in the movie. They are defending the plot, so there is no struggling for territory: "I'm going to have my close up." "You're not going to get your close up," and so on. It's really fair play, very relaxed, and everybody is trying to do their best to make the best movie we can. These are all professional actors who are not dealing with narcissistic stuff. That is why these people really reached my expectations, because I expect this level of professionalism and dignity.
FA: Most political thrillers contain a lot of dialogue and suspense, and a twist. Your movie also has action. Why did you decide to include action scenes in the story?
EV: The action was something we decided on right from the very start. It was part of the rough draft. We already had the action. I remember in the very first meeting I said, "You know what, at one point she should try to catch the guy. And maybe we should start in the part of Paris south of the Boulevard de Clichy near Pigalle so we can have a chase through Pigalle up to Montmartre and the Sacre Coeur and The Place Du Tertre". That was in my mind; I could visualize it before we had the first draft of the script. It was really part of the plan, to have short action scenes, bursts of violence, of physical action in order to thrill the audience. To make the movie exciting, obviously, but also it was a way to conceptually state that what is decided in the corridors of power is something that has a physical impact on reality. People die, people suffer very collateral damage. In the action scenes I wanted people to be hit by a bullet without their name on it, that kind of accident, in order to realize that all these decisions being made in high spheres of the state have a practical impact; practical consequences in our environment. It makes a movie exciting because you shift from dialogue to something totally kinetic, gutsy, sound and picture..
FA: Usually good action scenes cost money. Do they scare producers? Do you have to cut the action in order to save money?
EV: The temptation was there. At one point we had to save money because we did not originally have all the money to make the movie. There was a thought of cutting some action but we kept everything as it was when we rewrote the script. My main request was, "Cut everything you want but don't cut action. We keep it as it is." Because we can cut shooting days by shooting with several cameras to make our schedule a little tighter. But in terms of what we are telling, I just wanted to be able to save the structure as it was, so I didn't negotiate on action. I can negotiate on pretty much everything, but I didn't negotiate on action. Because action is part of the fun of making a movie, and it's pure movie making. It's pure kinetic style. It is very exciting to make action. When we speak about action, it is not necessarily people chasing each other or people shooting at each other. It can be something as simple as a guy listening to another guy with a wire somewhere in an apartment. With that you have action, you have tension. There is no dialogue. You get a sense of suspense and tension. I call this "action" in a larger sense of the word. For me, action is not necessarily pyrotechnic.
FA: Your movie is presented as a political thriller... But do you think you made a political movie, or a politically driven movie?
EV: No! It is a movie that has some kind of political background and content but it is not a political movie in the strict sense. We are not trying to educate people. I think most people know about weapon smuggling between France and Africa, and so on. It is more about showing the web of corruption and deceit in which our characters are entangled and are making life and death decisions. We are trying to understand these characters, and trying to make them sympathetic for the audience. Not necessarily sympathetic but at least to understand what they do and feel. My goal is that you can have some kind of empathy for them. The political aspect is a little more bitter and cynical than it could have been in the 70's. There was a lot more idealism involved. You voted for Democrats or the Left Wing. I think now we have been through a lot of governments in France, and the same goes for the US and so on. I don't think there is the same kind of innocence and naivety anymore: you're going to vote, and you're going to change your life, and everything is going to be great. I think now my approach is more existentialist than political.
FA: We know the name of the president in the book. In your movie, we do not.
EV: Yeah. The context of the book is the 80's in France and François Mitterand was the president. We want our movie to be contemporary but kind of timeless. We decided to make it timeless because if you make a period movie you always run the risk of being considered as something "past". People might say "Oh yeah, that was twenty years ago and that was happening, but now everything is perfect. Things have changed." No way. I mean, it is always the same old shit going on. As long as you can buy a government in Africa, as long as you have oil and resources in Africa and other countries, then all the occidental countries are trying to get their share and acting like some kind of vampires. It is just part of the game, and it would be totally stupid and it would not make sense to think that this approach changes because you are under a left or right wing government. Everybody needs oil; everybody needs energy. You're going to take it from where it is.
FA: Let's talk again about the female character. You said she was a bit racist. Where does this appear in the movie?
EV: When I say racist, well...at one point a North African dealer is making a phone call on his cell, and you might assume he is selling drugs or something. She says, "You know what, the only thing these guys deserve is a bullet through the head." So I wouldn't say she is racist, but she is very violent. She uses "Dirty Harry" or Charles Bronson kind of dialogue. It is not very common to hear that kind of dialogue in the mouth of a North African girl in a French movie. Especially from cops. Most of the time they are very human. Once again, a kind of social worker helping people and being very caring for and understanding of others. Which is not actually the case. She doesn't give a fuck. It was pretty important to have this dialogue because it keeps the viewer on the edge. It is not the typical characterization for this kind of character.
FA: What do you think about the image of cops in French cinema? For example, rap musicians do not like cops. Young people in general do not like cops either...
EV: That's true. They hate cops most of the time. I would say it's easy to hate a cop (laughs). It's pretty easy to hate a cop; it is not easy to like a cop. What I do, humbly, with "Une Affaire d'Etat" is to portray the cops, the politicians, the contract hit killer, as people with their own motivations, their reasons, and a job to do. That's it. They are not necessarily evil, incredibly violent or sadistic or whatever. I just tried to establish a sense of understanding of them. Cops are a part of these people, so once again I don't want to fall into a category like EuropaCorp movies: everything is set up in order to make the audience from the suburbs feel good because they see a racist cop or a stupid uniform cop doing something silly because he's stupid. Or you have a kind of cool guy from the suburbs playing tricks on the cops and so on. I think that is pure demagogy so it is not something I like to use with the audience. I think audiences are way smarter than producers think they are, and I don't want to lick their asses or kiss their feet just in order to make them feel good. I don't think that they are going to feel good. I think that if you take them and put them in the position that they have to think a little bit, but at the same time they are entertained by the story, I think they are going to have a good experience and feel better after the movie. Generally I feel better after a movie if I didn't necessarily hear what I wanted to hear.
FA: One more thing about the character Nora. In one scene she tells her mother on the phone that she's not doing Ramadan. Was this from the book?
EV: No, it is not part of the book. We put it in because we wanted to establish a girl that doesn't give a shit about tradition. Because I think most of the separations and most of the tensions between communities that we can feel in our society are based on religion. And I'm not necessarily against religion but I would say either Catholicism or Islam is... most of the time I don't see them as elements of peace but as elements of aggression (laughs). That is my own judgment. I wanted to make a little bit of a statement where you realize that some people who are supposed to be Muslims because they come from a Muslim background: well they don't give a fuck and they're not Muslim and that's it. You know, my mother is a Catholic and I'm not Catholic. That is part of life. So I wanted to establish this sort of feature for Nora. I thought that was pretty modern, especially for a girl.
FA: Is Nora more modern in the movie than in the novel?
EV: There is mention of a family in the novel but I don't think there is mention of the religion. So you can assume she is Muslim but you don't know. You can only assume.
FA: is your movie pessimistic?
EV: I wouldn't say it's totally pessimistic. I would say it is pretty dark, pretty downbeat. But there is a glimpse of hope in the movie that we wanted to hint at so that you can feel that maybe at one point you can change things a little bit. Playing your part in society so you can change things a little bit and make them slightly better. Not necessarily for a long time, but I would say you can make yourself better. So I think Nora is probably a better person at the end of the movie than she was in the beginning, or maybe she became smarter and she might be more vulnerable to corruption. I don't know (laughs). That's a question mark, definitely. It is not totally pessimist, but fairly so. I would say it would be totally mad and insane and not fair to try to be optimistic while showing a web of corruption. I mean, there is no way you can be optimistic and show that (laughs).
FA: What do you think will happen to Nora in ten years?
EV: "I don't know. Maybe she could become a high-ranking cop, but I would say she will probably stay in the ground work. I don't see her having an office-like function. She likes to be in the street and to get down and dirty, so I don't see her doing office work somehow. She has a big Vic MacKay (2) kind of side to her, I guess. I don't know what is going to happen to her but it is pretty interesting. Maybe she'll be there for a sequel. We'll see.
FA: Can you talk about the other important female character in the movie, the "madam"?
EV: The madam is called Mado. Mado is a weird, weird, weird female character. She seems to pull strings a lot; she seems like a puppet master. She is pretty sneaky. It is difficult to sense whatever she feels but you can see she has a plan B, a plan C and maybe a plan D in the back of her mind. She is trying to pull the strings in order to grab one that is going to deliver something good for her. But you can sense that she comes from the gutter and she established herself as a madam in this kind of prostitution ring. But she still has this gutter background attitude, where you have to fight for everything and you have to protect yourself and life is a jungle. But even if she feels mixed feelings and opposite feelings about people that she might love and hate at the same time, ultimately... she will be ready to betray them for survival and her well being. So she is a pretty tricky, complex character; probably the most complex character in the movie. She is played by Christine Boisson who was a sexual icon in the 70's in France. She is famous for movies like "Emmanuelle" and in the early 80's "Identificazione Di Una Donna" by Antonioni. She has this kind of glamorous sexual feel to her and she is pretty magnetic and strong and weird. She did a lot of work for stage and TV in the last decade or 15 years, and it was pretty cool for us to have her back on the big screen to do this part. So I am happy to bring Christine Boisson back to the screen.
FA: How did you cast the actors and actresses? Did they accept the roles right away?
EV: We had been through several options before André Dussolier for the character Bornand. Once we had him we had a pretty strong idea that the movie could be financed. Otherwise it would have been a problem because André Dussolier is kind of a popular actor in France. So we went for him, but not after considering other options which would have been maybe a little more like contretype acting: like using a comedian to play this kind of role, playing against type. But André Dussolier was playing politicians, lawyers, people that are really established in society. It was probably one of the first times that he had to go that far into his darkest corners. I would say even that it was kind of a novelty for him, and for us too. He was pretty happy to explore this side of himself, especially after doing a lot of comedy like the latest Jean-Pierre Jeunet movie and lighter drama like the last Alain Resnais movie. So it was pretty interesting to have him, and pretty naturally he got us the financing. So we were able to have people that we really, really liked to be with him, like Rashida Brakni and Thierry Frémont. Once again the two of them are bankable stars in the classic sense of the term. It is not that easy to finance based only on one name, but I would say the ensemble cast make it like a viable investment. So that is how we decided to keep this thing together. Also there was another aspect: all these people don't have any problem, they really share screen time; they don't care. So once again, they like to act with each other; they don't play against each other.
FA: What's your next step?
EV: I am going to stay in France, probably for a while. I don't know, we'll see what comes up with the US and Canada and so on. Maybe Thailand, who knows. But I think I'm going to stay in France. I am doing a movie in France called "The Prey" / "La Proie" which is the story of a bank robber chasing a serial killer in rural France. The bank robber is a convict escaped from jail and is being chased by the cops. Basically it is a three-way chase movie. It is interesting: my producer likes to pitch it as a kind of French version of "The Fugitive" because it has that kind of sense and vibe. But it's going to be darker.
Interview conducted in English by Frederic Ambroisine on November 10th, 2009. Edited by Sylvia Rorem;Cross-published on ActionQueens.com.
(1) The novel by Dominique Manotti, "Affairs of State", which inspired the movie will be available in English in June 2010. http://tinyurl.com/yd36vx6
(2) Vic MacKay, a bad-ass corrupt cop, is the main character of the US Police television series "The Shield".