Toronto 2019 Interview: Julie Delpy Creates MY ZOE
There are two excellent films contained within My Zoe, Julie Delpy’s latest turn as writer/director and co-star.
One is a bleak breakup drama, worthy of Ingmar Bergman at his starkest, that relentlessly explores a former couple’s escalating worst nightmare. The other is something of a sci-fi morality parable reminiscent of Kieslowski's Decalogue, which considers right and wrong through the lens of circumstances that render such absolutes meaningless.
Delpy’s story begins badly for her suffering protagonists, James and Isabelle, who are in the midst of negotiating an ugly divorce featuring an uglier custody battle. While the two parties feign efforts at civility, their interactions simmer with years of culminating resentments which could at any moment reach a boiling point.
Caught in the middle is young Zoe, a striking child who is clearly the apple of her parents’ respective eyes, but represents different things to her separating guardians. To James, Zoe remains a living embodiment of the love shared by himself and Isabelle. For Isabelle, whose love for James has withered and died throughout their toxic marriage, Zoe is the only remaining purpose in life.
Separations are complicated, trying situations that have made hateful asses of the best of us, and Delpy who treats us to a painfully well-realized worst-case scenario has no desire to sugarcoat it. For just as acutely as she contributed to the true-to-life behaviors and dialogues of falling/being/staying in love in throughout the Before trilogy, Delpy lends My Zoe an unrelenting realism to the ugliness of falling out with a former loved one and the depths to which the wounded will stoop to inflict in-kind harm to a personal offender.
I haven't said much about the second film contained within My Zoe, because I’m of the opinion that for a work as surprising as this one, the less said, the better. Suffice it to say, only by suffering through the first half - a word I use lightly considering how much there is to admire about the craft of Delpy’s disputes - can the audience appreciate where the more visionary aspects of the film and its subtly not-too-distant future are coming from and headed.
My Zoe is very much a journey and, considering the special place in my heart for films that end off with a chill-inducing image or idea, it is one that is well worth taking. Considering this, I would’ve liked a little more time to meditate on the experience before discussing it with its auteur, but my interview with Julie Delpy was scheduled for right after my screening. Nevertheless, I very much enjoyed chatting about My Zoe with its creator.
ScreenAnarchy: I really loved your film.
Julie Delpy: Thank you.
Normally I like to sleep on a film before I do an interview, but I didn't have that luxury this time. I just saw it.
Oh, you just saw it now?
Just now, so I'll do my best...
Yeah, especially this one, it's kind of like you want to spend a little time thinking. I don't know.
To me, it seems to be what people tell me.
No, for sure, and as you just said during the Q&A, movies that leave you ruminating over what you've just seen are the most fun kind... in my opinion.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, I know. I'm trying not to manipulate the audience in a way, but you know, I guess some people are really missing the format of the usual real drama, and it's not easy to do something a little different. I think a lot of people make you pay for it sometimes, I feel.
Right. I mean, this is the first film you've made that you didn't have a score in? Is that true?
No, actually I did a film that no one saw here, which is called Le Skylab, which is a family comedy set in 1979 where there's no score, but no one notices it because it's a comedy, so it's not really noticeable. But in this film, I think it's more noticeable probably, even though it's not really that noticeable I think if you don't know it.
What would you say that the push back is like? Do you think people are thinking it's too stark or something, or they can't handle it?
Well, I think people are used to being told when to cry, when to feel, and they feel like it's not entertainment if it's not like the typical, "Okay, this is how it is. This is how it should be."
Right, the formula.
And I like movies with scores, it just depends on the film. I just feel every time I was putting a score on this film when I was editing it, it just seemed fake, you know? Just because it just seemed fake, and that's not the journey I wanted to explore.
Right. How do you set out to score a film? It’s very interesting to me, that you compose music for your own films. So for this film, for example, since you know your film like the back of your hand, what are you setting out to accomplish when you sit down to compose music? I know you didn't exactly accomplish it in this instance seeing as you chucked it out the window.
Well no, I did write the score before I shot the film because I often write the score when I write the screenplay. Then when I started putting the score I had written, and any score really, I even put music that I love, classical, I tried even scores I love from different composers, like temp music and stuff, and it just didn't feel right and I can't even understand why. I think it's because I wanted to keep completely a feeling of complete rawness without trying to pretend anything, you know? I don't know.
Yeah. I mean, it feels like a play.
...Which is good.
Yeah, sometimes they put music in plays, but it's more like a play in a way, and I was thinking a lot of that film called Scenes From a Marriage when I was doing the film, even though obviously there's no sci-fi element in it, but like the fights and everything. Something just very raw and very unpleasant at times to be witnessing.
But to me, I like those kinds of films, because it's weird, it's like I'm a little bored of the things that everyone says it's great. I usually see it and I'm like, "Oh, okay. Yeah, I get it." Like it's been Photoshopped in every angle and there's great music to make it really sweet and cute and there's no bad guy and there's no, you know, and then you're like, "Okay, then what do I have to say after that?" I don't know. I just feel empty afterward.
Right, you prefer something polarizing, something that makes you feel a certain way - one way or the other.
Yeah, exactly. I think that this film, it's either you go for it or you don't. It's not for everyone.
What was the germ of the idea? How long have you been thinking about this movie?
It started, I think, when I had my son. There was this feeling of anxiety that kind of took over me, which was complex and difficult to handle. Then I think eventually I started feeling other feelings of anxiety, even stronger, and I started witnessing friends of mine in the middle of custody battles and how they were miserable, and how it was vicious. How vicious it would get, and also how I felt, I felt weirdly enough, you know, women have to fight harder than ever.
I feel like maybe there's some kind of equality now in a custody battle, at least in California, but it somehow makes things unfair because there is no equality for women on other things. When you give equality to something, two people like a man and a woman, but then the woman has no equality on pay. You have shared custody but the woman pays half, but she's...
She has to work harder to make it work.
She has to work harder to make it work. I mean, sometimes I always laugh at like when I need to qualify for the Writer's Guild, I need to make as much money as any guy, but I'm paid less.
And less opportunity.
And less opportunity. Let's not talk about SAG, where after 40 you don't really get parts, you know, I haven't had SAG in whatever, three years or something. Basically, you have to make as much money as a guy, but you don't have parts.
So it's like how do you do it? You know, it's interesting how everyone's talking about equality, but really no one's doing anything. I mean, yes, the studios are hiring women and stuff and stuff and stuff, but the actual day to day life of a woman filmmaker is kind of hellish, you know?
Right, and I love how- I mean not love, I appreciated how the ex-husband throws it in her face, her job.
Yeah. Yeah, that on top of everything.
Yeah, and also the way that he's sometimes angry at her for even working, and she has no other way to make a living. To me, it was interesting, all those different things that I'm sure - it's good you noticed that - but I'm sure some people will just be lazy and not even take notice of it.
But you know, I've seen that so many times when a man and a woman are working, and it could be sometimes the woman is crushing the man, or the man is crushing the woman. I've seen men quite often feel threatened by a woman's ability to be on her own. Not all men, thank God.
I'm married to a wonderful man who's completely fine with me working.
One of the good ones.
Yeah, like my dad who is a feminist. My son is going to be this super new feminist generation, but then you have some guys that even if they're young and hip and stuff, and then you see in them this dilemma of the woman is working more and it makes them feel like they've been castrated, when it shouldn't. It really shouldn't, you know?
So it's interesting, and it doesn't matter what generation it is. It's an interesting thing, and I feel James has a lot of insecurity on that level.
Yeah, I mean, it's funny, you're watching a film about two adults who just can't behave like...
Like adults, yeah. No, he's not a grownup, he's like a child. I mean, the way he's trying to break her is, and the way she responds... because in a way, when you're facing someone who's like that, it's almost impossible to be a grownup. It takes distance. Maybe if there is separation, three years later maybe she could be like, "Yeah, whatever."
Then he would let go also probably, but it would take some time before they get there.
Yeah. No, the ways they cut each other is just so truthful. I particularly love the scene in the waiting room, as painful as it is.
In the glass box, yeah.
In the glass box, where he hits Isabella with a heavy hit and you just, you know exactly how to cut him.
How to hurt him back, yeah. Well, you know, interestingly enough it seems childish, but men and their virility, their masculinity, is very easily...
Punctured. It's interesting because, I mean it depends on the man again, because I think some men will never have anxiety with that, and some men certain things are important to them, and it's his problem.
His problem is that, and when she says, "You've always had problems," obviously he's always had problems, and that's where the problem comes from. For some men, it's like something they really, really don't want to hear. You know, it's like the most horrifying thing a woman can say to a man.
So she says it.
Yeah, so on the one hand your film is, in my mind, a brilliant relationship drama. It's obviously also a great custody battle film - just the title is so heavy.
MY Zoe, yeah.
Right, and even beyond the science fiction element that you introduce, it's just very interesting the whole practice of fighting over a person.
And the film might be an allegory on child custody battle, because in the end… **Delpy spoils film** ….It's also, when I was a kid I was obsessed, even though I'm not religious at all, with the story of King Solomon cutting a child in half, and that you cannot do that. The child dies, you know?
Your science fiction film is my favorite kind of science fiction film, in that it isn't one at all. It uses fantasy only to dissect reality, or ask an impossible question, so I suppose when you sat down to write the film - you mentioned in the Q&A that you like to watch films that inspire and just keep you in the same universe - what kind of things were you thinking about? What was exciting you about this project?
You know, I was watching films more rooted in reality, like Scenes From a Marriage, like Kieślowski, but also the sci-fi from an era like, you know, I really liked Stalker, Solaris, the Russian sci-fi.
Yeah, right. Tarkovsky.
Tarkovsky. You know, sci-fi that's not really sci-fi, it's more kind of like, obviously I'm no Tarkovsky, because my characters talk all the time anyway.
Because that's my neurosis. I had to go through something of like verbal expression. But it's really more the kind of sci-fi that is in the storytelling and the human aspect of sci-fi. Which to me, my favorite sci-fi films are the ones that make the great kind of sci-fi visuals, et cetera, and the human.
I mean, no one will ever forget, "I've seen a battleship inflame the star," you know, the end of Blade Runner. Why is Blade Runner such a good film? It's because there is a philosophical aspect and human aspect, about death, about mortality, and basically that's what the film is about and that's why it's good.
Meanwhile, I could see MY ZOE fitting in like THE DECALOGUE.
Wow, thank you.
Which to me is like, sure, morality is easy until you’re truly tested.
Using it, yeah, and when it becomes personal. You know, the film started, the spark started from a discussion I had with Krzysztof Kieślowski in '94, maybe a year before he died, or two years before he died.
Around WHITE, I guess?
No, after, because actually he mentored me into writing for a while. He had decided to stop directing for a while and he was just giving lessons about screenwriting and everything. I was meeting him regularly to talk about screenwriting, and he would always tell me you take a tiny seed of truth, then you turn a tree out of that seed. But what can grow off that seed will always come from that seed of truth, you know?
It always speaks to me, this kind of idea. Also the first episode of The Decalogue about the father and the ice and the kid, and trusting the computer instead of his observation, also was one of the discussions I had with him which kind of triggered the very first spark of this one, of this film.
Cool! Well, thank you so much for your time and for this film!
Thank you so much.