Jacques Audiard: “Emilia Perez is a transgender film”

Jacques Audiard: “Emilia Perez is a transgender film”

After shaking up the Croisette, the filmmaker returns to his musical comedy about drug traffickers and transidentity.

So you like musicals?
Well not really. I don't have that kind of culture in any case. I like the musicals of Bob Fosse or Demy, but I don't really like the 1930s side, Busby Berkeley or post-war Hollywood productions.

However, it is paradoxical, the idea of ​​creating one goes back a long time. A few years ago, you already mentioned the desire to make a musical about “go fast”…
Effectively. In reality, what surprised me was that this project first came to me in the form of an opera. The first text on Emilia Perez that I wrote in 2019 was a booklet. The text was divided into acts, followed archetypal characters and espoused a singular temporality – as at the Opera – with many ellipses. And then, little by little, it became something else. I love opera, I'm a music lover, but again, I'm not a great connoisseur. It was a desire that crossed my mind at the time of my second film, A very discreet hero. With Alexandre Desplat, we thought of producing a little opera based on the film, a bit like what Peter Brook had done with Carmen, The Threepenny Opera Or Nixon in China. There are traces of it in the film, in the form of a quintet. In fact, I think we were trying to find a more precise relationship with music.

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But how did the musical comedy genre specifically allow you to tackle subjects like Mexico or transidentity?
Once I had my subject, I had two options. Either I honestly stuck to what I had documented. and I was making a documentary (on transidentity or Mexico). Either I tried to make a drama, an epic which mixes all that, which mixes singing and music. One of the particularities was that the songs belong to the body of the story itself, they move the story forward.

Like at Demy’s.
Exactly. My reference film is this great film about the Algerian war which is Umbrellas of Cherbourg. We don't put on airs, we say things that are important for the story and not just moods.

Moreover, beyond the musical, it is a film which mixes genres, combines the musical with the thriller or the love story…
It was the goal. I've done it before, but there were particular constraints linked to the musical – the music, the songs, the choreography. It posed so many challenges.

So from the beginning, the intention was to try to marry these different genres?
I assure you, I don’t get up in the morning and say to myself “Hey, I'm going to make a film of this genre or that genre”. It’s never that conscious. I believe that books, films, at least as far as I'm concerned, do not come from a subject. A reflection takes place and suddenly, something will happen, which will crystallize all these ideas that were swirling around you. For me, films come through form. They don't come through topics.

After The Brothers Sisters you shoot again with foreign actors. In this case, Spanish speakers and English speakers. How was communication on set?
I don't know how to explain this. I don't really speak any foreign languages. Neither English, nor Spanish, even less Tamil… All this remains instinctive. But the right question is rather: why do I abandon my mother tongue regularly? Probably because I have such a strong relationship with my language… I am a big reader. I am also a man of books. And when I'm in my language I'm going to be interested in very specific things: an inflection, an accentuation, a caesura or a tonality. Conversely, when I'm immersed in a foreign language, I suddenly have a more diffuse point of view on the film, both more general and more precise. It allows me to concentrate on the expression of the actors, their movements. What I believe I perceive of the intention. It's almost a musical relationship with the staging.

We talk about gender, language, but Emilia Perez is also (especially?) a story of incarnation. Did you know from the start that your heroine had to be played by a transgender actress?
But for me there was no alternative. There never was. From the moment my character had transitioned, then she had to be trans. Because otherwise, what was it? Having a man play the role when he is a man? And then by an actress when she became a woman? It didn't make sense and what interested me was really the experience with a trans actress. Furthermore, the form of the film had to reflect this idea. Emilia Perez is a transgender film: it crosses genres. There is bourgeois drama, telenovelaa narcos film… and it embraces the experience of the character who from Manitas becomes Emilia.

To return the incarnation, there is, as in a prophet Or Deephan, the desire to show, to make visible people we cannot see. Was that also the initial project for the film?
Yes, there is something of that order… What I did there, what I wanted, was to put well-known figures behind Karla Sofia. Let it be immediately obvious, readable, that she speaks on an equal footing with stars.

How did you cast Zoe Saldana and Selena Gomez?
I didn't know Zoé well. But in Los Angeles, my agents talked to me a lot about her, and they thought she should get the part. It took me a while to reach out to her. And then we zoomed in and I thought it was great. She had one thing that I had not integrated at all into the character of Rita: that is that she is black. And that in Mexico is a very, very strong social marker that would enrich the film. And she can dance and sing perfectly. As for Selena, I had seen her in films like spring breakers or the Woody Allen film A rainy day in New York. And as soon as I met her I immediately found her overwhelming. What's funny is that there was a sort of misunderstanding, an illusion: given her surname, I thought she was Hispanic. But she doesn't speak a word of Spanish. Sometimes it was a difficulty, sometimes a source of amusement. And for the anecdote, when I told her after ten minutes that I wanted to work with her, she didn't believe me. She took me for a fucking french director !

The film addresses very strong, even tragic themes (like that of the missing). Were you not afraid that, treated in the form of a musical comedy, it would all become a little trivial?

These are subjects that upset me. I can't talk about it calmly. And I totally see what's tricky. But I'm not far from thinking that, when we want to deal with a tragedy, we should rather sing about it. Make it an opera. I'll give you another example: I first scouted in Mexico. I was looking for settings there and at some point the reality became too much. This reality, this society, was too powerful. And I then decided to do everything in Paris to have a certain distance from the subjects. We rebuilt everything in the studio which brought us a little closer to the DNA of the project – an opera. Even in its excessive character, we must always think of this film as an opera!

It's crazy because your films have always been based on very specific settings (prison, suburbs, America, etc.).
I started thinking about how I was going to build my sets, how I was going to film them, until I came up with a silly pun. I told myself what makes the decor is bodies. My settings would in fact be the bodies of the dancers and singers.

Emilia Perez is a very daring film. Have you become more courageous, more confident over time?
Without a doubt. Yes I think. I recently had a thought. Before making my first film, I was a screenwriter, but as soon as my first feature was released, for people I had become a director. It is special ! I wasn't very young, I had done editing and screenwriting. However, internally, I think it took me three films to really understand how it worked. It is fromA prophet that a whole area opened up to me that I felt truly free. However, you should not be too sure of yourself. When I'm at home, I write a lot. I write a lot of versions of the script. Because the film has to be there. And this work allows me afterwards to have enough confidence in the story to tap on it to change everything and make the actors improvise. This is how I work, following this paradox: I most precisely build a program to break everything. It can be very tiring sometimes! Especially for the people around me. I have an anecdote on this subject: I'm a bit of an insomniac and I have a habit on set. Instead of eating at the 12 p.m. break, I go to sleep. A 20 minute nap. And during those 20 minutes, I have ideas coming to me. And sometimes, when I come back to the set, I ask to change everything! Since then, my team has been dreading me going to take a nap…

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