If you're going to cut the legs off someone in a film, it better be the legs of someone we're all familiar with.
The spirit of the American West lives on in Thomas Bidegain’s directorial debut Les Cowboys. Right away, the film’s setting is as charmingly left field as imagining a bunch of Colorado ranchers wearing berets and singing Edith Piaf medleys in their pastime. Transposing the myth of John Ford’s 1956 classic The Searchers to ’90s rural France, a young girl’s disappearance at a country-and-western hoedown launches her Franco-Marlboro-man father Alain (François Damiens) headlong into an obsessive quest to find her, with son George aka “Kid” (Finnegan Oldfield) in tow. Hours turn into decades, as often false leads take them to Belgium, Yemen and beyond.
There was a time in American cinema when the big dogs—Scorsese, Lucas, Spielberg, and Cimino—were reinterpreting The Searchers in some manner. That trend receded over the years, which makes Bidegain’s own update feel both strikingly original and unexpectedly classical. In Les Cowboys, which skirts the Native American abduction storyline, the missing girl in question has willingly run off with her maybe jihadist boyfriend—brainwashed or not, this remains unclear. In a backroom in Syria, one spooky tipster tells Alain, “Your daughter is not your daughter anymore.”
If Bidegain’s name alone sounds unfamiliar, he’s arguably the best-known screenwriter to come out of contemporary France. He is the muscle behind Jacques Audiard’s most acclaimed works—A Prophet, Rust and Bone, and Dheepan—not to mention other notable films like Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent, Joachim Lafosse’s Our Children, and one of the biggest Gallic hits of last year, Eric Lartigau’s The Bélier Family. These are ambitious footsteps to be walking in, so why did Bidegain choose to leap into directing with Les Cowboys specifically? “I couldn’t propose it to either Bertrand or Jacques,” he reveals. “It was my song and it was very important for me to sing it.”
Les Cowboys is now playing in New York City at Lincoln Plaza and Sunshine Cinema.
Les Cowboys is instantly engaging because you’re trying to place it. You go, “So this is somewhere in France. This is some sort of a country-and-western hoedown.” Is that the kind of starting point you’re always looking for—an unmistakable uniqueness?
I wanted to tell a story about a community. The country-and-western communities also exist in a lot of different countries like Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland. So it’s not just in France. When I saw [Yann Gross'] photographs, I saw that this is an unmistakably unique community and you can also use the Western as a metaphor since they’re already wearing the “ten-gallon hats” and you have the horses. It’s not a film about people who leave, but those who choose to stay behind.
You wrote this screenplay—was it five years ago now?
We started in 2011 so it was a while ago. It’s a weird thing because, at the time that we were writing, the jihad was a thing of the past. There was a wave of the jihad in the early ’90s right after the Yugoslav Wars. That was the model for our story. So, really, the jihad was from a different time. As we were writing, the whole ISIS thing happened. We were seeing stuff in the news that we had already written a year or a year-and-a-half prior. Our current events caught up with us.
So the film became more topical in a way you didn’t anticipate. With that comes heightened criticism and deeper readings into your intentions. A lot has been written about the film’s possible Islamophobia. Has that put you in a weird situation where you have to constantly recaliberate people’s assumptions about what you were originally aiming to do?
Well, yes. It’s always difficult to find that balance where the subject doesn’t hide the actual film. When you write a story that deals with politics in some way that connects it to the real world, people can’t help but fixate on that. Les Cowboys came out in France just one week after the Bataclan attack, so everybody was talking about only that. The film deals with the jihad, but among other things. The first impressions are always about the jihad and it takes a little time to talk about the film itself. At the end of the day, it’s as much a Western as it is about the politics.
The ending for Les Cowboys is a great example of how much you can communicate with silences. You don’t rely on dialogue. You understand it through the gaze of two characters.
When you write a scene like that, you have to defend it because your producer will always say, “It’s so dry…” [Laughs] So it’s a battle. But it was always the plan, too. It’s a very ambitious film. We always wanted it to be a big movie of a certain quality. There’s a lot of story in it. There are a lot of landscapes to cover. You really travel through space and time. At the end of the day, it was our intent to have this huge “mess” and then end it with the most simple conclusion.
I know you had this deep desire to work with actors going into this feature. Was it a great thrill to finally be able to translate what you had written down just as you had imagined it?
This was very exciting! No, it’s true. Especially now that the film is coming out in the U.S., and considering that I’ve essentially made a Western, you get to find out whether or not you accomplished what you set out to do. It’s such a great joy to see it realized.
You’ve held various jobs in the industry leading up to this directorial debut as a seller, a distributor, a producer, and obviously a successful screenwriter. You didn’t have formal screenwriting training when you got into that. And this directing debut is an impressive one. So there has to be something about you that allows you to do this. So what is it?
[Laughs] Well, I always wanted to work in film. Nobody else in my family comes from this world. I’ve been an okay distributor. I’ve been a lousy producer. One day, I started writing and it all fell into place. Writing came easier to me and I found a lot of success doing that. A Prophet was the third film I wrote, which had a lot of success. I’ve also been very lucky to work with Jacques Audiard. Whenever someone asks me what makes a great screenwriter, my answer is always, “It’s someone who works with a good director.” I’m by no means a frustrated writer, and that’s not what made me want to direct my first feature. I did always want to work with actors like we talked about. When you’re a screenwriter, it’s not about how good you write but how good you rewrite. At the end of the day, you can rewrite something forty times, but the instant you whisper something into an actor’s ear, everything will be different. That’s what I wanted to try out for myself.
Prior to watching Les Cowboys, I wasn’t at all familiar with your lead, François Damiens, who’s terrific in this. I understand he wasn’t known for doing dramatic work before this. So aside from his physique that’s required to play this Franco-Marlboro-man, what other qualities made you take that leap of faith and trust that he was right for the role?
I always thought he was a great actor. Alain is not the most likeable character. You see how he is with his son and his wife in the film, and he’s not someone you’re likely to warm up to. It was an interesting task to find an actor who will have a lot of humanity through that, so you don’t break the link between the audience and a character who’s not so nice. It’s the whole Robin Williams thing. He was funny, but he also had so much humanity in his serious roles. That’s what I was looking for. François and I built Alain up to have this strong exterior, and also that humanity.
This is purely an isolated example, but when Marion Cotillard joined Rust and Bone, how did that casting choice match up with what you had in mind during the writing process?
When I write for myself—and when I write for Jacques—I never write with specific actors in mind. That would just reduce what you expect from an actor and also reduce what you expect from a given character. I think that’s why it’s always nice to never have anyone specific in mind. Then when you finally go out to cast, you can really decide who you want based on the size of the film and the level of reality that you want with the film. In the case of Marion, she was like a princess. That’s how she’s perceived in the world of film. If you’re going to cut the legs off someone in a film, it better be the legs of someone we’re all familiar with, you know what I mean? If you take a very well-known, respected actress and cut off her legs, that’s shocking and also moving.
I wanted to ask you about the upcoming film you co-wrote called The Racer and the Jailbird with Michaël R. Roskam at the helm. Michaël and Matthias Schoenaerts are frequent collaborators, so I wondered whether you knew in the beginning he had already been cast.
He had been already when I started writing.
So that was a different process.
It was different. In a situation like that, you try to write Matthias’ character in a way that you’ve not seen him before in a movie. It’s great to write for Matthias because he has a huge range. He’s a great actor. I’m watching dailies for that film and I’m very impressed with what I’m seeing.
Do you still give a lot of notes to your directors after dailies?
I tend to do that. With Jacques, I do it all the time. Michaël is working on The Racer and the Jailbird and it’s a complicated shoot, so we just talk on the phone. But I do watch the dailies. I find that films continue to write themselves throughout the shooting process. With Jacques, I actually rewrite or write new scenes based on the dailies. Things can never be fully planned because maybe it will rain the next day or an actor will turn out to be tougher and not as nice to work with as you’d like. That makes you think about the following scene and how you’re going to execute it.
Is it rare to work like that?
Well, Paul Laverty is Ken Loach’s screenwriter and I think they work the same way. But, I think so. Usually, the screenwriter will give the pages to the director and go home. [Laughs] With Noé Debré, who worked with me on the screenplay for Les Cowboys and also Dheepan, it was the same. We watched the dailies for Les Cowboys together and he gave me notes.
Dheepan was the final film I caught at Cannes last year. If I’m being honest, I had no expectations going in whatsoever and I was really impressed. I wish I could sit down and write a compelling feature, but it’s so incredibly hard. It doesn’t come naturally to me.
Well, I appreciate the compliment.
You’ve been such a presence at Cannes over the years. I sometimes forget how influential that festival is. I remember Damián Szifrón telling me that Thierry Frémaux had mistakenly announced his film as Wild Tales when in fact it was called Savage Tales.
[Laughs] They just let that go out?
Well, you can’t fight Twitter. It instantly went global, so Damián just went with it. And that’s just crazy to me. You must have so many interesting stories from Cannes.
Plenty of stories! I’ve collected so many memories over the years. I remember the screening of A Prophet. That was really crazy because it took us three years to write that screenplay. The shoot itself was long, too, and the editing took a long time. It was a five-year process in all. We finished that on a Thursday and premiered it that Saturday at Cannes. It really feels like opening a box in front of the entire world. We knew there was something good in that box because we worked so hard on it, but you never know how people are going to respond to it. That screening was very, very moving. It ended with a fifteen-minute standing ovation. It was truly a great moment.
Last year was great, too. I wrote the opening and closing ceremonies for Lambert Wilson. I actually enjoy writing the script for ceremonies. Two days after that, I premiered Les Cowboys at Critics’ Week and then Dheepan went onto win the Palme d’Or. It was a crazy year.
I recently learned that you grew up watching movies at the Action Christine in Paris, which I believe is now called Christine 21. I’ve never been. What’s that venue like?
Christine 21 is a small venue with just two screens. It’s underground and it’s a nice little cinema.
Clearly, you were a cinephile from very early on. And, strangely, you come to learn that not everyone in the industry is a cinephile as you might hope and expect.
I know, I know. It’s, “Come on, guys. You have to see a lot of films.” I still watch one film a day.
The Night of the Hunter aside, which you’re known to have seen three times in one day, what other films made a big impression on you in your earlier days at Action Christine?
A lot of film noir. Film noir impressed me. I loved films like Fat City from ’72 by John Huston, starring Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges. I must’ve been 17 at the time. Sometimes a Great Notion is another great film from ’70 with Paul Newman. What struck me at the time was that movies from the studios, movies from the studios starring big actors, said something about the world. Even to this day, that’s what I’m trying to do with the movies I’m involved with.
What’s the secret to great screenwriting?
That there’s only one plot. There’s one plot and it’s always the same plot: things are not what they appear to be. So you have to think a lot about the film itself and what the film is going to be, before even thinking about the story. The story will naturally unfold as you make the film, but we don’t write stories as screenwriters—we write films. You have to think formally about the film first.
That’s great. Thank you for sharing that.
Of course. So I’ve been told you’re in South Korea right now. Great cinema in South Korea.
Oh yeah. Maybe you should set a story here.
I would love to. I really love Park Chan-wook’s films. It’s all great cinema.