Céline Sciamma: interview

Céline Sciamma, director of the new film 'Water Lilies' talks to Time Out about eighties popcorn movies, screenwriting and the suburbs

How did you set about writing the film?
‘Water Lilies’ is my first original script and I was at school when I wrote it. When I write, I don’t like to go step-by-step. There’s no synopsis and second drafts for me. I prefer to think about it for a while then just write it all down. It’s not academic at all, but it seems to work for me. I’d say I write in a very French way, but also in an American way, that is because in France you mustn’t say that writing is a job: You’re an artist and you’re working on a craft. With the English and American way of thinking, screenwriting is more of a skill than an art. There are rules and methods to make it work.

You mentioned that you started writing the film in school. Was it the school system that prompted you in that direction that or your own personal interest?
As a child I was a big reader and then when I became a teenager I got into film. I studied literature because I wanted to study the substance of fiction. When you study literature, it’s difficult as you’re with four hundred people who all want to write. You feel like you’re against everybody. I went to this school because I wanted to learn the craft and feel legitimate. I didn’t have an artistic family or a social background, so I had no connection at all with the business side of it.

How far back do the ideas for the film stem?
A few months ago I discovered a book I had when I was eighteen. It was kind of a diary. I opened it and I found a sequence I wrote back then and it was the synchronised swimming sequence. I totally forgot that I’d written this and I was so scared because it’s exactly how it features in the film. So, I guess, this film goes back a very long time.

Did your reading or your film-going have more influence on your choice to move into writing and directing?
It was the balance between those two. I kept thinking that I like literature and I like movies, so I’m going to write for movies. Now, I’d say I was more into storytelling. That’s my thing.

With that sequence being in your diary, does that make the film autobiographical?
Well, only the obsession with synchronised swimming. None of the film is real. The suburb that I shot it in was my hometown [Cergy in Northwestern Paris], but all the characters and feelings are made up.

What do the people now living in that suburb think of the film? Do they seeing themselves in the film?
I didn’t film in the places that everyone knew. I really shot places that no-one ever really sees. I tried to reinvent the city. People who live there love it, but they don’t feel I’m portraying my life there or how it is really is. My vision is much more stylised.

There is a current propensity for films to portray the mundane suburbs as a breeding ground for the weird and wonderful. Was that in your mind when you were making ‘Water Lilies’?

I think the idea is that the suburbs produce boredom and annoyance, and that’s when interesting things happen. When you’re bored you make your own action. For me, the choice to place the film in the suburbs was more of a class thing. It’s a modern place where one can consider the present and the future. I also liked the fact that the American teen movie genre is also linked to the suburbs. The particular town in which ‘Water Lilies’ is set doesn’t have a French feel to it.

One of the films that ‘Water Lilies’ reminded me of was the Lindsey Lohan film ‘Mean Girls’.
I’m not sure I’ve seen that one, but I totally agree. One of the biggest inspirations for the film was ‘American Pie’ because I wanted to take those teen archetypes and play with the genre so everyone watching feels like they know where things are heading. I wanted the physics of my actors to fit that ‘American Pie’ template. The beautiful girl had to be very beautiful and blond, and the fat one quite uninhibited and awkward.

So this is really a French spin on the US teen comedy genre?
I wanted to play with the genre and pervert it and take the characters on a journey that they perhaps wouldn’t have been on. I grew up in the 1980s which was a time when there were lots of very clever popcorn movies, by people like John Hughes, Robert Zemekis, Steven Spielberg. To me, those directors were an influence.

It’s a gorgeously shot movie. Your expectation of a film like this is that it’d be shot on cheap, digital video.
I really wanted to give it that clean and cinematic look, partly because, increasingly, you don’t expect that in first films. It was also a way to be true to the story I wanted to tell as I wanted to avoid the hysterical, naturalist way of making movies. To me, being a teenager is about being lonely and struggling with yourself.

How did you get those quiet, contemplative performances from your young cast?
We worked together for a month before shooting. It wasn’t a rehearsal because we didn’t go through the script. We talked about concentration and we worked a lot on their body language. I also wanted them to know precisely the story that we were going to tell. I didn’t want to be the puppet master. On the set, I spent a long time going through the meaning of each scene. I think that’s how we were able to produce the film we did as the actors were completely in charge of their emotions.

Author: David Jenkins





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