Directed by Stéphane Brizé, At War (En Guerre) centers on the decision to shut down a factory that is obviously met with disapproval from its 1100 employees. Laurent Amédéo (Vincent Lindon) is the leader of the workers who will do everything it takes to keep the plant alive. Brizé shoots his feature in an arresting style sans sacrificing the truth, and in our interview he explains why, in cinema, the truth has been a foundation of his work.
Can you talk about the neorealism element in your film, wherein you mix real actors with non-actors?
Honestly, it’s not so difficult. For me, it’s much more difficult to create the truth only with the actors. I imagine even if I could have 20 f**king good actors on the set like Vincent Lindon, I’m sure couldn’t create the scenes like I did with At War.
The result is a mix of the non-professional actors and the main character is a professional actor. Vincent has made many films so on the set he was the most professional. But all of the other guys, the workers and the lawyers, they know all the situations much better. It creates a balance between them and Vincent.
And Vincent Lindon is an actor who just wants to create the truth. Non-professional actors, they are natural of course. I cast people who can play themselves in front of the camera. Some people can do that, so I chose them. They own the language in the film, they own the situations that I created in the film. It’s a mix.
Can you talk about providing fully realized characters on both sides of At War?
Everybody has something to say and everybody (from their point of view) is right. It is a problem. At the very beginning, I didn’t want any caricature. Workers with a strong opinion, bosses with a strong opinion, politicians with a strong opinion – everybody is right, but everybody has different opinions because they are in a different place in society.
Before shooting the film and before starting to write the dramaturgy of the film, I met lawyers, managing directors, politicians, workers and I listened to them very carefully. I wanted to show to the spectators the truth. At the end I want the spectator to see where is the wrong thing and that is its own opinion.
The injustice is so strong and so flagrant that I don’t even need to go to a cliche or caricature. I felt I need to respect everybody – I have to respect the bosses. It is not a guy who is bad; it is a system who is crazy. If a guy is in the system and this guy for 99% of the time is not bad or crazy. He is in the system and they serve it. I have to respect that if I want to capture (the essence) of my film.
I have to transform that material which is not very sexy into a sexy dramaturgy. But I create the dramaturgy after this part of my work. Honestly, I don’t have enough imagination to create all the situations, so I have to listen. Everything I say in the film is the truth. I don’t invent anything but all the time when I write a scene (I approach it) exactly like in a thriller, exactly like in a comedy, exactly like all the other films. I have a reflection of dramaturgy around the film.
For example if we have a conversation and drink a glass of wine and we say ‘What did you do yesterday?’ After 5 minutes, it is not interesting. But if just before the (conversation), the spectator knows one of us is going to die, these 5 minutes will be very strong.
It is what Alfred Hitchcock says about suspense. Do you know the story?
No I don’t.
It’s funny because there is a photo of Alfred Hitchcock over there (the interview took place at The Palomar Hotel in Beverly Hills, and a picture of Hitch is featured in the lobby). Hitchcock has a very simple and strong demonstration. He had a scene with a man and a woman and they speak. Nothing interesting. After 5 minutes, a bomb explodes. It is a surprise but during the 5 minutes before it was not interesting. But with the camera you see there is a bomb under the table before the five minutes are up. When will the bomb explode?
The spectator has to know (with At War) what do the workers want? Like all of my other films, my focus is on the dramaturgy.
What continues to inspire you as a director?
In France, many directors say ‘no, the story, I don’t mind. I don’t believe that.’ (I believe in) a good story and then you can show you are a good director and what you do with your camera. But at the very beginning, for me, there is a story. It is very important.
When I start a new film and a new script, I must be afraid. If I’m afraid, it means I don’t know everything. For example with At War, it was the first time I was shooting with so many people. Before that, when I had 3 or 4 actors on the set I had to take (a break) and I didn’t know where to put my camera. Suddenly, I write a film with 250 people on set and I said to myself, ‘Yes it is very easy to write, but now you have to do At War in 23 days!’
I was afraid, but when you are afraid, you are alive. You will discover something about cinema and yourself. All the time it is a discussion about cinema and your own intimacy (with the form).all the time. At War is the first film where the characters speak a lot. And you see in real life, I speak a lot. On all the other characters, the main characters were very silent. Maybe it’s because I wanted to say something, so I created this character in (At War).
Can you talk about your own connection with Vincent?
We come from very different social backgrounds. His parents were very rich in Paris. My parents (did not live) in Paris, very simple background. In the same time, we grew up with the same feeling and with the same problems. When I met him, everything he said, I could understand him. Everything I said, he understood me.
When I write something, I write for me. I don’t write for Vincent. When he reads my text, he immediately understands what is behind the words. On the set, we don’t speak a lot. When we are having an issue with shooting a scene, we find a solution (immediately). It’s a very organic solution.
It is not so cerebral on the set, but it is a strong connection in my life, because Vincent Lindon really knows how to play Stéphane Brizé.