Thursday, January 26, 2012

"A Prophet" Profits in Prison

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"A Prophet" Profits in Prison


As you see in the first photo, French director Jacques Audiard (C), his screenwriting collaborator Thomas Bidegain (R), and leading man Tahar Rahim (L) were in New York last month to promote their new film, A Prophet (Un Prophete). The Grande Prix winner at Cannes and Golden Globe nominee is opening Friday, and it's about time considering the Oscars are around the corner and the favorite in the Best Foreign Language category, The White Ribbon, has been playing here for weeks. I'm thinking Audiard's (The Beat That My Heart Skipped) movie actually has two advantages in the Oscar race over Michael Haneke's. First, it can pass as both an old-fashioned, brutal gangster-prison film and a highbrow art film (which I joked about with Bidegain). Second, Academy voters must see all the foreign-film nominees, and it helps that everyone seems to like A Prophet but are divided on Germany's entry. Maybe there will be an upset! The following is the roundtable I took part of with the amiable threesome, at which Bidegain served as interpreter. I note my questions.
Q: Why did you make this film?
Jacques Audiard: I wanted to work with people I normally wouldnt work with. It was tiring and a very long process but I was rewarded for that. I met people I would never have known socially or culturally. I also worked with unknown actors and nonactors. It was a really interesting journey for me.
Q: Did you research life in prisons and how prisoners survive?
Thomas Bidegain: Not much. Nothing about survival skills. We researched the reality of jail--what happens at mealtime or when the mail arrives, that kind of thing. But what we have in the movie about such things as how to kill a guy with a razorblade is all fiction.
Q: Did you film in an actual prison?
JA: It would not have been possible to work in an actual prison. There would have been the temptation to make a documentary. The reality of the prison would have been a burden, actually. By building a set I could limit myself to what we wanted to film. The set was a courtyard, three corridors, a few stairs and fifteen cells.
Q: I read that you employed criminals to be in the film. Did you have difficulties with them?
TB: No, they were very nice and helpful. They were good men. I was surprised you used the word criminals. They weren't criminals. They were ex-convicts and knew how to behave in a prison environment. They forced us to be real and good, they set the tone.
JA: They made things come alive. They were the smartest background extras I ever had. They were in groups and knew how to behave, whether asking for cigarettes or a baguette.
Q: I'm curious about the title of the film.
JA: I'm not crazy about the title to tell you the truth. We would have liked to have found another title and we found one in English, You've Got to Serve Somebody [from the Bob Dylan song]. I feel A Prophet is imposing something on the viewer. Where is he a prophet? I don't see it. We saw that title as being ironic. Calling Malik Prophet was kind of like calling another prisoner Long Face. It was secular, a new type of gangster. We werent that interested in the religious paraphernalia. We didnt see the title in a religious way. But of course Malik is Muslim and his relationship with the ghost of the prisoner he kills has to do with a certain kind of spirituality.
Q: I felt there is a whole spiritual journey that Malik goes on. He somehow grows and becomes a good human being. And there was a whole spiritual tone through the whole film.
TB:, Malik has nothing at the beginning. A blank face, a wild child. Then he makes his way with the criminals in prison and his purpose changes during the film. At first he just wants to survive. Then little by little he develops a conscience. In the shootout in the car, he smiles. It's like a revelation. He's becoming a movie character at that point--he knows he will last until the end of the film.
Danny Peary: Back in the days of Sergio Leone and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, we saw films with no real good guys, just really bad guys and better bad guys. Is that what you see in this movie?
JA: Not exactly. I tend to believe that Malik has a few virtues. He's on the side of life much more than the side of death. He's a criminal but has no affinity for that vocation. He doesnt like gangsters or violence. He's definitely not greedy and out to make money. He has his own qualities. For instance, he's someone who shows the supremacy of intelligence over violence.
DP: He is good in compared to the others in prison, but is he a hero?
TB: I think the film is about the creation of hero. What's the definition of a hero in a movie? It's someone who tries to improve himself and his environment and extract himself from the mud.
Q: Tahar is a very charming actor and his performance takes us through Malik's whole journey and you're right that he's more on the side of light than darkness, but why do we care for him so much? We root for him, even when he becomes the leader of a huge gang by the end, which is not morally right.
TB: It doesn't have to do with morals. It's the only way for him to survive. We adapted a screenplay that was written by Abdel Raouf Dafri and Nicholas Peufaillit. It took us three years and it became A Prophet. We were slow, but we worked on it every day. It was at the beginning the story of a small gangster who becomes a big gangster, but we werent interested in that. The story we wanted to tell is that of a homeless guy. At the beginning he has nothing, not even the words to tell his own story. At the end he has a home and a woman and kid, a complicated family. So it's the story of a homeless guy who finds a home. During the writing process we had ideas on how to write Malik--he interested us most when he was learning something, so it was important that he was always learning and was eager to learn. Our rule was that whatever he does, even killing someone, he learns from it. People teach him how to kill and how to do a drug business. He even learns Corsican. He learns in front of you.
DP: Tahar, is Malik a unique person or is he a typical anonymous, illiterate Arab in a French prison?
Tahar Rahim: I think he's unique because he has the ability to adapt in a very hostile environment. Others in his position might try to run or kill themselves. He discovers his own intelligence and adapts. He uses his mind and is an opportunist.
DP: He's so clever and resourceful, so why was he so unformed all those years before he was in prison?
TR: Because he grew up on the street. He's only nineteen when he goes to jail. Before that, he was a kid and when youre on the street and a kid you just think about defending yourself, eating, drinking, and finding a place to sleep. He never had a chance to find out that he's smart.
TB: There's some ambiguity here. You may ask yourself what would have happened to Malik if he did not go to jail. He would overdose at about twenty-three and would not have discovered that he was smart. Nobody would have told him he was smart.
DP: So he benefits from going to prison because he learns to use to his brains to be a successful criminal?
TB: Actually, yeah. Prison is a school of crime.
TR: One guy who worked with us and helped us worked in the administration at a big prison outside of Paris. He read the screenplay and said Malik was the type of prisoner who overadapted. There are people who spring up when they are in jail. That type of reality is complicated. In prison everything is much more simple. Intelligence can develop in that kind of environment.
Q: Tahar's performance is the soul of the film. When did you bring him in?
JA: I met Tahar coming back from the set. When we started casting he was already there and it was the case of the first person being the right one. That's impossible so you cant admit that. So I saw a lot of others. The same thing happened on The Beat That My Heart Skipped when I was looking for an Asian actress who could play the piano. The first girl I saw was the right one but I didnt believe it and saw thirty more girls.
Q: Tamar, what did you learn from making this film?
TR: I learned the difficulty of being part of a team and part of an enterprise. I learned that when it looks very simple on the screen it's very difficult to make.
Q: Talk about playing a role where there is such a big transformation in the character.
TR: It's hard to explain. It could have been very complicated so when I'd do a scene I didn't want to think about the beginning, the middle, or the end, just that scene. It's a mistake I made at the beginning of the shooting. I closed myself off and became very isolated. I should have stopped to ask the right questions that would help me move between one scene and another. I built the character by going in one direction, trying to stay in the truth of the scene. I had to think that everything that happens before or after doesn't exist. I learned that I had to just think of the moment. I only asked questions about what I was doing then. There were things I needed answers about, that I didn't understand. I was young, I was green.
Q: Talk about French Arabs in French films. They're often criminals. Were you anxious how this would play?
JA: Arabs in French films are portrayed as criminals or very positive characters who work hard, try to integrate, and fight racism. We didnt want to fall into either of these traps. We wanted to make a film that wasn't at all about integration. This is about territories of power and money.
Q: What has been the reception in the Arab community in France?
TB: Very good. It was one of our purposes to make a Muslim hero figure.
Q: Did you watch your favorite gangster films to prepare for this?
TB: During the three years we wrote this, a gangster film would come out and we'd say "Oh, they did something we were thinking of doing." We read the book of Gomorrah and when we saw the first images of the movie we said, "Merde!"
JA: We rarely had time to go films while we were working. If you see a bad film it builds up your ego. If it's very good and you cant sue, so then you spend fifteen days in bed.
DP: The old Warner Bros. films with Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney...
TB: James Cagney, Raoul Walsh. We go back to the gangster films of the thirties and forties. We love them! JA: We really like genre films, film noir.
DP: Me, too. They were always about the accumulation of territory, consolidation of power, and the rise and fall of a gangster. Your film is about the rise and rise. Did you want to take the production-code gangster film and change it?
TB: Thats true. The fall comes to Cesar, the head of the prison criminals played by Niels Arestrup.
DP: Well, he's the Edward G. Robinson counterpart, but he's not the main character. Malik is, and he rises only
JA: At the end of those old films the gangster had to pay. There was a fall. Even later gangster films were like that--remember The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond.
TB: Ours is a long story, an epic compared to most gangster films apart from The Godfather. Our story takes place over seven years. Because it's not rise and fall, we couldn't tell the story in several acts or even two acts, one being the rise and the other being the fall.
JA: It's a presentation of a character who rises to be a gangster and then he goes out and is among us.
TB: He's free and now you can open the curtain. It's like all that we've seen is prior to a gangster film.
Q: Is this film part of a thematic trilogy with your last two films, Read My Lips and The Beat That My Heart Skipped? I think the three protagonists are very similar in that they try to improve their lives.
JA: Looking back, there may have been a cycle. After this film I felt I had to go to something else.
Q: Is it set up for him to have a second life in a sequel?
JA: How many lives can he live? He will bet on his second life, a new situation.
TR: Malik would try to run away from everything he built. But maybe he'll have to go back to what he knows best, the criminal life. He may have a third life to serve the public good.
TB: We've thought about it a lot. We thought he might become the lover of a female politician.
JA: He gets into politics. He'll help her politically and at one point she presents herself to the president. The movie would begin the night of the election. Malik arrives at her office with all the bad files.
Q: Jacques, how was it working with Thomas on the script rather than working alone?
JA: I have never worked alone.  I make movies because they start as an individual's project and become the work of a collective. That's the grand thing about cinema. Otherwise, I'd be a novelist or a shoemaker.
Q: How did you father, director-writer Michel Audiard, influence you?
JA: I'm absolutely the son of my father. Pure son of my father. My father was writing all the time. He worked from 8 to 6. It wasn't an art, but a job. He had a precise vision of cinema. At first I didn't want to go into cinema. I studied literature. I was from a generation that had little respect for cinema.
Q: Was editing for Roman Polanski a major influence on you?
JA: I was an assistant editor. The person who really influenced me was the chief editor, who was an unbelievably smart woman. I learned a lot from her.
DP: In regard to the editing of this movie, which has countless shots: Because Malik's character progresses throughout the film, was it filmed at all chronologically? That would make the editing easier.
TB: No, it was not. There were a lot of questions about hair. At the beginning he has a beard and long hair. So we shot the part with the beard, then the part with the regular hair, and then the shaved part.
Q: What are your thoughts about being nominated for an Oscar as Best Foreign Language film?.
TB: Since we've finished the film, what we do is get on a plane, dress well, go into a big room full of nice people, applaud our friend Michael Haneke for winning, then have a few drinks, and fly back. That has been our life.
JA: We like his films, but I'd like to see him applauding us one day. But we're being happy to be considered by the western community and be part of the dream.

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