Saul Dibb returned to the director's chair earlier this year with his adaptation of Suite Francaise, which is based on the novel of the same name by Irène Némirovsky, and is out on DVD & Blu-Ray today.
We caught up with the director to chat about the film, the challenge of adapting and incomplete novel, and working with such a great cast.
- Suite Francaise is about to be released on DVD, so can you tell me a bit about the film for anyone who hasn't seen it yet?
Suite Francaise follows the story of a woman called Lucille, who is living in a small town in France as it comes under German occupation. It begins with the exodus from Paris as the German forces advance and her town is overrun - first with French refugees and then by a German regiment.
The central story becomes about her involvement with a German officer - who is stationed in the house that she lives in with her domineering mother in law. However, it is also about the very different and varying relationships that other women have with these German soldiers.
- As well as being in the director's chair, you have also penned the screenplay, so where did this project start for you? What was the appeal of the Irène Némirovsky's book and this story?
This French company, TF1 who sent me the book because they wanted to do an English language adaptation of this French book that had become an international hit. I had the book but had never read it. I read it for the first time then and was struck by what an extraordinarily truthful, honest, and contemporaneous account of what it was like to be civilian as this terrifying force overruns your country; the people around you panic and under incredible pressure begin to turn on each other.
I felt that this was something that I was not familiar with; we have been told a lot and seen a lot of war stories, but they always tend to deal with a different period in the war and often soldiers experiences rather than civilians. We don't often hear about women's experiences during the war and this felt very much like it is war seen from a woman's point of view. It really was a fascinating and very different insight.
- As I said, the movie is an adaptation of Irène Némirovsky's book of the same name - which is an incomplete novel. Bearing that in mind, how tricky was it adapting this book into a screenplay?
Yeah, it was tricky. The thing that you realise very early on is that there is a choice to be made between centring on the first or the second part of the novel; neither of which relate to each other. They do in terms of the over-arching narrative of what happened to France, but not in terms of the character and plotlines.
I felt that the strongest part - or the most obvious thing - would be to centre on the town and their experiences as they are overrun by a German regiment. I used what was written as a middle act and then extrapolate back to create a first act out of this storm in the first part of the novel and then create a third act that was out of captivity, which is what Irene was going to write in the third part if she had got the chance before she was killed.
- What were the major themes in the book that you were keen to explore - love and class play a major role in this story?
They do. I thought the exploration of class was one of the greatest things from the novel and certainly the one that I was drawn from. Coming from Britain, where we have a similarly diminuated and dysfunctional class system, I was fascinated by how this foreign occupation exacerbated all of the tensions that are inherent within their class system.
Weirdly, at the same time, the central character of Lucille is almost liberated and politicised by this occupation. She begins by living in a very oppressed state with her mother in low and it seemingly becomes more oppressed when the German soldiers arrive, but as her own... I guess a process of radicalisation takes place - through falling in love with a German soldier - and she becomes a more fully embodied woman, with her own mind, who decides to fight against the army that her lover is part of.
- During the writing process, what kind of research did you do into the Nazi occupation of France? How useful was that research when you were writing the screenplay and when you were filming?
I did a lot of research, read a lot of historical books around it and watched documentaries; there's a wonderful documentary called The Sorrow and the Pity The movie was banned in France for twenty years because it looked at the occupation of a French town from every perspective and looked at collaboration, which is still a hot potato in France.
I looked at historical sources more than I looked at films because fictional films tend to have quite a strong political agenda attached to most films that were set in France during the war, it felt that way to me. I grew up thinking that all of France was part of the Resistance when actually it was about 1.5% at the very most. That is a picture that the French wanted to present of themselves, but the book and all of the historical sources that surround it do tell a very different story.
- You have brought together a terrific cast - Michelle Williams and Kristin Scott Thomas are just two of the names on there - so can you talk about the casting process?
The process itself - in terms of the linear process - is always quite straightforward as I always begin with the central characters. Therefore, I started with Lucille, I had always been a massive fan of Michelle's work and felt that she would be able to represent the layers of subtlety that I felt were in Lucille. To begin with, she is someone who has been forced to lose her voice and she gains it within the course of the film.
I felt that Kristin Scott Thomas was the best Madame Angellier that we could possibly have. But I think that I was looking for people who would transcend out expectations of that character at the beginning. Madame Angellier does appear to be a very hard and cold woman, but she is also a mother who is grieving for the loss of her son. By the end of the film, we do see a very different side of her and that was key for all of those characters.
It is the same with the character German soldier Bruno, by the time it really matters and by the time we are at the climax of the film, we are not thinking about the character type that you think a German soldier is, you are not thinking about his uniform, you are thinking about him as a man.
- There is a wonderful chemistry between Michelle and Matthias is that something that was instant? Interestingly, they are two actors who have tackled similar movies and roles during their careers.
I think you have it really. When you are casting, you do have to make a leap of faith sometimes because it is very hard to get the actors together before you cast them. You are looking at the roles that they have gravitated towards but also the processes of making those films and whether you think they might share a certain sensibility.
Also, you look for a sense that they are excited by each other's work, which they were. I think chemistry happens and if it doesn't happen, it is almost impossible to create it; there is either a spark or there isn't.
- Michelle, Kristen, and Matthias are just terrific actors and give great performances in this film, so how did you find working with them? How collaborative a process was it between yourself and the actors?
There is always a process I find. Once you have sent a script to an actor - and they have only really read the script for that character's point of view and they are thinking only about this person's perspective - a whole load of stuff comes back that makes you think about the character again, see some of their thoughts or answer some of their questions by slightly modifying the characters.
There's a process by which you hope and, if you do it properly, they come to inhabit that path. There's a collaboration there - but it is always incumbent on you as a director or a writer/director to maintain the big picture idea throughout.
- We have slightly touched on this but over the years, we haven't seen too many war movies or movies set in this period told from a women's perspective. How important is it to explore this period through the eyes of women? And why have we not seen it done more?
I guess, for me, what is interesting is being able to explore something from a different perspective; it is simply interesting to understand war from a civilian's point of view. The Second World War is a war that affected civilians as much, if not more, than the people who were fighting it.
The blunt truth is, a lot of the time, the films are made by men, about male experiences, they think that they are going to be seen by men, and so they make war films that are packed with action and have a very strong narrative throughout. When you are making something about the civilians and their experiences of it, you are looking at a different type of narrative. I am not sure why less would have been made, but maybe it is a more subtle story that is being told about inter-dynamics, shifting allegiances, and where the lines between us and them are less clearly drawn.
I think that is what I have found interesting about it, here is the enemy coming to live in your house, are on best behaviour, and they are trying to navigate your way around that in seemingly normal life - I found those dynamics very interesting.
- The movie has had a theatrical run so have you found that people are responding to this new perspective?
How new it looks to them depends on whether they have read the book or not. Foreign occupations are happening around the world all of the time and so, in that sense, it is a very contemporary story. I do think that people appreciate that this is a moment - not just geographically but within the war - which people don't know that much about; occupation was a time before the war became very nasty. I feel that people appreciate that the movie is trying to tell something truthful about a time that people don't know about.
- During your career, we have seen you work in television as well as film, so how do the two mediums compare?
I have done one mini-series for television. I think there are two differences and one is time; we shot a whole mini-series, that's three hours long, in a shorter schedule than we shot Suite Francaise. You have got half the film. However, you do tend to have a little more freedom in terms of casting.
For The Line of Beauty, we cast many unknowns - they are not unknown now and someone like Hayley Atwell is massive. I don't know if it's still true now, but you tended to get a little more sense that you could cast unknowns. In a film, it is a different model and it is quite difficult to do that.
- Finally, what's next for you going through the rest of 2015?
I would love to be able to tell you but the actors haven't been officially and absolutely confirmed yet. They haven't signed on the dotted line yet. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you anything about it.
Suite Francaise is released on DVD & Blu-Ray now.