Teach Your Children Well: An Interview with Laurent Cantet
James King speaks to Laurent Cantet, the director of The Workshop, about casting young and authentic actors, and how to shoot scenes that are filled to the brim with dialogue.
Laurent Cantet, director of the Palme d’Or winning film, The Class, returns with a new group of students ready to share their thoughts, their worries and their angst; The Workshop is a riveting contemporary drama that blends social commentary with a complex study of the modern world.
Set in La Ciotat, France, the film centres around Antoine (Matthieu Lucci), a teenager who attends a summer writing class. Alongside a group of other students, Antoine is tasked with writing a crime thriller with the help of celebrated novelist Olivia Dejazet (Marina Foïs, Polisse), on the basis that the final piece is connected to the town’s past.
While the class set about their projects, Olivia is captivated by Antoine’s anxious and aggressive behaviour. This is reflected in his prose, which becomes more violent and disturbing in its depiction of political radicalism - a provocative streak Olivia is at once troubled and fascinated by.
James King (JK): What first struck me about The Workshop was how unafraid you were of throwing the audience right into the midst of quite a lengthy debate scene. It’s a brilliantly immersive opening technique – and a very economical way to introduce the ensemble cast. How do you go about creating and choreographing these complex group-dialogue sequences?
Laurent Cantet (LC): It happens over several stages. First we start with the casting, where I spend a lot of time questioning young people and seeing how they react. And then even before the casting, I write a very specific, precise script with a dialogue-logic that is fastidiously constructed. I like to confront the actors with the scene but I don’t have them do a table-read – I read it to them, and then they re-enact the scene with their own interpretations, with their own words. I try to avoid presenting a scene. What I’m interested in is the embodiment of it all.
I’ve got the feeling that when you let the actors improvise, they just integrate – they are able to portray the role and find it quite naturally, without you having to define exactly who the character is or where they come from or engage in lengthy discussions about their psychology. What’s important for me is that all of the cast, each and every one of them, play a role. This is not a documentary. Having said that, the characters that we ask them to become are very much informed by the actors themselves. We use the tools at their disposal: their own body, their own personality, their unique way of speaking – which has its own rhythms and gestures and idiosyncrasies.
Then there’s how you shoot it. Usually we employ three cameras – although this time I used just two, and I didn’t give the cast any technical constraints. I asked the camera operators to adapt themselves to the actors, so they wouldn’t have to adjust their performances for any particular set-up or angle. And then the advantage of technology today – digital technology and the types of cameras that come with it – is you can film a whole sequence, an entire scene, where you start at the beginning, finish at the end, uninterrupted.
JK: No pausing to change reels.
LC: Then they’re carried by the logic of the scene, the emotion of the scene, the potential nervous energy that comes out of it. And that’s what gives the shoots, the end-product, something very natural in a way.
JK: There are repeated references to the diverse socio-economic makeup of the writing class, to the workshop’s selection process. How did you go about the casting the film?
LC: Well, I spent a long time doing it. We met hundreds of young people from La Ciotat [the Mediterranean costal town where the film is set], but it was important to me that the story should be carried by young people that possibly, potentially, have had similar journeys to the characters they are portraying. The only role that we entirely created is the character of Antoine, because I saw none of them were in that kind of bigoted way of thinking – and indeed, Matthieu [Lucci], who plays Antoine, was not on that wavelength at all, and as he was working on it he said to me one day, “… this Antoine guy, I think he’s a dick, but I still love him.”
[Translator: Dick or arsehole or whatever the exact translation is.]
LC: The other thing is that Matthieu was so convincing in his performance, at the end of his scenes, he felt he always had to sort of apologise or justify himself and would say: “But it wasn’t me – it was Antoine!”
JK: It’s a very empathetic exploration of this young, white, working-class male, totally disenfranchised, being raised in a post-industrial town still reeling from the closure of its shipyard. What sparked the idea to do this psychological portrait of a young man on the verge of radicalization?
LC: I believe that politics is happening in a very intimate way. There’s an intimate relationship Antoine has with his body and his own image. His relationship towards others is informed by this – the aggressive provocations he feels he must make to exist – but also with an ear always listening to what the others are saying, a very precise way of listening.
JK: The film stresses the importance of creating a respectful dialogue between groups of people who may hold radically different worldviews. In The Workshop the characters, for the most part, rarely interrupt each other – and when they do, if someone asks if they can finish their thought, people actually oblige. This feels like an incredibly rare environment given the current political climate, where we are exposed to all these televised debates, between supposedly professional politicians, and they’re not even letting each other speak. It’s all about who can shout the loudest, for the longest – blocking all possibility of meaningful discussion.
LC: For this reason, some people have criticized the film for being too positive and idealistic. But what I believe the film says is that if we create these spaces that allow for conversation, places to discuss and to listen, we can manage to live together more peacefully. So this cultural space of the workshop is going to contaminate, on all levels, the political space in the film.
JK: You really do get the sense that the workshop is a place to talk freely, but the film also highlights the importance of good moderation. The tutor, you sense that she’s established a set of rules that people are adhering to – so when people criticize these scenes for being optimistic, they may be missing the point that this is a consciously-constructed space. If there was no structure, no rules, the students wouldn’t be behaving so considerately.
LC: Yes – although I believe that she’s often rather awkward in her handling of things. But at least she has the strength and courage to do it, to assert this herself. And what I was also interested in was this notion that, for there to be proper transformation, change has to go both ways. I think that the tutor is transformed by the whole experience just as much as her students – she’s not just trying to teach the others, she’s going through her own process of learning and evolving, absorbing their experiences, integrating them into her own. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s a necessity, to have this flow of communication. If we carry on looking at young people from high up, if we keep dismissing them, we’re never going to have a meaningful exchange.
To be in with a chance of winning, entrants must submit a piece of writing (of no more than 250 words) that is themed around their hometown. Style, structure, content and form are completely up to you, so whether it’s a poem, short story, script or think piece - the choice is yours!
The prize bundle includes:
● One place on a City Lit writing course of the winner’s choice (administered by the Writing department, up to a value of £199).
● 2 tickets to a screening of The Workshop at a Curzon Cinema of the winner’s choice.
● A DVD bundle consisting of The Class, 120 Beats Per Minute, Things to Come.
HOW TO ENTER
● Send your written submission by email to email@example.com
● Please submit your work as a PDF or Word document
● Write “The Workshop Competition” in the email subject line
● Include your full name in the body of the email
● Send us your story by 23 November, 2018
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