Growing up in Paris, Julie Delpy made her first short film when she was twelve years old. Two years later, at fourteen, she was discovered by Jean-Luc Godard who cast her in his film, “Détective” (1985). And then, two years later, she wrote her first screenplay. Since Godard’s film, she has starred in more than thirty European and American productions such as “Europa Europa” (1990), “The Three Musketeers” (1993), “Killing Zoe” (1993), “Three Colors: White” (1994), “Before Sunrise” (1995), “Before Sunset” (2006), “Before Midnight” (2013), “2 Days in Paris” (2007) and “2 Days in New York” (2012) among many others. Julie Delpy graduated from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and wrote and directed the short film “Blah Blah Blah” (1995), which screened at the Sundance Film Festival, the first of around a dozen – both short and feature films – she has written and/or directed.
Tara Karajica caught up with Julie Delpy at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where “My Zoe,” her latest film, had its world premiere.
How did My Zoe come about?
Julie Delpy: You know, I wrote it and it took me a while to get it financed. It was a very complex journey to get the film made. I started thinking about the idea many years ago. It came from a conversation I had with someone, and eventually, it got more into focus when I had my son and I felt anxiety about being a mother, the anxiety of being a parent.
It changes from domestic drama to thriller, but it also moves away from your more romantic works. Can you talk about this mixing of genres?
J.D.: I wanted to do something different because I’ve done comedies for a long time, and I wanted to do something a little more personal and that went a little more to a darker place with a thriller/drama kind of feel.
It is also centered on relationships; it doesn’t quite entirely move away from what you have been doing until now.
J.D.: I feel like relationships are at the core of so much and I feel it was important for me to go to the core that I know so well, which is how people interact, especially men and women and how they interact with each other.
It’s a very physical viewing experience. I am a mother, and I understand every bit of the film. There is a conversation Isabelle and James are having at the hospital, near the beginning of the film – were you going for this visceral experience?
J.D.: Yes, I wanted to capture something about the cruelty of this man who feels broken by this woman, who feels betrayed, and instead of expressing it, he expresses it with anger and viciousness. And I feel it would be such bullshit not to go there because I know that it exists in people, that it is a reality. You know, what is interesting, a friend of mine was telling me once that when she had her baby, her husband took the baby from her arms after she delivered it and she could see that he was jealous that he didn’t give birth. I think there’s a side of men – not all men, thank God! – that feels a little bit jealous of this power; this little, tiny power that still remains of women giving birth and carrying this child and the bond, the deep physical bond that exists. That is a reality that you can’t fake, of a child growing inside of you. I already felt who my son was then and, actually, the doctors were telling me because he was moving around so much: “He’s going to be super active” and he already had this personality. I was five months pregnant and I already knew I was going to have a very active, energetic child.
I know exactly what you mean! You struck every chord in every word that is uttered in this conversation! It was so powerful and yet so truthful that maybe only mothers can understand and know so well.
J.D.: And I think some men will react to it in a negative way and just take the outside of the film and not go deep into the feelings. I am not saying all men, most men are sensitive and intelligent, but you have other men who are not ready for this. They’re not ready for this kind of film. They’re not ready for those lines to really hit. They will completely obliterate that part of the film and take the superficial side of it.
Exactly! There is so much manipulation in this relationship on his part, and in the sense that he is gaslighting her, disrespecting her as a woman, as a mother, and it’s so exhausting and heartbreaking to watch. Can you comment on that?
J.D.: I wanted the film to be radical, not like middle of the road and just go away with it. I didn’t want it to be: “Oh, he’s a little mean, he’s a little nice.” He’s also kind of unhappy himself. The film is, I think, a journey. I think it can be upsetting to watch, but also I didn’t want to manipulate people into feeling a certain way. I didn’t put music and, really, every time I used music, it just wasn’t helping the film; it was actually kind of making it another generic drama. I felt it was truer for the people to feel whatever they were meant to feel and not tell them a direction of what way they should go and feel this film.
Every woman can relate because even if the person you’re with, your partner, is not like that, you can imagine what it would be like to be with someone who breaks. I think James is trying to destroy the mother in her, to break that part of her. It’s a very vicious thing.
I like that you constantly try to capture this hidden but perpetual fear of being a parent, a fear that’s always there and never goes away. It’s subtle, yet present.
J.D.: Yes, I wanted to express that. It’s true that as a parent you suddenly discover another kind of fear that you’ve never had before. It’s beyond yourself. It’s a much more profound fear than the fear for your own life. It’s way more profound.
I know it so well. “Zoi” (“ζωή”) means “Life” in Greek. Can you talk about the title, “My Zoe”, which is very multilayered?
J.D.: Actually, “life that never ends.” Greeks had that concept in mind, which is really interesting to me, that already in 2000 B.C. this concept was there. My husband is Greek, he suggested that name when I was writing. The “My” is really I think because, for me, the film is an allegory of a terribly painful child custody battle. The film is like a tale, but behind the fantasy/sci-fi aspect, there is the reality of what a child custody battle is. Part of who you are as a parent to that child is completely destroyed.
All the things that we discussed about motherhood may seem a bit scary, but there must be something about motherhood that you like? Not every motherhood is like the one that Isabelle experiences…
J.D.: No, of course, motherhood is the best in the world! There is nothing I love more, in fact. And it is the worse when that motherhood is being crushed by fate or the legal system or the co-parent.
What made you want to continue acting after you were discovered by Godard, especially as you were thrown in the public eye at a young age? Did you like it?
J.D.: No. People love those films about performers that end up dead before old age and yet the system can’t help but trash those people. I’m not that famous, yet I’ve had a small taste of how they enjoy destroying performers. Suicide or accidental OD-ing is sometimes the only way out of this cruel business.
What made you want to direct later?
J.D.: I’ve always wanted to direct, tell stories, write… Also, it seems that when you are on the other side, you have a longer life expectancy than in front of the camera.
Which one do you prefer, acting or directing? Which one gives you more creative freedom?
Can you talk about being a director and an actress at the same time in your films? You cast yourself in your films. Why is it important for you to do both at the same time? Do you feel closer to the characters that you have written that way?
J.D.: It’s not easy. It’s complicated. I don’t think I will do it forever because it’s just too much work and I want to focus on directing and acting, but not in my own film and I don’t know if I want to do that again because it was too draining emotionally. It’s very hard, especially in a film like this where you cry all the time. It’s a very draining thing. I was very prepared, but it was still very complicated to do both on a film like this, and especially, it was a very small budget with a short time to shoot. It was an abnormal situation. I should have had twice the money I had. I think I’m ready to stop doing everything. I just want to direct other actors and screenplays or act in others films or only write. Also, there is a clear resentment and some people are ready to slaughter me, I feel.
But it gave you the power to tell a story you want to tell, the way you want to tell it, didn’t it?
J.D.: Yes! But I could have had a little more money! It would’ve have helped a little bit with the level of stress that I had because I had to make up for the lack of money.
As a director – but also as an actress, especially in the Before… films – the script holds a very important place. Why? Can you talk about that? Who influences your writing?J.D.: A lot of the romantic side of the Befores is based on Ethan’s and my life experience – or lack thereof. Since we wrote a lot of it, we sort of decided to dig into our own feelings. I was such a romantic when I wrote the first one. The world is not kind to romantics.
As an actress, is there any role that has marked and changed you profoundly? If so, which one, and why?
J.D.: Not sure, but one thing that is sure is that being in this business for thirty-five years has made me tough.
As an actress, again, how much of you is there in the characters you play? Do you manage to dissociate yourself from your persona in order to become someone else?
J.D.: Yes, even the characters I write, it is like role play. I like to be completely not myself like in The Countess or Wiener-Dog. I love playing the opposite of me, and I’ve done it a couple of times only.
How much of you is there in Céline from the Before… films and Marion from 2 Days in Paris?
J.D.: Quite a bit, yet they are also different from me. What defines who I am is that I am writing and neither of these characters are. I mean, there isn’t a day I don’t write – and not just screenplays. It’s exhausting!
You also write the music for some of your films. Can you talk about that?
J.D.: I hear music when I write movies, just like I hear dialogue. For My Zoe, music was dead in me, that is why there is no music. I have always played music and made up songs as a kid. I learned music early in music school. It was free and for everyone in the French school system.
You were exposed to art from an early age by your parents who encouraged individuality and creativity. How has that informed and shaped your filmmaking and acting and your person?
J.D.: We had no money for toys at all. I would get old broken stuff from cousins sometimes, so I had to make up my own games. A lot was storytelling and being in my head, then writing and drawing. Now, people pay money for schools like that. I was very good at drawing as a kid and both my parents were into creativity. My mom was a singer/actress and great at writing. My actor dad was excellent at drawing; he is very visual. My dad is also great at telling stories – crazy stories, but also scary ones.
Can you talk about your feminism?
J.D.: I was raised by two feminists: my mom and dad – a true curse, at least at the beginning. I thought sexual harassment/compliance – sex used for social advancement – was wrong, which hurt the beginning of my career and my reputation. I remember when I first moved to L.A. after battling that side of the business in Paris, one director close to H.W. telling me that I was wrong and they were right. I told him he was an asshole and he went around and wrecked my reputation. Being a feminist was a terrible handicap. Now, I’m still a feminist, of course, and people like it, but I can still feel resentment and I’m still paying the price to this day. I sometimes read reviews where the critic wishes I was sweeter or cuter and I would avoid expressing my feminist side that is clearly stated in My Zoe. The angry feminist side. Yes, being an angry feminist is not pretty, but it is necessary sometimes. I believe it is necessary just like being angry at climate change or any issue. People don’t like angry women. But I’m not always angry. Actually, mostly not, because a side of me is hopeful. Also, I believe men are the best allies of women if they wish to be and, truly, I adore and have immense respect for men that love women. Some men mix up their love of blow up dolls – the women that shut up and comply – for love of women. They are the most dangerous type of men for feminism and equality.
You have a very close relationship with your parents and you have cast them in your films. Can you comment on that?
J.D.: They were complicated people but very loving, passionate. My mom was very sweet, but my dad who is an amazing guy suffered from PTSD, very serious PTSD from multiple wars or war related events, it took me years to understand him, but I love both of them deeply. It was tough to be raised by someone with PTSD, war affected people over generations. My mom was like a saint. She’s gone. What is sure is that there was never a dull moment at home.
Continuing in that direction, your mother was one of the signers of Simone de Beauvoir’s Manifesto of the 343 Sluts and a feminist icon? Then, you play Anna in your film Le SkyLab, a character who represents her. How has she inspired you? Can you talk about that relationship?
J.D.: She was very kind, but also feisty, always politically ready to be on the streets demonstrating. She came from working class, resistance, communists, even communards, and was very animated about feminism. She had seen many friends suffer from illegal abortions. She had had one herself and was traumatized by it. She was helping people all the time. I remember at the worse time of AIDS in France, a writer friend, Jean-luc Lagarce, couldn’t rent an apartment because he had AIDS. Even if she was broke, she put up the guarantee money and signed the lease for him. Even his own family didn’t do it. I’m not religious at all, but I love the concept of saints. People’s kindness and selflessness is a truly beautiful thing. She suffered a lot throughout her life, she had many health issues. It was hard to witness. But in Skylab, I show the good times because she was also the most lively, loving and fun person I know. My husband reminds me of her sometimes.
There has been so much talk about women in film these past two years. Where do you see yourself in this discussion?
J.D.: Well, you know, it would be nice that there is some kind of equality and I think it’s starting, but I don’t think we’re there yet. I think the main problem is that not everybody is supportive of women in film. A lot of people are, but there are some that are not, so I think there’s a little bit of resentment. They’re a little bit like James…They act out their frustration. So it’s not there yet. We still have a little bit of work to do, but it’s slowly moving forward.
Who is your favorite female filmmaker? And film by a female filmmaker?
J.D.: I would say, just because she passed away this year, Agnès Varda, and Cléo from 5 to 7.
What is the difference in the way of working in film both as an actress and a director between Europe and the U.S.? Where is there more creative freedom?
J.D.: It depends, but really, sometimes, you deal with people in Europe, even in France, that are more controlling than any studio in Hollywood because on top of imposing their views, they are not even making a good product that makes money. So, in a way, Hollywood can be more honest.
Where do you situate yourself creatively, between actors and auteurs?
J.D.: I am not sure what I am yet. Sometimes, I wish I could stop writing. I wish my brain would be quiet. It’s painful. Someone told me I should take LSD or that mushroom that helps people with PTSD. Maybe I shouldn’t say that…?
What are your next projects?
J.D.: I don’t know yet! It depends on whether people will give me money or not! It’s always a challenge. It’s been a struggle all my life, so we’ll see…
This interview was conducted at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.
Photo credits: © TIFF.