With a degree in Modern Literature, Rebecca Zlotowski started her studies in screenwriting at the FEMIS in 2003. There, she met many inspiring people, including Cyprien Vial, with whom she co-directed the short film “Dans le rang,” winner of the SACD Prize (Society of Authors and Dramatic Composers) at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes in 2006. For her graduation project at the FEMIS, she wrote the script for “Dear Prudence.” She directed the film in 2010 and won the Louis Delluc Prize for Best First Film. A professor at the Film Department of the University of Lyon 2, she frequently collaborates with director Teddy-Lussi Modeste on screenplays. She has directed “Grand Central” (2013), “Planetarium” (2016), the short “Miu Miu: L’eau Rosée” (2018) and “An Easy Girl” (2019).
Tara Karajica caught up with her at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where her TV series, Savages, premiered in the Primetime program of the festival.
How did the project come about? How did you choose to adapt these novels?
Rebecca Zlotowski: The novels were huge bestsellers in France when they were published maybe seven years ago. I heard about Sabri Louatah from Virginie Despentes. She read a powerful article about him and the novels in Le Monde. Then, several years later, after my third film, Planetarium, that had not been a success, I really wanted to dive into new forms and I was looking for new projects, so Marco Cherqui, the producer, offered me to develop the TV series with Sabri. The deal was that the TV series was already being developed with Canal + and Sabri was going to write it. When I read the pilot, I jumped on board the project right away. I knew that depicting so many layers with intense storytelling and a new cast made up of new faces of Algerian origins was a highlight for me. It was really something that appealed to me and meeting Sabri convinced me that he was both crazy and interesting! We had many fights and debates and did a lot of walking and talking. And then we wrote.
How was the process of writing and adapting the material? How many episodes will there be?
R.Z.: We knew for sure that there were going to be six episodes. The aim was to fit everything into six episodes. It was a challenge in terms of collecting and organizing the material that is made up of four novels and full of twists and turns. The writing was just a regular reshaping of the entirety of the novels, but the funny thing is that the writer himself was able to tell the integrality of the material of his huge novels and just do something else with the same characters, the same people; it’s as if the characters were coming to life day after day.
The series is very timely on many aspects, especially what is currently going on in the world and in France. Can you comment on that?
R.Z.: I can comment on the fact that the more contemporary, accurate and local you get, the more universal it becomes. Of course, there is definitely something about the gap between the nature of the civil society in which we live with multiculturalism, different ethnicities, different genders, and fluidities among them and the representation we have of ourselves and there’s an anachronism, a gap between the representation and what and how we live. The TV series just tries to fill this gap.
In the series, you balance a political thriller and a family saga, with a deep reflection on today’s France.
R.Z.: Yes, because it’s like a family. Sabri’s idea was that countries are like a family, that they are like people. It’s just like one big family. France is one big family and it’s being eaten by its own secrets and its own crimes, so this is one thing you can delve into. You can create a bridge between Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Russian epic family sagas and The West Wing. This is exactly what I liked about the novels and what I wanted to bring to the audience. You can have the storytelling efficiency of an American TV series and the depth, guilt and subtlety of European novels.
Can you talk about the female characters in the series?
R.Z.: To me, it was pretty obvious that as someone who is very concerned with being loyal to both genders, with recreating and reshaping other ideas and stereotypes and breaking certain stereotypes, deconstructing certain stereotypes, I would have strong female characters in the series. Not strong in physical terms, but more on a psychological level of strength that denotes depth, complexity and contradictions – just like men. For instance, Jasmine is definitely a character that was very interesting to write and build because she refuses to only be this cultivated intellectual and powerful head of her father’s campaign. She’s also a lover and someone who is ambitious – probably the most ambitious one in the family – and the one who hates her father for being weak and hurt because she wants him to reign, she wants him to be in power, which is kind of a negative option to a certain extent. We created the mother with deep conflicts that are maybe softened at the end of the first episodes, but you see that later in the series. We wanted to have two different perceptions of power for the wife of the President and the biggest inspiration was Sarkozy’s first wife. That was an amazing story, but no one got it. Sarkozy was married when he won the elections. We knew it in France because he got divorced during the mandate, which was very uncommon, and then he got remarried to Carla Bruni. The thing is that at the very moment he was elected, France understood that she was leaving him the very same day. I was very inspired by the situation. In our case, they are in love and it’s not about being apart or divorcing, it’s about feeling that this situation of power will just break something in the family, so it creates a certain depth. Arabic mothers are so different from the stereotype we are usually confronted with like the scarf, very old and very fat. I really wanted other women, women who are forty, fifty years old, who are hot, beautiful, modern… There’s something about their youth, about the fact they carry the family on their shoulders and it’s not a coincidence that these women are women without men. There is something very important to me in the perception and deconstruction of certain stereotypes, especially from the female point of view.
It’s your first foray into episodic storytelling. Can you talk about this? What were the challenges, the happy victories? How is it different from film?
R.Z.: There were a lot of challenges. There’s not a white and black approach to your work. I do the same with directing the actors, the same with casting them, but the difference is definitely in the script. The directing is the same, especially since I have directed all the episodes, but the writing is much more collective and I love collective writing. In cinema, I only work by myself and maybe one or two more people, but here there were seven or eight of us. It’s not a writers’ room type of thing at all, but it creates a collective intelligence that stimulates you a lot and we never leave until the script is finished because of the shooting process of the series. When you edit, you do not have time; you edit while you shoot, so you need the script to be ready and this is the scriptwriters’ little victory. It’s their moment and it all comes from the script. I am a screenwriter by trade, so this was like home to me.
It’s uncommon for a director to direct all six episodes of a TV series. It’s always two, maybe three…
R.Z.: It’s a lot! I wanted to do everything. It was clear that I could do it, but I wanted to have unity in the filmmaking and change, with this TV series, the perception of the audience so it doesn’t only become consumerism. I am a huge consumer of TV series and I binge watch and I hate myself for it because I’m like: “Next episode, next, next next…” and I don’t sleep. I wanted people to ask themselves: “What does it mean to end the episode like that?” That is the huge difference and you have to be an author to do that; to be surrounded by authors so you can do that and struggle a little bit to have those endings of episodes and not something else.
In that sense, will they all be aired together so that people can binge or will it be aired every week for six weeks?
R.Z.: Every week for three weeks. So two episodes per week. But you can binge them since the first day the series airs, because then, you will have the six episodes on the platform of Canal +.
And there I was thinking it would be aired like in the olden days, one episode per week… It would have given it a whole other dimension, though…
R.Z.: Exactly! I remember those times when we were waiting for episodes of Lost and especially the last episode!
I remember them too! In that sense, how do you think the audience will react to the series?
R.Z.: I think it is going to be a big deal in France because it is not only about the project, but also the notoriety of the actors. Roschdy Zem is an amazing actor. This year, we saw him in Desplechin’s film Oh, Mercy! There’s something about him and there’s also something about Sofiane Zermani, who plays Nazir, who is a very famous rapper who brings a lot of people in France together and talks to a forgotten cinema audience as well as young generations and people who don’t go to the cinema, who never go to the theater, and who only watch TV. He speaks to those people; he appeals to those people. So I feel that the Pandora box that we have opened with this subject will be received by those people who are concerned with this and this is one thing I would have never been able to do with my films. So I am still waiting to see the reactions. Everyone will pick up the layer they want; the access point they want.
Can you talk about the casting process? How did you find those new faces?
R.Z.: It was an amazingly interesting process, a long process because not only do you have to find the best ones, but you also have to find the architecture of families. Dali Benssalah is in the next James Bond film; he’s been cast during the shooting. Souheila Yacoub plays in Philippe Garrel’s films but also in mine, and in theaters. She is transformable, she is talented for so many different things. French people don’t know them. It’s not the aristocracy of Arabic actors because those would’ve been Tahar Rahim, Leïla Bekhti, Reda Kateb, etc. It was all about looking for new faces, different faces. It was a passionate casting architecture because it’s necessary to refresh the faces in French cinema from time to time.
Can you talk about the title?
R.Z.: The title is not an antiphrasis because it doesn’t mean that people are not savages at all, but it just says right away that we want to deconstruct a cliché and we want to deconstruct a cliché by telling the people who see Savages to be like: “I don’t think that they are savages,” so this is the first step in this thought process, and then it’s connected to the noble art that Sabri wanted to bring forth in the novels. First, it’s an excerpt from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s baroque opera Les Indes galantes, called “Les sauvages” that is connected to colonization, to the perception of the indigenous populations by the colonizers and juxtaposing the savages and the noble art with the new French literature was an aesthetic project.
There has been so much talk about women in film in the past two year. What is your opinion on the matter? Where do you see yourself in this discussion? How is it in France?
R.Z.: I have always addressed this question. It’s not the past two years for me – it’s since day one. My first film was in Cannes in 2010 and since this day, I have never answered a single interview without having the female gaze conversation or addressing the fact that I am a woman. Maybe this TV series will make a difference because it’s very collective and things are actually moving a little bit. I have been very interested in this struggle because there is so much discrimination. Among certain of my colleagues, I am a privileged woman in the industry because I feel that I am well-paid and I feel that I can have the freedom to do what I want, but I am still discriminated against in my budget or in the way my films are sometimes perceived. I can feel the discrimination against the black women I am working with all the time. They are definitely absolutely underrepresented. This is a fight that I am leading with Céline Sciamma in France with the Collectif 50/50 by 2020. After the Weinstein affair, we took advantage of this crisis and started thinking positively about that situation without taking only the sexual aspect of it, but tackling the aspect of the distribution of power. And when you focus on that, there are so many things to do, just to have equality of salaries for instance, which is so medieval to me. We are working on that and we are trying to find new patterns to create bonus incentives, because it’s a question of money. And then, there is the question of representation, which is changing. For instance, a TV series like Savages can change the perception we can have of Arabic women.
Do you have a favorite female filmmaker? And a favorite film by a female filmmaker?
R.Z.: Céline Sciamma. I love her last film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire…
What are your next projects?
R.Z.: I don’t know yet!
This interview was conducted at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.