wed 19/06/2024

theartsdesk Masterclass: Jacques Audiard on A Prophet | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Masterclass: Jacques Audiard on A Prophet

theartsdesk Masterclass: Jacques Audiard on A Prophet

Behind-the-scenes secrets from one of France's most exciting directors

Jacques Audiard: I'm always afraid I'll forget how to direct, the director admits.

Jacques Audiard's A Prophet arrives in Britain laden with plaudits (Best Film at the London Film Festival, Grand Jury Prize in Cannes and a fistful of superlative reviews). Here, in the first of a series of illustrated masterclasses, in which leading directors introduce clips from their work, Audiard reveals the secrets of how he shot two of A Prophet's memorable scenes.

Audiard has directed just five features in a 15-year career, but they are all provocative, unusual films that it's well worth catching up with (the others are See How They Fall, A Self-Made Hero, Read My Lips and The Beat That My Heart Skipped). "Don't remind me," he says a little ruefully. "When you make more, it comes more naturally; you don't feel you're risking so much. What worries me is that I'll forget how to do it. I'm always afraid I'll forget how to direct. Which is absurd."

There's little evidence of that in A Prophet, a supremely thrilling and visceral drama about a young Arab's very unsentimental education in a tough prison. "I like Malik," the director says. "He has done the best with what he's been given. He doesn't have evil in him. He's not a sociopath. He could almost be, as we say in French, a perfect son-in-law!"

As with his other work, Audiard - the son of a respected screenwriter, Michael - also scripted A Prophet, which was heavily influenced by a visit to one of France's toughest high-security prisons, La Santé, to present a screening of The Beat That My Heart Skipped. "Before that, it was all just words. All of a sudden I was presented with a universe of images: we had the colour, the smell, the noise, the angles. I ought not to say it, but it was a sort of revelation."

His gritty film is spiked with surprising music cues, freeze-frames, intertitles, even a recurrent ghost; it has a improvisational, jazzy feel, a little reminiscent of Martin Scorsese's early work (though Audiard is very much his own man). This free-form quality is splendidly demonstrated in these two extracts, and in the director's comments on how he had constantly to think on his feet to deal with the myriad difficulties while shooting them. The choice of scene was dictated, incidentally, by the clips supplied by the film's UK distributor, Optimum Releasing.

In the first clip, taken from near the beginning of the film, Malik (Tahar Rahim), still relatively new in prison, takes a shower and is propositioned by a fellow-inmate.

Audiard: "I knew exactly how to do this scene and what it should look like. I'd imagined shooting it in a tracking shot, using quite a short focal-length lens and a wide-angle, cutting the men off at the knees. I'd thought of everything except for one thing: Arabs are very shy about exposing themselves. Tahar hadn't dared to tell me - he was worried I'd bawl him out. But already earlier, when we'd shot a scene of him being strip-searched, he kept trying to cover his genitals. I had trouble understanding it. I was educated in boys' boarding schools and there would be twelve of us naked in the shower; in the army too. We couldn't care less. But for him it was an insurmountable taboo.

"When we came to the shower scene, I thought we'd sorted it all out because we'd been through those negotiations over nudity already, but it was the same all over again. Tahar was very ill-at-ease and for the other actor, Hichem Yacoubi, there wasn't even any question of it. He came to see me that morning, white as a sheet, and said, ‘I can't show myself naked - it's absolutely impossible.' So that's why the scene is filmed as it is. I could only frame the men from the back or from the waist up. One thing above all was a real drag. The showers in prisons are disgustingly filthy and often the prisoners shower with flip-flops on so as not to get fungal infections. Or, even better, they take along brightly-coloured plastic wash basins and stand in those. It's one of those little details that brings a scene alive. But I didn't want to have to cut away to a shot of their feet, so I couldn't show it."

In the second clip, we see César, the prison's godfather figure, a Corsican gangster played by Niels Arestrup, who appeared as another low-life type, Romain Duris's sleazy father in The Beat That My Heart Skipped. "Niels was born outside Paris but he's of Danish origin. He wasn't an early choice. He doesn't look at all like a Corsican, but I felt he had to look different from the others. He had to learn all his lines in Corsican phonetically."

In the clip Malik, who's beginning to spread his wings as a fledging gangster in his own right, is summoned by César and given a short, sharp warning. A warning for the reader too: this scene is violent (though not unrepresentative of the intensity of the film as a whole).

Audiard: "As a viewer, I know that Malik is playing a double game. He has set up a business outside the prison and thinks César doesn't know about it. But we know that César knows. One of the characters and the viewer both know a little bit more than the second character does: dramatically that's interesting and, when you manage it as a screenwriter, you're pretty pleased about it.

"The whole film was hard to make. I worked with marvellous people and everything went well. But, put bluntly, it's a prison movie and that dictates the mood. It was really heavy. This scene was filmed quite late in the schedule. We were all a bit tired of each other and on the day Niels wasn't in a good mood. It's rather funny because when he's like that, it translates itself into...  not exactly a full-on refusal to do the scene, but he'll say to me he doesn't understand it. I had to keep inventing things to help him.

"We had a lot of trouble staging the gesture when César grabs hold of Malik's head, and attacks him with a spoon. What's more it's dangerous. It's a real spoon, the gesture is real and I wanted you to see how the spoon really presses into his eye. There was no stunt man supervising the scene. We rehearsed it a bit, but not too much." I've seen A Prophet several times, I remark to Audiard, and I still flinch at that moment. "Me too," he says promptly. "I can't watch it too closely.

"There's very little editing. We had a simple angle/reverse angle set-up. Since I sensed that the filming was going to be difficult, I chopped out a lot of dialogue - it's visibly slimmed down a lot. But, after we'd shot all the action, there was one bit which, I felt, it was a real pain to have lost and I decided to claw it back. Niels just didn't want to do it. I only shot two takes and immediately before the one I used, Niels roared, 'You really piss me off!' right at me, before saying his lines. I only just managed to edit it out of the shot."

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