Interview: Sébastien Marnier

We were very very fortunate to be able to make an interview by mail with Mr. Sébastien Marnier, the director of School’s Out (L’Heure de la Sortie) that hit the cinemas accross Europe in 2019, also shown of course in the USA and several other countries in the world. We have watched L’Heure de la Sortie at the 38th Istanbul Film Festival and literally fell in love with the movie.

Mr. Marnier talked about his understanding of cinema as an art, about cinema adaptations, the journey he took for the realization of his latest movie School’s Out and also about many details like adaptation, casting and the soundtrack of his movie. This interview was originally in French, and now we proudly present to you this director-approved english translation. Enjoy!

First, can you please tell us about your relationship with the novel of Christophe Dufossé? When have you read it and how or why did you consider making a movie out of it? 

I’ve read Dufossé’s novel when it was first published in 2002. It was a great success among bookstores and many of my friends have told me good things about it. Right after I’ve finished reading the book, I had an urge to make it into a movie; I’ve created immediately several shots and sounds in my mind and I’ve already came up with something close to a soundtrack. I was sure that I could do a powerful and beautiful film, in an original genre. I’ve bought the rights of the book right away and with Elise Griffon, we’ve began writing the first draft of the scenario. But in a short period of time, after the reading of our scenario by a few movie executives, we realized that it would be difficult, especially in French cinema industry, a first movie as strange as this one. I’ve made only three short films and we did not have a production company… In the end, I had to give up the rights of the book after one year of hard work.

The covers of the original book, 2002 and 2019 prints respectively.

Nearly 15 years later, I’ve spoken about this project of mine to the producer I worked with on my first film, Faultless (Irréprochable) and have been working ever since, Caroline Bonmarchand, all in all we bought the rights of the book again and I’ve decided not to read the novel a second time. I wanted to make a free adaptation and work along with my own memories and sensations on the book; I was too eager to discover why the idea of making this book into a movie has never left me. 

We think that the casting is very impressive, we were wondering how much were you involved in the choice of actors, is it you or it’s all on the casting director, Adélaïde Mauvernay?

With Adelaïde, we have met with more than a hundred young actors, which is not excessive really, considering that we were looking for 12 roles. We did not make an open audition, I wanted the young candidates to have at least a little experience in acting. The roles were complicated, there were a lot of situations to picture. The gang of 6 was constructed quite fast.

I was looking for atypical youngsters, who were not into sex appeal. I was thinking of creating a class of super intelligent, gifted students who would make us think about zombies or Japanese ghosts. And most importantly, I wanted the young actors to be exactly at this delicate period of their life between childhood and adulthood, a period which is not yet sexualized. And what’s funny, all the young actors have changed enormously since the final day of shooting! The voices of all the guys broke and they are practically taller than me! I’m very happy to be able to shoot them on camera during this very short and emotional part of their lives. 

We humbly thought that the “unsettling” atmosphere of your movie is brilliantly achieved, which is surely thanks to the direction of the actors, the cinematography and the soundtrack. Can you please tell us more about this process?

Since when I was a kid, I’ve always wanted to make genre films because I was always eager to escape from reality, to create a certain ambiance or distressing worlds… I’ve always liked to be scared at the movies! And when a certain genre allows to talk about the today’s world, when it has a certain look on his own era, I think there’s something very passionate about this. And it allows you to touch a bigger audience and to make them think differently through entertainment (it is entertaining for those who love to be scared at the movies!).

With my films, I can create an ambiance with a global direction which covers all areas from architecture to set design, from the hairdos and costumes of the characters to the height of the camera and of course to management of the sound. All the cinematographic grammar that I use are here for a reason, and that is to make the audience feel something, to sense; I love that the spectators perceive viscerally all that my characters are going through. It’s not an intellectualized cinema, for me it’s a cinema of sensations.

Laurent Lafitte in School’s Out.

The film, as a whole, reflects Pierre’s (the main character) point of view and I wanted to use the genre’s codes in order to make the audience feel the same things as him: curiosity, transforming slowly into paranoia and finally into a devastating terror when he understands what these 6 were up to. So I decided to start the film in a quite classic fashion and then slide it, without anyone noticing, into a horror movie, a zombie movie or an apocalyptic movie, flirting even with the genre of fantastic. I wanted that the staging and the audio spread their poison into the contemporary world. 

You also wrote the adapted screenplay of the novel in question, what can you tell us about little changes that you have made at the beginning of the novel? We totally fell in love with the opening sequence.

Like I said before, there’s a big gap between the time I’ve read the book and when I’ve began working on the script. In the end, there’s nearly nothing left from the original book, only the opening sequence and the confrontation between a young teacher and his students… The DNA of the book is there, but not much details from the book have subsisted. 

At the end of the film, there seems to be a reference to the final scene of the movie Fight Club, is it really a reference made on purpose or is it there because of the unfolding of the events in the film or simply did the book inspire you to do so?

Even though I see clearly what you are talking about, strangely it wasn’t the end of the Fight Club from which I took the inspiration. I admit that I was mostly focused on the emotions that the ending of Melancholia of Lars von Trier has left on me in the movie theatre: a state of choc and deep sadness.

Lars von Trier’s Melancholia.

And a second inspiration may very well be from the movie Take Shelter of Jeff Nichols that I love very much. But on this reference, we naturally tried our best not to do the same thing! We wanted to create a reference, not a copy, because there was also a prophetic aspect in my film.

Given that your first full-length film wasn’t an adaptation, can you tell us your take on cinematic adaptations, as a movie director? Do you feel obliged to go through every detail of the book or are you very much at ease thinking that the literature and the cinema are two different mediums?

The novel should stay as a source of inspiration, a drive, but one certainly shouldn’t try to recreate literally everything, it’s useless! Cinema and literature are two mediums extremely different! The images and the sounds allow you to say a lot of things on the screen, without the need of any dialogue. There lies the power of cinema. Christophe Dufossé saw my film right away and at the end, he was very happy to be betrayed like that!

During one of your interviews, you’ve expressed your love for the DVD format, and you also used them in your film. What do you think about the place this format occupies in our mostly digitalized time? From one DVD collector to the other, we’re very curious about the meaning of these plastic cases for you.

I’m a compulsive DVD collector myself… I collect also CDs. I’ve never managed to pass to the dark side of dematerialization. I love being surrounded by these objects, I love looking at their spines from my couch, recognising the fonts of every poster, etc. It’s by looking at my DVD collection that magic ties build up between films, the shots of a certain movie collide with the scenes of another. The internet allows you to find some holy grails never released on DVD of course but even when people make me discover a new film that I know nothing about, already downloaded, I can’t help but record it on a DVD just to let it have a physical aspect, to make it tangible. In short, it’s surely an excessive habit but I’ve always had this relation of fetish with cinema.

After these words, we dared showing off: One of the favorite corners of our DVD collection.

The global warming is obviously an important element in your film, it’s a problem, it goes without saying, with consequences of cataclysmic proportions. You chose to use this theme as an ordinary element throughout your movie or did you use it absolutely to draw attention to this problem?

It’s not an ordinary element, it’s the main theme of the movie! And the reason to that, because these questions are always puzzling me, in a sense, it’s my mission to let people know. And this ecological consciousness is also shared among young actors of my film. Throughout the casting process, we have talked to them on many occasions, I wanted them to tell me the way they see the world, what were their fears, etc. And I was much surprised to see their ecological awareness. The new generation is much more concerned about the global warming than my generation, they are much more engaged and aware of this danger menacing humanity. We see this determination all around the world through the manifestations on climate change. It was scary for me because I was asking to myself “what kind of world we are passing on to our children!?” but at the same time I was almost relieved to see that this generation is ready for the fight. It’s also the feeling at the penultimate shot of the film, where adults and the youth can finally think alike and act together, hand in hand. We must do our best to achieve this “living together” feeling, this union as soon as possible.

Picture taken from the site LUXORION.

We won’t be exaggerating if we say that as spectators, we won’t be able to connect right away with the main characters of the film. Did you make any changes on how these characters were depicted in the book or in your mind?

Empathy is not what I have in mind when I write. I want that at the end of the film, the viewers understand the journey of each character, without having to like them more than that. With the young actors and with Laurent Lafitte (Pierre), we never tried to make them likeable. Because they are depicted as lonely characters who never try to please others, kind of outcasts. And this is the main reason, this shared peculiarity, that gets them together along the film. Pierre is the only one that is interested in them because he’s in a way, similar to them. My work consists of making these characters intriguing and fascinating enough for the spectators to grow an interest on them. I’m aware that sympathy is not the driving power of the film, however I know that a big part of the audience is touched at the end, there are some who cried knowing that the frigid manners of the kids were merely a shield and they were actually sensing much more than they let others see. 

The song Free Money from Patti Smith, sung with a chorus in the film, who’s idea was it, yours or Zombie Zombie’s? And if it’s yours, what is the meaning of this song for you? Can you please tell us about your relationship with the soundtrack?

Right from the start of the project, I’ve said to Zombie Zombie that I wanted to work with them (we’ve already worked together in my first movie) and I’ve invented right from the first draft Catherine as a character, the music teacher who is not present in the book of Dufossé.

The band Zombie Zombie. Click here for the HD photo on their official site.

I wanted this strict and well-off institution to have a free electron, a punk character, in a way. Catherine has been through a tragedy in her life and the administration doesn’t see itself fit to interfere… So she is free to do mostly anything. I was eager that this woman who has been through a lot and chose to move on, this red headed woman make them sing politically charged songs and naturally I wanted these songs to be original anthems sung by one hell of a rocker, Patti Smith.

Patti Smith.

To me it was important to have at least one teacher who lets the kids experience their emotions through a form of art. So I’ve talked to Zombie Zombie and they had to arrange the songs even before the recording of the chorus piece because we needed the song on the set, while filming. The song Free Money has clearly a political meaning, I wanted that in our own right, this song becomes our “Another Brick in The Wall”!!! The soundtrack process and the sound editing occupy a very important place in my films. The music doesn’t narrate, it stimulates sensations, it adds to the emotional drive that I want to include to my film.

Finally, can you please tell us if you have a new project in mind or even in production?

Yes, I have a new project which is in financing and casting right now. We will begin shooting this winter. It will be a new thriller about family, the woman’s role in the family and the end of patriarchy.

Questions by Burcu Meltem Tohum and H. Necmi Öztürk

Translated by H. Necmi Öztürk

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