Arguably the most important young filmmaker in France today, François Ozon was taken as an enfant terrible when he burst on the scene with the sexually transgressive films Sitcom and Criminal Lovers, Ozon developed a reputation for showcasing established actresses in films like Under the Sand, 8 Women, and Swimming Pool. His latest film, Time to Leave, shadows a young, gay photographer as he comes to terms with his own mortality. I spoke with Ozon at San Francisco's Prescott Hotel, while he was in town to accept the 2006 Frameline Award at the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival.
Groucho: We have something in common because I recently had a health scare myself, but it turned out to be nothing—as with you. Can you talk about how your experience affected you and how you made art out of it?
François Ozon: When I did the test—my medical test. I think it happens very often when you're afraid of something in your life. And when it happened, I figured I had nothing, but during the time, I was waiting for the result. Because I have a lot of imagination. (Laughs.) I have many scripts in my mind. So I think it's always a good thing to do that because during the time you are waiting for the results, you think about your life, and you ask the good questions, and the things—the kind of questions you try to escape everyday in your life, you know? Suddenly, you're in front of yourself. And you have to know exactly what you want to do—who is important, what is important for you, who are important for you. And after, when you have the results, and if it's good, then life is so exciting. It gives you so much power and happiness and joy. But one day, maybe I will have some bad results. (Laughs.)
G: In writing about the emotions and the behavior in dealing with one's own death, did you rely on your imagination or did you do any research?
FO: I did [much] research because I wanted to be very true of the reality of people in this case. And I met the foreign doctors, and it was very surprising for me because I realized many people refused to have a treatment. And it was funny because—or not funny, but it was—it was—
FO: Surprising, because the first scene I wrote was the doctor. In my scene, the character of Romain was saying—no, the doctor was saying to Romain, "You don't need—I don't need to give you a treatment—because there is less than one percent [chance of survival], and you're young, so try to make your best with the time you have." And I gave this scene to the doctor. And he said it's impossible for a doctor to say that—even if he knows this boy will die: "We have always to give a chance, a treatment, a possibility, even if inside we know it will never work." So I changed all my scene, but I tried to keep this ambiguity: because in the eyes of the doctor, you can see that he doesn't believe in anything.
G: Do you believe that you would act much the same as Romain does?
FO: No, I don't think so. I hope not. But, you never know. You know, it depends. I think if I could be in this situation, I would try to meet different doctors. And try a different point of view, because very often that's a good thing to do—to have different options, you know?
G: Right, right. It says something about you: that you're hopeful
G: Even though your subjects are often dark.
FO: I think I'm very lucid, about life—
G: But not cynical then.
FO: I hope not. No, I think I'm lucid about life. I think life is odd and things are difficult. But it's good not to give up. But that's true in this film. I don't think it's someone who gives up. I think it's the story of someone who tries to accept who he is. I didn't want to have—I wanted to do the scene with the doctor with the medicine at the beginning, and after it's another film, you know? It's something else.
G: Well, he opens up. It's the process of opening up--
G: Which is a beautiful thing. You chose a gay protagonist for this story—partly to reflect the specter of AIDS. Why did you choose cancer and not AIDS for the drama?
FO: Because now you can live with AIDS. You know? I have many friends with AIDS, and they survive. It's maybe not easy to live with AIDS, but it's a real possibility. And for me, I didn't want to make a film about disease. I wanted to have—I asked the doctor, I want a disease [so] I'm sure my character is dead in three months. So what is the best thing? And he said, "Terminal cancer, when you're thirty years old and when we are not able to say from where comes the cancer—If we are not able, it's very difficult to have a treatment, and it's pretty sure that the person will die very soon."
G: It's also ironic though, isn't it—more ironic—
FO: It's possible for a gay to die of something else than AIDS.
G: Right. I was just thinking that because cancer is so much more mysterious to us, maybe, that it's more fatalistic.
FO: Yes. I wanted to be sure that the character would die, and the cancer is something which can touch everybody. And in the mind of many people, AIDS is still connected to gay people, which is stupid.
FO: And for me it was a kind of way to kill this cliché about gay and AIDS.
G: I think that's effective. You've referred to the film as a "masculine melodrama." Do you think the story would have had less inner conflict had it been a female character?
FO: No, I think it would have been the same. But it's not obvious to have a male character in this kind of story, I think, because very often the films with men are about action and not interiority and feelings inside. And in this film, I wanted to be very close to a character who at the end doesn't act any more. You know, it's very pure, his behavior is very simple, he does very simple things. And I think we are not so used to seeing that with male characters. It's more feminine, very often, in cinema.
G: Since you're accustomed to intense working relationships with women, did you find that you used different muscles or different language in talking with Melvil Poupaud?
FO: I think Melvil is like a woman for me. He's like an actress—because he's very open-minded. And very often, the problem I have with actors is the fact they don't accept their own femininity, you know? I think to be an actor, you have to accept to be watched by someone else and to be directed, to be manipulated, too, and actresses know that, and very often they are stronger than you. But you have the feeling to manipulate them, but that's fair. They manipulate you. And I think Melvil has understood that. And because he's very clear about his own sexuality, and he liked the look I had on him, I think, and there was no ambiguity between us; it was very clear.
G: It's ironic that a film about an inward journey benefited so much from collaboration. What's a great discovery or surprise you came to during the process of production about the story?
FO: Umm, such a long time ago. I realized how it was difficult for me to do a film with a male character. Because sometimes I had the feeling to be in front of a mirror. And I realized, as a director, I need to have a distance with the characters. In fact, to work with a woman is so much easier for me. Because you know, the character is younger than me but he could be me. So sometimes I didn't like the character, because it was too close. So it was a real challenge for me to do the film, and sometimes it was very heavy and hard to know exactly what I wanted to do. That's why maybe the first editing of the film was about one hour, forty-five minutes. And at the end, it's one hour, twenty minutes. So I cut many things.
G: Less is more, they say.
FO: (Laughs.) Yes.
G: Is it true that you often work without a finished screenplay?
FO: Mmmmmmm—it depends on the film. But very often I like to have the freedom during the shooting to change things and to improvise with the actors and to follow your instinct, because very often you write the script—I don't know—in January and you shoot in December, and you are not the same anymore.
G: And you've been thinking the whole time.
FO: During all this time you've thought about many things. But you needed to write something for the production, for the producer to find the money: all these kind of things. So you can change. And I think, because my films are very low budget, I have this freedom to change things and to try to go in other directions, even if it's exactly the opposite of the script.
G: Taking pictures is a beautiful lie, seeming to stop time. Do you think—is Romain hiding behind the lens or does it help him live more or see more?
FO: I think he's a photographer at the beginning, and you can see the very superficial—he works in the fashion, and photography doesn't mean many things for him—just work and money, maybe. And suddenly I wanted to show someone who watched the world around him differently. And suddenly, with a very small camera, which has no price, he is able to see the reality, and it has another sense. So for me it was not the result of the picture; it was the gesture, to see that suddenly he could take a picture very—and we don't need to show that to the audience, because it's very simple things. But for him it's important. And I wanted to show this process.
G: And again, a reflection of yourself, yes? And how you have to see the world?
FO: Yes, maybe. Maybe sometimes, it's good to stop and to sit on the bench and to look around you at what happens, and you can see many interesting things. And I think for a director, it's good sometimes to do that. To forget all the stories you have in mind and to see around you what happens.
G: And do you find that you more often decide on images before you arrive, or do you take in the scene on the set and decide where to—
FO: It depends. There is no law about that. You know, sometimes you have in mind, when you write a script, you have an image in mind—it's good to follow it. And sometimes you will just have a situation and you are not sure of anything. And so it's up to you the day of the shooting to work with the actors, to see things, and to see what happens. And to be open-minded at this moment. That's true, there are some kind of directors who know exactly all what they want to do during the script—
G: Like Hitchcock.
FO: Right. Like Hitchcock, or Kubrick. And there are some others, and I'm still—I'm more like this, who like that the accidents of life can help you to find exactly the scene. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But it's more exciting because the process of shooting is the real creation for me, as a filmmaker.
G: And more true to life.
G: It's a moment that's happening as you're there.
FO: Yes. One day you wanted to have sun for the scene, and it's raining. What do you do? Do you do another scene, or you try maybe to do the scene with the rain and it changes all the mood. But it can be interesting too. But it's always a risk. But I think with this kind of budget, it's possible to do that.
G: What did Jeanne Moreau write to you when you were still in film school? Words of encouragement?
FO: Yes, she was very touched by my short films, and she said to me that—she encouraged me to have my real point of view about things, and she was very touched by my vision of sexuality. It was very strange for an old actress to tell me that. (Laughs.) But I knew one day I would work with her.
G: And did you find the process what you expected or surprising?
FO: To work with her?
FO: It was a very good experience, because she's very close to the director. She likes to be totally involved in the film. And not especially for her part, but for all the film. That's what I liked. She's—I don't know—ten minutes, fifteen minutes in the film. But when she read the script for the first time, she didn't speak about her character. She spoke about Romain, about her sister—family. And it's not so usual to have an actor, you know, who speaks about all the film and not his personal problems with the lines or I don't know what. She's very generous.
G: Seems that she would be a marvelous director herself.
FO: She is a director. She did two films. I didn't see them. She did two films in the '70s. And she did a documentary about Lillian Gish, the actress.
G: Huh. You're obviously very known for being drawn to powerful women in your work. That's something that you've talked about. Why do you suppose that is?
FO: Why I'm known for what?
G: Or why you think you're drawn to powerful women in your work?
FO: Thatt's what I said before: because I have to distance. And I have a real pleasure to film woman. And very often I think the woman more interesting and clever than men. And because my films are not action movies. I think with a woman you have more depth and possibility to go inside, and very deeply in the character. And yes, it's a real pleasure to have a relationship with an actress. Very exciting.
G: What first sparked your interest in filmmaking?
FO: My first spot?
G: Sorry. What first generated your interest in filmmaking? How did you become interested?
FO: I think it's like many people. When you're young, it's just you want to escape of your reality. You have to think, to touch your dreams, or I don't know what. To escape of your life you don't like. I think it very often comes from that.
G: You're here to accept the Frameline Award.
G: What does that mean to you?
FO: I don't know yet. (Laughs.) I can't tell you.
G: You'll know tomorrow.
FO: I don't know what exactly what it is. It's an award because I'm going to die or—? (Laughs.)
G: (Laughs.) No, it's a —
FO: I'm always afraid to have some award because, you know, I don't know what it means exactly. But I'm very touched because the gay community was very supporting all my work from the beginning. And I think it helped me as a director to go on and to follow my films because sometimes it was hard—I had very bad moments. It was not always successful. And it's very good because I think the gay audiences are—when they begin to love you, they love you till the end, even if you do bad things after. So it's always very touching.
G: Yes, it's another encouragement. You can get your lifetime achievement award later.
G: You don't have to worry. Your films express various attitudes towards homosexuality from within and without. Sitcom makes a satire of coming out. Did you have a difficult time yourself? Did art soothe your transition?
FO: No. Not so much. I think Sitcom was like a joke, you know, because it's such a cliché to have a coming out. Especially when I did a film in the French movies, you know—it was always a drama. You know, "I have something to tell you." And I wanted to do a very kind of ironic scene.
FO: Yes. Exactly. Yeah. But for me I never did a coming out. (Laughs.)
FO: I don't need—I have my films, you know. In France we don't speak so much about sexuality—we speak about sex, but we don't [say] so much, "Are you gay? Are you straight?" because I think people want to be open to what happens, you know? You can say "I'm gay," and suddenly there's a girl you like, and we never know.
G: Right. It's limiting. It's a label.
FO: I think so, yes. And we don't like to identify or to categorize people.
G: Speaking of labels, do you identify with the label of "minimalist?" You get that a lot now, don't you?
FO: Of "minimalist"?
FO: For certain films, yes. For this one I try to be very minimalist, but it's because of the story. When I did 8 Women it wasn't minimalist at all. So each time it depends on what you want to tell, what is your story, and each time I adapt myself to the story.
G: Editing is hugely important to your films. Do you have any rules for editing that you follow?
FO: No. You don't have to have rules. If you have rules—you know in cinema you have to be very pragmatic. Do you say "pragmatic" in English?
FO: You have to know there [are] no rules. Each time you have to find the good way to have the film you want. And during editing it's a real exciting and difficult process, because it's a kind of rewriting of the film. Because suddenly a scene you thought was great during the shooting is not as good, and the shots that you had don't tell the story you wanted to tell, but it goes somewhere else. So, do you accept that? You have to deal with that, and suddenly the scene—I don't know, sometimes—you know, the scene in the backroom in the film was longer than that, but I realized people were so shocked that it killed all the following scenes, and especially the scene with Jeanne Moreau. So I had to cut many things I wanted to show, which were important for me, because suddenly all the balance in all the film was changing. So it's this kind of thing which sometimes mortifies you, because it's a scene you like, and it was very important for you at some time and the scene—was very expensive, you know, to shoot. But maybe doesn't work in the film, so you have to make this kind of choice.
G: And I think it speaks to the relationship of the audience, too. It requires trust, you know, in the audience's ability to follow you there.
G: And I think that's rewarded with this film.
FO: Yes, you have always to try to be at the place of the audience: what do they understand? What do they feel? Is it good to shock them at this moment or not?
FO: Do you want to—you know, it's—to make a film is a manipulation of everybody, you know? (Laughs.) The audience, the actors, yourself—
G: Like Sarah Morton in Swimming Pool, do you live in your head? And is it a lonely place, or is it crowded?
FO: I hope not to live just in my head. (Laughs.) I hope to live in my life, too. But I think when I'm writing, and when I'm in the process of creation, I'm very close to Sarah Morton, yes. And I can mix reality, imagination, things, but I think it's a process of many people creating.
G: Yeah. Not unlike an actor. Do you feel an affinity for actors and their process?
FO: I think that actors are very strange people, you know? (Laughs.) I don't really understand them, but I have admiration for them because they are able to give you—when they are generous, when they are able to open themselves and to give you what you need, it's always very touching.
G: Can you tell me a little bit about your latest film: Angel, is that right?
FO: I don't know what would be the title.
FO: Paradise, no, no more, and maybe The Real Life of Angel Deverell: it's maybe too long and too melodramatic (Laughs.) I don't know yet, but for the moment we can say Angel, yes. It's based on a book by Elizabeth Taylor. Not the actress—it's an English writer. And it's my first total English movie because Swimming Pool was just a part of the film was in English, and it's a period movie, at the Victorian time in England.
G: Do period films touch a different part of your creativity, do you think?
FO: I think so. Yes. Very often, because 8 Women and Water Drops were some kind of period movies, even if it was the '50s and the '70s. I think in this film I'm more, uh, what you said, the word? You said—less minimalist! More extreme—more artificial. And this film especially because it's the story of a young writer who lives more in a fantasy, than in the reality.
G: Do you find English actors differ in temperament?
FO: Mmm. I thought they were amazing. Very good, in comparison with the French actors who never know their text. They were very professional. But at the same time I was surprised because they are so professional, suddenly if you say to them, "We changed totally the scene. Try to be very happy even if it's written on the script 'sad,' you know?" They don't understand. They say, "What? But it's written—" I said, "Yes, but we try something else."
FO: Yes. And they are very disturbed. And in France people are used to doing that, and they like that. Because they don't know the text (laughs) so they improvise on the moment very often.
G: Well, I think we're out of time. It's been—it flew for me. Thank you very much for speaking to me.
FO: Thank you to you.
G: I hope you enjoy your stay.
FO: Thank you.
[For Groucho's review of Time to Leave, click here.]