The Intouchables tells the story of an unlikely friendship between a paralyzed aristocrat (Francois Cluzet), and the young African man from the projects (Omar Sy) who is hired to take care of him. Nominated for nine French Oscars (called the Cesars), the film is the second most successful movie of all time at the French box office. It was picked up by The Weinstein Company around the same time that previous Oscar-winner The Artist picked up critical and audience raves. The story is based on the true relationship that was covered in a 2004 French documentary called A La Vie, A La Mort. In real life, the aristocrat is named Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, who was paralyzed in a paragliding accident. He became very close friends with his unlikely caretaker Abdel, who is Arabic and from the projects.
I sat down with Olivier Nakache (who was without co-director Eric Toledano) to discuss his interest in the buddy films, his hesitation to make films in America, and whether he also knows that Francois Cluzet looks just like Dustin Hoffman.
The Intouchables opens in Chicago on June 1. You have an interest in buddy comedies, as you've indicated with your admiration for Midnight Run and The Blues Brothers. You're even working with someone when making films. What is it that interests you about the about duo dynamic?
I don't know. The biggest hit in France is a buddy movie. Maybe it's a classical thing. I work with a partner, we've worked together for almost twenty years. Maybe for us we are making a buddy movie, a bro-mance. Our first movie was with Gérard Depardieu. we like films with a lot of factors, as in two of our movies, but we like to focus on the duet. It's a classical thing, two people meet, and then it's something extreme.
How do you and your co-director collaborate in the scripting process?
We have an office in the suburb of Paris. We work together with Post-Its, with a big paper board. We make a list of scenes, whatever the order may be, and we give ourselves homework. After, we mix them together and then it's like this film. When we write this film, we begin by scene-by-scene.
What did you want to say about this film that the documentary it's based off didn't?
The documentary is not about the relationship between two men, but it's about the rich man, and his accident. It's very sad, and he was one of the richest men in France. But during ten minutes of the film, you laugh and discover the amazing assistant, Abdel, who makes jokes, bad jokes, cynical jokes. And I remember the first time I saw Abdel carry Philip from his bed. Just from this image, I had a lot of emotion. "Why is this man from immigration carrying a man like this?" We wanted to transcribe this emotion. How was it possible? We did not invent this story. It's like a fairytale. At the end of the documentary, we were very touched. We decided to try to describe this emotion to talk about different classes, these two men just had a very special moment in their lives, save each other by humor. When you talk with someone who you thought was too far from you, you only learn they are the same.
What can you tell us about the projects in Paris?
We had to prepare this movie, for a shoot in the housing project. It's not easy. You can't arrive with the camp trucks, and just shoot, so we prepared a lot, a lot, a lot. Each person that was able to succeed by art, by hip hop music - each time there was somebody who was here to give them a hand. It's very interesting, because I remember there was a famous Paris radio station - Omar Sy came from this station. There was a rich man who ran this station, and he created this station to go into these projects to let people speak to the nation.
In America, our projects are very isolated.
I think there is a big difference between here and Europe. The difference is in France is there's no community who lives separate. There are no black ghettos, or Arab ghettos. Everyone lives together. I think here, it's a little bit different.
For us, it's totally the same. Omar is black, Abdel is not black but Arabic, but they have the same past. Some American journalists have asked us, "You changed Abdel's representation into a black guy. Why? Are you trying to say something special?" It's nothing special. We just wanted to make this part for Omar.
Was this journalist accusatory?
Yes. And we have some very bad reviews in America. People say our movie is "racist." We don't understand why. Maybe it's a different story, it's a different country.
How did you shoot the paragliding scene in this movie? Was that one of the more difficult scenes to shoot because of the stunt of the technique?
It was not easier, because we used different cameras. It was totally a mess, [because] we wanted the real thing. We sent Omar and Francois ten times into the air. It was a lot of preparation. Omar didn't like it, but he had to play it like he did, and Francois had to do the opposite because of his character. It was a great experience.
With the success of your film, are you interested in the American film scene, especially with our interest in buddy comedies?
Yes, of course - you have terrific actors. But we want to be totally free. I think with Hollywood, you can't be totally free. We do not want to be unhappy. Of course we dream about [working with] some actors. But if we find an amazing story in the US, why not. But we want to do it with our French producers, with European funds, and maybe not a big budget project. The studios make movies very expensive, so there's a lot of pressure. But we want to make a human comedy, and not in 3D or 4D. It's not the sport we play. American directors do this well ... I saw The Avengers.
What did you think of that film?
I saw it with my kid. I thought it was amazing. And the story was not so bad. But you can't make the same ... American directors make the best kind of these movies. [Eric and I] want to practice English, and then maybe come here. And why not put Omar with these actors?
How many times does Francoise get compared to Dustin Hoffman?
We know that! But his brother is totally Dustin Hoffman, more than he.
Favorite fruit? Raspberry.
What did you have for breakfast this morning? Waffle with raspberry.
What is your favorite blockbuster? I like Subway, by Luc Besson. It was a shock for me. I was 28. Another big movie for me was Midnight Run, I saw it almost as much as the filmmakers. We grew up with American movies. When we walk in New York, Los Angeles, or here, we have memories of the American movies we have seen.
What was the last CD you bought or downloaded? I bought John Legend's newest CD. Because my little son destroyed my Stevie Wonder vinyls, I also went out and bought another.
Age of first kiss? Maybe I can't remember, because I had a lot of girls ... 13. It was in a train. With my class. This is the first time I've told this story ... there were these three boys, and three girls. And the girls said, "We dare you to kiss us!" And the girl [I kissed] said I was the worst. Maybe she'll read your article, and regret saying that!