Although he is no stranger to the film world since he started his career as an actor, director Xavier Legrand has only one film under his belt –a short film. This astonishingly unsettling first effort, Just Before Losing Everything (Avant que de tout perdre), has earned him an Academy Award nomination in the Live Action Short category, a very deserving honor. His film follows Miriam (Léa Drucker) a supermarket employee who is trying to leave her abusive husband once and for all.This feat will prove to be more difficult than she expected, and it will expose the anxiety and terror her family has been experiencing. Nerve-racking and impeccably acted, Legrand’s film is an impressive a debut as they come, and is definitely a great start for what will likely be a promising filmmaking career. The French director talked to us about his directing style, his interest in the psychological implications of domestic violence, and his cinematic convictions.
Carlos Aguilar: The story your film depict is heart-wrenching and powerful. What drew you to make a film about this subject?
Xavier Legrand: I wanted to talk about violence within the family structure. I was interested in the family structure because this violence takes place at home, and home is supposed to be a secure and safe place, and in this case is not. I decided to work on domestic violence because it is widely misunderstood by lots of people. It is interesting how violence can set itself up within the couple and why victims don’t leave after the first slap, or the first punch, or the first act violence.
Aguilar: The definition of a short film is very broad - your film is 30 minutes long - why did you decided to make this storyin the form of a short piece and not a feature?
Legrand: I wanted to work on a small time spam. Everything happens in one day I wanted the action to be tight and intense. Everything happens at the work place, it makes everything move forward quickly.
Aguilar: Would you ever consider turning it into a feature as many shorts films have?
Legrand: No, I have other projects to make into features within the same subject matter. For this film I didn’t want to make it longer because it felt right, it was the right timing to tell this particular story. Making it into a feature would mean adding more things and it would lessen the power of the story. Each story has its own rhythm and its own timing. This timing and rhythm felt right for this story, but I have other feature-length projects with the same tension and similar thriller-like story.
Aguilar: The caliber of the performances is very impressive. Was it more difficult to elicit such emotional takes from your actors given that in a short film they might have less material to develop their characters?
Legrand: I’m actor myself, this is my first film but I started as an actor. I’m familiar with the same “language” as the actors, I know how to talk to them and how to address them to get the best performance out of them. The direction I give them is to be very precise. They had a lot of actions to do, but not as much in terms of the psychology. I didn’t want to get into the psychology of the characters. I just wanted to play the moment and what they had to do at that moment, every little step, “You have to do this, then this” They had to be very specific in their movements, but I didn’t want to bother them with the psychology, they had to work on that on their own. The emotion comes from the writing of the story, you are driven by the story, and it is really the plot that drives you. I wanted the actors not to overplay it and just let the plot take over.
Aguilar: Working with children, or in your case preteens, requires a different set of skills to obtain the performance you desire. Since you didn’t want to get into the deep psychological issues, how did you help them deliver or recreate the fear their characters felt?
Legrand: I was careful to choose a young actor that already had screen experience. This wasn’t the first time he was acting. It was important that the children understood, specially Miljan, why he was so scared. At the same time the way I directed it was more on the playful side “I bet you are going to do this” or “I know you can’t do that” It was more about playfully challenging him like you would play with a kid, rather than giving him directions like you would do to a more mature adult actor. What I told Miljan was to prevent Lea, my main actress, from exiting the room. Since he is a kid and he doesn’t have the physical strength to prevent her from going out, the only strength he has is to scream, that’s his only power or weapon to stop her. I told him “The only thing that can prevent her from going out is you screaming as loud as you can” It became a game afterwards for him to scream louder, and louder as we were doing different takes.
Aguilar: While the film is about domestic violence, you decided not to show the violence. You refrained from having the actual physical aggression on the screen, why did you make this choice?
Legrand: When I started working on the film I read newspapers and watched documentaries, I realized that this violence - domestic violence - is hidden. The husband doesn’t say publicly “I beat my wife up”, then the wife, because she is ashamed, she doesn’t say anything, so it is a very hidden violence. I wanted that to be reflected in the film. The only way I could reflect that was by not showing it, and only showing the aftermath: the bruises and the fear.
Aguilar: Has the Oscar nomination, and the journey that comes with it, changed your future plans?
Legrand: It didn’t really change anything. I just try to focus on the projects I’ve already started and continuing with my writing and directing film career and also my acting. I try to be true to what I am and what I like because that is what brought success to this film so I have to keep on going. I will keep on doing what I like and what I think is good.