By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist November 21, 2012 at 11:22AM
We're at the time of year where we're starting to think about annual Best Of picks, and one film that's certain to crop up on multiple Playlist staff lists is "Rust & Bone," the latest film from writer-director Jacques Audiard. Having made two of the most impressive crime movies of the last decade with "The Beat That My Heart Skipped" and "Rust & Bone," Audiard has taken a left turn into romantic melodrama with his latest, which premiered back at Cannes in May (read our review here). The film maintains the brutality and power of the filmmaker's earlier work, but there's a tenderness to the relationship between bouncer/boxer/single father Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) and amputee killer whale trainer Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) that's more pronounced than in earlier films, not least thanks to astonishing performances from the two leads that deserve recognition come awards season.
The film's been making the rounds on the festival circuit for a while, and will finally hit U.S. theaters this Friday. We were lucky enough to get to sit down with Audiard, his co-writer Thomas Bidegain and star Schoenaerts (one of the most notable breakout stars of 2012) at the BFI London Film Festival back in October to talk about the genesis of the project, how Audiard found his lead, the challenges of the material and much more.
According to Audiard, the shift into a more romantic mode was a very conscious one, after coming across the short story collection by Canadian author Craig Davidson that provided the basis of the material. "The short stories came at a moment when we were finishing 'A Prophet,' " the director told us. "And we wanted to build a love story. I thought we could use two of the short stories to make a love story. What we liked about them in the beginning was Marine Land, the amputation, the kid on the ice, and the universe that it came with."
And while only two of the stories from the book are directly adapted, Audiard and Bidegain tried to capture the spirit of the entire collection in their film. As Bidegain says, "We included something that was present in all the short stories, a description of a world in crisis, in economic catastrophe, and then characters inside that world fighting, one way or another." Further into the adaptation, taking Davidson's characters and inventing a new romance involved changing the sex of a character to create Stephanie (she is based on someone who is male in the book). "There was one short story about a guy who lost a leg with an orca, and we transformed that character into a female character, and built a love story between that character, and another from another story. So what's left is that universe around them, the toughness of the characters, and their bravery in trying to extract themselves from a tight corner that life put them in."
Audiard and Bidegain say that they didn't have any names in particular in mind during the writing process, but once the script was done, Audiard says "I very quickly thought of Marion, because I'd wanted to work with her for a while." Schoenaerts wasn't on the radar at that stage, though. "First, I thought of using a non-professional actor, we did a lot of casting with boxers, but it didn't work," the director said. Schoenaerts picks up the story from there, saying, "I know the casting director saw 'Bullhead' [Schoenaerts' Oscar-nominated Belgian-breakthrough] and invited me for the casting, and spoke to Jacques about it. And then we met, and he realized I spoke French, which was important. By then, I know he saw 'Bullhead.' " Audiard concurs: "I saw 'Bullhead,' and that was it."
Schoenaerts' screen persona is, for U.S. audiences at least, that of an intimidating physical presence, so it's easy to assume that the films were shot close together, but the actor -- noticeably slimmed down when we met him -- says that the films were shot some time apart, and required two separate bulking-outs. "'Bullhead' was two years before," he told us "so I'd lost all that weight again, so I had to regain weight. And this role required a totally different physique; massive, but in a different way, not so artificial looking. More just naturally strong, and with a belly, because he doesn't eat properly, because he doesn't have the means. So yeah, I got into a very specific diet. A lot of ice cream, a lot of burgers, a lot of pizza."
Carb-loading might have been one challenge of the role, but for the actor it was far more important to ensure that a character who does some pretty awful things maintained the audience's sympathy. "It was all about finding the right balance, finding a way to make the character somehow... you have to attach yourself to it, without losing what makes it specific. Sometimes he's brutal, he's rude, he's stupid at times. But at the same time, he shouldn't become repulsive, so I was thinking about how to balance that out. So I thought he had to be something very sincere," he explained. "He's very straightforward, and pure, and honest in a very particular way. He mustn't have any bad intentions...Sometimes he's irritated, he hits his kid, that's a bad thing, of course. But that's not the way he meant it. He can be bad in one second, and very tender the next, and they coexist just like that, and that, to me, was very important... If you screw that up, the audience goes 'What kind of guy are you?' It's very simple. And that's what we came up with finally. But that was the biggest challenge, to stay on that line."