Interview with Director of Grand Central, Rebecca Zlotowski

Sitting down with the director of Grand Central, Rebecca Zlotowski, was an honor and a splendid gift for a cinephile.  I asked her simple questions, and she generously responded in her eloquent and passionately obsessive manner.  I immediately felt at ease with her, and it was only minutes before we were laughing the interview away.  

Grand Central is Rebecca’s second feature film after her debut Belle Épine, starring Léa Seydoux.   Grand Central tells the story of a young man named Gary (Tahar Rahim), who travels to a small town in the Rhone Valley looking for employment.  Soon enough he is hired as a nuclear power plant worker and discovers that his new job holds many dangers.  It does not take long before he falls in love with Karole (Léa Seydoux), another power plant worker, who is currently dating the plant’s alpha male Toni (Denis Ménochet).  Now Gary faces serious health risks on the job and a menacing love affair, which is bound to be uncovered in such a small and close-knit work environment and camping ground, where the workers reside.  Only time will tell what will be the outcome of such a dangerous love triangle.

Zlotowski’s second film stands out as an impressive piece of work.  Care in directing actors, sound composition, photography, editing, and camera setups show that a mature filmmaker is on the rise and only at the tender age of thirty-three.  Rebecca was able to successfully orchestrate a band of powerhouse French actors, including Tahar Rahim, Léa Seydoux, Denis Ménochet, and Olivier Gourmet.  Their performances, as well as the supporting cast member’s work, are to be praised.  The constant danger that coats the film leaves audience members trembling in their seats, praying for these beloved characters’ safety.  Zlotowski was truly able to capture the reality of this threatening environment, while never losing track of the film’s focus, the perilous love triangle between Gary, Karole, and Toni.  

Agnolucci:  Your film takes place inside a nuclear power plant and its surrounding area.  On the surface, Grand Central may seem to be about the dangers of these plants; yet, the story is truly about the love of two people and the difficulties they face uniting.  How much of the love scenes were scripted?  Was there any improvisation between Tahar Rahim and Léa Seydoux?

Zlotowski:     In terms of improvisation, no not really. I had a mode of production that involved a very small budget and somewhat prevented improvisation.  We did not have a lot of shooting time available at our disposal, and time is costly.  It was difficult to improvise on set, because we had to shoot very quickly.  We were in a sort of crisis-warlike situation with time and money, and in order to make the film, it’s important that we at least get the script shot.  Improvisation is not a method that I used much in the past.  I prefer to rehearse with the actors ahead of time and then, on set, have the ability to bring back what the actors proposed during certain rehearsal. 

    There were only one or two improvised scenes in the film, one being the scene with the three young men around the truck in the opening of the film. But other than that it was all principally scripted.

Agnolucci:  From the first moment your film begins, it is evident that danger lies everywhere and will lace your film throughout.  The red credits, the haunting sound, the tough characters.  How important is a director’s stylistic and thematic imprint for you?  Your filmmaking touch is always present…

Zlotowski:     Thank you.  It is true I have a fascination with stories and characters that are in contact with danger daily. Those who frequent death on a quotidian basis… Between my first and second film there is a very strong and evident stylistic coherence.  Even in the typography of the credits. I might not be as obsessed as Woody Allen is with his use of the same exact typography in his films; however, I realized that directors make films with our obsessions, and we can tend to ramble on.  Now I’m a little worried because I only made two films, and they already resemble each other.  I will have to find other topics [laughing].  But it is clear that I have a great curiosity and interest for characters that frequent death and danger and that put themselves in situations that leave them on the edge.  

                     I think that I have stylistically married this grammar of excess, excitement, and transgression.  It materializes and manifests through the red credits, through aggression in the sound texture, and through the metallic music and sound that was present inside the power plant scenes.  The important particularity of the power plant was that it had to contrast the camping site just outside the plant.  The plant had to remain hostile and dangerous while the camping site aura was to be bucolic, natural, in regards to water, the environment, vegetation, and light while retaining its passionate sense.  If we keep this dangerous form in regards to the plant, we must be able to contrast it; otherwise, we will bring the spectator to suicide by the end of the film.     

Agnolucci:  Please tell us about your writing process with Gaëlle Macé.  How did you work together on a day-to-day basis?  How long did it take you to complete the script?

Zlotowski:     I have a very strong bond with my co-writer Gaëlle Macé.  We already co-wrote my first feature together, Belle Épine, and she was actually the one who introduced me to the subject of nuclear power plants.  She spoke to me of this nuclear world while we were already involved in writing a love story that took place during wartime.  She was the one who proposed to allow this nuclear world to enter our love story’s universe.  We worked like journalists or university students might do in researching this world like documentary filmmakers during six/eight months to about one year, because we knew nothing of this sphere and we wanted to master all its terms, so later we could free it.  I had to learn how these plants functioned.  So we visited several plants.  

                     What was curious in our approach was our way of writing from the start.  We began working at a distance, I was in Los Angeles for three months while she was in Paris, and we wrote the script via e-mail, or on Skype.  I highly believe in what is written, meaning that once we have a correspondence through e-mail or Skype, the script writing really evolves quickly as opposed to seeing each other and speaking face to face, where it’s easy to lose half of one’s time in a trivial or quotidian discourse.  This allowed us to work faster and more efficiently through the essential core of the film.  We exchanged many documents regarding the plants and the script, and then we discussed what really interested us—such as the destiny of the subjects, and the love story that occurred.  It is truly a daily job in all senses.  I love to work with Gaëlle in general, and our rapport allows us to tackle material even at a distance.  She is the absolute in co-writing for me, and I adore writing with two or three people in general.  We will certainly work together in the future.       

Agnolucci:  We already touched on this a bit in your previous answer.  Tell us about your journey to find a proper location for shooting in a power plant.  How much research did you have to do on the functionality of the plant?

Zlotowski:     This was part of the excitement for me in making this project.  Something that interested me very much as a filmmaker was to open this unknown door, a forbidden door.  There was a sort of transgression in entering the plants and seeing the protocol of the contamination situation and the gear the workers wore.  I even stole some actors to come along with me and familiarize themselves with this place and its details.  Afterwards, what was very crucial was encountering a technical consultant named Claude Dubout, who is a nuclear power plant worker.  We found him during one of our research escapades.  He had written an autobiographical essay in the past and was vital to our project, as he remained in contact with us during our entire writing process.  I really wanted the film to be well documented, not to say that it would resemble a documentary.  I wanted to respond to our promise to the script that would bring the audience into a place that they were completely unfamiliar with.  In order to do so, this place had to be credible.  That was why it was important and miraculous that we found a real power plant to shoot in.  If I didn’t find a real plant, I was not planning to stylize or provide an abstract rendition of a plant.

Agnolucci:  The sound in your film is treated with as much tender care as your visuals.  How did you prepare and choose sound bites, and were you aware of what you wanted to hear prior to shooting?      

Zlotowski:     Yes! I am obsessed [laughing].  I think I have a very obsessive personality.  When we make a film we have a responsibility to the image and sound.  When you say sound, it’s good that you ask me about sound and not just music.  The dimension of sound in films, for me, represents the color that one wants to give to the film and its setting.  In my film there were two main settings that were very different in tone: the power plant and the camping site where the workers lived.  We knew that these two places needed their own color respectively.  So in order to do this, image wise, we shot on two different formats.  The plant was shot on digital and the camping site, which was mostly exteriors, was shot on film.  As there was a lot of natural light we used film for the camping site.  

                     The same was applied for the sound.  I had a collaborator on the film that helped me a lot with sound and music choices, and who was the artistic director of my first film.  He had spoken to me of a Jazz musician named Colin Stetson, a saxophone player, who works alone on set, yet in an orchestral manner.  He uses percussion and breath in a circular way, and I found that he truly created the color of the plant.  

                     We had a sound engineer join us a few months ahead of shooting in the Austrian power plant, and he made what we call imprints of sound in the empty, enclosed space.  We really re-invented a protocol with the sound engineer, the sound mixer, and the sound editor, which allowed us to work in a communicative fashion with one another.  Usually, in regards to sound, we have the sound engineer come in, and the sound editor has to work in a different and distant manner, same goes for the sound mixer.  I wanted it to be a team that communicates very quickly even prior to shooting.  And that is also how the sound mixer was able to give an input on all the content we would need.  Afterwards, I worked with a formidable person, someone who put microphones in the floor and was very detailed.  The plant is a hermetically closed space, which puts pressure on ones ears just like when entering an airplane. They all worked on these frequencies that gave a specific sound to the plant.  The exterior sound, on the other hand, was bucolic and natural; yet, the proximity and danger of the plant had to weigh in on the surrounding environment.  The music then came in to play with this contrast in the same manner.  

Agnolucci:  Directing actors is an intimate and subjective craft.  Tell us how you approach individual actors.  Do you analyze and study their emotional behavior and mind structure and adapt accordingly to them?  And to add one last inquiry—You have been blessed to work with several French acting powerhouses such as Rahim, Séydoux, and Ménochet.  Please tell us more about your journey with them.

Zlotowski:     I only made two films, so I don’t have a method or habit of working yet.  I’m still in the process of discovering everything.  Each film arrives with the thought process related to its proper form.  Belle Épine was a portrait of one lady, so I worked in a certain manner where I had one actress primarily in frame, and she was more or less my age.  She (Séydoux) wasn’t yet a star in France, so it was a bond that was radically different to the rapport I had on this film.  It was probably a more spontaneous, intimate, and familiar directing approach in my first film.  With Grand Central the cast was primarily all male, and they were economically much grander than I was—as my first film did not do well commercially [laughing].  I was not in a power position.  When I was working with Olivier Gourmet or Tahar Rahim, who are well known in France and abroad, the rapport and dimension was certainly different.  Perhaps there was more fear in my approach.  I tried to work how I had done before, with rehearsals taking place prior to shooting.  Then once we were on set, as we had to work very quickly due to our limited budget, we had to put it all together.  Maybe for another film I would do it differently.  

                     I have close ties with Rahim, Séydoux, and Ménochet in terms of language that is linked to our generation. We are part of the same generation, and I believe that changes our rapport when working and creates more familiarity and spontaneity.  Sometimes it is not the best thing though, as one must, here and there, provide more distance between each other.  

Marco Agnolucci

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