With two very lovely coming of age films (Water Lilies and Tomboy) under her belt, Céline Sciamma charts a new, yet still familiar, territory with her most accomplished film to date, Girlhood. Unlike her previous films, Girlhood stars all black girls in 'da hood' suburban Paris and reflects their lives in astonishing detail and authenticity. As a big fan of both of her previous films, I was very eager to meet her, despite her plane being delayed (she was attending Sundance) because of a big snowstorm that never was here in New York, and talk about her new film which happens to be the first great film I've seen this new year.
How was Sundance?
Céline Sciamma: It was great! I got stuck there because of fake snowstorm. (laughs) But we didn't know at that time it was fake, I mean there were no planes and stuff. The good part is that I really got to see what the festival was about- going to see movies and meeting people. Have you been there?
I haven't been. I have a friend who was just there and saw your film. He's been telling me how great it was!
Was it your first time?
How was GIRLHOOD received there?
Well the rooms were full, so it got some interest there and the Q & As were really cool. People were asking really interesting questions and there were good interactions. It wasn't that different from France actually. And the screens and projections are beautiful there which I am very peculiar about. (laughs)
So after two previous films about white teen/preteen girls (WATER LILIES and TOMBOY), you made GIRLHOOD, about black teen girls. It seems kind of a departure for you. How did it come about?
Well, there still is a continuity because it's my third coming of age story, also set in the suburbs. But this time it's more contemporary. It's like the official suburbs cinema which in France is 'the hood'. It has a different social backdrop and I guess I wanted that. The project for me was to have another coming of age story but with a stronger narrative and a classical plot"- a young girl who wants to live her life and has to put up with the time and place she lives in and the family which is a typical novelistic tale. But the idea was having very contemporary characters and to connect this notion of a romantic heroine with a black girl in that fiction.
GIRLHOOD feels more like an epic- the way it was shot, more characters, everything seems bigger and more ambitious than your other films. Can you talk about how the casting process was?
Yeah. The casting was a long process and a very passionate one. It was 4 months of meeting girls and talking to them. We met about 300 girls, mostly randomly on the street. We had different agendas because we had to build a group - it's friendship and it's alchemy, but we also wanted to find strong individuality in them. The characters were specifically outlined and we had to find girls who were able to really put up with the lines because the script was very much 'written'. But they also had to be able to improvise because there were four to five comedic scenes which mostly were relied upon improvs, so they had to be prepped for that too. So that was something.
And we had to find the leading part, a girl who would be solid enough be in every frame and go through this transformation. It's a difficult part and also a fun one because you have to be so many different people. And when I met Karidja Touré, I knew it had to be her, I had no other choice in mind after seeing her. She was the one.
There are all these great moments in your films and GIRLHOOD is no exception. That Rihanna scene was so great. It just felt so authentic. I was wondering how much of that was improvised and how much was written.
The Rihanna scene, we had to prepare a lot because it was intense and technically complicated. It was choreographed to fit the miss-en-scene: each girl had to be in the frame at certain point of the song, and so on. It was written as a narrative piece- It tells the birth of a friendship. It reflects that how friendship is like choreography- Vic (Karidja Touré) being an observer looking at the group and they are so synchronized and she suddenly steps in and being in the center and finally them getting their voice together, so that was pretty accurate depiction of their friendship. But obviously chemistry between them and the way they move, that was totally in the moment- I mean those kind of moments you don't get to shoot too many in your lifetime. I was obsessed with that scene. I always wanted to shoot that scene and it was very precise in my head. And it has to be this magical moment that you can't really prepare. Then there they were- they are so graceful together in showing their collective joy. You can't ask anything more than that.
It felt very instantaneous and very real. Was Diamond the song you chose?
Yeah, I was thinking about the song when I wrote it. It was released around the same time I was writing it. And I thought that I was never gonna get (the rights to) it. I mean who are we, we are nobody. And they would certainly ask a lot of money. Actually, my producer was very brave, saying 'we should go for it' and the record company gave us a deal and we were like, hey we can afford this!
So we shot the scene and during the editing process, we realized that we didn't have the rights actually, because we had to get Rihanna's consent. So we sent the scene to her with a passionate letter I wrote but it didn't work out. But then we sent a scene to the management and they called us and they said, "you know what, we've never done this but the scene is beautiful and we will make an exception." But it's not like they gave it for free. It was quite symbolic money for them, for us yes it was still a lot of money but something we could afford. It's also the first time I put a song in my films.
In its entirety too.
It's a big hit and it's very powerful.
That's a really good story.
Thinking about the look of the film, it's more energetic and stronger than your other films. I noticed the steadicam shots. Is it also shot by Crystel Fournier (Water Lilies, Tomboy)?
Yeah, but for the first time I did use the steadicam...and I loved it. (laughs) It's a great tool. I think differently with it. There are three different steadicam shots in the movie - when they go home, when they are in the shopping mall- you have to use it because you can't lay down anything on the floor, so it wasn't an artistic choice there and when Marieme/Vic finds that red dress and goes to the white people's party in chapter five which is very Scorsese-like. Really cool to do. (laughs)
It was awesome. I was thinking, "wow she's doing something different here."
The beginning was very striking with an American football practice. And I didn't know if it was a thing in France. Is it a thing?
It's not. I mean it exists and it's in the beginning stage in France. So I didn't make it up. But it's not a big thing. The team in the field is a real team and everything. But I picked it because, the first reason was that i wanted them to have helmets on so people will think they are boys at first. Also it kind of symbolizes the theme of the film- they are girls in a team, playing violence for fun, being loud and energetic and hitting touchdowns together and feeling empowered. And also the aesthetic reason, because you don't think you'd expect the American football in some French art house film. I like the fact that it blurs the line and you feel you are watching the cinema.
I think that what defines this film in this trilogy it that it believes and relies the most in cinema- the fact that I used all the tools to tell what I want to tell and show what I want to show. It could be a hit song, it could be a great score, it could be the use of the steadicam, it could be... Everything that is at reach I wanted to use, believing that I can make it more epic. It's the feeling that grows in each film. It was there since the beginning but I was trying to refuse that supposed frontier of art house films with reasonable economy with the socially conscious subject that should call for certain kind of aesthetic, you know, which means, naturalistic way of looking at things. That versus a movie that is entertaining, an epic, uses the mythology of cinema with a colorful...
It's ambitious and you pulled it off beautifully.
Girlhood still retains your aesthetics and feelings of your previous films though. But I am at a loss how you manage to make things so authentic with the inner lives of three different girls from different backgrounds, social standings, age groups. Is it from your personal experience? The universality of girlhood? JUST HOW DO YOU DO IT!?
I rely a lot on the fact that there is something universal in it and that we can make it universal in fiction too. It's because all three characters are really observers, observing the life around them. That's the common point there. It's creating the intimacy between camera and the actor and actors and the audience. They are three different characters but all three films rely on one single character, so we are mentally stuck in one head and one body. There are no grownups, there are no boys. The boys are just archetypes, so you can't relate to anyone else but her. You have to. It's a sensual proposition. My movies are not very talkative, so they rely on the rhythm and how actors are being accurate about the body language and choreography of the girls are moving in the world.
I know that you don't have any control over this but who would be the intended audience for this film? My wife is a inner city High School teacher and I want her students to see this film. As any so called art house foreign films, it will play in some art house cinema in Upper East Side and won't get distributed widely. How do you feel about that?
Well here in the US it's true that I don't know how it's going to be distributed in what kind of cinema. In France, my goal, my dream was it would get widely distributed not only art house cinemas but also multiplexes, my dream was that the youth would go and see it. And it actually happened! The room was filled with the people that usually never meet- the cinephiles, the usually old people (laughs) and the youth. The mental picture I have of that room is... priceless. It was amazing.
We have strong education cinema programs in France and I hope the film will get into that. Tomboy was seen by 200,000 kids because of the program last year.
Wow. that's awesome.
I hope that Girlhood will get the same treatment.
Since you are finished with the coming of age trilogy now. what's next for you?
Well, I'm gonna go elsewhere. I want to work with actors. I know that now. I want to work with a strong female character in the center. My obsession with transformation and gender will still be there but I am thinking of 70s horror movies.
Now that's exciting!
Girlhood opens in New York on 1/30 and national roll out is as follows:
February 6: Los Angeles, Chicago
February 13: PittsburghFebruary 20: Seattle, New Orleans, Washington DC/Fairfax, VAFebruary 27: Boston, San Francisco, TorontoMarch 6: Dallas, Portland (PDX)March 13: Philadelphia, AtlantaMarch 20: Denver, Nashville, Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, Lake Worth, FLMay 8: Columbus, OH