Motivation, Manipulation, and Adaptation: A Q&A with Francois Ozon, Director of 'In the House'

Francois Ozon and Fabrice Luchini filming 'In the House'
Francois Ozon and Fabrice Luchini filming 'In the House'

"In the House," the latest film by Francois Ozon, based on Juan Mayorga's play "El chico de la última fila" (or translated to "The Guy in the Last Row"), is the story of the intersection of the scholastic and personal lives of a sixteen-year-old young man and his literature teacher. The young man, Claude Garcia (played by newcomer Ernst Umhauer), is encouraged by his professor, Germain (Fabrice Luchini), to develop his knack for creative writing -- which in turn incites Claude to step beyond the boundaries of friendship and personal space with a peer's family. Before long, both teacher and student are completely consumed by Claude's story. With a fabulous breakout performance by Umhauer, and the kind of high-caliber performances we've come to expect from Fabrice Luchini and Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays his wife, Jeanne, "In the House" is mesmerizing to its core, inspiring thoughts of motivation, manipulation, and dedication. Director Francois Ozon sat down with us recently to talk about all of this and more.

Signature: Your film, “In the House,” left me thinking about this idea of reality versus imagination and how much fiction comes into play in real life. How much of your own reality comes into play when directing?

Francois Ozon: I think I’m actually very close to the character of the film. You know, at the end, in the last scene, I would be the same, you know? I won’t say I prefer fiction to life, but I think I need fiction; I need art to escape from reality. I think many people are like that. It’s a cruel world, and it’s like an idealistic place, to direct everything. When you are a director you have the control, you have the power – especially in France; [as a director] you are the king and you can have what you want. And suddenly it’s quite difficult when the shooting is finished to go back to reality, because during the shooting you are like a spoiled child who has the power over everything.

SIG: You’re setting up life and your reality exactly how you want it.

FO: Yes, exactly. Exactly.

SIG: In that same vein then, as the director, as the person who is in control of everything, were you hesitant to cast the young man who is Ernst Umhauer?

FO: Yes, Ernst Umhauer.

SIG: He's kind of a novice. He doesn’t have much experience. Though he did a fabulous job.

FO: Yes, yes.

SIG: Were you nervous about hiring somebody so inexperienced?

FO: Yes. When I discovered the play and decided to adapt it, I thought, “Oh my God, I have to find someone very strong.” Especially in front of Fabrice Luchini who is a great French actor, who is a star in France. I needed someone who could have one part of the film on his shoulders, so it was quite difficult. And I was a bit nervous, so I did a big casting, and first I met many boys of sixteen years old, like the character, and I realized they are too young. They have no maturity to play such a part. For the girls it’s different because the girls are often more mature than boys at this age. So I decided to open the cast to see all of the guys [of all ages] and I met Ernst who was actually twenty-one. And for me, physically, he was perfect because he looked sixteen.

SIG: He does look young.

FO: He looks very young. He has a childlike face, so it was perfect. And he had the maturity, he had the distance, you know, to play such a part; it was a real composition, and I think it is important when you have such a difficult part to have actors who have a real distance from the character. Because if he would have been too close to the character it would have been too disturbing. So after casting him, we worked a long time together, we did a lot of tests, a lot of readings, and I tried to explain to him everything. Then we met Fabrice, we read the script together until he was comfortable for the shooting. But it was very intense for him.

SIG: What do you think the primary motivation was for the character Claude?

FO: I think he’s very naïve. He’s innocent. He’s a writer who is learning what he can do. What are his different options? So he tries to do his best. And very often he follows the lessons of his teacher. You know, the teacher says, “You have to like your character.” Okay he falls in love with his friend’s mother. And the character says, “It’s too much [that] you want to fuck her!” So, it’s the joke about it. But I think the young boy tries to do his best. For me it’s like, of course he is playing for the desire of the teacher, but they are playing together. But suddenly the game becomes maybe dangerous. That’s the funny thing when you mix reality and fiction. But Germain, maybe he is the most dangerous. He’s the one who does the first transgression. He steals the test results, to give to Claude. So for me he’s the most dangerous character. And, Claude is the manipulator, but everybody is manipulating everybody in the film. You can’t say he’s the bad guy, he’s the good guy. You know, it’s more complex.

SIG: There was one great scene in particular that jumped out at me: Kristin Scott Thomas’s character is talking to her husband and she says, “Literature teaches us nothing about life.” And then her husband, Germain, sort of turns the conversation, likening literature to art. And he says, “It awakens our senses to beauty.” Which I thought was just such a lovely point, but my question: Where do you sit in that discussion as far as literature and its point – and art too? All forms of creativity, really.

FO: I’m close to Germain’s point of view. We need art, and it opens us to beauty. I think art helps us, to survive, to understand what we are living -- and sometimes it can be dangerous if you are totally involved in fiction, like the character of the film. But it is really the key line of the film, I think.

SIG: What did you find was the most challenging in adapting a film from a play?

FO: You know, I’ve understood for a long time that when you do an adaptation it’s a betrayal. You have to admit that, and you have to keep in your adaptation what you liked when you read or when you saw the play. So you have to think to yourself what is important for you. When I did this adaptation, I kept many things, I changed many things, but I think I had the spirit of what Juan Mayorga wanted to do with his play. It was quite difficult for me because Mayorga is alive and it’s one of the first times I directed an adaptation of someone who is alive. So I called him, and said, “You know, I want to change things. Is it okay?” And he said, “I feel totally comfortable with that. I respect your work; do what you want.” He didn’t ask to see the script or anything. I was quite nervous ... and he actually loved it. So it was great. But I was nervous. And he said, “You have the spirit of my play.”

SIG: That’s probably the most flattering thing you could hear from him. “In the House” was up for multiple Ceasers. I’m curious about what, in your opinion, are the key pieces of a film that is deserving of a best picture award, whether it be an Oscar, a Ceaser, or a Golden Globe.

FO: It’s a game. It is good to be nominated, to be part of the film. After it’s always a game, it’s political, it’s many things. It’s very difficult to judge different films, different directors, but it’s part of the game.

SIG: What’s next? Do you have your eye on anything?

FO: I have finished a new film, which is called “Jeune et Jolie,” which means “Young and Beautiful.” It is the portrait of a young girl who is seventeen years old who discovers sexuality. So it’s again a film about young people. It should be releasing in France in September, so maybe it will be next year in America.

"In the House" comes to U.S. theaters April 19.