Saturday, May 9, 2009

Worth the Wait

Director Erick Zonca


Directed by Erick Zonca
Starring Tilda Swinton, Saul Rubinek, Kate del Castillo, Aidan Gould
Opens May 8, 2009

Erick Zonca
With his debut film, The Dreamlife of Angels—a true masterpiece that was the Closing Night Film of the 1998 New York Film Festival—French director Erick Zonca quickly was high on everyone’s list of the most talented filmmakers of his generation.

However, after his interesting but little-seen follow-up The Little Thief—a small film that played for a couple of weeks at Film Forum in 2000—Zonca seemed to disappear. It’s only now, a full decade after Dreamlife made such a big splash that Zonca has returned with his latest feature. Julia, which was shot in Los Angeles and Mexico, stars Tilda Swinton as a lonely woman who kidnaps a young boy ostensibly to reunite him with his mother. Of course, nothing goes as planned, and unforeseen things take place—including the alcoholic Julia’s heretofore buried maternal instincts.

It’s a tour de force for Swinton, and for Zonca as well, who has avoided the dreaded pitfalls whenever European directors make films in America (think of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, Wertmuller’s A Night Full of Rain, and Bruno Dumont’s 29 Palms, for starters).

While in New York recently, Zonca discussed Julia, Swinton and what he’s been doing for the past several years.

Kevin Filipski: Why has it taken so long between movies?
Erick Zonca: The story of The Little Thief was originally part of the Dreamlife of Angels script, so it didn’t take too long to write since much of the plot and the character was already there. But with Julia, I took five years to write it, which is a long time. And afterward, it took us a long time to find the money to make the movie—four or five more years! Each time we thought that a studio would be interested, but by the time we got answers—usually yes, then no—also took a long time. The reason the script took so long to write is because I started the story originally with an English couple who go to Siberia to kidnap the child of a Russian oligarch, and it ended with the film Julia, set in Los Angeles and Mexico with a woman alone kidnapping a child. Between the first draft to the last draft, there were many, many drafts. After dropping Siberia, we moved the action to New York, then to L.A. From the beginning, I had the character of a woman who was an alcoholic and a manic-depressive, and she started becoming more interesting to me than the original kidnapping couple.

KF: What attracted you to the character of Julia that made you want to follow her story instead?
EZ: My first thought about Julia was that she was a big mouth and a manic depressive with an alcohol problem. Because I’ve had some alcohol problems, I jumped on this character and started to write about her. And I moved the setting from Siberia to New York because I thought it was crazy to have this couple go to Russia to kidnap a kid, because they would be recognized right away as outsiders. So I moved it to New York—and it was about a prostitute in the city, not a couple any more; afterwards, I thought that it was too dark and sleazy, and the verticality of New York didn't work for this story. I shot The Little Thief in Marseille in the south of France, with a lot of light and color, and I shot Dreamlife of Angels in the north of France, which is more muted and more grey. I did the same thing with Julia—I decided not to shoot in New York, with its large buildings and constricted spaces, but in Los Angeles, with a flat horizon bringing more light and colors. We ended up transforming her from a prostitute to a regular woman with an alcohol problem and a problem of selfishness, somebody who doesn’t relate to other people—she lies, you cannot trust her. Then she was trapped by her lie that she would bring the boy back to his mother and she almost becomes his mother and has to get him back from other kidnappers.

KF: How did you decide to utilize the desert for a location?
EZ: While writing, I ended up with the situation where she kidnaps the kid and goes to a motel room with him. It's a very small space and when the motel maid sees her, they have to leave. Where could she escape? The desert, since it has no limits, which is the opposite of that small motel room. Then I came up with the idea that she would end up in Mexico, which was very good for the story, for the lie that she was acting out was instrumental to her story. After introducing her to Mexico, it was very interesting to show these poor Mexican people who look at this American woman as if she was gold.

KF: Was Tilda Swinton always your choice for Julia?
EZ: Tilda was very early in my mind because she has a kind of strange elegance, and I also wanted a flamboyant woman—I knew her from her work in the movies and in fashion. I wanted Julia to give us the feeling that she was once beautiful and she loves clothes. Also because she’s supposed to be very tall and full of energy—and I didn't know that Tilda was so full of energy herself. In many of the movies I've seen her in she's very still, but when we met I knew it could work. She really understood what I wanted—and she enjoyed expressing herself with her body and her voice. After that, it was very easy to work with her. Tilda doesn't drink alcohol at all—she observed friends of hers, and she observed me—because I drink—but she doesn't.

KF: Aidan Gould, who plays the boy she kidnaps, is remarkable. How did you find him?
EZ: We found the boy in L.A. while we were already shooting in Mexico. He was very far from what I had in mind originally. I don't know how it works for the audience, but one thing I was sure of is that I didn't want someone who is attractive—he’s not the nice, cute kid that you usually see in movies. It was basically a compromise of sorts between what I had in mind for the boy and what he brought to the role. He handled the violence that’s in the movie very well, as if it was a game. I would tell him, "I'm going to tie up your hands and legs now," and he would respond, "Sure, okay"!

KF: How long do we have to wait for your next film?
EZ: Not long—maybe I’ll become like Woody Allen and make a movie every year for the next 10 years! (laughs)

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