What was your strategy in selecting the students? At the beginning, you had twice the number…
At the beginning, there were fifty. The most interested students stayed on and the others left. At the end, we were a good number. Maybe it was not by chance. Perhaps I paid more attention to the ones that were more interesting. Maybe the others decided to leave because I wasn’t paying attention to them. You never know exactly how that will work. Regardless, I didn’t have to choose. The class developed naturally.
Except for Souleymane, the parents portrayed in the film are the real parents of these students.
Souleymane’s mother - Franck’s mother - was away from Paris at the time. I don’t know if Franck would’ve wanted his mother in the film since they did not get along very well together. All of the others, yes - I invited all of those that wanted to participate to come to the school. We discussed what they were expecting for their children and what schools mean for them. In fact, we shot with seven or eight parents and kept four of them in the film.
Was that, for you, a method to get the outside world into the classroom?
It was definitely part of the process. But even when the children talk about their lives they bring the outside inside.
Your role as director is somewhat similar to the function of the teacher to his class.
Quite close, yes - except that I don’t have anything to teach them! I have the best role. I was really listening to what they were saying about a particular topic [and then guiding them to explore that topic]. My role was more as a conductor than a director.
What was the technical set-up of the classroom? There were three cameras…
There were three monitors in front of me and I could speak to the cameramen. I was listening and taking notes. When something would interest me, I’d say, “We will start again but you will have to say this.” The mise-en-scene was done in real-time. The first take was always very long. They would improvise around a few lines that I would want them to put in, although they didn’t always know exactly what the scene was about. I’d provide landmarks and then they’d build things around them. This would last about 25 minutes - the duration of a tape. Then I would begin rebuilding the scene from what they were suggesting.
Using the students like different instruments in an orchestra.
That was something that François did very well. François had the double-role of acting as the teacher and directing from inside the scene as a sort of double of myself. He knew exactly what I was expecting and he was able to get the students to do exactly what we wanted. As a great teacher, he knows how to do this.
You would keep one camera on the teacher, one on the student that was speaking to him…
…and the third on some small thing that makes the classroom real - someone sleeping in the back of the class, someone cutting the hair of his neighbor and so on. The first scene was improvised for the cameras and I just watched the monitors. After a few takes, we knew precisely what was going to happen. The cameras were always more precise in the later takes.
This was also your shooting process when working with the teachers?
Exactly the same. Maybe the teachers were more conscious of the cameras. We spent more time talking about the scenes together.
Was much of the film essentially shot in sequence?
The workshop took place during the school year and the shooting took place during summer holidays. At the very beginning, when I met the director of the school, he was very interested in the experience of the children. He involved himself very much with [the French equivalent of] the Board of Education. At the beginning, the team of ten teachers involved themselves in the project. They were very interested in what the film had to say and they wanted to be a part of it.
Much in the way that you repeatedly work with the same crew, your films are always created under the banner of the same production company, Haut et court. For a project such as this, they must have given you a great deal of freedom.
It’s more difficult to share such a project with financers. “We need money for this project but we don’t know exactly what it will be. This script will give you an indication of what it might be. No, there are no actors! We’re making it with real people.” It’s not very reassuring for someone to give money to such a project. After a few films, people have begun to trust me. Also, along with the script, we gave a short edit of footage from the workshop. I think it was obvious that something interesting could happen. It wasn’t too expensive, either. They didn’t take too much of a risk.
Were the students surprised when the film premiered at Cannes and then went on to win the Palme d’Or?
We showed them the film the week before Cannes and they were surprised that it was a “real” film! In fact, in making The Class, the shooting was very relaxed. We were laughing a lot. In the end, it looks like any film that you would go and see in a theater. They were really surprised. After that, they were very happy that their work - and their talent - was recognized. These kids are used to being stigmatized more than admired. At that moment, they were very happy to represent an image of France. It was real teamwork. None of them tried to be in front. They kept their head on their shoulders. They never imagined that they were stars.
Do you believe that a few of these students will continue acting?
One of the students already made another film last summer. I think several of them really would like to have a second experience. They’re not fantasizing about it, though. Most of them are now in high school and a few of them have decided to take an optional course in cinema. A few of them really could be great actors. For instance, Franck is very different from Souleymane. Esmeralda, of course, is very close to her character. Others entirely built their characters. Even if they were improvising on the first take, they were just replaying what they proposed on later takes. They were as good in the last take as the first one. In the editing, we mixed all of these takes together.
I presume that you were very involved in the editing process.
Yes. In fact, it was a long process. We had 150 hours of rushes. It was a huge puzzle between all of the cameras. Camera number one was good in take seven and camera two was good in take nine…
In Time Out, Human Resources and now The Class, you tend to work with one primary protagonist around which all of the action revolves. What is unusual, compared to others that work in this way, is the amount of attention that you give to the so-called secondary characters. They seem particularly well-developed…
I always try to limit the scope of the story so that it can be seen precisely in two hours. If we stay in the class, two hours is enough time to devote to each character. I prefer that the story is minimal. The space that you look at is small so that you can give each character a space to exist. One thing that I like about this film is the real spirit of what it says. It reflects how it was made. I wanted to show how the classroom is a place for democracy and we made the film in a very democratic way, giving the same importance to each of the characters. Giving a chance for each of the characters to exist. Of course, at the end, some characters are stronger than others. A few have nothing to say and others always speak, just because the children are like that. It makes the class real.
Your own preference is for smaller stories over large, sprawling stories.
When you’re speaking of a particular story, you’re often describing something more universal. Like Gomorrah, which in a way is very close to my film, reality gives you all of the material necessary to make all of the fiction that you need. The tendency of cinema now is to be more and more connected to reality. If you look at the selection of films at the Cannes Film Festival this year, it was obvious. I think it is because the world in which we are living is more and more complex. It is becoming difficult to find a place in this world where you can ask these questions. Cinema provides a good place to ask these questions.
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