Cedric Klapisch is one of the more successful French filmmakers to emerge over the last decade. As a writer/director, his work typically walks a line between melancholy and comedy, finding that delicate balance between humor and tragedy where most life experiences can be found. He’s best known for his ensemble pieces, like L’Auberge Espagnole (2002), its sequel The Russian Dolls (2005), and Paris (2008), that nimbly intertwine the stories of a variety characters to form a tapestry of life.
However, fans of Klapisch might be surprised to learn that his latest feature, My Piece of the Pie, ditches that ensemble style in favor of a two-headed character study. The reason for the change in focus can be directly attributed to the subject matter. Klapisch has created a comedy about the current global economic crisis and given that it’s a complicated issue revolving around financial decisions and intricacies that I can’t pretend to understand, he wisely chose to focus on two characters on two distinct sides of the economic spectrum.
The film stars Karin Viard as a suicidal single mother of three who is forced to take a job as a maid after being suddenly fired from the factory job she held for 20 years. The new job sees her working for a stock market shark, played by Gilles Lellouche, who cares about nothing other than money. In fact, he’s so focused on his work crushing companies like the one Karin was employed by that he barely even remembers he has a son when the little tyke arrives on his doorstep. The three characters soon form an uneasy family of haves and have-nots and that’s just the beginning.
My Piece of the Pie (opening this Friday at The IFC theater in New York and available nationwide on VOD) is an enlightening comedy that pokes gentle fun at 99%-ers and their worldview. The Morton Report recently got a chance to chat with Klapisch about the conception, production, and intentions of his new social satire.
How did this film come about? I’m assuming it’s your reaction to the financial crisis?
Yes, obviously [laughs]. I probably started to work on it in 2009 when it became clear what happened in 2008 was more important than what we all heard about. I think we all know now that it was worse than just a few months of panic in the financial system. It did create a global crisis that only seems to be getting worse.
And what drew you to create this specific story as a reaction?
Well, now it’s funny that what’s happening in the States is a strange echo of the film. This concept of the 99% against 1% is really what I’m talking about in the movie. There are a lot of people who are victims of the system and there are very few people who profit from it. The winners keep winning and the losers keep losing and the movie is really about the gap between the two communities.
Why did you think it was important to approach this material as a comedy? Because I wouldn’t have really thought of that.
[Laughs] Yeah, because it’s really not funny. I thought if I was going to talk about this it was either going to be a really depressing movie or I could try to make it funny. The real reason is that I think it’s more interesting for a director like me to put a distance between my film and the reality. When you take a distance like that you can laugh about the world that we created and when you laugh at it I think you understand it more. Otherwise it would have been too complex to discuss.
I think sometimes we don’t even understand what’s really happened because it’s so complex. So when you make fun of it and the consequences, when you take a billionaire and see how he reacts with his cleaning lady, then you can speak to everyone. If you make fun of the contrast between the two characters, I think you get a better sense of the world that we live in.
Did you spend much time with traders getting to understand that world?
I had to learn and understand many things that I knew nothing about to write the script, so I really investigated that world like a journalist. I met a lot of people in New York who work on Wall Street. I went to London and Paris to meet people there. I read a lot of articles and books on the subject. I did all that to make sure I could be precise about it. And it was the same thing on the side of the workers. I was writing about people who got kicked out of their factories, so on the same level I needed to educate myself about all that. It helped a great deal, as you can imagine.
Did you decide not to make this film an ensemble piece because the central issue was so complicated? I kind of assumed it would be an ensemble when I sat down to watch it and that was a pleasant surprise.
Well, there were two motivations there. First of all, I’ve always done ensemble pieces and in fact in Paris I had too many characters. So it was kind of a way to push myself as a filmmaker. I wanted to see if I was even able to make a film with just two main characters. I thought that this story was the right story to try that out because I think that the world today is really contrasty.
With this issue there are really two sides. This concept of the 99% against the 1% is a reality and even more obvious and important than it ever was before. So I thought that it would be interesting in this movie to concentrate on two characters to focus on that concept.
Was it a challenge to find a way to keep Gilles Lellouche’s character, the stockbroker, likable? Because considering all of the terrible things he does in the film, it was shocking that I was able to empathize with him at times.
I thought it was important that he is charismatic and can be seductive even though he’s obnoxious and a financial shark. So I really needed to show the complexity of those people where they can live in a bubble and not be in the real world because they have too much money and have lost their basic values. He’s a lousy lover and a lousy person, so he does have a lot to learn from his maid. But on the flip side, he makes people dream. It’s like the old fantasy about powerful men. You can hate them, but people do dream about them and there’s an attraction to what they represent.
Did you write with the two main actors in mind, because they seemed ideally suited to those roles?
With her [Karin Viard], yes. I had thought about Vincent Cassell initially for Steve, but he was shooting Black Swan and wasn’t available. With Karin Viard we’ve worked together a lot. The first time we worked together was 20 years ago, so we know each other very well and I wrote the character for her because I know her strengths. Gilles Lellouche and I had only worked together once, but when I changed the character for Gilles, I knew he had a great quality to exploit, which is that he can be very funny while being obnoxious, which is a rare quality. So I changed the character to accommodate that and I think it made the character more interesting.
I heard that the extras in the factory seen were actually former employees and was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how that came about.
Yes, when I was filming at the factory the same thing that happens in the movie happened in real life. The oil company fired 400 employees suddenly, so a lot of the extras lived the same situation as the characters in the film and that really gave a very bleak power and big sincerity to us while we were making the film. Especially for Karin, she was acting with people who actually were experiencing her character’s drama and that was really helpful for us while building the reality of the film. And all of the union people in the movie were all people who are on TV all the time in France. They are very famous union delegates. I used real people in those roles because I realized that it was hard to ask an actor to play those characters with the same sincerity.
Do you normally like to mix in non-actors with your cast?
Not a lot; I like to combine very trained actors with very truthful non-actors. And of course, I have to test the non-actors in advance to see if they can act because not everyone can do it. So, it’s a tricky thing to organize, but I really like to try and mix documentary techniques with fiction techniques. I find that interesting. It was the same thing with brokers and traders in the movie. When I shot those scenes in the trading offices in London, everyone in the background were real traders and brokers. It was a combination of staging written dialogue scenes and shooting that world like a documentary and very tricky to organize.
Do you enjoy being able to improvise with your crew and actors on the set then or do you prefer to have things planned out and storyboarded in advance?
I really like the combination of the two. I like to think about it in advance and write the script very carefully. But then I’m happy to change everything on the set. So it’s not exactly improvisation. It’s improvisation that’s backed up by all the work that came before. I think that when you change your ideas at the last moment and you’ve thought about it for a long time, very often the freshness of that moment can create something more interesting than what had been developed over six months of work. I really like both sides, to work very hard on the script, but then almost forget about it while you’re shooting.
Without giving too much away, the film changes dramatically toward the end and almost feels like a different movie. Was that intentional, and why did you want such a big shift in the finale?
Well, I think that because at a certain point reality comes back. He is in a dreamy world and her brings her into that. And then there is this moment where reality comes crashing back into her life and there is a violent change in the movie. For me, it’s really a way to dramatize the feelings of all of those people who are suddenly laid off, their lives changed drastically from one day to another.
I think it’s really about that. You can believe that you’re going to have a nice house and the bank will help you. It almost feels like a fairy tale and then it can become a nightmare in a second. So I think the ending represents that in a way.
I noticed you had a little cameo at the start of this film and I think you pop up in other films as well. What interests you in that?
Well, the things is that I started to do that 20 years ago, so now I’m kind of trapped [laughs]. I went to NYU film school and did that in my short movies and I’ve done it ever since. For me, it’s like a signature. It’s like seeing the artist’s name on a painting. It’s my way of signing the movie.
I heard you were considering doing an American film before settling on this. Is that still in the cards?
Yeah, because the thing is I learned how to make movies in New York at NYU and I’ve always wanted to make a feature film there. So, my next movie is going to be in New York. It’s the follow-up to L’Auberge Espagnole and Russian Dolls. It’s going to be a trilogy. So it’s with the same characters: Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, and Kelly Reilly. We’re going to start shooting that next September and it’s very exciting to think that I’ll finally be shooting in New York.