#LFF2017 Interview with Xavier Legrand (Custody)

French actor turned director Xavier Legrand came to the London Film Festival to introduce his debut feature ‘Custody.’ Fresh from winning two prizes at Venice, ‘Custody’ is a harrowing tale of domestic violence that follows up the story of Legrand’s first, Oscar-nominated short film. It focuses on how legal loopholes can allow abusive parents to perpetuate the intimidation to their families. We met the Gallic filmmaker for a short interview and talked about what brought him to the issue; his acting career and the cinematic influences of this film.

Domestic violence is a growing concern everywhere, particularly in Mediterranean countries, and I wondered what brought you to that issue?

Because I feel involved as a citizen, as a man with that political motivation. First of all, I like to write about tragedy. I come from theatre. I am an actor and I am very inspired by Greek tragedy and a lot of family murders. My aim was writing some tragedy set in contemporary times. I did a lot of research and saw that domestic violence is a very big problem. It’s very difficult to talk about it. That’s why I decided to do it.

I’ve seen the film has been a success in every festival it has screened. You won a couple of awards in Venice; everybody was raving about it in San Sebastian… How this good reception at the festival circuit is affecting its release? Is that opening new markets for you?

Yes, maybe. It will be a good boost for the release in France, where it is not out yet. Because the subject is difficult. Domestic violence is not a particularly funny thing to go and watch. I think the fact that it has won awards will ease its way into theatres and for audiences. And, yes, a lot of different markets have expressed interest in my work, which is great.

I have got a couple of questions about your cast choices, Denis Ménochet and Lea Drucker, as well as Thomas Gioria, the young child who gives a fantastic performance. The physical appearance of both adult leads, Denis is very stocky and Lea seems very feminine and fragile, enhances somehow what happened in the story. Where you intentionally looking for that sort of “Beauty and the beast” contrast?

Not particularly. Have you seen my first short film? It’s a story with the same characters but one year before. When she flee. I shot it four or five years ago and during this time Denis became bigger, (laughs). I didn’t fight that, instead I welcomed it. His new look it’s very good for the film. He could be a monster, a bear, a child abuser…

And about the child, everybody says how difficult is to cast children, which for a first feature adds a new level of challenge. How did you manage to bring such a fantastic performance out of him?

It was a very long casting. I met sixty children. My casting director selected between two hundred, so it was a good range. After that, there was a long process teaching him how to play; when the acting start and when it finishes. We worked by imagining things about his childhood with his parents. Also explaining why the situation is like that in the film. Finally, I taught him how to welcome real feelings to include in the playing. For example, in the last scene, a very difficult one in the bus stop, it was the beginning of the day in the morning. I had recorded all the shooting noise. I played it, shouted action and he began crying. Even Lea, who is a professional actor, when she saw him crying, joined him. By the time I shouted “cut” everybody was crying on the set.

Another element that impresses on “Custody” is that each of its three acts seems to have a personality of its own. The first one feels like a court drama, the second a most intense family one, focused in the malaise the situation generates, and the third is a fully fledged horror. It reminds to ‘The Shining’. Is this something you were trying to achieve? To show domestic violence as a proper horror film?

Yes. That’s right. It’s about how a decision of a judge can trigger all this horror. That’s why I did it that way. I was really precise about the film’s atmosphere. I saw that maybe we could begin like ‘Kramer vs. Kramer,’ moving on to ‘The Night of The Hunter’ and turn it into ‘The Shining.’

What’s your opinion about the state of the film industry in France and the whole of Europe? Is it a good moment for a newcomer, young director to make a film?

I don’t know. I can’t talk about that because I didn’t find any difficulties to make my movie. I think it’s very difficult. I have heard many friends of mine who want to do a film how long the process takes. I think that perhaps because my first short film was nominated for the Oscars that may have helped. I also think my screenplay was good. If it wasn’t no one would have given me any money (laughs).
I think that my views on the subject made it interesting for people to contribute financially. It’s a very relevant topic at the moment.

You mentioned your past career in theatre. Were you an actor? A director as well?

An actor, on stage specially. I have played a few roles in films, but most of my acting career has been in theatre.

So what did you bring from your theatrical experience into the movie?

The writing! I wanted to write for theatre, but I realized I am not very talented for that, because you need very specific use of language for it and my writing is more suited for pictures and action. So, I decided to try and write a script and when I did it I met my producer, who was at the time a director. When he read it he gave me his feedback. He thought it was wonderful and asked me if I was looking for a director. I told him I had ideas in my head on how to do it myself. He then said he would be the producer. It was his first production too. So we made a very good team. It all was very natural. I did not have to think about it much.

What has the reaction of the London Film Festival audiences been like?

I haven’t had time to check that yet. I came yesterday afternoon and tonight is my screening. I have a Q&A after, so I will see.

‘Custody’ screens today at the BFI London Film Festival: Prince Charles (18:00). Do not miss the chance to see what it’s likely to become one of the most talked about debuts of the year.

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