Thanks to her winsome performances as the object of Ethan Hawke’s desire in “Before Sunrise” and his bete blanc in the sequel “Before Sunset,” Julie Delpy is the best known French actress in this country after Catherine Deneuve and Isabel Huppert. But despite fine work in films by the likes of Agnieszka Holland (“Europa, Europa”) and Krzysztof Kieslowski (“Three Colors: White”), Delpy’s gifts have largely been unexploited by directors. So she’s branched out into screenwriting and directing, making her feature debut with the serious romantic comedy ’2 Days in Paris.” Marion (Delpy) and Jack (Adam Goldberg) play a Manhattan couple who cap their European vacation with a visit to her parents (portrayed by Delpy’s parents, the veteran actors Marie Pillet and Albert Delpy). Everywhere they go, they run into another of Marion’s ex-lovers, which does not sit well with Jack. Delpy, who studied film at NYU in the early ’90s, spoke fluent, rapid-fire English during a late-July visit to San Francisco. [Editor’s note: “2 Days in Paris” opens in the Bay Area Fri/23.]
SF360: At its core, ’2 Days in Paris’ seems to be about the difficulty of relaxing and enjoying ephemeral happiness.
Delpy: Being in the moment. How to be in the moment in the relationship and stop bickering and enjoy what you have, which is — if you have a connection with someone, it’s a lot already. Stop arguing about all the little other things that don’t function or are not exactly perfect. We are a spoiled society. We can afford to have those kind of problems. [Marion and Jack] have no problems; they have little bourgeois problems.
SF360: If it weren’t for the pressure cooker of these two days in Paris, they might have gone on uninterrupted and happy. But events prompt them to reexamine their relationship.
Delpy: Yeah, I think it’s always good moments of catharsis that bring out stuff that you’re putting aside and not really addressing. So yeah, they’re going to have to address and accept their differences and their miscommunication and all that if they want to go further [with] their relationship.
SF360: I was surprised — and gratified — by the numerous pointed references to anti-Semitism and anti-Arab racism. An American filmmaker would never broach such topics in an indie relationship comedy. Can you talk about the challenge of referencing serious topics without losing the overriding tone?
Delpy: The challenge was actually people letting me do that. Even though it was European-financed and small financing, so I didn’t have many people over me saying, ‘You should do this or that,’ they got a little nervous when they saw the film. Maybe they didn’t read the script fully or something, I don’t know. (Laughs.)
SF360: So it was in the script, it wasn’t ad-libbed.
Delpy: Yeah, it was in the script, and it was very important to me. Actually, there was even more. I cut out a little bit because it was so much that maybe it would have lost the tone. I don’t think it would have lost the tone, actually; the stuff I took out was funny. But I had so much footage, I couldn’t use all of it. So yes, it was in from the minute I started writing. Adam [Goldberg] was like, ‘I don’t understand why you do this, putting more political stuff in it.’ It was not necessarily easy because not everybody was sure it was right to talk about certain things. But I had faith that it could work, to have a romantic comedy with more edgy political stuff. And make it funny, even though it’s not funny subject matter. When one ex-boyfriend says, ‘It doesn’t matter [that only] your dad [is] Jewish, all those guys would put you in a camp [anyway].’ (Laughs.) Talking about the French like that. You know, the French don’t like so much to be reminded that they were not always like the liberal minds that they say they are. And it made a few people uncomfortable in France. But overall I think the public is fine with it. It was more like financiers were a little nervous. They’ll always tell you, if you do a studio film you don’t want to lose any part of the demographic. So you don’t want to lose the anti-Semite. (laughter) Which is, in France, you’d lose what? 10 percent, 15 percent of the population. I personally don’t care [if I] lose them. I personally wouldn’t be too happy for them to see my film. But you don’t want to lose the racists. In France it’s about 25 percent of the population. But for me it’s good to lose that part of the population. I don’t give a shit if they don’t see my film. I’m pretty clear on that level. I don’t care about demographics, I don’t believe in that, I think that’s how studios think. It works for big action films, obviously, or kids movies, but when you go outside of that I think it’s better to be ballsy and to be real and to make the film that you believe in doing. What’s the point of making a film for half a million Euros if you can’t say what you want? Then I would do a big Hollywood romantic comedy and that’s it. Which I could do, too, but in this case that’s not what I was doing.
SF360: You gauged things correctly with ’2 Days in Paris,’ because I read that it is the most widely distributed French film ever.
Delpy: That was a surprise to me, because I didn’t know the humor would translate for everyone. At [the] Berlin [Film Festival], I was giving interviews to Russians and they would be like, ‘The film is so Russian.’ Then I would give interviews to Brazilians [who’d say], ‘The film is so Brazilian.’ I was like, ‘Really?’ Which confirmed to me that dysfunctional relationships are universal. And the humor in the film is about family, love, sex, jealousy, politics, which is something everyone relates to. I think it’s universal that men don’t like to know too much about who was in there before they were. (Laughter.)
SF360: You alluded to creative differences a minute ago. How did you deal with Adam on the set if he didn’t feel the same way you did?
Delpy: It was not a huge difference. Adam agreed to do the film, you know. I gave him the script after he agreed. (Laughter.) No, I wrote it with him in mind. I had a few meetings with him to talk about the relationship; he ad-libbed a few lines that were very funny that I kept in the film. We had a good relationship, we worked really well together. He was very good at first takes, which is a dream for a director. We argued on certain things: He felt it was too harsh at times, the language — calling your mom a slut, little details like that which made him a little uncomfortable. What I did is, ‘OK, let’s try something that you’re more comfortable with.’ If it worked, great. If it didn’t work, I’d say, ‘Let’s try one for me my way.’ Then I would keep the one my way. Because ultimately you’re the director so you end up deciding. But we agreed on most things. Only once did I say to someone, ‘OK, enough is enough,’ after weeks of complaining.
SF360: How would you characterize your experience with the crew on your first feature?
Delpy: I noticed something about working with other directors, [namely] that you will have an entire crew and actors behind you if you know what you are doing. If you are very decisive, very quick at making decisions, everyone respects you, because that is what they want. They want someone that will lead the shoot. They want a captain. Even if you make the wrong decision, and you don’t know why you made that decision, but you’ve made it, that makes people very comfortable. In prep I already had my crew 100 percent in my hands and doing what I wanted and it was like a straight line. So the shoot was not that hard, even though it was very short time and a lot of stress. Everyone followed me, even the crew. French crews, if you go overtime, complain, but no one did that.
SF360: Let me ask the obvious question: How did your experience as an actress influence the way you directed your cast?
Delpy: I don’t know how I was with actors, but I’d push them to do their best. I like when directors push me a little bit. I don’t like when a director says, ‘Great, let’s move on to the next shot,’ because I feel like they don’t really care. You need to be careful. I might have been a little short with [actor] friends of mine that didn’t learn their lines. ‘Just learn them, goddamn it, don’t make such a big deal out of acting.’ Sometimes I forgot how insecure you get when you’re an actor. One friend, he was acting for the first time, sometimes I would push him and I would do the take over and over and over, not going to let go easily. Because the worst for an actor is when a director says ‘OK, fine,’ and you feel you haven’t done your best.
SF360: When an actor or actress directs a first feature, there’s a temptation to look for the influence of a director that he or she worked with. I had Kieslowski in mind as I watched ’2 Days in Paris,’ but I have to say that was a fruitless exercise.
Delpy: I think it would be weird to try to imitate Kieslowski. You’re doomed to fail. There’s one Kieslowski. There’s just one Agnieszka Holland, there’s one Godard.
SF360: Not imitate, but reflect their influence.
Delpy: You’d be surprised how they’ve influenced me. It’s never in an obvious way. Kieslowski, in a way, gave me a lot of advice on directing [although] I’‘ve directed a movie that couldn’t be further from a Kieslowski film. I was such a film buff and he always told me, ‘I never inspired myself from other films, just what I witness in life.’ And in a way [this] film is witnessing life. So is the writing of ‘Before Sunset’ [more] about what I’ve witnessed than trying to copy someone else’s movie.
SF360: What did you take from Godard?
Delpy: I don’t know if you can take anything from Godard. Godard wrote me a letter when I was 14, after I’d finished [‘Detective’], which was very sweet. He was giving me advice for my future. And he said something like, ‘You are the river and everyone else is like the banks trying to mold you into a direction. Just follow your own.’ In a way I think unconsciously I follow that. And maybe that’s why I’m not a huge star. I didn’t do the typical path. I just followed my own. And I think Godard influenced me in that sense. I watched ’2 Days in Paris’ the other day and I hadn’t seen it in a while, and it’s embarrassing almost, but there’s a bunch of jump cuts in the last scene like in ‘A Bout de Souffle’(‘Breathless’). I didn’t mean to! I didn’t realize that this conversation scene in bed had these weird jump cuts. Which means that without wanting it at all, every film you’ve seen influences you in the style that you’re telling a story. Because I’ve seen many films, I’m probably influenced by a million different films without even wanting to. I never study other people’s films and say, ‘OK, I’m going to shoot it like that.’ That would be weird. At the same time I did watch a few films before I left to do this film. But I watched films that had nothing do with — I watched ‘Jaws.’ (Laughs.) I didn’t want to watch too many comedies, so I wouldn’t fall into a kind of formula or be too influenced.
SF360: Is there a performance you’ve given that you’re extremely proud of but that wasn’t received well by the public?
Delpy: I don’t think like that. I don’t regret or think I should have done better. I just move on with my life. Because it’s negative. Not that I’m all positive and stuff. I have a lot of negative thoughts all the time, mostly about death and the end of the world.
SF360: But like every actor, you must have some ambivalence about the way your career has gone.
Delpy: Each time I got a good part, where I could explore things, I got well recognized. But I wasn’t given many great parts from beginning to end to express myself. That’s why I started writing. I wrote a lot of the dialogue for ‘Before Sunrise,’ and then the other one was fully co-written by [Hawke, Richard Linklater and I] and I was able to give myself a good part. What can you do as an actor if you have one scene? You can do a good scene but it’s still going to be just one scene. If you give a carpenter a knife to build a house, he’s going to do very little with it.
SF360: I had the impression that it was better in France than here, that there were more character studies and more good parts for women.
Delpy: You would be surprised how little there is good in France. There are a lot of bad movies. I vote for the Cesar, which is the French Oscar. I know. I watch the films with my friends. We fast forward a lot.
SF360: You laugh and point.
Delpy: We don’t laugh. We’re horrified.
SF360: Last question. You’ve said that true artists are obsessive. What did you obsess over with this film, to get just right?
Delpy: Editing and mixing. In the editing process you can really get obsessive. You’re by yourself, no one bothers you. Little details: Is it funny enough? Can you cut half a second? No, add it back. Half a second changes a whole scene.
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