An Interview with Antoine Jaccoud
The Swiss screenwriter talks process, dialogue, and his future projects.
When you think about Switzerland, the very first thing that may come to mind is the Alps. But when you think about Swiss cinema, the first person that comes to mind is Antoine Jaccoud, screenwriter, who has worked on numerous films including Denis Rabaglia’s Azzuro (Best Swiss Film of 2000), and films directed by Ursula Meier, like Home, (Winner of the Quartz Swiss Film Prize at the Semaine de la Critique, Cannes 2008) and Sister (Winner of the Silver Bear at the 2012 Berlinale). He’s not interested in being the big boss; he allows other people to reign on the sets. He prefers to watch and listen with his eyes and ears wide open. That is why his characters communicate with natural dialogue and why they look like the neighbors we meet in a shop or on the street. When I met him at Letnia Akademia Filmowa, the film festival in Zwierzyniec, Poland that recently screened his retrospective, he told me that for him, actors are mainly bodies. That is why people in the films he has worked on are always on the move.
Artur Zaborski: You and Ursula Meier are the great duo. Tell me about your collaboration.
Antoine Jaccoud: If we first talk about Home: She had been very much impressed by how close some people were living to the highway, and it was a kind of obsessive question to her, how these people can live so close and how can they stand the noise of it. She had this concern, or subject, in her mind for many years. She came to me with the concept of a family living close to a highway, and we spent months building the story. Normally Ursula is very visual. She comes with a location and the characters and I am here to beat out the story, make story proposals, and, let's say, drama proposals. I think I'm not so visual, but I have some abilities to hear things: lies, confessions, people screaming. But I don't have a kind of three-dimensional brain and she is very much imagining and designing things in a three-dimensional, plastic way, but without much of a kind of dramatic perspective. So, mostly what I bring to her is a kind of dramatic perspective, from the big, and at the same time, very minimalistic material she brings. Which means, and that was very much the case with Sister, as well, that she has some intuition about the main character and she likes to deal with children or kids or, let's say, teenagers, and she has intuition about the location. For Sister, we met in a cafe in Lausen, in a rush; we had one hour to meet, and she said, "You know, I really want to develop this story from this young boy stealing skis" because during a vacation when she was a teenager, she had met kind of a "bad boy" who was stealing everything in the ski resort, and she wanted to work in this character. And then she knew that the location would be this part of Switzerland.
Zaborski: So, it's like reality?
Jaccoud: Yes. We talked very freely and spontaneously and I said, “I think she is living with a single mother and I don't know why though” and I told her she could pretend to be the sister, and in one hour, just talking like this, we had the core of the story. Now we have changed this process of working.
Zaborski: Is it easier?
Jaccoud: It's a very exhausting way to work: Face to face for weeks or months, eating just two tomatoes and a piece of ham for lunch because she's not thinking about eating and she's not thinking about health food and she's not eating healthy food and I have kids and she has no kids. And around five or six o’clock I say, “O.K., Stop, I have to go," but it's face-to-face. Which means that every single line which is written, she knows already how she might shoot it. And there is not this often very painful process when you as a screenwriter deliver the script to a film director and there is this moment of adaptation, of conflict, of data. We have the same conception of the actors; they are bodies first, they are physical creatures, they are not people who smoke cigarettes so endlessly. It means they are working, they are using their hands, and they are carrying stuff. Ursula has a kind of concept of characters, of the life of characters in cinema as a kind of sport/activity, and I like this because I might be fed up on French films, on people talking and smoking in restaurants and wondering if they love this one or this one. We have the same conception about potential violence in the family unit. It can be big violence or symbolic little violence, but we are digging a lot into our own family experiences: the conflicts, the escape of someone during the night, the fathers screaming, the mothers crying, our parents, brothers, and sisters. So we have a kind of big, rich, common ground with which we are dealing and working. We try to avoid too many locations in order to focus on the conflicts.
Zaborski: The dialogue in both Sister and Home sounds very natural. Who’s responsible for it?
Jaccoud: Me, as I think I have a good sense of observation. I'm from the middle class, but my father was a great imitator of richer people, and of working class people. We laughed a lot with my siblings because of that. I graduated from Lausen University in the social sciences, so I know where I come from. I am between the rich and, let's say, blue-collar workers. I think it comes quite easily, and I want to disappear behind the characters. I don't want to put some smart lines in characters mouths. O.K., I'm trying to bring some humor. Like [in Sister] when Simon walks in the skis, he says it has to be “as smooth as ass skin!” But that is something you can hear in a factory, people say that, yes, and Casey, the actor, he liked to say that.
Zaborski: Do you consider your films socially involved?
Jaccoud: There is this obsession of Ursula’s to avoid the stereotype of a socially engaged film, to avoid the excessive obstruction of film with any social background. The choice of Léa Seydoux [in Sister] was a way to avoid the working class female hero, because she brings some sophistication. Right now she is well known because of Spectre, as Bond’s girl, so you don't think of her as someone with many social handicaps: who didn't go to school, or who has some lost teeth. It's always this obsession to avoid the categories, and trying to be a little outside of the genre. It’s also in the way that the slopes are shot and the way the mountain is shot, because Switzerland has a long history of films with mountains (and I made an exhibition in Bern about this). There is a way to shoot it to make it not landscape, because it's not a romantic way to reflect the soul of the characters; it's a little bit different. There is not much mountain or landscape in this film, and this was the big question: Where does the main story take place? Is it up? Is it down? Actually, it's in the middle. Now Ursula and I know each other so well in the dimension of working and writing that we are not writing face-to-face anymore. So we meet, we talk for weeks about the story, I propose the outline to her, we agree to sleep on it, and then I am working alone until we meet again.
Zaborski: And what about when the film is ready, do you watch it and accept it together?
Jaccoud: Ask my wife if it is nice to watch a film with me. It's horrible, because after two minutes I say, "Oh my God." I’m not kidding! I'm a pain in the ass; don't sit beside me. Sometimes, I can feel that it is going to be just a wonderful experience. So, to tell you the truth, first I see what is missing and sometimes I can be frustrated or angry at the director, saying, "We spend one week on this scene, which was crucial!” I'm very neurotic and I'm very Calvinist. I think after a few months and after five screenings I would say, “O.K., it works in the end.” Even [with] Sister, which was sold in many countries, and got a Silver Bear in Berlin, I was still thinking of some missing scenes. But after a few months I just said, “O.K.”.
Zaborski: What are you working on now?
Jaccoud: I'm working on a documentary project about a black man who was found dead, frozen in the mountains of Switzerland, in 2009. He was wandering in the mountains for months in the German part of Switzerland. Nobody helped him so he was sleeping in a little farmers’ shack in the mountains. He was destroying the lockers a little bit, so most people changed the lockers. He was found frozen to death in February of 2009. Swiss authorities found him frozen and they kept him in a refrigerator in a hospital, and after one year when the African embassy of Sudan said, “We don't know this guy,” he was burnt. I would like to tell this story in a kind of original, ironical way; I think it's about this old problem we have with black people that will never be solved. I’d like to maybe cast black actors I know in Switzerland, and try to find a, kind of, very original way to tell this story. I met with people who had seen him wandering in the snow. I met the retired cop who told me his body was solid, like a tree. They couldn't put him in a helicopter. I will work on this next year, but I'm trying to put pieces together to make it provocative and ironic. The authorities from the small town where all of this happened don't want to communicate with me. I had meetings and they cancelled everything, because they are ashamed. They don't know how to deal. They don't want to be considered racist people. I have been there on ski shoes: I've seen the place, I've taken photos of the lockers, I've seen where the guy was found. He was in his thirties; he had five layers of clothing on. Maybe he just liked to wander, though, so I don't want to make a kind of overtly political film.
Watch Ursula Maier’s Home, starring Isabelle Huppert and with a screenplay by Antoine Jaccoud, now streaming on Fandor.