Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Claude & Nathan Miller's exploration of family ties, I'M GLAD MY MOTHER IS ALIVE Interview with the co-filmmaker

I'M GLAD MY MOTHER IS ALIVE is a collaborative first for Claude Miller, who has brought in his son Nathan as co-director/
writer. It is also yet another Miller movie (Class Trip, Alias Betty, La Petite Lili, A Secret) that gets just about every-
thing right and yet seems bereft of any highly noticeable directorial stamp (this is a compliment, by the way). Instead the story is simply told in the most appropriate manner possible so that its meaning and applications to our world can be seen.

What I love about Miller's movies is that, while they don't over-explain or make their characters and situations too simple, they always open up the world to us in new and different ways (often rather cracked ways), making us piece together the shards as best we can.  In this latest endeavor, a based-on-truth tale of an adopted boy who, as a young man, at last reconnects with his birth mom, the Millers (at left: père above and fils below) give us the facts of the matter, melding past and present to create full characters and a rich story easily followed yet fraught with possibilities.

Miller and his son tackle these possibilities with the director's brand of tacit skill, making us aware that, though the human condition is vast and unknowable, its exploration is always worth our trouble.  I find Miller to be a non-judgmental director in the best way:  He lays it all out and lets you make your own call, which, by the end of his films, is no simple matter. Miller always makes it clear that in real life blame and approbation are not so easily or evenly bestowed.

One of those torn-from-the-headlines tales that have you asking, "How can people do such things?" even as the news media blares its hasty judgement,  in the Millers' hands, the movie refrains from giving you any sensationalism early on, and instead tracks the story beginning-to-end -- thus answering some of our emotional and psychological questions, as well as the simple one of What happened next? As in so many off Miller's movies, the connections are many and vital, but how difficult they often are to untangle.

In the lead role, young Vincent Rottiers (above, also seen to fine effect another film that really should be released here, Xavier Gianolli's In the Beginning) gives the kind of performance that deservedly wins awards. Full of subtle, quicksilver changes as he searches for identity, mother, companionship and love, this actor never makes a false step and should have a long and full career.

As his birth mother, Sophie Cattani is also excellent -- warm, slutty, selfish and finally as surprising as her son.  In the roles of the adoptive parents, Christine Citti (below, right) and Yves Verhoeven (below, left) make us feel their situation and pain as something not just unfortunate but terribly unfair.
I'm Glad My Mother Is Alive (90 minutes, from Strand Releasing) opens in New York City on Friday, September 2, at The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center -- followed by a national roll out.


TrustMovies met with the film's co-writer and co-director Nathan Miller during the 2010 Rendez-vous with French Cinema at the Film Society of Lincoln Center -- where the film made its U.S. debut.  At the time isi film had no U.S. distribution secured, but after in the year and a half since, it has found an outlet and can be seen at last. In the following exchange, Nathan's words appear in standard type, and TM's in boldface

So you acted in your father's film, The Best Way?  That's the first time I guess I saw you.

(Nathan laughs heartily)   Yes. I was six years old.

How old are you now?


No.. Really? It was that long ago?

Don't tell me.

I just saw it for the first time on DVD. A friend of mind said, 'You've got to see this!"

That was my father's first film. His first long film.

Really? It holds up very well.

Yes-- it does not age badly.

You worked on the camera for The Petite Lili...

Yes, and for The Secret, and also Betty Fisher and Other Stories.

For me, your father's films --and now I can start to say your films -- I don't think that Claude Miller has any terribly pronouced visual style, yet for me his films get at the truth in a way that the films of not very many other directors can do. Truth is what everybody wants -- or claims to want -- to get at in film, whether it's a documentary or narrative. Directors want to get at it, but it is hard to do. But that's what  I think your father, and maybe you....

No judgment.  You have to have no judgment on your characters to find the truth of them.

Yes! And so you see things from various angles.  From various people. So it is hard to be judgmental.  That is so true of this film.

Yes, and that is funny. Becasue we love all the characters. We have no evil characters.

Even in Class Trip-- which is awful, what happens.  My companion was so disturbed by that movie. And he stopped watching Alias Betty Fisher for that reason, too. Your films are disturbing in ways we usually don't get close to.

(Nathan nods. And then he and the translator confer)

For formal resons, this movie was not by Claude. This is because I was the only director on the set. Every decision, every camera direction, was only by me. Claude would sit behind the video monitor and he would look at everything I had done on it. And sometimes he would see something wrong for him, and we would discuss together. But nobody --  and I mean nobody -- heard his voice during this shoot.

So this then is your movie?

No. It is like -- you know you've got a big, big and fat car, but you never drive. And your father give you the key. But he...

Is sitting in the backseat?

Yes,  and you drive...

When he had questions about something you did, did he win sometimes and you other times?

It was not a winning matter. We wrote the script together, and so we did not care of the formality of the camera -- the aesthetic. You don't care about the camera-- where to put it, how it moves. The only thing now Claude is interested for movies is the script, the actors and the editing. He don't care about the camera. He don't care about the movement. Of course: He do it. But he was so happy that I had done it!  He never ask me, whay did you shoot like this?  Why like that?  The problem sometime is with the direction of acting, the feeling of seconds. (Ed's note: Perhaps he means the pacing. We should have asked.)

Has this always been true -- even in other movies?

Yes, always true.  He don't want to know what I do with the second camera. He want me to do what I think is the best for him. He has his own camera.  I am the master of the second camera.

This is something I didn't know about. Is the second camera there as a back-up?

No.  As a compliment.  Because I know him a lot. I work with him since I am 16 years old. For 24 years now. I know him, his taste. I know what he wants. We discover on the first movie we made together a video movie.  Simple camera. No problem with lighting.  The film was a success critically and it was popular, too: The Magicians's Room. Like a Dogma movie. A very strange movie. Claude loved the way he discovered during the editing what he didn't know: Look at the this shot -- look at that one! We discovered that the film finally was 50 % and 50%  from both of us.  So he never stopped this collaboration with me. The next job was Betty Fisher. And for that, I knew nothing. Never knew 35 millimeter  Had to learn everything. Never had a 35 M camera on my shoulder. I do exactly the same thing.  But I got into big problem with the lighting operator....

So maybe it is better to have no winning between us. I am now involved with the camera, and I just do the best I can. And I do it like I remember he do it.  It is with two cameras every time. And I then I do it.  This one (I'm Glad My Mother Is Alive) is a simple movie. No traveling, no movement. With two cameras, everything. So I make the shoot as I used to see it done by him.  And I do this with the acting, too. But as you know, he was there. He was sitting in thre back seat. When you've got someone like that who is sititing in the back seat, you can take risks, you can drive faster. Because he has got his hand on the hand brake. But yet he never use that hand brake.

When you cast Vincent Rottiers, had the actor already done A la Origine?

He was just then coming off that shoot, which was running late on the shoot. So we wait for him.

He is going to be a very big star, I think.

I am sure. Yes, he is incredible! He start at age 13 and has already made 20 movies. And he is but 22 years old. But he is not famous at all and is a very quiet person. Very modest, discrete.

He fits well within your movie.

More than you can imagine!  We had an incredible meeting.  He is not a close friend of me.  Maybe, during the shoot,  we speak maybe 10 words.  But duriing the shoot, he gives it all. I never had to ask him anything, you just look at him and he give you everything. Maybe twenty thousand times more than you can imagine.

So you leave that alone, and just let him work?

Yes. With Vincent it was always one shot. Maybe we make two, but the first one was always right.

How was the movie received in France?

Badly. Terribly.

How? Why?

The critical response was very good.  But on the Wednesday, when it open...

Nobody came?

Nobody.  Perhaps they thought it was too harsh, too hard. A very cerebral intellectual French movie. Maybe if I was not the director of it....

Maybe this is your Iraq movie?! 

(He explodes with laughter, but then turns to the translator, who explains. The translator tells him what this means -- how nearly every American film about the middle east post 9/11 has done poorly at the Box-office. Then we talk about The Hurt Locker and all the critical response and Academy Awards-- and still no box-office.)

Well, perhaps we were not honest about what this movie was. You see the poster, right?

Yes. People don't go to the movies for the truth, do they?

The saddest thing was speaking to people after who loved the film, but they tell us: We did not know the movie was about this!  Maybe we made a mistake about how we explained what the movie was?

Maybe the film will be better received where they don't know the story. 

I agree with you but the press always want to tell the story and to talk a little bit too much.

I think so, too. In fact, if I could change anything about movie criticism in this country, it would be stop talking about the plot!  

Oh, yes, but they always want the plot.

Even the trailers they make today --

They tell you everything!


Fortunately this was a small little movie....

That didn't cost too much to make?

But it was hard for me.

I'll bet. What's next for you?

Ah, a strange story.  Pascale Ferran:  He is a writer but he also directed Lady Chatterley a few years ago, with the writer Pierre Trividic.  He came to me with a very strange story about Chateaubriand, a famous French writer during the beginning of the 19th Century. It is something completely different.

In the case of I'm Glad My Mother Is Alive, this was also something different for us. In this universe, the producer had asked us to direct it. So it is not a film that originated with me or Claude. It was brought to us, but it was not the kind of movie we would make at all.  It is usually Claude who chooses the story.  But this time, it was the producer. Jacques Audiard did not want to do it anymore, so it was brought to us. And that is why you see Jacques Audiard's name on the credit as producer.

When your father was here a few years ago with Class Trip or maybe Alias Betty, I asked a question from the audience, When are we going to get a Claude Miller retrospective? Richard Peña was on stage with Claude at the time, and Claude very subtly pointed to Richard and said, 'Ask him!'  Maybe it is time.

There will be a retrospective of my father's work but it will be in Los Angeles, and it will include almost all of his movies. Maybe not all -- but many.

That's great; a real retrospective of his work.  But in L.A.  Not here.

But there should be no problem to arrange something here, too?

Well then, ask Richard Peña about this. Tell him there has been a second request for that retrospective!
(He laughs.)
Listen, Nathan, this has been a real pleasure, and what you have told me has been so interesting. I thank you so much for your time -- and for your movie!

All images above are from the film itself -- except the first below the poster of the two writers/directors.

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