Interview: Mathias Malzieu, director of the movie A Mermaid in Paris


Mis à jour le 15 October 2020.

We had the pleasure of interviewing Mathias Malzieu, writer, director and singer in the French rock band Dionysos, about his second movie. When, how and why, the director explains everything.

Olivier Cachin: did the movie project coincide with that of the book?

Mathias Malzieu: Yes. I actually dreamt the story, so I wrote the script, book and songs all at the same time. That is to say, when I dreamt about the character who finds the stranded mermaid, the first thing I did was write the mermaid’s theme, the song she uses to kill. And then I connected that to a singer character, so I wrote his songs. While I was writing them, I could see the songs he would perform, and at the same time I was taking parts of compositions that were beginning to emerge, thinking “This could be good for this type of scene”. So sometimes it inspired me to write scenes. Each element was powering another inside a centrifuge that allowed me to be completely immersed with the subject all the time. It wasn’t easy for those around me because it was like I was pregnant with triplets for 3 years, but it was extremely stimulating. What I underestimated was the logistics. I said to myself, “I’m going to put everyone in the Flowerburger boat, A Mermaid in Paris, let’s go for it”. It’s actually 3 boats: a book, a record, a movie, even a tour. So almost 4 boats. From a logistical point of view, it was more difficult to achieve synergy. But artistically, during the process, it was exciting.

OC: This interview is taking place on The Flow. Did The Flow directly inspire the Flowerburger?

MM: No, but it’s funny because the Flowerburger is from a poem by Richard Brautigan, who is one of my favorite authors. In the poem he explains that Baudelaire, when he stopped writing poetry, set up a hamburger stand. But as he still had an inclination to be poetic, he replaced the food with flowers, making Flowerburgers. So I called it that, and of course there was the Flow. I wanted to evoke the Speakeasies and hidden bars during the time of the prohibition. The bar upstairs is called the Flow and downstairs is the Flowerburger. The Flow is actually owned by our booking agent. Auguri’s the one who organizes Dionysos’ tours, which is fun!

OC: How did you decide to cast Marilyn Lima? She’s the lead actress even though she isn’t very well known yet. Is it difficult to cast a mermaid?

MM: It isn’t easy. It really needed to be instinctive. I needed not to intellectualize it too much and just go with what I felt was right. Especially because she was going to be somewhat inhibited, she was going to have to act wearing a mermaid’s tail. She’s a storyteller in uncharted territory and she’s imprisoned, so to speak. The misunderstanding is that Gaspard takes good care of her, but she thinks she’s in prison. I wanted someone who was very spontaneous and who was a little like that creature, without having to force it. I didn’t want to go over the top. I wanted to portray the poetry of everyday life in the bathroom, with the strangeness of having a mermaid in it, but I didn’t want to add to the strangeness. Then there is the beginning of the movie, which is very important, where she doesn’t talk. So I focused on that, and that was what she demonstrated. There was another crucial element: we got on very well, so I really fell in love with her in a certain sense, like I love Rossy de Palma and Nicolas Duvauchelle. That is to say, I wanted to film them, for them to portray the characters, not just my fantasy and for me to go “Ah! That’s it, I’ve found what I wanted!”. I wanted them to give me their input so we could combine our ideas to create the movie. I wanted to take advantage of what they had to offer. And to do that, you have to get along and listen to your heart. It doesn’t have to be about agents and schedules. I tend to get bored pretty quickly when things start to get too complicated. I can be patient with my work, after all it did take 4 years to complete, it was very long to edit, etc. But I have to feel emotion, otherwise it’s just… (grimaces).

OC: Does being a musician give you a different approach from that of a filmmaker?

MM: I don’t know how others work. For me, sound is very important. I work with a Sound Designer who is also a musician and we fine-tune everything, every sound. Because the movie is very musical, it’s part of the movie’s DNA, the story of a musician who always falls in love with singers and who falls very deeply in love with a very dangerous singer… Other than the music, sound is very important. We tuned the heartbeats, every little sound, the sound when she opens her eyes… All of these little things are part of the movie’s music. Even when I’m writing my books, and this may be because I’m a singer, I need to record the epic moments (so not the whole book) and listen to them to correct them. I need to be able to hear it, too. Dialogues, snippets of dialogues, or, for example, the beginning of the flooding. I can then transpose this strong imagery to the movie, to cinema. I love Jacques Tati too. I love it when sound is used as a tool and as an effect. So yes, it is very important.

OC: It’s often said that for a movie to work, there has to be a good villain. There isn’t really a bad guy here. Is it Romane Bohringer? Because, in the end, we can empathise with her role.

MM: Of course, she’s the villain of the movie, but I need to be able to understand my villains. I hate judging them, or just making them a part of the scenery that serves only to emphasize the intrigue or make the hero look good. I would have had the impression that I was creating a beautiful set made of wood and that I was dumping a plastic chair right in the middle. I need to believe it. So she is “the Nemesis” if you will because she creates a problem, but we understand her. Romane’s strength was that she wasn’t going to make this character a caricature, she’s been doing these roles for years. You can ask her to play something difficult, or something light. There won’t be any arrangements, she’ll take the role, work with it and give it back to you. So no, the movie doesn’t have a villain that you hate, but one you can understand. I wanted a game of mirrors between the three main characters. We almost could have told the story from Romane or Victor’s point of view with the mermaid as the villain. Or Gaspard and Rossy who try to save her. I chose to tell it this way, but I wanted it to be possible to believe in all of my characters.

OC: Cinema is an expensive art. To what extent did the budget influence the movie’s visuals and sets?

MM: That’s a very good question because it is expensive and I really wanted to do something artisanal because it had a narrative purpose. Gaspard’s home didn’t need to be a palace, and I wanted the Flowerburger to be like a little nest, a bubble, something intimate inside the hold of a boat. But even things that look handmade are expensive, because they need to look authentic. So we needed to be very resourceful. Because of these restrictions, we had a pretty small budget for a movie with some special effects, costumes and very detailed sets, we worked with artisans. They helped make the movie believable because there was no green screen, everything was made specially and we had a real mermaid on set. After we said “Action!” everyone was immersed in the movie’s universe: the technical crew, the actors, and me. And that was a joy. If I’d had a bigger budget, maybe I would have allowed myself to do more “mermaid movie” things, but it might have interfered with the intimacy between the characters. There’s a scene that I like but didn’t add, where the fish tank explodes when she sings, in the morning with tourists passing by. I really liked it. It had a more Spielberg-like dimension where everyone realized just how dangerous the mermaid was, not just from Gaspard’s point of view, but collectively. But in the end it spoilt the poeticness, going all-out all of the time. Maybe if I’d had a huge budget I would have done something ultra-spectacular and wanted to keep it, but I’m not even sure. I constructed the story in the same way. I didn’t say to myself, “I want to make a mermaid movie”, otherwise I would have filmed it in Hawaii. I actually wanted it to be offbeat, for her not to have legs and find her Prince Charming like in The Little Mermaid. I wanted her to only have one desire: to run away from home and be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And for the emotional misunderstanding to develop the story between them.

OC: It’s common knowledge that the first day of release at theaters seals the fate of a movie. Does it scare you to know that on Wednesday after the first screening you’ll know whether the movie was a success or not?

MM: Of course. Especially seeing as I have a background in music. Even though records today have a fate that is slightly more limited, we promote them for a year or two, on stage. The songs are given a new life, even those from older records. And by doing this, we’re keeping the record alive. So there’s a stressful side to it, but that’s the game. You have to accept the rules of the game.

This interview was conducted by Olivier Cachin. Watch his show Le Rewind on the Son-Vidéo Youtube channel.

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