In their work as casting directors, Lise Akoka and Romane Gueret would become familiar with the nickname that would turn into the title of their debut feature, “Les Pires (The Worst Ones),” thrown about when searching for children that appeared at first to be shy and withdrawn and thought by others in their community as aimless and enigmatic. Where others might have given up, Akoka and Gueret were more intrigued, knowing that what the young, prospective actors could be holding onto would potentially make them fascinating to watch on screen and it never failed to excite them when they could use their auditions to draw someone out of their shell, allowing for the opportunity for self-expression that the child might not believe was ever going to be available to them.
Of course, such work also opens up the possibility of great exploitation as Akoka and Gueret explore with great cunning in “The Worst Ones” as they look into the production of a kitchen sink drama in the Cité Picasso projects in the Parisian suburb of Nanterre where a collection of kids are recruited to play variations on themselves for a director named Gabriel (Johan Heldenbergh), who hopes to give an authentic view of the impoverished community that lives there. When even raw documentary footage would carry the subtle, implicit biases of the person filming it, the impossibility of Gabriel achieving his goals is evident from the start, but the futile pursuit illuminates other complexities of the filmmaking process as it relates to working with actors, particularly nonprofessionals and children, who are asked to draw on their personal experience for the camera and the crew may not have the empathy to deal with the emotions that brings up as they chase their own story.
That is clearly not the case for Akoka and Gueret who turn such thorny questions into compelling points of narrative tension in “The Worst Ones,” not only exhibiting a wealth of wisdom gleaned from their own time spent around film sets but showing an inventive approach as storytellers with a behind-the-scenes tale where the lines between reality and fiction are often blurred, leaving the viewer to come to their own conclusions. Featuring remarkable performances from the cast comprised of largely first-time discoveries Akoka and Gueret made, the film is able to fully present the lives of its characters such as Lily (Mallory Wanecque), a teen who seems more than happy to pour herself into a part when it means she won’t have to think about the brother she recently lost to cancer, or Ryan (Timeo Mahaut), a young boy with anger issues, without making it seem as if they’re functionaries of what the film demands but people all deserving of their own closeup, whether a camera is there to capture it or not.
After winning the Un Certain Regard Prize at Cannes last year upon its premiere, “The Worst Ones” is now making its way to the States and Akoka and Gueret graciously spoke about how they parlayed their early careers in casting into taking the director’s chair, how they were able to create a comfortable environment on set for their cast and now grappling with some of the real-life reverberations of this work of fiction.
How did the two of you come to make films together?
Lise Akoka: We met when we were casting directors of a feature film and we were looking for kids. Both of us were sent to a neighborhood in France to find kids for that film and while doing that, we met two kids that completely captured us, so we wanted to write a movie about that. That led to our first short, “Chasse Royale,” that we were able to work on together and we were already questioning the practice of street casting, so we developed this desire to continue delving deep into those questions, moving on to talking not just about the casting stage, but also what happens on set when you actually make a movie. That led us to writing “The Worst Ones.”
I can’t imagine that you could make a film as sensitive as this by setting up the production in a similar way as the filmmakers in the film, but were there experiences you could draw on either from anecdotes you had heard or your own experience working with actors to find the story?
Romane Gueret: Gabriel, the filmmaker [in the film] is the sum of many filmmakers that we have worked with and that we were able to observe, but we didn’t want to just talk about that one person. What we wanted to do was also include ourselves in that criticism of that role and we discovered that we could be filmmakers when we made that short, and we wanted to question plenty of other things — in particular, what happens when one writes a story inspired by real events and the inspiration is kids. We wanted to talk about cinema that uses reality in a voracious, greedy way, and when we do work as filmmakers, we’re very careful and very aware of all those issues, but those questions are at the heart of everything we do in our project and we ask them day in and day out.
What was it like to embed in this specific community that’s the setting for the film?
Lise Akoka: At first, we felt there was some negative attitude on the part of the locals because they’re sick and tired of the fact that every time that there’s talk of their neighborhood, it’s always connected to crime and to poverty. But little by little, we had the feeling that we acquired their trust by including them in the making of the movie at different levels. It could be in terms of locations — a lot of the scenes were shot in people’s real apartments and some of [the locals] were cast for certain roles in the movie. Then we had a screening a few months ago in Boulogne-sur-Mer and that was really positive for us. It was a great relief because we perceived that we had the full support of the locals and it was truly positive in terms of the way they were represented in the film.
Does the casting process become the preparation for a film like this? It seems like the people you cast might have helped shape the characters by the time you get on set.
Romane Gueret: Everything is very scripted and all the characters are roles, — it’s fiction. So we did our casting in order to be able to find people that could embody those characters. Often people tell us that it comes across as a documentary and we love that because it means that it works and people believe in it, but it is fully scripted. Having said that, it was a really long casting process. It took over a year because we were finding characters in very specific places and during the second stage of rehearsals, we adjusted the script a little bit — I’m talking about a few lines here and there, so that the actors could feel more at ease in their role, but it was very important for us for each actor to truly embody a character. And there needed to be that distance, because those actors are very talented. They were not hired and brought on board just because they are wild and untamable [like who they play on screen], but because they’re very, very talented.
It was interesting to hear of how you would work with the actors on set with earpieces and long takes. Was that style of filmmaking something you could develop on the short?
Lise Akoka: These are methods we developed step by step, both through my acting training, and then by working with the film sets and with [other] directors. Between the short film, the series and then with this feature film, our work methods of directing children have become more refined and we try to adapt to each child that we’re working with.
As Romane pointed out, there are moments where you could easily believe you’re watching a documentary, an ambiguity you play around with in the edit by letting certain moments linger where you’re unsure if you’re watching the film or the film within a film. Was that interesting to work with?
Romane Gueret: Yeah, we asked ourselves a lot of questions in terms of how we should edit this movie, but we’d already reflected on that a lot while we were writing it because there are not a lot of things that one can improvise that way. It was important to us for the movie to start off with that camcorder sequence where we wanted to have the viewer in the spot of the casting director, who for the first time sees these four kids and falls in love with them and with their talent and charisma. And then after the movie opens, it goes into something more fanciful and more universal. We did wonder in terms of whether the viewer would get lost in between the actual film and the film within the film, and the mix between Gabriel’s film and our own.
Then at the editing stage, we realized that that wasn’t quite an issue. The point was not to trick the viewer or have the viewer not figure out what they were watching. That was not it at all, except for that final sequence, [where it] was very important to us that the two movies blend together and for Gabriel’s film camera to be our camera as well, because at that level, the acting is blended and the kids have to search for their own authentic emotions and they have to put them at the service of acting. That’s why in the beginning, we were in trouble and then through the sequence, we [followed] through that until the end.
Although the film is critical of how a film production can enter a community to take what it needs, as well as from its young performers, it also shows how it can help some find an outlet to express themselves and build confidence. Did you end up seeing this occur on your own set?
Lise Akoka: Yes, for some of them, it did happen that way, but it’s not an experience that happens to everybody. Not every kid ends up experiencing that. For some, it can be a way of finding their true vocation, their true talent, and it can open emotional doors and that’s what we think is so beautiful in cinema. For example, for Melina [Vanderplancke], the young girl who plays the role of Maylis, we did a screening where she was present [with] her teachers and her social workers and her classmates and her family and relatives, and everybody shared with us that after making the movie, she’s become a lot more confident than she ever was. Shooting this movie gave her new tools and changed a lot of things within her in a positive direction in the year that passed after that. And Mallory [Wanecque], who plays the role of Lily, it was more or less the same journey that her character went through, meaning that through this film, she discovered this profession and found a way to pursue it after because she’s already been hired to shoot two [more] movies and she’s attached to a third that she’s about to shoot, so that’s a true career that is opening up for her and it’s beautiful that cinema is able to create that.
“The Worst Ones” opens on March 24th in New York at the Quad Cinema, March 31st at the Little Theatre in Rochester, the Sudbury Indie Cinema in Ontario, the Metro Cinema in Edmonton and Film Scene in Iowa City and on April 7th at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, the Sie FilmCenter in Denver and the Monica Film Center in Los Angeles.
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