Francois Damiens and Finnegan Oldfield in "Les Cowboys"

Interview: Thomas Bidegain on a New Adventure with “Les Cowboys”

It’s been a busy time for Thomas Bidegain, but then again, when isn’t it?

“I was in Spain last week. I was in Poland the week before. I’m in Italy next week. I’m in New York right now,” says Bidegain, who nonetheless is in good spirits while talking up his directorial debut “Les Cowboys.” “It’s so difficult to find time to work. I understand now why people take three years in between films because it takes six months traveling with [the film].”

You feel guilty keeping him, given that he’s co-authored many of the past decade’s best films, with ongoing collaborations with Jacques Audiard (“A Prophet,” “Rust and Bone,” and “Dheepan”) and Joachim Lafosse (“Our Children,” “The White Knights”) to accompany one-offs with Nadine Labaki (“Where Do We Go Now?”) and Bertrand Bonello (“Saint Laurent”). However, you’re grateful he found the time to finally get behind the camera himself as well as the conversation “Les Cowboys” inspires, both the one below and the many others that it’s sure to provoke as an agreeably elusive drama concerning a father’s search for his teenage daughter Kelly (Iliana Zabeth) after she goes missing during a hoedown, seemingly falling into the clutches of Islamic fundamentalists. While it’s a mystery the Stetson-wearing Alain (Francois Damiens) certainly didn’t ask for, nor the son he ropes in to help solve, known affectionately as the Kid (Finnegan Oldfield), it gives purpose to his Western wear, placing him firmly in the adventures he could only imagine himself in before.

Applying the dreamy, mythic quality of Monument Valley-set oaters to 21st century realities of the modern world, fragmented by ideology rather than geography, Bidegain crafts a cinematically enthralling epic spanning continents and decades as Alain’s quest becomes the Kid’s as time wears on (assisted by an enigmatic American, played by John C. Reilly), ‎yet feels intensely personal in describing the perils of individual identity being subsumed by one’s cultural identity. Both ambitious in scope and the depth of its intimacy, it somehow doesn’t seem all that surprising that “Les Cowboys” handles the many issues it brings up so gracefully with a first-timer at the helm, likely owing to the fact that the longtime writer knew less is more.

As “Les Cowboys” finally rides into American theaters after a celebrated festival run that included dates at Cannes, Toronto and New York‎, Bidegain spoke about the film’s inspiration and the influence of events that happened during its development, as well as the advice of his friend and colleague Audiard in ascending to the director’s chair and rising to the challenges of a shoot that criss-crossed France, Belgium and India.

François Damiens and Iliana Zabeth in "Les Cowboys"How did this come about?

It started when a friend of mine gave me a book of photographs of people who dress up as [modern-day] cowboys. I was just blown away. It was in Switzerland and I didn’t know anything about country music or anything, but I’ve seen these people and I said, “Wow, let’s do a modern western with those guys.” Because they don’t have the job and they’re wearing the ten gallon hats and their uniforms already. The idea of the film, using those communities, started like that. Then, while I was doing research on another film, I read about the wave of jihad that took place in the early ‘90s, right after the Yugoslavian war. It was 2011 when we started writing, so there was no ISIS or anything like that. For us, the jihad was a thing of the past and it was very strange when that big wave shook Europe in 2013. We started reading the press testimonies of parents [describing] scenes that we had already written, so it was very strange to be inside history like that.

Is it true being a parent of a child around the same age as Kelly was also an influence?

When I work as a writer with a director, I always try to find out what is it [about] the thing we are writing that is connected to the director in a personal way. Here, because I was the director, I didn’t ask that into myself until very late in the process. [laughs] I think it wasn’t until the second draft of the screenplay. But I realized my son was the age of Kelly in the film and kids see the world through your eyes [up until they’re] 14 or 15 — you show them movies and they love it and you go to see concerts together. Then one day, all of a sudden they don’t anymore. They go in their rooms and you say, “Hey, let’s watch a film.” They say, “Oh, no. I’ll be in my room.” You don’t know anything about them anymore. This is like losing someone. At the time, I was writing the film, it was exactly that period with my son and I realized very late in the process if you take out the jihad and you take out the cowboys, then [the film] is really about that. It’s about what do we do with kids when they grow up.

Had you actually been wanting to direct for a while?

Not really because I have been very lucky as a screenwriter. I’ve been working with great directors and each time somebody asks me, “What is a good screenwriter?” I always answer the same thing — it’s someone who works with a good director. I’ve had no frustrations, but I wanted to work with actors. My cinephilia is very classic — the American films from the ‘30s to the ‘60s, so when I had that idea of doing a western in a modern way but a classical fashion of storytelling, I thought immediately that, “Oh, this is my song, I’m gonna sing it myself.”

There’s a grandeur to the film that touches on those westerns you allude to, but did you immediately have ideas about how you’d achieve in a modern context through the look and sound?

Absolutely, because that’s the way I work with Jacques [Audiard] and with Noé [Debre], the co-writer of the film. We talk a lot about the film before even talking about the story — about how it’ll look, the kind of characters, the kind of emotion, the kind of ambition that there is in it, the landscapes and things like that., then we build up the story around those limestones that we set. You always have to think of the images that the story will produce. One of the first images that I had was what happened in the middle of the film where there’s the cowboy reunion, the same [scene] you see in the beginning of the film, but in this one, there’s a woman wearing a veil in the middle of it. That is exactly the state of our nation — the reduced model of our countries and our communities in Europe.

François Damiens in "Les Cowboys"In that opening scene, Alain goes up on stage to sing “Tennessee Waltz,” which becomes a defining element of the film. How did that song come to you?

I love that song. I didn’t used to listen to country music, but when I started to, there’s something that I loved about country music sung by women. When I found the Connie Francis version of that song, because of the reverberation — it’s like a souvenir of a song and the lyrics were so close [thematically to the film], “I’ve lost my little darling the night they were playing the beautiful Tennessee Waltz.” All I had to do at that point was have the band play the “Tennessee Waltz” the night [Kelly] disappears — that will tell me the whole story of the film.

There’s another great scene I wondered about the genesis of where Kid and John C. Reilly’s mysterious character, known as L’American, are traveling across the desert and Reilly’s character says, “There’s no room for people like us where we’re from,” looking out onto the seemingly endless horizon.

It’s really a theme of the film. People always talk about “The Searchers” [in connection to “Les Cowboys”] and it is true that it is definitely a starting point, but the idea [for the film is] that the world is getting smaller. I don’t think you can do a Western today without saying that, without that melancholic point of view about Westerns and even about cinema and the time when the stories were huge, there was no irony and things were told in a very direct way. The fact that Kelly leaves, looking for an adventurous life, [there’s] something narcissistic about the quest of the father. At the same time, that [quest] allows him to live the life that he wanted to live — to sleep with his boots on in a different bed every night. He [becomes] the French guy who is in Yemen and [his son] the Kid also will live his life and the film [becomes about] simple people who get thrown in the turmoil of the world. That idea of John C.’s character saying the world is getting smaller and how difficult it is to go back is really the question of the film.

Did you always plan on invoking real world events like 9/11 in the film or did they come in as you were developing it?

That’s something that came in during the writing because we started writing in 2011, right after the execution of Osama bin Laden and we thought, “That’s the end of a circle. This was our first World War.” This is what we wanted to tell — the story of our first World War, not the one of our grandparents, but what took place in the first years of our century [when] you would wake up one morning and London was under attack, or Jakarta, or Madrid and this was the rhythm of our lives. I wanted that rhythm in the film, like battles during the war.

Logistically, was this a challenging shoot to coordinate since you travel so much?

The shooting itself became an adventure. It was complicated because the story happens over the course of 15 years and it deals with history and geography. Francois Truffaut was [speaking the truth] when he said that, “Films are just the story of their shooting.” We shot at the border with Pakistan on the Indian side, and in Rajasthan and we had an Indian crew. It was really amazing to see them work and we shot in Belgium with a Belgian crew. We were constantly moving and I’m convinced it gives something to the film.

Was there anything that you picked up from the directors you’ve worked with as a screenwriter that you could apply to this?

Not really. I’ve learned a lot from the directors I’ve worked with, but when it’s your turn, you do it your way and do what you can. Jacques [Audiard] was shooting “Dheepan” at the same time “Les Cowboys” was in prep. We normally see each other every day when we write and we’ve been doing that for the past 10 years, but we were working on different films and during prep, we were having dinner every Saturday or Sunday night together. At the last of those suppers, he told me, “You will see writing is a job and directing is a state of mind.” And it’s absolutely true. You find out it’s all about energy — the energy you get and how you pass it along to other people — to the actors, to the crew. You have to put yourself in the certain state of mind and then carry the whole load whereas working as a screenwriter is very different, like being a mechanic.

Did you enjoy directing?

I really enjoyed it. What drew me into it was working with the actors and I took a lot of pleasure finding out each actor speaks a different language and you have to learn that language. That was a very interesting process. Also, it’s the continuation of writing because when you are a screenwriter, it’s really about rewriting more than it is about writing. You can write a scene 40 times and at the end of the day, you whisper something at the ear of an actor and all of a sudden, it comes out differently, which is really what I wanted to explore.

“Les Cowboys” opens on June 24th in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal, New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the Sunshine Cinema and San Francisco at the Landmark Clay. A full list of theaters and dates is here.

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