Frederic Tellier talks about his debut, a true-event serial killer procedural
PARIS – Shot with a wavering hand-held camera, “SK1” leaves an indelible impression that the homicide squad offices at Paris’ celebrated 36 Quai des Orfevres police headquarters, at least in the 1990s, needed a far better interior decorator. Their airless drabness, capturing the mind-numbing work of the film’s protagonist, rookie homicide squad inspector Franck Magne is just one part of debutant director Frederic Tellier’s artistic arsenal. Making its world premiere at the Angouleme Festival, and sold by SND-M6 Group at the 17th UniFrance Rendez-vous, “SK1” never depicts the horror of the violent murders committed by serial killer Guy Georges, which terrorized much of eastern Paris in the 1990s. Rather it is a portrait of the horror of their impact – on Magne, a victim’s father, even Georges himself – and of a France, here its police force, which is understaffed, under-budgeted, and reluctant to give up old traditions, in the interests, for example, of forensic modernity. Bowing Jan 7 in France, “SK1” posted a creditable €1.1 million first week ($1.3 million). Variety talked to Tellier before it screened at this week’s UniFrance Rendez-vous.
Why chose “SK1” as your feature film debut? What attracts you to the subject?
Those things that happen in life, fortunate and unfortunate, allowed me to chance upon this affair and become quite familiar with the ins-and-outs and ups-and-downs, all the false leads, some of them barely credible. All the years after this story…the crazy story of the hunting down of that killer…it’s really almost unimaginable. And the more I got to know about this affair, the more incredible were the characters I kept stumbling upon (those who fought evil), strong people, full of dignity, heroic people, without a shadow of doubt. From all that, came the need to tell this story, as ample testimony to something like this.
The decisive decision in “SK1” may be its structure: Using Guy Georges’ initial claims of innocence at his trial, and the introduction of the lawyer Frederique Pons you create a double thriller structure turning not just on the struggle to hunt him down, but also the question of whether – at least for the uninformed foreign viewer- he’s really guilty.
I didn’t wish to judge the story, in hindsight. I just wanted to jump fully into it, go in right up to my neck. To be there in and amongst the facts, the emotions, human emotions, and just really feel what was going on. Convictions, certainties, doubts…We’re all overwhelmed when those things surface. You’re looking for the truth, and it’s not there. Not yet, not quite. That’s when you’re taken by uncertainty, when you’re at your most fragile. It then calls for courage, patience. Method. You’re closer to what life really is. Not after things happen. Then you become aware again of what life is, about choices made, about values, of how necessary it sometimes is to take a step back from things, in order to ultimately advance. And you’re not any less certain about things, about facts which aren’t quite yet facts. The double narration allowed me that. To jump back and forth from character to character, in their contact with the killer. And to face that. Without any kind of certainty.
You wrote with David Oelhoffen, who is now of course well known for directing “Far From Men.” How did you collaborate together?
David will always be my accomplice. My great writing accomplice. We wrote this story together, a very difficult story, with the overwhelming weight of its strong emotional charge, with lots of joyful moments, but also some very painful ones. And I take that away from this experience with him. Our moments doing all that together. Our confidence and trust in each other. Our need to move forward together. And just sharing the craft of writing really. As simple as that.
Another key artistic choice: The film is not about the murders as their impact: on rookie homicide inspector Franck Magne, on the father of one victims, even on Guy Georges himself.
You are completely right. At the heart of “SK1”, I saw a crucial question: How does one live with Evil ? Which is also the question at the heart of The Book of Job, which has always haunted me. The book ends with a sentence which says something like: “Evil is unrecognizable” I’ve never ceased wondering and admiring how those families of the victims could carry on with so much courage and dignity, how that cop, who’s spent his life tracking down that serial killer, could find the courage to carry on. Their paths of truth and courage could probably provide an answer to my big question.
The film also portrays the mind-boggling refusal of rival departments at France’s police headquarters to share evidence, the lack of an DNA data base….
It was a different era, the 90s. No computers, no cell-phones, no such thing as centralized information, and of course, no such thing as DNA…Seems way out, now doesn’t it? Most of all, though, I hope my film manages to show human society as something that is by definition imperfect. Imperfect at that time, but would be in any era.
Those investigating the case bore no malice against each other. They were just plain, simple fallible human beings.
For much of the French media, Guy Georges was a charming cold-blooded killer. As played by Adama Niaga, suggest a much more compassionate portrait….
Not sympathetic. Human. He’s a monster. A heartless criminal. But he’s also a human being. Like it or not. Guy Georges has a split personality. He oscillates between two extremes. And, unfortunately, the worrying thing is that he wasn’t some hairy creature with paws and claws, roaring and growling. He was articulate, well spoken, at the same time that he went around killing. I have no answer to that. It’s just an observation about the terrible wastage some members of the human species can turn out to be.
What would you say are the keys to your direction in the film?
Truth, intensity. The truth about what happened. I was driven all the while, during the making of the film, throughout these 6 or 7 years, by two things : Trying to get the facts as straight and honest as possible, and to try to cast them as sincerely as possible. Both are necessarily linked.
”SKI” is part of France’s great tradition of polars. Were there any films in particular which influenced you?
Yes and no. Yes, it is true that it is in keeping with the French tradition of considering cinema as a vehicle for questioning things. Questioning our very selves. Our world, our society, our condition, and therefore our miscellaneous news items as well, our crimes, shortcomings and failures, our worst moments. To try to un-code them, minimally understand them, to be less afraid of them, and probably try to make sure certain things don’t happen again. I wouldn’t say that it’s just a few films that have particularly influenced me. It’s more like a huge galaxy of films: French directors, like Yves Boisset, José Giovanni, Henri Verneuil, Jean-Pierre Melville; but also English and American directors, like John Casavettes, Michael Powell, Sydney Lumet, Oliver Stone, Arthur Penn, Robert Benton, Alan J. Pakula, Sam Peckinpah…