Variety caught up with Alain Goldman (“Casino,” “La Vie en Rose”) and Cedric Jimenez (“Aux yeux de tous”), the producer and director of “The Connection” which is having its Gala premiere today at Toronto. The movie explores the Marseille-rooted drug ring known as the French Connection through the true story of a local judge, Pierre Michel, who was assassinated after waging a long battle to bring down Gaetan Zampa, the head of the crime organization. “The Connection,” co-produced and sold by Gaumont, stars Jean Dujardin as Michel – the first role he took on after wining an Oscar for “The Artist” –, opposite Gilles Lellouche who plays Zampa. Drafthouse will release “The Connection” in the U.S..
Variety: There are many different ways to tackle the French Connection. Why did you choose to tell the story of this French judge, Pierre Michel?
I grew up in Marseille where the story of judge Pierre Michel is legendary. When he got killed it really shook people up because it marked the second time that a French judge was murdered since France was released from Nazi-Germany occupation. Michel was hailed as a hero. He basically sacrificed himself to dismantle the French Connection and get Zampa behind bars. I also knew about the Zampa clan through my father who, like Zampa, owned a nightclub in Marseille around the same time.
What made you want to come on board this very ambitious project and let a first time director handle it?
Alain Goldman: When Cedric came to me and spoke about his world, his view of Marseille and the basic threads of his script, two things came to my mind: I realized it was a personal film, and as a result it would be felt as much more true and authentic by audiences than the average crime thriller; secondly, I sensed that the story would be compelling on a many levels, a human one with the story of Zampa and the judge Michel, and also on an historical level since it’s a true story.
I liked the idea of unveiling a chapter of French history that takes place in Marseille and I thought we could make a truly entertaining film that’s also auteur-driven with a story told in an intimate way, yet one which is universal enough for people to relate. It’s a Greek tragedy.
Why did you choose to show Michel and Zampa’s respective families in the movie? How does it serve the narrative?
AG: Both Michel and Zampa have friends and are very attached to their families. And we find similarities in the way they interact with their loved ones, even if they’re very different men. These family relationships give weight and a human dimension to the story. We’re not confined to a genre – a cop movie or a thriller — we’re just telling life as it is.
CJ: We didn’t want to make a one-dimensional, Manichean movie with the good judge on one side and the evil gangster on the other. What interests me is to tell stories about complex characters and show their humanity and every aspect of their personalities, their ambivalence and charisma.
There is also very little violence in your film, especially in comparison with U.S. crime thrillers made by iconic directors like Scorsese or Coppola.
CJ: We wanted to talk about real-life people in a believable, tangible way, explore their emotions and show the tragedies they face in a human way. We didn’t need to go overboard with the violence.
AG: I didn’t realize it until now but one aspect that makes me proud of this film and of Cedric’s work is the fact that we didn’t need to dive into extremes to strike a nerve in audiences. Very often in movies, and especially in American movies, filmmakers have the urge to resort to “hard drugs” figuratively-speaking, get heavy-handed with the violence, sex, drama, because they fear that is they don’t their movie will lack flavor or spunk. In “The Connection we trusted the characters and the story enough to not go to these extremes and as a result, the violence we show seems real, more palpable and still has an impact.
What was your inspiration for the movie?
CJ: I love movies and I may have been influenced by movies from the 70’s like the ones directed by Henri Verneuil or Martin Scorsese. But the movie that I wanted to make about Marseille, these characters and this story, felt personal enough for me to not have the need to use references — even if I certainly absorbed influences from these 70’s movies. I wanted “The Connection” to have its own identity.
The movie talks about the collaboration between French and American detectives to neutralize the French Connection but there’s no mention of Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, who were interpreted by Gene Hackman and Roy Schneider in William Friedkin’s “The French Connection.” Why?
AG: “The French Connection” by William Friedkin is an iconic cop thriller from the 70’s and our film is absolutely not a French twist on that movie.
There’s nothing in common with Friedkin’s movie in “The Connection.” It’s neither a Scorsese-type movie. I was lucky to co-produce Scorsese’s “Casino” and I’m a fan of his work but we tried to make a different kind of film that’s neither too referenced not overly violent.
We’re just telling the story of this judge who sacrificed himself to dismantle the drug ring in Marseille.
You sprinkled the film with archive footage and took a documentary-style approach. Why did you go that route?
CJ: The judge is a real-life figure so we wanted to pay him tribute, stick to the truth as much as possible. That’s why we had to be very meticulous with the research. I had a privileged access to testimonies of people who knew well Pierre Michel and Zampa as I grew up in Marseille and since my dad, who owned a nightclub, was very familiar to this period. I also gained access to Michel’s case files and that was key.
AG: I love historical movies. We were lucky to produce films like “The Roundup” and “La Vie en Rose” and from my experience, when you strive to make a film that will become a reference about a chapter of history, which is our ambition with this movie, you have to depict the facts and the spirit of characters accurately and respectfully, otherwise it’s called amateurism.
The movie denounces corruption at every level, from cops to city officials and government members, and you use all the real names. How political is the film in your opinion?
AG: It’s not more political than in “The Godfather” when you see that all the cops are corrupt.
CJ: It’s not really a political film; we’re just exposing the facts about the investigation led by the judge, based on the files that I had access to.
But you do name names.
CJ: Yes, but in 1981 there were many political changes in France, the mayor of Marseille became home minister. So the political shifts played a role in shaping history. I guess when you’re dealing with a true story and know your facts, you can’t be afraid to say things.
AG: What I like with American films is that when an event brings out the responsibility of American citizens or government agencies like the CIA, fairly quickly after you get a movie about it. A year and a half after 9/11, a movie came out. In France it took us 73 years to make a film like Rose Bosch’s “The Roundup” about the country’s biggest raid on Jews ever perpetrated. That’s because America is a young democracy and its people have less scruples to tackle their own history.
How did you cast Jean Dujardin and Gilles Lellouche?
CJ: I love these two actors and I wrote the script with them in mind. Jean is physically very close to Pierre Michel and Gilles is charming, very Mediterranean like Zampa. It made so much sense to bring them together. It didn’t take very long to convince them to get on board. We got along right off the bat and they understood from the beginning that it was not going to be a traditional cop thriller movie with archetype characters. I let them improvise many scenes and it truly enriched the movie.
AG: When a director proposes you to cast Jean Dujardin and Gilles Lellouche in the lead riles, you can’t argue.
And it was a great catch to get Jean Dujardin right after he had won an Oscar.
The two factors that matter for an actor are the script and the director, from my experience the business questions are secondary if an actor truly love the story and the director.
The original score is particularly good, it a great mix of French and American hits. How did you work on it?
CJ: We had the same meticulous approach than with the research. We avoid anachronism by sticking to songs that corresponded to the time periods depicted in the movie. And it was very pleasurable to put all these songs in the film because that’s the music I love. I also made a point of using French songs, because after all it is a French movie and we’re proud of that!