Nicolas Benamou on ‘Full Speed’: ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ Meets ‘Speed’

‘Babysitting’ helmer goes solo in full-on action comedy, co-produced by ‘The Artist’s’ Thomas Langmann

Benamou directing "Full Speed"
Courtesy: Nicolas Benamou

PARIS – Nicolas Benamou’s credit rises by the hour – or 90 minutes, to be more exact. Gonzo bro comedy “Babysitting 2,” which he co-directed with franchise star Philippe Lacheau, is France’s third biggest French bow of 2015 and 25% up on the 2014 original. Punching a first-six-week 2.9 million admissions in France for Universal Pictures Intl. – some €18.8 million ($20.6 million) in gross box office – from a Dec. 2 bow, it is still No. 3 at the French B.O., the biggest in Europe with the U.K.’s.

Now, coming soon to France, is his first solo outing since the saga: “Full Speed.” It has large production pedigree: Marci Cherqui’s Chic Films, which backed Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet”; Thomas Langmann at La Petite Reine, who won 2012’s Best Picture Oscar for “The Artist”; Wild Bunch, which co-produces and distributes in France. Starring Andre Dussollier (“My Golden Days”) and José Garcia (“Would I Lie to You”?), it will also be released by Wild Bunch Germany and Belga in Belgium.

Sold by Other Angle Pictures, “Full Speed” weighs in as one of the biggest 2016 B.O. hopes in France. If ever a French director were ripe for English-language production, in or outside France, Benamou is one. “Babysitting” migrated grossout comedy to France, where it is still a rare implant, is an action comedy another rare breed in French cinema. In the land of the auteur, Benamou burns with enthusiasm not about finding his own young voice but collective writers’ room creativity. And his films also deal with common denominator emotional bedrocks – friends, family – that are Hollywood’s cherished verities as it targets global audiences.

“Full Speed” turns on a French family – very pregnant mum, dad, the two kids, the daffy dad, a Mohawk haired teen girl he picked up at a gas station – which hits the motorway July 1, the day of a mass diaspora for summer holidays, with dad the over his spangling new bright re city van. Stuck at an 80 mph cruise control, nobody knows how to unlock, a family mini-van slaloms down the motorway between cars and lorries and toll gates towards a traffic jam. The van may be hurtling towards a tailback, Benamou himself full speed towards Hollywood or at least a play at English-language production. Variety talked to him just before the Rendez-Vous, where Other Angle screened a “Full Speed” trailer.

Could you talk a little bit about what happens in the film?

N: Sure. It’s an action comedy – in France’s that’s quite new – about a family. Mom, Dad, two children and the grandpa. They go on holiday, and the car’s cruise control gets stuck at 80 miles per hour In this car, a family crisis breaks out at the same time.  So it’s like “Little Miss Sunshine” meets “Speed.” “Full Speed” is also completely chronological, almost a real time story, taking place over three hours. It’s also more full-on live-action, comedy and emotion.

You seem to be attempting comedy types that haven’t been done that much in France. “Babysitting” was a French YA grossout, for instance.

N: Exactly. I’m really influenced by American comedy. There are two kinds of American comedies: Those which really go well in Europe and those who are a bit more weird, like “Anchorman,” which I love them but don’t do so well in France. These are my influences and I try to channel these influences into my work. I love families that look normal but are a bit crazy. One big inspiration for “Full Speed” was “Due Date,” with Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis, about two guys on the plane who don’t know each other, then one talks about bombs. They are put on a no-fly list, so have to cross the U.S. together.

Is the family-centric “Full Speed” a play for wider audience than just young adults?

Cinema is like religion: You try to be liked by as many people as possible. When you write the story, you’re not thinking about going “wide,” you’re just talking about real life. So often you start with family, it what we know most: Families and groups of friends.

In “Babysitting, the friends are bozos, the protagonist desperate to start a relationship. Is “Full Speed” also aspirational?

Jose, the Dad, and the central character, has kind of the same problems. He’s a nice guy who wants to do well but things go wrong because of little things. In “Full Speed,” his father takes the place of the bozos. He creates a lot of trouble.

In terms of screenwriting, how do you write your films?

I write with co-writers. I need influence. In France, we have a habit that a guy writes one script and then directs it, a very auteur approach. I work totally differently, with several writers. Some structure specialists, things like that. If you agree with five writers about the beginning of an idea or situation, it’s the first step in seducing an audience.

But wwhat would you say are your auteur streaks?

I love doing comedy that is emotionally complete, which has a full spectrum of life and emotion in it. I’m a bit bored with films that are just funny, silly movies.

So in “Full Speed” the challenge is for a family that is physically together, to be emotionally together.

Exactly. They’re really like family at the end. This is the main challenge, in fact.

How do you see your future?
I’d love to make movies in the way movies I love are made. American movies, English-language movies could be a fantastic thing for me. I’m comfortable with the way of working in the United States: he auteur approach of directing movies is not really my thing. I love to collaborate.