PARIS– One of the latest examples of upscale, internationally-driven French series backed by up-and-coming film directors, “Cannabis” by actress-turned-helmer Lucie Borleteau got a warm welcome at Paris-set Series Mania festival where it world premiered. Set between France, Spain and Morocco, the show depicts the underworld of cannabis trafficking through the lives of dealers, their families and close ones. The series is penned by Hamid Hiloua, Clara Bourreau and Brac (“Paris,””Spiral”). Like her critically-acclaimed feature debut, “Fidelio, Alice’s Journey,” “Cannabis” introduces a myriad of newcomers and is shot in multiple languages across different international locations. “Fidelio” earned two Cesar nominations and won two awards at Locarno in 2014, including the Europa Cinema Label for Borleteau and the best actress nod for Ariane Labed (“The Lobster”). “Cannabis” was commissioned by Franco-German net Arte and is produced by helmer/producer Tonie Marshall’s Tabo Tabo Films, Spain’s Arcadia Motion Pictures and Arte France. Lagardere Studios handles international sales. While at Series Mania to present the show, Borleteau took time to chat with Variety about her TV debut, her ambition with the series and the its making.
Variety: When and how did you come on board “Cannabis”?
Lucie Borleteau: When I joined the project, the first four episodes had been written. Clara Bourreau – one of the three writers of “Cannabis” — is my screenwriter on “Fidelio” so I had heard about the series. But they didn’t think of me at first to direct the series because it was very different from what I had done before. When they approached me I thought it was an incredible opportunity. When you’re known for directing so-called auteur films, it’s hard to get out of it. And with this show, I really had fun, got to explore the codes of genre, action scenes and play with a wide variety of characters… I quickly got many ideas on mise-en-scene; I surprised myself. It was also liberating to not be a writer of this series, although I became involved in the last version of scripts and I eventually made them like my own.
“Cannabis” spotlights so many fresh faces who happen to be very talented. How did you find this great cast?
My only condition when I came on board was to choose all at the actors. Because the heart of a good film or show is the cast. I also got to choose my editor and cinematographer who have mostly worked in films. I can’t cast actors without testing them first and making them interact with each other so we spent two to three months meeting them, have have them meet each other. It was also a chance for them to see how I work. On a series, we have so little time that it’s key to be on the same page from the very beginning — We need as much preparation as possible in order to optimize the filming and get the best of everyone.
One of the main characters, el Feo, a cruel yet charismatic drug lord, is played by Spanish actor, Pedro Casablanc. How did you find him?
He’s such a great catch. We initially saw him in the role of a corrupt Spanish cop and since El Feo is a Moroccan character we hadn’t thought of him. But when I met him I just knew immediately that he was perfect for this character. First off, he’s perfectly bilingual (Spanish/French) with just the right accent when he speaks French. And he happened to be born in Casablanca in Morocco, hence his last name. He’s a man of theater, he’s extraordinarly cultivated and he plays perfectly el Feo, who is fascinating but also atrocious. His role in the series is pivotal. On paper, the villain was great so the challenge was for the interpretation to get it right.
What about the rest of the cast?
Yasin Houicha, who plays Shams in the series, and most of the other French actors had very little experience. And Carima Amarouche, who plays Zohra (an ambitious politician), is a singer who’s also done some live comedy performances, but it’s her first acting role. And she totally nailed it. The first day of the shoot, I was like “wow, that’s a miracle.” Another actress, Kate Moran, who plays Anna, is such a beautiful person with a real inner strength and like Shams, she will evolve greatly throughout the series. I loved her in “You and the Night.”
How did you handle the variety of languages — French, Spanish and Arabic? Wasn’t it difficult to direct actors in languages you don’t speak/understand?
I loved it! I experimented working with actors from different nationalities and mixed pros with no-pros on “Fidelio” and I think that’s one of the reasons why I was approached to direct this series. Marbella is a very cosmopolitan place, we did a lot of research on the ground, we even went to bordellos. I discovered that there are a lot of wealthy people from all over the world who have a passion for building houses there. The city is also known for its drug trade. This mix of people means that there are a lot of different languages and accents involved. I find this very exciting to meet actors from different nationalities and also to immerse myself into a world that I don’t know. Dealing drugs is a job, people take it very seriously and it was interesting to get an inside look at it. I did get lost during certain scenes in Arabic, but it proved to be a blessing: I realized that when you don’t understand the language you can detect more easily if the performance rings true or not. Since we didn’t shoot scenes in chronological order, we also did readings of the scripts from start to finish which helped a great deal in understanding the meaning of each scene.
There are so many stereotypes about dealers. How did you avoid them in this show?
On the French part, especially, it was important to not resort to stereotypes. There are so many movies shot in the French projects [the “banlieue” high-rise slums], it’s become a sub-genre; so it was crucial for me to be as authentic as possible. I happen to live near Pantin, a Paris suburb located 10 minutes away from the project where the series takes place. The characters of the series I see them all of the time — that’s how well the series was written. We also decided to shoot it from the dealers’ perspective, rather than the cops’. We didn’t want to make another “Go Fast,” which is a good film but quite stereotypical in its depiction of drug dealers. There are some bold elements in “Cannabis” that defy exceptions, for instance the sexuality of character of Morphée, a French drug lord who is on the surface such a cliché.
I’m also proud of the fact there are not a single white male hero in this series. The hero, or so to speak, is Shams, a young French-Arab. He’s very endearing, he has values and he’s clever.
As in “Fidelio,” there are very strong female characters in this series.
Yes, it was interesting to depict strong women in a drug trade world which is dominated by men. There are many courageous, multi-dimensional female characters, such as Anna, in this series.
It seems that “Cannabis” is not just a crime thriller but also a show about family, isn’t it?
Yes, it’s a series about family ties and relationships. It all starts with someone who steals two tons of Cannabis but it’s a pretext to tell a story about family relationships, and also about bonds that can form between people who don’t seem to have much in common, amid harsh times — for instance Anna and her husband’s mistress.
Would you say the series also has a political dimension?
Absolutely. It’s a true European series which shows Europe as it really is, a babel tour — we speak many different languages and we’re not all white. We’re doing an entertaining series but like “Fatima,” Philippe Faucon’s film, we’re also showing the French “banlieue” in a truthful, empathetic way with relatable characters.
How was it working with Arte and making your first TV series with them?
Arte gave us tremendous creative freedom and they didn’t freak out about the fact that the series would be shot in multiple languages, which is a big deal these days — considering that even Arte has started dubbing movies. On “Cannabis” you have subtitles from the get-go. Arte is not afraid to venture into uncharted territories as with “Ainsi Soient-ils” (“Churchmen”) and so far it’s paid off.
What about the budget?
We had approximately just under €1 million [$1.1 million] per episode. Since I come from auteur films with small crews, I never felt that we needed more budget on “Cannabis.” But I think on TV shows, the budget constraints translate into a time restriction. And because you have little time you have to hire more people and that’s costly; that’s partly why we shot some scenes with two cameras.
For a young film director like you, isn’t it a setback to take a break from your movie projects to work on a series?
Not at all, I felt like I got to do three movies in just over a year and had the opportunity to discover a flurry of actors. It’s been like an accelerated training — or a big mise-en-scene pie. I also hope the series will travel in Spain and elsewhere. I know Arte airs many series from Northern Europe, and it would be great for this series to be discovered by audiences overseas.
Will there be a second season?
I don’t know yet but we’ve left the door open!