I’ve been fortunate enough over the years to have interviewed Julie Delpy two times prior to last week, and all three times were in promotion of films she wrote, directed and in which she acted. The first two times were for her films 2 Days in Paris and 2 Days in New York, in which she played a French woman named Marion. In each, she dated a different American man (Adam Goldberg and Chris Rock, respectively), living in different cities, and she seemed to have constructed her character to play against the type she helped create in her films with director Richard Linklater and co-star Ethan Hawke—Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight.
All totaled, Delpy has directed seven features, including Looking for Jimmy, The Countess, Skylab, and Lolo, but her latest work, My Zoe, feels like her most personal as both a filmmaker and actor. Obviously, Delpy gained her fame as an actor in such works as Three Colors: White; Killing Zoe; Voyager; Broken Flowers; Waking Life, and The Air I Breathe. Her talents even landed her a small role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Black Widow’s cold-hearted Russian trainer, Madame B, in a flashback scene from Avengers: Age of Ultron.
My Zoe tells the story of recently divorced scientist Isabelle (Delpy), who struggles to co-parent her daughter Zoe (Sophia Ally) with her argumentative ex (Richard Armitage). But when Zoe suffers an unexpected brain hemorrhage and is put on life support, Isabelle comes up with an audacious plan with a fellow scientist (Daniel Brühl) to keep some version of her daughter alive. The film is both a meditation and a morality play, dealing with loss, grief, and technology’s role in deeply human decisions, and it’s some of Delpy’s finest work as both a filmmaker and a performer. I spoke with her recently about the film and how her role as a writer/director has changed over her seven films. Please enjoy our spirited discussion…
I remember when we spoke before, you told me that in order to get some of your earlier films made, you had to incorporate a little trickery with your financiers about what kind of movie you were going to make and the type of character you were going to play. With this movie, was there any trickery involved, or do these people finally trust you at this point?
[laughs] That’s why this took so long to make—I couldn’t trick anyone into thinking it was something else because it’s so clearly a drama and not a very typical drama either, because it goes into unchartered territories. So I had to sell my soul [both laugh]. No, I’m kidding. I worked really hard, and the film fell apart, but luckily I had a few producers involved that really believed in the film, including Daniel Brühl, and that got the film made in the end.
It is a very different kind of film than the others you’ve written and directed, and it feels immensely personal, something only a parent could write successfully. Where did this come from in you, and where did that hard left turn in the third act come from?
It’s funny, I love sci-fi, even though the film isn’t really sci-fi. But I love the philosophical aspect of sci-fi. To me, the best sci-fi has that philosophical dimension and that metaphysical dimension. As long as I can remember, I’ve written short stories and I wrote one about a man who had a sister who couldn’t have a baby, and he created a baby robot for her, so she was finally happy. It was always about motherhood, and I was 9 years old, so it’s always been a fascinating subject to me. I think the true meaning of this deep fear that parents have of anything happening to their kid really took hold when I had a kid. So even though the concept of going beyond the laws and against what’s expected of a mother as she’s grieving came [to me] a long time ago, the actual writing and being able to formulate it into a story came when I became a mother. So it does have that personal aspect, you’re right.
It’s so funny, because I’ve been tempted to call your film science fiction as well, but I don’t think there’s a fantastical element to it.
I love that your character is a scientist, so she would know about this technology and the risks. Nothing about it feels inherently fictitious.
And the truth is, they’re cloning monkeys, and what else are we? We’re primates, just to remind everybody.
I firmly believe that if parents thought this was an option, a lot of them would do it. That doesn’t feel like fantasy either. This is a fantastic morality play. Can you talk about that aspect of it: should she or shouldn’t she?
Of course. In a way, I’m not judging her, and that’s why the approach to it is emotional. Really, she’s doing it out of love and not out of notoriety or money or greed or anything that a lot of people are doing right now—terrible things in the name of science. She’s doing it out of one of the most noble feelings on earth. But she’s doing something that is obviously morally wrong. She’s playing with fire, something that is not normal. But is it really playing with fire? Or is it just us not having been there yet? Forty years ago, the first IVF [In vitro fertilization] baby was the devil, right? So we’re still in a moralistic world, and we’re also attached to our unicity and our soul. Even me, I’m not religious, but I still have a sense of the human soul. I still like the concept, even if I don’t believe in it completely. I still like the idea that we’re unique, and our soul exists beyond our physical body. [whispers] But it doesn’t [laughs], sadly!
What are we? What defines us? And what is this new little girl? Is she some weird thing that’s a monster, or is she just a twin? If you look into IVF, there are frozen babies everywhere. What are they? Are they in limbo, alive, dead? Do they have a consciousness? It’s complicated, and we’re reaching places in science that are complicated ethically, even though we don’t seem to give a shit about killing children when they’re 10 years old in some countries. We have all of these ethics about the beginning of life, so it’s a big subject, and I reach it through a weird corner. Also, it’s about women deciding for themselves, this decision that she makes. That’s taboo. It will piss off some people, this film. It’s not a film that will make everyone happy or a movie where everyone agrees to cry in the same place, like Kramer vs. Kramer, which I love, by the way.
A lot of times your films feel like therapy sessions. I feel like you’re putting the good and bad out there—often about relationships—for everyone to judge. So much of this film is about this relationship your character has with her ex-husband.
Possibly the worst relationship ever. The worst breakup ever, believe me, I know. What they say to each other and how far they go is really interesting to me because I’ve never gone that far in my real life, but there’s a part of me that wishes I had [laughs]. And the man is really vicious, and when I cast the film, Richard ended up getting the part, and he’s a beautiful actor and he really got into the character. But I spoke to a couple of other actors who were really scared to play that part. Every time, they’d say to me “Can you make him a little more likable?” And I’d be like “Why? You’ve played a serial killer in a movie, why do you think this is worse?” And he’s like “Because it seems real. It’s scary.”
That hospital scene, where he’s talking about your looks, that is so difficult to watch. It makes any breakup I’ve had seem downright pleasant.
That’s right! It’s a feel-good movie. It makes people think “It was never that bad for me.”
People sometimes complain about films that shift tones, but I adore movies like that because they’re unpredictable, and I certainly didn’t see where you were going to take this story. Was that important to you, to make a film that wasn’t tonally consistent and surprising in some ways?
I do liked to be surprised in movies. What I hate is sometime watching a movie, and the music is telling me how to feel. I know where it’s going and it’s like going on a date with your husband of 40 years. Where is the excitement? I mean, there is excitement but it’s not exciting. I really love going to places that are a little bit unsettling. It might make people uncomfortable at times because it’s going in directions you don’t expect, but I think it’s important to do that. I enjoy movies like that, personally. Some of my favorite movies have that tone, like “It’s a comedy but there’s a real murder in it,” and I love directors who embrace that like Jodorowsky or people who go to places no one dares to go.
Maybe it’s because of my French background and sometimes we have a tendency to do that a little more because it’s less of an industry and more of an art world. One of my favorite movies is La Jetée by Chris Marker, which is a series of photos. I still have in me this artsy idea that I want to go to places that are not expected. But it’s true, sometimes I see movies and I know where it’s going to go. That’s what I love the Coen brothers, because they go places I don’t expect, and each film I’m happy I’m going to have a bit of a surprise. It’s fun to watch something when you don’t know where it’s going.
In your writing, you have a genuine gift for shocking dialogue; there’s a real sophistication to the way you use vulgarity, and you come up with some great ones in this film. What’s your secret; do you swear a lot in your real life, so you need to find ways to make it interesting?
I do swear a lot and in French as well. I was raised by parents in the theater, which is full of wild creatures. And I was raised in a world of writers who were extremely on the edge of what was acceptable in society, regarding violence, sexuality, the complexity of thoughts. My parents were doing a lot of plays by a writer named Fernando Arrabal, who was also a friend of Jodorowsky and people like that—these unique kind of minds. And I feel like I was raised with that, and it stuck to me. I loved it because it was harsh, and it could be vulgar. It had sex but it didn’t go all the way there. It’s all in the language, never the physical stuff—I hate that actually, any vulgarity in the physical.
One of my favorite American writers is Charles Bukowski. Some people, when I say that to them say, “He’s so trashy,” and I’m like “No, it’s not. Bukowski is underrated in America. French people love him; there’s something so raw and true in his writing.”
As a filmmaker, are people starting to come to you with works they would like you to direct, ones that you didn’t necessarily write? Would you even direct a film that you did not have a hand in creating?
The truth is, I have written screenplays based on books. I do put a little bit of my tone in it, but it had to be specific things I had to enjoy, where the voice resonated to me, and it needs to be completely in tune with my voice. It’s not all books that I feel that way about. Often it’s books by Hubert Selby Jr. or Philip K. Dick; it’s not necessarily writers from now. It goes beyond and goes crazy; that’s the stuff I like, if I were to adapt something I hadn’t written.
You have a Netflix series coming out this year [called On the Verge] that you wrote, directed and star in as well. What can you tell me about it?
It came out of observing friends around me—these very strong, vivid, beautiful women getting older and still having so much to do and say. Each character is based on a friend of mine, actually, so it’s a very personal show, but it’s also very much fantasy because it goes in directions that is not true but it is true to who they are. It’s a comedy about four women in their 40s and 50s, still living fully in the excitement of life and all their craziness and fun, and they have husbands who are also three-dimensional characters. Everyone is a little bit lost and confused but really fun and alive. It’s a fun series. I’m finishing post-production now. It was ordered by Canal+, the French channel, and it’s the first collaboration between Canal+ and Netflix, because they used to be competitors in Europe, and now they’ve agreed to this one show at least.
Julie, thank you so much and best of luck with both the film and the series.
It was great to talk to you again. Thank you, Steve.
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