A Nice Surprise: Céline Sciamma on Petite Maman | Interviews

It must have also been a help to you as well in an odd way. Under normal circumstances, a follow-up project to a big breakthrough like “Portrait” would have been under great scrutiny from the moment it was announced.

Exactly. It also helps knowing that people will be excited by the surprise. It felt warm to be thinking that it would seem like a nice surprise.

Were there any films or filmmakers that you were looking at for inspiration in telling this story?

At first, I was thinking that this should really be an animated film when the idea hit me. I thought a lot about Miyazaki—the treatment of nature and the idea of the house in the woods really linked to his work. I was also thinking about the pioneers of cinema. I felt that I was going to do a film using the exact same tools—doing everything in the camera with the magic in the editing. It was magic realism, which was one of the early genres of cinema. I was also thinking about Penny Marshall’s “Big.” Of course, “Back to the Future” is the matrix for any time-traveling film, especially if you were born in the Seventies like me, but I was thinking more about the boldness and innovative radical nature of “Big.” It isn’t a film about a kid going to see his parents as kids—it is about a kid falling in love with a woman. The last shot of that film, when you think about it, is incredible. I remember how it was both very fun and very troubling for a kid when I saw it in the cinema. I remember that I felt really respected as a kid watching that film and I wanted to give that same feeling to the kids from 2020.

You don’t over-explain things for the audience. In the hands of a number of other filmmakers, the time-travel concept would have been explained in great detail but here, it just happens and that is it.

When I wrote the film, I was almost disappointed that it was a time-travel film because I didn’t want to go through that whole process of having to come back or the actual consequences of going back and changing the future. If the film just decides to be its own time-traveling machine to create a common space in time between characters, then you just write them the same in the language of the film, which means that they are going to believe in each other and not ask a lot of questions. If the characters do not ask a lot of questions, then the film doesn’t have to deal with those questions. Then, the only question about the future that you have to ask are about the music and I think that is a great question about the future—it is certainly my question too.

In the roles of Nelly and the child version of her mother, you cast Josephine and Gabrielle Sanz, two sisters who are both quite young and who had never acted before. Were you consciously looking for sisters to play the roles and did their youth and lack of film experience require you to employ a different directorial approach than you had utilized in your previous projects?

There was an idea that I had in the casting that I wanted to work with sisters and we put out an ad saying that we were looking for sisters. My casting director met with something like 10 kids and when I met them, I knew I wanted to work with them. This meant that I didn’t rehearse before shooting. They had never been on a set. For me, it was really the same job as with adults or with kids who are professionals. We always romanticize what it is like to direct a scene but that is mostly where to put the camera and what kind of moves to make. It is quite simple to explain to a kid—you never feel weird explaining to a kid “Okay, you are going to play this … “ because they are always playing and they are used to it. You watch them learn and you watch them become autonomous for the first time in their lives. After two days, it just becomes this job that we do together in inventing the language of the film. This always takes a few days, whether you are doing it with Adele Haenel or Josephine Sanz. It is all about finding the rhythm of how you walk and move and then adapting.

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