“Lost in Paris” with Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon: “Emmanuelle Riva nourished her character”

Without ever losing or ignoring their own cinematic origins, charisma and integrity, renowned slapstick artists and geniuses Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon (a.k.a. Abel and Gordon) bring their latest creation “Paris pieds nus” (a.k.a. “Lost in Paris”) to life, a most charming film comedy and a first-rate ode to classic cinema. After several decades on the stage, they graced the screen with their previous features, “L’iceberg,” (2005),  “Rumba” (2008) and “La fée” (a.k.a. “The Fairy,” 2011), which were pretty much restricted to the art house circuit, though “Lost in Paris” has the potential to find its way to the multiplex theater chains.

The fanciful story introduces the couple playing the Chaplinesque tramp Dom (short for Dominique), living in Paris, and Fiona, a Canadian librarian who heads to the French capital to help her elderly aunt Martha, played by French screen legend Emmanuelle Riva. The recently deceased Riva is known the world over from the screen classic “Hiroshima mon amour” (1959) and her masterful Academy Award-nominated tour-de-force performance in “Amour” (2012). Assisted by French comedy veteran Pierre Richard in another delightful supporting role, the Brussels-based directing, screenwriting and acting duo – and couple – Abel and Gordon once again surprise their audience with their latest highly innovative, original, sparkling and heart-warming comedy. “Lost in Paris” is definitely a winner.

Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon talk about their work and their film in such a pragmatic and realistic way, it’s easy to relate to their passion as artists and filmmakers when we meet in their hometown.

Could you first tell me how “Lost in Paris” came about?

[Fiona Gordon] Dominique and I first met in Paris in the 1980s, and that basically gave us the idea for the film. As far as the story is concerned, we wanted to do something really simple in a big city, so all we had to do was go back to our clown roots which gave us enough space to play, get lost and do silly things. With our own past in Paris, and the things that happened to us there back then, it all seemed pretty logical to us.
[Dominique Abel] Before Fiona arrived in Paris, her mother had told her, ‘You should put a Canadian flag on your bagpack, so people won’t mistake you for an American.’ She didn’t do it then, but we did use it in the film. She also fell in the river, but that was in London actually, not in Paris.
[Fiona Gordon] I also lost my lodgings when I arrived in Paris. I had this huge suitcase and in the first couple of days I had found a room. I was really relieved since I didn’t speak French very well, and I didn’t have enough money to stay in a hotel. When I had walked up six flights of stars to get to my room where an old lady greeted me, she asked, ‘All right, what’s the name of your school?’ And I said, ‘It’s Jacques Lecoq, the theater school in Paris.’ But in the end, she didn’t allow me to stay there: she didn’t trust anybody who didn’t come from a state school. So there I was, back on the street, feeling very lost, until I eventually found a place to live a few days later.
[Dominique Abel] Fiona’s parents are about 85 years, so that’s something we also wanted to include in the story with the character of aunt Martha [played by Emmanuelle Riva].

Pierre Richard and Emmanuelle Riva in “Lost in Paris.” Photograph: Cinéart

That’s a very charming character, isn’t it?

[Fiona Gordon] Yes, and that’s because of Emmanuelle. As I said, in the beginning it was just a pretext for us to do silly things in Paris, but when we first met her, she nourished her character and made it come to life. So we wrote around her character. Unfortunately, she passed away recently [January 27, 2017, at age 89], but she lived in Paris in a little apartment, four flights up, there was no elevator, and she always was very passionate about her work. She had very high highs and low lows because she didn’t accept just any work. In real life she was very playful, so we put all of that in the film.
[Dominique Abel] Every day, she wrote a little bit of poetry which she’d read to us. When she was at home, she was always feeding the birds and had trouble with the people from the restaurant downstairs – the rice she threw for the birds always fell on the tables, they had problems with the pigeon shit and everything. The door of her bedroom always made a lot of noise when it was opened or closed, and she told us, ‘I will never put any oil on it, because I like the sound of it.’ [Laughs.]

Did you had to make any compromises along the way, during the writing, shooting, or editing process?

[Fiona Gordon] When we write, we don’t have a screenplay which is fixed. We start with a very rough sort of skeleton of a screenplay and as we improvise, as we find the actors, and as we go to the different locations, the script develops as we go along. We do have difficulties in the beginning with financing, because we leave our script very open to have enough space for all these things. When people read the script in this early stage, they often don’t see the point, they don’t understand that we need this space. So we had difficulties in the beginning. But later on, the script got more and more filled up and it became easier for us to show it to other people.
[Dominique Abel] But we are very fortunate to have a co-producer who really trusts us, so we didn’t feel any pressure to make any changes. But budget wise, it’s always the last two hundred thousand euro which are the most difficult to find. That might take a long time.
[Fiona Gordon] The financing usually takes the longest time, but in our case it takes a little more time to write through improvisation. It’s not a process that can be done in just two months. We have to go back and forward with the rehearsal space, the location,… We need at least two years for that.
[Dominique Abel] It’s a creative path – we don’t have the dialogue, the psychology, the architecture. We have to invent everything.

Hilarious slapstick with Dominique Abel on the banks of the Seine. Photograph: Cinéart

You also look at Paris from another angle than most people usually do, don’t you? We get to see the Eiffel Tower, the Seine, the Statue of Liberty, but all the other locations where you shot your scenes are pretty unknown.

[Fiona Gordon] It wasn’t a priority for us to show Paris as it is, we just needed the places in the city that were necessary for our characters. We looked at all the bridges in Paris, we also liked this Île aux Cygnes because it was a bucolic sort of place in this busy city with the Eiffel Tower not so far, and with the Statue of Liberty which was great for Dominique to place his tent just underneath it. After that, things just fell into place.

I admire the way you appreciate and refer to the comedians from the silent era like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd, but still you have to come up with your own gags. How do you do that?

[Fiona Gordon] The old-time comics had the same problem as we have. In their era, they were also the continuation of many years in music halls, variety and burlesque which was in the theater. We count on our personalities which aren’t like the personalities that existed before, we don’t have the same bodies, we don’t have the same culture, we don’t have the same problems, and that’s where our own originality can come in. We recreate the same sketches in the end, sometimes without even knowing it, but our personalities make it original in the context.

Fiona Gordon, trying to find her aunt Martha in “Lost in Paris.” Photograph: Cinéart

Dancing is an important element in your film; there’s the tango and I thought the dance with the feet which you did, although presumably performed by the characters of Emmanuelle Riva and Pierre Richard while sitting on the bench, was very inspiring, just like the characters you created in the film. When you look at that particular scene in the film, with this perfect old tune you chose to go with it [Ray Noble’s ‘Little Boy, You’ve Had a Busy Day’], it all seems pretty logical, but you wouldn’t expect it to turn out as beautifully as it did. Hardly anyone would think of doing a tribute like this.

[Fiona Gordon] Well, sometimes you’ll get films like “The Artist” [2011] – an homage – or now we have “La La Land,” but we don’t consider ourselves to be nostalgic or bringing an homage. We are merely a continuation of a style that is rare just because of the way you have to write your scripts. It’s difficult to keep this flame lit, it’s rare, and it’s very hard to do this kind of cinema today. In the theater you have a lot of burlesque though.
[Dominique Abel] The problem is that you have to write a screenplay before they give you the money to do it. It’s impossible to read a burlesque script, and that’s what we do and just to make sure we’re not misunderstood, we always need to explain it. Most of the people who might read it, would say, ‘It’s not interesting, there’s no dialogue, no psychology.’ And if the script is too clever, it won’t be a good burlesque film. There are not too many clowns doing that work nowadays in cinema.
[Fiona Gordon] Those who do it, try to insert little moments of burlesque in films of other strengths, like Dumont who has characters that are completely rejected from society. We are more classical, I suppose. Sometimes when people think of a naïve clown, they associate him with childrens’ theater or presume he’s a romantic sentimentalist, but clowns in all their innocence are not sentimental, at least we don’t consider ourselves to be sentimental. There is an underlying cruelty, and we just take a different direction and look at it from a different way: we look at the cruelty in life, we put on our clown glasses and we act as if we didn’t know that it was cruel. But there is an underlying sadness or distress underneath the character.

At times, you also seem to prefer long sequences, one shot, without any editing. In “Rumba,” for example, there’s this very beautiful and long dance sequence – one shot, one take, no editing whatsoever. Is there any specific reason for that?

[Dominique Abel] You are always closer to the human body of the actor if you don’t edit too much. You are closer to all his graces, all his talents and also to all his weaknesses, and that’s what makes a human being beautiful. You don’t get that when he’s perfect. He’s much more beautiful when he’s loosing the rhythm, or when he’s nearly falling and getting back on his feet. We’re not afraid to show that. So we prefer the body showing the rhythm rather than the technique of editing taking over.
[Fiona Gordon] It’s perhaps linked to our past in theater – I’m not quite sure, because theater is so terribly different than cinema. But when an actor can go through a whole scene, there’s an emotion and a fluidity that he has created. When an actor just does a short part, and then comes back two hours later for another short bit, you can’t say that it’s stronger or weaker, I just don’t think it has the same flavor. Sometimes when we do a radio interview, you can feel that the person who is interviewing doesn’t want any hole in the conversation, but sometimes you need this hole because it can lead to another idea. And when an actor goes through his scenes, he also goes through those holes to come up with a new idea, so he may need these holes for the viewer to recognize the human underneath.

Directors, screenwriters and actors Fiona Gordon and Dominique Abel in Brussels. Photograph: Leo Verswijver

When you were shooting “Lost in Paris,” how do you decide on the set if you needed another take, since very often both were in front of the camera?

[Dominique Abel] First we rehearsed it a lot in our studio at home, close to the beginning of the writing, so there is a ping pong between the writing and the trying – the improvisation – and then we rehearsed on the set in Paris just to know which ideas are going to flourish or which are not good for us, and to find the physicality, the real things – the wind, the water. We play with those, and when we are about to shoot, we know what we are going to do. Then we really try to find the real emotion of the rehearsals, except for some scenes like in the Paris metro, those were really improvised.
[Fiona Gordon] Since it’s all pretty much geometrical, the action is very important and it’s very rare that we have to act. We had that problem in the Embassy with the scene when I was supposed to cry and it wasn’t working out too well. So we had to do it several times, but usually we don’t have that problem, because we have these actions that are done simply. As long as we knew that the action was correct, we knew it was okay.
[Dominique Abel] With Emmanuelle Riva, it was a building process. Actually, she was really physical. We told her to behave like a street cat and she liked that kind of direction. Whenever we did a scene with her – let’s say four or five takes – and we said it was okay, she would say, ‘No, it’s not okay, I can see that you’re not completely satisfied.’ She wanted to build up slowly and constantly find other things. Working with Pierre Richard on the other hand was entirely different. He is an improvisator, he throws himself in it and wants to exchange ideas the whole time.
[Fiona Gordon] It’s very hard to judge on the spot, even when you’re not in the scene. When Dominique was playing, I was always watching, and I was never absolutely sure, because I saw it on the screen in two dimensions. And there were always a lot of things influencing your judgment: the crew, other elements… Sometimes you can have a magical night outside and you’d think, ‘Wow, this is fabulous!’ And then you see it later in two dimensions, and it simply doesn’t translate. Usually a director will say, ‘We’ll take number two, or number six.’ And the continuity girl marks down on the script which take is the good one. But we never do that, because we’re not quite sure till we really see it.
[Dominique Abel] Our stage work was a wonderful training ground to develop ourselves. We played every night, always tried to improve, and we also listened to and looked at the audience, trying to feel what was right. With twenty years of experience on the stage, we take that with us in movies like Charlie Chaplin or Jacques Tati did. But it’s always a risk. The problem is also that on the stage you get the laugh from the audience right away, and in cinema you get it let’s say two years later.
[Fiona Gordon] Sometimes when we see our films for the first time with a real audience – not a test audience, but a real audience – we think, ‘Oh, we should have cut here, or I wish we could have gone a little bit longer there.’ That’s when you get a lot of information that you don’t have beforehand. We always hope that with experience we’ll develop this sort of sixth sense and know beforehand, but I think it must take years, unless you’re able to re-edit after the first few screenings. During the shoot, you have to go fast, there’s a lot of pressure, you have to be the captain of the boat with the crew around you.

On the set of “Lost in Paris” with Dominique Abel, Emmanuelle Riva, Fiona Gordon, and Pierre Richard. Photograph: Cinéart

What was your shooting schedule like?

[Fiona Gordon] We had ten weeks, which is not considered long for what we do, because the people who did the old burlesque and that we adore, they sometimes had six months to two years. You depend on the context, the physical aspect, the gags you have to find. You’re like a scientist who is trying to invent something and you always have to keep experimenting until you find the right idea, figure out how you do it, and how many times you have to repeat it. That’s also an issue with comedy: the rhythm of it, do you go a little faster or a little slower, things like that. But it’s always worth the challenge and we love every minute of it.

Brussels (Belgium),
March 13, 2017

The trailer of “Lost in Paris”

FILMS

L’ICEBERG (2005) DIR – SCR Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon, Bruno Romy PROD Dominique Abel CAM Sébastien Koeppel MUS Jacques Luley ED Sandrine Deegen CAST Dominique Abel (Julien), Fiona Gordon (Fiona), Lucy Tulugarjuk, Philippe Martz, Bruno Romy

RUMBA (2008) DIR – SCR Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon PROD Charles Gillibert, Nathanaël Karmitz, Marin Karmitz CAM Claire Childeric ED Sandrine Deegen CAST Dominique Abel (Dom), Fiona Gordon (Fiona), Philippe Martz, Bruno Romy, Clément Morel

LA FÉE, a.k.a. THE FAIRY (2011) DIR – SCR Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon, Bruno Romy PROD Charles Gillibert, Nathanaël Karmitz, Marin Karmitz, Valérie Rouy, Elise Bisson, Marina Festré CAM Claire Childeric ED Sandrine Degeen CAST Dominique Abel (Dom), Fiona Gordon (Fiona, The Fairy), Philippe Martz, Bruno Romy, Vladimir Zongo

PARIS PIEDS NUS, a.k.a. LOST IN PARIS (2017) DIR – SCR Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon PROD Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon, Charles Gillibert, Christie Molia CAM Claire Childeric, Jean-Christophe Leforestier ED Sandrine Degeen CAST Emmanuelle Riva, Pierre Richard, Dominique Abel (Dom), Fiona Gordon (Fiona), Emmy Boissard Paumelle, Céline Laurentie, Philippe Martz, Bruno Romy