Étienne Comar: “In ‘Django’ we have this character who captures his musical fantasy in a world gone mad”

When Martin Scorsese was a guest of honor at the Cinémathèque française in Paris, late 2015, he said at the press conference: “When I grew up, I was listening to the 78 rpm records my father had, many of them from the big band swing era, but also Django Reinhardt, which is the first music I remember, really imagining things – images – from listening to improvisations of him. The music started giving me impressions of movement, it just burst my imagination open.” No wonder that Belgian-born French jazz guitarist and composer Django Reinhardt (1910-1953) was instrumental in Scorsese’s formative years.

And so, now there is “Django,” the first feature directed by legendary French film producer and two-time César winner Étienne Comar (b. 1965), one of the most productive and inspirational producers in his home country since the mid-1990s with films to his credit such as “Les femmes du 6e étage” (a.k.a. “The Women on the 6th Floor,” 2010), “Des hommes et des dieux” (a.k.a. “Of Gods and Men,” 2010; BAFTA nomination as Best Foreign-Language Film) and “Timbuktu” (2014, both BAFTA and Academy Award nomination as Best Foreign-Language Film).

“Django,” which Mr. Comar also co-produced and co-wrote with Alexis Salatko (based on his 2013 novel ‘Folles de Django’), takes the renowned musician, his family and his entourage, back to Paris in 1943 where he tried to survive the German occupation. Reda Kateb plays the title role who gives a stunning performance.

Étienne Comar and his leading actors Reda Kateb and Cécile de France came over to Brussels to talk about their latest film. This is the interview with Mr. Comar.

Film director Étienne Comar and his leading actor Reda Kateb on the set of “Django.” Photograph: Cinemien Belgium

Mr. Comar, did Django Reinhardt’s music inspire you the same way it has influenced Martin Scorsese?

No, not in the same way. I have memories of my father who liked jazz music and Django Reinhardt, and even though I’m much younger than Martin Scorsese, I also listened to Reinhardt’s music when I grew up. I liked his record album covers, his photographs with American actors, and especially his music which always was very vibrant. My father once told me that during World War II, people forgot all about the war when they listened to his music. It was a sort of escapism: music with such powerful potential was very fascinating to me, and an inspiration to make this film. I had also been a singer in a group, and I always liked the idea that music as an art form can take you someplace else. The rhythm, slower at times or faster whenever necessary, it’s almost like living in another world. So in “Django” we have this character who captures his musical fantasy in a world gone mad when he’s playing his music.

That’s perhaps one of the main reasons why you made “Django”?

Absolutely. The story of the film is set in 1943. Before the war, Django Reinhardt was only concerned about his music, that was his life. But during the war, he faced this horrible tragedy that he and his people had to cope with. He became aware of it, and it also had an influence on his music when he wrote his ‘Requiem.’

Reda Kateb and Cécile de France in “Django.” Photograph: Cinemien Belgium

Being so acquainted with Django Reinhardt and his work, did that make it any easier for you to write the screenplay?

It took me about two years to finish it, which is pretty reasonable, and since it’s a period of his life with hardly any information available in biographies or interviews – also those that were conducted with people who had known him personally – I was able to fill in the gaps myself and turn it into a fictionalized drama. We knew what he did in Paris, and about his trip to Switzerland, so from there we constructed a story that could have actually happened. I didn’t set out to tell the true story of Django Reinhardt, it was my true story, and I hope it is an acceptable version of what happened to him back then. His family who worked with me when I wrote the screenplay, told me I came pretty close to the real Django Reinhardt. And with Reda Kateb we created a character that was our Django.

Aren’t you restricted in your creativity when you make a film about a well-known person, even when the story may be partially fictionalized?

I only would be if I would have covered his entire life. Then you have to begin with a number of facts, or events if you will, that happened in this person’s life and which you can’t ignore in your story. But in our case, I think I can say that we even had more creative freedom, as we were covering a short and pretty unknown period of Django Reinhardt’s life. If you look at Martin Scorsese – since you brought him up – he also didn’t tell the entire life story of Howard Hughes in “The Aviator” [2004]. Only a short period, and it gave him the opportunity to emphasize on certain details of Hughes’ character, just as we did with Django. And that makes it very interesting for any filmmaker.

How did you cast the principal roles and how did you work with your actors, both before shooting and when you were on the set?

With Reda Kateb, I went through a number of scenes before we started shooting, we read the screenplay together, and he told me what he liked or what bothered him. Most of the time when we all appeared on the set, we went through the scene and all the actors knew what to do. It’s a luxury if you have the ability to invest a lot of time in your rehearsals, but unfortunately I couldn’t do that. There are actors who prefer to work this way – not too many rehearsals in order to remain fresh and original, while others like to rehearse several times. I did ask Reda to work an awful lot on his music and his guitar movements, the way he played, and the way he worked with his musicians, and he did it beautifully. So there were a lot of musical rehearsals, much more than with the actors.

Reda Kateb as Django Reinhardt, the renowned jazz musician who reportedly influenced Paul McCartney as well. Photograph: Cinemien Belgium

Do you have a specific working method with your actors on the set?

This was my directorial debut, so in that case I tried to find out if there’s any specific method that might work for me. It’s like when you make love for the first time, then you also don’t have a method [laughs]. It’s wonderful, it’s exciting, and that’s what it was like when we were working on the set. When I will direct my next film, I’ll have several points of reference. I might do it the same way next time, although it’s very possible it will turn out entirely differently. I would very much like to work like the Dardenne brothers [Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne], with all their preparations, their rehearsals on the set, that would be marvellous. But then, you need to make sure all the actors are available, you have to be familiar with the locations, the sets, etc. A lot of work is to be done before you start shooting, and that’s not always possible.

You have been a highly acclaimed and successful producer for many years. Is that an advantage when you start directing?

It doesn’t have any substantial impact when you sit in the director’s chair. Suppose I would never have produced a film before, when you are on the set and you’re actually directing scenes, it’s still a totally different ball game. I did have the advantage however to really know what it takes to make a film, like the shooting schedule, the technicalities, how to prepare and how long it takes – all very crucial when you’re involved in the creative process of directing a film. I was uncertain at times, you know, like for example when Reda was ready to play the guitar like Django Reinhardt did, or where and how to find the best non-professional actors who appeared in the film, things like that. If you have directed films before, you’re more familiar with that, while I wasn’t. But now I am. On the other hand, it’s never a guarantee that your film will work. The films I produced or wrote earlier have always been very dear to me, a number of them were even very personal – also if they dealt with subjects that were not part of my own world, like “Des hommes et des Dieux” [2010], “Les sauveurs du palais” [a.k.a. “Haute Cuisine,” 2012], “Timbukti” [2014] or “Mon roi” [a.k.a. “My King,” 2015]. And yet, they have this intimacy because of certain memories, or the themes they deal with. In “Django,” I recognize myself quit a bit. I don’t compare myself with Django Reinhardt, but I feel a certain intimacy in this portrait of an artist in a complicated period in the history of a world in crisis. I never experienced the German occupation, but the theme is very important and it really touches me a lot.

How about making compromises to get your film financed and get it made?

For this matter, my background as producer was important. I knew the minimum shooting schedule I needed to make this film, and everything it took to achieve my goal with “Django.” In other words, I knew what I was up to and I don’t think I made any compromises. I had written my own screenplay, I had a shooting schedule of forty-five days and finished two days earlier. I wanted Reda Kateb and Cécile de France in the leading roles, and I was able to cast them. I knew exactly what I wanted; the editing went fine and I had a great producer who backed me all the way. So no, I don’t feel I had to make many compromises. Maybe if you’ll ask me this question again by the time I have directed ten more films – when I’ll be a more experienced director – who knows, you might get an entirely different answer by then.

Your upcoming film will be “Gauguin,” if I’m correct?

Yes, I co-wrote the screenplay and produced the film. We finished shooting the other day. I can tell you the film looks splendid.

Is it a coincidence that your subject is Paul Gauguin, an artist like Django Reinhardt?

No. I am very much interested in the contribution of artists of all walks of life, how they communicated through their art, and how they were able to express themselves. They often paid a price for their creative freedom – which is sometimes difficult to comprehend – and I tend to compare them with the last of the free men. They often faced hard times, were criticized by many, and they were not always able to express themselves. So artists fascinate me, because they’re a little bit mysterious: why do they feel the urge to express themselves to others? Why was Django Reinhardt’s ‘Requiem’ in the end so important to him, much more important than many other things he ever did in his life? Many artists are remembered for things they did which they even didn’t consider to be crucial in their artistic lives. They often prefer another piece of work, and that makes their lives and careers so interesting.

Brussels (Belgium),
May 3, 2017

FILMS

MEKTOUB (1997) DIR – SCR Nabil Ayouch PROD Étienne Comar, Noureddine Ayouch, Jean Cottin, Thierry Boscheron CAM Vincent Mathias ED Jean-Robert Thomann MUS Henri Agnel, Pierre Boscheron CAST Rachid El Ouali, Faouzi Bensaïdi, Amal Chabli, Mohammed Miftah, Malika Oufkir, Hilal Abdellatif

ZONZON (1998) DIR Laurent Bouhnik PROD Étienne Comar, Laurent Bouhnik, Patrick Delassagne, Jean Cottin, Thierry Boscheron SCR Laurent Bouhnik, Patrick Delassagne, Marc Andréoni CAM Gilles Henry ED Hervé de Luze MUS Jérôme Coullet CAST Gaël Morel, Jamel Debbouze, Pascal Greggory, Fabienne Babe, Véra Briole, François Levantal

SUPERLOVE (1999) DIR Jean-Claude Janer PROD Étienne Comar, Jean Cottin SCR Jean-Claude Janer, Hélène Angel, Agnès de Sacy CAM Mário Barroso ED Valérie Loiseleux MUS Julien Baer CAST Grégoire Colin, Isabelle Carré, Carmen Maura, Marthe Villalonga, Luis Rego, Michèle Moretti

1999 MADELEINE (1999) DIR – SCR Laurent Bouhnik PROD Étienne Comar, Jean Cottin CAM Gilles Henry ED Clémence Lafarge MUS Jérôme Coullet CAST Véra Briole, Manuel Blanc, Anouk Aimée, Jean-Michel Fête, Jean-François Gallotte, Aurélia Petit, Samuel Jouy, Anne Marivin

SUR UN AIR D’AUTOROUTE, a.k.a. FREEWAY RHAPSODY and HIGHWAY MELODY (2000) DIR Thierry Boscheron PROD Antoine Voituriez DELEGATE PROD Étienne Comar SCR Thierry Boscheron, Philippe Chazaranc, Xavier Matthieu, Philippe Donzelot CAM Jérôme Israel ED Caroline Kelber MUS Pierre Boscheron CAST Sacha Bourdo, Aure Atika, Marie-France Pisier, Philippe Nahon, Dominique Pinon, Marc Berman, Laurent Bouhnik

ALI ZAOUA, PRINCE DE LA RUE, a.k.a. ALI ZAOUA: PRINCE OF THE STREETS (2000) DIR Nabil Ayouch PROD Étienne Comar, Jean Cottin, Antoine Voituriez SCR Nabil Ayouch, Nathalie Saugeon CAM Renaat Lambeets, Vincent Mathias ED Jean-Robert Thomann MUS Krishna Levy CAST Mounïm Kbab, Mustapha Hansali, Hicham Moussoune, Abdelhak Zharya, Saïd Taghmaoui

GAMER (2001) DIR Zak Fishman [Patrick Levy] PROD Étienne Comar, Jean Cottin SCR Zak Fishman [Patrick Levy], Daive Cohen, Fabien Suarez CAM Tariel Meliava ED Véronique Parnet CAST Saïd Taghmaoui, Camille De Pazzis, Arielle Dombasle, Bruno Salomone, Alexis Laurent, Jean-Pierre Calfon, Fred Saurel

24 HEURES DE LA VIE D’UNE FEMME, a.k.a. 24 HOURS IN THE LIFE OF A WOMAN (2002) DIR Laurent Bouhnik PROD Étienne Comar, Jean Cottin SCR Laurent Bouhnik, Gilles Taurand (novel by Stefan Zweig) CAM Gilles Henry ED Hervé de Luze, Jacqueline Mariani MUS Michael Nyman CAST Agnès Jaoui, Michel Serrault, Bérénice Bejo, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Clément van den Bergh, Frances Barber

DÉDALES, a.k.a. LABYRINTH (2003) DIR – SCR René Manzor PROD Étienne Comar, Jean Cottin CAM Pal Gyulay ED René Manzor, Philippe Bluart MUS Jean-Félix Lalanne CAST Lambert Wilson, Sylvie Testud, Frédéric Diefenthal, Michel Duchaussoy, Edouard Montoute, Tomer Gazit Sisley, René Manzor

PAPA (2005) DIR Maurice Barthélémy PROD Étienne Comar, Philippe Rousselet SCR Maurice Barthélémy, Alain Chabat CAM Laurent Machuel ED Fabrice Rouaud MUS Philippe Morino CAST Alain Chabat, Martin Combes, Yaël Abecassis, Judith Godrèche, Anne Benoît, Michel Scourneau

LES PARRAINS, a.k.a. THE DO-GOODERS (2005) DIR Frédéric Forrestier PROD Étienne Comar, Philippe Rousselet SCR Olivier Dazat, Alexandre de la Patellière, Matthieu Delaporte (original story by Laurent Chalumeau, Claude Simeoni) CAM Vincent Mathias ED Philippe Bourgeuil MUS Frank Forrestier, Laurent Levesque, Loïc Dury, Bruno Epron Mahmoudi CAST Gérard Lanvin, Jacques Villeret, Gérard Darmon, Claude Brasseur, Pascal Rénéric, Hélène Seuzaret, Anna Galiena

DU JOUR AU LENDEMAIN (2006) DIR Philippe Le Guay PROD Étienne Comar, Philippe Rousselet SCR Philippe Le Guay, Olivier Dazat CAM Jean-Claude Larrieu ED Monica Coleman MUS Philippe Rombi CAST Benoît Poelvoorde, Bernard Bloch, Anne Consigny, Constance Dollé, Rufus, Flannan Obé

LA CLEF, a.k.a. THE KEY (2007) DIR Guillaume Nicloux PROD Philippe Rousselet, Frédéric Bourboulon ASSOCIATE PROD Étienne Comar SCR Guillaume Nicloux, Pierre Trividic CAM Christophe Offenstein ED Guy Lecorne CAST Guillaume Canet, Marie Gillian, Vanessa Paradis, Josiane Balasko, Thierry Lhermitte, Jean Rochefort, Yves Verhoeven, Gilles Cohen, Maria Schneider, Olivier Rabourdin

LES INSOUMIS, a.k.a. CROSSFIRE (2008) DIR Claude-Michel Rome PROD Étienne Comar, Philippe Rousselet SCR Claude-Michel Rome CAM Jean-Marc Fabre ED Stéphanie Mahet MUS Frédéric Porte CAST Richard Berry, Pascal Elbé, Zabou Breitman, Aïssa Maïga, Bernard Blancan, Guilaine Londez, Moussa Maaskri, Frédéric Saurel

DES HOMMES ET DES DIEUX, a.k.a. OF GODS AND MEN (2010) DIR Xavier Beauvois PROD Étienne Comar, Pascal Caucheteux, Grégoire Sorlat SCR Étienne Comar (adaptation by Xavier Beauvois) CAM Caroline Champetier ED Marie-Julie Maille MUS Mike Kourtzer CAST Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin, Philippe Laudenbach, Jacques Herlin, Loïc Pichon

LES FEMMES DU 6E ETAGE, a.k.a. THE WOMEN ON THE 6TH FLOOR (2010) DIR Philippe Le Guay PROD Étienne Comar, Philippe Rousselet SCR Philippe Le Guay, Jérôme Tonnerre CAM Jean-Claude Larrieu ED Monica Coleman MUS Jorge Arriagada CAST Fabrice Luchini, Sandrine Kiberlain, Natalia Verbeke, Carmen Maura, Lola Dueñas, Berta Ojea, Nuria Solé

PARIS-MANHATTAN (2012) DIR – SCR Sophie Lellouche PROD Étienne Comar, Philippe Rousselet CAM Laurent Machuel ED Monica Coleman MUS Jean-Michel Bernard CAST Alice Taglioni, Patrick Bruel, Marine Delterme, Michel Aumont, Marie-Christine Adam, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Woody Allen

LES SAUVEURS DU PALAIS, a.k.a. HAUTE CUISINE (2012) DIR Christian Vincent PROD Étienne Comar, Philippe Rousselet SCR Étienne Comar, Christian Vincent (story by Danièle Mazet-Delpeuch) CAM Laurent Dailland ED Monica Coleman MUS Gabriel Yared CAST Catherine Frot, Arthur Dupont, Jean d’Ormesson, Hippolyte Girardot, Jean-Marc Roulot, Philippe Uchan

TIMBUKTU (2014) DIR Abderrahmane Sissako PROD Étienne Comar, Sylvie Pialat SCR Abderrahmane Sissako, Kessen Tall CAM Sofiane El Fani ED Nadia Ben Rachid MUS Amin Bouhafa CAST Ibrahim Ahmed, Abel Jafri, Toulou Kiki, Layla Walet Mohamed, Mehdi A.G. Mohamed, Hichem Yacoubi, Kettly Noël

LA RANÇON DE LA GLOIRE, a.k.a. THE PRINCE OF FAME (2015) DIR Xavier Beauvois PROD Étienne Comar, Pascal Caucheteux, Max Karli, Pauline Gygax SCR Étienne Comar, Xavier Beauvois CAM Caroline Champetier ED Marie-Julie Maille MUS Michel Legrand CAST Benoît Poelvoorde, Roschdy Zem, Chiara Mastroianni, Peter Coyote, Séli Gmach, Nadine Labaki, Dolores Chaplin, Olivier Rabourdin, Michel Legrand

MON ROI, a.k.a. MY KING (2015) DIR Maïwenn PROD Alain Attal ASSOCIATE PROD Étienne Comar SCR Étienne Comar, Maïwenn CAM Claire Mathon ED Simon Jacquet MUS Stephen Warbeck CAST Vincent Cassel, Emmanuelle Bercot, Louis Garrel, Isild Le Besco, Chrystèle Saint Louis Augustin, Patrick, Raynal, Yann Goven

DJANGO (2017) DIR Étienne Comar PROD Étienne Comar, Olivier Delbosc, Marc Missonnier SCR Étienne Comar, Alexis Salatko (novel ‘Folles de Django’ [2013] by Alexis Salatko) CAM Christophe Beaucarne ED Monica Coleman MUS Warren Ellis CAST Reda Kateb, Cécile de France, Ulrich Brandhoff, Beata Palya, Bimbam Merstein, Gabriel Mirété, Vincent Frade, Xavier Beauvois, Levis Reinhardt

GAUGUIN (2017) DIR Edouard Deluc PROD Étienne Comar SCR Étienne Comar, Edouard Deluc, Sarah Kaminsky, Thomas Lilti CAM Pierre Cottereau ED Guerric Catala MUS Warren Ellis CAST Vincent Cassel, Ian McCamy