Martin Provost: “My films always begin whenever I start writing the script, that’s when the adventure starts for me”

Martin Provost (b. 1957) started his career in his native France as a stage and screen actor, and he was a member of the Comédie française. He turned to screenwriting and filmmaking twenty years ago when he made his directorial film debut “Totilla y cinéma” (a.k.a. “Tortilla and Cinema”), but only after “Séraphine” (2008), based on the life of French painter Séraphine de Senlis, played by Yolande Moreau, he got recognized and became one of France’s leading filmmakers who—first and foremost a writer—prefers to script his own work.

His latest effort as a director-screenwriter was “Sage femme” (2017, a.k.a. “The Midwife”), a character drama starring two titans of French cinema—Catherine Frot as a dedicated midwife working in a maternity clinic. She befriends Catherine Deneuve, a free-spirited and former mistress of her deceased father.

Mr. Provost was a jury member at the Festival International du Film Francophone de Namur in Belgium, where this interview was conducted.

Martin Provost at the Festival International du Film Francophone de Namur | Leo/Film Talk

Mr. Provost, is it a necessity for you that your films are based on your own screenplays?

That’s interesting because I recently talked to a producer about a new project, based on a  screenplay written by somebody else. I can’t tell you much about it at this point, but it’s true, writing has always been terribly important to me—I also wrote for the theater and wrote several novels. I always have the urge to write every day. So my films always begin whenever I start writing the script; that’s when the adventure begins for me. A screenplay is never a finished product, unlike a novel for example. Everybody needs it on the set, and for me, it’s even a helpful tool for editing my films. So I like writing, it inspires me, and my favorite places to write are a train or a plane—small places that are moving. They inspire me a lot.

You’re an excellent writer for actresses, like Carmen Maura, Yolande Moreau, Emmanuelle Devos, and in your latest film, “Sage femme” [a.k.a. “The Midwife”], you had cast Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot. In each of  your films, women get magnificent, often powerful roles, on their plate. I’m sure that’s by choice?

Yes, I seem to ignore the concept of the traditional leading man [laughs]. Well, after all, this is the 21st century, and all you see are leading men. On any film poster, you can see them, and where are the women? That’s why it’s more difficult for actresses to find strong roles. But there’s also another and more personal reason. I was born in the French region of Bretagne [a.k.a. Brittany]. My mother and my grandmother have always been very strong women, I was always surrounded by women, they raised me—as my father was in the Navy, I didn’t see him the whole time—and they all liked me, so I have been very familiar with women for as long as I can remember. And in Bretagne, the women are in control of their own life; they are really in charge. They may be fishermen’s wives who do the grocery shopping and take the children to school, but they also manage their own lives because they are so powerful. So maybe that explains why I prefer to focus on female characters in my films. But I’m not the first filmmaker to do that; there have been many more, such as Federico Fellini.

When watching your films, like your latest feature, “Sage femme,” it’s hard to imagine any other actress playing the characters portrayed by Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot.

That’s because I write those parts for each one of them. That’s how I made my two films with Yolande Moreau: I had met with her and got to know her. If we would never have met, I’m sure I wouldn’t have made those films. The same with “Violette”; the screenplay was written for Emmanuelle Devos. And when I wrote the script of “Sage femme,” I had Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot in my mind and between my ears because they were going to play those roles. I could hear them talking while I was writing, I could hear them saying their lines. So I really had to enter into their own world to make sure the dialogue became theirs. When we were shooting “Sage femme,” Catherine Deneuve once told me, ‘This dialogue that you have written, this is totally me. You really took the words right out of my mouth.’ So that’s my working method, and I like that very much.

Is it easy for you to make your films and in the meantime compete with the big-budget blockbusters at the box office?

It’s never easy to make films, but considering the position I’m in right now, I am very fortunate to make the films I want to do. Before I did “Séraphine” [2008], it was pretty difficult for me, but since then, it has been a lot easier. “Séraphine” was a turning point in my career, so yes, for the past ten years, I have been able to do what I wanted to do. Even though things have changed in the meantime, fortunately a lot of films are still being made in France. But when I think about the filmmakers I grew up with… Yasujirô Ozu for example, when he began in the 1920s and 1930s, he made about three films a year, and so many of them turned out to be masterpieces. And it takes Jean-Claude Carrière only a week to write a screenplay, can you imagine? Now it often takes a year to finish a screenplay. So it has become a whole different ballgame to make a film now. You write a screenplay because you want your financiers to read it, and then it needs to be a piece of literature. But making a film is also a technical process. If you write a technical screenplay—as you’d shoot the film—nobody would be able to read it because such a script would include all the different and various constructions for the entire cast and crew. But when your producers say, ‘Okay, this is the budget I got, now we need to make a few choices or compromises,’ then you have to ask yourself, ‘What kind of film do I want to make? What are the choices I will make?’ And once you’re on the set, or you shoot a scene in the streets of Paris, things might look entirely different from what you had imagined. How do you deal with that? What do you do? So you have to make choices all the time—life is all about making choices.

How do you work with your actors then? You rehearse a lot?

We go through the entire script; with Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot we only needed to go through it once, and that was enough. Catherine Deneuve has her own working method; she is very free. Don’t let her enter a room the way you want it. Give her enough space and freedom, and it works out perfectly. I learned a lot from her.

France is one of the most cinephile countries in the world. Has that ever been something you took into consideration?

Absolutely, I grew up during the golden era of French cinema, with François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and so many others. The other day, I saw “Jeune femme” [2016], directed by Léonor Serraille, and I liked it tremendously; it was such a wonderful film. She had won the Golden Camera at the Cannes Film Festival. So I am very proud to be part of this world of filmmaking. On the other hand, and let’s not forget that, there’s also a whole world of cinema beyond the borders of France.

Festival International du Film Francophone de Namur, Namur (Belgium)
October 2, 2017

“Sage femme” (a.k.a. “The Midwife,” 2017, trailer)


NEA, a.k.a. NEA: A YOUNG EMMANUELLE (1976) DIR Nelly Kaplan PROD André Génovès, Yvon Guézel SCR Nelly Kaplan, Jean Chapot (book by Emanuelle Arsan) CAM Andréas Winding ED Hélène Plemiannikov MUS Michel Magne CAST Sami Frey, Ann Zacharias, Françoise Brion, Micheline Presle, Heinz Bennent, Ingrid Caven, Robert Freitag, Martin Provost (Raphaël)

LA ZIZANIE, US title THE DISCORD (1978) DIR Claude Zidi PROD Marcel Berbert, Christian Fechner SCR Claude Zidi, Pascal Jardin, Michel Fabre CAM Claude Renoir ED Robert Isnardon, Monique Isnardon MUS Vladimir Cosma CAST Louis de Funès, Annie Girardot, Maurice Risch, Jean-Jacques Moreau, Geneviève Fontanel, Jacques François, Martin Provost

ALICE (1988) DIR – SCR Gabriel Benattar CAM Jean-Louis Sonzogni ED Gabriel Benattar, Christian Dior CAST Anne Consigny, Alain Fromager, Denis Manuel, Nadia Mourouzi, Martin Provost

PENTIMENTO (1989) DIR Tonie Marshall PROD Charles Gassot SCR Tonie Marshall, Sylvie Granotier CAM Pascal Lebègue ED Luc Barnier MUS Steve Beresford CAST Patricia Dinev, Antoine de Caunes, Magali Noël, Laurence César, Etienne Bierry, Jean-Pierre Jorris, Martin Provost (Frédéric)

TORTILLA Y CINÉMA, a.k.a. TORTILLA AND CINEMA (1997) DIR – SCR Martin Provost PROD Yannick Bernard, Chantal Perrin, Ramón Pilacés CAM Éric Guichard ED Monica Coleman MUS Bruno Bertoli CAST Carmen Maura, Marc Duret, Michel Aumont, Marina Tomé, Marianne Groves, Mouss Diouf, José Otero

20, AVENUE PARMENTIER (2002) DIR – SCR Christophe Jeauffroy PROD Eric Mahé CAM Dominique De Wever ED Agnes Contensou MUS Daniel Barba CAST Barbara Schulz, Sagamore Stévenin, Julien Jeauffroy, Violetta Sanchez, Christian Krezel, Christophe Garnot, Martin Provost (Manu), Valérie Daradjian

LA VENTRE DE JULIETTE (2003) DIR Martin Provost PROD Didier Boujard, Jean Michel Savy, François Marquis SCR Martin Provost, Marc Abdelnour, Philippe Lasry CAM Jean-Claude Larrieu ED Christophe Pinel CAST Julie-Marie Parmentier, Stéphane Rideau, Carmen Maura, Nathalie Richard, Patrick Chesnais, Tom Novembre, Ariane Ascaride

SÉRAPHINE (2008) DIR Martin Provost PROD Miléna Poylo, Gilles Sacuto SCR Martin Provost, Marc Abdelnour CAM Laurent Brunet ED Ludo Troch MUS Michel Galasso CAST Yolande Moreau, Ulrich Tukur, Anne Bennent, Geneviève Mnich, Adélaïde Leroux, Nico Rogner, Françoise Lebrun

OÙ VA LA NUIT, US title THE LONG FALLING (2011) DIR Martin Provost PROD Julie Salvador, Christophe Jeauffroy SCR Marc Abdelnour (adaptation by Martin Provost; novel by Keith Ridgway) CAM Agnès Godard ED Ludo Troch CAST Yolande Moreau, Pierre Moure, Edith Scob, Jan Hammenecker, Laurent Capelutto, Loïc Pichon, Servane Ducorps

VIOLETTE (2013) DIR Martin Provost PROD Gilles Sacuto, Miléna Poylo SCR Martin Provost, Marc Adbelnour, René de Ceccatty CAM Yves Cape ED Ludo Troch MUS Hugues Tabar-Nouval CAST Emmanuelle Devos, Sandrine Kiberlain, Olivier Gourmet, Catherine Hiegel, Jacques Bonnaffé, Olivier Py, Nathalie Richard, Stanley Weber

SAGE FEMME, a.k.a. THE MIDWIFE (2017) DIR – SCR Martin Provost PROD Olivier Delbosc CAM Yves Cape ED Albertine Lastera MUS Grégoire Hetzel CAST Catherine Frot, Catherine Deneuve, Olivier Gourmet, Quentin Dolmaire, Mylène Demongeot, Pauline Etienne, Pauline Parigot, Marie Gil-Pierre


LE DEVOIR DE FRANÇAIS (1978) DIR Jean-Pierre Blanc SCR Denis Lalanne (also novel) MUS Jacques Loussier CAST Frédéric Andréi, Martin Provost, Clémentine Amouroux, Gisèle Casadesus, Michèle André, Catherine Miltry

MESSIEURS LES RONDS-DE-CUIR (1978) DIR Daniel Ceccaldi SCR Daniel Ceccaldi (novel by Georges Courteline) CAM Alain Levent MUS Georges Delerue CAST Claude Dauphin, Raymond Pellegrin, Daniel Ceccaldi, Evelyne Buyle, Roger Carel, Roland Armontel, Bernard Le Coq, Martin Provost (Medare)

TARENDOL (1980) DIR Louis Grospierre SCR (adaptation by Louis Grospierre; novel by René Barjavel) CAST Jacques Penot, Florence Pernel, Michel Duchaussoy, Daniel Gélin, Nathalie Keryan, Françoise Brion, Martin Provost (Fiston)

HISTOIRES DE VOYOUS: OPÉRATION PRIMEVÈRE (1981) SCR (adaptation by Dorothée Dhan; novel by Pierre Boileau, Thomas Nercejac) CAST François-Eric Gendron, Wolfgang Höper, Pierre Londiche, Germain Muller, Martin Provost, Johannes Schaaf, Michel Such

L’HISTOIRE EN MARCHE: LES PRISONNIÈRES (1985) DIR Jean-Louis Lorenzi SCR Jean-Louis Lorenzi, Stellio Lorenzi, Guy Vassal CAST Sophie Duez, Hélène Vauquois, Martin Provost (Mathieu Seguin), Blandine Métayer, Robert Bazil, Fabienne Tricottet, Violette Malglaive


LES FOLLIES OFFENBACH (1977) DIR Michel Boisrond SCR Marcel Jullian, André Roussin, Shervan Sidery, Georges Neveux, Daniel Ceccaldi CAST Michel Serrault, Catherine Samie, André Thorent, Philippe Ariotti, Marco Perrin, Martin Provost

AU PLAISIR DE DIEU (1977) DIR Robert Mazoyer SCR Paul Savatier (novel by Jean d’Ormesson) CAM Jean Badal ED Maryse Siclier MUS Antoine Duhamel CAST Jacques Dumesnil, Paul Barge, Heidi Stroh, Pino Colizzi, Alain Floret, Yves Beneyton, Sylvie Granotier, Martin Provost (Philippe, jeune)

BANLIEUE SUD-EST (1977) DIR Gilles Grangier SCR (adaptation by Jean herman; novel by René Fallet) CAST Paul Le Person, Maurice Biraud, Odette Laure, Christopher Beaunay, Philippe Mathieu, Valérie Pascale, Martin Provost