You can call me old-fashioned, but when it comes to boxing movies, “The Set-Up” (1949) has always been a point of reference when it comes to the best boxing films ever made. Robert Wise’s masterpiece, starring Robert Ryan as a washed-up and aging boxer refusing to give up or go crooked, with Audrey Totter playing his wife, brought a wonderful kind of humanity to film noir, to the boxing movies genre, and to movies in general.
Now French actor-turned-director Samuel Jouy recently made “Sparring,” his directorial debut, starring renowned French actor Mathieu Kassovitz—an amateur boxer himself—playing a fighter who after many defeats hopes to have one last chance for professional self-respect and find the means to provide for his family. The only way to achieve this is to become the sparring partner of a former boxing champion (played by former super-lightweight world champion Souleymane M’Baye).
It’s unfair to compare “Sparring” to “The Set-Up,” but Mr. Jouy’s film certainly is worthwhile. Always being fascinated by boxing, he takes a look at what goes on inside the head of a boxer who never was or will be a champion.
Both director Samuel Jouy and Souleymane M’Baye were invited to the Arras Film Festival to talk about “Sparring.” After their press conference, I talked to Mr. Jouy a little more in the Festival’s VIP lounge about his interesting first screen effort as a film director, which was partly inspired by Raoul Walsh’s “Gentleman Jim” (1942) starring Errol Flynn, and “Raging Bull” (1980), Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning boxing drama.
Mr. Jouy, what convinced you to make “Sparring”?
I always wanted to make a film about a boxer who never really made it, who never became a celebrity or a champion, so it would give me the opportunity to focus on his family as well. Looking at him from that point of view, it makes him a truthful human being, someone you can easily identify with, someone you care about. The characters of his family were really important to me, because you have this family that really sticks together, no matter what happens. They love each other, and they support each other. It’s really a rock ‘n roll family. The other possibility, the cliché of a bourgeois family, that’s something I didn’t even consider.
Despite his failures, your boxer is a real hero, isn’t he?
Yes, he is. He’s a man who remains true to his own values, and to him boxing is also a very valuable sports. He’s honest, straightforward, without any cynicism or sarcasm, and those are all qualities that I like a lot.
Was it difficult to stage and choreograph the boxing sequences?
It was pretty difficult to find out where exactly we had put the camera to shoot those scenes. The distance between the camera and the actors in the ring is terribly important. I didn’t have to worry about the actors, they knew exactly what they were doing. So I only had to worry about all the technicalities.
How about raising the budget for your first feature, how did that go?
Pretty easy, because this is a low-budget film which we made for two million euros. The most difficult thing was writing the screenplay, that took us four years. But once that was finished, things went very smoothly. I was very fortunate to work with Bruno Nahon, he’s a producer who’s familiar with low-budget films and he knows that every dime you spend must end up on the screen.
The film as you had imagined it before you started shooting, that’s also what we get to see when we’re watching “Sparring”?
I think the film is even better. I knew what to expect after I had read the screenplay, and with that in mind, I knew what I was up to. But the final result, especially after we had finished the editing, it really amazed me. The sets really looked stunning, the music was just perfect. You always look for the best, but I am pleased to say it looks even better.
Being an actor yourself, how did you work with your actors?
That depends, because they all work differently. Mathieu Kassovitz doesn’t need too much rehearsals for this part, he was familiar with his character. Olivia Merilahti who played his wife, she’s a method actress, and we worked a lot together. It was very interesting, one day we were walking around in Paris, and from time to time, I would ask her, ‘Could you say your lines from this particular scene once again?’ And then I played whoever was in the scene with her, so we’d also improvise and play it out. On the set I also like the actors to improvise, that’s always very rewarding, because by then everybody knows their lines and what the screenplay is all about. When we were casting the roles of their two children, we were very lucky. It took a lot of time, we saw about three hundred children, but the two of them we finally had cast are extremely talented. We prepared their scenes thoroughly but allowed them to be as spontaneous as they wished, and as it turned out, they did a magnificent job. On the set, Mathieu and Olivia were like their parents, and we often shot their scenes with two cameras in the back, without using the clapper, so they were very much at ease and didn’t feel trapped in this whole cinematographic environment.
What was the advantage of being an actor who turned to directing now?
Well, as an actor, I know what actors usually like and don’t like. I’m not an experienced actor from let’s say the Actors Studio—an actor who is always present—I am more the type of an actor who can be absent. Je n’ai pas la culture de la présence, j’ai la culture de l‘absence. I like actors you hardly notice, actors who kind of erase themselves because the camera will pick them up anyhow, the camera will notice them wherever they are.
How do you see yourself as a director?
Andrej Tarkovsky [1932-1986] once said, “’There are filmmakers who are like painters, some are musicians, and others are writers. If you want to be a great director, you need to be all three of them.’ So that’s my goal: I hope to become all three of them. And knowing that Tarkovsky was one of the great filmmakers, I will never doubt his statement. Right now, I am still more an actor—and a cinephile—than I am a director, so I know there’s still a long road ahead of me. But I’m working on it, and there’s a new project that I’m involved in right now, also as a filmmaker. I like and respect actors, but if it were up to me, I would prefer to become a full-time film director. When you’re an actor, you audition for a part, then you wait to see if they will hire you, and when you’re on the set, you have to wait until they’re ready for your scenes—you’re always waiting. A film director works with the entire cast and crew the whole time, that sounds more appealing to me. The responsibility to make the best of it, do justice to the screenplay and the actors, I love it!
Arras Film Festival, Arras (France)
November 9, 2017
The trailer of “Sparring”
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 (Jacques), Anne Marivin
DU BLEU JUSQU’EN AMÉRIQUE, a.k.a. BLUE AWAY TO AMERICA (1999) DIR – SCR Sarah Lévy PROD Didier Boujard, Martine de Clermont-Tonnerre CAM Jean-Max Bernard ED Jacqueline Mariani MUS Ramon Pipin CAST Samuel Jouy (Camille), Marion Cotillard, Albert Dupontel, Claude Perron, Zabou Breitman, Féodor Atkine, Franck Gourlat, Edouard Montoute
MARIE, NONNA, LA VIERGE ET MOI (200) DIR Francis Renaud PROD Franck Vager, Hélène Vager SCR Francis Renaud, Stéphan Guérin-Tillié, Christophe Lamotte CAM Bruno Delbonnel ED Jacqueline Mariani MUS Noir Désir CAST David Daracino, Gaëla Le Devehat, Maia Morgenstern, Dominique Bettenfeld, Samuel Jouy (Jeff), Philippe Nahon
JEU DE CONS (2001) DIR Jean-Michel Verner PROD Sylvain Goldberg, Arnauld de Battice SCR Jean-Michel Verner, Pierre Benghozi CAM Denis Rourden ED Jean-Marie Lengelle CAST Anthony Delon, Frédéric Diefenthal, Jean-Michel Verner, Predrag Manojlovic, Patrick Chesnais, Juliette Steimer, Katia Lewkowicz, Samuel Jouy (First Policeman), Caroline Santini
VIVANTE, a.k.a. ALIVE (2002) DIR Sandrine Ray PROD Raymond Blumenthal SCR Sandrine Ray (adaptation by Antoine Lacomblez) CAM Olivier Cacaul ED Pascale Chavance MUS Romance Laurence CAST Vahina Giocante, François Berléand, Fanny Contencon, Samuel Jouy (Marty), Pierre Cassignard, Cécile Cassel, Manuel Blanc, Jérôme Marc, Laurent Bouhnik
UNE FOLLE ENVIE, a.k.a. A BURNING DESIRE (2011) DIR Bernard Jeanjean PROD Denis Pineau-Valencienne, François Kraus SCR Bernard Jeanjean, Martine Fontaine CAM Axel Cosnefroy ED Nathalie Hubert MUS Christophe Julien CAST Clovis Cornillac, Olivia Bonamy, Marianne Denicourt, François Vincentelli, Pierre-François Martin-Laval, Elise Larnicol, Philippe Harel, Samuel Jouy (Guillaume)
UN FRANÇAIS, a.k.a. FRENCH BLOOD (2015) DIR – SCR Diastème PROD Philippe Loiret, Marielle Duigou CAST Albain Lenoir, Samuel Jouy (Braguette), Paul Hamy, Olivier Chenille, Jeanne Rosa, Patrick Pineau, Lucie Debay
GAUGUIN – VOYAGE DE TAHITI, a.k.a. GAUGUIN (2017) DIR Edouard Deluc PROD Bruno Levy SCR Edouard Deluc, Etienne Comar, Thomas Litli, Sarah Kaminsky (book by Paul Gauguin) CAM Pierre Cottereau ED Guerric Catala MUS Warren Ellis CAST Vincent Cassel, Tuheï Adams, Malik Zidi, Pua-Taï Hikutini, Pernille Bergendorff, Marc Barbé, Samuel Jouy (Emile Schuffenecker)
SPARRING (2017) DIR Samuel Jouy PROD Bruno Nahon SCR Samuel Jouy, Clément Roussier, Jérémie Guez CAM Romain Carcanade ED Tina Baz MUS Olivia Merilahti CAST Mathieu Kassovitz, Olivia Merilahti, Souleymane M’Baye, Billie Blain, Lyes Salem, Tomy Leconte, Ali Labidi, David Saracino
BURN OUT (2018) DIR Yann Gozlan PROD Matthias Weber, Wassim Béji, Thibault Gast SCR Yann Gozlan, Guillaume Lemans (novel by Jérémie Guez) CAM Antoine Roch CAST Manon Azem, François Civil, Samuel Jouy, Narcisse Mame, Naël Rabia, Olivier Rabourdin
LA FAMILLE SAPAJOU – LE RETOUR (1998) DIR Élisabeth Rappeneau SCR Alexis Lecaye MUS Pierre Adenot CAST Robin Renucci, Michel Aumont, Barbara Schulz, Chantal Bronner, Charlotte Kady, Samuel Jouy (Max)
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SHANGHAÏ BLUES, NOUVEAU MONDE (2013) DIR Frédéric Garson PROD Quentin Raspail SCR Didier Lacoste, Pauline Rocafull CAM Damien Morisot ED Stratos Gabrielidis MUS Pascal Lafa CAST Clément Sibony, Élodie Navarre, Samuel Jouy (Xavier), Christophe Kourotchkine, Yin Hang, Sifan Shao, Alexis Delafoy
JE SUIS COUPABLE (2017) DIR Christophe Lamotte PROD Pierre Eid SCR Marie Guilmineau CAM Benoît Chamaillard ED Christine Lucas Navarro MUS André Dziezuk CAST Bruno Debrandt, Marie Denarnaud, Samuel Jouy (Mathieu Keurlire), Chloé Lambert, Christelle Reboul, Frédéric Bouraly, Martine Coste