Emmanuel Courcol: “As long as there is some humanity, a ray of light is always possible”

After his directorial debut film “Cessez-le-feu” (2016, a.k.a. “Ceasefire”), French film director Emmanuel Courcol’s second feature is out now. In “Un triomphe,” a.k.a. “The Big Hit,” French-Algerian screen star Kad Merad plays Étienne, an endearing actor who is out of work, but gets to run a theater workshop in prison, where he brings together an unlikely troupe of prisoners to stage Samuel Beckett’s famous play “Waiting for Godot.”

When he is allowed to take the colorful band of convicts on a tour outside of prison, Étienne finally has the chance to thrive. Each performance is successful and he develops a unique relationship with this ad hoc group of actors. But with their final performance in Paris coming up, will their last night together be the biggest hit of them all?

Mr. Courcol also co-scripted with Thierry de Carbonnières; as a veteran stage and screen actor since the early 1990s who started screenwriting since “Mademoiselle” (2001), starring César-winning actress Sandrine Bonnaire, he has become a prominent and productive screenwriter for French cinema.

During last year’s Festival International du Film Francophone in Namur, Belgium, Mr. Courcol was a guest of honor to promote the release of “Un triomphe,” and that’s where this interview was conducted over the phone; it also includes a number of Ms. Courcol’s quotes from his interview that appeared in the press kit of the film. Earlier last year, “Un triomphe” had been shown at the Cannes Film Festival, and later on, was awarded the European Film Award for Best European Comedy.

Due to the uncertain situation of cinemas worldwide as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, the release of “Un triomphe” was postponed a number of times, but now, at last, this delightful, fresh and upbeat comedy gets to see the light of day. On September 1, the film is released in France—600 screens—as well as in other territories, including Belgium.

Mr. Courcel, how did “Un triomphe” come about?

A few years ago, Marc Bordure, the producer, showed me a documentary about a stage director, Jan Jönson, who had put on “Waiting for Godot” with inmates in a Swedish prison. The show was a huge success that they went on tour until the breathtaking finale at the Royal Theatre in Gothenburg. He told me, ‘This is maybe a story for you?’ I began to think about a contemporary French transposition. Beckett’s play seemed a bit dry at first sight, so shouldn’t the action be moved to another field? Music? Songs? Dance? Or why not feature women prisoners? In any case, it was necessary to reinvent everything because the Swedish prison environment of the 1980s was far from the French prisons of today. And I realized that, to write on this subject, I had to pre-empt the casting and directing, imagining a working method to shoot the rehearsals while leaving a certain amount of room for improvisation. As a screenwriter, I didn’t really know how to move on, and, after thinking about it, the project was more or less put on hold. Marc simply said to me, ‘Take your time, I’ll keep it for you.’ In 2016, I got back to him after directing my first feature, “Cessez-le-feu,” only this time as both a writer and a director. I had time to think it over, and I suggested returning to the project while remaining much more faithful to the events that inspired it.

Saïd Benchnafa, Lamine Cissokho, Kad Merad, Pierre Lottin, David Ayala, Alexandre Medvedev, Sofian Khammes, Wabinlé Nabié | Duchili

What did you like about this story?

I don’t want to make despairing films, even when they deal with a dark reality. As long as there is some humanity, a ray of light is always possible. With Marc and [co-producer] Robert Guédiguian who had joined us, we could feel all the emotional, comic and dramatic potential of the prisoners, ‘light years away from Beckett’ as Étienne says in the film, but, deep down, much closer than one could imagine to the world of “Waiting for Godot.” It is true that the play has an incredible echo for prisoners. Emptiness, absence, waiting, total vacuity, and idleness make up their daily life, and, in the real story, the prisoners were genuinely touched by this universal text. It is also the best-known contemporary play, whose world-famous title alone sums up the simple plot. That made it easy for me to show only fragments of it during the film, during rehearsal, or when performing, without losing the audience. I also liked the personality of Jan Jönson, whom I met. He is a passionate, obsessive character, haunted by this experience that completely changed his life. He became friends with Samuel Beckett and later staged “Waiting for Godot” again, in the United States, at the San Quentin prison in California.

How did you go about writing it?

The prison world is a hotbed of clichés, and I, like many people, was influenced by a lot of preconceptions. So I began with a documentary approach. As I still have quite a few contacts in the stage world from my days as an actor, I was able to get in touch with people running theater workshops in prison and learn about their experiences. Olivier Foubert, an actor [in the film, he plays the director of the Théâtre de l’Odéon], has been running theater workshops at the Fleury-Mérogis prison for many years, and he allowed me to run a small video workshop in Fleury. This experience inspired me on a practical level. I saw how people circulate in prison and got to know the profiles of the inmates, along with the type of relationship the workshop coordinator has with them. I was then able to start writing with Thierry de Carbonnières, my co-writer. And then, I met Irène Muscari, the cultural coordinator of the Centre Pénitentaire de Meaux [Meaux Penitentiary Center], who is developing very ambitious projects there. I got to see a show at the Théâtre Paris-Villette, “Iliade,” directed by Luca Giacomoni, in which prisoners from Meaux took part. She welcomed Thierry and me to the prison and showed us around. We got on well with each other.
The following year, she launched an opera project blending hip-hop, dance, and boxing, destined for a theater in Bobigny, directed by Hervé Sika and Mohamed Rouabhi, in partnership with the Paris Chamber Orchestra. I suggested that I’d make a documentary about this project, and, one day a week for six months, I followed the production of “Douze cordes,” which was performed in May 2019. Shooting thirty days in prison was an exceptional opportunity; it was a unique opportunity to observe.

Emmanuel Courcol with David Ayala, who plays the character of Patrick, on the set of “Un triomphe” | Paradiso Filmed Entertainment

How did that contribute to the screenplay?

This in-depth work allowed me to revise the screenplay we had already written and make it truthful when I thought of all the prisoners I had seen. The way they spoke, their humor, doubts, fears, the underlying violence, their relationship with the director and the guards. I was able to see them gradually transforming and revealing themselves. Performing on a stage was very important for them. They could never have imagined it. They are people who never go to the theater, and very few go to the movies. In the show, there was also an opera singer with the Paris Chamber Orchestra quintet. It was the first time that they had heard Bach and Schubert.
I was also inspired by the stories that workshop coordinators told me. I heard about a kingpin who had decided to act in a play, so his son could see him. On the evening of the performance, his son was not there, and he refused to go on. In the film, that’s what happens to Kamel [played by Sofian Khammes]. I made him an ambiguous character whose motives are questionable, but he is involved in this project for his son’s sake.
There was also another inmate who, in the middle of the play, walked off the stage because he was afraid like Jordan [played by Pierre Lottin] does on the night of the premiere.

Do you recognize yourself in the character of Étienne?

Of course, prior acting experiences from me and of Thierry de Carbonnières, also an actor and an old classmate from the Rue Blanche, shaped the character of Étienne from the inside, his desires, hopes and frustrations. Thierry, who has encountered such problems, has even written several books about them. All of us, basic actors, as Étienne says in the film, have known hard times and took jobs to pay the rent. Before becoming famous, Kad himself went through such a period, and so, the character was immediately familiar to him.

Was Kad Merad already linked to the project?

Actually, we had to wait for over a year because he worked a lot and wasn’t available, but I was convinced he was the right choice. In the meantime, that allowed me to embark on the documentary project around “Douze cordes.” His performance in “Baron noir” [2016-2020] had impressed me. He is a powerful and subtle actor with an incredible range. Moreover, he is generous, sharing, and likes people around him to be happy. He understood the character of Étienne perfectly; it’s a character not too docile, a little rough, with a strong temperament, longing for the stage and recognition. That’s what he does; he has no choice. An actor’s dream is not necessarily to work in prison, even if it can be exhilarating.
When I watched Hervé Sika at work, he was very demanding with his actors, sometimes even harsh and uncompromising. The same for Étienne. He is a demanding artist who doesn’t play the socio-cultural coordinator, and that’s how he gains their trust and respect. If you do theater, you really do theater. Prisoners test people a lot, often in a humorous way. They are endearing, but they are not in jail by chance. Incidents are rare, but the instability among them, and a power struggle can soon come into play.
Étienne realizes that he can quickly lose his grip, but he imposes himself with his authority and passion. Unconsciously, his quest for recognition intersects with that of the prisoners, and he undergoes his own ‘reintegration,’ as his daughter Nina, played by my daughter Mathilde [Mathilde Courcol-Rozès], tells him rather spitefully. We don’t know immediately if we’re going to like Étienne or not, but he touches us, all the more so as Kad Merad brings all his humanity to this character. Étienne is modest; he doesn’t show his feelings. But when the time comes to take a bow, he is proud of his actors and proud of himself.

Marina Hands, Kad Merad | Carole Bethuel

How did the shooting in prison play out?

We filmed at the Centre Pénitentaire de Meaux [Meaux-Chauconin Penitentiary Center] where I had shot my documentary. They knew me and I had ‘allies’ there, including Irène Muscari who helped a great deal in organizing the shoot. Everything had to be timed and planned in detail. I should point out that welcoming a whole film crew, actors, technicians and extras for eight days in a working prison with 900 inmates is a genuine headache. It was the first time that the Prison Service had granted such an opportunity to a film production. But we were well received by the administrators, and all the staff members were very cooperative. In the end, everything went very well. Kad was even cheered by the inmates. I had thought for a while about including them in the film, but in the end it wasn’t possible.

You show guards who react with hostility to Étienne’s theatrical project.

Actually, prison guards are as diverse as society itself. Some will see this kind of project as an extra job; others will be indifferent or support it. They do a job that is full of constraints, with very little recognition, hence the feeling. For example, the guard, played by Yvon Martin, is a guy who applies the rules without calling them into question, just like the supervisor who is in charge of the searches, even if this is perceived as bullying by the inmates. That’s what Ariane [played by Marina Hands] explains to Étienne. But there is also a young guard, Puccino, who is much more empathetic to the inmates.
I tried to avoid seeing things in black and white, along with the cliché of the sadistic ‘screw’ versus the nice prisoners. ‘Screw’ is a term that I never heard from a prisoner in Meaux. Another cliché. The audience is constantly afraid that, for one reason or another, Étienne will fail to put on the play.
I imagined that one of the audience’s first thoughts would be that the inmates would try to escape. I made Nina their spokesperson. She asks the question outright, ‘Won’t they try to escape?’ Étienne tells her that they have no interest in doing that as they are all nearing the end of their sentences.
Their escape had to be a surprise and take place at a moment when we no longer expect it because they have done the hardest part. The project is going to be a big hit, and perhaps—why not—they might be pardoned. But they escape because the alternation of imprisonment and success on stage has become unbearable for them. I had seen prisoners who werey disheartened when they left the theater and returned to Meaux after their performance.
They also take off because they are capable of sudden whims and irrational impulses. In the real story, they left during the day, without any premeditation. ‘How about it? Let’s go!’ Jan Jönson thought they had gone out for a drink, and that they were really going to come back, so there was no need to call the police. And then, as he kept waiting, he finally realized what had happened. He went on stage and began his performance. That’s what I wanted to convey in Étienne’s monologue at the Théâtre de l’Odéon. Initially devastated, he recovers, and we witness, along with a tribute to his actors, his personal achievement, almost unwitting, in front of an audience in a major Parisian theater.

Lamine Cissokho, Saïd Benchnafa, Pierre Lottin, David Atala, Kad Merad | Carole Bethuel

What happened to the escaped prisoners in the real story? What became of them?

In the real story, one of them refused to leave with the group because he had fallen in love with a prison nurse; they got married shortly after his release. Another one died in a building explosion in Amsterdam a month after his escape. After a year on the run, the youngest returned to serve the rest of his sentence, and later tried to train as a professional actor before becoming a caseworker for juvenile dropouts. The fourth fled to Spain and then to Cuba, where he rebuilt his life and ended up being amnestied by the Swedish justice system. The last one was recaptured shortly after the escape; he served his sentence and, like his comrades, finally returned to an everyday life, with a job and a family. All of them remember this adventure with Jan as a fundamental episode in their lives, and they have retained a very strong bond with him. Aside from this final incident, theater can be considered as a powerful means of reintegration for them.

Finally, what kind of a film director are you?

I am originally an actor. I come from the stage. After I met Philippe Lioret during a casting call for a commercial, I started writing. I loved to write. I got him to read a play I had written, and he then asked me to work with him on the screenplay for “Mademoiselle” [2001]. When I hoped to become a director, I knew at least that I wouldn’t have any problems with the actors. For me, they are my colleagues, I trust them, I give them the opportunity to make suggestions. I have been there, and I know that an actor can easily be destabilized and withdraw into his or her shell when faced with a clumsy or impatient director. Moreover, I like a happy set.
The preparation also excites me, in particular the choice of the sets. That’s the continuation of writing for me. On the set, I do more or less the same as I do in the theater; I look at how to use the available space. My cinematographer Yann Maritaud is my companion on the set. He too is very flexible, and I think we make a good team. As a writer, I knew more or less where the moments of emotion would be, but editing, with Guerric Catala as my editor, remains a crucial stage. Basically, I enjoy every stage of a film, except for the financing. Some people told us that Beckett was not an easy subject for a film, and that prison wouldn’t be a good setting. But we didn’t give up, and in the end, I think we were right. Dany Boon, to whom Kad showed the screenplay, was charmed by the project and joined our production team. His support was decisive. So, yes, I did actually enjoy that part.

Festival International du Film Francophone, Namur (Belgium)
Press kit “Un triomphe”
October 9, 2020

“Un triomphe” (2021, trailer)

FILMS

LA PAGAILLE (1991) DIR Pascal Thomas PROD François Ravard SCR Pascal Thomas, Thomas Thomas, Agenore Incrocci CAM Renan Pollès ED Hélène Plemiannikov MUS Vladimir Cosma CAST Rémy Girard, François Perier, Patrick Chesnais, Clément Thomas, Emile Thomas, Sabine Haudepin, Emmanuel Courcol

L’ÉCRIVAIN PUBLIC (1993) DIR Jean-François Amiguet PROD Daniel Toscan du Plantier, Bertrand Liechti SCR Anne Gonthier CAM Robert Alazraki ED Elisabeth Waelchli MUS William Sheller CAST Robin Renucci, Anna Galiena, Laurent Grévill, Florence Pernel, Catherine Epars, Michel Etcheverry, Monique Mélinand, Emmanuel Courcol (Conductor)

LE JAGUAR, a.k.a. THE JAGUAR (1996) DIR – SCR Francis Veber PROD Alain Poiré CAM Luciano Tovoli ED Marie-Sophie Dubois MUS Vladimir Cosma CAST Jean Reno, Patrick Bruel, Danny Trejo, Patricia Velasquez, François Perrot, Emmanuel Courcol

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

1999 MADELEINE (1999) DIR – SCR Laurent Bouhnick 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, Emmanuel Courcol, Anne Marivin

MADEMOISELLE (2001) DIR Philippe Loiret PROD Patrick Godeau SCR Emmanuel Courcol, Philippe Loiret CAM Bertrand Chatry ED Mireille Leroy MUS Philippe Sarde CAST Sandrine Bonnaire, Jacques Gamblin, Isabelle Candelier, Zinedine Soualem, Jacques Boudet, Patrick Mercado, Emmanuel Courcol (Arthuis)

LE PHARMACIEN DE GARDE, a.k.a. THE PHARMACIST (2001) DIR – SCR Jean Veber PROD Nicolas Vannier CAM Laurent Fleutot ED Georges Klotz MUS Marci Prince CAST Vincent Perez, Guillaume Depardieu, Clara Bellar, Laurent Gamelon, Pascal Légitimus, Alain MacMoy, Alice Taglioni, Kad Merad, Emmanuel Courcol (Jacques Desmoines)

L’ÉQUIPIER, a.k.a. THE LIGHT (2004) DIR Philippe Lioret PROD Christophe Rossignon SCR Philippe Lioret, Emmanuel Courcol, Christian Sinniger, Claude Faraldo, Gilles Legrand CAM Patrick Blossier ED Mireille Leroy MUS Nicola Piovani CAST Sandrine Bonnaire, Philippe Torreton, Grégori Derangère, Émilie Dequenne, Anne Consigny, Martine Sarcey, Nicolas Bridet, Marie Rousseau, Emmanuel Courcol (Priest)

JE VAIS BIEN, NE T’EN FAIS PAS, a.k.a. DON’T WORRY, I’M FINE (2006) DIR Philippe Lioret PROD Christophe Rossignon SCR Philippe Lioret, Olivier Adam CAM Sascha Wernik ED Judith Rivière Kawa, Andrea Sedlácková MUS Nicola Piovani CAST Mélanie Laurent, Kad Merad, Julien Boisselier, Isabelle Renauld, Aïssa Maïga, Simon Buret, Christophe Rossignon, Emmanuel Courcol (Doctor)

WELCOME (2009) DIR Philippe Lioret PROD Christophe Rossignon SCR Emmanuel Courcol, Philippe Lioret, Olivier Adam, Serge Frydman CAM Laurent Dailland ED Andrea Sedlácková MUS Nicola Piovani CAST Vincent Lindon, Firat Ayverdi, Audrey Dana, Derya Ayverdi, Murat Subasi, Olivier Rabourdin, Yannick Renier, Emmanuel Courcol (Manager of the Supermarket)

TÊTE DE TURC, a.k.a. TURK’S HEAD (2010) DIR – SCR Pascal Elbé PROD Patrick Godeau CAM Jean-François Hensgens ED Luc Barnier MUS Bruno Coulais CAST Roschy Zem, Pascal Elbé, Ronit Elkabetz, Samir Makhlouf, Simon Abkarian, Florence Thomassin, Emmanuel Courcol (Verkoper)

TOUTES NOS ENVIES, a.k.a. ALL OUR DESIRES (2011) DIR Philippe Lioret PROD Philippe Lioret, Marielle Duigou SCR Philippe Lioret, Emmanuel Courcol (book “D’autres vies que la mienne” [2009] by Emmanuel Carrère) CAM Gilles Henry ED Andrea Sedlácková MUS Flemming Nordkrog CAST Marie Gillain, Vincent Lindon, Amandine Dewasmes, Yannick Renier, Pascale Arbillot, Isabelle Renauld, Emmanuel Courcol (Doctor Stroesser), Filip Peeters

BOOMERANG (2015) DIR François Favrat PROD François Kraus, Denis Pineau-Valencienne SCR François Favrat, Emmanuel Courcol (novel “Boomerang” [2009] by Tatiana De Rosnay) CAM Laurent Brunet ED Valérie Deseine MUS Eric Neveux CAST Laurent Lafitte, Mélanie Laurent, Audrey Dana, Wladimir Yordanoff, Bulle Ogier, Anne Suarez, Anne Loiret

TÊTE BAISSÉE, a.k.a. FACE DOWN (2015) DIR Kamen Kalev PROD Kamen Kalev, John Engel, Elitza Katzarska, Jean Labadie SCR Emmanuel Courcol, Kamen Kalev CAM Julian Atanassov ED Xavier Sirven MUS Raf Keunen CAST Melvil Poupaud, Seher Nebieva, Lidia Koleva, Sunai Siuleiman, Atanas Asenov, Youssef Hajdi

CESSEZ-LE-FEU, a.k.a. CEASEFIRE (2016) DIR – SCR Emmanuel Courcol PROD Christophe Mazodier CAM Yann Maritaud, Tom Stern ED Géraldine Rétif, Guerric Catala MUS Jérôme Lemonnier CAST Romain Duris, Céline Sallette, Grégory Gadebois, Julie-Marie Parmentier, Maryvonne Schiltz, Wabinlé Nablé, Yvon Martin

AU NOM DE LA TERRE, a.k.a. IN THE NAME OF THE LAND (2019) DIR Edouard Bergeon PROD Christophe Rossignon, Philip Boëffard SCR Edouard Bergeon, Emmanuel Courcol, Bruno Ulmer CAM Eric Dumont MUS Thomas Dappelo CAST Guillaume Canet, Veerle Baetens, Anthony Bajon, Rufus, Samir Guesmi, Yona Kervern, Solal Forte, Raffin Melanie, Emmanuel Courcol (Notary)

JE VOUDRAIS QUE QUELQU’UN M’ATTENDE QUELQUE PART, a.k.a. I WISH SOMEONE WERE WAITING FOR ME SOMEWHERE (2019) DIR Arnaud Viard PROD Marc-Benoît Créancier SCR Arnaud Viard, Emmanuel Courcol, Thomas Lilti, Vincent Dietschy (adaptation, Arnaud Viard; book with twelve short stories “Je voudrais que quelqu’un m’attende quelque part” [1999] by Anna Gavalda) CAM Emmanuel Soyer ED Véronique Bruque MUS Clément Ducol CAST Jean-Paul Rouve, Alice Taglioni, Benjamin Lavernhe, Camille Rowe, Elsa Zylberstein, Aurore Clément

UN TRIOMPHE, a.k.a. THE BIG HIT (2020) DIR Emmanuel Courcol PROD Marc Bordure, Robert Guédiguian SCR Emmanuel Courcol (adaptation, Emmanuel Courcol, Thierry de Carbonnières) CAM Yann Maritaud ED Guerric Catala MUS Fred Avril CAST Kad Merad, David Ayala, Lamine Cissokho, Sofian Khammes, Pierre Lottin, Wabliné Nablé, Aleksandr Medvedev, Saïd Benchmafa, Marina Hands, Laurent Stocker, Mathilde Courcol-Rozès