Romane Guéret and Lise Akoka: “Not being constrained by a single genre is very dear to us”

At the latest Cannes Film Festival, French filmmakers Romane Guéret and Lise Akoka were awarded the Grand Prix in the Un Certain Regard section for their feature debut “Les pires” (a.k.a. “The Worst Ones”). When the directing duo first met on the set of “Le nouveau” (2015, a.k.a. “The New Kid”) for which they auditioned more than 4,000 young non-professional actors, they became friends right away. Ms. Guéret was a casting trainee, and Ms. Akoka an acting coach and a casting director.

A year later, they made a short, “Chasse royale” about a tough and poor 13-year-old girl and her little brother. It won the Illy Prize at Cannes Directors’ Fortnight in 2016, and they were nominated for a César for ‘Best Short Film.’ They also made the French web series “Would You Rather” for Arte—ten episodes of seven minutes each—that was presented at the Sundance Film Festival last year.

Romane Guéret and Lise Akoka presenting their web series “Tu préfères” (a.k.a. “Would You Rather”) at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival

Their first film, “The Worst Ones,” tells the story of Gabriel (played by Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh) who makes a new film—working title, “Pissing into the Northern Wind”—in the impoverished suburbs of Boulogne-sur-Mer, in Northern France. Instead of casting actors, he decides to cast local children from the area where he decides to make his film, in particular troubled children who grew up in poverty and are described as ‘the worst ones.’ They will be selected to play in a feature film during the summer.

Since Cannes 2022, “Les pires” won several awards at film festivals such as the Cosne-Cours-sur-Loire Film Festival (best film debut; best leading actor, Johan Heldenbergh; best leading actress, Mallory Wanecque), the Festival du Film Francophone d’Angoulême (Valois de Diamant for best debut film), the Fifigrot Toulouse Film Festival (Prix du Public and Prix des Étudiants), the Festival de Cinéma de Saint-Paul Trois-Châteaux (Grand Prix), and abroad at the Rome Film Fest (best leading actress, Mallory Wanecque) en The American French Film Festival in Los Angeles (Best First Film).

“Les pires,” a.k.a. “The Worst Ones,” won the First Film Award at the American French Film Festival in Los Angeles | Screenshot from the Festival’s website

The film will be released in France and Belgium on December 7, 2022. Other territories, including the U.S., are scheduled to follow.

I talked to actor Johan Heldenbergh about his work on the film (Dutch-language interview) at the Festival International de Film Francophone de Namur, Belgium, but did not interview Romane Guéret and Lise Akoka. Consequently, the following conversation with the directing duo, included in the press kit of “Les pires” (“The Worst Ones”) and conducted by Anne-Claire Cieutat, is reproduced here—courtesy of Pyramide Films in Paris, France.

“The Worst Ones” is inspired by your short, “Chasse royale,” which already staged an open casting call.

Indeed, “The Worst Ones” follows in the footsteps of “Chasse royale,” although in the short our focus was on the casting process, whereas the feature film also shows the ensuing shooting. We stumbled into the cinema world, notably through open casting, by working on film projects as casting directors and acting coaches for children, and then we did “Chasse royale,” which was about our own experiences. To make “The Worst Ones,” we returned to Northern France, and what we wanted to do was to generate a conversation involving two social milieus which seem to be the complete opposite at first glance: youths from a disadvantaged area and adults working in films. But, at the root of our work, what you find is a shared passion for the world of childhood, with a keen eye for those disturbed childhoods that personally resonate with the two of us.

How did the characters of “The Worst Ones” come about?

There have been several steps during the writing process. First, there was a long immersion phase with our co-writer Eléonore Gurrey, when we met with hundreds of children. We proceeded pretty much like for an open casting call, only that as opposed to traditional casting, we got to meet our characters at a time when specific roles hadn’t been written yet. We had long conversations with each one of them, and we had them improvise scenes. We were permeated by their language, we met kids with great personalities and collected stories from which we built the script. That’s how the characters of our four young heroes were created, who have been shaped to emulate features that had stricken us the most. “The Worst Ones” was devised out of this constant to-and-froing between fiction and real life. A character may stem from various encounters.

Ultimately, how did you pick your actors?

It took us three years to make the film; the children we had met in the first immersion phase had grown by then and did not fit the story anymore. It was heartbreaking for us not to have them on board. But luckily, we had not made them any promises, which would have been a mistake. So, for a year we launched another open casting process. We traveled across Northern France with our casting director Marlène Serour and her team. We went to schools, high schools, children’s homes, neighborhood centers, rehabilitation centers for minors, you name it. Our goal was to meet with as many children and teens as we possibly could, fitting the age category of our characters. Then we organized work sessions with those that were our uncontested favorites. We cast in social and educational institutions, where kids are having a difficult time. We were fully aware of our responsibilities when we came to see them. These children, more than any others, must be cared for and protected. The words we told them about the film were meticulously chosen. We met Timéo Mahaut [who plays Ryan] and Loïc Pech [who plays Jessy] in a children’s home. We met Mélina Vanderplancke and Mallory Wanecque, who play Maylis and Lily respectively, at their school gate. Ryan’s sister is played by Angélique Gernez, who was already the leading actress in “Chasse royale.”

What strikes you right from the start in “The Worst Ones” is how beautiful faces are, and how intense the actors are.

This is what makes open casting so great, and this was pivotal to our project. It’s a peculiar type of effort, really, one in which you’re on the lookout for small miracles. To find these faces, these gazes that catch your gaze, these voices that keep you in thrall, to do all this requires a lot of patience and faith in the process itself. “The Worst Ones” was about putting the viewer in our shoes, as if they were searching for children that were able to catch our attention. That’s why the film starts with sequences of interviews with kids facing the camera like we did when casting the film. We are lucky to have met Mallory, Timéo, Loïc, Mélina, and the others. All have fascinating faces and gazes, and it was our job to enhance this through our directing and our work with Éric Dumont, our cinematographer. But beyond the faces and gazes, what mattered the most in this long quest was their capacity to play, to render something from life. And this is miraculous because very few have that inexplicable talent. All the rest is about work.

On set, were children and teens allowed to just improvise? How did you direct them to ultimately reach such authenticity in acting?

Once the script and the dialogue were written, we remained faithful to them during the shoot. So, no, on set, there was little space for impro. The children would learn their lines. It was somewhat different during rehearsals, for we had to adjust to new personalities, new faces and new voices in front of us. Once we had picked our leading actors, we worked on scenes with them during workshops, and therefore we readapted some sequences to be fully in tune with them. On set, we would direct them through earpieces, once they had gotten used to the device during the preliminary work on the film. We worked at some distance from the camera, with a monitor and a console with buttons linking us to each actor and to some technicians. We complement each other on set: Lise directs actors, she gives them indications and lines, which allows Romane to pay close attention to the monitor, from a distance, and to communicate with the cinematographer. We shot really long takes, with two cameras, sometimes up to 45 minutes a take. The earpiece allows for greater surprise, and it generates huge concentration for the actors, who must be present unto themselves and to us, for they have to actively engage with the rapid flow of information—some of which comes from what is taking place on set, some of which comes from what they hear in their earpieces. Therefore, they are in a state of constant lookout, their attention is acute and also selective, so that they may shift from one target to another. And because they have to share their attention, they are less in control of what they project, they look less at themselves. This emancipates them from mental constraints about what they may think about themselves, thus giving them access to some kind of let-go state, offering them more freedom and more breadth in their acting.

Was it clear right from the start that Johan Heldenbergh would play Gabriel?

For this role, we looked for an actor who would be very likable straightaway, because this director-puppeteer character was complex and had been tough for us to write. We had to show, on the one hand, how ambivalent his actions are, and on the other hand, it was necessary to reveal the genuine love he feels for the children and his utmost care to bring a specific vision to the film. Gabriel raises this pivotal question: how far can you go to devise an artistic object? We could not lay blame on him. We had to bring a sense of nuance, to humanize him without concealing the ambivalence of his actions. This window into ambivalence stems from our repeated observation of how directors work, and it reflects the concerns that inform our work. Once we met Johan, it was just obvious. We liked his imposing stature, which contrasted with the frail children around him. He is imbued with a sweet yet volcanic quality. We are very grateful to him for accepting to be onboard the project because it was far from simple. Everybody knows how tricky it might be to shoot with children, and those in this film required our full attention. He told us, ‘I like your script and I’d like to get on that crazy ride with you.’ Johan was our accomplice at every single step of the shooting.

Actor Johan Heldenbergh with Lise Akoka, half of the directing duo of “The Worst Ones,” at the Festival International du Film Francophone de Namur, Belgium, last October| Film Talk

Tell us about Esther Archambault, who plays Gabriel’s assistant and adds a farcical dimension to the film.

Esther was our assistant director on our [web] series “Tu préfères” [2021, a.k.a. “Would You Rather”], and then our casting assistant on “The Worst Ones.” Seeing her work in these circumstances inspired us to Judith’s character when we wrote the script. So, when we suggested she auditioned for the part, the choice was really simple. We, therefore, had to navigate at the intersection of real life and cinema. Esther has this composure, this peculiarity, and a unique pace that we find both touching and funny.

It is fascinating to see how “The Worst Ones” walks a thin line between reality and fiction.

We are keen on realism in film and always look for this porosity in real life. One of the starting points to “The Worst Ones” was that we wanted to find out why cinema is recurrently fascinated with children from the kind of neighborhoods that we film. As we already said, when you do an open casting, what you’re looking for is the rare gem, one of those faces that will transform you for life, a person whose talent brings huge energy to a film. To be part of the blooming of a child who is dismissed as the worst pupil in his school or his neighborhood, and who proves to be the very best in his acting performance, is a wonderful thing indeed. No matter what his background or education may be, his innate gift transcends all social class dynamics. “The Worst Ones” hopes for a possible meeting point, where cinema allows two worlds that were most unlikely to meet to finally intersect. This is what our title illuminates: the worst may well be the elect, the heroes, and we mean it as a tribute to all those children who have been given a very raw deal.

Timéo Mahaut plays Ryan, and Johan Heldenbergh is Gabriel, the film director, in “The Worst Ones” | Eric Dumont/Les Films Velvet

In the sequence at the local bar, you debunk the usual misconceptions you could have fallen prey to.

This scene is based on our own experience. After the first screenings of “Chasse royale,” some of the folks locally would tell us that the film portrayed them as ‘deadbeats,’ casting a slur on their community. Some social workers also said that that kind of film was nowhere near promoting the image of the neighborhood. It seemed to us, on the contrary, that we had to make these children visible and give them a voice, and we felt that we were only showing the truth. Such reactions were hard for us to take, but we certainly can comprehend them and find them interesting.

What about Gabriel’s film entitled “To Piss Against the Northern Winds” (itself inspired by a “ch’ti”, i.e. Northern French aphorism, ‘To piss against the northern winds, or to argue against your boss, will never get you anywhere’)?

Well, we didn’t want his film to seem too removed from ours. This idea of a film within the film is informed by a critical gaze on our practices. Therefore, it was important for us to include this. We also wanted to engage with this social realism in art films, those films that hire actors on the spots where the shooting happens. We had studied the clichés inherent to such films: a child being redeemed through contact with an animal—hence the sequence where doves are released—the discovery of a passion, social and family violence—Lily’s character getting pregnant at age 15, Jessy’s is incarcerated—violence at home, alcoholism as a family scourge, etc. What mattered to us was that the spectators wouldn’t think of Gabriel as a talentless director making a pretty mediocre film. We wanted to make people feel that Gabriel could be a good director, good with actors, and able to make them bloom so that it was possible to think that each scene in his film would be a success at the end, but that sometimes to reach his goal, he might have to go too far.

Cinema as a place where emotions are given free rein was already at the core of “Chasse royale.“ And, much like Angélique in your short, Ryan claims he never cries.

The final scene differs from the other sequences shot by Gabriel; he and we capture the very same thing at this specific time. Our cameras are placed in the very same spot, merging his film with ours. This captures a moment of grace, where the sublime emerges, a precious moment in the film as well as for the children. We hope that this culmination in front of the camera will resonate positively in their lives and open emotional doors within them. Cinema is a place of catharsis, of self-searching, and acting makes that possible. Cinema may sometimes offer that to children who prevent themselves from feeling any feelings. In no way do we claim that cinema will wholly change these children’s lives. For it does not have this power, or only very rarely so. And yet, it creates a deviation in each person’s itinerary, a shift which, however brief sometimes, does have a value in itself. The final scene was the shooting’s strongest moment for both of us. Mallory and Timéo were so transcended by their parts and so full of these two months spent together that they would share love words about which nobody knew, not even themselves, whether they were addressed to themselves or their characters. Real life and cinema came to merge at that stage. Mallory and Timéo, like Lilly and Ryan in the film, became actors. They were able to dig into their own emotions, wounds, and personal stories to transcend them all. They used their tears and offered them to us as gifts. This was a magical moment.

Mallory Wanecque with Timéo Mahaut in “The Worst Ones” | Eric Dumont/Les Films Velvet

In another key scene, Gabriel suggests an improvization session with Jessy and Lily after confiding in them. How comfortable they are is striking.

In this scene, Lily plays just like she breathes. She is a natural-born actress, shining to the world. She scoffs at Jessy at the canteen, dismissing him as an immature teen, yet she is also able to act like she is in love with him in a most natural way. We can see that Jessy is unsettled by Lily’s performance. Hence his reaction, in a way, during the love scene in the caravan, when he struggles to make sense of what is real and what is fiction. Jessy is always a smartass when he is with his mates, but this time, he finds himself in a situation of utter vulnerability, when facing Lily on set. However thick his shell, he is destabilized and overwhelmed by his emotions.

There is a quality of joy in your images. How did you work with hue and light?

We certainly did not want to make a grey, sad film. We wanted the energy and joy to stick out from images. Visually, we wanted the film to be filled with light, almost like a summer comedy or a teen movie. The children’s energy had to be felt at every level, be it in costumes, settings or lights. That neighborhood is quite cinegenic, with those sharp-colored buildings, and our actors have beautiful faces. It was crucial for us to magnify all that beauty. Not to mention that on the seaside, on the Côte d’Opale, the light is joyful. You can also hear the seagulls in the film.

The film’s energy also comes from its editing, skilfully executed by Albertine Lastera. On a few occasions, you have the spectators enter sequences while they are being shot.

Albertine was already our editor on both “Chasse royale” and “Tu préfères.” We operate according to common grammar. First, the editing had to sweep any doubt away as to what we were going to show: the film or the shooting? Early in the film, we toy with this ambiguity, and then we gradually give it up. As the editing process wore on, the film was more and more shedding things. Such was the case with transitional scenes, sequences that were too aesthetically charged or too artificial somehow, as well as wide shots for instance. The three of us wanted to produce a material that was raw, immediate, and impactful. In this respect, the editing is quite radical.

You also work on tone disruptions, sometimes within the same sequence.

The idea of not being constrained by a single genre is very dear to us. “The Worst Ones” wavers between drama and comedy. This was our challenge. It is also typical of life in general and childhood in particular, a time when laughter may quickly turn to tears. In the future we’d like to keep making films that tackle serious, even grave issues, but always with some degree of comedy and lightness.

How did you devise the camerawork?

We had worked on the film’s cutting before the shooting with Éric Dumont, our cinematographer, but we remained flexible because we knew that a lot of things would be radically changed on set. We adjusted a lot to our actors. Éric trusts his instinct. He shoots at face level, often with a hand-held camera.

And what about the music?

We fell for Rémy a few years ago when he appeared on Planète Rap. As a rapper, he is a deeply moving artist, we believe. His texts are sharp, with an anger that is peculiar to rap, and yet his voice and the musical instruments are melodious and informed by a melancholy feeling, something even lyrical sometimes. By and large, we aimed at a quite sparse soundtrack, which is why there is little extra-diegetic music. Most music you hear is the music characters are listening to.

What sort of pulse did you aim at for the film?

In our eyes, the film begins almost like a documentary, and then slowly unfolds by giving way to fiction, as though it were shifting from real life to cinema. We wanted a pace and movement that would give the film more and more emotion and breadth, thus transcending the shooting story to, we hope, reach for the universal.

Source: press kit, “Les pires” / “The Worst Ones”

LES PIRES, a.k.a. THE WORST ONES (2022) DIR Romane Guéret, Lise Akoka PROD Marine Alaric, Frédéric Jouve SCR Romane Guéret, Lise Akoka, Elénore Gurrey CAM Éric Dumont ED Albertine Lastera CAST Johan Heldenbergh, Mallory Wanecque, Timéo Mahaut, Esther Archambault, Loïc Pech, Mélina Vanderplancke, Matthias Jacquin

“Les pires” (2022, a.k.a. “The Worst Ones,” trailer)