After remaking his thriller "My Son" in the UK, with James McAvoy and Claire Foy taking the roles originated by Guillaume Canet and Mélanie Laurent, director Christian Carion returns home to France with "Driving Madeleine." The movie stars veteran Line Renaud - sounds like "Lynn" - as an old-timer taking a ride to move into a retirement center. Danny Boone is the gruff taxi driver behind the wheel. Through an eventful promenade over the hectic streets of Paris, this unlikely couple will learn a thing or two about life before reaching their final destination. But don't think this is just a lovefest. There is true grit in Madeleine's past, which we see enacted in revealing flashbacks.
Renaud shines in a role tailored to her gifts, and Boone brings a tightly controlled, revelatory performance. He is a wildly popular comedian in his country - think Adam Sandler, but in French -. Ironically enough, his sole adventure into drama was almost two decades ago, in a César-nominated supporting role in Carion’s international breakthrough, “Merry Christmas.” The WWI-set drama received a total of six nominations for the top film prize in French Cinema, including Best Film and Best Director for Carion. It was also nominated for the 2006 Best Foreign Language Oscar.
We spoke with Carion on the eve of the US theatrical run of "Driving Madeleine" about his career, the stories behind his latest film production, the piercingly personal connection that convinced him to bring it to life, and the surprising connection between Steven Spielberg's "Duel" and his movie. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Popflick: You came into filmmaking after years of working in a whole different industry, in agriculture. Was that transition hard?
Christian Carion: I have been very lucky because I met Christophe Rossignon. He produced almost all my movies except “Driving Madeleine.” He was also coming from agriculture, so we had that connection. And he already knew everybody in the industry. He had an idea for a movie, which turned out to be my first feature film, “The Girl from Paris” (2001). He made everything possible for me: hiring actors, technicians, etc. Luckily, the movie was a huge success in France. After that year, I never had to answer any questions about my previous life. No one cares anymore! They all want to know what my next movie will be.
Popflick: Before “Driving Madeleine,” you directed an English-language remake of your own movie, “My Son.” What is it like to make the same movie twice? What did you get out of that experience?
Christian Carion: The adrenaline was coming from the concept of the movie. The lead actor doesn't have a script, so he doesn't get to "act." He is himself in front of several situations we organize for him, and we use the camera to see him and to catch his reaction: what he will do, how he will do it, and which way he will do it. Changing the actor makes everything different. The French version had Guillaume Canet, and the British version had James McAvoy. They are very different, so something new would happen in every situation, and I was excited to know if it was possible to make it again. We were terrified by the concept when we did the first version in French. We did not know anything, so it's like having a kind of bomb in your hand. The second time, we were a little more self-confident. So, we dared to shoot differently. The energy is different. Also, the Highlands in Scotland are so different than the French locations.
Popflick: How did “Driving Madeleine” come about? Why did you make it?
Christian Carion: I received the script by email from a good friend. I was very moved, so much that I cried. So I said, 'If I am so moved, it means something to me.' I knew why I was so in touch with this story. I lost my mom two years before, and so many, many memories came back to me. So I said, 'This is maybe the right time for me to shoot this story." I called the writer, Cyril Gely, to congratulate him because it's very difficult to write something that makes people feel something. I also told him I needed to rewrite the script to add some personal elements and make it work for me as a director and producer.
Popflick: What did you bring from your experience to to the script of the movie?
Christian Carion: Many things! For example, I would never refuse my mother anything until she resisted joining a retirement community. It was a big fight, but she was physically very weak. There is this moment towards the end of Madeleine and Charles's ride together when she has to get out of the car, go to the front of the door, ring the bell, and so on…I talked a lot with the two actors before, to tell them how that moment was like a nightmare for me and my mom. I didn't want to leave her in that kind of situation. So I gave my emotion as a son with his mom to Line and Danny. Actors are, first of all, very sensitive people, tuned in to anything around them. They are more sensitive than common people. That's why they are actors! They work with that sensibility. By sharing my private story, they didn't play the scene like they would have just by the script. My input came not just by rewriting but also through how I directed and talked to the actors.
Popflick: That scene is very effective at conveying the sense of a missed connection. You get the idea that they still have things to say to each other and maybe they won't get to do it.
Christian Carion: It's about something I felt myself. When people are not there anymore, you have so many things you want to share with them, and it's not possible anymore. You are deep in nostalgia. You say, 'My God, why didn't I spend enough time with them? All the questions you wanted answered…', and that's life, coming at you fast.
Drive, She Said: Renaud takes the seat next to Boon in "Driving Madeleine." Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group.
Popflick: Many actresses could have taken the role of Madeleine. Why did you go for Line Renaud?
Christian Carion: It was written for Line, to be honest, and when I read the script, I thought it was a terrific idea. I've known Line for a very long time. Danny introduced me to her at the "Merry Christmas" premiere 20 years ago. She appreciated the movie and said to me at the end, 'We should work together!' With this script written for her, the right moment finally came along. And she is terrific!
Popflick: You worked with Danny Boone for the first time in “Merry Christmas” 20 years ago. How has he changed as a performer since then?
Christian Carion: It was a dramatic part, and he was not confident playing it. He said, 'I'm a comedian. My audience expects me to be funny. I don't know if I can play this role. And he was so good! I told him to keep doing dramas, but he said, 'No! That's over. I only did it for you!' He went on to make some huge comedies. And 20 years later, I called him and said, 'Danny, I have something for you, but it's not a comedy.' And he said, 'Why not? Because today I'm older, so maybe it's time for me to play something else.' He is also very close to Line. The possibility of working with her and the script helped convince him to play the driver.
Popflick: Comedians thrive improvising. Was there any space for improvisation in a drama like “Driving Madeleine”?
Christian Carion: Yes. I shot "My Son" based on improvisation, so I'm open to that game in certain conditions. There is a nighttime scene where she sits in front of the taxi with Danny. They talked about, in fact, Line Renaud's life. She spent 15 years in Las Vegas as a dancer for the casinos. She was very famous during the 70s. I didn't keep the words but used their reactions, the way they looked at each other. The mood of their dynamic together comes out of improvisation. There is not very much improvisation. Sometimes, I provoke a situation, like when Madeline sits in the back of a cab and sees her younger self next to her.
This scene was not written in the script. I told Line and Alice Isaaz, who plays young Madeleine, 'You don't have anything to do together, and I'm very sad about it. So, let's imagine a moment. You are just sitting in the back of a taxi together.' And they said, 'But it makes no sense!' 'Yes!' I said, 'It's kind of a fantasy. It's a kind of dream. Let's try it!' And I played the song "This Bitter Earth" by Dinah Washington. Because of the music and this special moment, they improvised how they looked at each other and held each other's hands.
Two Women, One Person: Renaud and Issaz hold their hands across time in "Driving Madeleine." / Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group.
I did not ask anything. I just said, 'Let's play,' They did it this way. Also, when we see Line Renaud returning to Madeleine's old apartment, this scene is not written in the script. So I said, 'Line, what do you think about returning to this apartment and seeing what you do inside?' She said, 'Never! I would never come back to a place where I suffered.' 'I know, I know that,' I said, 'but at this moment of the movie, it's time to make peace. Peace with your past.' She said, 'Okay, if it's a question of peace, I can do something.' Then I put the music on, and I let Line improvise. The way she was strolling inside the apartment, how she sat on the bed and switched off the light…I love it. You can take the risk of improvisation because she is a great actor.
Popflick: A good part of the movie takes place inside the taxi cab, and it’s a long conversation between the characters. That limits what you can do with your camera and mise en scene. How do you keep the movie visually interesting under these constraints?
Christian Carion: It's a huge constraint. When we were doing preproduction, I decided to screen a movie for my team to prepare. It was Steven Spielberg's "Duel." I love this movie. It's a lesson of cinema. It's a lesson of mise en scene, on how to shoot in a car. And also, you know, we didn't shoot in Paris!
Christian Carion: It would have been impossible to shoot in Paris. With the traffic jams, it would have been suicide! We would kill ourselves because it's so crazy to drive in Paris. I did not want to take any risks. So we decided to shoot in a studio. We put huge high-definition 4K screens around the car, on which we screened what we wanted from Paris. Three months before shooting with the actors, we spent days and nights driving in Paris, shooting left, right, through the rear window, the sky…Under the rain, under the sun, by day, by night. At every hour, everywhere. Then, we did a lot of editing to get the best pictures of what we needed. So it was very comfortable for Line and Danny, they just had to sit in the taxi. We would say 'play,' and everything moved around them. Line said to me, 'Wow! I love it! I travel without moving.' I'm so proud of this idea because no one can tell you are not in Paris. Cinema is a question of illusion. We are great liars but for good reasons.
She's My Pal: Renaud and Boone stretch their legs for a bit in "Driving Madeleine." / Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group.
Popflick: How do you feel about the finished movie? Are you happy with it?
Christian Carion: To be honest, sometimes I think it's better than expected, mainly because of the chemistry between Line and Danny. I'm also very, very proud of the work of Alice Isaaz as young Madeleine and Jérémy Laheurte as her abusive husband. It's very difficult to play a bad guy. Hitchcock used to say, 'a good movie is good because there is a good guy and a bad guy, a very bad one.' Jeremy is such a sweet man, but he did the job. We needed the contrast between the softness of the present, with Charles and Madeline, and the hardness of her past. You don't see her the same way when you come to the taxi from the flashback.
Popflick: You have a small role in “Driving Madeleine” and you have appeared in most of your films. Are you tempted to act more?
Christian Carion: No, no, no! I did it just because I am the cheapest lawyer in Paris. Now, seriously, when you are working on a movie, you have to choose everything! Locations, actors, and so on. The lawyer was the last character to be cast. I was so exhausted from making so many choices that I told my crew, 'I'm going to do it myself. Don't worry, don't try, don't try to find anyone. Don't send me clips of many people just to play this lawyer. I'm going to do it myself!'
Popflick: One can imagine “Driving Madeleine” working in a different language and another cultural context. Would you be tempted to make a remake in English or in any other language?
Christian Carion: It's the question of the day. We are in discussions. I can't tell you more. I would love to do it for two reasons. First of all, to reimagine a new story. For instance, in London. What would happen over there? Will we keep the same past for her? The second reason to do it again is the cast. Who would do it? How? I don't know.
* "Driving Madeleine" is playing in NY, LA, and other cities across the US. Starts on Jan. 19 at the Coral Gables Art Cinema in Miami, FL.
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