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French star Guillaume Canet is probably best known for his acting chops (The Beach, Last Night)—and for his fruitful relationship with French actress Marion Cotillard. But Canet is also developing a nice filmography behind the camera—for his first film, Whatever You Say, Canet was nominated for Discovery of the Year at the 2003 European Film Awards. He followed that up in 2006 with the taut thriller Tell No One, based on a bestseller by American crimewriter Harlan Coben. Tell No One earned 4 Cesar Awards (the French Oscars), including Best Director, and was nominated for five more. Not bad for a sophomore effort!
Canet’s latest film, Little White Lies, also has American roots. Starring a who’s who of French film stars, including two Oscar winners—Cotillard and Jean Dujardin—as well as Gilles Lellouche and François Cluzet, the film is quite reminiscent of Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill, even down to the use of music and the conceit of one friend being absent from the vacation festivities. Canet is upfront about the influence, and quite complimentary of Kasdan’s work.
Little White Lies is an ensemble piece about the interwoven relationships of eight close friends in their 30s and 40s. When one of the friends (Dujardin) is in a tragic accident, his friends rally to his side before deciding to follow through on a shortened version of their annual beach vacation. Once they are all away, however, tensions arise among the group, and resentments that had simmered under the surface become more apparent. Like The Big Chill, Little White Lies examines the ways friendships develop—and sometimes devolve—as we get older, wiser, and, sometimes, more self-absorbed.
We caught up with Canet on the phone this week as the film releases in the U.S. (following its box-office success in France). Canet was warm, thoughtful, and honest—just like his lovely film.
Tribeca: This is the first feature script you wrote entirely on your own. What inspired you to tell this story?
Guillaume Canet: I think we are living nowadays in a society where life goes so fast. When I spent a couple of weeks in the hospital after a little injury, I found that time in the hospital was a good time—you have nothing else to do—to just lay there and think. I’d been working a lot the few years before that, I started thinking about my family and friends, and I thought also about a friend who I had lost, and how sometimes in your life you can be very selfish: you only think about yourself, and your work, and you forget about what’s important.
When I left the hospital, I went on vacation with some friends. Sometimes you have friends for a really long time, and you are changing, or they are changing—they have kids, etc.—and [if you have a problem with them,] you don’t want to tell them what you think because you don’t want to hurt them. You prefer to let things go on without really talking about the problems. I started thinking about all those little lies you tell yourself or your friends because you don’t want to hurt them or yourself. What happens, though, is that the friendship becomes false.
I suddenly realized I wanted to make a movie out of all these ideas—and about those little lies. I think that’s the reason I wanted to write this script on my own, because I think I had a lot of things to say. [laughs]
Tribeca: Did you write with the actors in mind?
Guillaume Canet: Yes, most of them I had in mind for many reasons. They are all some really good friends—I’ve known Jean DuJardin since I was 8 years old; Benoît Magimel, I have known since I was 16; and Marion, I have known about 16 years. I also knew that this group of friends would be very realistic, you know? I wanted to be able to gather all of them, and to have the energy and complexity that exists between them.
Tribeca: I read that you had the whole cast spend time together before the shoot. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Guillaume Canet: The location of the film [Cap Ferrat, on the southern coast of France] is a place I go very often. We shot the movie in the summer, but when I offered the actors the role, I told them there was a condition: I wanted them all to be available in the spring to spend a week with me in the house—I wanted everyone to all live in the house together, and to use the coffee machine, to sleep in their beds, etc. So that when we went to shoot, it wouldn’t be a “location.” It would be a house where they would have already spent a vacation together, since it was supposed to be a place where the characters had spent many vacations.
So that spring, we went on boats, we rehearsed, we did some readings of the script, we talked about the characters, and we decided a lot of things that were unsaid in the script. For example, the complexity between Antoine and Marie: what happened between them? It helped me a lot, having those decisions made beforehand—because when we went to shoot, I knew not to have Antoine sit right next to Marie at the table. We all know that even if we are in a group of friends, there are people we don’t like that much—it’s all those little details that I wanted to be true and realistic.
Tribeca: American audiences will see a resemblance to the 1983 classic The Big Chill. Can you talk about how that film influenced you? In the music, perhaps?
Guillaume Canet: Totally! I put one of the songs from The Big Chill—The Weight, from The Band—into the movie. I am a huge fan of this movie! After I saw this movie a long time ago, one of my fantasies was to make a friendship movie; I’ve always dreamed to make a movie in that vein.
Actually, I had a great letter from Lawrence Kasdan—he had seen Little White Lies, and he really liked it. I was very, very touched, because for sure, it’s a big influence.
Tribeca: You acted in your first two films. What made you step out of that role for Little White Lies?
Guillaume Canet: Because the movie was so personal to me—talking about all those subjects—I wanted to be out of it, I think, because I was already so much in the film! [laughs] There’s a little bit of me in a lot of the characters—not all, but a lot—and so I thought it was not very necessary that I also act in it.
And also because I know that making a film with my friends would be tough sometimes. Because they are friends, there are things that you would not say to an actor that you are only working with. And as an actor, when you work with a friend who is a director, you don’t have the same respect, sometimes. So sometimes I was a mess on the set! Sometimes I had to remind them that we were not on vacation—they were in bathing suits on the boat, and having fun, and drinking wine, and having a really good time! [laughs] Sometimes I had to remind them that we were making a film.
Tribeca: Were there any tensions that arose, like the kinds of things that happen in the film?
Guillaume Canet: Yeah, totally! Sometimes we had some arguments, but they were always very constructive and interesting. We all really like each other a lot, so there was never anything mean.
Tribeca: What did you do differently on this film from your other ones? Were there any big revelations for you as a filmmaker?
Guillaume Canet: Yes, I think I was too touched by this story; I put myself too much in the film. On the other hand, I like that, because I think that’s the reason the film goes up and down, and I love the way it does that, because that’s life. I mean, life is sometimes very funny and happy, and sometimes it’s a drama.
Tribeca: This is clearly a film that means a lot to you. What do you want audiences to take away from Little White Lies?
Guillaume Canet: Just to remind them that life goes very fast, and they should spend time with the people they love, and to spend time with them before it’s too late. And also, that lying to yourself doesn’t help at all. Facing the truth is much better.
Watch the trailer: