Q: In MY WIFE IS AN ACTRESS, there are a multitude of references to what we imagine is your own private life. At the same time, it's a fast-paced and well-plotted romantic comedy. Between autobiography and fiction, where do you see yourself?
Attal: I never intended to talk about my marriage. This film is in no way a diary or a documentary about Charlotte Gainsbourg. But I like mixing things up a little. When you make a movie, you go all out to get the audience to believe that the story you're telling is true. So I used everything I had at my disposal to make the story as credible as possible. Besides, what's true and what's not true in the movies is one of the themes of this film. It was pretty great to have a chance to answer this question in concrete terms. Using our first names, for example, and even going as far as using all sorts of sounds in the mix so that we couldn't hear Charlotte's last name, thereby implying her real last name. Lots of Directors use truth to aid the fiction, to give it an illusion of reality. Some anecdotes are part of our daily life and are the taking-off point for this comedy. In spite of the incursions into reality, though, this film reveals nothing about our private life and it doesn't describe the life of two actors living as a couple. It's still fiction, a film de genre, a romantic comedy, although I was tempted to playfully write in the film credits: "Any resemblance to actual living persons is coincidental and imaginary. "
Q: In this film we see a smiling, sparkling, outgoing side of Charlotte. Did she have to work hard to be so joyous on camera?
Attal: I definitely wanted us to see Charlotte as she has rarely been seen on screen. Her energetic and dynamic qualities are rarely used in movies. I wanted her laugh to be heard. But she plays the part of an actress who feels good about herself and that's what required her to work in this direction. We rehearsed in the offices of Renn Productions and I asked Charlotte to sing her lines, to scream them, standing on a desk or simulating orgasm. There were people working all around us; it was pretty funny. But it was about getting rid of inhibition, about finding a rhythm closer to that of musical comedy, and a certain lighthearted quality, precisely to get rid of the vestiges of the idea that we were going to very simply shoot a film about ourselves. There are more or less two ways of acting: To manufacture a mask, or to let the mask fall. What makes Charlotte special is her ability to let the mask fall and then pick it up again when it's needed, at just the right moment.
Q: To the crisis in the relationship between Charlotte and Yvan, an additional conflict is added -- that of Nathalie and her husband Vincent who are tearing each other apart over whether or not to circumcise their son. How did this second plot emerge?
Attal: I had this second story in my mind and I had already written a few scenes for another film. I felt the conflict was fertile ground for comedy. By blending the two, I realized I could make a real family, anchoring the main character, and I could also say other things about my subject. For example, how people are fascinated by the movies when they don't work in the business. The two stories fit together perfectly. And then one day I read an interview with Woody Allen who explained that he had scores of ideas for movies and that often he only needed to group them together to make a single film -- that was the end of my hesitation!
Q: His influence does come through in this movie. ..
A: When you make a movie, you go back and see films you admire again. Obviously, Woody Allen, Billy Wilder, Cukor, as well as the Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn films were immediate influences. But Pialat and Altman were also sources of nourishment for this film. Often the tendency is to brighten everything in a comedy, to go directly for the gag. It's my hope that Katya Wyszkop on set design, Rémy Chevrin on lighting and Brad Mehldau the composer, helped me give a certain elegance to the film. The style allows a certain distance while allowing for happy accident and improvisation.
Q: You're acting throughout the film. How did you direct yourself?
Attal: It wasn't that difficult. For once, I was completely at the service of the director and we never had any conflict. I knew all there was to know about my character! I could allow myself to take chances, to try improvs that I probably would have repressed with someone else. The real problem turned out to be editing myself. Jennifer Augé helped me a lot by making a rough-cut that I could see right after the shooting was over. Thanks to that first effort, I got the distance I needed to make other choices, using other takes.
Q: Yvan is jealous because he's convinced that actors really feel the emotions they're pretending to have. Is that an issue for you?
Attal: At the end of the scene from Marivaux played by student actors in front of Yvan, a character from the play, Blaise, says this of actors: "In spite of comedy, all this is true. .. for they pretend to pretend!" I think the best way to lie is to figure out a way not to have to lie. Everybody manages it. Actors and non-actors alike.
Q: Have you been thinking about this comedy for a long time?
Attal: I made a short film about this story about five years ago and it was Claude Berri who convinced me to make a feature. At the time, I had my sights set on another story but he wound up persuading me. I went home and started writing and I realized it came very easily. So why resist?
Q: There is one undeniable element in this film: a declaration of love for Charlotte Gainsbourg.
Attal: Exactly. A declaration that cost a few million francs. Thanks Claude!