Dreamers, The : Casting

Since he introduced 21-year-old Maria Schneider to world with 1973’s Last Tango, as the perfect unspoiled foil to Marlon Brando’s world-weary stranger, Bernardo Bertolucci has established himself as having a great eye for young talent. He has worked in this tradition through all his work, from THE CONFORMIST in 1970 to STEALING BEAUTY in 1996 and BESIEGED in 1998. But by focusing on a story involving just three young people, he set himself with a difficult task. As Jeremy Thomas explains, “When you’re making a film about young people it’s hard to find actors around the age of 19 or 20 who are movie stars, so it’s a good opportunity to find new people.” For Bertolucci, however, this required more than a simple talent search. “In general,” he says, “what I’m looking for is not exactly a person who is just what is written in the script. What is more important is the feeling of having somebody with a veil of mystery. Someone who will keep my camera very curious about him or her.”

So as pre-production began, the only real certainty was that they would need to find two French actors and an American. “We went to Los Angeles and New York for the latter,” says Thomas, “and I think we saw about 200 people until we narrowed it down to Michael Pitt. It was the same for the French characters; you see lots of people, then you arrive at the ones you think will inhabit those parts best, and then they really come to live in them until you can think of no one else more suitable.”

The American trawl, however, was not easy, not least because the director was anxious to preserve a degree of mystery about the project. “Bernardo was very secretive about the script,” recalls Pitt, “so you had to go in and read it there, right in front of him, and you couldn’t take it with you. I sat there and read the script and I just thought it was just beautiful.” There were other problems too. Though mild by today’s standards, Last Tango caused ructions throughout the world with its frank portrayal of human sexuality, and some agents were nervous of giving this new script to their clients. “The US is a very puritanical place,” says Bertolucci, “and they were having problems with it. I didn’t spend much time trying to convince people, though. It’s a script you either like immediately or you don’t make the effort. And while I was looking, I met Michael in New York, and initially I had a kind of resistance to him. I was going to cast someone else, but then I realised I was wrong. I was afraid that, because of his looks, he might seem narcissistic, but I’d under-estimated him. He’s more than a fine actor. I think I was resisting initially because I did like him too much and I couldn’t admit it. “

Previously seen in Larry Clark’s controversial Bully as part of a murderous teen cabal, Pitt has quickly established himself as one of America’s most fearless new actors since his break from TV soap/series Dawson’s Creek. Indeed, both these contradictory aspects of his career prepared him for the role. “I play Matthew,” he says. “He’s an American student who’s just come over to France to study. He grew up in a suburban middle-class family. He’s sort of a good kid but he’s kind of naïve. He’s from San Diego and he’s lived a kind of sheltered life, as opposed to being a hippie, and really his awakening, or his liberation, starts here. A lot of this has to do with the two people he meets and the way they corrupt him, in a sense. Maybe they just open his eyes — or give him permission to open them.” Gilbert Adair takes up the story: “At the very beginning of the film, Matthew’s quite a lonely character. He’s at the Cinematheque every night, he doesn’t know many people, and then at the first clash between the film buffs and the police he is befriended by two young French people, Theo and Isabel. They’re twins, but not identical, and we get the vague impression that they have Matthew in their sights and that the meeting is somehow engineered. And from that point on, their destinies are linked together.”

The search for Theo and Isabel was similarly exhaustive, since Bertolucci was looking for actors who could convey the intimacy of twins. “I wasn’t looking for a resemblance,” he says, “I was looking for something more subtle than that. They both come from a middle-class Parisian family, very culturally aware but also very self-conscious.” To play Theo, he selected Louis Garrel, son of Philippe Garrel, who presented another, unexpected connection with ’68. “I knew his father,” says Bertolucci. “He’s a director I admire, who was very young in ’68, and I was curious to meet his son. I liked him at first sight; there was something very romantic about him but there was also a kind of severity.” Garrel understood this aspect of the part intuitively. “It’s about a couple of twins that begin their sexual awakening and they need someone else to help them,” he says. “They meet this American and they both use him like an innocent; Theo wants him to separate him from his sister and Isabel wants him to separate her from her brother.”

With Garrel, Adair became aware that the film was about to take on a life of its own. “Theo is a mysterious character,” he says, “rather more mysterious than he was in my novel, and that’s thanks in part to Louis. I don’t really think that the audience knows for quite some time whether Theo is manipulating Isabel or vice versa. At the beginning, he seems almost dominated by her, but as we begin to discover Isabel’s insecurities, we wonder perhaps if Theo is playing a more subtle game. This game between the two becomes a game between the three, and that’s ultimately what the film is about.”

To complete the trio, Bertolucci selected newcomer Eva Green, a theatrically trained actress making her feature debut. “When I met her,” says Bertolucci, “after ten seconds I thought, ‘This is Isabel.’” Indeed, first impressions are crucial to the role. Says Adair, “When we first see Isabel, she’s rather a flamboyant figure, rather conscious of her own beauty, her own iconic quality, because she’s clearly mimicking the kind of movie stars she admires. Then we discover all sorts of other things about her and realise that she’s a much more vulnerable, much less secure character that she seems. She’s witty, clever and has a lot of vivacity, but she has a secret that the film reveals in its own good time.”

But although she found the transition from stage to screen daunting, Green embraced the challenge. “It’s a great part because Isabel is very mysterious,” she says, “and we never know if she’s acting or not, because she seems to be performing the whole time. She’s inspired by the great actresses of the cinema — Greta Garbo, Lauren Bacall, Bette Davis — and she’s very ambiguous. She’s like the Sphinx. She seems to be quite hard sometimes, yet she’s hiding a great sensitivity. She’s scared of being alone, of being separated from her brother, yet she’s also scared of being in love with him.”

With his cast in place, Bertolucci unveiled his plans to ease them into the mindset of the time and the place in which the drama unfolds. “What I really wanted is to have three kids from today confront these kids from ’68,” he says. “What do Michael, Louis and Eva know about ’68? Almost nothing. Kids today know little about ’68. So I showed them a lot of newsreels, a lot of TV from the period. And at a certain point I was going to have them read the texts that were essential in the 60s, but then I realised that would have been too much, it would have raised more questions that would be impossible to answer. So I decided to have this confrontation in a more subtle way.”

Green noticed this immediately and was impressed by the director’s instinctive style. “The atmosphere in his film is very intoxicating and sensual,” she says. “I was scared to work with him but he’s so nice, he works very closely with the actors and he’s very reassuring. He’s very demanding, but he can manipulate you without seeming to be manipulative. Everything seems so simple; he manages to communicate what he wants with a single word or a single gesture. He’s very mysterious.” She laughs. “We never know what he’s thinking!” Pitt agrees. “Bernardo seems incredibly casual, in a certain way, and yet he’s working towards something very precise.” This precision, however, had its price. As the cast settled into their roles, Bertolucci and Adair began to see the storyline changing in unexpected ways. “Working with Bernardo was unforgettable and quite stressful at times,” says Adair. “For him, the film is a living organism, and we were constantly taking it in different directions. Every so often, he’d have to show me what he’d filmed and edited so far, because the script was no longer the most reliable guide to the way the film was going. So I constantly had to rewrite dialogue as the characters evolved. At first it worried me, but I learned a great lesson from Bernardo. I used to think you took the actors and sort of poured them into the character, in the way that a bottle gives shape to a liquid. Bernardo showed me that it’s the other way round. It’s the actor that gives shape to the character.”