Q: How did you get the idea for 36?
OM: I’ve always wanted to pay tribute to Dominique Loiseau by telling his story. Dominique was a cop from the Organised Crime Unit who famously played a part in breaking up the ‘Postiche Gang’. On January 14 1985 the Unit was called to the Rue du Docteur Blanche in Paris’ 16th arrondissement. The gang was holed up in a bank where they were cracking open safes while holding staff and customers hostage. The Anti-Gang Squad were also on the scene.
A police team, formed from the two squads, set up around the bank. As usual, the orders were not to intervene directly but to let the raiders leave and then tail them and arrest them later on, outside the city when they change cars and the adrenaline level has dropped…
However, the boss of the Anti-Gang Squad decided to go in solo, to make a name for himself. When the gang left the bank, this chief – whom I will not name – opened fire without warning, which set off a whole burst of gunfire. Some of the robbers had already left, but when they heard the shots, they turned round and came back to help their comrades. A cop was taken hostage. Two men died, one robber and a member of the Organised Crime Unit, Jean Vrindts. Half of the gang fled. A total fiasco.
As a result of this debacle, a mood of rebellion gripped 36 Quai des Orfèvres. The policemen who were there during the exchange of fire demanded that disciplinary action be taken against the boss of the squad responsible for the operation veering out of control.
Q: Like in your film?
OM: Yes, exactly. But at the time we were still reeling from the shock of another scandal which was in the news. Some policemen from headquarters, for the most part from the night crew of the Anti-Gang Squad, had got involved in rackets, stick-ups and kidnappings. It was a serious business, implicating several policemen from one of the prestigious squads of the Paris CID and it had caused waves at the heart of the police establishment. So much so that HQ, pretty much a state within a state, suddenly found themselves under the scrutiny of the prosecutors and authorities who had long wanted to rock their boat.
That was the climate prevailing when the incident at the Rue du Docteur Blanche occurred.
Faced with a revolt and a strike that was about to be called at HQ, the prefect of police decided to intervene. He summoned all the units in the main squads and threatened to take action against troublemakers. He reminded them about the rogue cops and said that the files were still open and there were still some names on the list. A word to the wise…
The rebellion was stifled but the anger of the cops at 36 didn’t fade. So much so that rumours began to fly: Jean Vrindts, the policeman shot in the gunfight in the Rue du Docteur Blanche, was supposedly a rogue cop. His memory was defiled in the papers. His family had to suffer the shame of the newspaper articles.
His burial took place without official ceremony. The officers of the Organised Crime Unit could not put up with that. It seemed as if the administration was attempting to cover up the fiasco by diverting the media to this new development. And their comrade was being killed for a second time. The atmosphere was overheated and HQ was a bomb ready to explode.
Dominique Loiseau, on holiday with his family, then learned from one of his colleagues that his name was also on this famous list of rogue cops. He rushed back to Paris and went directly to the Inspectorate to demand an explanation. Faced with a hostile interview, he demanded that, if there really were charges against him, he should be placed in police custody. At the end of the hearing he was taken before a judge and locked up on remand in the jail at Bois d’Arcy with not a word of explanation. He was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment. He was freed after six and a half years…
Q: Dominique Loiseau was one of your friends?
OM: He was a friend and a cop who I admired. When I entered the police academy I was 20 and he was 26. He was one of those trainees who rose through the ranks and had been a cop on the beat before finding himself earmarked to be an inspector. He had been an investigator in the Paris squads, had a knowledge of the street and a maturity that I admired. Above all he was a man of great humility and humanity.
When he was sentenced I was already in the anti-terrorist section in the Home Office. I have never believed that he could have been involved in the rogue cop scandal. He paid the price for this business in the name of ‘order’, because of a unit boss whom the authorities wanted to protect, for whatever reason, and who became, in my film, the deputy director of police. It was a settling of accounts and Dominique served as a scapegoat. Moreover, after his imprisonment, the rebellion died down and order was restored.
Dominique was the victim of a judge similar to the one depicted in my film. A pathetic judge, as unfortunately do exist, with a simple-minded prejudice against the police. He cut Dominique’s ties with his family and friends for several months, forbid all visits and mail, treating him as if he were the worst kind of lowlife. These events are all the more shocking as the real rogue cops, those on ‘the list’, never had a moment’s worry. The cop who ‘assembled’ the dossier on Dominique was himself a dubious character. He had ‘diverted’ 300,000 francs, enough to buy himself a house on the Ile de Ré.
All through this, Dominique was in prison, living in unending anguish. He received death threats against himself and his family, he asked his wife to leave him and not wait for 12 years, his parents bankrupted themselves in his defence and he tried to hang himself. All in the name of ‘order’. This could have happened to many other cops. It could have happened to me.
Q: You altered events in the film?
OM: Obviously. But I wanted what happened to Leo Vrinks (the part played by Daniel Auteuil) to be as bad and as monstrous as what really happened to Dominique Loiseau. Dominique lost everything in prison: his wife, his friends, his career – which was his reason for living – his dignity and much else that I have no right to mention. He could have been consumed with hate. He preferred instead to draw a line under those lost years. He worked on my film as a chauffeur for the actors. The cast and crew appreciated his kindness and professionalism. Today he’s got his captain’s qualification. And the persecution continues. If he was reprieved by Mitterand, he’s still not been pardoned. His police record prevents him from working as he would wish. For example, he can’t skipper boats under the French flag. He remains a ‘disgrace’ to his country. The ‘disgrace’ is those who buried him and participated in this masquerade.
My film is also dedicated to Christian Caron, ‘Kiki’ Caron, a cop who was shot down on duty on August 31 1989 during an operation by the Raid Squad. A former cop in the Anti-Gang Squad and a friend of Dominique Loiseau, Christian Caron was one of the key figures at HQ. Appointed to the Raid Squad where he was unit commander, he was my mentor during my pre-selection stages before joining this elite unit. Married with three children, he had decided to quit the Squad for a more sedentary life and to make the most of his family. He was shot down by a crazed gunman a week before his transfer. I liked him a lot. He was a great cop, a real live wire and someone of great humanity.
Q: Did you decide to write 36 after the success of Gangsters?
OM: In fact I’d been thinking of this story since 1994. At that time I was working as an actor in a TV film where I played the part of a cop in the Anti-gang Squad alongside real cops who were in the cast. I got to know one of them, Didier Maury, who knew Dominique Loiseau and had, like him, been involved in the Rue du Docteur Blanche operation and had been taken hostage by the gang. Didier Maury had even seen one of his colleagues take a bullet in the head a few yards away from him. The bullet had fortunately just grazed the top of his skull and the policeman in question had a miraculous escape. Didier had then lived through the consequences of this mess – the rebellion, the orchestrated campaign to destroy Jean Vrindts’ reputation, Dominique’s arrest and imprisonment – and he left the force. He’s never truly got over it. Today he’s a company manager. He was cast in my film for friendship’s sake, but also as a memory of that time and the dramatic events that bind us. He was very moved the day we shot the sequence of the Saint-Ouen debacle. He relived the events with a depth of emotion. It was overwhelming to see him take part in the scenes where Valence (played by Daniel Duval) was taken hostage and killed.
I wrote Gangsters primarily because I wanted to make a low-budget film. Coming from television, I knew I hadn’t a hope of working in films with a screenplay that needed a big budget. So I had to make a more intimate film revolving around the actors and without too many sets. That was the origin of the ‘huis clos’ idea. And the couple of undercover cops who volunteer to be put in police custody for 48 hours so they can identify the corrupt policemen.
I’ve always been fascinated by the violence that can be unleashed at any moment during a period of custody, by the night, the very special atmosphere created in offices around characters with nothing in common but who find themselves together for two days and nights, away from the world. Anything can happen at such a time. That’s what I wanted to talk about – about that unhealthy relationship between cops and robbers. A relationship intensified by the limits of time – and by the search for the truth.
Rogue cops are also characters who fascinate me. In my 12 years in the police I knew four bosses who had ‘crossed over’. Two of my friends went to jail. One of them, who I had worked with for six years on the night shift, hanged himself in his cell. I had never suspected his double life.
While I was preparing Gangsters I gave my first treatment of 36 to the producers Jean-Baptiste Dupont and Cyril Colbeau-Justin, telling them that I wanted to make a film about a big police chief’s descent into hell. A kind of modern The Count of Monte Cristo with the police as a backdrop and the grand themes of tragedy: friendship, love, betrayal and revenge. I also wanted to make a French Heat. Michael Mann, Sergio Leone, Mike Figgis and Michael Cimino are the directors I admire most in the world. For me, Heat is a benchmark film. It’s a model for me, as much for the direction of the actors as for the beauty of the images and the sheer skill of the mise en scène. As in Heat, I found it interesting to provoke a duel between two strong characters. Hence the idea to set two big cops against each other. Two dinosaurs from 36 Quai des Orfèvres, and to have them portrayed by two monstres sacrés of French cinema: Daniel Auteuil and Gérard Depardieu. The aura of these two actors, their respective careers, their faces and their experience all helped to strengthen the credibility of their characters. They’re magnificent in the film.
My producers then passed the project to Franck Chorot at Gaumont who agreed to co-produce and distribute the film, and the adventure began. Two years of writing, ten or so versions (the first ran to nearly 200 pages) and the valuable collaboration of Julien Rappeneau in the final version of the screenplay – which we delivered several months late. I’m keen to thank Gaumont for the trust they showed in me and for their support during the writing, preparation and shoot of the film. It’s a company that knows how to respect directors and was always there to back me up. It’s important to stress that, especially for a project of such scope.
Q: Were you inspired by the men you knew for the depiction of the two main characters Vrinks and Klein?
OM: The character played by Daniel Auteuil (Léo Vrinks) has that name as a tribute to Jean Vrindts, the policeman gunned down in the rue du Docteur Blanche. It’s not the same spelling but it sounds the same. His journey in the drama is that of Dominique Loiseau, but the character was in fact inspired by one of my bosses whom I knew in the fifth division of the CID and who finished up as a number two in the Organised Crime Unit before finding himself in prison for having shielded one of his informers over a drug delivery.
That was another dark affair of rivalries between units for which this boss paid the price. He was nicknamed ‘Elegant Fifi’ – he was a cop with class, a fine guy who had grown up in Belleville with criminals. He hung out with prostitutes and beggars and discovered a lot of big criminal cases thanks to his street contacts. He was one of the old school in his methods, adopting criminal means himself, methods that are those of Vrinks in the film which end up destroying him. In real life ‘Elegant Fifi’ was sent to prison for four years and Vrinks for seven. Both were victims of an increasingly ossified judicial system and of a police hierarchy that has no place for marginal or ‘one-off’ cops.
‘Elegant Fifi’ was one of those cops who are troublesome, who tread where they shouldn’t. He was arrogant, assured and loved by his men. Just like Vrinks he was a complex character, a little reserved and who knew to open his mouth at the right time. He was a cop on the ground who knew how to take risks and who found himself abandoned by his peers at his first ‘fall’. The film deals with that too: Must a cop be ready for anything to do his job?
We worked a lot with Daniel Auteuil on the complexity of his character. On his dark, withdrawn side, at the margins of a system that will end up crushing him, on his brutal side, too – even at the risk of making him unpleasant. I knew that with Daniel we could allow this. He’s one of those actors whom we love as soon as he appears on screen. We worked on the hidden aspect of the character – the dark side that we all have within us and that many cops keep buried in themselves. Right up to the moment that it explodes. Daniel is extremely intense in the film.
Q: What about Denis Klein, played by Gérard Depardieu?
OM: I was inspired by this famous superintendent from the Anti-Gang Squad who had provoked the debacle in the Rue du Docteur Blanche. He was an ambitious careerist with brutal responses. An unscrupulous type, ready for anything. And yet he was brave and had forged a solid reputation in the CID after having directed units in difficult areas. He was impulsive, liked to use his fists and take risks, which is what made him dangerous.
I wanted to make Klein a more ‘romantic’ character, despite everything. Klein is a guy in pieces, who has dedicated his life to his career as a cop and who lives in the shade of ‘this great cop that you’ll never be’, as his wife (played with great sensitivity by Anne Consigny) tells him. He’s an unhappy loner who has long known that he’s missed out on his life, who drinks because he knows it’s too late. Even so he tries to hold on to the one thing that gives him life – his career.
I didn’t want the audience to detest him, even if he does some horrible things in the film. He does them despite himself, because he’s the victim of his own unhappiness. I wanted people to be touched by his distress and his loneliness. Gérard Depardieu was the actor I needed. As soon as we began to shoot I knew that I had my Klein and that he would be superb. I had felt it the first time that we met Gérard. We ate at the counter in his restaurant and he’d cooked our meal himself. He’d been great with me. What had struck me was his sad expression, full of melancholy. The look of an old dog off for the last injection at the vet’s who knows that he’s going to die. Gérard is a boundless actor. He knew how to deliver a deeply human and tragic dimension that only great actors are capable of giving to such characters.
Q: Friendship, betrayal, revenge… and love. Between these two men there’s a woman (Camille) played by Valeria Golino.
OM: The duel between Vrinks and Klein couldn’t just be limited to a simple professional rivalry - there had to be a woman between them. The idea came to me when I saw Harold Becker’s film The Sea of Love with Al Pacino, especially the opening scenes where Pacino is making a routine report on a corpse in the company of a colleague who’s living with his ex-wife. In mid-examination of the body, Pacino turns to his partner and asks him whether ‘things are going well in the pussy department with the wife’. Tempers flare and the two cops almost come to blows in front of the corpse. Scenes like that ring true to life and take the mystery out of police work by introducing the banality of everyday life and personal problems. In my film Camille is more than a personal problem. She is the woman whom Klein has loved deeply and continues to love, even though he knows that he’ll never get her back. Camille left because she was afraid of him and has remade her life with Vrinks. Klein has never been able to cope with this. I didn’t make a big deal of this, just suggesting it a couple of times in the film by a phrase or a glance.
Romantic rivalry doesn’t account for everything. The other key to this clash is the hostility between two powerful men and the units to which they belong. This inter-police rivalry has always existed and I’m well placed to talk about it. When I was in the anti-terrorist section, all the units involved were at each other’s throats. It was no use sending round circulars or holding meetings where we were told we had to work hand in glove, each unit kept its information to itself to gain the kudos of an arrest or a successful operation. In the Rue du Docteur Blanche incident the boss of the Anti-Gang Squad acted out of pure vanity in spite of instructions to the contrary. He put himself in the line of fire to prove his bravery and to be able to tell the world that the ‘Postiches Gang’ had been arrested thanks to his heroic intervention. He was simply thinking of his picture in the paper – not of the consequences of his rash, suicidal action.
For me, Vrinks and Klein are two cops who went to police academy together, who got promoted together and reached the same heights: one in the Organised Crime Unit, the other in the Anti-Gang Squad. And that is where their paths diverged. In my time the Organised Crime Unit cops were envied for their status as ‘supercops’. They were always in the media, only undertook spectacular operations, had a high success rate, were heavily armed and trained in the latest techniques and had a special aura at HQ. Beside them, the Anti-Gang Squad worked away in the shadows, slaving away at investigations, procedures and paperwork without having their exploits written about in the press. Many suffered from this situation which provoked jealousies and internal rivalries.
Now it’s true that times have changed. The two units have improved relations, mainly thanks to the personality of the two bosses who appreciate and respect each other. The current boss of the Anti-Gang Squad was for a long time attached to the Organised Crime Unit.
Q: Did you know other cops like Eddy Valence, played by Daniel Duval?
OM: Valence was inspired by the cops who I met when I joined the service, the deputies and the assistants. Reliable types, apparently faultless, the type you can always count on. As the character disappears halfway through the film I needed an actor with strong features and some charisma, which is why I thought of Daniel Duval. As a cop he’s absolutely believable and his thirty years of experience are etched on his face. The pairing with Daniel Auteuil is perfect. I love the meal scene at the beginning of the film where he slowly leans over the street sign of the quai des Orfèvres that his pals have just given him. There’s everything that I wanted from the character at that moment. The emotion and modesty of this great cop who’s leaving behind a big part of his life. All those years given to the CID and HQ.
There was also a real Titi Brasseur, admirably played in the film by Francis Renaud. Francis is a fabulous actor. We met on the Police District series where he was my partner. I then cast him in Gangsters where he played the part of Rocky, the violent cokehead cop. In 36 he’s brilliant. He’s an instinctual actor, crammed full of emotion. He’s the best actor of his generation and I really hope that his appearance in 36 will finally give him access to the leading roles that he deserves.
Q: Did the real Titi Brasseur urinate on his boss to show his dissatisfaction with his appointment, as he does in your film?
OM: That’s no invention. It’s absolutely true, but it was not Titi Brasseur it was another cop, completely drunk, who did this. He was fired of course. Another true story: the street sign for quai des Orfèvres was unscrewed from the wall and presented at a retirement party. The mouse hunt in the bar also happened as it does in the film, during a drunken meal at a time when cops could still allow themselves these kinds of ‘excesses’. The anecdote was told me by Eric Yung, a former cop from the Anti-Gang Squad, and today a journalist and writer. He too served time for ‘reasons of state’ and wrote a great book about it called The Lure of Darkness where he tells of his time as a cop and his descent into hell.
Q: The scene where the cops, furious about Klein’s bungling, all turn their backs when he approaches to deliver a posthumous tribute to Valence is impressive. Did you witness that?
OM: Not personally, but it happened. During a security check some neighbourhood youths who were driving around in a stolen car crashed through a roadblock. A police officer was killed and the driver of the vehicle shot down. The superintendent in charge of the operation presented his condolences to the family of the driver who was well known as a frequent offender and he didn’t even take the trouble to visit the family of the policeman killed on duty. A ‘lapse in taste’ which wasn’t really appreciated by men of rank. When the superintendent attended the burial of his subordinate, all those present turned their back on him.
Q: Let’s talk about the gangsters. Did you meet this artistically tattooed Christo who you play with such gusto?
OM: I really enjoyed playing this character, even if he only has one scene in the film. But you can’t turn down a scene opposite Daniel Auteuil! My wife Catherine – she plays Eve Verhagen in the film – came onto the set that day to direct me. Her looks and her tips were very valuable. In fact, I’m not keen on acting in my films. I hold to the principle that a director must primarily be concerned with his actors. If he gives himself an important role he’s obliged to concentrate on his character and inevitably neglects the work of others. Anyway, that’s my opinion. You need the genius of an Orson Welles or the confidence and experience of a Clint Eastwood to give yourself a leading role as well as directing the film. If I had given myself a more important role, I’d never have finished this film. After two years writing, six months of fifteen-hour days of pre-production and an exhausting fourteen-week shoot, if I’d taken the responsibility of one of the main roles, I wouldn’t have made the same film. All the more so because I was under great pressure.
I had to measure up to the project, measure up to all the talent who had embarked on this adventure and to the trust invested in me by the backers, distributors and producers.
To return to the character of Christo – I was inspired by a crook with whom I’d struck up a relationship during a period of police custody. He’d spent 20 years in prison, had been out for a few weeks and had been taken to the night station following a police check. He was really small, covered in tattoos, wore scruffy tracksuit bottoms, and sported a narrow Errol Flynn moustache. He was on police records for organised crime and was a member of the gang from the southern banlieue, a major robbery crew. He took me into his confidence and started to tell me the story of his life. He told me that he’d ‘finished with cars’ and that he’d opened a pizzeria with his wife. Two or three months later I learnt that he was already getting a crew together and the Organised Crime Unit was on his heels. I don’t know what became of him. I have the memory of a Parisian urchin with a tired jailbird look and the cheek of Michel Audiard.
My fascination is perhaps unhealthy, but I have a lot of respect and admiration for robbers of the old school. Men like Christo, who we used to call ‘gorgeous guys’ or ‘dandys’, are on their way out. On this subject, one of the best moments in the shoot took place during the meal. All the cops in this scene are real cops. (If you look closely you’ll spot Simon Michael, Michel Alexandre and Philippe Isard, all ex-CID men and today established writers and screenwriters). To ensure this scene was realistic I’d asked the props man to pour real whisky and wine into the glasses. After a couple of hours things had warmed up and all my cops started improvising and singing. We’d put three cameras in the restaurant – two in a fixed position and a third that could roam over faces – which allowed us to capture that scene which I adore: the replacement of the autographed street sign and Groluc’s oriental dance number – played by our own John Goodman, Guy Lecluyse. That day we were visited by Michel Vaujour who had come to see his friend Dominique Loiseau. Their friendship had been forged when they met in prison. With a bullet wound to the head sustained during a bungled robbery Vautour had been transferred to jail after a long period in a coma, which had a serious effect on his behaviour. When they were placed in the same exercise yard, Vaujour and Loiseau had become friends. As Vaujour had difficulty expressing himself because of his injury, Dominique had patiently taught him to speak again. A beautiful story and pretty rare in the world of prisons.
So, Michel Vaujour, 27 years behind bars, ex public enemy number one and today ‘retired from the business’, found on the set not only his old companion in misfortune but also certain cops in the cast who had taken part in the hunt for him and his arrest. At the start their meeting was a little tense. At the end of the day they didn’t want to leave each other. Everything was approached in a mood of mutual respect. It was a day I’ll never forget, when cops and villains fraternised thanks to the cinema.
Q: You also show a new generation of criminals, wild and lawless.
OM: Yes, Horn and company. These groups exist now. They are guys from the banlieue who associate with top criminals. Merciless robbers who shoot to kill, who have no respect for human life and use very sophisticated weaponry (some even have solar-powered weapons which, fortunately, they don’t know how to use).
I gave the role of Horn to my friend Alain Figlarz. He’s a stuntman and a talented actor who is skilled in martial arts and handling weapons. He assembled most of the actors for this film. He did a tremendous job with his team (led by Oumar Diaouré). It was Alain who choreographed the fights and gunfights – taking note of my point of view – with the collaboration of the storyboard artist Richard Mvogo who was on my wavelength straightaway and did a great job too. I wanted the action to be short and brutal, as it is in real life. At the same time I was anxious to tone down the violence so as to avoid censorship and also because my goal was not to make an ultra-realistic film but a kind of ‘tragic opera’. Hence my choice of slow motion shots alternating with shots at normal speed – especially during the death of Valence. In this sequence Alain Figlarz was injured in the lower belly by a piece of shrapnel (he had chosen not to wear protection so as to move more freely). He was sewn back up and the doctor signed him off work for a week. Alain took no notice and was back on set the following day to shoot the sequence where he takes Eve hostage during the gunfight. He couldn’t walk and every movement was agony but he persevered and the sequence is incredible.
Catherine, who plays Eve, was also injured in this scene. She bent back her thumb and continued to act until she fainted. It was a difficult day for me. Other than the fact that she was my wife I resented the fact that I was ‘forced’ to give my actors a rough ride because of the tight schedule. At the same time, the results are wonderful. You believe in it and that’s what matters.
Q: When he goes home, Vrinks wants to tell his wife nothing about what he does. And then he’s often not even there. Is that a cop’s life?
OM: A cop doesn’t talk about what he does. Perhaps out of modesty, but also so he quickly forgets what he’s seen and done. Camille has her suspicions, but she knows nothing. She wants to know nothing. As for Vrinks, he’s first and foremost a cop, and then a husband and father. He loves his wife and daughter deeply but he’s obsessed with his profession. He’s a hardliner, prepared to do anything to get at the truth and get the villains. And he’s also a cop of the old school who uses some pretty unorthodox methods. He’s a complex character, devoted to the law and his profession, and haunted by memories of past events (a feeling I often have and also found in the work of the American writer Joseph Wambaugh, a former New York cop). Each cop lugs around a different past. Vrinks’ past is peopled with corpses and nightmares – as is mine.
Before joining the Anti-Gang Squad Vrinks was boss at the criminal bureau and carries the consequences with him. It’s not said in the film but it’s information that Daneil Auteuil used to build up his character.
Q: When Vrinks is at his lowest ebb and has lost everything, you just film the prison walls. In the background we hear his howls of despair. Vrinks is actually the Count of Monte Cristo.
OM: Absolutely. The scene is all the more awful with those austere buildings topped with barbed wire and this wrenching cry which rings out from behind the walls. You feel all his despair, his terrible isolation and powerlessness. His wife died and he could do nothing.
The burial scene was inspired by something I experienced as a young cop. At the time I was attached to a squad in Versailles. My unit had instructions to take a villain out of prison and escort him to the cemetery so he could attend the funeral of his little daughter. I tell you that I no longer wanted to be a cop on that day. I was ashamed to be there. I stood beside this poor guy who was in tears, handcuffed in front of his child’s coffin opposite the grief-stricken family and his wife who was looking at him with a disgust that I’ll never forget, as if it was all his fault.
Q: You left the force because you could no longer put up with the system, yet all your films revolve around it. Are they therapy? An exorcism? Or simply an act of bearing witness?
OM: I have a problem with Good and Evil. I haven’t got rid of that. I read lots of thrillers, I watch a lot of them in the cinema. I’m fascinated by man’s ability to do evil in so many ways. At the same time I no longer manage to watch the news on TV and I no longer buy newspapers. What happens around me frightens me. I’ve seen so many horrible things that making films is perhaps a way of talking about them to others, of exorcising this excess of negative images that linger from that profession.
Q: In 36, as in Gangsters, you take great care over dialogue, this time to the point of restraint, almost spareness.
OM: I grew up with the dialogue of Prévert, Jeanson and Audiard. I’ve known Gabin-style cops who could handle slang and snappy answers as well as film characters from the Fifties. I’m a fan of the Bliers, Frankeur, Biraud, Pousse and co. My dialogue bears traces of all those influences.
The character of Mancini, masterfully played by André Dussolier, is in that tradition. He’s based on Michel Guyot who was in charge of the CID in the Seventies and Eighties and who was nicknamed ‘Braces Michel’. He was a former beat cop who’d started at the bottom and was close to his men. He had great authority and was known for his way with words. I found it exciting to offer this kind of part to André. An old-fashioned chief in a three-piece suit with wonderful retorts: ‘The administration is an old whore, Léo… she doesn’t like to be taken doggy-style’. It was a treat to hear André say lines like that.
Q: It’s a long time since we’ve seen Depardieu act in such a subdued style. Auteuil too is a model of sobriety and sensitivity. Was it difficult to direct them?
OM: Not at all. They behaved as if it was my tenth film and showed total trust in me. It’s really a question of respect and love. The best way to direct an actor is to show that you love him and that you’re happy with him. We worked phenomenally hard on this film but we also had a great time.
Gérard is an instinctive, animal actor who charges into a scene like a dog into a game of skittles. He belches, he kids around, laughs and delivers his performance wholesale. It’s up to the director to cut away the fat until he reaches the essence he’s looking for in the actor or scene.
Daniel is more cerebral. He arrives on set with his cases packed, if I can put it like that. He works on depth and suppleness. He has read and re-read the script dozens of times, he has talked to me about cops at great length, has met many of them and has spent whole days wandering around near HQ. He’s made his rounds and arrives on set bursting with ideas. Then he lets the director take him by the hand and guide him. They are both great guys and it was a real pleasure to work with them. Like all the other actors, in fact.
At the outset I sent the script to Daniel Auteuil for him to play Klein. I thought that could be an interesting casting against type. Daniel called me and said that he agreed to do it. Then two actors in succession whom I had envisaged as Vrinks turned me down, so I asked Daniel if he would change character. He agreed straightaway. Then we looked for the Klein to play opposite him. With some hesitation the name of Depardieu cropped up as an obvious choice. We had already thought of him, but I didn’t believe it would be possible. It was only my second film and to hook the Auteuil-Depardieu duo for my second film seemed in the realms of fiction. Nonetheless I decided to revise the script and in ten days I rewrote the role of Klein with Depardieu in mind. He read it and agreed on the spot.
He said ‘this character lies between Mangin in Pialat’s Police and Léopold in Claude Berri’s Uranus, which was exactly right. I wanted them to have a heavy presence, like in Melville’s films. The bar sequence, for example, was inspired by the sequence with Alain Delon and Gian Maria Volonté in Le Cercle rouge. The oppressive atmosphere, the long silences, the expressions - it all reinforces the tragic aspect of the film.
On the first day of the shoot I had repeated what Sergio Leone had said to his actors when he was shooting Once Upon a Time in the West: ‘Act as if it’s your dying breath’. I thought that was magnificent. And it’s true that from the beginning of 36 the actors were propelled by this idea towards something miraculous.
Q: 36 is a story of men, but there are two strong female characters, played by Valeria Golino and Catherine Marchal, your wife.
OM: The Italian co-production brought us Valeria. She’s a fine actress who oozes sensuality, but she’s also a convincing cop’s wife. We discussed her role in the story and decided that we should feel from the outset the love that she has for her husband and at the same time her forebodings of the misfortunes that will overtake them. I was very keen that she is perceived as happy but also completely vulnerable to this man whose dark side is hidden to her. I think that she and Daniel make a great couple. She’s very touching in the film.
I had first imagined Catherine, my wife, in the role of Camille. She has this ‘Madonna’ side, a mildness and calm that she radiates. This all suited the character. As it turned out, she helped me on the screenplay and found herself liking the character of Eve. After reading the last draft she asked me if she could try out for the role. At first I wasn’t convinced as I imagined the character having a tomboy side, but Catherine insisted, and she was right. Her purity and bearing lend Eve strength.
Camille and Eve are broadly speaking on a higher level than the men in this film. They are upright, honest, clear-minded and give no ground. Eve is the only woman who resists Klein’s scheming. When I was a cop the women in this profession impressed me enormously. We men played at being cowboys, swaggered around thinking we were superheroes but psychologically the women were stronger. They didn’t need to drown themselves in alcohol, they were really calm in their lives whereas the men were crazed. Most of them were clear-headed and determined where the men went to pieces. What’s more, there have never been any female rogue cops.
Q: There’s another female character on the villains’ side – Manou, played by Mylène Demongeot.
OM: Manou is a former prostitute who runs a hostess bar. She’s Christo’s wife. It’s with this older woman that Christo finds peace. I love the idea of this older woman mothering her man. Mylène is very moving in the film. Her character makes me think of the roles played by Simone Signoret. I think that Mylène found much of herself in Manou. Like her, she had loved men, had been loved by them and had suffered the same misfortunes.
Q: Did you use the same director of photography as for Gangsters?
OM: No. Mathieu Poirot-Delpech shot Gangsters and Denis Rouden did 36 for me. I had wanted to work with him for a long time and had contacted him for Gangsters but he’d just been signed by Olivier Mégaton for his film La Sirène Rouge. Denis was ideal for this film – both personally and professionally. He takes risks. We tried things together and he worked in perfect harmony with me with no ego getting in the way. Everything was done for the film.
It was the same with my camera operator, Frédéric Tellier, who was also my technical adviser on the film. Thanks to their work, friendship and collaboration I was able to take the risks that I wanted and also gain the self-confidence that I had lacked on my first film. Frédéric Tellier supervised the art direction of the film with me in close collaboration with the set decorator Ambre Fernandez and my first assistant Jean-Luc Mathieu (who worked with me on my short film and first feature). We formed a real family and took risks together. Our aim was to make a big, popular film, a thriller with an American look, but with characters anchored in the tradition of the great French thrillers.
For the lighting I wanted a highly contrasted look with bright light and dark dense colours. We viewed films like State of Grace by Phil Joanou, Seven by David Fincher, Road to Perdition by Sam Mendes, The Godfather by Francis Ford Coppola, Le Cercle Rouge by Jean-Pierre Melville and Heat by Michael Mann. I wanted the film to be a twilight story, that 36 quai des Orfèvres should seem a ghostly building where tragic events unfold.
I tried to do a first cut with Hélène Deluze and Vanessa using the rushes I had chosen. We lost a lot of time getting to a version which ran two hours forty minutes - too long. We had to find a quick fix, especially as Hélène was leaving for another film. That’s when Hugues Darmois (who’d cut Gangsters) came on board. Hugues Darmois is like me when I write: he needs to be alone to edit. So I let him work. He knew where I wanted to take the film; he’d followed the writing and pre-production, understood my sensibility and knew, through editing, how to give the film that dream atmosphere that I was so keen to capture.
Q: Who composed the music?
OM: Axelle Renoir and Erwann Kermorvant. I made them listen to Delerue’s score for Zulawski’s L’important c’est d’aimer, Morricone’s score for State of Grace. And also Road to Perdition and The Insider by Michael Mann for the Gregorian chants. They recorded the music in a studio with 50 string instruments.
Q: Did your producers intervene much in the various stages?
OM: They intervened in the preparation of the film and saw the first three days’ rushes. Then they trusted me. They let me do what I wanted.