Crimson Rivers, The : Production Notes

Alain Goldman

Crimson Rivers. Movie PosterMathieu Kassovitz says that you're a real producer in the sense that you are the initiator of the project, that you seek out the best partners, the best possible artists to ensure that the project comes to life and ends up on our screens. Is that a good definition of what you are and of the job you do?

Yes, I believe it is. When you come across a book like 'The Crimson Rivers' you immediately say to yourself that this is a cinematic challenge. Then a team comes to mind, which is like "the dream team". Then you try to put that team together and in my opinion the best possible team was Mathieu Kassovitz as director and Jean Reno and Vincent Cassel in the two main male roles. Very often in this business you're not lucky enough to put together the "dream team". But for The Crimson Rivers I was lucky enough to get each of these protagonists on board. It is a wonderful thing for a producer like me to manage to make real a dream which he sees as being the best possible result for the film.

You suggested that Jean-Christophe Grangé should take part in writing the screenplay. Was that something you really wanted?

In general, I'm not a fan of letting the author of a book write the initial outlines of the screenplay. But the way in which the book is written led me to believe that the author was a good screenplay writer. Because if you look carefully the book is already full of dialogue, it is built with an alternation between two stories which means that it has a rhythm. This isn't a traditional novel where you have to seek out the side-theme. In this case there was already nearly a structure. A lot of work then had to be done, without Jean-Christophe, on the dialogue, and when Mathieu joined the project, he went over it all again. But there was already the skeleton of the story written by Jean-Christophe in his own book, which was modified and taken up in the screenplay.

How did you get the idea offering this film to Mathieu Kassovitz? He is of course a virtuoso director but he is really known for making author's films with a social theme.

The very worst thing is to put people into pigeonholes and tell them, you make science-fiction, you make author's films, you make films with a social theme.

I would think it is very pleasant and refreshing for a director like Kassovitz to go from the world of La Haine to that of The Crimson Rivers after doing Assassins (1992). Simply because these are different genres that everyone can work with in their own way. Mathieu has the advantage of being, a genius with images, I mean that all his images are finely drawn, elegant. But he also has the will in him to be interested in the interior lives of actors and the characters they play.

The third thing about him is that he has the will, the desire, to be part of the tale, he wants to tell a story. As he had been over to America, where he went to work for a while, which also proves his search for efficiency, I thought it was the right time for him to make this film.

In The Crimson Rivers there are some scenes for which adaptation was set to be difficult, particularly filming on the glacier. Is that something which scares a producer a bit?

I love it! By definition anything easy is boring. So filming can sometimes be reassuring and serene but I like the idea of having mountains to climb, summits to reach and obstacles to get around. I'm not suicidal or any kind of kamikaze, but I do tell myself that in spite of everything, the more difficult it is, the more one tends to think beyond the difficulty itself. There will be a new, different kind of image which will therefore attract a larger audience.

Neither kamikaze nor suicidal, but a bit of a dreamer nonetheless because you have produced crazy films. What pushes you onward?

Adventure. I find that life can easily become stale and that the good thing in the job of producer is being confronted with situations which are always new, and which can allow you to constantly renew your experience of life, of others, of nature and of places where you find yourself. It's a way of not getting bored.

What will be your lasting memory of this adventure?

A really, really good memory. Truly! The challenge was to make the first real French-style thriller, that is to say, in French. We have sought to achieve American efficiency but with an image identity which is very French. It's also for that reason that I have excellent memories of this adventure. We knew that we were making a film of a kind which, to date, had never existed in France.

You also own the rights to Jean-Christophe Grangé's first novel, "The Flight of the Storks"?

Yes, "The Flight of the Storks" is currently being written. I hope that the adaptation will be completed by the end of 2000 and that we will make the film in 2001.

Nadia Fares

I presume that getting this role in 'The Crimson Rivers' was a real gift. But in the end, in view of the extreme filming conditions, wasn¹t it a poisoned chalice?

No, not at all. You could say it was a gift because the work was very physical. The story gave us all the opportunity of really seeing it as a challenge. It was a great opportunity during which I personally was able to have a great time. I did six months intensive training with specialists, all specialists in their own fields. Then there was the mountain, I had to hang on and do everything possible to avoid falling.

What was the hardest part of the training?

It was simply a matter of getting the mind set right. Training was not the hardest thing, actually it was exciting because I was breaking ground I knew nothing about, I had never done rock-climbing or mountaineering. It was especially difficult in the field, with the ice, the mountain, the altitude, the lack of oxygen, but this was when the mind set came into play. There were times when my heart was beating very fast, there wasn¹t a lot of oxygen and this was when the challenge was the most mentally taxing. If you want to do it, you can! Being up there already oxygenises the neurones but it¹s true that being in that frame of mind is intoxicating to the senses. I think that it suited the character too, there was a kind of coherence in all that.

Yes, and what would you say about your character?

This woman is passionate about her job as a glaciologist and has a real relationship with the mountain which is her territory. She's very sporty. She has a special relationship with the mountain, with the immensity of nature. She is above all someone who is passionate and will endeavour to help people.

Amongst the people she helps there is Commissaire Niemans, played by Jean Reno. You have worked with well known opposite numbers before, but how did your encounter with Jean Reno go?

I immediately saw that he was a very ordinary guy who was in fact hyper excited. He was like a kid, he was so happy. I was completely beneath his spell, that¹s for sure because he really is a lovely man. As I said before, there were times which were very physical, times which were very hard for us. Jean was always there, willing to help me, to advise me and to help me to relax when there was a bit too much tension. That was a real pleasure. As it was with Vincent too, he too had a lot of physical acting to do. I was the only girl and it's true that I could have thought that I was in a kind of macho world because it was very masculine. Everyone seemed to find their own place and I think that that too was what created the good atmosphere between us.

Mathieu Kassovitz says that he put you through it . ..

Yes, but Mathieu is a real pain because from the very outset he placed the bar high, very high. He said everything to ensure that I had a sort of four tonne pressure on my shoulders. The advantage was that he knows me, he knows that I will perform if you give me something to win, I won't give up, like a pit bull, as long as I haven't got the bit in my mouth I won¹t give up. He handed me a sort of challenge, as a sportswoman I accepted it.

From on acting point of view, did the difficult filming conditions give you something extra?

It's true that one tries to use everything, whatever the situation. There were times when the cold paralysed us to such an extent that things were very difficult, we had to do exercises to warm ourselves up . ..

But that was part of the acting, the terrain was our master and it was important to be able to adapt to it. We could have complained but that didn¹t even enter our heads. I was happy to finally have something to show in this field, in a surprising context I experienced things that were really new to me.

When one looks at the films you have made, one gets the feeling that this role in The Crimson Rivers was made for you. I'm thinking, for example, of the Christopher Frank film or even those made by Bernie Bonvoisin, which could have brought you right to the role you play in The Crimson Rivers.

That was my feeling too, I told myself that there was a kind of coherence over time, as if there was a need to repair things in this experience with people from totally different backgrounds, who offered things which appear to have a kind of correlation, something which appears to follow on.

Crimson Rivers. Movie PosterWhat is your lasting memory of filming?

A good one, this filming was great news for me. I experienced it with people who liked me and who I liked, doing things which were difficult to do . .. And on top of all that I absolutely adore nature and this adventure gave me the opportunity of sinking into it and enjoying some fantastic scenery.

Jean Reno

There's something very surprising when you read the description of Commissaire Niémans in Grangé's book, it's the fact that, physically speaking, he's you. Did that strike you too?

No, because I don't look at myself. It's easier to look at someone else than to look at oneself. So I didn't think that he was me, physically. I read the book and I thought it was great, a wonderful story. And it was about men, men rather than cops, that's what was interesting about it. I spoke, just a short while ago, with two cops, friends of mine, who work quite closely to a celebrity. We were talking about that, about the fact that there are cops who are more cops than men and that very often this is where mistakes occur because the cop takes over the man. But in this book, in this case, Pierre Niémans is more man than cop.

Did you go for the project immediately?

I wanted to work with this family, with Mathieu, Vincent and then Nadia who joined later. I like Mathieu's films a great deal, that's for sure. I had come across him. .. At the beginning we looked at each other . .. there was already a good feeling between us. You want to check on whether you haven't got it wrong, so you take things gently. That's how it happens, in general, with directors with whom it works. There's an "attraction".

We know the friendship there is between Mathieu Kassovitz and Luc Besson and their mutual interest in each other's work. Did you find with Mathieu things you experienced with Luc Besson at the start of his career?

No, firstly because Mathieu is not really at the start of his career and also because with Luc it's special because when I got to know him he had not yet made a full-length film. He was 22 years old - since then he's become a friend. Now, of course, I've made progress in films, Mathieu is in a different position, so we approach each other differently. There wasn't anything like that between Luc and I, nor with Eric Serra.

Mathieu has told me that the day on which you did the first shot, something happened. Did you feel in his eyes this kind of admiration he has for you?

Yes, of course. Firstly because it touches you deeply and then you say to yourself, "How can I return what I'm feeling, because I must return it to him, how can I return the warmth I'm feeling?" It's like when you feel that someone is giving you something from deep within him, you have to go for it. And at the same time you have to be careful because the relationship with the director has to remain a working relationship, ie. faults have to be corrected and it cannot be based on just praise and satisfaction. That's how I work with people.

Mathieu says that he gave you no quarter during this very physical film. Could you tell us about that?

Firstly there was Chamonix, ice, crampons, ropes, mountaineering, the mountain. You have to go really slowly because that normally takes years. But, thank God, we were working with the Chamonix guides who are really exceptional people because they are used to all that and know the mountain. They manage to get you to do extraordinary things and, in passing, teach you humility. When you pay attention and really listen to them, they can get you to make progress quite quickly in order to reach a point where you can do things physically, without having much experience. They have that skill. Otherwise there were the car chases, here again it was quite tough, and tougher still during night shoots. And then there was the winter. The essence of the book is winter. Winter for both mind and body.

Since you know Mathieu's films, you must know some of Vincent Cassel's films. How was it, working with him?

He's someone who doesn't yet know, thankfully, the full extent of his potential. He's someone who is full of potential, in every sense. I find him wonderful, and I'm not afraid to say so, either working in comedy or drama, in physical or intimate scenes. I think he has a great career ahead of him, there's no question about it . ..

And Nadia?

Ah Nadia . .. she's a woman who is currently crossing thresholds in her life. I hope and believe that The Crimson Rivers will give her a dimension which she still doesn't have, even in her own mind. She will see. She has perhaps less experience than Vincent, but now is the right time for her. And that's good because life offers the right times for people in show business.

Nadia says that due to the rather extreme weather conditions experienced during filming she had to have a very strong mind set because otherwise she would have given up. Was that your case too?

No, there are people who see obstacles as being greater than they really are. But maybe you learn from experience. An obstacle has to be got over starting from the bottom and afterwards you get over it, or you assess it and jump, but you always manage to get to the other side. There were a few difficult moments but that was again due to the mountain. This again was
part of the story of the film. Winter and the story.

Clearly you're a leader. Are you aware of your power in this regard?

I'm never very far away from them, if that's want you mean by leading people. If you're working with someone, you have to be alongside them, you don't do it to be all alone in your corner and turn into Michael Jackson. In that sense, yes, I help them and I am aware of it.

Alain Goldman refers to The Crimson Rivers team as a "dream team". Did you feel the same during filming?

Yes. But you must also include the technical team. There are a great many people, technicians who were pushing the cart and who were pushing the whole time, who tried to do to their utmost to achieve what Mathieu asked. I thinkthat the team we had was very good.

It's a little simplified but one gets the impression that recently you have had, in your career, the opportunity of making films like The Crimson Rivers in the United States, whilst in France it has been a question of comedies, more family-oriented films, more for the general public. Are you happy to have found a way, with The Crimson Rivers, of making this type of film in France?

I live in France . .. that's the same answer I give to the Americans, when I'm asked the question. I say "I live in France and, if l can, I will always live in France". The Crimson Rivers is first and foremost a great challenge because cop films, as a general rule, are not being made for the big screen at the moment. And it was interesting to take up this challenge with someone like Mathieu Kassovitz.

Alain Goldman really wanted you to be part of this project. Would you like there to be more French producers offering you things which are out of the ordinary?

It's not a question of France, America, Portugal or China, it's a matter of a story and people to work with. There are those I get on well with, I like the story and it's not at all a matter of money. There comes a time when it 's no longer a question of money, right I've got some, thank God. My kids will be able to eat, and keep their feet dry in winter, and that's what's important. The rest is a matter of people and stories. And this story happened in France, so much the better, it'll do. If another one comes up tomorrow in France which I like, I'll do it. I don't make calculations. Sometimes there are stories which come from America because both France and the United States are two countries where things are really happening in films. Stories come and go, you go from one country to another.

Vincent Cassel

What was you initial reaction when Mathieu Kassovitz offered you a film for which he was not responsible for the original idea?

One day he came to the house and said to me: "I think I'm going to make a film . .. " And, as he does every time he offers me something, he continued with "there's a role, it's not at all for you, but would you like to do it?" I answered that there was no problem, that I would grow dreadlocks and leave the next day for a course in Casa to get into the trip since the character in the book was a Moroccan Rastafarian. And then Mathieu said to me, "In fact no, this character really is you!". That's actually what he kept repeating to me throughout the making of the film, particularly when I asked him questions about the role to which he had no answer.

Could you tell us about your role in The Crimson Rivers?

Crimson Rivers. Movie PosterEven though throughout the shooting of the film, I didn't feel to be one, I play a cop. In any case on paper he's a cop but in fact he's just a big mouth who has been put out to grass in some forgotten hole to cool down a bit. He's bored to death and when he finally gets something to get his teeth into, he has absolutely no doubt about what he's up against.

Had you read the novel by Jean-Christophe Grangé?

No, but for some time I'd heard talk about it from several people in the business. The first was the director at Gaumont, whilst making Joan of Arc. It was only later that I read the book. It's bursting with ideas, too many actually, for a film. Mathieu and Jean Christophe had to cut some out. The book is very dense, the enquiry is so finely drawn that it was impossible to create all that in a film lasting an hour and a half. There were too many abstract details, difficult to film. Right, in the book there is a great deal about your character's past. One of the discussions we had was should the characters be set up, should their past be shown or, precisely because it is a film of this sort and it must remain efficient, shouldn't we go straight to the core of the matter . .. the enquiry? In fact, it's small things, between the lines, which demonstrate who they are. I believe that it is in the relationship between them that these two cops take on their stature. Between Niémans and Max something we hadn't planned for occurred, there was a sort of relationship, as if, on contact with Niémans, Max could allow himself to be a kid, whereas alone he had to be an adult. Jean let me do it.

There were rather extreme conditions when the film was being made. Was that difficult for you?

It was the most physically taxing shoot I've done. This is a film where there is a lot of action and it's true that we did suffer. In the open air, it's true, but still . .. Running through the snow, in rain and hail, doing fight scenes at an altitude of 3500 metres, attacking skinheads (one of whom kindly broke my nose: 15 days out of action), not to mention the weather and the fact that we went off to film in the mountain peaks as if we were filming in the valley. We quickly understood that things up there are not at all the same. But well, I tell myself that it's better to do this type of filming now, whilst I can, later I might not want to any more, or maybe these parts won't be offered to me any more . ..

Did the fact that filming was so physical affect acting? When confronting your opposite number you had to make the grade, and not merely on a physical level.

Well, physical bits are occasional and relatively precise in the film. But the work plan meant that filming started by that part of the enquiry in which my character is alone. So, it was ages before Jean and I came face-to-face in front of the camera. It was something I was looking forward to impatiently. When our characters finally met I said to myself, "Ah, here we are, at last we've got here!". And I really got the feeling that the film was starting at last. But to answer your question, it's true that when the wind is blowing in your face at -30º and 120 km/hour, the problem is more of opening your mouth than understanding the specific motivations of the character.

What did Jean Reno represent for you, before filming with him?

Friendliness. He's one of those rare actors who has a real power of seduction. I imagine that if the person who created "Yoda" in Star Wars had created a giant, he would have created Jean Reno. He really is a giant with positive charisma.

Your path has crossed with that of Mathieu Kassovitz on several occasions. How have his films evolved in your opinion?

He certainly has a great deal more know-how today than when he made Mètisse (1993). But if he knows a subject, I don't think it's a matter of how he moves his camera, but rather of the subject he's dealing with, of what he's experiencing when filming. One can very well make a successful film with perfect knowledge of the subject matter but rather less knowledge of how to direct (the French cinema industry is full of that) and later make a film which is very cleverly directed but which is rather less personal. I believe that a director who finds something which touches him sufficiently strongly to speak well of it, depends on a number of circumstances.

You haven't made a film together since La Haine (1995). What was it like to work together again?

I went to the filming of Assassins (1992). Mathieu came to Joan of Arc to do two or three shots. We also did a short film for Human Rights. We even worked on writing a project at one point. And recently we made this film with Nicole Kidman and Ben Chaplin for Miramax, so we hadn't exactly been out of touch. But it was still very exciting to get back together, one in front of the camera and the other behind it. It was a bit like going home, it was very pleasant. And you know, when you know people communication is much quicker during filming, it's just like that. It may even be a bit annoying for newcomers.

Did you, like Mathieu, want to make a film of this kind?

Yes, actually we had discussed it a great deal. It's something which has to be efficient. I believe that there is also going to be a social aspect because I don't see how Mathieu Kassovitz can make a film without there being a social aspect hidden below the surface. It's a question of culture. But the initial challenge was to make an efficient film, in the type of films we like, in the hope that it would be just that little bit better. You know, the point at which this type of film becomes an author's film is very vague because the subject matter or intrigue of the film just has to come back to a theme which is dear to the director and it ends up being an author's film.

What is your lasting memory of filming?

It's strange, but since it wasn't very long ago I find it a bit difficult to see what my memories will be. Let's just say the mountain. We were really up in the glaciers, I had never spent such a long time so high up. When you go up to ski, you come back down straight away. But in this case we went up there and stayed.

Jean-Christophe Grangé

How did your book The Crimson Rivers become a film?

When it came out, in January 1998, the book was phenomenally successful in France. Several thousand copies were sold every day. Alongside this success, producers, directors and actors got in touch with my publisher, Albin Michel, with a view to acquiring the film rights. Offers quickly increased until the time when Alain Goldman, with his company Lègende Entreprises, made an offer which was higher than all the others. We met and we immediately got on well together. We had the same ideas regarding adaptation of the book. Then Alain suggested that I should write the screenplay alone. He gave me a free hand, before working with the director who would make the film. He was already thinking of Mathieu Kassovitz.

When Mathieu Kassovitz refers to your book, he says that your writing is very cinematographic in style. Do you feel that this is the case?

Well, firstly my novels are action books. The nature of my characters is always revealed via their actions and not by means of long, introspective passages. Finally, my books are structured like the cutting of a film: scenes are brief, they take place in a precise setting and they play a specific part in the running of the enquiry. Finally, and in a more general way, I am influenced by the cinema. My descriptions are extremely visual and my writing is rapid, with rhythm. In this respect, my style can be seen, I believe, to be like a succession of cinematographic shots.

You wrote an initial screenplay, on which you then worked with Mathieu...

When Mathieu read the book, at the beginning of 1999, he immediately agreed to make the film. We met and Mathieu immediately had a director¹s reaction, he told me that he wanted to see in the adaptation a precise list of scenes which he could already visualise and which he wished to put onto film. These were the great scenes in the book: the glacier, the fight with the skinheads, the interview with the nun - not all of which I had kept. We therefore had 'strong points' around which to articulate our script. A sort of backbone on which we could rebuild the story, retaining its complexity. Mathieu also wished to preserve the alternation between the two enquiries: that of Nièmans and that of Karim - who became 'Max' in the film. We wrote the screenplay together during the summer of 1999, and then Mathieu took possession of the text. During filming he re-wrote certain scenes and added greater spontaneity to the dialogues.

Mathieu says that you yourself suggested overriding the book, changing the order of events, removing certain characters. That is a rare step for an author.

I have absolutely no problem with that. Agreeing to adapt a novel means becoming involved in a new adventure, which has absolutely nothing to do with literary work. You have to devote yourself to the film: a story lasting an hour and a half, which has to be efficient, explicit and dynamic. I have already written original screenplays and I know that a script has to be simpler than a book. I also have a great deal of respect for the director's imagination. During the work we did together, I saw Mathieu's view crystallise on this story, on these characters. Our writing work was a passing of the baton. Little by little the author passed on the 'baby' to the director.

There's something very striking when you read the first few pages of The Crimson Rivers, and that is the resemblance of the Niemans character with Jean Reno. Were you thinking of Jean when writing the book?

When I write a book and conceive the characters, I avoid thinking about actors. Because characters must come from real life and not films. Thinking about actors means referring to roles played by them, referring to existing characters. On the contrary, my inspiration comes from real life.

For me, Pierre Nièmans is a man who exists, who belongs to real life and into whose character I have put a great deal. However, it is true that if someone had asked me, when I was writing The Crimson Rivers which actor could play this role, I would have immediately replied Jean Reno. There is firstly a physical resemblance, he's a big man with a muscled face who wears small round glasses. And there's also the stature, the presence. When Nièmans goes somewhere the space around him is immediately inhabited, impregnated by his determination, his obsession with the enquiry. Finally, under this hard outer shell, Nièmans has a certain degree of fragility and vulnerability which makes him touching to others. And this is indeed the main characteristic of Jean Reno, the actor: under his hard appearance is something profoundly human and moving.

What was your reaction, when Vincent Cassel, who is not of North African origin, was chosen for the role of Karim, the second cop?

Crimson Rivers. Movie PosterIn my book, this young cop is an Arab with a very characteristic appearance - for example he has long plaits. The idea of using Vincent Cassel, who is rather more blond with blue eyes, could therefore appear strange. However, I don¹t believe that it is his background and these physical details which characterise Karim. He is above all a rebel, who has rage within him, an inextinguishable anger. He is a young orphan who has become a cop to escapehis destiny of petty crime and who wants to continueto live in the night world, in the world of danger. That's why, when writing the book, if someone had asked me to imagine an actor playing Karim I would have replied "Vincent Cassel".

In my opinion he is the actor who best incarnates the rage of youth, the silent rebellion that a kid from the inner city can feel. I am like everyone, I was deeply touched by the scene in front of the mirror in La Haine (1995) when Vincent asks his reflection "Are you talking to me?". I remember that when Mathieu told me of his choice I was absolutely delighted. We knew that Jean had accepted to play Niemans and now Vincent was coming on board too. That was dream casting for me.

During filming, all my hopes were confirmed. Vincent immediately slipped into the role. From the very first scene, you guess that this guy has nothing to hang on to except the investigation, that he's going to put everything into it and that, secretly, he will get close to the little dead girl who is at the heart of the story. Vincent brought remarkable vibration and spontaneity. In the scene when they come up against the skinheads, for example, you really get the impression that you're watching a street fight. It's no longer a scene being played out, it's part of life. I believe that this passage is a perfect summary of the film¹s success.

My story has been enriched by the energy of Mathieu Kassovitz, who knows how to get uniquely natural and dynamic acting from his cast. This is a long way from conventional thrillers in which cops speak in puns and where everything sounds like it was written in a script, with an artificial feel.

And Nadia Fares in the leading female role?

With Nadia it¹s exactly the same thing. She is the perfect incarnation of the character of Fanny. Physically to begin with. In my book, the glaciologist is a beautiful brunette with dark skin and long hair. She has a wild side to her which is rebellious and solitary. Nadia expresses this very well. She also worked for several months in order to learn the movements and reflexes of mountaineers.

In the scene when she takes Commissaire Nièmans into the glacier, you really get the feeling that she is a mountain girl, who has always lived there and who knows exactly how to get down the ice. It's a difficult role: it's a woman's role, of course, but it has within it a strength and violence that are typically masculine. Nadia was up to it; she holds her own opposite Reno/Nièmans. And, like Jean, she has within her, beneath her strength, a fragility, a wounded side to her. In my opinion she's another of the film¹s successes: Nièmmans, Max and Fanny are three solitary, violent characters who are also haunted by their own secret character flaws. You like them a lot and want to go with them through to the end of the nightmare.

If you'd been told when you were writing it that your book would be made into a film, would you have liked the idea?

When I write a book I'm extremely focused on my story and on my technical writing problems. I am submerged in a world of words, in a literary frame of mind. I therefore avoid thinking of anything else - and particularly not about a film which may be the development of something I haven't yet written!

On the other hand I am aware of the fact that there is a sort of relationship, or familiarity between my writing and cinematographic rhythm. I therefore had the feeling that my book could be adapted for the screen but honestly, if at the time you had told me that the film would be directed by Mathieu Kassovitz and played by Jean Reno and Vincent Cassel, I would have refused to believe it, it would have been too good to be true!