Tuesday, July 19, 2011

On the Road in Morocco: An Interview with Sébastien Rossi

By James Latham

Last year we screened Sébastien Rossi’s short film, Big H Story, and now he’s finished shooting a feature, Road Nine, filmed on location in Morocco.

James Latham: So tell us about Road Nine. What’s it about?

Sébastien Rossi: It’s an independent film, a road movie mixing drama, action, and romance between the two main characters, Nadia, played by Beatrice Rosen, and Yanis, played by Assaad Bouab. Nadia is a French-Moroccan waitress and singer in Youri’s pub, who ends up running for her life on Road Nine, the road from Marrakech to Rabat.

JL: Where are you now in the production process?

SR: We’re finishing post-production. The main editing is finished; we’re just polishing it. The score by François Letiec has just been finished. His team had been recording in a studio in the south of France (La Farinière) and we were exchanging ideas by phone. Sometimes he played his recordings over the phone for my feedback; that was funny, but it worked!

The VFX team supervised by Bertrand Demare and Michael Bolufer is working on a bullet-time special effect that I created without any motion control, because of the low budget. We all had to be very inventive at times during the shoot to make it happen. We’re also working on several compositing and picture improvements, although I have made every effort to be as authentic as possible in the principal photography, so that visual effects are mainly just for correcting problems.

JL: Where are you with marketing and distribution?

SR: With my assistant editor Matt Causseque and our sell and marketing agent Nabil Bouhajra, we worked on a teaser for the Cannes Film Festival, and it has been a great success. We had a lot of great feedback from studios in France, Germany, the UK, and Spain. Now everybody is waiting for the finished movie. Hopefully in August we’ll screen in the US to find a deal there.

JL: How were you able to get funding?

SR: The movie was funded by an independent Moroccan producer, Cedric Bulard (One Shot Media), who I met last year at the Marrakech film festival. We both wanted to do a feature in the amazing landscapes of Marrakech, and one thing led to another….

JL: Any interesting behind-the-scenes anecdotes to share?

SR: As on every production, you have a lot of anecdotes, especially in a country like Morocco, which is full of surprises. One thing was during a very cold night in the desert—we usually think of deserts as just very hot, but at night they can be freezing cold. Anyway, on that night I had to warm a piece of rocky land with two little heaters for a sequence where Beatrice is laying on the floor in a t-shirt. The temperature was around 0°C, and the rocks where so cold that it would have been torture to make anyone do that. But with the two little heaters, and a courageous Beatrice, we got the job done.

JL: Temperatures aside, what were some other challenges or rewards that you got from shooting on location?

SR: Authenticity was a big advantage. So were the people, because, especially in Morocco, when you hire a location set, you always get some local people who know the area and how things work there. And local talent is much more affordable. But of course the downside is that local talent—even the serious film professionals—won’t always know how things work, whether it’s the technologies, or what it takes to keep a set quiet during filming, or….

Another problem was when we shot interiors; we couldn’t get the light exactly where we wanted. Usually interior lighting is easier to control than exteriors, but many of the rooms we worked in were very small, which complicated everything. The props team had some very long nights figuring out how to fix that! For exteriors, our lighting challenge was that we were shooting in winter, so only had about six hours a day of good light.

JL: How did making short films and music videos prepare you (or not) for making a feature?

SR: For me it was pretty much the same. A feature is just more stressful because you have like ten times the amount of time for shooting, which means 100 times the problems!

One thing I learned that may not be so obvious is the need to be physically healthy and keep that going as much as possible, especially good eating and sleeping. Shorts are like sprinting, and features are like marathons; you need to keep fit for the long haul and for various challenges that come along the way.

Making short movies and music videos was great preparation for knowing all kinds of aspects for making a feature. It gave me a respect for things like deadlines, budgeting, and negotiating with famous actors or first-class technicians to get them interested in working on your low-budget indie movie.

It gave me what I guess you’d call “indie reflexes,” or the ability to adapt well with limited resources; or the confidence to know what can and can’t work with all the limitations of things like time, money, manpower, and technologies. Like, if I want to put some complicated visual effects into a scene but we can’t do it because of the expense, then I can find a way to do it “homemade” and it works fine. In Road Nine, we did a crazy one-shot opening scene of three minutes starting outside near the roof of a luxury hotel and moving the camera to the ground to catch a car, next into the lobby, next in the elevator to finish by a rub into a suite. This could have been very time consuming and expensive to do, but with my previous experience, a Steadicam, and a lot of perseverance, we made it work!

We also did a bullet time effect only with one camera and one simple grip (traveling).

JL: How did that work?

SR: I designed a motion of what I wanted and then began making it. Basically, we combined the footage as layers, like a multilayer Photoshop composition, but with film clips instead of individual photos. Our biggest challenge was to be as precise as possible in the motion, which is normally electronically controlled, and so ultra precise. But we “only” had Rashid, our Gripman, who did the motion almost 30 times at the (almost) same cadence to make the “layering” actions possible. After that, in post, Bertrand did a composite of the four best footages in NUKE (soft). And Michael created some 3D objects to include into the final composition. It was all very complicated, but, in the end, it worked out very well.

JL: Looking ahead, do you prefer being based in France, or are you aiming to eventually “go Hollywood”?

SR: I dreamt of Hollywood when I was young, and think I’m gradually heading there, mainly because I’m closer to Hollywood’s way of doing movies than the French way. In France, it’s not an entertainment cinema, and it’s not an industry. It’s a problem because even an ordinary movie—not a big complicated blockbuster—can sometimes take several years just to get started. By that time, your actors have already gotten too old for their parts (laughing). So yes, going Hollywood and feeling ready for it.

In fact, I’m going to be working on a U.S. feature called Swapped, written by Peter Rodger. We’re aiming to start polishing the script and casting actors in L.A. in early 2012, maybe sooner. But I also got a good proposition just before Cannes to direct a thriller in France in the vein of Se7en, with a great French cast. Maybe it’ll be my last work in France. We’ll see.

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