2 Days In New York writer-director Julie Delpy on filmmaking and therapy
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French actress turned writer-director Julie Delpy has been crossing between the worlds of French and American cinema for decades. In one year in the ’90s, she starred both as the title character in the Quentin Tarantino-esque Killing Zoe and in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s vividly moving White. It’s no wonder her directorial outing, 2 Days In Paris, starring herself and Adam Goldberg as squabbling couple Marion and Jack, focuses on the miscommunications between the cultures. The 2012 sequel, 2 Days In New York, delves deeper into this theme. The A.V. Club recently sat down to talk with her about casting Chris Rock as her boyfriend (a politically minded public-radio host named Mingus), how his speaking no French became an asset during filming, and what she learned from Kieslowski.
The A.V. Club: When did you know you were going to make a sequel to 2 Days In Paris?
Julie Delpy: I started thinking about it pretty quickly. I was like, “Should I do it? Not do it? I don’t know.” Then a lot of things happened in my life, and I was like, “Okay, maybe I shouldn’t do it.” I started thinking about a concept and what it would be. The first film is very simple. So I wanted something very simple as well, not a crazy concept movie. There’s almost no story in this film. I thought the only way I would do a sequel is if Marion is with someone else and things didn’t work out with Jack. The idea that she’s such a lost person, she’s so confused, I just felt it would be good that she’s trying to rebuild her life with someone else, and it’s not perfect.
So I started thinking of a new boyfriend, and I decided I wanted Chris Rock to be my new boyfriend. I wasn’t sure he was going to do it at first. I started writing with him in mind, and I started writing some scenes—one of the first scenes I wrote was with the Obama interactions [where Rock’s character confides in a cardboard Obama standee], which was right after Obama was elected. Then I was like, “Okay, fuck it, I’m just gonna call his agent and see.” So I went onto IMDB Pro to find out who his agent was. It turned out he was an ex-agent of mine—since I’ve been fired from a lot of places, and left a lot of places, too—so I ended up asking him. I said, “Would Chris be remotely interested?” He called me back two hours later to say that Chris had seen 2 Days In Paris and would be interested, and if I wrote a good screenplay, he would do it.
AVC: So you knew that from the beginning?
JD: Yeah. It’s definitely fun, because you can study that person. For example, with Adam [Goldberg], I had many meetings where I would just spend time with him and see. I knew Adam really well. He was my boyfriend 10 years ago, or something like that. So that was easy to get. Just to spend time with him and to hear him talk and everything was very inspiring. For Chris, he wasn’t my boyfriend 10 years ago, or ever. I don’t know him personally. I met him only once before I started writing for him. Basically, I just decided and said, “Okay. I’m going to watch everything he’s done, all his stand-up and everything, so I can get a sense of what I can do with him.” But not necessarily the “on all the time” kind of character of Chris. I also saw interviews and things like that, all sort of different things that got me to think what I could get him to be as well.
AVC: Where did you start when going through his work?
JD: Well, I watched all of his stand-ups that are available on tape or on DVD. I watched a few interviews on the net. I spoke to him on the phone a little bit, then more and more and more and more. It helped us with the writing end of it.
AVC: The character you created for him is very different from his public image.
JD: It’s weird. And you know why I wrote it like that? It’s because we had one meeting at a lunch at the Oscars where he was presenting the Oscar, and he came to the lunch. I spoke to him for 10 minutes, literally 10 minutes. We spoke about French food, cinema, and old men, and all that. I said, “Wow, that’s so different than what people actually think of Chris Rock,” and that it would be interesting if I wrote something that’s actually closer to an old-man character for Chris Rock than the Chris Rock everyone knows—a bit more insecure, awkward and all. It was fun to write something that’s very different for him, and I think that’s why he did it in the end—because it wasn’t this “on” character he does for the public.
AVC: If he weren’t a stand-up comedian or actor, he would have been an NPR host.
JD: Yeah, exactly, that’s who he would be. I said, even when we did the radio stuff, I didn’t want him to be too big either. I wanted to find the right balance and have a real person. I think a lot of my friends told me—I don’t know if it’s a compliment or not—“We forgot it’s Chris Rock after a while.” You’d get into that Mingus character at the time, which I think for me was the goal. That was the goal for him too, obviously. I think the fun part of being an actor is that you forget this person is who they are.
AVC: Is there a difference for you, writing a part for someone you’ve been in a relationship with vs. someone you know just from his work?
JD: Well, with Adam, we had been separated. Our relationship was not like that. It wasn’t something crazy. We were just kind of more friends, so it was easy to not at all have a problem writing for Adam. It was actually fun. It was more fun. We were very friendly. The persona of the boyfriend was kind of old, I had kind of forgotten he was my boyfriend ever. You change relationships with people. You break up with them or it’s over, and then you evolve into something else. You almost forget. You think, “Oh, shit. He was my boyfriend.” It’s even weird that I talk about it. You grow into a new relationship with them. It’s almost when you have kids and they grow and you kind of forget when they were 2, and then they’re 4. I don’t know. For me, it’s kind of like that with people.
AVC: How did you decide to set the film in New York? You live in L.A., right?
JD: Yeah. In the first film, Marion said she lived in New York with Jack, and I figured that’s where she would be. She’s a photographer. She’s trying to be an artist. I thought New York was the right city. It’s such an iconic art world.
AVC: Yet you focused more on the characters than the iconic settings.
JD: Yeah, because in a way, when I started filming the city, I felt—maybe it’s the problem in the film, actually—I felt almost shy. I was like, “Shit. Woody Allen. Shit. After Hours. Shit.” It’s overwhelming. I felt so many great directors have done it better than me, and I think, “Why the hell am I shooting this in this street that looks like King Of Comedy, or something like that?” It makes you very shy. There are too many great films—West Side Story, even.
AVC: Now Woody Allen’s left New York, and he’s shooting all over Europe.
JD: Yeah, he’s taking over Europe.
AVC: You can shoot here.
JD: Yeah, exactly. I didn’t over-film the city because it’s very hard to not make it too postcard, and I didn’t want it to be just about that. In a way, I wanted to focus more on the characters. I decided to do the touristic part in a fast montage that you see everything of New York in 10 minutes… no, in 30 seconds.
AVC: You’ve said Chris Rock doesn’t speak French and your father doesn’t speak a lot of English, so how did they communicate?
JD: They did communicate with sign language, basically, like in the film. It was really funny. I knew Chris Rock didn’t speak French, and I knew my dad doesn’t speak a word of English. Actually, it’s funny. When Chris read the screenplay, he was like, “Well, the dad doesn’t speak English at all?” “Yeah, he doesn’t speak English.” And he’s like, “Is that very believable that someone doesn’t speak a word of English?” I say, “Honey, I’ll tell you something. You’re going to meet my dad.” When he met my dad, he was like, “Wow, he really doesn’t understand a word of English!” Not a word. He told me, “I couldn’t have basic survival communication with him. If we were on an island, we would basically eat each other without being able to communicate and say, “Okay, maybe let’s not eat other.” I don’t think he said something like that, but I was thinking, “If you can’t communicate at all with someone, how do you do it?” Basically, they really didn’t, and it was perfect. I played with that, obviously, because you can see the look in the face. It’s obviously acted, but there is no communication possible between those two. They do communicate a little bit in the film, which I think is funny. I know with my dad, the only way he can communicate with English-speaking people is by names of famous people, which I did in the first film with Rambo and all the names of films that were translated the same way, that had the same title, such as Easy Rider.
AVC: Miscommunication is such a major theme in both films. Did that help with the organic process, that they couldn’t understand each other? Was it easier than if they had both spoken the same language?
JD: It probably helped, the fact that they don’t speak each other’s language. I think they could have acted it, too. When I write the screenplay, I translate, so they both know what they’re saying to each other. You know what I mean? It’s not improvising. You can’t pretend. When Chris is talking to my dad, my dad knows exactly what he’s saying, because he’s read the screenplay with the French translation. He knows the story and all that. He’s pretending, obviously. There’s acting, but at the same time, the fact he really doesn’t understand it makes it probably a little more believable.
AVC: Did you have a lot of rehearsal, or did you go right into filming it?
JD: No. We had one reading of the screenplay, maybe two, and that was it. The problem with rehearsal is that I would love to do two months of rehearsal, but it turns out no one’s ever available. It’s as if, “Let’s schedule a rehearsal,” and then no one showed up. I was in New York for four months—two months of prep and two months to shoot. There’s new places that, when I lived in New York, didn’t exist, like the High Line, which I included in the film because I love that place. It’s really beautiful. It was actually inspired by the French Highline. We have one in France, where we shot a lot of Before Sunset. It was a good idea to turn those railroads into that. [The High Line is a park built on a disused public elevated freight line. —ed.]
JD: Sometimes they send me stuff, and sometimes I send them stuff through the net. I wake up one morning, and I’ll write a monologue on death or whatever. I send early-morning thoughts. Yeah, that’s how we work. That was the process on the second film. The first film was different, it was a screenplay that we entirely threw away and rewrote.
AVC: And a lot of improv?
JD: None. Never. It was all written. We had a month of rehearsal where we rewrote the entire screenplay. But once it was written, we acted it. It was written during that period of rehearsals. It’s not improv, it’s workshop, basically. It has nothing to do with the original screenplay. The original screenplay is the skeleton. Everything was decided in those three weeks.
AVC: Is that your preferred way of writing, through a workshop process?
JD: I’m very adaptable. I work in every possible way. I love working alone. I love working with people. I’m very easy, because I love to adapt to every situation. I’m pretty flexible in that process—people want to work this way or work that way. If directors don’t want me to bring anything to the table, I don’t bring anything to the table. “Okay, you don’t want me to state my mind whatsoever? That’s great. If you want me to bring stuff, okay.”
AVC: It seems there was more of a collaborative process with New York than Paris, is that right?
JD: Yeah. I wanted to work with friends. I needed to for personal reasons, also. I was going through a very difficult time and all that. To write with friends was really very uplifting, and I needed that. I don’t think I would have been able to write without someone close to me, some friends.
AVC: Was there a therapeutic aspect to being able to get things down on paper?
JD: Yeah, it’s always writing. There are two different kinds of directors and writers. There are people that use writing as therapy—then it would be really weird, because I’d write a crazy comedy that talks about sex all the time. Well, maybe it is therapy. That’s basically what therapy is. Yeah, I guess it is a form of therapy, and it’s very helpful. I go to therapy and my therapist tells me, “Your most helpful thing in your life is actually when you work and what you do at work. You’re lucky enough that you can just use it as is.” Maybe I impose on people my own therapy, publicly. It’s so horrible.
AVC: No more so than Woody Allen.
JD: Yeah, exactly. There are other people who are like that—every French director, really.
AVC: Who are some of your main influences in filmmaking?
JD: I like so many. The influence, I don’t know, because I like so many different directors. I get goose bumps from John Ford, which I have nothing to do with, to [Rainer Werner] Fassbender to [Pier Paolo] Pasolini going to [Robert] Altman, Woody Allen. I think [Martin] Scorsese comedies are some of the best such as King Of Comedy and After Hours. You know what I saw recently again? Goodfellas. It’s so funny. I had forgotten, because I saw it when I was young, like when I was in my early twenties, and it wasn’t that funny to me. And when I saw it again, it’s just hilarious. Similar to lots and lots of directors, I don’t know if they’re inspiration, but they’re people I admire.
AVC: It’s cool to revisit a film you’ve seen many years ago, I think. I remember with Breathless, I had that experience of first thinking it was a really serious film.
JD: I know, but it’s very funny, and that’s the thing.
AVC: It’s so funny, the impossibility of that relationship.
JD: Yeah, the miscommunication—French-American. I love Breathless, it’s one of my favorite films. I love [Jean-Luc] Godard, I’ve always loved Godard. I started working with him, and he’s one of the greatest persons I know.
AVC: What was your experience working with him?
JD: Wonderful. He can be really, really cruel to some people, because he’s a very, very smart person, and he hates people that take themselves more seriously than they should, because after all, we’re just making movies. When DPs start to have a big head or whatever, he can be so cruel, but I think it’s good. I wouldn’t be like that, because I’m a little bit more sensitive to people’s insecurities. I hate pretentious people, I do. Those people who take themselves too seriously, I try to avoid them in general. When I happen to stumble into one in my work, I just deal with it with distance more than anger or rage.
AVC: Did it take a while to get used to his style? Was he different toward you than with some other people?
JD: No. He’s not very analytical in his way of dealing with things. He just tells actors what to do.
AVC: That’s strange, because he’s so analytical in his films.
JD: His films are almost like philosophy.
AVC: Especially the later ones.
JD: Yes. Extremely analytical, but he doesn’t want the actors to be analyzing the situation. He likes the actors to just, “Okay, you do this, you do that. You go there and you do this, you do that.” It’s funny, Kieslowski was that way, too, in a weird way. He was working on people’s mannerisms and all that. It’s weird, because they’re actually very similar in that. Their work is very like that, but they don’t want to go into that. Actually, I’ve found that only bad directors are like that—they go into the psychology of the character. The directors I met that were that way, they were not very good directors.
AVC: Kieslowski captured such raw and overwhelming human emotions. What did you learn from him as a director?
JD: I spent a long time with him after we shot White, because he knew I wanted to direct, and he was super-supportive of a woman director. We spent time and met at cafés. He was doing a lot of lectures on screenwriting in Switzerland. He had kind of decided to quit directing for a while because it was so exhausting to do. He wanted to tutor people and help, so he started tutoring me and giving me lessons. It was funny, because I couldn’t do… actually, the truth is, I did kind of listen to his advice, because it was to do films that are true to yourself, which is what he was doing. Obviously, I’m not going to make Kieslowski films. I’m so not Kieslowski in my personality. Do you know what I mean? But I’m making films that are true to me, and with my limitations, my lack of talent or whatever. It’s actually the best advice a director can give to an aspiring director—make things that are true to who you are, whatever they are.