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Interview: Céline Sciamma (Water Lilies)

Like the beloved Charlie Brown comics, Water Lilies, a new film by Celine Sciamma, contains no adults. It is a pure teen angst experience, as if Lucy had grown into an awkward 15-year-old, struggling with her attraction to girls and a newfound obsession with synchronized swimming.

Like the beloved Charlie Brown comics, Water
, a new film by Celine Sciamma, contains no adults.  It is a pure teen angst experience, as if Lucy had grown into an awkward 15-year-old, struggling with her attraction to girls and a newfound obsession with synchronized swimming. The title, Water Lillies, refers to the girls, blooming and beautiful on the surface but a tangled web of roots beneath.

Ms. Sciamma is an unusual director. The young French screenwriter had never directed, not even a short film.  Yet, fresh out of film school, she met a group of able producers who fell in love with her first screenplay and encouraged her to direct it. Ms. Sciamma is among a group of female first time directors who have had incredible success this year. Water Lilies was nominated at the Cesar Awards (the French Oscars) for “Best First Feature”.  All her fellow nominees were women. Critics around the world have been asking her if it’s a coincidence. She hopes it’s a sign of something larger, that the number of female directors is on the rise.

Ms. Sciamma is a sweet looking 27-year-old whose intelligence is almost intimidating.  One can see her confidence building, as she takes on her new role as an award winning professional. She’s new to this game and knows that that is where her power lies. Audiences are craving an intelligent voice they haven’t heard before.

Céline Sciamma

Céline Sciamma director Water Lilies

Laura Newman:  How has the film been received internationally?  When I think of France,
there is an acceptance of eroticism and nudity there that in America is
completely different.  Showing nudity of teenagers, I don’t know if the
actors really were 15…

Celine Sciamma: They were.

LN: …but to show that, because for American men so much of the porn and
erotic film that sells well is this teen scandalous stuff. So, do you
have any fears about that?

CS: I had at first because when the movie was released in England it
was rated that you have to be over 16 to see it.  I was totally
surprised by that because in France everybody could see it.  You could
be 8 years old and go, not that I want that.  The English journalists
were telling me, “You know, this is going to be hard here because young
girls naked, people are going to suspect something voyeuristic and men
in raincoats are going to come into theaters.  But I don’t think it
happened.  First of all, the film is made by a woman and I think the
perspective I give of those girls is really full of empathy and there
is no twisted thing behind it.  I think before you see the movie you
could be afraid but once you’ve seen it, I don’t think you can take it
the wrong way.  I was always asking myself how to find the right
distance with the girls and the question I really asked the most is,
“Where do you put the camera?”  In the locker rooms I wanted the
audience to feel legitimate.  That changes everything.  If you feel
like you’re sneaking through the keyhole that is voyeuristic.  But if
it’s quite frontal and they’re undressing and you’re just a girl in
that locker room too that is different.  It presents the awkwardness
surrounding young girls and anyone can relate to.

Céline Sciamma Water Lilies

LN: Do you feel you made the film primarily for woman, to relate to and have that experience, or for men to have that empathy?
CS: In my life I’m often part of an audience.  I really think a lot
about the people in the room when I’m making a movie and what journey I
want them to make and what emotions I want them to feel.  I really
wanted the movie to combine both things, that is to say, woman could
really relate and say, “Oh finally someone is telling that story.” And
men could discover the b-sides to their own teenage-hood.  Everybody
could experience what it means to be a 15-year-old girl.  That’s why
there are no adults, no boys, everybody had to be a 15-year-old girl
and if you didn’t relate to that, you’re out of the movie, you’re out
of the room basically.  I was afraid everyone would say this is a
woman’s film for woman.  We didn’t market it at all like that and
actually the audience is always very mixed. We didn’t market it at all
for the teenagers and a lot of them came.

LN: The scene where she goes underwater in the pool, that was fantastic.  I wonder about synchronized swimming and where that impulse came from.  Was that early on in the decision of the script?
CS: Yeah, that was right at the beginning, that was the first scene I wrote. That is actually an antidote from my own teenage-hood. When I was 15-years-old I attended an exhibition by chance and I was totally moved.  I became obsessed with it for like a week.  I thought I’d totally messed up my life and should have been doing synchronized swimming, but it was too late.  I didn’t have the athletic body to do it.  Then I understood that it was a symbol, synchronized swimming, that it symbolized something I wanted to be or somebody that I wanted to love. It’s a great absurd antidote that tells a lot about the misunderstanding you have with yourself in teenage-hood. I found it so particular and kind of stupid in a way that it could really make something universal. It also set the movie in a microcosm which I like in movies, when they make me enter into a universe I don’t know. Plus I really wanted to film it, in my own life I’d seen underneath the water.  No one ever sees that.  Sometimes they show it on TV but you have to be awake at 5am.  It really worked as a metaphor for what I wanted to tell; that is, the “job” of being a girl.  Because it’s the only sport that strictly for girls, it tells a lot about what is expected of them.  There is this whole surface thing where you have to be very feminine with the makeup and the hair and you have to smile and pretend you’re not making any effort.  And then you have underwater, under the surface of things where it’s all about sacrifice and pain.  I think it’s just like the “job” of being a girl.  You look like a doll but you’re a soldier.

Céline Sciamma Water Lilies

CS: People at the beginning believe it’s going to be like a Billy Elliot for synchronized swimming. “Oh, gosh she wants to be a swimmer!” and then it goes radically elsewhere.  In the beginning I want everyone to think, “I know that movie.  There’s the chubby, funny girl. There’s the beautiful, blond, sporty, charismatic girl. And there’s the boyish, childish, shy leading part.  Oh and there is synchronized swimming so she’s going to want to become a swimmer and we’ll see if she makes it or not.”  So they really feel comfortable and embrace the journey, and then we radically go elsewhere and I really wanted to play with that code of the teen movie genre that comes especially from [the U.S.], not really from my country. Between those two traditions, the American teem movie tradition with all those archetypes, American Pie archetypes, and the French tradition of having a subtle inside look at character and then mix that.  To go very far from the archetypes but begin with them.

LN: I’m really curious about the process of creating the script.  You wrote it in grad school correct?
CS: Yeah, it was my first original screenplay.  I wrote it
for six months at school.  I came out of school with it, met some
producers and did rewriting for three to four months. Then we got money
and we shot.  This was all during the year after I got out of school.

LN: How was the rewriting process?
CS: Well, once I knew that I was going to direct this, the rewriting
process was really radical because when you are not planning on
directing I think you can be more indulgent. I wanted there to not be
any decorative scenes.  It was all action.  For instance the scene when
Marie says, “I’m going to do it. You asked me to deflower you and I’m
going to do it.” The scene after that, they are actually doing it.  I
wanted it to be surprising, like that.  I wanted every scene to be
useful because I was really scared to make a “screenwriter” film.  You
know, first time director, background as a screenwriter, you can have a
very strong background but [people think] you don’t have any visual
identity.  I killed the screenwriter in me when I was the director.  I
went radically for my rhythmic obsession and my visual obsession.

Céline Sciamma Water Lilies


LN: In America, 3% of the director’s guild are women, so it’s very male dominated.  Is it similar in France?
CS: Yes.  It’s mostly men.  But something has happened this year that is quite interesting.  I hope it’s something that is relevant and not a coincidence.  It’s that a lot of first films were made by very young woman directors, like 20 or so.  At the Cesars, which is the Academy Awards in France, the films nominated for Best First Feature Film were made by woman.  

LN: All of them?
CS: Yep, all of them. That’s the first time that has happened. During my promotion in France everybody was like, “What’s going on?” And I was saying, “Yeah!”  something is happening here. Let’s pray it stays that way.

LN: You hadn’t even made a short before this.  What were your first few days on set like?
CS: They were a shocking surprise.  I had already been on sets for short movies where I was the assistant to the director or writing and I didn’t like it, the set.  When I came the first day to the set I was shocked by the fact that there were 20 people I didn’t know.  “Who are you?” But at the end of the first day I was so full of happiness, the striking surprise was that I actually really liked doing it.  I didn’t know I would love it so much.  I was a very fulfilling experience.  I felt so blessed to have this opportunity.

LN: Did you rehearse with the actors?  
CS: We worked for a month before shooting. It wasn’t rehearsing per se because we didn’t go through the dialogue of the scenes; it was mostly working on concentration and bringing emotions, like in an Actor’s Studio way, what you really feel.  And getting them to know each other and especially talking a lot about the film because I didn’t want there to be any misunderstanding. This was a very young cast. I had to explain, “Okay you get that you’re falling in love with that girl.”  So we worked a lot on that and building friendship. The only love relationship that is accomplished in the film is the one I have with those characters.  It’s that look of love you can feel.  I think that’s also why the movie is not voyeuristic.

LN: The audience falls in love them yet they can’t figure out how to fall in love with each other.  That’s beautiful.
CS: Yes.

Koch Lorber Films releases Water
on April 4th and it is currently playing at the New Directors/New Films festival in New York.

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