One of the biggest French films of all time is coming to UK cinemas 28th September, and it’s not hard to see why audiences worldwide have fallen for it.
Untouchable (Les Intouchables) is based on the life of wealthy quadriplegic Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and his unconventional carer Abdel Sellou. In the hands of writer-directors Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache, they cast their regular leading man Omar Sy as the poor Senegalese ex-con Driss who ends up being employed by François Cluzet’s Philippe. The pair click with their wicked sense of humour, with Driss getting the older, disabled man who loathes pity into all sorts of shenanigans. Read our glowing review here.
On the day it was announced as France’s entry for the Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars, we met up with one half of the duo behind the heart-warming comedy. Olivier Nakache tells us about his love of edgy British humour, the real Philippe’s reaction to the film, and the impact it’s made.
Congratulations on the worldwide success of the film. Is international recognition important to you?
Yes it is. At the beginning of the process we never thought about this. We never thought of outside of France. It’s our fourth movie and it’s the first time it’s happened - it’s such a huge thing. It’s once in a lifetime. Now it’s important, as we discover this story is not our story, it touched people all around the world. We thought that we wrote something typically French, with the jokes, but no, it’s universal. When we saw people with disabilities in Japan or Bosnia or the US and they came to see us and say thank you, straight away we are very proud of this. Especially here - for us, here is very important. It’s very weird for us as it’s almost one year after the French release. Eric and I are huge fans of British comedy. Maybe we learn humour with Monty Python. It’s a reference to The Full Monty, Billy Elliot, Brassed Off as it’s exactly what we like - comedy with a deep subject close to people. Italians made this kind of movie with Vittorio Gassman, social commentary but very funny. Here, the humour is very important; English people cross the line every time. Here you have Sacha Baron Cohen, Ricky Gervais, John Cleese. You cross the line, but it’s always funny. I saw Four Lions three months ago - it’s amazing! What’s happening in the world, and they did Four Lions. Amazing. It’s never mean, but always funny - that’s our rules. When we discovered this story, we wanted to make a comedy about this deep subject, and Philippe Pozzo di Borgo gave us the rights only because we wanted to make a comedy.
Did he encourage you to push the comedy then, or were you hesitant?
No, I tell you one thing. When we discovered the story ten years ago, we put it on the side because we weren’t ready. We made two movies then made this one as a collaboration with Omar [Sy] as we felt ready. We call Philippe and say we want to make a movie about your story. He said, ‘You are not the first, and I always say no.’ ‘But we really want to meet you!’ So he said, come, and we went to Morocco where he lives, and we discussed it with him, and laughed a lot. It’s really special - he’s got humour in his eyes. After three days, he said ‘I trust you to make what you want.’
What do you think he liked about you?
I remember the precise moment, when we told the story about the car chase at the beginning, and he laughed a lot. Even though it’s not his story, we sum up ten years in almost two hours. We sent him the script one year after.
Why did you want to open with that car chase?
Because it’s a buddy movie. We saw a lot of buddy movies, typically American, with two opposite persons together and life is perfect. We didn’t want to begin at the beginning of the story. People knew from the poster that they were going to be friends, so we wanted to begin that they’re equal. Both on the chair, one drives - equal. We don’t know what it is - have they commited a robbery? After, we discover that one man is quadriplegic. For us, people in cinema pay, so you have to catch them from the first second. That’s our point of view.
As a directing duo, how do you and Eric work together?
I make everything! No, I’m kidding. We write together. Like with Omar and François, we have a special chemistry. We like the same movies. We met each other at 18 years old, and nobody at this ages knows or likes Woody Allen movies. I remember when we were in summer camp and talked about Woody Allen. We began like this. We write together and it’s funny. On the set, it’s totally a mess, as we are always near the actors. If we have discussion we have it outside alone, that’s our rule.
You wanted to make the film with Omar, so was the chemistry with François a happy accident?
I have to tell you - everyone in the world meets Omar and falls in love immediately. He’s got something really, really special, and we knew when we made our first short in 2001, he’s got something. He’s not an actor - he came from the high-rising ghetto in Paris. He’s really funny and deep, and he’s a really good man. He’s got four kids and he’s an amazing weapon for jokes - you can cross all the limits and he’s so powerful. From the beginning we went to Morocco and Omar is with us from the beginning. We thought about Daniel Auteuil, and he said yes, and we write for him and Omar. In the end, Daniel’s schedule was too complicated and he said no. The same day we met François Cluzet, and he said, ‘Guys, it’s me!’ And he was right. Omar never met him - he met him in rehearsals. We said, ‘We can go high or we can go low, downstairs. We have to invite the grace, the magic thing, on the set.’ Like Rainman, The King’s Speech - that magic. You don’t know why. The magic came. I think 60-70% came from the actors - there’s a connection. With Erik, we didn’t have rehearsals, we just had readings. Each time we could see something electric between them. We learned a lot from François - he said he wanted to work a lot before shooting, as the first day of shooting is only pleasure, not discussion. He’s right. You have to be surprised just by the accident. The accident is the unexpected thing that is magic. You can’t invent it. Something magic on set happens and you have to catch it - you have to be prepared.
What was the first scene you filmed?
The beginning, where Omar opens the door to François. Immediately we saw something special between them. When you see Philippe and Abdel now, it’s amazing.
Have Philippe and Abdel seen the film and what was their reaction?
It was very important to us. We have two steps - the audience, and what Philippe says, as it’s his life. We came to Morocco and he was the first person we showed the movie to. It was very bizarre as it was round his pool in Morocco on a screen. We were at the back, and we saw the wheelchair move - he laughed. At the end, he moved his wheelchair very slowly and we saw the tears. He said, ‘I stand up and I clap my hands.’ Even at this moment he’s got a sense of humour. Abdel said, ‘I’m really happy as I’ve discovered I am black.’ After, Philippe said, ‘I’m going to help you with the promotion.’ He’s really involved in disability associations, and you have to know that our producer said we have to give you money, as it’s your life story. He said, ‘No, just give 5% of the benefits to my disability foundation.’ They opened five houses all around France.
What’s been the most moving reaction from someone who’s seen the film?
I remember in Paris I’m going in the theatre, and I saw young, old, aristocratic, disabled, all people in the cinema. One time we received a letter from a 16-17 year old girl who said, ‘I’m quadriplegic, and you changed my life. Thank you.’ We called her, and she said, ‘The look of the people changed, and now people know that I have a brain so I can laugh and talk.’ We are very proud of this. Another person said she works with young people in poor neighbourhoods, and they want to be carers! We can’t change the world, but if we can change something, we are very proud of it.
Watch Filmbeat’s interview with Nakache and Toledano below.