Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano The Extraordinary Interview

Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano The Extraordinary Interview

Directors: Olivier Nakache, Eric Toledano
Rated: M
Running Time: 114 minutes

Synopsis: For twenty years, Bruno and Malik have lived in a different world: the world of autistic children and teens. In charge of two separate non-profit organisations (The Hatch and The Shelter), they train young people from underprivileged areas to be caregivers for extreme cases that have been refused by all other institutions. It's an exceptional partnership, outside of traditional settings. However, Bruno and Malik work without official certification. Their future become unclear when they come under the scrutiny of the government, and they must fight for their communities to in order to survive.

The Extraordinary
Release Date: March, 2020

Interview with Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano

Question: How did this film come into being?

Eric Toledano: The Extraordinary is the fruit of a twenty-year-old commitment. In 1994, we were monitors at a summer camp and I had to get a diploma to become a director (BAFD). That is where I met Stéphane Benhamou, the creator of the association "Le Silence des Justes", specialized in caring for autistic children and adolescents and integrating them into society. We lost sight of each other. But he later took an autistic member of my family under his wing. One day Olivier and I decided to take a look at the summer camp he ran in the mountains. We were deeply impressed by the energy and humanity that Stéphane and his team exuded. The chemistry between the young caregivers and the handicapped kids completely overwhelmed us.

Olivier Nakache: A little later, Stéphane needed a 6–minute film to present to his association. He hoped to collect funds, because he was having trouble obtaining the necessary aids. So, we took our little camera, and both went to Saint-Denis, to the same place where twenty years later we filmed The Extraordinary. We met a young educator, Daoud Tatou, who also worked with autistic youngsters. And once again, this new experience remained profoundly etched in our minds…

Eric Toledano: We already said to ourselves, what a magnificent context for telling a story and making a film. But we were just starting out and we humbly thought we didn't yet have the wherewithal to handle a subject like this. We were simply not ready yet. That did not keep us from remaining close to these guys for whom we felt strong friendship and a real affinity. Four years ago, Canal+ offered us carte blanche for 26 minutes. We naturally chose to showcase their work and careers with a documentary entitled We Should Make A Film About It…

Olivier Nakache: …a documentary about Stéphane and Daoud who in the meantime had become the directors of the association "Le Relais IDF". This organisation also cares for autistic youngsters, and also advocates the social and professional integration of young people from underprivileged neighbourhoods. It's true that between each of our feature films, the idea of making this film kept coming up between us. It gained ground and the contact we kept with the two associations since the year 2000 no doubt sharpened our sensitivity to the disadvantaged and contributed to the existence of films like The Intouchables.

Question: The Extraordinary is probably a compendium of all the obsessions that run through our films: a group at work, like in Samba, and duos like in The Intouchables or Let's Be Friends.

Eric Toledano: Our movies always talk about implausible encounters. This one had a particular perspective: how people who communicate little, or not at all, and are considered abnormal, still manage to make so-called "normal" people who in our society no longer communicate, communicate. There is in these associations a harmony and blend of cultures, religions, identities and unique pasts which should inspire many people…

Question: Once you decided to shoot, how did you work?

Eric Toledano: For 2 years, we immersed ourselves in the two associations. The scenes in the film, including Valentin's running away, are all real-life experiences. In The Extraordinary, we depict autistic young people, parents, and caregivers, but also the doctors, health officials, and the IGAS (General Inspection of Social Affairs). We couldn't let ourselves stray too far from the truth or be too clumsily. Our period of observation was very instructive, and the screenplay was fleshed out by experiences we shared daily. But what is more, after two years our motivation had multiplied. If when we started out, making this film was a strong desire, with time it became a necessity.

Olivier Nakache: It was impossible for us to tackle this subject without understanding all the complex issues. We needed to assimilate the subject technically in order to fuel the fiction we wanted to create.

Eric Toledano: If only to outsmart the subject. Within that universe, for example, you hear language that is hard to understand if you've come in from the outside. There is a slew of incomprehensible acronyms like ARS, MDPH, IME, USIDATU... that everyone else seems to know by heart. We also wanted to reproduce the light-handed humour we observed in the teams, like in the battle of the logos scene.

Olivier Nakache: The idea was also to include real monitors and real autistic youngsters in the film, to mix real life and fiction in a constant back and forth movement, and thus be able to intrude on the intimacy of the characters, their daily lives and personal issues.

Question: You start out with a hand-held camera, as if you wanted to convey a feeling of absolute urgency…

Eric Toledano: We feel that the audience should almost have to "break into" the film. It should immediately be confronted by violence, as it actually exists. And the two characters that we describe are characterized primarily by the fact that they are forever on the move.

Olivier Nakache: These associations work with a sense of urgency, around the clock. So, all that running around does make sense. We wanted to grab the viewer by the arm. Besides the music that accompanies the opening scene recalls the sound of an electrocardiogram.

Question: We discover almost by chance that Bruno (Vincent Cassel), the character inspired by Stéphane Benhamou, is Jewish. As we later discover that his alter ego, Malik (Reda Kateb who plays the role of Daoud Tatou) is a Muslim. You never dwell on this subject…

Eric Toledano: Within these associations, religion and identity politics fade away to the benefit of humanity. That much is visible to the naked eye. Humanity transcends all those differences, which is what also captured our attention in the beginning. There is an open-mindedness, an attention to the other which is missing in our society. Against the background of today's tense climate and inter-communal conflict, this film gives us a chance to showcase atypical life stories - stories that can serve as examples.

Olivier Nakache: We may have "idealized" our impressions, but over 2 years we had the time to understand that what could have been an issue here, really isn't. One single thing counts, improving the lives of these innumerable young people.

Question: Out of necessity, Bruno breaks some rules, opens apartments at night for autistic kids, puts to work caregivers who do not have the necessary diplomas…

Olivier Nakache: And he got an inspection because of his sidestepping the law. We found our angle for the film when we discovered the IGAS report concerning Stéphane's association. That was one of our keys: the inspectors in charge of the investigation interviewed all our characters. That was a way of structuring our story and defending the several points of view. In our society, some of the "powers that be" no longer work. But Bruno acts

Eric Toledano: That's the whole subject of the film. What defines marginality and what defines normality? What the film shows is that sometimes you redefine them by transgressing them. We are going through times in which civil disobedience is gaining the upper hand. Transgression may be chaotic, but it is fertile. We have no answer to give in the film, no message to put across to the rest of humanity. The older we get, the surer we are about what it is important to question. In that sense, meeting with the various personalities we were lucky enough to rub shoulders with were truly fascinating.

Question: Why did you choose Vincent Cassel and Reda Kateb to play Bruno and Malik?

Eric Toledano: We have been fans of those two actors for a long time. Before we even wrote a single line, we needed an initial impetus, a stimulus. And for us, it often comes from the actors. We admire Vincent's "transformist" talents, his propensity to "nick" the gestures and physique of the people he is supposed to embody. And then we liked having him play the role of a man who is not quite at ease with women. As for Reda, we have been watching him progress from film to film. He plays subtle and realistic, very charismatic. He too can truly incarnate people. Their encounter promised to be a fine moment of cinema. We wanted to use their energy.

Question: How did you proceed?

Olivier Nakache: We tried a daring bet. We had separate meetings with them and told them: "We have an idea for a film, we don't have a screenplay, but we suggest that you spend two hours with us in one of the associations. If you don't have the time, or the desire, we'll stop right then and there. No problem. Otherwise, we'll go together and if you've had enough after an hour, we won't hold it against you" But essentially we weren't running any risks. All you have to do is spend a few minutes at "Silence des Justes" or "Relais IDF", for something very powerful to happen. We were convinced that we held the right formula. They came, and that very evening both texted us pretty much the same message: "We don't need a screenplay to continue on with this adventure with you"

Eric Toledano: That was a shot in the arm. We introduced them to each other. They didn't know each other, but wanted to work together.

Question: In the film, Malik (Reda Kateb) teaches his caregivers etiquette, French and punctuality…

Olivier Nakache: He gives them a global formation, "you come, you accept the rules, you are formed, and you'll see, you'll come out a winner". He's gifted with intelligence, instinct and the gift of the gab. He gives them the keys to work with, but also to make themselves respected by society and to find their place in it.

Question: These caregivers are mostly from the universe of diversity present in all your films…

Olivier Nakache: Diversity is one of the main components of their associations. Most of the caregivers are from underprivileged neighbourhoods. They are familiar with violence and take it from their autistic charges, without turning it against them. And for someone who does not count for much in our society, becoming a caregiver is a very interesting parable. Besides, we discovered among them some true acting talent! It was obvious to us: they had to be in the film.

Question: And Bryan Mialoundama who plays Dylan?

Olivier Nakache: We immediately sensed his sincerity during the auditions. He wasn't acting. He reminded us of the caregivers who show up at Stéphane or Daoud's. He had unbelievable eyes, and you could sense the violence and truth within him. He was a like a block of marble waiting to be carved.

Eric Toledano: We needed an outside look in order to enter the story. Dylan is the one who doesn't know, who asks questions; like why is this autistic kid hitting me just after giving me a hug? He is the audience's eye.

Question: How did you find the autistic kids who play in the film?

Eric Toledano: "Scrolling" through all the associations of Paris and the Paris region, we had a hit on Turbulences (an arts group that employs people who have communication issues, suffer from autism or related issues). The ESAT (Establishment of Service Aid Through Work) is located in a circus tent at the Porte d'Asnières, and we offered to create a theatre workshop. It was in that workshop that we met Benjamin Lesieur, who plays Joseph. He has a winning personality. He didn't speak, or he communicated in a random fashion, citing names of French singers or asking the same question over and over again: What did the weatherman have to say tonight?" We quickly realized that he enjoyed the workshop. We started treating him like any other actor: we offered him the role. His parents warned us it would be complicated. He never wore a tie, a belt or socks, and he couldn't stand anyone touching his skin and hair. But they agreed. During the 25 days of shooting, we got him into a tie, belt and socks, we made him up and did his hair. We figured out that Benjamin really liked the costume crew, Isabelle and especially the dresser, Marine. They are the ones who used niceness and psychology to get him to wear the clothes they wanted him to. Marine wound up playing the role of Brigitte, the young employee at the company where Joseph works. No one else could do it. She objected "But I'm not an actress!". We told her "Trust us… ". And she was perfect

Olivier Nakache: During the shoot, we asked Benjamin, "Do that again, get back into place, go back to the beginning, come on, we're going to do another take…" and he was perfect, just like all the other professional actors. Talking with the doctors, we realized that the cinema uses a very autistic-like process of shooting: supervised and repetitive. We organized the entire preparation around Benjamin. We showed him the sets before filming. We rehearsed scenes with him. At the same time, he could say anything he wanted. He sometimes put his head on a technician's shoulder. We were ourselves experiencing exactly what we were talking about in the film.

Eric Toledano: He was soon our buddy, and we even stole some ideas from him. The line "I am innocent!" for example, comes from him. He loved repeating certain dialogues in a loop, and we kept some of them, like "We're not far!" Benjamin soon became the film's mascot, and the dance scene profoundly moved the entire technical crew.

Question: And Valentin (Marco Locatelli)?

Eric Toledano: His brother is autistic. A very serious case as a matter of fact. Astoundingly mature, Marco came to the casting session without telling anyone, explaining, "I have a little brother who's autistic. Making this movie will help me come closer to him, help me to love him". He did some convincing screen tests, and we explained to him that there were going to be quite a few working sessions with us and some behavioural coaches. We spoke to his mother about it, who said: "It's up to him. I have total trust in you". Marco's presence made sense to us.

Question: You try several times to make us understand Valentin's autistic sensations in a very sensorial way…

Olivier Nakache: You can't depict what someone autistic feels or sees. But what we are sure about, is that these children focus on certain sounds. Some calm them, others disturb them. We wanted to try to reproduce that without using too many effects in order to adopt his own point of view, his own subjectivity.

Eric Toledano: We had to confront reality: a hospital discharge after six months of confinement. All the doctors told us: you don't get out like that; you have to set up gradual releases. You start with once a week for three months before risking a definitive release. That is why Malik (Reda Kateb) chooses to assign Dylan as Valentin's caregiver. Their technique is 1 for 1. Despite Dylan's clumsiness, something worked. It's chemistry. It doesn't always work, that's for sure, but when it does work, it's mighty impressive.

Olivier Nakache: Yes, but we had to manage them, and we absolutely wanted to show that part of the truth in the film. In any event, we had to endlessly adapt, improvise. Especially during group scenes like the skating rink, for example. There were always three cameras on location, permanently ready to film.

Question: Hélène Vincent plays Benjamin's confused mother…

Eric Toledano: We share a long history with Hélène that began with SAMBA. This actor, whom we are particularly fond of, has a kind of double nationality: she can be very moving in one film and very funny in the next. She is a very SPECIAL actor! We could not make this film without giving the floor to the parents. We often heard the words that Hélène's character pronounces: "What will happen to him when I'm no longer here? They are cute when they're little, but when they grow up, people no longer look at them the same". When autism is the diagnosis, parents do not have time to think of the future, they are all fired up for immediate combat. There is no possible remission. You're in for 30, 40, 50 years. The world is then split in two: those who help you and those who won't even look at you.

Question: You often say, "Behind the laughter, there are tears", you could almost turn that around: "Behind the tears, there is laughter"?

Eric Toledano: Comedy is sometimes sadness in disguise, but more than that, it is our way to express ourselves and communicate with each other. In these associations, you run through a gamut of emotions, laughter obviously being one of them. It just has to fit into the situation intelligently. As with Bruno, who accumulates romantic trysts with women of the Jewish community, organized by his entourage that would like to see him marry. Being humorous is also being special, or in other words breaking the rules, and of course it takes the sting out of certain situations. Taking a step back, keeping some distance.

Question: Like in C'EST LA VIE, the film ends on a very poetic scene…

Olivier Nakache: That scene is a perfect illustration of the essence of the film. The context may be harsh, but poetry, movement and music prevail. At the end of his choreography, Joseph returns to the centre of the circle around which he was dancing. Alone under the lights, he incarnates all our characters' combats: keeping these kids, adolescents and adults in the centre of things, never losing sight of them, and never banishing them from our daily lives.

Eric Toledano: Benjamin is truly poetic. For 2 years, we were constantly surprised. By a kid with autism who at dinner eats off your own plate. This group of autistic kids dances, each with his and her own pathology, each in their own world, but all of them together. When Bruno is most cornered, and may have to shut down his association, he watches those kids dance and feels moved. That emotion is essentially also our own. It's what we felt throughout our preparation for the shoot, and what we tried to reconstitute throughout the film.

The Extraordinary
Release Date: March, 2020