24 SEPTEMBER 2016 ACCLAIMED WRITER THOMAS BIDEGAIN DIRECTS HIS FIRST FILM
“It’s a film about the community and ourselves. What can we do? Are we trying to hold on to the thing—are we going to be obsessive, are we going be permissive?"
I meet the writer and director Thomas Bidegain on a sunny summer morning in Manhattan, and the French screenwriter—and longtime collaborator with acclaimed director Jacques Audiard—A Prophet (2009), Rust and Bone (2012)—certainly cuts a keen figure, his green starburst eyes glowing against the pale blue sky. It’s a poetic setting in which to meet the man who made his directorial debut at Cannes last year with Les Cowboys—a heartfelt father/son quest that weaves through the conflict between the West and Islam and centers on the search to find a young French girl who has fled the capitalist dream machine to pursue a new life with her Muslim boyfriend.
Les Cowboys covers difficult terrain but I observe in Bidegain an intricate balance between softness and sharpness, flexibility and precision, reason and spontaneity. “Be prepared, and be ready to improvise,” he opens, mischievously, going on to ask me if I know what a centipede is—“The insect with many legs? Do you know?” What follows is a brief monologue about how if someone were to ask a centipede how it manages to walk with so many legs and were to make it ponder upon the mechanics of its movements, it surely wouldn’t be able to walk anymore—such are the vagaries of existence and intuition.
Bidegain, like his centipede, works intuitively. Although Les Cowboys is his first experience as a director, it’s clear he relishes the role, cherishing the process of working with the actors. “You know what you want, and you have little time to get there, so you better be precise,” he says. Paradoxically, precision comes to Bidegain though improvisation. He believes if he gives up on what he initially wants and lets intuition morph the film in its own way, he will mysteriously arrive at what he originally wanted. The result is in no way obtuse, on the contrary, it’s clarity. Bidegain believes the responsibility of a director lies in making a film that attracts a wide audience and like all great storytellers, he wants the core of the narrative to stay as simple as possible—focusing, in the case of Les Cowboys on the story of a father (François Damiens) and his son (Finnegan Oldfield) and an archetypal search. “It’s a film about the community and ourselves,” he tells me. “What can we do? Are we trying to hold on to the thing—are we going to be obsessive, are we going be permissive. We’re dealing with strong political things, but it’s not a film about jihad. It’s not a film about the people who leave. It’s a film about the people who stay.”