Oscar® Watch: A Prophet (Un Prophète)
by Danielle Alberico
A Prophet, the powerful new crime drama from Sony Pictures Classics, tells the intense story of survival by a young man who is sent to a French jail and quickly forced to adapt to life as an inmate—while learning valuable lessons along the way that ultimately move him up the prison ranks. Script caught up with co-writer and director Jacques Audiard, co-writer Thomas Bidegain, and star Tahar Rahim to talk about their contributions to the movie that recently caught the Academy's attention, nominating A Prophet as Best Foreign Language Film (France).
Sitting in a bright room at Sony Pictures Classics in Manhattan, I find Jacques Audiard's friendly demeanor an uplifting introduction to our interview. He's quick to smile and is ready to discuss his newest film, A Prophet, along with fellow collaborators Thomas Bidegain and Tahar Rahim:
Let's talk about this fascinating character, Malik.
Jacques Audiard: I tend to believe that the character of Malik has few virtues. He is really positive, he is a criminal, but he has no vocation. He's a person that fundamentally doesn't like gangsters and doesn't like violence. He's definitely not greedy, not showing off his money. For instance, that is a virtue.
Why do we like characters like Malik? You're right, he sort of lives in the light instead of the darkness. We care for him so much; he becomes almost like our brother, and then becomes a leader of a large gang, which isn't morally right.
Audiard: It's the only way for him to survive. There is one thing that we really wanted in the writing process. We adapted the screenplay from the original idea by Abdel Dafri and through that screenplay, we were able to create ours … and we spent three years writing it. And then it became A Prophet, which was first a story of a small gangster who becomes a big gangster. We were interested in the story of a homeless guy at the beginning who has nothing--he doesn't even have the words to tell his own story--and then at the end, he has a home, he has a family, and he has a wife and child. He has a complicated family, but all families are complicated, and some are very different than others. At the end, yes, it's more the story of a homeless man who finds a home than a gangster story. So in the writing process, we had ideas on how to write Malik. We always thought Malik interested us when he was learning, so it was important for him to be learning all the time … and he was eager to learn. The second rule we had when writing Malik's character was that when you see him do something, that's when you see him learn. If he has to kill someone, then he has to learn from someone how to kill. If he does a big drug deal, then he has to learn about that. If he has to speak Corsican, he will have to learn Corsican. So everything that you see him do, he has learned while in prison.
Was there any surprising element in the prison subculture when making this film?
Audiard: I know why I made this film--I made it because I wanted to work with people I wouldn't normally work with, and I really was rewarded for that. It was tiring and a very long process. I really went toward things I didn't know before. I worked with people I certainly would have never met, and also worked with actors that were not known or who were not actors at all. It was a very interesting journey.
What research was involved?
Thomas Bidegain: We researched a little, but not that much. We didn't research surviving skills and such; we researched about the reality of jail, what happened during meal time, what happened when the mail arrives, what are the stipulations in the buildings. But the fact of how to kill a man with a razor blade, it's all fiction.
Focusing just on the script, on the writing process, how is it working together with someone, versus working alone?
Audiard: I have never worked alone. There's a big difference. That's why I make movies--it's a group process. To make movies is to start out as an individual project and then collect ideas along the way. If not, I would be a novelist or a shoemaker.
From the start of the adaptation, how long did it take to complete the writing?
Bidegain: Three years. It was a long time.
Audiard: We are stubborn. We are slow, but we worked every day. Three years to start with one script and arrive with our complete version. We were always having problems with the script being too long.
What is the significance of the movie's title?
Audiard: Well, I'm not crazy about the title to tell you the truth. The title imposes something on the viewers, like where is the prophet, when is he going to arrive? And I don't like that. We saw that title with a lot more irony. Simply, Malik announces a new type of gangster, a new type of man.
How does religion play into the film? You see all kinds of prayer in the prison and other signs throughout.
Audiard: When we first saw the title, we didn't see it in a religious way. Yes, there are religious parts in the story of Malik. He's a Muslim, and the relationship with the ghost has to do with a certain spirituality, but that is not why the movie is called A Prophet. We saw it as a more secular way of doing things. That might be the irony of the title. This is a new type of gangster. Or it could be the new name for a gangster, like you would say to one, “Hey you, long face" or “Hey you, big guy." “Hey you, prophet." It was more of the name for a gangster. We weren't very interested in religious paraphernalia.
I feel that there is a whole spiritual journey. He becomes a new human being, a good person during the entire piece.
Bidegain: It is true that he comes from nothing; he's a blank page, a wild child. Then he makes his way first through the gangsters, and his objective is then changed. First he wants to survive, and then he gets a conscience, like the final gunfight in the car … he smiles because it is like a revelation, he is becoming that character. He's becoming a movie character at that point, it's approaching the end of the film.
You weren't allowed to use a prison; can you talk about the setting?
Bidegain: It would not have been possible to work in an actual prison because the warden would have to read the screenplay, and then halfway through would have said no way. But it doesn't matter, the question was how to get the reality. To work in a real prison would have been a burden, we would have had to shoot the reality of the prison. By creating a set, I was able to work with what I was given: three corridors, 15 cells, and two floors.
Is Malik a unique character, or is he a typical prisoner?
Audiard: He is very unique because he has that ability to adapt in a very sterile environment. Most would try to run or try to kill themselves. But his intelligence in his way of adapting, changing, he knows how to use his mind on the inside.
If he's so clever, why was he so unformed in his early years?
Audiard: He grew up on the street. He was 19 when he gets into jail. Before that he was a kid, he grows into adulthood here. He grows to be clever. When you are on the street as a kid, you don't think about these things, you just think about eating, drinking, finding a place to sleep. He never had the chance to use his intelligence, he never had to apply these things. You may ask yourself what would have happened if he did not go to jail? He would have overdosed at 23 in a squat somewhere. He would not have discovered that he was smart, he wouldn't really have to use his brains. Prison is a school of crime.
I worked with a guy in France, in a prison there, and he told me that he read the script and said that Malik, people who are like Malik, are over-adapted. People who spring up when they're in jail. Outside in reality, they are too scared, too distracted. In prison, everything is much simpler--they can use their smarts and can develop in a place such as jail.
Over the three years of writing, when did you bring in Tahar and how much influence did he have?
Audiard: I met Tahar coming back from a shoot on a set. The production card had a couple actors and my attention was attracted by him, he's attractive to look at.
He's very attractive, hurts my eyes.
Audiard: (laughing) When we started casting, Tahar arrived early. He was the first one. You tell yourself that you can't find the right one on the first try. But that happened with him. Right away, I knew I wanted him to play Malik. It means that God exists. So I had to see a lot of other actors and non-actors. The same thing happened to me on the prior film. I was looking for an Asian girl who could play the piano. And the first girl that I saw was the right one, and you can't believe it so you have to see 30 of them to convince yourself.
Talk about the depiction of French Arabs in French films--it seems that they are almost always playing criminals. What was your intention?
Audiard: Malik is not a criminal in my mind. It was really important for me in a genre film, with a heavy budget, to work with new faces, people you haven't seen, people you don' t know. I'm not sure we are very well-represented. In France, yes, it was important.
Bidegain: In a lot of films, criminals are presented as hardened individuals, then there are very positive-represented individuals, who work hard, try to integrate, and fight racism, and we didn't want to fall into either category, or one of these traps. And we really wanted to make a film that is not at all about integration. There will be a movie after that. These problems are just territories of power of money.
Did you watch any gangster movies when filming?
Audiard: I really enjoy genre films. It's true that in the process of writing, we will detect a movie coming out. In that three years, there are some scenes we see that we say, “Oh, we were going to do something similar.” When we saw Gomorrah and read the book, the images of the dad, we thought, they are asking themselves the same question. It's very difficult to see films when you are working. It's not always good. If it's very good, then you spend 15 days in bed. It's a long story when compared to most gangster stories, you know; some last for three weeks, this is a story covering a span of seven years. At one point, because it's not a rise and fall, we could not tell the story in acts. No three acts, or even two acts, the rise and fall. It's just a presentation. Actually, a lot of people ask about number two. This is just a presentation of the character and at the end, he's among us. The preparation of that guy, at the end, now he's free, now you can open the curtain. It's like all that was prior to the real gangster film.
Was this sort of a trilogy paired with your last three films, because the protagonists are all very similar.
Audiard: The opportunity I have is at the end of a cycle. So, yes, it may have been a cycle. I have a feeling that after this film, I have to move on to something else. It's always the story of a hero, a guy who is trying to extract himself from his condition. What's the definition of a hero in a movie? I don't think it has to do with morals. It has to do with one guy and what he has to do to improve himself in his environment; to extract himself from the fungus, from the mud. How many lives can you live? The hero will bet on his second life, a new situation.
At the end of the movie, did you have an idea of what he is when he gets out?
Bidegain: Yes, he gets into politics (laughs).
Audiard: No, this is possible. What I tell myself is that he is going to try to run away from everything he built, and maybe he will have to go back to what he knows best, which is a criminal, to succeed. And then he would have a third life. When I say politics, that is not ironic, to serve the public good. There are a lot of things we thought about. It was a lot about organization of the human soul, and he's interested in the public good. At one point, we had this idea that he would become the lover of a woman in politics. He would help her in protection, and at one point, she would present herself to the president, and the film starts the night of the election.
Having a father who is a screenwriter, how much did he influence you, and how did you learn from him?
Audiard: (long pause) I am absolutely the son of my father. Except that ... no, not except. When you are a child, and you see someone like my father who was always writing, cinema was really a profession, not an art. It was just a job. It was not an art. Start at 8:00 and finish at 6:00. So it was a very simple vision, a very simple knowledge of cinema, not mystified, not a dream. This was why I didn't want to go into cinema. At first, I studied literature. My father belonged to a generation in France, who had very little respect for cinema. The fascination went toward literature or theatre. The cinema was just a joke. I was an assistant editor on Polanski films, and who really influenced me was the head editor. She was an extremely smart woman, very bright, I learned a lot from her.
How was it working with real prisoners?
Tahar Rahim: It was a pleasure; they were really nice, very sweet. They are good men. They were ex-convicts, and it's true that they knew how to behave in a jail environment. As a human being, when you meet someone, you don't meet that person's past. Using them forced us to be real. They will set the tone, and they made the movie good. When we were arriving to the jail, all the noise and people were really making it alive.
Audiard: Sometimes I would pick one guy; you bring him the cigarettes, you bring him a baguette. Immediately they were there. They were the smartest backgrounds actors I've ever used because they knew how to behave.
Rahim: I tried to put together the work. Typically, when it looks very simple on the screen, it's very difficult to make.
How difficult was it to help your character grow? There's this amazing conflict that you have in your mind, that we see on your face, when César is being beaten up--please describe that?
Rahim: At that time, in that scene? I don't know how to explain it, I didn't want to be too complicated--I didn't want to think about the beginning, the middle, the end. That was a mistake I made at the beginning of the shooting. Because doing it that way, I will just close myself and become very secluded. It wasn't to ask more questions, but ask less questions, the right questions, the ones that will help me between one scene and another. I will ask the right questions and get the right answers. From what I remember of building the character was to go in one direction, but stay in the truth of the scene. I just had to think about the moment in that scene, and in another sequence, I will ask myself how I felt in that moment. I didn't think ahead. There were things that I did not understand.
Was it filmed chronologically?
Bidegain: No, it wasn't. There were a lot of questions about hair. His hair was always changing.
What are you thinking about Oscar® time?
Audiard: We go on a plane, we dress well, we drink, then we applaud, and that's it. That has been our life the last few weeks. Next week we do the same thing in Los Angeles, in better clothes.
* A Prophet (from Sony Pictures Classics) opens February 26, 2010. For more information, visit sonyclassics.com/aprophet
Danielle Alberico has worked in creative development and as a freelance journalist in both New York City and Los Angeles. She is currently working to sell her third screenplay, El Torito: To Hell and Back, based on the life of the super middleweight boxer, Tony Ayala Junior. She has worked for the Style network, Canal Plus, Scriptawish.com, and Howard Stern On Demand.