Waltzing with the West

Thomas Bidegain on Les Cowboys.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Thomas Bidegain on John C Reilly in Yorgos Lanthimos' The Lobster and Matteo Garrone's Tale of Tales:
Thomas Bidegain on John C Reilly in Yorgos Lanthimos' The Lobster and Matteo Garrone's Tale of Tales: "I think he has a secret plan to become a European film star." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Thomas Bidegain known for his screenwriting artistry with Jacques Audiard on Dheepan, A Prophet, and Rust And Bone and Joachim Lafosse on Our Children and The White Knights, met for a conversation on his directorial debut. Co-produced by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, co-written with Noé Debré, Les Cowboys stars François Damiens, Finnegan Oldfield (Eva Husson's Bang Gang) and John C Reilly with Agathe Dronne, Iliana Zabeth (Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent and House Of Tolerance), Jean-Louis Coulloc'h, Ellora Torchia, Mounir Margoum, Antonia Campbell-Hughes and Maxim Driesen.

Alain (François Damiens) with daughter Kelly (Iliana Zabeth)
Alain (François Damiens) with daughter Kelly (Iliana Zabeth)

David Lynch's Mulholland Drive cowboy, a Bronski Beat Smalltown Boy rendition, James Coburn in Sergio Leone's Duck, You Sucker, John Huston's The Man Who Would Be King, starring Michael Caine and Sean Connery, Slavoj Žižek on The Searchers in The Pervert’s Guide To Ideology and a Patrick deWitt The Sisters Brothers connection were corralled by us.

A family somewhere in rural France is getting ready to attend a country-western festival in their community. The father, Alain Balland (François Damiens), proudly dances with his 16-year-old daughter, Kelly (Iliana Zabeth). While Alain gives a rendition of the Tennessee Waltz on stage and after his wife Nicole (Agathe Dronne) and 13-year-old son Kid (Maxim Driesen) join a kind of square dance lineup, Kelly disappears. Thus begins a feverish quest in Les Cowboys that leads Alain around Europe, accompanied by Kid, who grows up to be a young man (Finnegan Oldfield).

In the tradition of John Ford's The Searchers, they try to track down an elusive girl who may not even want to be rescued. Kid, clearly his father's son, extends his own search to lands even farther away east from home, where he meets The American (John C Reilly), a man who teaches Kid that "Sometimes it's easier to trust someone you don't know."

The Balland family - Kid (Maxim Driesen) Nicole (Agathe Dronne) with Alain and Kelly
The Balland family - Kid (Maxim Driesen) Nicole (Agathe Dronne) with Alain and Kelly

Anne-Katrin Titze: I want to start with the beginning of your film - that great shot of the waterfall …

Thomas Bidegain: You are the first one who mentioned that in the 600 interviews I’ve done. It’s the Indian [Jean-Louis Coulloc'h], Kid’s [Finnegan Oldfield] friend, the guy he goes fishing with. For me it was like “Once upon a time …”It’s like an Indian legend. This happened, once upon a time. And then you can get into the film. When I saw that waterfall, it was complicated to get everybody there quickly just in front of the thing. But I thought - this is the beginning.

AKT: Of your very first film that you directed.

TB: The very first image.

AKT: Next you show us the [Balland] family getting ready for the country-western festival. The father [Alain - François Damiens] has a bolo put around his neck, the daughter [Kelly - Iliana Zabeth] a red kerchief. Which will become important again later.

TB: The wife [Nicole - Agathe Dronne] puts the little bandana on the daughter, Kelly. That’s all she accepted to wear. They are all dressed up, except her.

Kid (Finnegan Oldfield) with his father Alain
Kid (Finnegan Oldfield) with his father Alain

AKT: She is wearing a skirt.

TB: A long skirt.

AKT: I was wondering about her at that point. Is she pregnant? Is she part of a cult?

TB: She knows she is leaving. It’s all about that. The first line of the film is “Have you seen Kelly?” The father says she cannot be far and then you’re going to spend 15 years looking for her.

AKT: I want to quote something to you from one of my favorite cowboys. “Now, if you do good, you’ll see me one more time. If you do bad, you’ll see me two more times.”

TB (laughs): I like that! Where is that coming from?

AKT: It’s David Lynch. The cowboy in Mulholland Drive.

TB: Oh yes, the lightning cowboy guy! I love the light on him. It’s like he comes from the dark!

The Cowboy in Mulholland Drive:
The Cowboy in Mulholland Drive: "I love the light on him. It’s like he comes from the dark!"

AKT: I thought about Lynch in the context of how daringly you jump ahead in time.

TB: Sometimes you get lost a little but after a few minutes there is one guy who says “You know the French guy who was in Yemen last year?” And you understand exactly what happened during the five years that were not told. Those ellipses allow you to intuit the consequences of things.

AKT: Would you say the film is divided in quarters?

TB: Yeah, for me there are four parts. It starts with a woman disappearing. It’s an inquiry. Then the second part is more like a family drama. It’s the father and the son and the separation with the mother. It’s shot in the northern part of Europe, mostly at night, and it’s cold and dramatic.

And then it’s an adventure film, like The Man Who Would Be King or something like that. You see American actors. The scale is different. The landscapes are huge and you go to the frontier. And then the last part is a love story.

The searchers Kid and Alain
The searchers Kid and Alain

AKT: The third part takes place in Pakistan?

TB: We really shot in India. It’s very difficult to shoot in Pakistan. We shot at the border in Rajasthan. I really wanted the light and the landscape because you don’t see them very often. The exoticism was part of our project. History and geography – both of them were important in the film.

AKT: In some shots you have the feeling of Montana or Wyoming.

TB: I come from the Basque country. Not from the sea, from the hills. I always insisted that we see mountains in the background.

AKT: So are you a smalltown boy?

TB: Yes! You know, I sing that song?

AKT: I noticed in the credits. That’s why I’m asking. Can you sing a little for me?

Les Cowboys co-producers Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne with Richard Peña
Les Cowboys co-producers Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne with Richard Peña Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

TB: Nobody notices. Yeah. The lyrics are so good. [He starts singing]: “The love that you need will never be found at home. Run away, turn away run away.”

AKT: Thank you!

TB: It’s the last time I’ll ever do that. Not singing, but singing in a film, because when you present a film everywhere, each time you arrive, you see the last three minutes of the film. And you hear yourself singing! Never again!

AKT: John C Reilly is terrific in your film and unlike how he is in so many other films.

TB: He hasn’t played that many bounty hunters.

AKT: He is truly expanding. The Lobster, Tale Of Tales

TB: I think he has a secret plan to become a European film star.

AKT: He’s well on his way!

TB: He had three films in Cannes last year. He is great and he is very likable. His character, The American, is not very likable but Kid needs to be willing to follow him. And I told John, “It’s not the American you are playing. You’re playing America.”

The American (John C Reilly) with Kid:
The American (John C Reilly) with Kid: "He looks great but he is like a second-hand car dealer."

AKT: Wow! What actor wouldn’t like to get that instruction?

TB: And he is doing it so well. They are in a place of the world where they don’t belong. They are absolutely dangerous, you don’t know if you can trust them all the way, but they are likable. And it’s really America.

AKT: John C Reilly does this fantastic interview with Kid. First he tells him to relax. Then comes: “You know how to ride a horse? Can you stay calm in stressful situations? You speak French and English - sort of.” Great gesture going with it.

TB: That comes from John. He has a lot of ideas and he is very natural. A great actor. And then in the precinct he has to talk Urdu with the guy. We would go through the text and then he would be like a clock.

AKT: How did you meet?

TB: I met him a few years ago. He came to see Jacques Audiard and myself to offer us a book that he had acquired the rights to. It’s going to be Jacques’ new project.

AKT: What’s the name of the book???

TB: It’s called The Sisters Brothers. It’s a book by Patrick deWitt and it’s set during the Gold Rush in 1851 in Oregon. John is going to be in it. I wrote the script with Jacques Audiard. So when it came time to cast The American [in Les Cowboys], I had John in mind. John had never been to India and we all went horseback riding.

Les Cowboys US poster
Les Cowboys US poster Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: It looks really good what he is wearing [in Les Cowboys].

TB: Do you know that film by Sergio Leone, Duck, You Sucker [aka] Once Upon A Time In The Revolution? James Coburn is the star and he wears several layers and a little head scarf. He has to be a legend. And he is really like a Maharaja.

AKT: I like the combination with the tweed jacket, the long robe, the sunglasses.

TB: These are his sunglasses that he bought at some gas station somewhere. He looks great but he is like a second-hand car dealer.

AKT: “I trade people for money” is how he describes his job.

TB: Exactly. That line is from him too.

AKT: Finnegan Oldfield seems surprised at times with what he tells him. They are very good with each other.

TB: Because they are off balance. I like the scene when he comes and picks up his gun and Kid thinks, “He’s back, he’s going to save me.”

Coming up - Thomas Bidegain on working with the Dardennes, the ongoing Bertrand Bonello connection, The Tennessee Waltz as a lullaby, listening to John C Reilly and Finnegan Oldfield, Slavoj Žižek on The Searchers in The Pervert’s Guide To Ideology and what's in his future.

Les Cowboys opens in the US on June 24 and in the UK on June 26.

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