Making a killing

Frédéric Tellier talks about watching the detectives and making SK1.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

SK1 (L’Affaire SK1) director Frédéric Tellier with David Cronenberg's Videodrome at the IFC Center
SK1 (L’Affaire SK1) director Frédéric Tellier with David Cronenberg's Videodrome at the IFC Center Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Frédéric Tellier’s intense thriller SK1 (L’Affaire SK1) stars Raphaël Personnaz, Nathalie Baye, Olivier Gourmet, Michel Vuillermoz and Adama Niane. SK1, named for the first serial killer identified through DNA analysis in France, is based on journalist Patricia Tourancheau’s book about the case, Guy Georges: La Traque.

Frédéric spoke with me about his upcoming project with SK1 producer Julien Madon, how Bertrand Tavernier's L.627 and Henri Verneuil's Mélodie En Sous-Sol (Any Number Can Win), starring Jean Gabin and Alain Delon, play a detective role, finding his Guy Georges, the nature of evil and the response of the inspectors involved in the case when they saw the film.

Raphaël Personnaz as Charlie Olivier Gourmet as Bougon: "They need this kind of relief, these bubbles of oxygen sometimes."
Raphaël Personnaz as Charlie Olivier Gourmet as Bougon: "They need this kind of relief, these bubbles of oxygen sometimes."

Baye is Maître Frédérique Pons, the lawyer who agreed to represent the man nobody wanted to defend. Tellier brings us up-close to the investigators, especially Franck Magne, nicknamed Charlie, (Personnaz) and Charlie's older experienced colleague Bougon (Gourmet). Together with their captain, Carbonel, (Vuillermoz) we see the team follow many wrong leads, while more young, pretty, female victims lose their lives.

Convicted murderer Guy Georges, known as the "Beast of Bastille" due to his 11th arrondissement hunting ground, brutally raped and killed seven women over a period of years in the 1990s before a complicated investigation led to his arrest.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Nathalie Baye and I spoke about doubt. It is a central point in the story - you manage to get the audience to doubt if Guy Georges did it. Although I know he did it, I felt at times that maybe he did not.

Frédéric Tellier: Because I really have trouble with this idea of evil. I don't understand why the human community destructs itself. I tried with this film to ask a lot of questions without answers.

AKT: The structuring of the investigation is very interesting. It must have been difficult because there were so many victims. Then you also show all these wrong paths the investigation took - this maze of clues. Please talk about how you constructed this complex story.

Captain Carbonel (Michel Vuillermoz), Charlie and Jensen (Thierry Neuvic): "It's very difficult, the Nineties, because it's far and it's not far."
Captain Carbonel (Michel Vuillermoz), Charlie and Jensen (Thierry Neuvic): "It's very difficult, the Nineties, because it's far and it's not far."

FT: The first big point was that this was a true story and a very recent one in France. So it's not a total fiction movie. Usually, when it's a fictional detective movie, there is a crime and you don't know who committed it.

AKT: A whodunit.

FT: Yes. And that's the film. Here we know who does the crime. The film was a long way to propose to the audience to be once the detective, once the lawyer, once very close to the victims - and to think about that.

AKT: The scenes on the roof of the Paris police headquarters are absolutely beautiful and we really need them. Did you put these in so that the audience can breathe for a while?

FT: Sure. But it's true, actually. The guy with the barbecue and the one with the fishing boat are exactly true. For the anecdote - I shot the fishing boat scene in the real fishing boat the cops used twenty years before. It's not exactly the right roof of 36, Quai des Orfèvres [headquarters of the Paris criminal police].

AKT: They didn't allow you to film up on their roof? You went next door?

FT: Yes. Exactly. The one exactly in front of 36.

AKT: The one hosting the barbecues is played by Olivier Gourmet?

William Nadylam and Nathalie Baye in defense of Guy Georges: "You know with an actor, you tell him 'there's this kind of character with Nathalie Baye.' Everyone wants to shoot this movie."
William Nadylam and Nathalie Baye in defense of Guy Georges: "You know with an actor, you tell him 'there's this kind of character with Nathalie Baye.' Everyone wants to shoot this movie."

FT: Yes. It's very necessary for them because in that specific police section, the criminal brigade, they are all together, all the time and all the cases are so horrible that they need this kind of relief, these bubbles of oxygen sometimes. So they have these weekend trips on the fishing boat and the boss of the group is actually seasick.

AKT: In the film you show that their private life is almost nonexistent. The wife of Charlie gets to give birth and take a bath and not much more. Does this reflect how the real detectives feel?

FT: That is not really reality. Fortunately for them, they've got a private life. It was very hard in the movie to compress ten years into two hours. I shot more material on the private life. I know very well the real Charlie and his private life is very important to him. That's a compromise to not make the film too long. The scene with the bath is very important to me. I wanted to show that this guy has this beautiful wife, alive and close to him and he doesn't look at her anymore. He looks at corpses all the time. For two people from the families of the victims that was a very important point, strangely, this scene. They spoke with me and said it impressed them a lot.

AKT: Breathtaking is what you stage with the victim who escapes, when Guy Georges tells her "I won't hurt you, I'm just going to rest." Is this based on the woman's actual accounts? Did you discuss it with her?

Inspectors at work: "That is an exact copy of the offices."
Inspectors at work: "That is an exact copy of the offices."

FT: I met all the real-life people, except Guy Georges. Because morally, I didn't want to meet him.

AKT: Could you have?

FT: I didn't even try to. It was impossible for me in my heart to be with the families of the victims and then say to them, "You know what? Last week I was with Guy Georges and he gave me his version." That was really not possible. I worked with two lawyers who were very good witnesses about him, the cops, and I had access to legal medical reports. And I saw the statements of the facts. The guy was very strangely sweet, actually.

AKT: You don't hide the sweetness in the movie - that is really disturbing. Was it difficult to find an actor to play him?

FT: I found him [Adama Niane] with a very long casting process. You know with an actor, you tell him "there's this kind of character with Nathalie Baye." Everyone wants to shoot this movie. I wanted to make sure that he understood very well the situation. It's not so easy in France to play Guy Georges. I wanted to make sure that morally he understood that.

AKT: His performance is impressive.

Marianne Denicourt as Crime Unit Chief: "I had access to legal medical reports. And I saw the statements of the facts."
Marianne Denicourt as Crime Unit Chief: "I had access to legal medical reports. And I saw the statements of the facts."

FT: You know, he still hasn't watched the film! He had a kind of second conscience crisis. At the beginning, he was a lot more innocent about the role. He hasn't had the strength to watch it all.

AKT: Talk about the casting of Charlie.

FT: The casting of Charlie was simple because I wanted to shoot with Raphaël Personnaz.

AKT: Had he done Tavernier's The French Minister (Quai d'Orsay) at that time?

Tavernier spoke about Personnaz's comic timing as the new guy in the ministry.

FT: I think that was one year before. I needed a young man who was able to be 30 at the beginning of the film and 40 at the end. It still is very difficult to meet an actor in the US or in France. You send the script, then you wait, you wait, you wait. You call the agent - it's very difficult. But through the producer of the film, I had the personal number of Raphaël. I called him, I don't know, Wednesday evening, I sent him the script, he called me the day after, we have lunch together and he told me "okay" and then we made the film together.

AKT: He plays the "new guy" very well. Here he is the gateway for us to the investigation. How did the real people react to the competition and, at times, incompetence you are showing?

Bougon with Charlie: "Fortunately for them, they've got a private life."
Bougon with Charlie: "Fortunately for them, they've got a private life."

FT: There have been two kind of reactions. The real Carbonel, the leader of the group who owns the boat, he came to a private screening in December with other members of the group. At the end, they all kind of gathered up the way rugby players do and they created that group hug. And he said, "we just closed the door on the case." He still carries in his wallet the photo of two of the victims. The other reaction you have to bear in mind is that at the time they didn't have all of the IT means we have in this day and age, no cell phones, no computer networks. They were working based on very human conditions. No policeman ever closed a case because they were being lazy, Everybody had their own strong ideas and that created friction or tension between them. All of them very, very convinced of what they thought - and we're talking about the best policemen in France. There was no bad blood between them. This wasn't based on competition drive.

AKT: Does the character played by Olivier Gourmet have a picture of Jean Gabin behind his desk?

FT: There's two references. Behind Olivier Gourmet there is the Bertrand Tavernier poster from L.627 which is a very famous detective film in France. And at one moment there is a poster of Mélodie en sous-sol (Any Number Can Win) a movie with Jean Gabin and Alain Delon behind Raphaël.

AKT: You are putting yourself in that tradition?

FT: In French police stations there are a lot of posters of detective movies. It was coincidence that they were there but it suited them and was actually kind of funny.

AKT: But you were building the sets?

Charlie contemplating evil: " I don't understand why the human community destructs itself."
Charlie contemplating evil: " I don't understand why the human community destructs itself."

FT: Totally. But that is an exact copy of the offices.

AKT: It feels quite real. Also the costumes. I had a turtleneck from Benetton in the 90s that looked exactly like the one Charlie is wearing. The shapes are subtly changed and right for that time.

FT: It's very difficult, the Nineties, because it's far and it's not far. It's not like the Seventies or Sixties. But if you get it wrong, it would be catastrophic.

AKT: You begin your movie with a quote by James Jones about the origin of great evil. When did this quote enter the picture?

FT: James Jones because that's more of a detective story. For me, SK1 is a movie, I hope that's not too pretentious, about the human condition. About how people organize themselves to fight the big evil. I knew the books by James Jones and I liked this sentence. I thought it was the first point of entry into the movie. My primary objective was to pay homage to the victims. Not only to the victims but also to the fighters of evil. After that, it's a crime story, it's a noir, it's a procedural, it's all of that. But that's secondary to what I wanted to do.

AKT: What are you working on next?

FT: I'm writing another movie, I hope. I have the same producer, Julien Madon. It's a story of victims, one more time, but victims of biotech. It's about five characters, totally different, but the lines will cross at one point in the film. I think in this one, too, there is a story stronger than the characters. Unlike what I did with Guy Georges, in this new movie I'm not going to use real names. I've been doing research on that subject for two years. You cannot imagine the things I've seen. It's like a crazy world. I feel as a citizen I have responsibility. I met a farmer who grows onions and he told me that even though he produces those onions he himself doesn't eat them.

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