In her feature directorial debut, director Sophie Barthes has crafted an original dark comedy about an actor called Paul Giamatti in search of a soul. Acclaimed at the Sundance Film Festival, Barthes is an original voice in independent cinema. She talked to Paul Fischer in this exclusive interview.
Question: When you started to write this script, did you write it specifically about an actor in general, or was Paul always in the forefront of your mind?
Barthes: Well, the first draft, I was a bit delusional, because I wrote it for Woody Allen, basically. Because, you know, the story was based on the dream I had in which Woody Allen was looking at his soul in a little box, and his soul was a chickpea. And so I kind of entertained the idea that I was going to write it for Woody Allen. And then I thought, you know, I would probably never get access to him. At the same time, I saw American Splendor. And I kind of fell in love with Paul’s performance in that movie, because he had the kind of Woody Allen, fidgety, agitated, neurotic qualities. But at the same time, he had a very soulful presence on screen. And so I thought this was perfect for that role. Imagine someone that is so soulful, and then you take this soul out, and what is the poor guy left with, you know? And this seemed to be comic to me. So then, yeah, I wrote it for Paul as Paul Giamatti, really hoping that he would respond to the material. And I took kind of a risk.
Question: When you met with Paul, did Paul see himself the way you did in the creation of this character?
Barthes: Well, Paul is a very modest guy. So, you know, at the beginning he said, ” Oh, but if I have to play myself, I’m not that interesting. I don’t have a persona, like Woody Allen. So you have to make it into a character.” And I think what interested him is more the dream-like aspect of the screenplay. He didn’t really care – playing himself wasn’t the big thing that attracted him to do the movie. He thought it was funny, that we were playing this joke on the audience, because we both agreed that people see actors, and think they think know them. They watch a movie for two hours, and they’re like, ” Oh,” those actors belong to them, in a way. And so this looks fun, to play with the kind of madness there is in this country around celebrities and actors. But when he approached the role, he told me he was forgetting sometimes that the character was actually called Paul Giamatti. He was just playing this archetypal neurotic New Yorker. Very much like Wallace Shawn or Woody Allen, or – this tradition of New Yorker neurotics.
Question: What do you do when you direct somebody who is playing an exaggerated version of them? How do you direct the performance?
Barthes: Well, I also forgot, when I was directing the film, I also forgot at one point that he was called Paul Giamatti. It isn’t really relevant to the scenes. What was more – the tricky part and the most challenging part for directing, and I guess for acting the role, was that Paul had to go to the major shift. He had to be soulful, and then without a soul, and then with a Russian soul, and then – you know, like, recovering his soul. So, this was, like, the most challenging thing. And we had to focus on – the two of us actually talked a lot about what soullessness would be, and how we would portray that without feeling robotic. You know, what qualities he could have, as a soulless being. So, we focused so much on the conversation about soulfulness and soullessness, that – you know, directing him being himself wasn’t really the point any more, once we got into the production.
Question: Obviously the dominant theme of Cold Souls is this idea of soul, and – you know, what is a soul? Apart from the fact that you based this on a dream you had, why is this theme of importance to you as a filmmaker and as a writer?
Barthes: For me, I’m very intrigued by the theme of the soul, because I studied philosophy, and – you know, it’s a theme that, for 2000 years, philosophers and religions have been trying to decide what makes us human. And so it’s a quintessential kind of question. The idea was not to make a didactic film that would be a lesson in philosophy, or whatever, but to be playful with those concepts. You know, what is the spirits, the body, the mind, the soul – how they are interconnected. And I was reading a lot of psychoanalysis at this point. I got really fascinated by Carl Jung. So in the movie, there are a lot of Jungian themes. I was reading Man in Search of a Soul when I had the dream, and I think it really influenced the writing, and the ideas behind the film. And I think it’s kind of very beautiful. What Jung says is basically that it’s a bit like the Sisyphus myth, you know. That we have to roll the stone up the hill, and the soul is this kind of burden sometimes. And you should neglect the soul, and you don’t really take care of it. And you can call it whatever you want. You can put it aside here. But it gets back to you, in the form of a depression or neuroses. So, the point of the film is to be a little bit satirical about what modern society is doing to the soul, and – you know, the quick fix we’re trying to do, to alleviate our emotions, and not to feel so much. So it’s maybe the next step after the Prozac. You know. If Prozac doesn’t work, then can you extract your soul and just store it, and then you don’t have to feel anything?
Question: Now despite the fact that the film definitely has a philosophical and almost a metaphysical time to it. It’s also a very funny movie. And I’m just wondering, if you – through the genesis of this script, and for the continual drafting of the script, if you refined it so that you were able to write something that was both personal, philosophical, and funny to a broad audience.
Barthes: Yeah. You know, I hoped people are going to laugh. But the idea was to make something that was – you know, playful and absurdist. I love the theatre of the absurd, and the material – like, once you start to talk about souls as if they’re turnips or chickpeas, it can become extremely funny. So I just wanted to explore a tone that would be walking the line between melancholy and sometimes kind of more slapstick absurdist comedy. And Chekhov – you know, the reason there is Chekhov and Uncle Vanya in the movie, is because I think he was the master of combining those tones. You know, he was very good at making plays that are extremely sad, but at the same time, those characters are very funny in their depression. And it’s a laughter that comes a little bit from cruelty. You know, the more you see a man in trouble, the more you laugh. And so this was a little bit the idea for the tone.
Question: Cold Souls was very well-received at Sundance, and you got terrific distribution for the movie in the United States. And what kinds of doors does that open for you now as a filmmaker, and is it hard for you to come up with something else that is as personal, as interesting, and as didactic, I guess, as this film is?
Barthes: You mean, what kind of door it opens to me? Well, I’m just writing another kind of science-fiction, absurdist film. And hopefully – the only thing I hope is I can continue making films. Because when I made this film, we had access to private funds and hedge funds to finance it. And it was at the height of the economy in 2007. And now, I think it will be really hard to make a film like this, because it’s a tricky film. It’s not – so, I just hope to be able to make films like this, and keep a little bit of creative control. You know, I will be very scared to just do a huge studio movie right now, and not be able to have the creative freedom. The beauty of this film is like – we had a lot of time to prepare. And it was a labor of love. And I took maybe three years, in total, from writing to now, to promoting the film. But it was very much part of our life. My life partner is a cinematographer, and really – I reckon he’s also one of the producers. So, we lived with this film, and we hope to make films the same way, a little bit. That, the scope is manageable, and we can continue to have the creative freedom.
Question: Do you hope to work with Paul again?
Barthes: I would love to work with Paul. I’m actually writing something – and I think it would be great for the role. I think he’s – I asked him to do a little bit what he’s been doing in American Splendor and Sideways, this type of character. But his range is so vast. He can go from total slapstick to very melancholic. So, you can ask – I think he can play any role. I truly think – I mean, I’m not very experienced. It’s my first film. But, he’s one of the best actors of his generation. He’s truly impressive on sets. You can ask him any variation, and he just does it. And he’s totally in the moment, when he acts. So I’m extremely impressed by his skills and craft.
Question: Is the film you’re writing now as personal or as philosophical a piece as Cold Souls? Or very different, internally?
Barthes: Tonally, it’s a little bit the same. It’s the same territory. It’s the surreal – it’s just maybe a little bit bigger, in terms of production design and scope, just because this movie was very tiny. And so it will be a tiny bit bigger, I think. But it’s the same – I mean, the themes that really interest me, that ask some philosophical questions, but they can be read at different levels, and try to remain a bit playful. So, definitely, I think it will feel – you know, like, the short film I did before was also in the same kind of style. It was a woman who was buying a box of happiness, and she didn’t know what to do with happiness, so she was returning the box.
But the idea is this – I like a very absurd premise, and then see – I’m trying to push the suspension of disbelief. And people just believe that there is happiness in that box, or that your soul can be a chickpea. I think it’s interesting. And cinema can do that. You have so much freedom, visually, to do these kinds of things. You don’t need special effects.
Question: Is this absurdism that you are so fascinating by come from your European background? Because it’s not a very American style of humor. I mean, it is a very European style of humor.
Barthes: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I grew up reading a lot of theatre of the absurd. You know, I loved Ionesco and Beckett, so – it’s very much in the French tradition. You know, all the Surrealist movement. One of my favorite filmmakers as a teenager and then later on was Luis Bunuel. So, there is a very strong tradition in France of absurdism and Surrealism. Not everyone likes it. Some people prefer neo-realism, and they want – you know, they have problems with letting their imagination go wild. But for me, it’s always been, like – a movement that I really admire, especially Surrealism. Because it was the most complete art movement, I think, in France. You know, you had painting and poetry and music, filmmaking, and all those artists were kind of working and collaborating together. So, it was kind of the golden age, I think, of the French culture. You know. And – but no, it’s not a movement that – it never really took root in the US, Surrealism.
And I think – I’m not sure, but maybe it’s the political affiliations that Surrealism had. Most of them were Communist or Marxist. And then they had divergence. And I know that Dali had different political views, and they kind of became a little bit disenchanted with communism, and then they became apolitical. But maybe this is the reason why, in the US, there isn’t a strong tradition of Surrealism.
Question: Would you like to work in France?
Barthes: I’d love to, but now my life is here. You know, Andre, his career – he’s much more advanced, his career as a cinematographer. And his career is here. So – and, I mean, this country has been very good to me. Making this film with such great actors as a first film. There is a level of accessibility in the US that I think is amazing. You have – maybe you don’t get financing from the government, but at least you don’t have that much bureaucracy, and actors are kind of very – I found it amazing, to have that access to those actors so easily. And so – if the movie does well here, I would love to continue here, and maybe make a few movies in Europe, if it’s possible. It would be nice to work in between both systems.