A filmmaker, much like any other creator, has a certain need to address specific topics. Finding that common denominator and expressing it in bits and pieces can either result in a stale piece of art or a never-ending, but exciting, challenge. Rémi Allier, for instance, is a director who prefers exploring the world through a child’s point of view. With short films such as Zinneke and Little Hands, he strives to depict reality from a child’s innocent viewpoint. Fascinated by the lack of prejudices and this overall pure instinctual version of life, Allier seeks to investigate subjects through this standpoint in order to provide a fresh perspective.
Being shortlisted for an Academy Award, Allier and I dive into a discussion about Little Hands to unpack certain moments in the film:
Ioanna Micha: Obviously, the first thought that comes to mind in this film is the welfare of the child actors. How did you ensure they were protected during the key scenes in the film that are quite intense and energetic?
Rémi Allier: I love kids in real life before loving them on the screen, so this wasn’t an option for me. Also, the rules are very strict in France when you are working with children. Working with child actors has been the core of my research for many years now (I did other films with kids, as a director/coach). Working with a baby for Little Hands, I had to re-invent everything I knew in order to reorganize the film-set and schedule around the welfare and safety of the baby. Emile, the child actor, is very close to me, I have known him since his birth, and his parents are some of my closest friends: his father, Martin Moulron, was the props master, and his mother, Lise Lejeune, was the Costume Designer. Then we had to build the relationship with other actors, especially with Jan Hammenecker (Bruno, the worker), so that they could get along and play. Once we had that bubble of trust and confidence around the babies (Emile, main actor, and Camille, the body double) we could explore safely.
As soon as we knew everybody was ready, our job as a film crew and my job a director was to make you, the audience, believe that the baby was going through a traumatic and violent experience, encountering those energetic and intense scenes, while in reality, he was just playing in the arms of his “friend”. The most violent thing he encountered was playing “helicopter” while running in the forest. It is all a matter of focal length, blocking, sound editing, and point of view. Most of the time when things appear the most violent, there is actually no baby involved, but just a dummy! I talked with many specialists of childhood, such as childcare workers, psychiatrists, stuntmen, actors, and directors to really understand what I would be able to do.
IM: Following on from that, how did you get the child to cry on cue?
RA: The kid was able to understand lots of things, but, of course, he wasn’t able to cry on cue. So, we had to organize our schedule in order to use the little accidents of a normal day, and record them. Throughout the day, a baby that age normally cries a few times, when hungry or tired, or upset because he dropped something. For example, after the “fall” in the forest, the baby cries loudly, in shock. In fact, he was just waking up from the afternoon nap, so he was a bit grumpy and confused, as he usually is when he is looking for his mother.
IM: Tell us about the background and context of the story which chronicles the closure of a factory. Was this based on a real-life incident?
RA: Closing factories are sadly something that happens a lot these days in France or Belgium, and I have seen it during my entire life. The film was inspired by many different actual events during which things went crazy. In 2015, a manager of Air France got his shirt ripped off during a protest. In 2014, the manager of Goodyear in Amiens was detained. Those events were signs that fear and anger against managers can lead to extreme violence. I was shocked by this, and moreover, I wanted to question that violence, where is the source of it, why do people feel such a strong pressure that they believe they have nothing to lose? Violence always has a source and it’s important to keep that in mind.
IM: Tell us about your cast.
RA: Emile Moulron Lejeune a.k.a. Léo is the baby that I have been watching growing up during the writing of the film. He had such a strong personality and generosity for a 2-year-old, and it was as if he had understood what we were doing. We had some really magical moments with him. Moreover, because he knows me and most of the crew, he knew he could be fearless. Jan Hammenecker a.k.a. Bruno, the worker abductor, is a famous actor in Belgium. I had the chance to work with him on an exercise during film school. It was one of those encounters that really change you. I think about him a lot when I write, so offering him the part of Bruno was more than natural to me. Also, he is a father and knows a lot about working with kids, so his generosity and overall involvement made him a strong ally. All the extras are actual workers from the area, whom we met there. They were so involved and professional.
IM: Where did you shoot and for how long?
RA: We shot the film in October 2016 for 2 weeks, 9 shooting days. In Aquitaine region in the South West of France, in 2 separate places, the forest in the Landes near the Atlantic ocean, and the factory in Lot et Garonne, further in the land.
IM: How did you get financing for the project?
RA: The film is a co-production between Belgium and France. (Wrong men and Films Grand huit). We received money from the Belgian and French sides. Public money from governments, Federation Wallonie Bruxelles, French CNC, Bourgogne Region, Aquitaine Region, Landes and Lot et Garonne funds, Arte TV channel, RTBF (Belgian National TV), Be TV, tax shelter. The budget was quite impressive because working with babies increases the shooting time and logistics, also everybody was paid.
IM: You came from an Editing background before you headed over to Belgium to study Directing. How do the two disciplines feed into your story-telling style?
RA: As an editor, I write in images more than words, so those shots, scenes, are already edited in my mind when I write them. This helps me a lot to feel the rhythm, the pace of my films. I think about films as if they would be one single shot, with only a string of emotion and tension. Also, my editing background helps me a lot on set to understand the way the space would be mapped or abstracted; the way the characters would be seen. I started to say I wanted to make films when I was 8, so I’m now trying to dig into that point of view I had as a kid. The idea of point of view guides my writing and my directing all the way to the editing room.
IM: How do French and Belgian culture differ in their filmmaking approaches, and do you appreciate the style of each when structuring your own work?
RA: France is a bigger country, and we can think of film as an industry there. Also, we, as French tend to take our work and ourselves very seriously, as artists, auteurs… sometimes a bit too seriously! In Belgium, film is more like arts and crafts; the audience is so tiny, as the country is. Also, there is in the mind of the population, a strong sense of humor, distance, and a way not to take things too seriously. So, I tend to mix the two cultures, trying to build casts and crews on two sides. It is a way to balance things out: having a very serious and engaged way of working with distance and questioning, and humor when needed. A set with two toddlers really changes the game because you have to juggle with making a film and changing diapers, or playing in muddy puddles!
IM: It is said that your work focuses on youth and childhood. What issues would you like to explore in the future using these as points of reference?
RA: I think our adult world is quite questionable. My next project is a feature film about a 10-year-old girl facing the end of the world as we know it. Exploring our world through the eyes of young kids is something that I find fascinating. It allows me to explore the darkest areas of our lives, but always keep the eyes towards light, hope, and can be humorous when needed.
IM: Salaud Morriset, who won the Oscar with Skin for Best Live Action Short in 2019, is representing your film. What are your hopes for it in the future?
RA: Skin is an amazing short, so having the same journey with Little Hands sounds crazy! Of course, the adventure we are having with Little Hands, with the César and all, is already crazy. I am so happy and excited whenever I think that we have new opportunities for the film to be seen by many people, and film professionals in the US. The response around the film in Telluride was incredible. The right goal for me is for the film to be seen by everyone. Plus I know that this might create opportunities for new encounters and projects, so I am very excited!
IM: Finally, would you consider expanding this short film into a feature?
RA: Definitely! I worked on a feature version of Little Hands. I think this will be my second feature! It’s a very ambitious project, and I love challenges. Also, I am always excited by creating new stories and images that I have never seen on a screen. So, yes! I’d be happy to!