Éric Toledano & Olivier Nakache have written and directed four features in their native France, but only one has won American distribution, from The Weinstein Company, no less. That film is The Intouchables, a smash hit at the French box office, becoming the second most widely seen film of all time (it was also voted in a French poll "the cultural event of the year" in 2011). The film stars François Cluzet as a quadriplegic millionaire who hires a live-in caretaker (Sy), prompting a friendship that changes both men's lives for the better. Toledano and Nakache met the press at the Hotel Vitale during the 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival.
Groucho: One more [interview]! You can do it!
Olivier Nakache: It's okay. It's fun. We are enjoying ourselves.
Groucho: Good, good. How did you first become aware of the true story, and prior to the film, was it a well-known story in France?
Éric Toledano: It wasn't well-known.
Olivier Nakache: It wasn't well-known at all. We discovered this movie—
Éric Toledano: Very late! Very late!
ON: Ten years ago. And this story stayed in our minds, you know, because it was funny. We were very touched by this story. And it was made for two great actors. And so, for us, this documentary has to be transformed into a movie, because it's comedy, it's deep subjects.
ÉT: It was not well-known; it was very late. In the French channel, no one's aware of—in front of the TV. And it takes me something; it takes me "You have to look." I was at home sleeping. And the next day we spoke to each other at the office and said, "We have to do a movie," but we were not mature for that...we were not mature as now, because now we are very mature, you know!
ON: We got married, we had kids.
ÉT: So we decided to wait. We made two movies, and after the last one, we were working with Omar, and we said, "Why not now?"
ON: And it seemed it was a good decision.
G: How many times have you worked with Omar—is this your third?
ÉT: Four movies.
G: Four. And did you know, from when you wrote the script—did you write it with him in mind?
ON: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's for him.
ÉT: We did three before with him. And he was always a second play, not the first, main character in the main role...And after the last one, we decided to write him the first role, and we are very pleased!
G: And for the other role, did you know? Was it cast in advance? Or did you have—?
G: Yes, François.
ON: No, no, we wrote for—we thought about another actor, Daniel Auteuil.
G: Oh yes.
ON: I don't know if you know—
G: I do.
ON: But Daniel Auteuil—
ÉT: Say no.
ON: Say no, because he realized he [would] direct a movie.
ÉT: He was first interested, after he said no.
ON: His schedule was very complicated, so "No, no, sorry."
ÉT: [François Cluzet] was a second choice, but it was indeed the [best] choice because he is a big, big, big actor in France, very appreciated.
G: The two roles—it's such a culture clash movie: the roles are very different. I wonder, as actors, were their approaches different in how they developed their roles?
ÉT: For Omar, it was special. He comes really from this kind of—he's very near from the character. And the true character and Omar, we made a mix between the two personalities. They have a—Omar has a...it's a special guy, very generous. He's very natural, you know? So we took from him to build the character. And François is especially a good actor.
ON: He's a good actor because he's not paraplegic.
G: Right. (Laughs.)
ÉT: To prepare the role, he went to...see how the paraplegic are living, how they have a look...
G: So would you say Omar is more intuitive or spontaneous, and François is more of the classical preparation?
ÉT: No, both of them have the same perception of what is an actor. An actor is not the fabrication of a play: he just has to live the situation. And Omar and Francois have a big difference of age, but they both think exactly the same. When they saw each other, they had the same direction in how to play. It was a good meeting, big meeting; they were very near, very friends. And they are not—Omar is not really an actor. He didn't make the dramatic courts and everything. He's very spontaneous.
G: In dramatizing the story, what did you definitely not want to change: what was essential to the story?
ON: Humor, humor.
ON: The tone, the humor. And the humor that we cross the line a little bit, you know?
ÉT: The uncorrect critic-ness? Not politic—?
G: Not politically correct.
ÉT: Not politically correct. Speak about the people in wheelchair as [though] they were normal. Speak about the people from the ghetto. Not to be under the political correct and to cross the line...
G: And what about the story was it important to change in order for it to work as well?
ON: We adapt the role, the part of Abdel, you know?
ON: We adapt this to the character and to Omar. So we change some thing between the real character and Omar.
ÉT: Omar likes to dance.
ON: And we [summarized] ten years within two hours. They stayed together during ten years.
G: You know, in America, we have a term—I don't know if this will translate, but "bromance" movies.
ÉT: Yeah, yeah!
G: You know that?
ÉT: This is a bromance!
G: Yeah, yeah. I was wondering if you saw—
ÉT: Brother romance.
ON: Yeah, yeah. No problem...
ÉT: We speak fluent film.
G: Yeah, fluent Hollywood? (Laughs.) Okay. Well, the film is being distributed here by The Weinstein Company.
G: And Harvey Weinstein has a larger-than-life reputation...he's sort of known as a bull in a china shop. I wonder, what's your impression of him, or what was it like making a deal with him.
ÉT: First of all, he came to France before the release in France. So, you know, it's very important to note that he had to do it, because to buy this movie before the final cut of the movie, final editing of the movie, was a special fact for us, so when we learned that he was coming from Los Angeles, from New York or Los Angeles to see our movie in a small town in France, in a small editing room, we were very surprised...And after we had all the adventure of The Artist, so in France, we heard so much about The Weinstein Company. It was in television every night, with Jean Dujardin. So now we trust him for the future. But we made so many meetings with him. And in French, we say "the last...tycoon." The last big one that we heard about. It's not the studio; it's a man. A man that you came to achieve. Not to Warner...his personality is very famous in France.
G: ...There's also been talk of a possible remake; I know he has the rights to that. How would you feel about the film being reinterpreted, and would you have any casting suggestions?
ON: Yes, yes. The remake is on the tube.
G: On the way?
ON: On the way...Colin Firth is interested to play in the movie. You know him?
ON: So Paul Feig, you know, the director Paul Feig, so we're gonna see...
G: Now, in some of the early reviews here, some of the critics were hard on you, and took exception to—made the suggestion that it was racially insensitive...how do you guys respond to those criticisms?
ÉT: We respond that we are—it's unexpected for us, because this is a movie about justice, about tolerance, about equality, about the looks that you have, change the [out]look about the people. This is a movie—we allowed Omar to be the first black man in France to receive an award César. This is—for this film, it's so much. So I think it's a cultural problem because, in America, each time you are touching [on] the relation between race and black and white, it's touchy. In France, we have not the same story [as] you. We have not slavery; we have colonization. We have not the same ghettos. We have not the same story, so I think people who have wrote that has to be less in the...If I'm looking for an American movie, I did with my opinion and my point of view, but not as an American, but the French. But I can't understand—if I see a movie about the Civil War, or about the slavery, I can't do that with my mind, but I think when they did that, when they say that, they only view the movie with an American point of view. They have to understand that, in Europe—and we made the release perhaps fifteen countries, okay?—no one spoke about that. And in France, ninety million admission. It's so much—there is political sociology; doctors spoke about this film made in France. It's very, very far from us because this, on the contrary: what defends the movie, it's its values, of to know each other...to appreciate, get closer to other people. So this is a big misunderstanding for us, but we know that American culture is sometimes hard to understand. So we just can invite people to be open-minded, to see the film with other eyes, and to understand their fellow man differently. Just because the rich is white, and the black is poor, it's not for us, is it? My man, it's life: in France, it is so, and unfortunately in many countries. We spoke about reality. But sometimes people want to not see the reality. And that's a problem, I think.
G: Lastly...do you guys have an aspiration to ever direct a film here in America?
ÉT: Sure, sure.
ON: Maybe, if we find...
G: The right material?
ON: The story, you know. The story makes the good movie, so we have to find a good story, but we are very excited about the actors, you know? The actors, for us, is the most important thing...and here, in your country, you have some very, very, very good actors, so why not?
ÉT: But we need more time...
ON: We have to practice English.
G: You're doing well!
ON: We make comedies, and with comedy, it's crucial.
G: Oh yeah.
ON: You know what I mean...we've got to find a very good story.
ÉT: We like, for example, we like, we like so much Steve Carell as an actor. We like...
ON: Julianne Moore.
ÉT: Julianne Moore...and we like—you have a lot...
ON: Ah, we like Ben Stiller.
ÉT: We like Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, all these kind of...
ON: We dream about the movie with French actors and American—
ÉT: Sean Penn, we like Sean Penn. We like...you have directors, and it opens the possibilities to make so many different movies. But we are a little bit scared about the studios. We find it good, the freedom of the director. In France, we are very protected by the system, and it never takes—the director is less protected than in France...We know that in France, we're gonna be entirely free; we know that in the United States, we have too many...We can have a—for example, at the end of the system, a movie that we don't like. And it's a problem for us. We can't accept that; it's not our picture.
G: Well, I hope it works out for you.
ÉT: Thank you.
G: Thank you for talking with me.
ON: Thank you.