Still best known for her career on screen, having starred in Europa Europa, Three Colours: White, and Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight), Oscar-nominated writer and filmmaker Julie Delpy’s returns with her seventh film in the director’s chair. Written, directed and starring Delpy, as well as Richard Armitage, Daniel Brühl and Gemma Arterton, My Zoe tells the story of Isabelle and James, a divorcing couple who are faced with an unimaginable tragedy, and the refusal of a mother to accept her fate.
We sat down with Julie Delpy to discuss her ambitious new film, the slow changes occurring in the film industry and whether she’s open to the idea of a fourth Before film.
** WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD FOR MY ZOE **
Where did the idea for this film about the limits of parenthood come from?
Sadly, when I was a kid, I witnessed a few parents losing their child, and it really stuck with me. I’ll always remember the misery and suffering they went through. I always had the idea that I wanted to tell a story about a parent who would not accept that fate. That idea was 25 years ago. And then when I became a parent, I really understood the anxiety of being a parent, and the anxiety of losing a child became insane. It’s really scary. I’m wondering if instead of making this film, I should have tried to make another kid! (Laughs) I should have spent less time focusing on the film and more on my own life! But it didn’t work out that way, so I made a film! (Laughs)
That anxiety can really be felt, especially in the first act of the film.
Yes, and I think this anxiety is universal as a parent, or even as an individual. I have friends that don’t have kids but they’re still aware that this anxiety is a real thing, that this worst fear exists. Because you can lose your parents, you can lose your loved ones, but a child is against nature. I wanted to do a film about someone who would go against nature.
She challenges her fate…
Yes! I always like people who go against fate. You know? The people that fight back.
One thing that struck me about the film is its three-act structure. Can you tell me more how you envisaged the tonal shifts that decry from the structure?
The first act is our reality – we know couples separating, fighting, in custody battles… It’s a very harsh opening, because I wanted to capture something true – no one is cute in this one! I didn’t want a cute version of a separation. Then you go into this darker reality in the second act, one that, luckily, most of us haven’t gone through. And then you get to a third level, which slightly shies away from reality with a sci-fi element. I felt that if you go from something that you know, to something real that you don’t really know – and wish you’ll never know – and then to something that seems real but isn’t completely real, then the layers of “unreal” become more acceptable. And then you can really go into the moral dilemma of what the character does from a genuinely emotional perspective.
It helps that the sci-fi elements feel rooted in reality…
Yes, and the reality is that it’s not really sci-fi! Cloning is going to happen – it’s around the corner. But if you tell people that this is a film about cloning, the first answer you’ll get is “cloning is bad”. But it’s not about that.
The ethics behind the sci-fi inflected third act are explored to some degree…
True, but I didn’t want to go into the ethical side too much. Because then you have to start talking about religion and lots of other stuff, and I don’t want to have to get into that. I wanted to keep it really focused on this journey of a mother. I was reading an article in the New York Times the other day about this reunion between the people that received the heart of a donor and the family of the donor. So many doctors say that it’s best to keep a distance, to keep people separate, but the people demanded to meet and they insisted that it made it easier. That to me is really interesting – behind the scientific and moral aspects of all of this, there is a human factor, and a lot of love.
But an act of love that can appear to be selfish…
Yes, and the apex of it is that the character of Isabelle can be said to be selfish in her actions. But what is selfishness, especially when you see what’s going on in the world? It’s really an act of love. And love is always a little bit selfish, of course. If not very selfish! Even the love for a child is selfish, and there is a selfishness in the love of having a child and taking care of that child. It’s your child – and that’s why the film is called My Zoe.
I wanted to ask you about the title – ‘Zoe’ is Greek for ‘life’, isn’t it?
It’s actually ‘life that never ends’. My husband is Greek so I have it on good authority! (Laughs) It’s a life that starts again and again… And the film is about that in many ways – you can never replace a unique individual, and a question might be: Do we want to start replacing those unique individuals?
Another interesting aspect about the film is that there’s no musical score.
No score at all! I wanted the film to be a reflection of whom ever is watching it, and music effects our decision to cry, to react a certain way, to be scared and anxious… I want people to watch the film in a way that’s an experience of pure emotions, without anything telling you how to feel about it. I don’t think it’s a film that you should be crying in from beginning to end. You could be, if there had been a score! It would have been overly melodramatic though, and I’ve seen films like that. Right now in America, that’s all there is! Big lights, big colours… It’s so melodramatic, it’s too much for me. And I love melodrama, but now it’s gone too far, to the point it doesn’t feel genuine anymore. All melodrama and nothing behind it. I wanted to do the opposite of that, something very pure. Taking out the music was a way to allow people to be who they really are when facing the film.
Considering the tough subject matter and some of the storytelling choices, was it a hard film to get financed?
Very. It was very difficult. We were very lucky with Warner, and Germany helped me a lot to get the film made. Daniel (Brühl) was very instrumental in the film being made. But it was a hard one to get made. Do you know what bothered people the most?
Isabelle’s choices in the third act?
No! The dad, James. And the way that he’s harsh and at times cruel to his wife. That really bothered people.
James is an interesting character, because he’s cruel but never one-dimensional – there’s even a tenderness to him at some point, an acceptance…
An acceptance that isn’t the loss. It’s a rebirth. But I noticed that people don’t like to see the man being harsh. They can see it in women, because women are so often portrayed as weaker, so it’s not as scary. But when a man is harsh, people are like “what the fuck?”. It took me a while to find an actor that was not scared to play that character. There was no way I was going to get an American actor to do this – they couldn’t handle the abusive and controlling aspect of the character. Richard (Armitage) was OK with it. He never asked me to make the character nicer, and never had a problem with the harshness. I had to write the character that way – I wanted it to be real. And I paid the price, because it’s still disturbing some people. I’ve been told “no man is like this!” and I’m like “what are you talking about?”. I’m not saying all men are like the character of James, obviously, but the idea that men are not bad, ever, is bullshit! (Laughs)
Speaking of which, you’ve been outspoken about how difficult it is for female filmmakers to get funding and the proper backing when it comes to making films. This is your seventh film in the director’s chair – have you noticed any sort of change these past few years?
I think there are changes happening in the past two to three years, and changes have already happened in Europe. For a while now. Europe wasn’t as bad, and that’s why most of my films were financed out of Europe. Now it’s changing a little bit. It’s still not easy for me because I’m not a young, upcoming filmmaker. When I go to meetings now in LA, I know the chances are closer to 50/50 between me and a commercial director, but there’s still so much love for young male directors that come up with great ideas. And if, as a woman, you come up with exactly the same script that this guy comes up with, a script with new and ground-breaking ideas, you’re definitely not yet there! With unusual shit, they still have a problem. Even me putting no music in my film – I’m paying the price a little. You’re not allowed to be radical as a woman filmmaker…yet. Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe my film was not radical enough…
We’re running out of time, and while you’re probably sick of being asked about this, I’d be remiss if I didn’t deviate from the topic of My Zoe and ask you about the Before trilogy. Are you, Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater going to treat us to a fourth one? Each one comes out every nine years and we’re nearing the deadline…
We’re going to miss this one, I think. Because I don’t think we have something. We’ve exchanged some emails and I wasn’t really crazy about their idea. They had one idea that I really didn’t like and I didn’t want to do it.
Dare I ask what it was?
No, because actually, the idea was quite offensive. I was not happy with it. I just felt it wasn’t the right idea. The film they were bringing up was nothing anyone wants to see as a fourth one. I guarantee you, it was not good!
I’ll take your word for it!
And they know I wouldn’t do that. And it’s fine – we’re all on good terms, but each time we decide to do a new one, all three of us have to be on the same page. We collaborate so much that if I don’t agree, or Ethan doesn’t agree, or Richard doesn’t like it, then we can’t do it.
And it’s so important to get it right, because the characters of Celine and Jesse mean so much to so many people…
Exactly and the direction they were going in was destroying everything, and I was like “this is terrible”. So I told them “no”. I’d rather leave it at three than have a fourth one that completely betrays everyone who likes those films.
My Zoe | Directed by Julie Delpy (Germany / France, 2019), with Julie Delpy, Richard Armitage, Daniel Brühl, Sophia Ally. Starts Nov 14.