As the son of legendary French filmmakers Jacques Demy and Agnes Varda, it was almost a mortal lock that Mathieu Demy, after many years as an actor, would end up behind the camera. His intriguing feature directorial debut, “Americano,” interweaves footage from “Documenteur,” a nonfiction film of Varda’s in which Demy appeared as a child, and centers around the story of a young Frenchman drawn back to Los Angeles to wrap up his recently deceased mother’s estate, only to learn of a mysterious woman, Lola (Salma Hayek), in her will. For ShockYa, Brent Simon had a chance to speak to Demy one-on-one, about Hayek, getting his film’s title tattooed on his arm, and what his mother thinks of his re-appropriation of her work. The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: Was it always in the back of your mind that this type of a personal story would be your entree into feature filmmaking?
Mathieu Demy: No, I had in mind for quite a while that I would be directing — I was always interested in that — but I had no idea that it would be this kind of story, though. But when I thought seriously about it I could not acknowledge the fact of my parents being really great filmmakers. I had to have a point-of-view on that. I couldn’t pretend it didn’t exist. So when this first project came together and I realized it was going to be about grief, and a road movie about that kind of ambiance, I thought to myself, “I might as well really talk about inheritance and what it takes to become an adult and create your own story,” and then take the opportunity to make it more personal and yet metaphorical, about my story. Does that make sense?
ShockYa: It does. The interesting thing to me is that, only knowing the most basic plot description going in to see it, the movie slotted in so comfortably along so many American films, insofar as … it seemed to capture a sense of delayed adulthood popular in the current American zeitgeist.
MD: I guess people do things later. I definitely do things later — this was my first time directing, after all. I could have done this a long time ago, but for some reason it didn’t happen. I jumped in the movie business more as an adult by acting, and it took me, on a professional level, a lot of time to be ready for this. On the other hand, I have some kids and have done some other stuff, but I guess it is the tone of the moment that people [are growing] up more slowly.
ShockYa: With the character of Martin, you’re playing sort of a version of yourself. But what are the misconceptions about that, and di you worry about how maybe in particular French audiences were going to interpret that?
MD: Yes, of course, it was one of my major concerns. It’s my avatar in the cinema world, sort of. And this is also why I guess I tried to keep the film understandable by anybody — a quiet, universal tale about a man losing his mother and getting lost on the track of a Tijuana stripper. You don’t really need any more than that to relate to or witness the story. On a second level, I put in all those references that you don’t really need, but can find interesting if you know more about French cinema and more about cinema in general. I guess I tried to not exclude anyone from the film, because I think cinema is a popular art and has to remain accessible. I didn’t want to just make a film for cinephiles, I wanted to make a film for everybody that could also please cinephiles. I wanted to make it full of little winks and references, but I don’t think you need it. Obviously the film is being sold and marketed as an arthouse film, and all those connections are brought to light by the marketing — which is cool, because it gives more keys to the film. But I assume if you show someone who doesn’t know anything about French cinema the movie he or she could also find it cool.
ShockYa: I was fascinated with how artfully the scenes (from your mother’s film) were integrated. It would easier to use those in a much more cavalier fashion, or I guess I mean overuse them as a flashback device. How did you go about choosing where to place them in your movie? And was that marked out in the scripting process, or was that discovered in the editing room?
MD: It was a little bit of both. I definitely wanted to focus on the mother/child relationship in “Documenteur,” because [it is] really the story of that woman, from her point-of-view, being a single mom and having trouble raising that kid who isn’t really at peace with the situation. So I tried to use the bits that focused on that. I also found it interesting that Martin, who doesn’t have a lot of memories, would recall, as his mom dies, these precise moments where his mother told him he had to grow up and feel strong alone and have his own key and sleep alone — all those moments of “Documenteur” where she’s basically saying that she’s not going to be around forever, and that he has to grow. So this is what we tried to use, and it did make a little difference in the editing room, but it was pretty much in the script. I tried to make the script work without the flashbacks at all, but also work with them.
ShockYa: When had you last submitted to “Documenteur”? Obviously you would have some memories from its filming, but did you find that your memories were accurate and apt when you went back to watch the material again?
MD: Well the funny thing is that it definitely melds with my real souvenirs, and it’s also an age that’s pretty important because I don’t really have any souvenirs before that. Me, as Mathieu, I don’t really recall anything before age seven or so — or maybe some photos or stuff that will create a memory. This is [another] interesting thing that I think everyone can relate to — having some visual documents of your childhood, and recreating the memory that goes with that photo. So I’m in a slightly different situation because these memories are films and they can melt into my own memories. The memories and the film are a little bit confused. It was interesting for me to say, “OK, I’m taking the film and really deciding that this is a fiction,” and trying to separate that from my own memories. Even though it’s not art therapy, there was something helpful about taking this physical memory of mine and re-appropriating it, back to me. Because you don’t say no to your mother when you’re seven and she asks if you want to act in her film. So I loved to do it, but in a way I didn’t really decide that. So I felt like I was entitled to re-own this memory in a way that isn’t inappropriate or against “Documenteur.” I wanted to respect the tone of the film, and its melancholy, and slowly extract myself from that.
ShockYa: What was your mother’s reaction?
MD: (pause) I think she’s more objective than I would have thought. Because she’s my mother if she told me, “Oh, your film is so great,” I would have said, “Oh, yeah, yeah.” But she certainly is very supportive of the movie, and had also some criticisms, so I think that’s nice. She was a little surprised when she died on page one, reading the script. She was like, “Oh, what is this about?” But she totally got the point, she’s very smart.
ShockYa: And this tattoo that reads “Americano,” [pointing to arm], it’s real? Did you get it before or during the movie?
MD: Yeah, during the movie. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing. It’s a nice story. The guy from the morgue, the character who leads Martin to the morgue, was supposed to be a strange-looking Indian guy in the script. And I met this tattoo artist, Mark Mahoney, who’s a really great tattoo performer and has a great look and is a really cool guy. And I just thought it would be really cool to have this logo that I love so much tattooed on him and use it as the title, in a way to tell the audience pretty fast in the film that they’re entering a strange, anesthetized personal tale. This all came together quite fast. I asked Mark if he would tattoo this on me and be in the film, he said yes, and so he played that character. I like to keep it real, as they say.
ShockYa: Then what did your mother think of the tattoo?
MD: Oh, I’m almost 40, so… (shrugs, laughs) I had another one already, and now I have even another one.
ShockYa: How did Salma Hayek come to be involved in the project? You very much wanted her specifically, is that right?
MD: Yes, that was a very exciting part of the project. I wrote it for her, I had her in mind, because I tried to cast some actors who I had the desire to film and that would match the journey of Martin getting away from his roots and home and culture. And Salma really embodied this fantasy of a certain kind of cinema, because she’s so fascinating, and I thought she would really bring something to the character and make the storyline shift in a slightly dreamy way as Martin gets more and more obsessed and concerned. She lives partly in France so I got the script to her and she agreed to meet with me, and I guess was interested in the pretty challenging aspects of her part — the singing/stripping/acting scene, which is a huge, 10-minute sequence in one take, and very challenging. That was exciting for her, and everybody. She got what I wanted to put in the film, and had worked a lot with prostitutes in a curative program in South America, so she had some strong connections with that world. I guess I was lucky that she connected with so many things in the film, and accepted to jump into a French, independent, broke film.
ShockYa: It makes for an intriguing combination of flavors.
MD: Definitely, and I wanted that same combination of flavors, because that’s what I love about film. I’m attracted as much to “Rio Bravo” as to the French New Wave, as much to American musicals as to Walt Disney cartoons and independent U.S. films. I didn’t want to make a 100 percent arthouse French film, because I felt like that wasn’t me, it wasn’t my culture as a viewer.
ShockYa: I imagine the film has opened some doors for you. Are you working on other stuff already?
MD: I’m starting to think about things, but mostly I’m excited to act again in other people’s work, because I love doing it and I had to put all that on hold because I carried this film in many, many ways, producing it too.
Written by: Brent Simon