A little while ago, we were able to talk one on one with the writer and director of Coco Before Chanel, Anne Fontaine, about her new biopic about Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel starring Audrey Tatou. The film highlights the life of Chanel before her incredible success.
During the interview we discussed what drew her to making a film about the Gabrielle Chanel before she became the fashion icon, finding the perfect actors for the film, the involvement in the Chanel house, and much more.
Check out the interview below…
What drew you to making a film about Gabrielle Chanel?
Anne Fontaine: Two and a half years ago, two French producers came to see me. They talked about an idea of making a film about Chanel. I told them it was possible if I could choose the part of her life. I do not think it is possible to do a biography covering 87 years without illustrating, in a superficial way, her life. That does not interest me at all. The other condition was if I had a good actress. If she doesn’t exist, I don’t want to write it. It was possible after I decided to do her youth and when I met Audrey. I was sure Audrey was perfect for the part. Not only playing the part, but to be the character. With Chanel, you have to have certain qualities that are indispensable.
What was it about Coco’s story that drew you to making a film about her youth?
AF: When you are younger, you are free to invent and to exist. I liked the idea that someone who is so famous, you think that she or he always dreamed of being the singer, the painter, or the writer, but with her that’s not at all what she wanted. She discovers her vocation because it was her talent. She has to do that. I like that idea because it is not in the classic way to be the genius.
Also, I don’t touch on Chanel’s house. I don’t want to have them on my back. Twenty years later, you have the perfume and all the things. I couldn’t be free. I think I would have many problems. I want to be free because to do a movie, you don’t want to work for a brand.
How involved was the Chanel house in the project?
AF: We didn’t ask them for anything. We have a good, natural relationship. At the end of the movie, all the clothes were from the Chanel conservatory. They were all done by Chanel herself, nothing was done by us. Karl Lagerfeld, out of curiosity, looked at the drawings we had done of the clothes and he said it was perfect. It was more so because we wanted to be friendly and it was natural.
How did you pick the two actors to play the roles of Coco’s lovers, Etienne Balsan and Boy Capel?
AF: For me, Balsan was an actor that I like very much because he is horrible, but also very touching and representative of this old world. He is very important in Chanel’s life because he changes the way she lives. When I started to write the part, I thought the man has to be very inventive, very unconventional, somebody who is a little crazy, not classic, but also with a deep humanity who can move us. I have done a movie with Benoit Poelvoorde before; he was a serial killer in the movie. He is very known in France. He has done a lot of comedies. When I began to write, I thought he was a good choice with Audrey because I think they are so different. They are complete opposites.
Boy Capel I had to find. I didn’t find an English actor who spoke French. I had to extend the casting into New York. One day a casting director spoke of Alessandro Nivola, I didn’t know of him before, and I saw him in some American pictures. I felt that he was a good actor; he was subtle and with elegance. He called me on the phone, and it was the first time I heard him in French. I said, “Oh, he can manage in French.” He did not have a horrible accent. After that, I did some tests with him in Paris. I thought he could play the part in French because it is a lot of work for a foreign actor to play in another language.
How was it working with Audrey and Benoit together?
AF: At the beginning, both of them were very insecure. It was awful. They couldn’t say one sentence. She was very afraid to have this part that is very well known and she was very intimidated. He is a man who is very unpredictable. You don’t know what is going to happen with him. It was very interesting, but also very frightening. They couldn’t connect at the beginning, but that was also very good for the movie because they were so separate. For me, he is one of the best French actors today. He is very original, eccentric but also human. They liked working together very much. Audrey is very prepared and very concentrated. He disrupted everything; he put everything in chaos. It was difficult, but it was a good difficulty.
Chanel was known to lie about her life, what liberties did you take while creating the story?
AF: I took some liberties. To be free with the characters, you have to know everything but also forget, to make them live in front of your eyes, and of course you make some transgressions. If you don’t do it, it is like you’re in a scholarly book. For example, in real life, Boy Capel dies later. It is the same accident, but it is later on. Another example, the sister of Chanel is a mixture of two people; it is the aunt of Chanel, Adrienne, and the sister, Julia. She had this relationship with her aunt, who was in the same convent at the same time. It was very complicated to explain that and it doesn’t bring anything important to the story. I combined those two characters to be clearer.
All the lies are true, but they are lies. You don’t know which ones are truer because there are many lies. I chose the lies that interest me more to construct the character. What I like about the lies is that it is to protect herself and not be melancholy. She likes to invent her life to go forward.
Was it difficult to find information about Balsan and Boy?
AF: I had some information from a woman who did a very famous French biography about Chanel. She spoke to me about the two male characters. I also met the last assistant of Chanel and met another woman who knew Chanel; she is very old now. There is not a book on those relationships. It was funny. A family member of Balsan came to see the movie, and he said it was incredible. It was him! I was not sure, because I never met him. There are many things about Chanel, but less about Balsan. There is more about Boy because he was this British businessman. It is easier to imagine him than Etienne Balsan.
The costumes of the film were wonderful, how much research went into creating pieces that were representative of Coco’s style during that period?
AF: There was a lot of research to be completely true of the styles before Chanel was so famous from her own clothes. We had to try to be very close. It was a mixture of invention and also pictures from when she was very young. There were not many, but there were some. If you observe the first dresses, shirts, trousers, you can imagine how it arrives. After that, I created the story through what is she going to do, what is she going to wear, what ideas is she going to have at that moment.
Coco Before Chanel will be released in a limited amount of theaters on September 25
Watch the trailer for Coco Before Chanel...