The Real Crime: On the "Scenes" with Dominique Forma
by Rich Rosell
With his 2001 debut, Scenes of the Crime, French-born writer/director Dominique Forma attempts to tell a purely American crime story, starring Jeff Bridges, with distinct and subtle French cinematic undertones.
dOc recently had the opportunity to find out his thoughts on breaking into the film business, the differences between French and American movies, and the challenges involved in putting together a feature film for the first time.
dOc: How did you decide that you wanted to become a director?
Dominique Forma: It's a long story. It's going to be the story of my life. I wanted to be a director ever since I could remember, going to see movies in Paris. I used to go to see all the American movies in the 1950s, film-noir type—Don Siegel, Samuel Fuller—that kind of movie. I started movie-making not in a very pragmatic way, but more about theories and theories about how to make movies. Much like the New Wave in France was teaching how to make movies, and I studied movies and I started discovering all the big names: Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick. Movies were always something I was interested in, and I wanted to become a director, but I didn't know how to do that because I didn't have any connections. My family is not related to the movie business, and I had the feeling that in France you had to be connected one way or another, blood-related to someone who has already done something in the movie business in order to get started.
dOc: It's who you know.
DF: Exactly. It's unfair, but that's the way it is. If you know someone, this person is going to help you, but if you know nobody, you're f***ed basically. It was very difficult for me to find out where to get in the movie business in France. It's a small thing. We do great movies, I mean we used to do great movies, but it's just a few people who know each other. What happened is that a few years ago some French people were working at a French HBO-type company, and decided to try to finance and produce movies in Los Angeles, trying to do American movies. They asked me to come along with them, not as a director or not as a producer, but as a music supervisor. At the time, I was taking care of bands, and was involved in the music business, so to speak.
dOc: You were music supervisor on Boiling Point (1993) and Murder in the First (1995). Was that your jumping off point into becoming a director?
DF: The thing is, for me having a background in the music business in France was my way into the movie business, and my way into Hollywood. When these French movie guys moved to Los Angeles, said, 'We know you like movies, and would like to be involved in the business, and we might need someone who will take care of the music for us.' That's not becoming a director, but—
dOc: That's the foot in the door.
DF: Yes, the foot in the door. Exactly. I accepted it. Anything to be able to come here, to be in Los Angeles with people who will try to do real movies, and for me would be the best experience to learn. That's the reason I became music supervisor on three different movies: Boiling Point, Stargate and Murder in the First.
dOc: I didn't realize, you were on Stargate also?
DF: Well, I got fired before the end of the movie, not because I was incompetent, but because some of the French people involved with the movie were asked to leave, for whatever political reasons. I had a really good relationship with Roland Emmerich, and it was interesting to see the way he worked. The three directors I worked for were very different, and I not only did my job as music supervisor, but I stuck by the director. I was trying to be involved, snooping around during the prep, I was on the set every day during shooting, and I tried to stay as close as possible to the director during the editing process.
dOc: So being a music supervisor became your way to learn directing on the job.
DF: The three directors I dealt with were really nice guys, very different personalities, but very nice guys. I think they kind of liked the fact that I wasn't just there to do my job, I was there because I really loved movies and I wanted to see the way movies are made here. That was the best way to learn, what's going on with the set, how to work with the actors, and also learning about the way stories are told in this country. It's very different from the way we tell stories in France.
dOc: Let's talk about those differences.
DF: It's very different. I think American movies are more realistic, in the sense that the story has to go from a Point A to a Point Z, and the viewers are very critical. You could sell any kind of story to an American audience, but it has to be tight, though we could name a lot of movies that don't fit in that description. French audiences will accept situations that are a little corny, or maybe not realistic to start with, and still enjoy the movie. And here I think it is more difficult for an audience to accept something like that.
dOc: Personally, I get tired of seeing movies coming out in this country that are just cookie-cutter, just another franchise-in-the-making.
DF: There is that aspect, but I wasn't necessarily thinking of that. The industry has become so powerful, so strong, that they are able to sell their movies around the world, and some of the movies do turn into franchises.
dOc: It seems that storytelling often gets lost in favor of something that is simply marketable.
DF: I agree with you, but I think it also has to do with the people who are investing $100-150 million dollars in these movies.
I understand that these people want to make sure they recoup their money. On the other hand, look at a movie like Adaptation. Great movie. Fantastic actors. Really well directed. But very, very unusual as a story. I think this is the kind of movie French directors or writers could have done 20 years ago. You don't have to be American to do this movie, but it just happens that this movie was done by an American writer, American actors, and an American director. So you still have the potential here to do very amazing and beautiful movies.
dOc: A lot of times there will be a successful American remake of a European film, and it seems like the original gets lost in the shuffle. It seems like the credit for the creativity goes to the wrong people sometimes.
DF: Maybe. I wish sometimes that American audiences would be a little more curious about the original movies. Maybe things will change, but it's just part of the deal, for the moment. It seems that a big chunk of what the audience here wants to see are set up with American actors and directors. My being here, and studying movies here, and living here for several years, I kind of understand that. I try to take the best of both cultures in a way. I'm not American, obviously, but I feel confident here, I feel good, I think I learned a lot about what's going on here, but at the same time I remain French. For Scenes of the Crime, without any pretension, that's what I was trying to combine. Depth like we have in France, but still a very American story.
dOc: How did you get involved with Scenes of the Crime? I know you have writing credits.
DF: As I was a music supervisor, I wanted to become a director, and to become a director you have to write your own scripts. No one is going to come see Dominique Forma to give him the script of the year. It's not easy when you're not born in an English-speaking country, and it makes the situation a little more difficult. I started writing scripts, and for Scenes of the Crime I wrote a few treatments. I wrote the first draft in broken English, but I really put everything I had into it, knowing that it won't be something that I should show around, but would maybe be enough to interest an producer to see that I might have some good ideas. So based on that first treatment, I got the interest of an independent company and then we looked for a couple of American writers who could help me improve the script, and make sure dialogue would be totally American. That was really one of my concerns. I didn't want to make a movie that people would say 'Oh it's cute, it's a French movie. Very exotic.' I wanted to immerse myself as much as possible to make an American movie, and not using my French specificities, so to speak.
dOc: So it was your original story, but one that was perhaps fleshed out by American writers.
DF: It was my original story, and I was involved in the writing of all the drafts. But I don't want to take the credit away from the people who helped me. It was a true collaboration, especially with Amit Mehta, the third writer, who is a friend of mine. It was an interesting collaboration, because the first step for an American writer to work with me was to fix the English, and then to also bring in ideas. I welcomed his critiques and ideas, so in a way it was being fleshed out, putting more flesh, more depth, and changing some of the lines or the situations. He was really doing the job of a co-writer.
dOc: How did Jeff Bridges get involved with the project?
DF: It was luck. For once in this business, where everything is so difficult, I was lucky. One of my producers, a year before, had just finished a movie with Jeff Bridges. I gave my script to the producer, and he asked me who I wanted to try to get, and I said I think Jeff Bridges would be interesting, because we don't often see him playing a gangster. It would be interesting to play counter to what he normally does. So my producer sent the script to Jeff Bridges, and Jeff called me up a couple of months later and said that he liked the script and wanted to meet me, so he invited me for lunch. He came prepared, he is always very prepared, and he had notes on every other page of the script. Big notes. Small notes. He was very well prepared, and that lunch turned into a conversation of nine hours.
At the end of the nine hours he said 'You know what, I like the story. I think we could do something together.'
dOc: How much involvement did you have with rest of the casting? At what point are names brought to you, or did you have names that you wanted to get?
DF: It happens to be that because of Jeff's involvement at an early stage of the making of the movie...
dOc: ...it was kind of an attractor?
DF: Absolutely. When we met Noah Wyle, I didn't know much about him, but I liked him. I knew what he did on television, but I didn't know much else. I liked him as a human being, as a guy. He's a very likable guy, and I had the same excitement during my conversations with him as I had with Jeff Bridges, because he's not perceived as a bad guy, and he was excited to play a kind of cold-blooded killer. He's a very, very professional actor, very well prepared. He's very down to earth, just like Jeff. This was great, because when you're directing your first movie, and you have to deal with big names like that, it is important to make sure you have a great relationship with them, because otherwise the shooting could turn into a nightmare.
dOc: Scenes of the Crime was your first feature film as a director. Did you find the budget to be reasonable, or was it limiting? It seems like no matter what, when you hear someone talk about a budget, it's like a salary—no matter how much, it is it's never enough.
DF: It [limits] the possibilities that we had on the set, because the schedule was pretty short. We had quite a few pages to shoot per day, so once you know you're going to do between twenty and twenty-five setups a day, and that you've got that number of pages to shoot per day, it defines your choice, creatively speaking. And because it was my first feature, I wish I could have had more time to make sure we could really do some real depth with the characters. One of the good things, for me, was that Jeff wanted to rehearse the movie, which was very helpful for me. Jeff gave me five days of rehearsing.
dOc: That seems unusual.
DF: Yes it is, and from what I've been told that's what Jeff does once he's involved with a movie. I think it also proves the true professional that he is.
dOc: Let's talk about the marketing of Scenes of the Crime. Were you expecting it to get a theatrical release? DF: Yes.
dOc: At what point did you find out that it wasn't going to be released theatrically? I imagine that had to be a disappointment, to say the least.
DF: You could even choose a bigger word. It killed me, basically.
dOc: Was this after the film was completed?
DF: Absolutely. Once the movie was put together, and we finished the post-production, I started hearing the fact that maybe the studio was not interested anymore. This was a big surprise, because I thought we had an agreement.
dOc: What studio was this?
DF: My producer originally told me it was MGM. I thought we had a done deal, you know. Once we were finished, I thought we were going to have a limited release, theatrically speaking, but we would have one. But once I heard that, things starting turning bad. As a director, I'm not supposed to know a lot of things about what's going on. People didn't tell me.
dOc: Because your job is to just make the movie, and let those marketing guys figure out the rest.
DF: I was on schedule, and on budget, but I felt a little dropped out of what was going on. I tried to fight for the movie, and took it to the Tribeca Festival, just to show the movie around because I didn't know what was going on for a year. Then I heard that Screen Gems bought the domestic rights to the movie, so I contacted them and asked if they were going to do a theatrical release. They, of course, didn't say yes, but they didn't say no.
dOc: So they kind of left you hanging.
DF: Yes, which of course told me right away that they didn't intend to release it theatrically. I kept on trying to push as much as I could, but there wasn't much I could do besides say 'You should like the movie.' The few reviews I had when the film was shown at Tribeca were all really good. I was trying to convince people, but obviously I don't have the power or the leverage to convince people in the studios.
dOc: Did it get any kind of theatrical release overseas?
DF: I've been told that there are a few countries that have [shown it theatrically]. I know that in Spain it has been released in theaters, and someone sent me a review of the movie in Spanish, and it looked good from the translation that I got. I'm still waiting for France, actually.
dOc: As a film fan, and I know there are others like me, it seems that the availability of DVD titles has really given life to a lot of films that maybe never got the big theatrical push. I think a lot of times that movies like Scenes of the Crime can find a bigger audience on DVD than they might have theatrically.
DF: I hope you're right, Rich. I really hope you're right. That's going to be my last chance with this movie. I don't really know at all, in terms of marketing, what we are doing for the DVD release. I offered to bring some extra footage; my best friend is a documentary director from France and he came along with me during the shooting of the movie, and he shot every day. Because he is my best friend, and I trusted him, I even wore a mike. He ended up with something like 70 hours of footage.
dOc: What happened to it?
DF: Nothing. They didn't ask me about it.
dOc: So they didn't try to pick your brain for the DVD at all?
DF: No. I would have done that with pleasure. This is my baby. There were different things, like scenes that were edited differently, which I thought would have been interesting to show to people who would rent or buy the DVD. I didn't understand why they didn't want to pick at my brain, but that's just the way that it happened.
dOc: What's next on tap for you?
DF: I finished a script four or five months ago, in French, and I might go back to Paris just to see if there is some interest in France. I'm still hesitating about maybe translating that script and trying to do another picture in English in the States. I'm finishing another script, in English, which is a film noir with a twist of the fantastic. Something like Angel Heart, if it's good.
dOc: When you sit down to watch a movie, is there a certain genre that you gravitate towards?
DF: I love movies. These days, I'm pretty curious about what is going on in Asia. I think between Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong, there is a new wave of movie makers. Of course, The Ring is one of the most apparent of those. It's just the tip of the iceberg. There are a ton of new, young directors in these countries that are doing small-budget movies that are very interesting. It's almost like the French New Wave of the 1960s. What I'm curious about, or what I'm jealous about, when I read about these movies and these directors, is that they don't have much money, but they seem to have a certain kind of freedom, creatively speaking. They're new blood, and they break the rules.