Interview #42: Laurent Micheli

Laurent Micheli’s ‘Lola and the sea’ tells the story of Lola (Mya Bollaers) who lives in the city with her best friend Samir (Sami Outalbali). Emboldened by her life changing transition and with the support of her mother, she has the world at her feet with no plans of looking back. When Lola receives the devastating news that her mother has suddenly passed away, she returns home for the funeral and to face her estranged father, Phillipe (Benoît Magimel).

The film is a heartfelt examination of life, love, grief, coming of age and strained parental relationships. We spoke to director Laurent Micheli…

How did the idea for the film come about? 

LM – The idea for the film comes from a double desire, a desire that is both political and a more intimate one. The political desire was to make a film that would feature a transgender character who is not, as is often the case, a victim but rather a heroine, that is to say someone who knows very well who she is, and who is more in a struggle with the outside world than with herself. I found that, up to now, the girls who have dealt with trans-identity have mainly focused on the difficulties that a transgender person can have from self to self, but by doing research on the subject I have realised that what above all, trans people expressed  was more a difficulty in being in society rather than a difficulty in being in their own body. Then, the more intimate desire was that of regaining my own adolescent energy, namely that period in which one seeks to define oneself, and to assert oneself, especially in the face of others, facing the world, facing society, facing their family, facing school. For me anyway it was a time when I felt a lot of anger towards the outside world and I wanted to get over that feeling.  So, to mix these two desires, I decided to work on a family story, because it seemed to me that it was the best way to create a story as universal as possible about a character

How did you go about casting the two main roles?

LM – Following this political approach at all times, I absolutely wanted to give the role of Lola to a young transgender girl – it was very important to me. So I started a casting very early in the shoot because unfortunately an 18-year-old transgender girl who is a professional actress or in training doesn’t exist. We did a wild casting and by dint of research and time we came across Mya.  As for the role of the father played by Benoit Magimel, it was a casting that came in the more ‘classic’ way. For me it was above all a question of finding an actor who is able to embrace the evolution of the character as I had written it, namely that he is a man who in appearance is quite rough, quite hard, who gives off a lot of masculinity, but who in fact is a very fragile person, and above all very awkward. It seemed to me that Benoit Magimel was the right person to take on that. He’s an actor with a wide range to play with so he was able to work with the complexity of that character.

How did the script develop or change after you had cast the film (if at all)?

LM – We looked for public funding, which we gained, and there was almost no refusal in France or in Belgium, and I must say it was a great joy to see that the various selection committees supported the film despite its theme. However, there were still some difficulties in finding TV channels that would commit to the film. Unfortunately I think there is still a lot of reluctance about this kind of film, to be convinced that it will attract and reach ordinary audiences. Personally, I think that is quite false and that by going beyond your prejudices one can quite be touched by this story even if one is not directly connected to the subject: once again, it is a universal story. That being said, the film’s budget was pretty comfortable anyway, although it’s true that we needed more time. We always need more time.

There are many themes in the script – grief, growing up, father/child relationships, transgenderism – yet no one theme dominates. Was it important to you to not let the film become focused on one area? 

LM – I believe that I make films that resemble life, that is to say that they are films that play with the complexity of life. Indeed, I try to make several aspects of life intermingle, without one necessarily taking precedence over the other. I like that the viewer can go through all kinds of emotions, all kinds of situations. I wanted this movie to feature a transgender character and their problems, but for it not be the main subject of the movie,  The themes are universal I believe: it is because it crosses all these themes and that they are themes which are common to most human beings

What sort of distribution does the film have? 

LM – So the film was released in a few countries although there are obviously some releases that have been cancelled or postponed because of the health situation. But what’s very beautiful is that two and a half years after the film’s first release, it continues to have a pretty full life. I continue to be asked a lot to talk about it, which is very important. Obviously we always want more, but despite everything, given the current situation I think the film was brought to light in a beautiful way. There are still things happening in the future that means the film will continue to be see. For example, this year, the film is part of the high school student award in Belgium. That is, all the students of the last two years of high school can see it with their teachers, and then also meet me. It’s very important to know that it can be seen by this category of audience: teenagers, and that we can have a debate around  it. There is obviously a form of awareness surrounding the question of trans-identity within this age group and it is nice to see their curiosity, and that little by little the mentalities evolve.

What are your working on next? 

LM – I’m working on my third feature.  It’s an adaptation of a French novel ‘Nino dans la Nuit’ written by Capucine and Simon Johannin.  It’s a novel that came out in 2019 about young people in the city of Paris told in a poetic and lyrical way about society today. It’s about the difficulty of the job market and the absence of having a dream for the younger generation.  It’s also about the way that generation wants to recreate their own reality.  It talks about love, friendship, dreams, it’s about struggle, it’s about partying and the need to feel joy through dance and drugs too. There are so many needs that have been abused over the past two years. I think these are very important themes that need to be addressed even more so today since Covid has entered our lives. I believe that it is important and necessary to bring to light the dreams and the difficulties of this new generation as a matter of urgency.

Our thanks to Laurent for her time and to Lizzie and Sue for arranging the interview.

Lola and the sea is out in the UK now.

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