For such a young woman, Julie Delpy has had an incredible career. Born in Paris to two French actors, she appeared in Jean-Luc Godard's Détective as a teenager, launching a series of roles in European cinema: Leos Carax's Mauvais Sang, Agnieszka Holland's Europa, Europa, Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Three Colors" trilogy, Roger Avary's Killing Zoe. She made her mark in American cinema as the co-star of Richard Linklater's wandering Before Sunrise, and returned to the story nine years later to co-script and co-star in the sequel, Before Sunset. In between, she made her own short films and a feature-length video experiment, which prepared her for her own theatrical directorial debut, the new 2 Days In Paris, a low-key drama in which she and co-star Adam Goldberg play lovers whose relationship begins to disintegrate during a vacation to her hometown. Delpy's real-life parents play her parents in the film. During a Chicago trip to promote her film, Julie Delpy sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about directing her own parents, working with Godard and Kieslowski, and how Bowfinger inspired her when she risked coming apart on set.
The A.V. Club: How did 2 Days In Paris come about? What was it like making it?
Julie Delpy: Well, basically, a few years ago, I thought it would be a funny idea—in 2001, I had a few days in Paris that were kind of horrible, and I was like, "Maybe it would be funny to take a couple and have their relationship affected by their environment." It was just an idea at the time. I called Adam Goldberg and said, "Hey, would you like to do a little film?" Years went by, and I wrote Before Sunset. I set it in Paris because I wanted to do a film there, but after Before Sunset, I still wanted to tell a story about a couple, because my idea was very different. So I called Adam again, but this time I said, "I want to find money, not just, like, take a camera and film in Paris." So I found a producer who raised some financing. It's a typical story: you think of something, it stays in the back of your head for a while, and then you finally do it, you know?
AVC: Was there any problem getting funding as a first-time director?
JD: It was very difficult. The producer had no money; he was just looking for financiers. He really believed in the film, but it was a horror. The horrible thing was pre-production, because he made a budget for the film according to what he thought we were going to get from the French government, from [the economic development group] Paris Region, from German funding, from this and that, and every day, we would find out that we didn't get the money. So every day the budget would go down, down, down, down, down. At one point, we found out that Adam couldn't show up until a week later. That extra week of pre-production made us lose the entire amount of money for the film for post-production. So when I started shooting the film, I knew that I had no money to finish the film. To finish shooting, yes, but not to finish the film. So then the producer says, "I swear, I swear, swear, swear, I'll find money afterwards." And he did. Last-minute. [Laughs.]
AVC: And you pretty much just went on faith that it would work out?
JD: Yeah. I mean, it was weird to believe in it, because I tell you, he had said that he would get this and that, and he didn't get any of it. And then I didn't know if Adam was going to show up, so that was very stressful also, because my film was tiny, and he was shooting a big movie. We had no power to say to his agent, "Hey!" [Laughs.] You know, they could tell us, "Fuck you, fuck off." Which they almost did, and maybe did a few times.
AVC: Was directing a theatrical film the experience you thought it would be?
JD: No. I enjoyed the process. What I don't enjoy is when—I mean, you know, it was a little tough sometimes to have two days to shoot, like, 10 minutes that end up in the film. We had a very short period of time to shoot the film. Sometimes it was a little stressful. But I really enjoyed the process. It was different in a sense that—I thought I would have less of a sense of what I was doing, that I would be more confused, maybe. I've done short films and I never was confused, but maybe, I thought, in a big movie, I wouldn't have the endurance to do the entire film. And then it never came up—I was actually stronger as it went, and more and more together, and the crew was listening to me. Everything I said was done. No one ever argued with me. Not that I was, like, tough. Actually, it was the opposite, I was nice, but everyone was nice, too.
AVC: Were there specific things that were harder or easier than you thought they would be?
JD: I knew it was not going to be easy, so I was prepared. What was hard… [Laughs.] Well, you know, when you work on a movie, you have to deal with people's egos. And some people have bigger egos than others. You have to take a lot of abuse, and take it in and not respond, because you don't want conflicts on the movie, you don't want to start screaming at people even when they treat you —even when they're not behaving properly, because you want them to do their job, and keep on doing it. I would take—like, if people were behaving a certain way but I needed them to do something, I would just not acknowledge how they would behave. You have to be like a punching ball. Like, you get punched in the face 20 times a day and you have to keep it together. I was thinking of that film Bowfinger, and the character of Eddie Murphy, who's like, totally crazy, and he's always saying, "Keep it together, keep it together, keep it together." That's what I was constantly thinking of. Because you have to keep it together, you have to stay calm. I was always calm. People would be crazy on the set and stuff, and I'd be like, "It's okay, we'll do it, it's over, we can't finish the film, but it's okay, we'll do it." Like, super-Zen. Which is really weird, because I'm quite neurotic, usually. But when it comes to work, I become extremely focused. I think that's how I was able to finish the film.
AVC: What was it like directing your parents?
JD: It was actually a lot of fun. I had a lovely time, because my parents are both real actors, they're not just my parents that I put in a movie. It was very sweet to see—the minute they were on set, they became actors and I became the director, and they were actually quite cute, because they were really impressed that I was able to handle all those people. And I was not showing off at all, I was trying to get all the shots in, you know? They were like, "Oh my God, we can't believe you're doing this." They're such sweet people. And they were wonderful. They were so good! They're just wonderful actors, and I wanted to work with them.
AVC: Your character in the film isn't a villain, but she isn't very sympathetic, either. Were you ever tempted to make her more heroic, to get the audience on her side?
JD: You know, it's funny, Adam was always telling me, "Your character is horrible, she's such a bitch, blah blah blah." I was like, "Yeah, but for me, if I'm doing a sweet woman that's kind of endearing and has no edge and isn't snapping and she's not a bad girl in some way—it's not right." What was more work to me was to make his character likeable. I really worked on the editing a lot on his character, because I needed people to empathize with him, mostly, so I needed him to be likeable even if he's neurotic, I needed him to be charming. So there's certain things that he couldn't say, certain things that were very important. I really built his character in the editing room, because there were things I had written or things that were making his character much less likeable, and that was the hard challenge for me. It was much more important to make his character likeable, because you relate to him, than hers. And hers—I kind of like that she's Mike Tyson. She snaps at people, she attacks people, she lashes. I think it's more fun. It's a comedy. If she's perfect, she's like the perfect girlfriend, it's such a bore. It needs to be a little edgier. Because the film is like that. The film is politically incorrect and people just throw things at each other. No one's nice, you know? Nobody. But in the end, people still love each other.
AVC: There's sort of a temptation for viewers to say, "She created this role for herself, so this must be what she wants to play, this must be her ideal role." But is it?
JD: It's not an ideal role, because really, I'm not the central character, Jack is. I mean, an ideal role, it wouldn't be this. It doesn't have the big emotional moments, it's not an actor-showoff role. But in a way, I don't love parts that are obviously showoff, you know? I don't play a man, or… The actors' dream, it's always something that involves, like, a fake nose or something. This is definitely not like that.
AVC: If not that, what would your personal ideal role be like?
JD: It wouldn't be something very usual. I don't know. I think I would like to play goofy stuff. I'm kind of open to anything, you know? I've been an actress since I'm 14. I just want to have a good time—have fun—and that doesn't mean it has to be a comedy, but I just want to have things that I've never done, and that would entertain me.
AVC: Virtually all of your biggest projects have been with writer-directors: Jean-Luc Godard, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Agnieszka Holland, Roger Avary, Richard Linklater, Jim Jarmusch, Leos Carax. Do you actually go out of your way to work with writer-directors?
JD: No, it just happened like this, I never even thought of it.
AVC: Do you see advantages specifically to working with writer-directors?
JD: Well, they can maybe adapt easily on the spot. If there's a scene that doesn't work, they'll be like: "Okay, change this, change that." They don't need to go into a meeting with a writer for two hours and discuss things, and the writer doesn't agree, and they don't agree, and the actors don't agree. It's more like a one-on-one thing. You tell the director you don't like that line, he goes "Okay, let's change it." It's very quick. There's something very easy. But it depends. I think it can work. If people are on the same page, it can work fluidly.
AVC: How open was, say, Krzysztof Kieslowski to changing things in midstream?
JD: Not at all. To the extent that—I was a little nervous when one day he asked me, "So, tell me what you want to do in this scene." I was like, "I don't know!" Because it was very unusual for him to do that. With me, he changed a bit as we were working. He was more asking me how I would see this or that, or how I would shoot it. Which was really weird! I saw him on sets, and he was totally, "Let's do this, let's do that," so I don't know why he was asking me. I think maybe he sensed that I'm the kind of actress that it's good to discuss with, more than saying, "Do this!" And he had this quality as a director that truly, I could have been an empty bottle, and he would have made me good. Because he had such a sense of how to direct people into doing something that made them be something. He was so precise: the movement, the smile, the way you turn your head, the way you're being filmed, the angle… But suddenly with me, he just sensed, maybe, that if I brought all of my opinions, it could be good too. We really got along; it was great. It was lovely.
AVC: Did you notice him asking other people those kinds of questions, how to approach or shoot a scene?
JD: No, I saw him only with me doing that, and I saw him working with many other people, you know, because I went to the set of both his other Trois Couleurs films. I asked other people that were working on the film, the assistants and such, and they were like, "No, he never asks that." But I think that he could sense that I would be more comfortable if it was—he had ideas of shots in one scene. And we did the shots, and it involved nudity, and I started being a little uncomfortable, and then he realized that by talking to me, I was more comfortable. Maybe he was working like that with other people, and I just didn't see it.
AVC: Did he take your advice? Did you make suggestions when he asked how to handle things?
JD: No, no, no, I would never do that. No, I said—there was a scene where I was supposed to kiss an actor, and usually, he was so controlling that he would say, "Okay, you have to take your hand there, put your hair there, lift your leg, do this, do that." So we tried to do that, and it didn't work. I couldn't do it! And then finally he's like, "Okay, do it the way you want." Usually, he's never about actors doing it the way you want. And I just did it naturally, like I would kiss someone. It's not that complicated to kiss someone, so I just did it like I would do it, and it worked. And he filmed it. And it's details like that. He was funny, because he was so obsessed with details, like he was kind of like a maniac. But a good maniac.
AVC: More so than any directors you've worked with, in terms of detail obsession?
JD: Much more. Very obsessive in details. Obsessive with little tiny things. I didn't mind at all, but it was really funny. Like I had to say goodbye to my husband in one scene, and I was going like this. [Waves hand back and forth.] And he's like, "No, you go like this." [Holds hand up and curls fingers downward repeatedly.] He insisted exactly on the color of the nails, the size of the nails, the way my hair color was—I had to have a little bit of red in it—and the way it was curled. I mean, everything like that.
AVC: How did that compare to working with Richard Linklater on Before Sunset?
JD: It's the opposite. He doesn't want to miss the shot—he's very precise. We will do a scene until he gets it right. But no, it's very different. And plus, it's the opposite of controlling things. With us, it was always—he'd ask us what song we wanted to play. Like, I picked songs for the film. I'd go with him with to location scout: "Do you like it here?" "Oh, let's pick that café." He's totally laid-back, he's the opposite of a control freak. He's only controlling in a sense that he wants to make the movie that he wants to make.
AVC: Do you have a preference between those extremes, in terms of a method you're comfortable working with?
JD: I don't have a preference. I enjoyed working with both as much. I don't know why. I don't mind being totally controlled as well. It feels very safe. With Richard, it felt safe too, because we knew each other really well, and even if he's not controlling, he knows what he wants, and we discuss like two reasonable adults. With Kieslowski, it's kind of like I'm a little girl and he's this mastermind behind me. It's different.
AVC: You actually were a little girl when you worked with Jean-Luc Godard; did you have a sense of him at all when you were making that film? Who he was, and how famous he was?
JD: Of course. I'd seen many of his films. My dad would bring me to see Godard films when I was 9. I was so impressed by working with him.
AVC: What was he like as a director, working with actors?
JD: He's very funny. He's tough. Not with young actors. He's tough with people that have an attitude. Like, it's hard for him to work with stars—which I totally understand. It's like, the minute people start to have an attitude or behave a certain way, he's gonna break them. He can be really tough. With me, he was the kindest person you can imagine. So sweet, so protecting me—because I was a young girl that was totally lost and obviously not pretentious or not pretending to be anything. So he's very nice with people that are simple. He's the sweetest guy.
AVC: Growing up in the industry, did you have a lot of that kind of thing? People taking the time to nurture you as an actress, or protect you because of your youth?
JD: No, it was not always like that. I worked with directors that were very difficult, that almost made me quit acting, that were so hard and didn't care if I was 15. They would throw me on motorcycles and have me have accidents, hide me in a hotel room in the suburbs pretending that I was shooting to get the insurance money, then make me shoot with a damaged leg. They almost amputated me, actually, it was so bad. I had a horrible experience.
AVC: What was that project?
JD: I don't want to talk about it, but it was a horrible project I worked on when I was, like, 16. Then there were people who were nicer, like Bertrand Tavernier was nice, Volker Schlöndorff was the sweetest guy in the world, and very protective, also. It really depends. I find some of the best directors actually quite nice.
AVC: Is there anybody specific that you can point to as influencing your own directorial style, or the way you work with actors as a director?
JD: Not really. It's more movies I've watched that I like that influence me than people I've worked with. Obviously, people I've worked with, I've seen how they work, and I see the result of it—what works and what doesn't work—so when I work, I kind of have a small sense of—I've noticed something on set, for example. I've worked with a few directors that would scream at actors, be assholes and stuff, and the film was bad. Everyone hated the director, the film didn't work out, blah blah blah. And I've seen people being kind and nice and witty and all that. I know that you have to be nurturing to actors, because they're sensitive and insecure, and you have to be kind to the rest of the crew as well, to everyone. And also, you have to listen to everyone a little bit. Everyone's going to come to you and say, "Hey, listen, I have this idea," and you have to listen to their idea. Because it could be a good one, and if it's not, you don't want to hurt their feelings, in that they'll never come up to you with an idea that could be good one day. So you have to manage, you have to be diplomatic, and at the same time, really strong. What I found out on set on other films is, what makes a crew really roll is when the director makes decisions very quickly and very straight. What confuses a crew and actors is when the director is a little bit like, "I'm not sure what to do there." The minute you're confused, you lose everybody. But what's funny is, I didn't have to push myself too hard—I was never confused. I was always pretty strong and knowing exactly what I wanted to do, and when I didn't—when I had a moment where I didn't know exactly what to do, I pretended I did. Which made the crew entirely follow me. There's not someone specific, though.
AVC: Do you think it's normally the case that a tyrannical director will produce a bad film? Do you see that often?
JD: Yeah, because I've been on many movies. And I've also been visiting the sets of friends. So I kind of see how it works. I mean, it's not a generality. I'm sure there's directors that are tyrants that are very good. I'm sure of that. There's a few, actually. There's many that are known to be crazy on set, but then the film is great. I don't know, it's just not my way of wanting to work. I think it's nice when everyone's happy. I'm that kind of person. But then sometimes you have people that are never happy, which also happened to me a little bit, people that always find ways to complain about everything. But if they're never happy, that's the way they are, you know?
AVC: Your interviews about Before Sunset made it sound like it was a lot of fun to make. How did the process of making the sequel compare with the process of making the first one, nine years earlier?
JD: Not much changed, you know? Actually, the only difference is that the first one, there was an original script that Richard wrote with someone else, but then we went into Vienna, and what was supposedly rehearsal period became rewriting period. And we changed about 80 percent of the script—we threw away entire scenes and rewrote it together. We didn't get credited—Richard says he's sorry that it happened like this. He had no power to change that—the production company, they disagreed to give us credit, even though we were way past credit rights. We would have been credited before Richard and his co-writer. That's the way it was.
But then the second one, we got together and thought of the story and then we wrote. I wrote one draft of the screenplay, then I sent it to the guys, then we got together again in Paris, rewrote a bunch of things, then got together again three weeks prior to the shoot to do the final rewrite. So it had different steps, but it was very similar, because also in Before Sunrise, we met in Austin, we worked on the script already for a few days, then we met again, then we met in Vienna to rewrite the entire thing. And that's the most fun part. Acting is harder, because the scenes are very long and hard to memorize. It's very hard. But the writing process is the fun part.
AVC: What's the most fun you've had working on a film?
JD: Probably writing with Ethan and Richard. And then directing my film. Not all the time. Sometimes it was really stressful. But the rest of the time—like, 90, 95 percent of the time on that set, I had a wonderful time. People were crying when my parents had to leave the set, because they were finished. They loved them so much, it was crazy. It was so sweet to be working with my parents and to give back a little bit to them all they gave me, in a way. So for me, that was a very enjoyable time.