Exclusive: French Filmmaker Pierre Godeau on Directing Adéle Exarchopoulos in Down By Love


To mark the release of Down By Love, we caught up with the film’s writer/director Pierre Godeau in Paris at the start of the year, to discuss the project and what it was like collaborating so closely with sensation Adéle Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Colour).

He also clears up the fact that he hasn’t been to jail, and explains the choice in hiring comedic actor Guillaume Gallienne for such a dramatic role – in an absorbing (real life) tale of a prison governor and an inmate, who fall in love.

What was it about Florent Goncalves’ original book that appealed to you as a filmmaker?

My desire came before the book, when I heard the story when it was on the radio. A governor having an affair with an inmate and I wanted to figure out how this could happen. I love a love story and it was like the perfect love story, taking place in a very cinematic place, a jail. So I was very interested by this story, and then I read the book once or twice, and I adapted it with a lot of freedom.

So was this a big story in France?

It was a big story, because it was concerning the governor of a jail, and that doesn’t happen very often. I’ve been in jail since then, and this kind of story happens more than we think, though not with the governor!

Did you go to jail before the movie was made, or after?

It was during the preparation, every Friday for four months I went to a jail in France, the biggest in Europe. I went with Adele to the female part of the jail and we’d do improvisation classes with the inmates. I was allowed to film the girls, so the next week I would show them the scene they made, and it was nice for them because they would feel like an actress and not like an inmate.

When you said you went to jail, I thought you meant, you actually went to jail…

[Laughs] No!

Was it difficult to get access?

Oh yeah, very difficult, it was a long, long way to get the ability to film there.

There is something about prison dramas, we’ve seen Starred Up and R in recent years – what do you think it is about that setting which lends itself so well to cinema?

Starred Up is a great movie. For most of us it’s very far from what we know, and also it’s a permanent face-to-face with the characters, you can’t escape. It’s very much about human interaction, so maybe that is what explains the good stories.

I saw Blue is the Warmest Colour and was beguiled by Adele, you could see she had something so special. Did you watch that and think – that is who I want in my movie?

No because at this time I just watched the movie and loved it, I was thrilled by her performance. But to be honest I knew she was interested in the movie, but I had a fear because it was also a love story and I didn’t know if she really wanted to make another one so soon, and whether the audience would want to see her again playing such a character. So I waited a little until I met her and once I did, we both matched with the same desire to tell this story, so I knew she was going to be the one.

She has this remarkable screen presence – you can just leave the camera on her, and that’s enough. Which is something you do throughout. That’s something you can’t really prepare for, so when you were shooting did you realise, actually, I can just let this run?

I felt very lucky, that’s for sure. All the work we did together in jail, for four months before the film, we got to know each other very well and I knew we were telling exactly the same story, and this is why I could just let the camera roll. I had to make sure we were on the same page and that was the case.

We don’t find out what crime she committed. What was the reason behind that?

Because when I was doing my classes in jail, I wouldn’t know what the girls in front of me were in for, and as the governor of the jail says, ‘I’m not here to judge you, I’m just here to make sure everything goes okay’, and I felt it was important not to have a judgement, so the love affair could happen.

down-by-loveAs for hiring Guillaume, he is known for his comedic tendencies, so what was it about him that you felt would make him right for this role? It’s very different to what we’ve seen him do before.

Yes, very different. I like the fact it’s different too. I met him and I saw that he could perfectly play the part and I liked that it was the first time for him, because the character has something juvenile about him, he is completely unconscious he is doing a terrible thing that could ruin his career.

Do you think it was real love between them? Because it’s hard to tell, because at times you feel that she’s using him.

Well I like that we never really know. But I believe that they were very much in love, the only thing is, they’re not living in the same time and space, she’s in jail, she cannot escape. So you have to live day by day. I think the love can work when together in the jail, but once they go out and they’re on the same page, the love is different.

Of course as you were saying, this is based on a true story – did you speak to them at all?

I met the governor, yes.

Did you try and meet her, too?

No, because my desire to tell this story came just when I heard it on the radio, and I wrote the script without knowing her, and so I didn’t want to meet her and have it get in the way of my desire to tell this story.

Did Adele express any desire to meet her though?

No I don’t think so. I told her that the most important thing was the desire she had to tell the story and to not put anything in her way.

Even though deep down you know the relationship is wrong between them, and you feel terrible for the governor’s wife and daughter – in a very strange way you almost root for them to get together. How did you get that balance right?

I know, I know. I love the character Adele plays, she is so noble. Maybe because you see them happy together you wish the best for them? It’s like in real life.

So finally what’s next for you?

Nothing signed off at the moment, I am writing though, because I have to work on a project and to write at all times, but there’s nothing concrete.

Do you think when you direct it will always be from your own screenplay, or are you open to receiving others?

I am very open, I would love to work on another screenplay, and now I am working on a book from a great French author and it’s so good to work with great literature because the raw material is already there.

On the flip-side, are you open to writing screenplays for other directors, or do you feel quite precious over your own writing?

I don’t know, but when I write stories I put a lot of myself in it, but maybe one day.

Down By Love is released on June 17th. You can read our review of the film here.