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Interview with François Ozon

Ricky de François Ozon

The starting point for RICKY was a short story by English novelist Rose Tremain...

In English, the title of the story is MOTH, those nocturnal butterflies who are drawn to light. In the French version, the story was called LÉGER COMME L’AIR (LIGHT AS AIR). I liked it immediately when I read it, but I didn’t think I could adapt it.

The story is very short and its mood reminded me of ROSETTA by the Dardenne brothers: the characters are poor, underprivileged white people living in a trailer park in the heart of the United States. Because of the setting, I wasn’t sure how to approach the story, how to make it mine. And although I liked the way an extraordinary, amazing event disrupts the characters’ otherwise bleak existence, the fantasy element frightened me. It seemed impossible to render.

But then I realized that what touched me about the story wasn’t so much the fantasy element as the way it talks about family, our place in it, and how a new member - a new partner or a new child - can shake up the balance.

You’re constantly mixing comedy and fantasy in the film. When Katie and her daughter are tending to Ricky’s wings, we don’t know whether to laugh or cringe... 

There’s an irony in Rose Tremain’s writing that corresponds to my own, and I wanted to preserve that in the film. Whenever the story gets too unreal or bizarre, elements of humor and distance come in to release tension and make the scene work.

Katie and her daughter really enjoy looking after this extraordinary baby. And I hope the audience will share their pleasure. It’s funny to see ordinary maternal emotions being expressed in a completely abnormal situation. All parents are fascinated by their progeny’s first smile, first burp or first step. They worship their baby’s body. Ricky’s wings accentuate that behavior.

Katie never sees the wings as a handicap. To her they are a real gift, an asset. She finds them amusing, takes delight in them. If there’s anything monstrous about them, it is revealed only by Katie’s behavior, the way she wants to keep Ricky under lock and key and not expose him to the outside world. Her maternal instinct tends to be selfish, claustrophobic and a little bit castrating.

What does Ricky’s difference mean to you?

I think one of the few emotions we share with animals is the maternal instinct. That’s why I also included several references to Paco’s «animal» side. People will undoubtedly interpret the wings as religious symbolism. But the bloody little stumps are gory, the wingspan is impressive and the wings are brown and not white, so they don’t immediately bring angels to mind.

Ricky’s size and physique emphasize just how extraordinary he is.

Arthur, who plays Ricky, is a big, beautiful baby. His size is all the more imposing next to Mélusine, who plays his older sister Lisa. Mélusine is very petite. In films, babies are often idealized. We rarely see them hungry, screaming, dirty... It was important to me that the baby be a real character, expressing his needs and emotions.

Arthur wasn’t the liveliest baby at the auditions. Many crew members advised me to choose a different one. But I loved his face, his almond-shaped eyes, his chubby cheeks like Paco’s, and his blond hair like Katie’s. He fit in with the family.

As with the baby in SEE THE SEA, I directed Arthur like any other actor: I spoke to him and explained what I wanted. We quickly adapted our shooting schedule to his naptimes and mealtimes. The funny thing is, he really took his role seriously and got better and better with each scene. So much so that we finished the shoot earlier than planned. In 3 or 4 takes, he did exactly what we wanted. When he started to fly, he really got into it, he was thrilled! Whereas his stand-ins never enjoyed it at all.

Ordinary, everyday life playing out in extraordinary circumstances: RICKY reminds us of UNDER THE SAND with its mixture of realism and fantasy. 

I’m only interested in fantasy when it’s presented in a believable way that allows for audience identification. That’s why I wanted to show the process of Ricky’s wings growing in precise detail. In the short story the wings appear suddenly, without any explanation. Overnight, the baby has wings.

How did you imagine the process?

The writing process involved imagining the physical changes the baby would experience, as well as the realistic reactions of those close to him. The first question was: When do the wings appear? Are they present at birth or do they show up later? I thought the lumps should begin to appear when the baby was several months old, that way they would embody the deterioration of the adults’ relationship. Also, that time span would allow the family a long moment together before any doctors got involved.

So Ricky’s wings begin to grow when he’s about 7 or 8 months old. As far as that process went, we simply took our inspiration from the way baby birds’ wings develop: little lumps slowly begin to form, then mature into stumps with feathers pricking through the skin like tiny fingernails. We tried to replicate the actual way birds’ wings develop as best we could, while respecting the esthetics of the film and its narrative. The idea was to have the different stages of wing growth punctuate different stages of the family members’ relationships: the wings appear as bumps that Katie interprets as injuries Paco has perpetrated against the child, leading her to separate from him. When the feathers begin to grow and Ricky begins to fly, the mother and daughter grow close again, etc.

You’ve got some major ellipses in the film, especially in the beginning. 

The ellipses keep us moving through the various stages of a typical love story: the loneliness, the meeting, the forming of the couple, the little girl feeling left out, the arrival of the baby. It’s all necessary to bring us to the heart of the story: the birth of Ricky.

And why did you start the film with the scene of Katie talking to the social worker, then go into flashback? 

I knew this deliberate choice would provoke a variety of interpretations, and I like that. I want to give the audience the freedom to react to the story in their own way, to invent their own interpretations based on personal experience. For me, the scene takes place in the middle of the narrative, just after Paco has left and Katie is on her own with Lisa and Ricky. I wanted to show this «mother courage» at a breaking point, doubting her abilities as a mother, her desperation pushing her to consider placing her child in foster care. Inserting it at the beginning of the film allowed me to rapidly establish the character’s social background and introduce the recurring theme of the maternal bond. I also liked the idea of playing around with audience expectations about flashbacks. The realism of the scene implies we are going to see a social drama, making the fantasy element all the more surprising.

RICKY is a film about family, but the main character is a woman...

I like portraits of women and I wanted to explore the theme of maternity again, but in a different way than I had done with SEE THE SEA. In that film, two facets of the maternal instinct were illustrated through two very different women: the good mother and the monstrous mother. In RICKY, those two aspects are present in the same mother, Katie, and we follow the complex evolution of her maternal impulses. At first she’s a lioness, seeking to protect her young, then she becomes a more playful, childlike mother, playing with her baby almost like a child plays with a doll. And finally, she is a mother confronted with the reality of a baby who needs care, a child she’s going to have to share, and eventually let go of.

Do you think the maternal instinct is more complex than the paternal instinct? 

I find it more interesting, because the child comes out of the mother’s body. Often, mothers feel their children are extensions of themselves. The physiological side of birth and the organic link between mother and child fascinate me.

And yet the father, Paco, is also a complex character, whereas the father in the short story clearly only comes back for the money. I wanted to deepen the relationship between the man and the woman. It’s true Paco wants to make money off Ricky by charging the journalists to see him, but his motivations are not purely cynical, he’s also being logical: with the money earned, they could buy a house, and have enough space to raise Ricky in better conditions. Of course, Paco only comes back when he learns that Ricky is an unusual child. But in his defense, he hadn’t had much room to let his paternal feelings develop - Katie had quickly excluded him. I think it’s not unusual for fathers to find themselves feeling squeezed out, and the film explores that too.

Why did you choose Sergi Lopez for the role of Paco?

I’d wanted to work with him for a long time. I wrote the character with him in mind, especially the scenes where Katie talks about how hairy he is. Sergi is a very subtle actor. He’s sensual, there’s something feminine about the way he moves, and yet at the same time he’s extremely virile, which appeals to women and reassures them. He brought ambiguity and humanity to a character who could seem quite negative on paper.

And Alexandra Lamy ?

When I saw her on TV in UN GARS, UNE FILLE (A GUY, A GIRL), I thought she was an interesting actress. She’s got a gift for comedy and repartee, she’s quick, her timing is excellent. She reminded me of American actresses from the screwball comedies, but I sensed she was also capable of excelling in a more dramatic role. Also, Alexandra can embody the common, unrefined side of Katie’s character. I felt that with her, the audience would find the story more believable than if Katie had been played by a more high-profile actress.

My main objective with Alexandra was to slow her down, help her feel comfortable with silence and absence. I wanted her to take her time. 

What about shooting without make-up?

Alexandra knew about that from the start and had no problem with it. She’s in no way a narcissistic actress. It was important that Katie not be in seduction mode. I wanted to see her skin, her body as it really is, not idealized, not overly beautified... the goal being to stay as close as possible to reality.

At the same time, contrary to the usual clichés, I wanted to show the beauty of the working-class suburb where Katie lives, capture the photogenic potential of the housing estate and the lake with its reflections. I tried to combine realism with a certain amount of stylization. I was interested in depicting Katie’s social background because it allowed me to accentuate the notion of confinement that exists in every family. If Katie had been from a middle-class background, she probably would have consulted a top doctor. As it is, she prefers to hide the baby away because she doesn’t feel like she’s part of the system. And the arrival of this baby is like a wonderful stroke of luck, a wonderful event in her otherwise gray, dull existence. The baby is a real source of richness, both literally and figuratively, that she wants to keep for herself.

Did you see the special effects as an obstacle or were you excited at the prospect of using them? 

When the project was in the development stages, we were a bit nervous. Special effects + a baby: that’s a lot of obstacles. But in the end everything went smoothly, much better than the investors and the insurances companies expected. I like special effects when they’re an integral part of the story, when they serve the story, like in Jack Arnold’s THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, which was a reference for me. Or in David Cronenberg’s films: he knows how to exploit their organic side.

I tried to keep things simple, to avoid doing flashy or overly technical shots because we were using special effects. On the contrary, I wanted to integrate the effects into a straightforward mise-en-scene, with daily life and concrete actions taking place within static shots, reverse shots and continuous shots. This made the special effects that much harder to conceive, as they are usually integrated into quick shots and rapid-fire editing, leaving no time to really see them, only enough time to get a sense of them. The special effects guys at BUF were actually pretty nervous themselves, when they saw the final cut of the film and realized what they were up against!

Ricky is not a very realistic name in the context of the film.

The baby was called Ricky in the short story. When I began adapting it, I kept the name and in the end, I got used to it and it stuck. For English speakers, the name is outdated and sounds a bit silly today. I thought it was funny, it reminded me of the American TV shows I used to watch as a child. And since Lisa’s the one who chooses the baby’s name in the film, one could say the whole story is a figment of her young imagination...