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Interview with Louis-Ronan Choisy

Louis-Ronan Choisy  in The RefugeTell us about how you met François Ozon.
I invited him to a concert for the release of my third album. I knew he’d already seen me opening for Dani, so I figured he probably liked my music. He came to the show and we talked a little there, we had a nice conversation. Some time later, he told me he had an idea for a film and he’d like me to do some screen tests. I was curious to see how he worked, so I accepted.
Several weeks later, he said the tests weren’t bad and proposed doing some more, with Isabelle Carré this time. He wanted to see if there would be any chemistry between us.

What was his advice to you, a novice actor?
For the tests, I had learned my lines with the intention of playing them quite seriously, but François asked me to lighten it up a little. He advised me to learn the lines neutrally from then on, to avoid getting stuck in one approach. He wanted me to stay «fresh», and be open to whatever might happen spontaneously.
I think he wrote the character of Paul to correspond to what he sensed was natural for me. Since I’m not an actor, he couldn’t really expect me to incarnate a character who was completely different from myself. He’s quite perceptive, and analytical. He observes people, taking in their personalities, their capabilities. He chose me like you would choose a lump of clay to be sculpted.
He didn’t want me to think too much about the scenes before we played them, he wanted me to be in the moment. Before each scene, he would just tell me what Paul’s feeling, emotion or state of mind was at that particular moment. Then he’d let me take it from there. If I was way off, he’d get me back on track... but always with humor. Communication was very open and comfortable.
Also, the co-screenwriter, Mathieu Hippeau, had given me a book written by a woman who had been adopted. She wrote about feeling like she had a dark veil, a hole deep inside her, no roots. I tried to channel that sensation. During the shoot, I often felt like I was walking on eggshells, I felt out of place. But that was probably also because I’m not a trained actor!

Did the idea of playing a homosexual character frighten you in any way?
No, but I would have been frightened if François had asked me to caricature Paul’s homosexuality. What I find particularly interesting about Paul is that he’s seeking his identity, his sexuality is not clearly defined.

How was it to work with Isabelle Carré?
I was extremely fortunate to get to work with an actress like Isabelle. She guided me. Whenever she sensed I was a bit lost, she gave me the rhythm. I was very receptive to her intentions, and as a musician, I would often play off her notes. That worked perfectly for the first scenes in the house, where Mousse has the upper hand over Paul and sets the tone. Paul always reacts off of her in the beginning.

Did your experience as a performing musician help you at all?
Not really. A concert is very different: you give everything you’ve got for an hour and a half, but then you can relax, you can go out and party. Whereas all I wanted to do after a day of shooting was lie down and sleep! During the screen tests, Isabelle warned me that film shoots are intense. I was thinking, «Ok, but how hard can it be? I’ll just do my scene and then go off and do my own thing!» So I showed up with my keyboard and my computer, thinking I’d have plenty of time to fine-tune my album during the shoot. I didn’t realize acting is carnivorous, it gnaws at you. It’s difficult to hold the note of a character throughout, to rediscover it each day. My keyboard mostly sat idle in my room. In the end I only used it to compose the theme song for the film!

Who got the idea of composing a song for the film?
To start with, François wanted to listen to my albums to see if there might be a song on one of them that would work with the film. Then one of us - I can’t remember who now - got the idea of composing a song during the shoot, inspired by the film’s vibe. I liked the idea, I found it amusing, but it turned out to be quite challenging. I was so tired! Even playing piano came less naturally. François got very involved in the songwriting process, letting me know if he liked the direction I was taking or not.
He wanted a sweet, melancholy song, like a lullaby. I based the song on Mon Ami Pierrot and pictured a nocturnal ambiance, a bedroom, flickering candles... I wanted the lyrics to be kind of fuzzy, like in a dream, something that might correspond to the love between Mousse and Louis, who found comfort in drugs, or to Mousse and Paul, who take comfort in each other after Louis’ death. I wasn’t interested in specific details, I wanted to create an atmosphere. François encouraged me to keep it simple, to loop the melody like a ritornello. He also helped me with the lyrics at one point. We worked on it in the evenings, after a day of shooting. That’s what we did for fun!
While we were working on it, Isabelle would sometimes hang out with us and I would play her the music in progress. She felt an affinity for the song. It was important that she participate more concretely by singing it for the ending credits.
During the shoot, François recorded me on the piano, playing arpeggios and improvisations on the song’s harmonies. He then used them as he edited, and I in turn used them as a guideline as I recorded the instrumental passages of the soundtrack. The main thing was to conserve the natural, spontaneous sound that we got when I first played them during the shoot.

What do you think Paul is looking for in Mousse?
He’s looking for his past. He’s trying to replay it subconsciously. I think the turning point happens when his mother asks Mousse to abort. This takes Paul back in time to a key moment very early in his own personal history, and it makes him more aware of what happened to him. At this moment, the bond with Mousse is established, and the desire to get closer to her is awakened in him.
He also feels guilty about his mother’s proposal, because he is present at the time but doesn’t intervene. He’s an accomplice, in a certain sense. When his mother offers the family doctor’s services to Mousse, he has to look away.

Can Paul be a good father?
Knowing him as I do, I would say yes! He’ll give Louise what he never received himself... and in so doing he’ll undoubtedly soothe some of his own pain from his past. I understand why Mousse trusts him with her daughter. Paul is the only person who spends time with Mousse, stands by her and supports her in her desire to bring this baby into the world.

Do you think the way THE REFUGE questions traditional codes of motherhood and family makes it a particularly modern film?
I’m not convinced this story belongs uniquely to our era. I think it could’ve happened anytime, it’s universal. But could it have been told with such lightness and simplicity? Maybe that’s the modern element... although it’s especially because François made the film! I believe he truly loves the human race in all its complexity, with all its light and shadows. He’s so good at illustrating conflictual relationships. He tells it like it is, very naturally, without passing moral judgment.

You’re accustomed to the solitary work of songwriting. Here, you contribute your artistic expression to a group project...
It’s very nice to be of artistic service to someone else, to enter their universe, and not have to carry all the weight on your shoulders. But writing a song follows the same logic, it demands the same energy, the same baring of the soul. The techniques are different, but it’s still about giving what you’ve got deep inside you. I assumed that when you played a character you could have a certain detachment from that character. In fact, no. The character comes in and takes things that belong to you. It’s far more intimate and profound than I expected.


Original song by Louis-Ronan Choisy & Isabelle Carré, excerpt from the soundtrack of The Refuge.

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