Behind The Scenes On The Intouchables

Diane Haithman is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of AwardsLine.

On a Saturday morning in early December, Weinstein Co. chief operating officer David Glasser was facing a very busy day: A noon screening of his company’s critically acclaimed Silver Linings Playbook, followed by a 3 p.m. screening of Weinstein’s Christmas Day release Django Unchained, then an evening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ fourth annual Governors Awards. Until the Feb. 24 Oscar ceremony, “Saturdays and Sundays are not my own,” the executive jokes.

François Cluzet, left, and Omar Sy in The Intouchables.
François Cluzet, left, and Omar Sy in The Intouchables.

But in between such big events involving big movies, it somehow seemed fitting that Glasser would carve out a little chunk of time to talk about a small but equally important film executive-produced by the Weinstein Co.: The Intouchables.

This $2 million French film, based on the true story about the bond between a wealthy quadriplegic (played by François Cluzet) and the fun-loving younger man from a housing project (Omar Sy) he hires to take care of him, has earned more than $400 million at the boxoffice worldwide and is the official French entry for the foreign-language film Oscar.

In fact, Harvey Weinstein and his team like The Intouchables so much that they are producing an English-language remake with a different cast in the United States. Glasser predicts the script will be completed within the next two or three months, and the film will be produced in 2013 for planned release in 2014.

Because The Intouchables (that’s French for “untouchables”) is being entered in the foreign-language category, it is not in the running to repeat the Weinstein Co.’s 2012 best picture win for another French film, The Artist. Still, the company seems to have high hopes: The Intouchables was among the first DVD screeners to be shipped out to Academy members in early October.

Glasser says the foreign-language category was more appropriate than a best picture entry for this film. “Look, with The Artist we were much more involved. This was their movie,” Glasser says, referring to writer/directors Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache and the producing team of Nicolas Duval-Adassovsky, Yann Zenou, and Laurent Zeitoun. “And it wasn’t like (the Weinstein Co.’s 2011 winner) The King’s Speech, where we had made it. When they put it in as France’s foreign-language film, we were fine with that. It felt like a natural fit for the movie.”

Writers and codirectors writer/directors Eric Toledano, center, and Olivier Nakache, right, on the set with François Cluzet
Writers and codirectors writer/directors Eric Toledano, center, and Olivier Nakache, right, on the set with François Cluzet

While the submission category is different, The Intouchables, like The Artist, was discovered by Harvey Weinstein in unfinished form. In the case of The Artist, Weinstein flew to France to see a rough cut of the film before it was presented at the Cannes Film Festival. In the case of The Intouchables, as codirector Toledano describes it, a Weinstein Co. representative was in the crowd of potential film distributors in Cannes who saw an eight-minute trailer for the unfinished film about six months before its release in France.

“(The Weinstein representative) asked us to show it to Harvey Weinstein, and we were so excited, obviously,” Toledano says. “When Harvey saw the trailer, he said, ‘I want to see the movie.’ The movie was not finished. One month later, (when) we had the first edit of two hours, he decided to come to London, where we showed him the movie. And he decided to buy it, which was wonderful for us.”

This process is typical for Weinstein, Glasser says. “A lot of times we buy something at script phase, or we’ll see a little footage and buy it,” he says. “We bought Iron Lady that way,” Glasser adds, referring to the film that netted Meryl Streep a best actress Oscar in 2012 for her portrayal of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

And what did the Weinstein Co. see that made them want to bet on The Intouchables? “We love French movies, as I guess you know—we bought four this year alone (including) Haute Cuisine, “ Glasser says. “In eight minutes you felt that kind of magical, warm, very honest relationship between these two guys.”

Adds Glasser, “I think in a marketplace of $100 million, big picture, big studio movies, we’re in that nice, perfect place for great cinema, great stories. They could be a $2 million movie or a $40 million movie. You bring something nice to the marketplace. And there’s a little less competition.”

The filmmakers were inspired by the documentary A la Vie, a la Mort, about the close relationship of Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, who became a quadriplegic after a paragliding accident, and his assistant Abdel, who hails from a housing project. In the movie, the Algerian-born Abdel is re-created as the Senegal-born Oriss to make the role appropriate for actor Sy, 34, who has played roles in other films for the two directors.

Cluzet met and studied the behavior of the real Philippe, but Sy did not meet the real Abdel until after the film was completed. Toledano says the real Philippe was willing to speak about his situation, but the real-life Abdel was less trusting. “He was so suspicious that we wanted to do a movie about his life,” Toledano says. “At first, he wanted to stay far away from everything. He expected to see the movie, but that’s all he wanted to do.”

Plus, Toledano adds, while he admires the real Abdel, he’s just not as funny as Omar Sy. “I don’t think the public could love him as they do Omar.”

Sy, who honed his performing chops as a comedian, also preferred not to meet Abdel, whom he finally encountered on the night of the film’s premiere. “It was important for me to keep space for me to create,” Sy says. He adds that, because he is a comedian and does impressions, it would have been all to too easy for him to fall into doing an impression of Abdel rather than creating his own character.

The opposite is true of Philippe, Toledano observes. “Philippe Borgo, he is a very smart guy, very highbrow. It was really important for the actor to make a meeting, because Philippe has a special look. When Omar came with us to the meeting, he said something very interesting: ‘He can catch you with his eyes.’ ” That was also Toledano and Nakache’s first direction to Cluzet: “He has nothing but his brain, nothing to express his feelings but his eyes. You have to act this movie with your eyes,” Toledano says.

The directors and Sy acknowledge there are currently several movies getting Oscar buzz that deal with characters with severe physical handicaps, including The Sessions and the French-Belgian film Rust and Bone, starring Marion Cotillard as an aquatic animal trainer who loses her legs in an accident. All three believe that there’s something in the global zeitgeist of bad news and a struggling economy that makes today’s audience want to cheer for the underdog.

Nevertheless, Toledano and Nakache believe the key to The Intouchables’ success is that it’s a comedy, more inspired by American buddy movies than tales of overcoming disability. “We made this movie because of the story between two men,” Nakache says. “For us it’s an amazing story, we never expected such a huge tsunami. The thing is, if this movie changes one person, inspires the life of one person, we have achieved our goal.”

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