The French comedy The Intouchables debuts in Canada this week, already a worldwide success. Actually, the movie is a little bigger than a success, it’s one of the highest grossing foreign language films of all time with box office totals of over $340-million and counting. In North America, the film is coming out through The Weinstein Company, which guarantees an Oscar push and an inevitable remake (that’s just how good ol’ Harvey Weinstein does things).
The Intouchables tells the true story of Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, one of France’s most wealthy men who was left a quadriplegic after a paragliding accident. Thankfully, The Intouchables isn’t some turgid melodramatic weepy, but a comedy about the odd and mutually mocking relationship he struck with his caretaker Abdel Sellou. The film was directed by the team of Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, a pair of unassuming filmmakers with only a few locally successful French farces to their name before this massive success. Toronto Standard got a chance to speak with Olivier Nakache during a visit to Toronto and discovered a giddy co-director-writer who is just as intoxicated with the story and shocked by his success as audiences worldwide.
Nakache and Toledano learned of Phillippe’s tale long ago and always hoped to turn it into a film, they just didn’t think they were quite ready at the time. “We discovered the story on TV in a documentary A La Vie, A La Mort almost ten years ago,” Nakache said. “It wasn’t specifically about Abdel and Phillippe’ relationship, it was just about Phillippe who is from one of the wealthiest families in France. We saw the it separately and were both fascinated by this one moment late in the movie when Abdel came in and pulled Phillippe off of his bed powerfully. He was making jokes and carrying around Phillippe without being delicate like you’d expect. I instantly wondered, ‘who is this man?’ We met up the next morning to talk about it and both immediately thought of it as a funny situation and relationship, very bizarre. We thought we had to make a movie about it, but agreed that we probably weren’t mature enough to tackle the subject at that time. The documentary stayed with us though and we watched it many more times.”
After scoring a couple of modest comedy hits in Those Happy Days and Tellement Proches, Nakache and Toledano decided to finally attempt their dream project of a quadriplegic comedy (sure, it’s not exactly every filmmaker’s dream, but that makes them unique at the very least). However, before even attempting to write the script, the directorial duo knew that they had to reach out to Phillippe. “We met him and we definitely weren’t the first people to try and make a movie about his life. But something about use seemed to interest him,” admitted Nakache. “He told us, ‘I saw your movies, so explain, why me?’ We talked about our ideas for a few scenes and laughed a lot. He said, ‘it’s a deal as long as you make people laugh and not cry.’ He didn’t want it to be another movie that would make people cry about disabilities. We didn’t want to make a movie about disabilities either or even a movie about a caretaker from a ghetto. For us, it’s a story about a friendship between two men. It’s a bromance. These two guys come from very different worlds and somehow connect. It’s a simple, beautiful story.”
Phillippe continued to be involved with the production as a consultant, but trusted the filmmakers enough to let them make the story their own, which was vital for their eventual success. “After we met Phillippe he trusted us totally,” claimed the director. “We sent him the final version of the script and he said, ‘I laughed a lot, but I don’t want to tell you about artistic things, that’s your job.’ He gave us notes a few technical things to keep in mind and that was it. We had to cover 10 years in two hours, so it couldn’t be exactly his story and he knew that. We kept Phillippe’s character true to him, but we played with the caretaker role wrote it specifically for Omar Sy. The emotions and the relationship are real, but Omar is a little different.”
Omar Sy recently won a Cesar (the French Oscar) for his role in The Intouchables as Driss, the unsentimental caretaker from the ghetto with a sense of humor. Omar was a longtime collaborator of Nakache and Toledano and they couldn’t imagine doing the film without him. He also just happens to be somewhat of a comedy superstar in France, which didn’t hurt. “Omar (actor) grew up with us and our movies,” explained Nakache. “He’s very famous in France. He has his own TV show that is kind of like The Daily Show. But we’ve known him well for years and knew it was important that his character be very authentic. Much of the time, attempts to portray urban youth in film result in caricature, but with Omar we were able to avoid this pitfall. He completely changed his appearance and brought genuine authenticity from the clothing to the slang.” Another vital component that Omar brought to the film was a knack for improvisation, which the filmmakers consider to be an important part of their process. “We’re always looking for magic moments that can’t be expected, imagined, or written. So, we’re careful when writing the script and shoot that first. Then we always like to let our actors play and see what they can come up with. Omar and Francois (Cluzet, who played Phillippe) gave us so many magic moments in this film, we were very lucky.”
While The Intouchables has been charming audiences worldwide for months, the most important audience for the directors was the two men they based the film on. Recalling that first screening Nakache said, “We brought a projector to Morocco to show it to Phillippe and Abdel. The screening was a disaster for us because we were projecting on a wall with dogs barking and sprinklers going off. But, we could see his wheelchair shaking and knew he was laughing. Phillippee was very moved. Abdel came up to us after and said, ‘Hey, I didn’t know I was black.’ Which was a great moment.” Phillippe and Abdel’s reaction was quickly matched by audiences around the world. While the directors were always proud of their film, the global success continues to surprise them. “I think that so much of making movies is about luck and this time we were lucky enough to make the right choices and find the right collaborators. It’s difficult for me to see my other movies. I get embarrassed and think of everything else we could have done, but with The Intouchables, I still stay for every screening. I don’t know how we did it,” admitted Nakache amidst a burst of laughter.
Of course, the journey for film isn’t over quite yet. There’s an English-language remake of The Intouchables planned after the original completes its North American release, with Colin Firth attached to play Philippe and Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, Freaks And Geeks) signed on to direct. Nakache is just as perplexed as anyone else as to why it’s happening. “I have to give Harvey credit for buying this film a year ago before it was a hit. At the time, we didn’t care about the remake but when we met recently I asked, ‘why do you want to make a remake? This movie is huge all over the world.’ He said, ‘it’s just for the Americans who don’t read subtitles,’” the director said with a wry grin. While those audiences will inevitably wait for the remake, anyone who isn’t terrified of reading has a wonderful film to enjoy that takes on familiar themes in a refreshingly flippant way and finds comedy within personal tragedy. It’s a special little story that works far better than it should based purely on the concept. No one is more aware of how surprisingly strong the film turned out than Nakache himself, who would never even consider doing the remake because of how easily it could go wrong. “Harvey asked us if we wanted to do it and it’s impossible. You only get to touch the magic once. I don’t think we could do it again and I wouldn’t want to try.”
Phil Brown writes about film for Toronto Standard.