Although only twenty, Gaspard Ulliel, Audrey Tautou’s love interest in “A Very Long Engagement,” the romantic epic by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (“Amelie”) set in World War I, has been acting nearly half his life. In a recent Dallas interview, the handsome actor, best known in this country for a small part in “Brotherhood of the Wolf” and a larger role opposite Emmanuelle Beart in Andre Techine’s “Strayed,” needed only the most occasional assistance of a translator to discuss his career and his work in Jeunet’s remarkable new film.
“I began at twelve years old,” he said. “But in fact I began really by chance. It was a friend of a friend of my mother’s who was opening an agency, and she was looking for young kids. And so I entered the agency, but more by curiosity than real passion. And at first I had some small parts in TV movies–in fact my parents didn’t want me to miss school, so I was working just once or twice a year. And I had a really regular progression–and this is really pleasant, I think–because I had small parts in TV movies, then bigger parts in TV movies, and then small parts in films. And I think this allows you to get…experience of the set and to get familiar with [the process]. And as I had a really slow progression, I think it really helped me to stay lucid and not get carried away.”
The arc of Ulliel’s career has now led to a major role in one of the most expensive films ever made in France, “the first movie that I’ve done that may have a real impact on international viewers,” as he put it–and one that required eight months of preparation and six months of actual shooting. But the part hadn’t come easily. “Usually auditions in France are very short, and you work really fast on a small scene,” he explained. “But [in this case] we had a two or three-hour working session with costumes, makeup, accessories, and [Jeunet] was really directing me as if we were on the set. And it was really enjoyable. I saw Jean-Pierre two times for a test, and then he wanted to see me a last time with Audrey. But we did not work on any scenes with Audrey; [it was] just to see the chemistry, the physical chemistry. He just filmed us, one next to another.” The chemistry was essential because for most of the story the two characters, though deeply in love, are separated, with the woman searching obsessively for her supposedly dead lover. “We had very few sequences [together],” Ulliel said, “and it was a bit daunting for us–because we considered that it was really important for the movie, for the emotions and the suspense to work all during the movie…that the viewers would see that there was some real, hot and strong feelings between the two characters, and a real love–a passionate love. And we had really very few sequences to show this to the viewers. So we were a bit anguished about this, worried. But I think we managed to get it right.” The intensity of the process was characteristic of the director, whom Ulliel described as very detail-oriented, “hard-working” and “really, really serious. And I think he really likes to prepare everything precisely. I remember the first time I went to his office, he was just playing with mini-cameras, and there was a model of the trenches set that was made before the [actual] set. It was like the size of this table. And he was just playing with mini-cameras…and just thinking about the shot he was going to make two months later. So when he arrives on the set he knows exactly what he’s going to do, and every morning he has all the story-boarded frames and shots stuck on a board, with precise timing.” Still, Ulliel said, Jeunet allowed for some alterations to be tried after his first takes.
The trench sequence that Ulliel referred to was central to his work in “A Very Long Engagement,” since most of his scenes involved his character’s service as a conscript on the western front in the waning days of the war. Jeunet required him and the other actors playing men in the trenches to prepare for the shoot by reading a diary by a young man who experienced the trench warfare, and Ulliel was moved by it. “Especially during this war, I think French soldiers were really badly treated,” he said, “and their living conditions were awful.” Shooting those scenes for the film was no picnic, either. “It was the most difficult part for the actors and even for the crew, because we were shooting it in winter, and it was really, really cold, and we shot for six weeks in the trenches set,” he recalled. “And the first two weeks of shooting were under thick rain. It was really tiresome, and I suspect Jean-Pierre of making us wait for hours in mud on purpose….We waited for hours and hours, because in the trenches it was really complicated to film, because Jean-Pierre wanted some really precise filming, with some very complicated movements of the camera. So we just shot and shot and shot. But I think it was worth it, because the scenes are really realistic. We were almost feeling like soldiers…except we were feeling ourselves that it was horrible for us, but it must have really awful for the soldiers–because we knew we could have a hot bath at the end of the day, and we were not risking our lives.”
The complexity of some shots, however, brought special problems. “It’s a bit stressing for an actor, because you just feel yourself that on scenes where you have, like, three hundred extras and two planes and five explosions, you know that if you miss [your mark], you’re going to have to wait at least half an hour for another take,” Ulliel explained. And the sequence with the plane brought a unique difficulty. “We shot a great part of the scene in bad weather,” he said, “and then we had to get into continuity and have a bad sky [when the plane appeared]. But the thing is that the plane was a very old plane, and it couldn’t take off if the weather was not good enough. So it was crazy.”
Though the shoot was a long and complicated one, however, Ulliel feels that all the effort was well worth it. He described the film as “a very complicated story, very intense, and–I don’t know if you can say–very heavy with a lot of characters. And so at first I was afraid, when I saw the movie the first time, that it may be a bit difficult for the audience to concentrate on. It requires great attention, and to stay very concentrated on the movie. But it seems it’s working well” with viewers.
Now Gaspard Ulliel is looking forward to the release of films he’s made since filming “A Very Long Engagement” and to future projects that are already lined up. He worked briefly with Peter Greenaway on one of his “Tulse Luper Suitcase” films, and though he doubts that the fragmentary scenes he shot will wind up in the final print, he enjoyed the opportunity. “For me, it was more the experience itself,” he said. “It was the first time I was working with a foreign director and with a foreign crew. The English way of working is quite different from French crews.”
He added: “I worked on a movie just after this one that was completely the opposite–it was shot in six weeks with a really low budget, and it was great, because I think it’s important for an actor to try different cinemas. A smaller movie which is called ‘The Last Day.’ And I just finished the shooting of another movie which takes place during World War II. It’s the story of a woman who welcomes orphans coming out of the camps. The title is ‘Nina’s Home.’ I’m playing a young orphan coming out of Buchenwald, and he is one of the most traumatized characters in the movie, and he is speechless. So it was interesting to act without speaking.”
Next spring he’s scheduled to start shooting an epic set in the post-Napoleonic period. “It’s a much more popular movie,” he said. “I’m going to learn how to ride a horse, and to do swords, so it’s very exciting,” adding, “What I like in this job is the fact that it’s always different, and each time it’s a new adventure, with a new crew and a new director and a new way of working.”