Twenty seven year old Stéphane Ly-Cuong makes his film debut with 'La Jeune Fille et la Tortue' (The Turtle and the Maiden) a very interesting and ingenious short-film featuring Jerome Pradon and Barbara Scaff. A private screening of the film was held in Paris on October 9, 1999 at the Max Linder Cinema and we took the opportunity to ask Stéphane about this project and his work as a screenwriter and director.

Give us your brief biography

I studied cinema at the Paris VIII university and then at Brooklyn College, New York. After I finished my studies, I made short films in video while working as a journalist and while occasionally serving as an extras casting director on several films.

When did you first start being interested in cinema? What are your tastes in cinema?

I guess I've always wanted to pursue an artistic, primarily creative career. At the age of 15 I told myself that I'd become a film director. I had just had the opportunity to be an extra in a film and the general atmosphere on the set and the teamwork instantly appealed to me. It was then that I started to set this objective for myself.

My tastes in cinema are rather eclectic. Among classic filmmakers I adore, for instance, François Truffaut and Jacques Demy, Billy Wilder, George Cukor or Stanley Donen. Among more modern filmmakers I like Hal Hartley, James Ivory, Pedro Almodóvar. I love modern Asian cinema (Wong Kar Wai, Tsai Ming Liang). This list is not comprehensive...

Would you have preferred to perform yourself, to be an actor?

No, I don't really think so. I don't think that I would ever have had enough self-confidence to perform in front of a camera or an audience! I don't have the character to be an actor and I don't have any talent for acting.

What kind of cinema inspires you? What are your inspirations?

I would say that it's rather the French or the independent American cinema which would be my main inspiration. More audacity and sensitivity can be found there than in the films from the big studios (notwithstanding the fact that I watch them regularly). Obviously, musical theatre is another source of inspiration. I'm a great admirer of Stephen Sondheim, but I enjoy the shows by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg as well. During a trip to London a few years back when I was 18, I had the chance to see the musicals "Miss Saigon" and "Les Miserables" and I was hooked. I think it was then that I rediscovered the musical and the emotion of music integrated with action. Much more than musical films, these very performances started my passion.

Speaking of inspiration. I try to find it around me. I try to be on guard and to listen carefully, watch my surroundings closely. People surrounding us are an inexhaustible source. Sometimes it's enough to just listen and watch.

Why did you choose to make this film a musical?

Musicals are my passion! In this very case, I thought that this genre matched perfectly with the universe of fairy tales. Now I hope to make many more!

I think that musicals allow a storytelling approach which I find very interesting. Expressing a character's feelings in a song makes it possible to develop the plot rapidly, more so than in a traditional system of narration. It is kind of a writing "short cut", but it is an appealing one!

Is this your first film?

This is my first "real" film. I've already made some short-films in different formats (super 8, 16 mm and video), but for the most part they were student films. I consider this film to be my first 'real' one...

Tell us of the origin of "The Turtle and the Maiden"... Namely, how did you come up with the idea for the sript?

First of all, I submitted the script to a screenplay contest launched by 'Mission 2000 en France', on the theme of "Live together, tomorrow". The candidates were to write a script on the theme using, if possible, the technique of tales. Notwithstanding the rules imposed I was seduced by the title and I started to think about my script. One day, different ideas I was pondering on for a long time united into one idea -the wish to make a film about a young single woman, the wish to talk about Asian traditions, the wish to modernise fairy tales, the wish to talk about the dead and my desire to make a musical. I found that all these themes could be combined together, and I started writing.

What aspect of the film has been the most difficult? Have you had doubts on the project?

Everything going on before we started shooting the film was difficult. First of all, at the artistic level... My lyrics were much criticised and I worked them over again a certain number of times. As it was the first time that I wrote lyrics, I did not have any basic notions. Also, I really wanted to keep a personal style, and I didn't want there to be a change in style between the dialogue and the songs. This led to the kind of "every day" style of my lyrics, but it was quite intentional. But it was difficult for me to come through this period. Another difficult period was preparation for the shooting. Until the very first day of shooting, you try to obtain the best for your film but step by step you are forced to make concessions due to concerns with budget, authorisations, planning, etc. It is a period of uncertainty, the most insignificant news can be incredibly depressing. It seems bad luck is on your side, everything is against you - the Paris Police, the electricity company, managing agents, camera dealers... This is the period when every time you're answering the phone, you can expect to hear some bad news! I was definitely looking forward to starting shooting. When a problem occurs during shooting it usually can be resolved within a minute, whereas during preparation you try to make the right decision up to the very last moment - it demands a lot of energy!

My problem is that very (even too) often I doubt myself. Doubts were endless. And the first being that I didn't really think of winning the contest. I only asked Patrick Laviosa -the composer- to work on the music once I knew I was selected... On the contrary, when shooting I felt much more confident. The atmosphere was really pleasant and the work went in the form of a dialogue. You can't have doubts when you are surrounded with such amazing people, whereas when you are alone in front of a computer, you can!

How did you meet Barbara Scaff, Jerome Pradon? Would you like to work with them again?

I met both of them thanks to a friend of mine -Fabienne Elkoubi- who was in the cast of "Les Miserables" with them, but it was Patrick Laviosa -the composer- who gave me the opportunity to see them again and to get to know them better.

Actually, I wrote the screenplay thinking of Barbara. I wanted her kind of looks and, what's more important, I wanted her type of voice. Barbara played Eponine in "Les Miserables" and the young woman in my film is a little bit like Eponine, less reckless though... They both are lonely souls out there in the city. Incidentally, I wanted to make a small allusion to "Les Mis"... When Barbara comes out on the balcony she folds her arms as if to get warm, which is a typical Eponine posture... I wonder if anyone ever noticed it?

As for Jerome, he had tremendously impressed me when he was in "Les Miserables" and at the time I had told myself that I would love to get the opportunity to work with him one day. In 1994 after my stay in the United States, I wrote a script for a film. I was young and inexperienced and I thought I could make a movie --just like that. I went to Jerome and offered him a role but I did not have a producer, and I hadn't made any films yet! But that was the first time I met him.

I would very much like to work with each of them again. I like them a lot, both professionally and on a personal level. For instance, I would like to make a clip for Barbara. I adore her voice and I think she possesses an atypical beauty. As for Jerome, I would like to work with him in a more substantial part. I really appreciated his actor's sensitivity as much as his acting talents. And I think we understand each other quite well in our work.

How did the work go with your actors in the sound-recording studio and on the set? Did you give them the possibility to take initiatives?

Everything went just fine. I am always willing to listen to the actors' suggestions and use them if they suit the character they're playing and my global vision of the film. The first step was to speak with them about their characters. Then, we recorded the songs. As this took place before shooting I was to explain to them the general atmosphere of the scene, the way I saw it on the screen for them to be able to express the right emotion vocally. The shooting itself couldn't have been more conventional: rehearsals, adjustments, filming... Unfortunately the filming conditions of a short-film don't allow as many takes as possible due to lack of time or budget.

Would you like to tell us several words about each of the four actors? What were they like to work with?

Always available and adorable, Barbara really managed to charm the team. Funny and dynamic, she was always nice to work with. It was a great pleasure to work with her for me like for everybody else, I think.

With Jerome it was far more brief. He only had one night of shooting and I had seen him little before, as he had been working on "Vatel" at that time. But the communication was excellent and I was amazed by his reactions and suggestions. I sensed a great intensity in his work. He gives himself completely in everything he does, and it's obvious he has real reflection on his work as an actor.

Marie-Therese Orain, who is doing the voice of the turtle, she was such a pearl from the beginning till the end. It is so ungrateful to come to the set everyday and play opposite an actor without even appearing on the screen. But she did this with talent and kindness. I hope to work with her on a role in which she appears on the screen. She is a woman full of passion and wit.

Quang Tri Truong who plays the young man, is not an actor at all. But in appearance, he corresponded well to the idea I had of his character, with a kind of innocence and sweetness. I find him very photogenic.

What was the atmosphere like on the set?

It was excellent. At the beginning I was afraid the atmosphere could be unpleasant. The working conditions on a short-film are often quite difficult: people do not get paid, they work long hours, the crew (including the director) is not always experienced. As you can't choose the technicians you want to work with but only the ones who are available at that moment, I was afraid there wouldn't be any cohesion, but everything went very well no matter what the conditions were. I had the chance to work with a very talented crew both professionally and humanly. It was really pleasant to come to the set even if I was tired or stressed. I really hope to work with this team again.

The release of a short-film can be very uncertain. Will the film be distributed in theatres in France?

The fact that it was done within the framework of a competition changes the situation a bit. It will benefit from a television broadcast during the year 2000. Concerning the film being released in cinemas, nothing is certain yet, but there are chances it will be seen either before a full-length film, or as a part of a special program featuring the other films from the "Mission 2000" competition. Anyway, there won't be any official information available until the film's premiere which is supposed to take place at the Festival Premiers Plans in Angers in January 2000.

Do you have a favourite scene in the film? What is your most notable recollection?

It is the night when we were shooting the balcony scene and right afterwards the scene with the brother. Barbara was already in the "depressed" state of her character. You just couldn't help wishing to hold her in your arms. When Barbara and Jerome performed the beginning of the reunion scene I had tears in my eyes. But when we started to rehearse the following scene (when the camera moves around the sofa), it caused common laughter. Barbara and Jerome were trying to perform the most touching and tender scene, while a reduced crew (image, sound, machinery) was running behind the camera and around the sofa. The rest of the crew were hiding in a corner of the apartment in order not to be in shot. It was very surrealistic to see those people trying to move noiselessly off-camera... Furthermore, it must have been at least 3 a.m., we did overrun the time we had intended to take up and the people living there were trying to sleep so everyone was whispering on the set...

This was a very special moment, a little disconnected from reality, as in the film. And this is one of my favourite scenes in the film. I love it when Jerome opens Barbara's hand and places a kiss upon her palm before he embraces her. This scene moves me greatly every time I watch it.

What was your state of mind in the cinema during the screening?

I was spaced out! People came in, they greeted me as at a wedding ceremony, I made a small appreciation speech, the screening. I had just caught a cold so I had had a few sleepless nights and I was really very tired! I didn't realise what was going on very well. Up until the very last moment I couldn't believe it was going to be the first screening of my first short film at such a prestigious cinema, and up until the very last minute I was sure something would happen and the whole thing would have to be cancelled! During the screening I was trying to listen to the people's reactions. It was the first public screening and it was interesting to hear the reactions... But the greatest honour was that so many people came at such an inconvenient hour to watch my film! I was greatly touched.

And the last question: what will become of your career as a journalist?

I am going to continue writing for various supports because I like it very much!

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