The thrilling new Oscar-nominated French crime drama A Prophet finally opens this Friday at the Lagoon Cinema. The film, masterfully directed by Jacques Audiard (Read My Lips, The Beat That My Heart Skipped), is his first in five years—and was well worth the wait.
As the film opens, Malik El Djebena (played stunningly well by relative newcomer Tahar Rahim), a 19-year-old who cannot read or write, is sentenced to prison for six years. He realizes he must choose a side in prison to stick with, or he will die. He is half Arab and half Corsican, and he is approached by a Corsican gang leader, Cesar (a frightening Niels Arestrup), who recruits Malik to help him carry out violent acts in prison in order to survive the brutality of prison life. As Malik starts to figure out the ropes of prison life, he starts to figure out a plan of his own to get out from underneath all the double crossings, lies, and violence within prison, and soon finds out he’s able to be in command both in and outside of prison as time goes on.
I had the opportunity to interview director Jacques Audiard, co-writer Thomas Bidegain, and lead actor, Tahar Rahim this past September as all three stopped in Minneapolis for a press day in between the Telluride Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. While Bidegain and Rahim spoke English, Audiard spoke French and Bidegain translated all of his answers.
A Prophet is a screenplay that both of you worked on from a previous story. Tell me a little about the process of taking an original idea and turning it into a screenplay.
Bidegain: Yes, we adapted this story from another screenplay by Abdel Raouf Dafri that was sold to Jacques for his consideration, and the screenplay was very different from what we filmed. In the original story Malik’s character goes out of jail around page 45-50 and we thought it would be great to film more inside because dramatically it creates irony in the fact that Malik is in jail and at the same time is trying to develop his own business on the outside. We spent three years adapting that screenplay and as Jacques was shooting we were still writing scenes up until the last day of shooting.
How did you know that Tahar was the right person to play Malik?
Audiard: I met Tahar accidentally and something struck my mind. When we started casting for A Prophet we weren’t sure about Tahar, but we needed to test other people to make sure he was the right one. The idea for Malik was that he was juvenile-looking and there was no tragedy in him.
Tahar, what is your acting background?
Rahim: I studied film school at University and then I came to Paris to practice acting. I worked on a TV series and then I acted in a play, I was in a documentary [Tahar, the Student], a fiction film [the French horror film Inside], and then I started working on Un Prophete.
In the film your heritage is Arab and French. Is that also your background in real life?
Rahim: I’m French and Algerian.
What was the biggest challenge to approach this material? How did you prepare for this role?
Rahim: I had to create someone new and during the shooting I had to believe the things that happened were getting better. I had to give all my self, soul and body, to do that, [but] I wasn’t alone—there was a way that Jacques directed us and the other actors. Along with the place we were shooting and the set—and a big thanks to the extras, you didn’t need to talk with them, you just needed to look at them and walk around with them. That helped.
Now back to Jacques—knowing that A Prophet was based on an original idea, how much of the story is fictional and how much is based on fact?
Audiard: It is very fictional. During the that three-year process of writing the screenplay, we did get help from one person to give us precise information about what life was like in prison, and that was it. We would ask him, what happened during mealtime? What happened out during their recess time? Questions like that but otherwise, yes, it is all fiction.
Were there some real prisoners in the film or were they all actors?
Audiard: Most of the extras were ex-cons. They all acted naturally in the corridor and in the courtyard. We didn’t have to train them or explain to them what to do.
How was the experience at Cannes where the film won the Grand Prix?
Audiard [in English]: Nice. [Continuing, in French:] It was very flattering for the ego, but also very exciting. When we presented it at Cannes the film wasn’t finished. It was the first audience to see it, so once the lights went down we had no idea what would happen when the lights came back on. Would they throw rocks at us or would they applaud? It was a long process to write and shoot the film; it took five years. It showed up on Thursday [the film print] and we showed it on Saturday in Cannes. You have a sense of how good is or bad it is, but you have no sense o how the audience will respond to it. So it was like honey. Just like honey. Honey on our wounds.
In your films, you have a lot of characters who are almost anti-heroes, yet we still root for them. How are you able to make this work?
Audiard: We can’t tell the story and follow a character that we don’t understand. We have to share something with the character and if we don’t, I don’t find that interesting. The more we root for a character or like them, the more difficult it is for me as a viewer to accept a bad thing he does and for me as a director, that’s too easy.
The film runs about 2½ hours. Did you want to expand on this story more, or do you feel you got everything you wanted to say within those 150 minutes?
Bidegain: We knew it was going to be a long film because the story itself is long covering six years. The film follows Malik for such a long period that it is an epic and you have to take time building the story. So we knew it would be a long film, but with all the material Jacques shot, the film could have been 3½ hours.
I would have loved to see that cut.
Audiard: There is room for bonus material on the DVD. There is a lot of story [elements] that had different ramifications that we don’t follow in the final edit, but there was plenty that was written that wasn’t in the [final] film.
The ending is a bit ambiguous. Any chance for a follow-up film exploring any of the characters down the road?
Bidegain: No, we’ll let that be for now. But it is true many people are asking that question now, since we thought we had a way to close the film, but a lot of people don’t see it that way. They think that we’ve opened another story up.
What are the plans next for all of you after A Prophet is released? Do you relax, or is it right back to work?
Rahim: I have another project but it isn’t for a couple of months, so I have to find another between now and then before that other project starts.
Bidegain: He is very superstitious—he doesn’t like talking about his projects. For Jacques it will be a lot of press as the film comes out.
Audiard: My desire is to make film. Even here, between interviews, wherever we are, I’ve already starting working on writing the next film. It is always a difficult time when the movie is over to wonder how you’re going to project yourself working on the next film.