Philippe Muyl’s The Nightingale is easily one of the most surprising selections in this year’s foreign language Oscar race. While the film is set in China with Mandarin dialogue, he is actually the first non-Chinese director to be submitted to represent the country. I recently caught up with Philippe for a Skype interview where we discussed the circumstances that led to his eventual Oscar submission. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
Shane Slater: What made you decide to make a Chinese film, being a French filmmaker?
Philippe Muyl: [Laughs]. A lot of people want to understand how I got into this project. I went to a film festival in Beijing in 2009 to present a movie I made and I met two young producers. A Chinese woman and her French husband. They wanted to produce their first movie and two years before, France and China signed an agreement to co-produce movies. So this was an opportunity to make a French-Chinese co-production.
Also, 12 years ago I made a movie called The Butterfly and it’s famous in China. So for this reason, they asked me if I would be interested in this project. I said no at first because I don’t know China. But six months later, I began to think about it and I thought, maybe I could try to go on this crazy adventure. At the beginning of 2010, I began to take some Mandarin lessons and I went to travel in China, visiting a lot of places. I spent more than two years before shooting, spending time there and trying to learn how this country works. It’s so different from France, for example.
SS: The film seems like it was quite an immersive experience. Was there anything that really surprised you during the production?
PM: The reality of China. You can see so many big, very modern cities. But at the same time, there’s the opposite as you see in the movie. There are small villages, very poor. This is China today. I think this movie is a portrait of contemporary China. It’s different from what you see in Jia Zhangke movies, like A Touch of Sin. That’s also a reality of China too, but I’m not Chinese. I don’t know these aspects of China and I don’t like to make movies about these kinds of subjects.
SS: It must be a huge honor to be selected to represent China. Was there an initial submissions process, or was it a total surprise?
PM: It was a total surprise. There were two or three Chinese movies, like the Zhang Yimou movie, also Black Coal Thin Ice. Some months before I spoke with a friend who works in Beijing, she told me not to dream about this selection because the Chinese would never choose a movie by a non-Chinese director. It’s impossible. Well, they did it now so it’s not impossible. [Laughs]. We didn’t speak to anybody from the Chinese committee. We didn’t speak with them before or after. So it’s a surprise. It’s an honor.
At the beginning this was a very small independent production. It wasn’t supposed to go to the Oscars three years later. We just wanted to make a small movie.
The production of this movie was very difficult, in terms of financing. It was very difficult to find the money in China and it was difficult in France too. Now we’re in the Oscar competition, it’s a small miracle. There are 83 movies, some very good movies.
SS: In Hollywood, family films sometimes struggle to get the same level of respect for their artistic value, compared to adult-oriented films. Have you found this attitude to be any different in China or France?
PM: Well, I didn’t think about that. I made 4 family movies before. This my choice, my style. These are the stories I like to tell.
These kinds of movies don’t exist in China. You only have two kinds of movies. The very big productions with special effects (American or Chinese), 3D action movies. Also you have independent productions like Jia Zhangke movies, these often don’t get a release in China. But family movies don’t exist in China.
In France it’s possible, but it’s always difficult. Each time there’s a little boy or little girl in the movie, they market it as a children’s movie. So because of that, the release of these kinds of movies is always during vacation (Christmas etc.). In this period we are in competition with very good American productions. So it’s very difficult to make these kinds of movies, even in France.
SS: Do you think you’ll continue to make family films after all the success you’ve had with them?
PM: No. [Laughs]. This is my last movie with children. But if Spielberg called me tomorrow morning to make a new one, I will do it. [Laughs]. I’ve already made five movies in this style. I want to make something else now.
SS: You’ve been making films for quite some time, has the financing become any easier for independent productions?
PM: I made my first movie in 1982. I think it’s more difficult but as I used to say, every movie is your first one. You have to start at the beginning. But I think it’s more difficult now, because the market is tougher. There are less screens for these kinds of movies. But what can I do, I’m not about to make James Bond 63. [Laughs].
SS: This is your first film to be submitted for Oscars, how has the experience been so far?
PM: I think my movie is an outsider, this is a small movie. I came here (Los Angeles) alone because my producers in China don’t have enough money to come. It’s finished for them. I organized my campaign alone. I paid my PR and I paid for the screenings. Now I’m waiting for the results.
SS: What’s next for you?
PM: I have a project in France, but I’m a little tired of living in Paris. The ambiance is not so good in France. I would be interested to spend some time in LA. But I need to have a project and I know it’s very difficult. So I don’t know, I’m waiting for a sign from the sky. [Laughs]. Like in China six years ago. If someone told me I was going to make a movie in China, I would have said it’s impossible.
Click here for my review of The Nightingale.