Gilles Paquet-Brenner always knew that he was going to direct a Holocaust movie at some point in his career. However, he did not think he would do so at such a young age.
“You really want to be mature and serious about this subject matter,” explains the 36-year-old French filmmaker, noting that he had a Jewish grandfather who died at Majdanek. “In a world where its all about ‘now,’ I think it’s important to remember that our past made us what we are today. You need to know it, learn from it and understand it to make a better future for yourself.”
In “Sarah’s Key,” Kristin Scott Thomas plays a journalist in modern-day Paris who finds her life becoming entwined with a young girl whose family was torn apart during the notorious Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup in 1942. The motion picture is based on a novel of the same title written by Tatiana de Rosnay.
“When I read the book, it had everything I wanted from this subject,” says Paquet-Brenner, citing a good story, engaging characters and a fresh perspective.“It had a fresh perspective about something that most people don’t know so well – what exactly was the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup and what it meant to have French police arresting all of these people and their children.”
Moreover, although “Sarah’s Key’s” subject matter is based on French history, the filmmaker is finding that audiences all across the world are interested in discovering it and are subsequently shocked. Paquet-Brenner notes that it is not uncommon for viewers to be moved by the story and maybe even shed a few tears.
“But I hope that it is going to stay with you and that you will think about it,” Paquet-Brenner adds. “I hate when movies tell people what to think. I always think that the audience is smart so I never say what to think. What I do, though, is to try to leave room for interpretation. It makes the process way more interesting.”
Until now, Paquet-Brenner’s name has been primarily associated with some big-budget, popcorn flicks in France, one of which the director suggests could be considered the French equivalent to the Martin Lawrence/Will Smith actioner “Bad Boys.”
Having had experience with big sets and complicated technical filmmaking proved to be quite beneficial to him when it came to making “Sarah’s Key,” which includes several chaotic sequences. However, at the same time, Paquet-Brenner’s main goal was to make the experience feel real.
“I didn’t want the ‘Lord of the Rings’ shot,” says the director, referencing his preference for short lenses that facilitate a depth-of-field of any given environment much like the one experienced by a movie’s character. “I wanted the audience to feel like they were in the middle of these people. I wanted it to be seen through Sarah’s eyes and show the disorientation that this little girl had.”
Speaking of Sarah, the 10-year-old actress who portrayed her – Mélusine Mayance – is talented beyond her years, according to the director. Paquet-Brenner says that he did not have to speak to Mayance like a child. Instead, she understood and took direction well – a relief, so to speak, as the production crew’s biggest worry was finding a young actress who could play such a complex character.
And Paquet-Brenner acknowledges that he has been particularly lucky in his career, adding Mayance to a growing list of talented actresses with whom he has worked, including Marion Cotillard. The director, whose next project is an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s mystery novel “Dark Places,” believes that he learned a very important lesson while making “Sarah’s Key.”
“Maybe, at some point in my career, I took things for granted,” explains Paquet-Brenner, noting that he started making movies at a young age and has experienced the pain of seeing one of his works fail – both commercially and critically. “This is my comeback movie in France – and my coming movie in America. Making a movie is like making a beautiful chair. You have to put all of your knowledge into it and cherish it and be humble.”
“Sarah’s Key” (PG-13 – 111 minutes) is now playing exclusively at Harkins Camelview 5. Visit FirstLook.com for specific showtimes.
Listen to Joseph J. Airdo’s “Movie Maverick” radio segment, every Friday morning at 9:30 a.m. during “The Daily Blender with Jeffry O’Brien” on KBSZ – NBC 1260 AM and 96.1 FM.