Interview: I Lost My Body director Jérémy Clapin, writer Guillaume Laurant and producer Marc Du Pontavice
Matthew Turner | On 23, Nov 2019Reading time: 14 mins
This weekend sees the release of one of the year’s most unusual films: the story of a severed hand setting out to reconnect with its body.
I Lost My Body, which Netflix snapped up following its best film win at Cannes’ International Critics’ Week, hails from Xilam Animation and marks the animated feature debut of Jérémy Clapin. It follows a hand that escapes its unhappy fate in a Parisian laboratory and, during a hair-raising escapade across the city, fends off pigeons and rats alike to reunite with pizza boy Naoufel. Its memories of Naoufel and his love for librarian Gabrielle may provide answers about what caused the hand’s separation, and a poetic backdrop for a possible reunion between the three.
With the film out now in select UK cinemas before it hits Netflix (read our review here), we sat down with Jérémy Clapin, writer Guillaume Laurant and producer Marc Du Pontavice to talk about the unique project.
How did the project come about?
Marc Du Pontavic: Well, I got to meet Guillaume, in 2011, who wrote the novel. He was very well known as a screenwriter, but I didn’t know he was writing a novel.
Guillaume Laurent: And he had the curiosity to read my novel.
Marc Du Pontavic: That’s right. So I read that book, which was called Happy Hand, and I was hooked by the concept that it was the hand missing the body, and not the body missing the hand. That angle was very surprising. And the writing of the hand, and what was happening to the hand, visually, was kind of stunning. And I liked the total challenge, which was having the viewers feel empathy for a character that only had five fingers to express itself. That was something very exciting for a filmmaker. There was more than that to the story, but that was the element that excited me. Obviously, I had no idea who could direct this, so I did some research, mostly in the category of short film, because it wasn’t a family movie, it was more of a grown-up story. And I discovered the work of Jérémy [Clapin, director], especially his short, Skhizein, which was not only a great film, but it showed a lot of affinity with the story that I was seeing in this book, especially this kind of inter-connection between real and surreal, which Jérémy managed to put together in a very smart way. So all of this lead me to get to know Jérémy and offer him the job of director.
And what appealed to you, as the director
Jérémy Clapin: Just to give my version of the story, I received an email from Marc in 2011, asking if we could meet, and I didn’t know for what. I knew Marc Du Pontavice because he’s very well known in the animation genre – he’s made a lot of cartoons, like Oggy and the Cockroaches. And so I did some research and I found that he also had a live-action production company and he was just finishing production on Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, by Joann Sfar, who is a quite famous auteur in independent comics. So I was hoping maybe that kind of project would come to me. And he offered me the adaptation of this book and when I read this book – very fast, because I was really curious to see what happened in the book and why he was thinking of me – I felt the story of this hand was really new and offered the kind of challenge I wanted to go through.
Guillaume, where did the idea for the novel come from?
Guillaume Laurant: When I was a child, I was quite a dreamer and one time, when I saw a glove on the pavement, I started imagining being very sad and saying ‘oh, it’s a hand and she died when she crossed the street’. And I imagined families of hands crying and I also thought that the empty glove was like a serpent sloughing off its skin. I think that was the beginning.
“I wanted the audience to be really trapped in this point-of-view…”
In the book, how is the personality of the hand established? Is there a narration for the hand?
Guillaume Laurant: There are two parallel stories in the novel and the hand is really a character, as in the film, but it was much easier in the novel to make the hand exist, because she was thinking with words and she remembered, she felt something and she said what she felt. So it was very difficult to translate that to film and how to do that with just moving and the talent of this boy [referring to Jérémy].
So how did you approach the difference between those? You must have decided not to give the hand a voice at some point?
Jérémy Clapin: It was not the first decision. In fact, at the beginning, I remember when I finished reading the book, I was looking at my hand, like this, and it was really this that attracted me and I wanted the audience to also be looking at their hands after the film. Because it’s like looking inside yourself when you do that. And first, when I was working on the book, I thought it would work like this in the film, because it was my first adaptation and I was naïve. But in fact, the book gives you a lot of information, because it’s able to tell what happened when it was young, so you can have a lot of information and it works in the book. But in the movie, when I first started, in the script, to make the hand speak, it became clear that action was the way to capture the audience in the moment. For me, the hand cannot be able to tell a story, while living a story at the same time. You cannot be in the action and telling the action – it was not working. But yes, I was pushed by Marc, mostly, to give up more and more sentences about the hand, because at the end of the script process, we had maybe two sentences left about the hand. And it put too many characteristics into this character who’s supposed to be mute in a mute world, so the incarnation was a bit weird, to put a voice to it. So when I threw away the idea to have a voiceover, I really dived into the characteristics of its world. So instead of having that be a weakness, I tried to make it a strength, so playing on the sense of reality and getting closer to the hand, because I wanted the audience to be really trapped in this point-of-view.
I was reminded of many things from The Incredible Shrinking Man to Thing from The Addams Family. Were there any particular influences on the film?
Jérémy Clapin: Of course. When I wrote the script, I had this picture of Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man. It’s obvious, because you see the world from a different perspective, of something really tiny. And also, as in the film, there was a metaphorical lesson, it’s not just the difference in scale. The difference brings another way to look at the world, and something more universal. So I liked the story with a concept that it helped the audience to see the world from another perspective.
Marc Du Pontavice: I wouldn’t say that it was a reference for either Guillaume or Jérémy, but for me, if I had to compare it to some work of literature, I would mention Murakami. Because Murakami has this genius of making the surreal appear from the real, without making it fantastic. It becomes almost natural, that this surrealistic thing is happening in the real world, which is very mundane. And that’s what I love about this film – it’s not two sides of the world, it inter-connects very, very well.
Do you have a favourite scene in the film?
Guillaume Laurant: For me, a wonderful scene is when Naoufel is talking on the intercom, when he’s coming with the pizza and it’s raining. And that’s not in the novel.
Jérémy Clapin: For me, I love all my scenes, but I also hate all my scenes, because it was so much work! But yes, the intercom sequence was really nice to do. But maybe, in terms of a technical animation challenge, it’s mostly the rat sequence and the scenes around that, because it’s more playful to do that.
Marc Du Pontavice: From the script, I was hoping that the intercom scene would be incredible and it surpassed all my expectations. It’s beautifully written, but the staging is absolutely phenomenal. It’s one of the challenges of the film, because you have to fall in love with just one voice. That’s not usual and it comes at a very important time in the film. It arrives at about 20 minutes in and up until that moment, you can think this film is about a fantasy about a hand, and suddenly you’re pulled out of the fantasy and plunged into the real world, mundane, something very ordinary, just two kids falling in love with one another, and it opens up a complete, other dimension in the film. I think it plays a very important role in grabbing the audience and tells you, okay, what you’re going to see is not weird, it’s going to be real and you’re going to feel for it.
“It’s about someone trying to find his place and struggling with destiny…”
Is the ending of the film the same as in the book?
Guillaume Laurant: Good question. I don’t remember, exactly. The end of the film is more open. What happens, exactly, is it realism or a metaphor? We don’t know. I think in the book, the two characters meet and the love story finishes there.
So the ending of the book is happy and the ending of the film is ambiguous? What was the thinking behind that?
Jérémy Clapin: In fact, I have chosen the movie to just show the point-of-view of the hand, so all the story is with the hand and not without the hand. In the book, there were two, there was Naoufel, who was missing his hand and the opposite thing. So when that choice was made, it brought the story in another direction. It was important for me at the end to show that this is not about a love story – it’s more than that, it’s about someone trying to find his place and struggling with destiny, and, finally, only a story between Naouful and the hand. We called the hand Rosalie during the script-writing, just to give it a name. And it was important for me to focus the audience on that at the end. So the story with Gabrielle could exist only if Naouful succeeds in taking that leap of faith.
Marc Du Pontavice: It’s been a very interesting debate and I love the way that Jérémy decided to go this way, because he said it very bluntly and clearly. This is the point-of-view of the hand, but the point-of-view of the hand is like the journey of Naoufel, it’s Naoufel who’s evolving from point A to point Z and at the end, if you ended up with Gabrielle and Naoufel, it would mean that the love story is the end of that journey, which is wrong. Of course, the love story is possible, but the most important thing is really Naoufel making that leap of faith and opening the horizon and the future for himself. We all believe that Gabrielle is going to be part of that story, but it can’t be reduced to that.
So it is a romance – it’s just a different kind of romance
Jérémy Clapin: Yeah, this is a love story between the hand and the body also. And it was also because at first we thought of a voiceover and I wanted the voice to be different from Naoufel’s. So it was obvious to make it a female voice.
Were you involved in the process of casting the US voice actors?
Marc Du Pontavice: Very much so. Jérémy’s actually just come back from Los Angeles, where he’s been supervising and directing the English actors. We’ve got Dev Patel, Alia Shawkat and George Wendt as well, so a great cast, amazing actors, great voices. We were kind of sceptical, beforehand, because there’s so much attached to the French version and Jérémy and the actors managed to deliver something that feels like another original version of the film. It really does it very, very well.
How did you find the differences between directing the US and French cast?
Jérémy Clapin: Actually, the process was not the same, because in France, we decided to shoot the footage, so the actors were playing their role in the studio and we recorded them at the same time. So it wasn’t just their voices, it was also their positions. And with Netflix, in America, it was only directing the voices. So of course, it was easier for the actors because we were able to switch with the French language. We weren’t searching for intention with the English version, the intention was already there in the movie, so it was easier, more comfortable and faster for the actors to put something real over the footage we had.
“There are all these platforms, it’s a golden age for directors and producers…”
You mentioned Netflix – are you big consumers of VOD yourselves? What kind of things do you watch?
Jérémy Clapin: I’m a big watcher of TV series. Recently I enjoyed Breaking Bad, Stranger Things, The Walking Dead, The Handmaid’s Tale. I have three kids and not a lot of time, so it’s easier for me to watch films on that platform. And now the quality of the films are very good, so it brings me a little less to the cinema. I haven’t given up the cinema experience, but maybe I will go to something more specific to go to the cinema, to have something more immersive. But now, I think there’s so much quality and there are all these platforms, there’s so much competition between all of them, so it’s like a golden age for directors and producers to bring new projects.
Marc Du Pontavice: One thing that is great about that platform is that they are pushing animation very hard and very successfully, and not only for kids, but adult animation, which is really great and encouraging for us. So that’s one of the things that I like to consume very much on the platform, because you have a variety of tones and different animation that is really brilliant.
Are you looking to do something else with Netflix in the future?
Marc Du Pontavice: Well, we’re definitely having conversations about new stuff. I’m in a company that’s already working a lot with Netflix on different series and things like this, in animation. But in that kind of adult genre, yeah, now that we’ve done that, they’re very encouraged to see what we’re going to do next and potentially what we can do with them, of course.
Jérémy Clapin: What’s fun with VOD is also that when you want to talk about cinema with people around the world, when the movie is only in cinemas, then you’re not sure they are going to see the movie so you cannot talk about this movie with them. But with VOD, the whole world can see the film, so we can talk about the same thing and we’re pretty sure you can get access to the film. So it really facilitates the discussion between directors, the connection.
I Lost My Body is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
See where you can find it on the big screen here.