Director Martin Bourboulon talks about Eiffel – A romance with heart

When the idea for the sumptuous romance Eiffel dawned on director Martin Bourboulon over 20 years ago, it sparked a journey that resulted in a film that is not a biopic or a documentary, but a faithful and endearing reimagining of Gustave Eiffel’ fervent passion, which grounded the creation and building of the Eiffel Tower.

Having just finished collaborating on the Statue of Liberty, Gustave Eiffel was at the high point of his career. The French government requested he create something spectacular for the “Exposition Universelle” of 1889 in Paris but Gustave Eiffel is only interested in the city’s subway project. His life is turned upside-down when the great lost love from his youth reappears. Their secret affair inspired him to change the face of Paris forever when he and his team of engineers took on the insane project of erecting a 10,100-tonne, 300-meter-high iron tower in the middle of the city.

It was intended to be dismantled after 20 years, but stood for 40 years as the world’s tallest building until the Chrysler Building in New York was finished in 1930, and in recent times attracted up to 7 million visitors a year pre-Covid.

Eiffel, a fictionalized romance between Eiffel and Adrienne Bourgès, his childhood sweetheart, was directed by Martin Bourboulon, from a screenplay crafted by Caroline Bongrand.

Screenwriter Caroline Bongrand talks about Eiffel

You are able to stream Eiffel by renting or purchasing on Google Play, iTunes, Amazon, and Vudu.

Q & A with Director Martin Bourboulon

How and when did you become attached to EIFFEL? 

The long story behind EIFFEL began over 20 years ago. The idea for the film and the original screenplay came from Caroline Bongrand. Over time, a few different drafts were written. As for myself, I was brought on to the project in 2017 when I met the producer, Vanessa van Zuylen. I was immediately struck by the ambition of the project: an epic romantic love story told with the construction of the Eiffel Tower as a backdrop. With Thomas Bidegain and Caroline Bongrand, we reworked the screenplay and a bit later, Tatiana de Rosnay came on board and added the flashback structure. Natalie Carter also contributed. 

Pierre Deladonchamps as Antoine De Restac. © Video Vision

What was the nature of your collaboration with your co-writers?

The idea was to stick as much as possible to the idea of an epic love story that is also an adventure film, the two revolving around the construction of one of the world’s most famous monuments. All of the work that was done on the screenplay – then in the directing and the editing – consisted in making sure that the two stories constantly feed off one another while still respecting the historical markers. Therein lies the power of film – its capacity to fill the gaps left empty by History and develop a fictional hypothesis that becomes the premise for the film: Eiffel decides to build the tower, a project that he had initially turned down, as an act of love for Adrienne. We all wanted to make a spectacular, epic film with a strong emotional pull.

Was the casting taking place at the same time?

In the case of Romain Duris, it was even before! He is the only actor I had in mind for Gustave Eiffel and the only one I approached for the part. He corresponded precisely to the image of modernity I wished to lend to this project.  There is an ambivalence in Romain; he is contemporary and rock and roll in the way he carries himself but looks wonderful in period costume. There is something romantic about him that I wanted for this love story and he can play everything! In my mind, he ticked all the boxes.

Emma Mackey as Adrienne and Romain Duris as Gustave Eiffel in Eiffel. © Video Vision

Where did you get the idea to match him with Emma Mackey to form such a unique on-screen couple?

Vanessa van Zuylen got the idea when she saw Emma in the first season of Sex Education. Thanks to the series and the power of Netflix, Emma was already famous throughout the world… But outside of Sex Education, she was not necessarily known to most people in France. I could not think of a better candidate to embody the mystery surrounding Adrienne. Emma is very talented, has a real flair for acting, very truthful and instinctual.  Her presence only heightened the contemporary feel I was looking for.

How did you handle the rest of the casting?

What I love in Pierre Deladonchamps is his ability to play a charming man with as much ease as a dangerous one as well as his ability to express so much through a single look. The menacing empathy he conveys is simply fantastic. I did not want to have a parade of famous faces around this trio of actors. And I’m grateful to my producers for backing me up on this decision. I chose actors I love but who aren’t necessarily known to the general public: Alexandre Steiger, Bruno Raffaelli, Armande Boulanger, Andranic Manet…

Did you rehearse with the actors?

No, I explicitly chose not to because it’s not something I’m good at. I simply do readings without giving the actors much direction, to see if they are comfortable with the language and whether any changes need to be made in some of the phrasings. I trust them and prefer to work with the actors and provide direction in that magical moment when we are all on set with the cameras rolling.  

Director Martin Bourboulon with Romain Duris as Gustave Eiffel, Pierre Deladonchamps as Antoine De Restac and Emma Mackey as Adrienne during the filming of Eiffel. © Video Vision

The film is called EIFFEL but Adrienne’s character is just as important as Gustave’s… 

Yes, the contemporary nature of the film rests very much on her shoulders as well… Bringing to life a strong female character was a desire shared by everyone. It was evident already in the original script. Adrienne is a woman who defies her bourgeois background and is interested in someone who was not necessarily intended for her.  Without revealing too much about the dramatic structure of the story, a big part of what is at stake in the film depends on Adrienne’s ability to react. Her decisions, like some of her actions, guide the story. Behind Adrienne, there is the tower and vice versa.  Emma Mackey perfectly embodies the character with energy and grace. 

Did you have any references in mind when you were directing EIFFEL?

I don’t especially draw upon any precise references before shooting. But there is a film that kept coming back to me which was Damian Chazelle’s, FIRST MAN… I like the way the director gives us an intimate perspective of a character facing a challenge so much greater than himself – landing on the moon. He brilliantly succeeds in combining an intimate portrayal where he gets up close to the character using a hand-held camera with a more spectacular story of space conquest.  This is exactly what I wanted to achieve in EIFFEL: sticking close to the characters while telling a great adventure story, and building the Eiffel Tower.

Why did you choose Matias Boucard for the cinematography in EIFFEL? 

I really liked his work on SK1 – the slightly unstructured 16mm photography – a lot like in ODYSSEY with a more epic dimension. There is also his work on commercials and all of his on-set experience. I noticed his uncanny ability to adjust the lighting according to the subject matter, always finding just the right tone. 

Pierre Deladonchamps as Antoine De Restac and Pierre Deladonchamps as Antoine De Restac. © Video Vision

How did you go about elaborating together the visual look of the film?

He immediately referred to Michael Cimino’s HEAVEN’S GATE and P.T. Anderson’s THERE WILL BE BLOOD. A very textured, grainy image, completely in line with the feel of a period piece but without overdoing it. Not trying at all costs to capture the precise look and feel of the historical period while remaining believable and vibrant. We took some liberties without shocking the audience. Regarding the costumes, for example, they are period appropriate but they might be worn in a manner that could be considered uncommon for that time.  For example, in the scene where Eiffel is declaiming to the crowd, I wanted him to wear his shirt unbuttoned with his collar up. He looked better, sexier (!) and more heroic.  At the time, I’m sure Eiffel wore his suit much more conservatively…

There is also the challenge of representing the Eiffel Tower… what was your vision for this?

From the start, there was a clear mission in this film: that the Tower be sufficiently present on-screen to deliver something visually spectacular. We also sensed that witnessing the different phases of its construction would be even more spectacular than seeing it in its actual, completed form.

I wanted to integrate the special effects by keeping them in the background, countered by the characters in the foreground. I wanted to create something immersive, captured first-hand, without making a show of technical prowess.  To achieve this, I relied heavily on our set designer, Stéphane Taillasson and his amazing reconstruction of 19th-century Paris. As for the digital special effects, I relied on BUF and Olivier Cauwet who had just worked in BLADE RUNNER 2049. We first asked ourselves what was at stake in each scene and we would then integrate the VFX. Olivier helped us tremendously with his talent and expertise.

Emma Mackey as Adrienne and Romain Duris as Gustave Eiffel in Eiffel. © Video Vision

How do you feel on the eve of the first day of production?

I’m happy that the film is shooting! The most difficult and challenging time are the months leading up to production – completing the financing, the casting and scheduling. On the eve of shooting, we can breathe a sigh of relief; we have finally made it… 

Were there scenes that you were particularly excited about shooting?

I was pleased to finally be able to shoot something that was quite new to me: intimate emotional scenes. More than the very technical, complex shots and sequences, I was impatient to shoot the scene in which Eiffel is overwhelmed with emotion, just by looking at a photograph. With my background in comedy, I was really attracted to the challenge of directing this scene and communicating emotion to the audience through a silent sequence.

You mentioned comedy. How did your experience in this genre with DIVORCE, FRENCH STYLE help you with EIFFEL?

I conceived EIFFEL around a central idea of characters in motion. My comedy background came in handy because rhythm is central to comedy. Just as in DIVORCE, FRENCH STYLE, I always wanted the characters to be pulling the camera towards them to produce energy and movement that I would then accompany with my direction. The rhythm had to come from the filming not from the editing.

In the very first minutes of the film, we are following Gustave Eiffel’s energy. He talks fast, walks fast, has no time to waste. The camera is in constant movement, following him. Then, when Adrienne appears, the mise en scène changes abruptly, as does Eiffel’s attitude. He is overwhelmed, comes almost to a complete stop. The one-shot sequences make way for fixed shots, as if to show time suddenly standing still… These filmic breaks add rhythm to the direction and enables the audience to feel as close as possible to the characters, to identify with how they feel.

How do you work with actors on set?

As Spielberg puts it so well, the work with the actor on set starts with the casting!

If the actors have been well chosen, a good part of the work is already done. On set, a good level of trust had already been established between us. 

I would never indicate to them what I was expecting on the first take, so as to allow them to trust their talent and not miss out on an approach I had not thought of myself. My work with the actors was more about reorienting or correcting rather than actually directing.

I would often suggest to Romain that he behave opposite to what the character was saying in order to try and express what Eiffel was really thinking. For example, when Eiffel said to Adrienne: “I hoped I would never see you again”, I asked him to play it as though he were saying: “I am so moved to see you again”. The goal was to communicate his feelings through his acting and his body, not just through dialogue. Romain does this superbly, using the way he touches his gloves to translate what is going on deep within Eiffel: he is completely in shock to see Adrienne again.

The editing took 36 weeks. What made it so complicated?

It was a difficult task, striking a balance between the different timelines of the love story and the construction of the Tower.

One needs to be able to set the script aside at some point and reinvent the structure.

We had beautiful images, amazing actors and superb scenes but the story wasn’t quite working, the magic and emotion weren’t strong enough. This made for a very long and very cooperative collaboration with the film’s editor, Valérie Dessine.

Vanessa van Zuylen, Ardavan Safaee and Marie De Cénival made themselves very available throughout this period, as they followed the different phases of the edit. Their fresh takes and helpful comments helped us to find the right version, the one that satisfied everyone and made us all proud.

Was it during this editing phase that the music was being composed? 

Absolutely. Alexandre Desplat was working in parallel the entire time, feeding us different samples.

His eye and his suggestions allowed me to see some of the scenes from a different angle. With the music, I was able to see the actors, the frame, in a different light.

He very quickly came up with a leitmotiv which he then broke down into different variations of varying moods and colours. He was able to strike a balance between the intimate and the epic.