I liked his sense of adventure.
French director Jerôme Salle thrives on a sense of adventure, never more so than when making The Odyssey, his epic take on the life of naval officer Jacques Cousteau whose underwater exploits made him a celebrated name all over the world..
Written by Jérôme Salle and Laurent Turner, The Odyssey it based on Capitaine de la Calypso by Albert Falco and Yves Paccalet, and My Father, The Captain by Jean-Michel Cousteau.
From 1949 to 1979, thirty years in the life of captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau, the famous researcher, scientist, inventor, filmmaker whose greatest achievement is to have made the general public more curious – and accordingly closer – to the sea.
Before you had the idea of making a film on this subject, what did the name Cousteau conjure up for you?
It took me back to my childhood… I was brought up in the South of France, my parents had a sailing boat, and we used to sail to all the places where Cousteau first went diving, around the Embiez, Porquerolles, all those islands in the Var region. I also remember his documentaries being shown on TV. Right from the start, the man and his work were linked to my own life…
Did you get to know Jacques Cousteau from making the film or did you have a good idea of who he was before you started?
I had a good idea, or at least my idea, which is important before you write the story. I did not change my mind about him while shooting the film, but it took me years to be able to understand who exactly he was. He was quite a complex character and quite secretive. It is a bit of a paradox because he was showing his face all over the world but he was only showing what he wanted to show and he was hiding a lot of things. That is why it took me so long to understand this man.
I liked his sense of adventure. He was a director and he was egocentric like every director has to be. He has to deal with his family as I have had to deal with my family and the long absences of shooting all over the world. Perhaps I am not such a great father because of my job and he had the same issue. When we were shooting the film, we had struggles with the budget and had to deal with the elements – it felt like the same kind of situation Cousteau had to deal with also over the years. There were so many parallels. And there were so many aspects that you could not plan advance and in a way that was inspiring – especially on a film like this.
The project took quite a long time to set up – we’ll come back to that – but how did the idea first come about?
It all began with one of my children. I was talking about Cousteau at home and I saw my son had no idea what I was talking about. He didn’t know a thing about Cousteau, had never heard of the films, the Calypso, nor the crew’s red hats! It seems incredible, because for people of my generation, Captain Cousteau was almost like Jesus, one of the most famous men in the world… After talking about this with other people, I realised that he was sinking into oblivion as far as the under 20s and even the under 30s were concerned. So I started to look at what had been written about him: on the internet, in books. I watched the documentaries again, and I ended up experiencing a tremendous feeling of childhood nostalgia. I also notices that apart from Wes Anderson’s film “The Life Aquatic”, no movie had ever tackled the extraordinary life of this man… So I began to unravel the details from there and I soon felt that there was a lot of mystery surrounding him: very little was known about Jacques-Yves Cousteau. He had total control over his image when filming himself with his crew, but never revealed anything intimate about himself.
Imagine that the next difficulty was choosing an angle for the story you wanted to tell, from such a full yet secretive life…
Absolutely, and I had such a hard job doing it, especially as in the meantime I directed two other films, “Largo Winch “and Zulu”. It really took me several years to get a script I was happy with … Laurent Turner, the film’s co-writer, and I read everything which had been written about the man, then met the people who had known him, because all the grey areas surrounding Cousteau were stopping me from seeing who he really was – a man who lived several lives in the space of a single lifetime…
First we has to carry out a huge amount of investigative journalism before we could begin the work of a scriptwriter. Once this was done, we settled down to write the script. I thought it was a good screenplay – in the sense that we got great feedback from it – but I still felt a little frustrated. I felt it was a little too classic in its approach, too much of a biopic. I think it was meeting the actors that enabled me to develop it further. Pierre Niney, whom I wanted to work with, reinforced my idea of giving more space to the role of Philippe Cousteau, one of Cousteau’s sons.
At this point, the opposition between Philippe and his father suddenly seemed an obvious basis for the story… So then I wrote a completely new version, taking out the first part about Cousteau’s younger days. This had the advantage of allowing me offer the role to Lambert Wilson, who – fortunately – agreed almost immediately. While I was re-writing, I practically started from the scratch, and yet I wrote it all in one go in the space of three weeks. Thanks to the new angle, I suddenly had a very clear idea of the story I wanted to tell.
But I have to emphasise that this was only possible because of all the hard work Laurent and I had been doing for several years! I have been a scriptwriter, and I know only too well how often the authors of the early versions get forgotten, even though that is by far the most difficult part of the work. I loved working with Laurent, but I think that at that point, for the re-writing, I needed to be alone with my subject.
Was it one of the most challenging films that you have done?
It was one of the most challenging for many reasons. First it was really difficult to make the movie happen at all. The shooting was challenging but less so than financing the film. It is always difficult to get the money to finance a movie. This one was more difficult because it was quite expensive for sure, but also may be because the shoot was quite risky – we were shooting underwater and on the water and people got cold feet because of that. We shot all over the world in Croatia, South Africa, the Bahamas and Antarctic.
Describe your casting process – did you have particular names in mind?
I try not to have any actors in mind, partly because you might be disappointed with a ‘no’ – it happens. Obviously I started with Cousteau – and in previous versions of the script I started earlier in Cousteau’s life and I was looking for someone around 40 to 45 years old. I could not find anyone that I was happy with. And then, for other reasons, I decided to focus on the relationship between father and son and I deleted the first part of the script. That meant I was looking for an actor around 50 years old and Lambert [Wilson] was perfect for that role. For Pierre Niney, I met him before Lambert so he was attached a long time before. Audrey Tautou was quite easy because she is Simone [Cousteau’s wife]. She read the script and immediately said, ‘Yes’ – she understood right away who she was. Lambert has the physical presence but he did have to go on quite a tough diet to get the lean physique. Pierre was the reverse – he had to bulk up by going to the gym.
Have you worked out what you’re doing next?
I always have many projects in the pipeline but as yet I don’t know which one will be next. It took some time to come down from Cousteau. The mix is of my own projects and projects that are brought to me – and I would quite like one of the latter at this point because I am fed up with myself as a writer. I don’t want to be locked in to my work as a writer and, as a director, it is exciting to work with someone different for inspiration and to have someone to spark off. Like many of us in this profession I am always frightened that it will all be over and someone will come along say, ‘Stop it – what you’re doing is bullshit’. So far it has not happened!
Was your route in to the business a traditional one of going to film school?
No not at all. I left school at 16 because I wanted to travel. And I did that for a few years and subsequently became a press photographer. I then became an art director in different countries including a spell in the UK in London and in Germany. My dream had always been to be a film director. I was not ready when I was younger and, in any case, I did not have the courage. When I was 30, I thought if I do not do it now I never will – and I started off by writing short films. I always kept my job as an art director because by that time I was married and had children to support. My wife helped me out. Some how we managed – you must know the famous singer Jacques Brel who said that you get by on five per cent talent and 95 per cent hard work and I believe that, especially in our job.