My Son – A suspense thriller with ‘orchestrated improvisation’

On November 19, 2020, twenty years and eight days after writer-director Christian Carion first conceived of a desperate man on a frantic search, performed by an actor as stunned by the events as the audience, My Son finished shooting.

The film is writer-director Christian Carion’s English-language remake of his own 2017 French production Mon Garçon. Although the cast, setting, and script were all changed, My Son was made using the same distinctive methodology as the French original, what Carion calls “orchestrated improvisation.”

The key element of this approach is to keep the story and script concealed from the lead actor.

Accordingly, James McAvoy, who plays a man whose young child goes missing in the Scottish Highlands, arrived on set knowing only that he was playing a man whose son had disappeared. Then, throughout production, he was entirely in improvisation mode: his portrayal of Edmond is a series of real-time reactions to the other actors. Additionally, the rest of the cast – Claire Foy as Edmond’s estranged wife Joan, Gary Lewis as the local detective assigned to the case, and Tom Cullen as Joan’s new partner Frank – were instructed to coax and guide McAvoy through Carion’s pre-conceived narrative. This chronological construction resembles a card game, where each new scene is a reaction to, and a further building of, the story related in the previous sequence.

The idea behind orchestrated improvisation is to allow actors to express spontaneous emotion, to even devise their own dialogue at the moment if they so desire. The result of this unique production method is both an incredibly authentic portrayal from an actor and a distinct story, personalized to a particular moment and person.

It was nearly twenty years ago when Christian Carion first had the idea that would become My Son

“It was in 2002, just after the release of my very first movie, The Girl From Paris,” he says. “I remember the first time I explained the idea to my then producer. At that point I didn’t talk about the way I wanted to shoot it, I just talked about the story.”

Carion was going through a divorce at the time and, finding himself separated from his child, started to imagine a character always abroad for work, an absent father constantly consumed by the guilt of being away from his son. Next, Carion conceived of a story that would force this character to come home, and to deal with his guilt: a workaholic oil engineer whose child goes missing discovers there is nothing he will not do, no line he will not cross, to pay what Carion calls, “the bill, the debt for the fact that he has not been there.”

However, Carion, already committed to his next few pictures, had to put this idea on hold. He went on to make Joyeux Noël (his 2005 hit set on the Western Front during the First World War), Farewell (2009) and Come What May (2015).

In 2016, Carion was ready to jump into this long-gestating project

Carion and Laure Irrmann, who had collaborated on Come What May, started to work on the French-language script for the film now titled Mon Garçon.

“While writing, says Laure Irrmann, we kept in mind that we had to surprise the lead actor hour per hour. He shouldn’t guess what would happen next. If this could work, then the audience would also be held in suspense.”

But on the eve of production, a new issue arose: the film’s lead actor, Guillaume Canet, had a very brief window for the production, due to other engagements.

Carion decided to radically change his approach to directing

He took inspiration from Sebastian Schipper’s 2015 feature Victoria, a film that was shot in a single continuous take.

“I thought a lot about how we could do that,” he says. “In the end, we didn’t do it in the same way as Victoria, but, like them, we decided to take a lot of risks and to shoot in a very short time. And to allow the lead actor to discover everything as we were shooting, to put him in a real situation: the lead actor’s not prepared; he’s just the guy who arrives, discovers what’s happened, and reacts.”

Mon Garçon was finally filmed in France and released in 2016. But even while writing the French version, Carion had a potential English-language remake in mind. The distraught parents, the thriller, the search for a lost child – these kinds of stories are universal and will appeal to audiences the world over. “Everybody can understand why a father could be driven crazy because he lost his son,” he says.

Carion trusted in his method – he had, after all, made a version of the film once before with much of the same crew. Knowing that the system worked meant knowing a little more about where to put the camera and how certain narrative puzzles might be solved. This lent a degree of freedom to both Carion and Dumont, who were able to pay more attention to the style of My Son than they had with Mon Garçon.

“We wanted something more like – not necessarily an American thriller – but something with more work about the way it’s shot,” Carion says. “Even if we shot it in eight days, we were trying to bring some atmosphere.”

Looking for reference points, Carion had gone back and watched films like David Fincher’s Zodiac and Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners before beginning production on My Son. “I always need references for any movie before starting,” he says. “But then my job is to forget them.”

Finding The Perfect Cast

Carion had first met James McAvoy while casting Joyeux Noël some 15 years earlier. “James is one of the most exciting actors of his generation,” says the writer-director. “When I see James in a movie, I never know what he will do in the next minute. He always surprises me.”

In May 2020, Carion and McAvoy reconnected.  “Christian explained the premise to me, and I said, ‘I’ll do it,’” says McAvoy of the ease of his decision to join the production. “He was proposing a bespoke dramatic experience, constructed and orchestrated for me to just walkthrough. Eight days of discovery and choice-making and peril and real danger… it sounded incredible.”

Carion sent McAvoy just three pages of backstory on the character of Edmond, an oil engineer completely dedicated to his work; somebody who has given up his family and home in favour of his job, and who is now forced to return because his son has gone missing.

“The last time Edmond saw his child was on a FaceTime call 11 months ago,” says McAvoy. “That gives you some idea what he’s like. But the journey from somebody who’s like that to somebody who will go to extreme lengths to try and find this wee boy, that’s what makes it interesting. It’s such a fundamentally impactful and relatable story. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare.”

Claire Foy was, similarly, Carion’s first choice for Edmond’s estranged wife Joan. Foy and McAvoy had played spouses eight years earlier in an acclaimed production of Macbeth at London’s Trafalgar Theatre. On stage, the duo had a charged, abrasive energy that Carion wanted to recreate in his film.

“I just thought it was a brilliant and a sort of mad idea,” says Foy of My Son. “And I knew that James was doing it and I love him. And then I got the script and obviously, the thing with the script was… it isn’t really a script, it’s more a map of what the story does.”

Carion explained to Foy that he wanted her to not only play the role of Joan but to also be his partner, aiding him in corralling McAvoy down certain story routes.

“He told me, ‘These are the scenes I need to get, but I want you to interpret what’s happening in those scenes and get this information you’ve got to get across in whatever way you think is appropriate,’” Foy says. Although she initially felt some hesitation about working without a polished script, the actress quickly embraced the endeavour: “I thought that it’s a real challenge to trust your own instincts and trust yourself to be able to come up with the right thing to say at the right time, if you just believe in what’s happening.”

“I didn’t know what kind of film we were going to be in,” says McAvoy. “I didn’t know if it was going to be about the machinery behind lost children cases; if we were going to be in a world of bureaucracy and offices, and interviews, and appeals, and all that. Or whether we were going to be in the other extreme, which is a movie like Taken. We’re definitely not in Taken territory but it turned out to be much more of a thriller type of film.”

From the first scene on the first day of shooting, in which Edmond meets Joan at the campsite from which his son has disappeared, all the challenges – and rewards – of filming using orchestrated improvisation were immediately apparent.

“When we shot the very first meeting between Claire and James, I was so moved in the way he decided to run to her,” says Carion. “But we didn’t expect that running!” DP Eric Dumont and his Steadicam operator took off after McAvoy in a bid to catch up. Once they did, as Carion describes it, they found they had captured something remarkable. “The way he finally arrived, the timing, the way they took each other in their arms with the divers behind them on the loch… it was perfect. The shot is beautiful, but I can’t take credit because we didn’t expect it. It’s a beautiful accident.”

McAvoy felt that Carion’s methodology, designed to be able to adapt to such “accidents” on the fly, allowed him a great deal of freedom. “You literally are just coming into it as open as possible,” he notes.

Carion stresses that, although the aim was to shoot each scene in one take, it wasn’t always possible. Sometimes, McAvoy’s reactions took the narrative down a dead end. In one scene, Edmond comes across a car in the woods and then has a confrontation with the driver. On the first take, McAvoy saw the car arriving through the trees… and simply ran away. “I said, ‘James, um, I need you to stay and have a conversation with the guy who is driving this car. He has something to tell you,’” says Carion. “He went back to the car and he decided to talk. Then everything went the way we expected.”

“You can improvise in character, but I think we were hired to be ourselves a little bit in this. There was no need for any affectation or big characterization. Is it quite exposing? Yes, I guess so. But as an actor you want to expose, you want to be vulnerable so that you can have a shared experience with the audience. That’s when it’s at its best.”

Claire Foy related that, ultimately, she enjoyed what had begun as “a process of utter terror.” Both actors had signed on to make My Son without seeing a script, thus putting their complete trust in Carion. But, crucially, said the writer/director, the trust runs both ways:

“In this concept of shooting a movie, it relies very deeply on the trust between the actors and the director. If the actor doesn’t believe in what we’re trying to do, that’s it. So, I said to Claire and James at the end of the shoot, ‘I thank you for trusting me because without trust nothing can happen. Nothing at all.’”

James McAvoy in My Son

From Page To Screen

Carion first became captivated by Scotland’s landscape when he shot the opening of Joyeux Noël in 2005 and had been looking to return ever since. So, when O’Brien suggested the Scottish village of Ballachulish, just two hours west of Glasgow, as a shooting location, it felt like fate.

As the cast and crew assembled in Scotland in late October 2020, one person tested positive for Covid-19, and contact tracing and isolation procedures were implemented. Carion was one of those asked to isolate, and filming had to be stopped. While this pause seemed like a setback at first, it ended up being quite a boon for the production.

“It was actually really lucky when we got shut down,” says Foy, “because me, Gary and Tom got to have lots of rehearsal meetings. We got to ask questions about the script. Why are we here? What time is it there? You have to have that if you’re improvising. You can’t just make things up because then it ruins the whole plot.”

Additionally, Carion rewrote parts of the script, while Director of Photography Eric Dumont shot coverage of the surrounding area, footage that proved essential in post-production. “I would never say thank you to Covid, but, in a way, it was not lost time at all,” says Carion.