French director Guillaume Canet had to make New York dirtier for Blood Ties


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The Independent Culture

The problem with New York these days is there's just not enough litter. At least, that's French director Guillaume Canet's experience. He had to supply his own rubbish to recreate the grubby streets of 1970s Brooklyn for his debut English-language film Blood Ties.

"Every day," the director laughed during an interview at the Cannes Film Festival, where his movie is screening out of competition. "We had a big truck with garbage and we were throwing papers and stuff all the way."

The lack of litter was just one of the logistical and cultural hurdles that Canet had to overcome to make the tale of sibling tensions in which two brothers — one a straight-arrow cop played by Billy Crudup, the other a charismatic criminal played by Clive Owen — find themselves on a collision course.

Canet, a 40-year-old French screen heartthrob-turned-successful director, had several offers of work in the US after his 2006 French film Tell No One — a taut adaptation of a Harlan Coben novel — became a surprise global hit.

He said he turned down the chance to do big-budget pictures in favour of the independently produced and modestly budgeted Blood Ties.

The film is a remake of the 2008 French thriller Les Liens du Sang (literally Blood Ties, but titled Rivals in English), which starred Canet as the policeman brother.

He collaborated on the script with American director James Gray, whose own Big Apple saga The Immigrant screens at Cannes on Friday. Gray was the one who helped translate Canet's dialogue into fluent New Yorkese.

The film is steeped in Canet's love of '70s American movies and evokes Mean Streets — Martin Scorsese's breakout 1973 drama — and other films of the era, such as director Jerry Schatzberg's junkie drama The Panic in Needle Park. Canet refers to Schatzberg's movie as a touchstone and screened it for his cast and crew so they could understand where he was coming from.

But it was only once he started making the movie that he grasped how much things have changed in New York.

"When they were shooting Panic in Needle Park you can see that they were stealing shots in the streets, and you cannot do this in New York now," he said. "You can't shoot without permission, without authorisation. It's really difficult."

Permits were one problem; another was US cinema's working practices, which struck the Frenchman as both foreign and hierarchical.

"Not being able to talk with the extras was very frustrating for me," Canet said. "You have to go through your first assistant, who is going to — in front of you — talk to the extras.

"When you have someone in front of you, you want to talk to him directly, you don't want to have someone repeating what you just said. So it's just weird."

He got used to it, but audiences at Cannes have been divided on how well his trans-Atlantic hybrid of a film succeeds.

The '70s look of the film is powerfully evocative — all polyester, vast cars and even bigger moustaches — and the soundtrack is chock-full of killer tunes.

The counter-intuitive casting of British actor Owen as a ruthless crook pays off, and there are some strong performances from a multinational cast that includes Marion Cotillard, Zoe Saldana and Mila Kunis. Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts (Bullhead, Rust and Bone) is especially impressive as a vengeful tough.

The goal of mixing crime-thriller action with domestic scenes is laudable, and anyone with siblings will recognise the dynamics at play during a disastrous Thanksgiving dinner involving Crudup, Owen, sister Lili Taylor and dad James Caan.

But at almost two-and-a-half hours long, some found the movie flabby and its changes of pace and tone uncertain.

"What excites me a lot about the script is that it's really a character story, too. You get deeply into the lives of those people," Canet said.

But he conceded he might have to trim the film for release in the US, where Lionsgate has acquired distribution rights.

"I will probably have to cut some stuff for the American audience," he admitted. "The American audience doesn't have this interest of getting into some moments like this, and silence. They want another pace and another rhythm."

Canet thinks that's a shame. He worries that something is being irretrievably lost with the decline of the director-driven movies he grew up watching.

"There is something particular in this cinema that I like and that I miss right now as an audience," he said. "It's to have the time with the characters. I think that nowadays we are eating life so fast, we are doing things so fast ... (and) in the cinema it's the same thing. We don't take time to digest things."

He fears a sense of film history is disappearing, too.

"Four years ago, I was in the office of one of the heads of a really important studio in the US," Canet said. "And I talked to him about Jerry Schatzberg — and he didn't know who he was."