The Well Digger's Daughter

The Well Digger's Daughter

Nathalie (Marie-Anne Chazel), the well-digger (Daniel Auteuil) and daughter Patricia (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) as seen in THE WELL DIGGER'S DAUGHTER, a film by Daniel Auteuil. Picture courtesy Kino Lorber. All rights reserved.

The Well Digger's Daughter

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The Well Digger's Daughter (2011/2012)

Opened: 07/20/2012 Limited

Quad Cinema/NYC07/20/2012 - 08/16/201228 days
Playhouse 707/27/2012 - 08/16/201221 days
Town Center 507/27/2012 - 08/16/201221 days
Monica 4-Plex07/27/2012 - 08/09/201214 days
Kendall Square...07/27/2012 - 08/02/20127 days
Fallbrook 708/03/2012 - 08/09/20127 days
Music Hall 308/10/2012 - 09/06/201228 days
Music Box Thea...10/05/2012 - 10/11/20127 days

Trailer: Click for trailer

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Genre: French Romantic Drama

Rated: Unrated


Twenty-five years after rising to international acclaim in Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring, Daniel Auteuil returns to the world of Marcel Pagnol for his first work as director with this celebrated remake of the 1940s classic.

Auteuil stars as the eponymous well-digger Pascale, a widower living with his six daughters in the Provence countryside at the start of World War I. His eldest, Patricia (the luminous Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), has returned home from Paris to help raise her sisters, and Pascale dreams of marrying her off to his loyal assistant Felipe (Kad Merad). But when she's impregnated by a wealthy young pilot (Nicolas Duvauchelle) who promptly abandons her for the frontlines, Pascale is left to contend with the consequences.

An exquisitely crafted, sun-drenched melodrama, set to a score by Academy Award-nominee Alexandre Desplat (The King's Speech), the film captures all the warmth and humanist spirit of Pagnol's original work.

Interview with Daniel Auteuil

Had you wanted to step behind the camera for a long time or was it this particular subject that made you want to do it?

It was the subject. In fact, directing wasn't one of my priorities, because life was going too fast, there were too many encounters, I was far too spoiled as an actor... But then, when the idea of THE WELLDIGGER'S DAUGHTER came along and we needed to consider a director, I didn't hesitate for one hundredth of second before saying that I not only wanted to play the part but I also wanted to direct the movie! This seemed self-evident to me and logical at the same time. As if one could not work without the other.

Were you the one who had the idea of adapting THE WELL-DIGGER'S DAUGHTER?

No, it was the Pagnol family. We had stayed in touch after JEAN DE FLORETTE. It so happens that, at the same time, I was talking with Alain Sarde about roles that I could play, projects that we could try to set up. I was thinking a lot about the films that Marcel Pagnol made of Jean Giono's novels because those are stories and characters that mean a lot to me, that touch me, but things are rather complex where the rights are concerned. And then, one day, the Pagnol family said to Alain, "Don't you think THE WELL-DIGGER'S DAUGHTER might interest Daniel? He's the right age now..." I immediately jumped at the idea - the well-digger is one of Pagnol's finest characters - and when Alain said, "Who do you think could direct it?" I answered, "Me!" Alain didn't bat an eyelid, he simply fell silent for a second, then said, "Why not?" He immediately trusted me, as if this were self-evident. Then he went to see Jerome Seydoux who placed his trust in me too.

What touches you in this story?

Everything! With Pagnol, you're in the realm of emotion right away. Each time you read his work, it strikes you with the same power. In this case, from the outset, there was the desire to tackle the text and to play the part. The wish to make those words and emotions heard again today, as if they were being expressed for the first time.

Especially as, apart from its title, THE WELL-DIGGER'S DAUGHTER, is not Pagnol's best-known work. Then, what touched me most deeply was that I was going to be able to take over the story completely, that I was going to be able to talk about people that were familiar to me, that I knew or had known, about feelings and values that I cherish, that made me what I am, and that sometimes are almost taboo today. That's where the power and beauty of Pagnol's work lie. It's a magnificent story of love, tenderness, sorrow and forgiveness...

When we watch the film - and this in some way adds to the emotion that it gives off - we cannot help seeing it as, if not a debt, at least a tribute you are paying to Pagnol, Ugolin, Claude Berri and also your parents...

It is obvious that the film is also addressed to my parents and to the young man I used to be, to the life that I have been able to have thanks to the education I received. It speaks of the past through the eyes of the present. It's true, my parents are everywhere.

In the images, in the landscapes, in the arias sung by Caruso and that my father also sang, in the characters... Mrs Mazel is my mother. When she explains why she didn't give Jacques's letter to Patricia, she says: "They all wanted to take my son." That's my mother all over! In fact, the beautiful thing in Pagnol's work is that there is no judgement... Paying tribute to Pagnol, yes, of course...

As for the rest, I don't think so. THE WELL-DIGGER'S DAUGHTER doesn't tell the same story as FLORETTE, the stakes are not the same, even the Provence shown is not the same... This is my Provence, where I grew up, where I lived... At the same time, it's true, this film would probably not exist if I had not made JEAN DE FLORETTE, without my ties to the Pagnol family, without everything that Claude Berri's film brought me, recognition and the freedom to follow my own path, but I would say that it is there more as an echo than a reference.

How did you work on the adaptation?

I saw the film again, then I took my starting point as the book Pagnol wrote after the release of the film, telling the same story. That was a great opportunity since the book contains many additional indications, scenes that Pagnol hadn't shot and which I was able to use. I sifted through all that and kept only the nuggets, the things that are universal about Pagnol's work, the things that mean that 70 years on it still entertains and moves us. Whatever the period, feelings are always the same, lovers are always the same, parents are always the same, rich and poor folk too. I based my work on that text in order to give it a contemporary rhythm or, more precisely, my own rhythm...

What was the hardest part about writing?

Sensing just how far I could go, to what extent I was allowed to make this story my own. It was several weeks before I dared to but then I started to remove things, slowly, then to remove others. After that, I started adding elements, for instance bringing the mother back to life when the girls listen to a song as they talk about her...

And, in the end, I took it over completely to the extent that I occasionally have the feeling that these characters have escaped from the written page to come to life. How would you define the well-digger and what touches you most about him? What touches me most is the almost maternal relationship that he has with his daughters. He is both a father and a mother.

So you had decided to play the well-digger... What made you think that Kad Merad was the perfect actor to play Felipe Rambert, the worker in love with his daughter?

I thought of him at a very early stage because Kad has the ability to be what you ask him right away and, above all, because he can be instantly identifiable as a nice guy. Basically that is what Felipe is: a guy totally incapable of hurting anyone. And I knew that Kad would bring the note of humanity and humour - and strength too - that I was looking for.

In Pagnol's film, the two characters were played by Raimu and Fernandel respectively. Are you not crushed by the weight of such legends when you think about how to approach the roles?

Of course, you think about it but you leave all that behind fairly quickly because it's a different project, another age and you have different personalities. And, above all, you tell yourself that such roles, like the great roles of the stage repertoire, are written to be played time and again. It would be a pity to deprive yourself of that...After all, actors continually perform Marivaux, Moliere, Feydeau and Shakespeare... For me, it's no different from when I play Scapin on stage.

How did you go about selecting the rest of the cast?

I looked for people I knew or liked and who would immediately seem right in their roles. I'm very keen on the idea that we immediately identify the characters and what they are. For young Mazel, I thought fairly quickly of Nicolas Duvauchelle. First, because he is a wonderful actor. And then, because he is handsome and, at the same time, there's a slightly rebellious, slightly dangerous side to him. He immediately gave Jacques Mazel the rather thuggish air of a well-off family's son who insolently believes that he is allowed to do as he likes.

I then looked for his parents and offered the parts to Sabine Azema and Jean- Pierre Darroussin, both for their comic potential and their emotional power: they seemed to be the obvious choice to me. For young Patricia, things were a bit more complicated but we did auditions. And we were lucky enough to meet Astrid Berges- Frisbey. She has a grace, a poetry and a way of elevating feelings that are very rare...

Moreover, the couple that she forms with Nicolas is magnificent. These two young people together are simply miraculous. A role that was also a bit difficult to cast is that of Amanda's sister, Patricia. I wanted to avoid all cliches and I was very lucky to discover a young actress with as much charm, talent and personality as Emilie Cazenave at an audition. Finally, to play my sister, I thought of Marie- Anne Chazel. There too there was something self-evident, if only because of the proximity that we share through our age, experience, our beginnings...

How did you approach directing?

Firstly, I worked a great deal on the film's preparation. For many months, I scouted for locations; I travelled all over the Provence of my childhood...The Alpilles, Saint Remy, Eygalieres where I used to go walking with my parents. At a very early stage, I asked Jean-Francois Robin to be my director of photography. We have known each other for a long time, since Claude Sautet's QUELQUES JOURS AVEC MOI. I knew he would be the ideal partner.

I put together my crew just like in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, choosing people whom, over the years I've been doing this job, I have enjoyed frequenting and with whom I wanted to spend more time. People whom I trust and who would support me as we worked all together on this film that I wanted to be a gem! Be it Pierre-Yves Gayraud for the costumes, Bernard Vezat for the sets, Joelle Hache for the editing...

I talked a great deal with Jean-Francois, had lengthy discussions and visited a lot of locations before the problem of directing per se arose. As if, while I was working on the adaptation of the screenplay, while I was preparing the film, I did not want to think about the transition to the image. As if it were something that, deep down, was still taboo, or even forbidden! In fact, it's amusing that, until now, as an actor, I had never once asked myself the question, "Now, where would I put the camera?" In fact, I simply think I didn't want to create the images artificially. I wanted the camera direction to come from the text. That's how I prepared the film. Each shot was born of the words, the situation, the emotions...

How did it go on a practical level?

In fact, I did a great deal of work on the locations prior to shooting with Jean- Francois. We went there in every season, in all kinds of weather. We'd go with Gerard Gaultier, the production manager, and my fabulous first assistant, Alain Olivieri. They all had the patience of saints with me, they were amazing. When they asked technical questions, the only answer I could give them, at the start of scouting in any case, was to act out the scenes for them by inventing a camera! As an actor, while I never wondered where to put the camera, I could however sense when it was not well positioned on me.

Proceeding like this allowed me to sort things out, clarify my desires, and refine the shot breakdown that was altered continually. In exploring the locations, I was looking for movement and rhythm; I had a general idea of what I wanted but this allowed me to clarify it. I wanted something fluid, I wanted movement, but I didn't want effects with a crane or a Steadicam...

I wanted both lyricism and simplicity; I didn't want the film to be starchy or mannered. I also knew that simplicity is the hardest thing to obtain. We thus set ourselves a whole series of challenges - and the crew loved that! We did miles of tracking shots, we decided to film the lovers together always in the same frame - life was going to part them so I didn't want to part them too! I asked Berto, with whom I have worked numerous times, to handle the camera.

Usually he carries it but not here. He made a terrific contribution to the fluidity that I was looking for... He's someone with whom I'm totally comfortable, I know that I can do very few takes and that he won't miss a thing that needs to be filmed. All this knowledge and all this experience helped me a great deal. But every time I wanted to invent a shot or had a problem with the direction, I would refer back to the text and it provided me with all the answers. The direction is in fact guided by the power of the emotions.

What did you tell Jean-Francois Robin to define the lighting you wanted?

I told him, "I'd like something that gets me as close as possible to life, I want to feel the light outside and the dark inside, I want to see the actors' skin, I want to be able to sense the actress turn pink and blush..." And he gave me all that! My obsession on this film with both the technicians and the actors was life. Life, life, life! Everything that took us away from literature and reconstruction... That was our challenge. The literary text had to be a tool, not a burden. My obsessions were related to life, truth, the precision of feelings, nature...

Indeed, nature is present in a both very vibrant and a very lyrical manner...

There too, if I had brought in wind machines, it would not have had the same effect! For the film, we had planned on four or five weeks of interior shooting but had to do it at the beginning of filming, contrary to the shooting schedule, because it never stopped raining! The day came when we had completed all the interior scenes and had to start on the exterior ones.

Fortunately, the rain stopped and, as it had rained for five weeks, the wind began to blow, the way it blows in the South! It made things difficult for the sound engineer but I didn't realize. I was borne up, I was carried along, I thought that the Mistral sent by the heavens was a blessing, that the actress's hair flying in the wind was beautiful, that the sight of the reeds bending and the old plane trees shaking was magnificent... They were important for me; those reeds in the wind and the plane trees were my childhood, my adolescence coming back...

You are also always very close to the characters and so to the actors...

Oh yes, I wanted that. I wanted to be as close as possible to the emotions and so as close as possible to the actors because, basically, the only thing I knew well about the cinema were actors. Although on the first day, I realized that I did not know what to say to actors because I have heard so much myself. And such paralysing things!

However, I know that actors are always afraid and need to be reassured and made comfortable. Once they are reassured and comfortable, they give you the very best. My main preoccupation was therefore to ask myself how, despite my slightly impatient and abrupt side, because I'm in a hurry and not calm, I could manage to control myself in order to obtain that. I had to start directing to discover, after all this time, that working with actors is both more magical and much easier than you think. Well, easy... You need to be carried along by a story. And I have to say that, on this film, there was a lot of warm energy, natural concentration, a form of grace...

In any case, I saw what real gifts the actors were and that directors had every reason to be friendly with them and to be thankful to them! That was one of my greatest pleasures on this shoot.

You usually have a fairly close relationship with your directors. On this film, when you were acting, did you not miss that exterior eye?

No, it was like Spartacus finding himself free, it was the slaves' rebellion! My big surprise in this new line of work has been to attain something that I thought totally impossible: complete self-abandonment. I never imagined that one day on a film set, the actor that I am would move into the background to such an extent for me.

When it was my turn to act, I went out there, I did a few takes and then I returned to the directing. It was as if I had no time to lose with myself!

This was the first time I had taken so little interest in myself. All of a sudden, I discovered the pleasure of directing others, of conjuring up shots and images, of arousing laughter and emotions that did not depend solely on me. I also discovered the fascination of filming faces and certain landscapes that resemble faces... I did not think it was possible to find such pleasure simply in filming a face...

That doesn't prevent your well-digger from having an intensity, a truth, a power of emotion and a mixture of restraint and abandon that makes him one of your finest characters... It's as if we were discovering something about you that we had never seen before...

Perhaps it's because, even though I've played fathers before, this is the first time paternity is at the heart of a film... Perhaps also because this role signifies a change in status, a passage from one age to another... I was so immersed in the story that everything happened almost unconsciously. In fact, that's more or less the way I always work... Except that here there was a much longer gestation period. In fact, time is what you need with important roles like this.

The funny thing is that on the shooting schedule, we had given me a week directing in order to adapt before I had my first scenes as an actor. But the weather decided otherwise. We were obliged to begin with an interior scene in which I acted. In the end, that was better. From the very first take on the very first day, I jumped in at the deep end, performing and directing at the same time. That way, at least, I was immediately into it.

Was there one particular scene that you apprehended as an actor or for the other actors?

I apprehended them all... because I was directing them! What I can say now is that nothing was simple but everything was easy... No, something was a little more complicated, but only where directing was concerned: the scenes by the river.

We were supposed to start with them... but ended up filming them last of all! Because the river was in flood and because, in devising the shots, despite all my scouting, I never took into account the fact that water is not a solid element! Once again, I wanted to be as close as possible to the actors and have tracking shots on the water. It was THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI!

Did you ever sense the influence during filming of certain directors with whom you have worked in the past?

Basically, there was no influence on a directing level because, with them, I was an actor first and foremost. However, where friendship is concerned, I of course thought during shooting of Claude Sautet, Claude Berri, Francis Girod... I felt I would have liked them to see my film...

What did you tell Alexandre Desplat who composed the score?

That I didn't want the music to simply accompany the images but to be something the audience would listen to. For me, music is not background noise, it's an actor in its own right. And it was a magical experience to go to his studio to listen to his compositions that back up the film's emotions so well.

In the end, what surprised you most as a director?

The power of the obsession. For two years, I can say I thought of nothing else. I slept four hours a night, I would wake at two in the morning and work on the script breakdown again. It was as if it had released something within me. I didn't know I could be so stubborn, so determined. But, oddly, perhaps because everything found an echo within me, was all so familiar and took me back to such personal things, to people I've known, to feelings I've experienced, to relationships I'm familiar with, to landscapes I love, I rarely thought throughout this whole adventure that it was a first film. I always felt that it followed on from those I had made as an actor, that it was part of a logical sequence, that it was the consequence of them...