Chronicle of a dysfunctional family through the eyes of two teenagers in search of survival, Sweet Thing marks the great return of the cult director of In the soup. Meeting with a survivor.
When was the idea of Sweet Thing born where you direct your two children Lana and Nico? In the wake of Little feet in 2013 where both appeared for the first time in front of your camera?
Alexandre Rockwell: I live in Los Angeles which is a great city if you are an orange or a grapefruit. But not if you are a filmmaker! (laughs) I was getting more and more frustrated at not seeing any of my projects come to fruition. I was running out of my savings, but I couldn’t bring myself to stop turning. So I took my old Bolex camera, my two kids and I went for Little Feet. A simple story, a road movie with the desire to capture something of their childhood. And I believe that if I have a talent, it is the ability to capture the charisma and enhance it. But my children have this charisma. It is not the spoiled daddy of his kids who tells you that, but the criticisms that I have received with this 16 mm black and white film. Then more time passed. And again, I ran out of money. I then asked wife if I could use the money set aside to pay for our insurance to make a movie. She has accepted. And this time, I wanted to film their adolescence, to tell a story where they were going to immerse themselves in the brutality of adulthood by playing fully on the contrast. I knew they would be able to do it. So I went for it. And the movie gods have been with me!
How do you work with them? Do you rehearse a lot?
No. The repetition was their births! (laughs) So my wife is responsible for it. Afterwards, I know them by heart, we are very close, so I know what they can do or not. My job is to direct it by being as precise as possible about what I am going to ask them so that they no longer have to play but to do very specific things.
Why still shoot black and white?
I only find beauty in chaos. Perfection makes me drop out. And I like black and white because it magnifies the faces, the imperfections that I am looking for.
By its adolescent ardor, Sweet Thing looks like a first film …
You couldn’t give me a better compliment. Because that’s exactly what I was looking for. Some people no doubt expect that as the films go on, my cinema is more sophisticated. However, nothing is harder than unlearning over the course of feature films. To find the spontaneous emergence of my beginnings. In any case, that’s what I’m trying to do: once again familiarize myself with this innocence that was mine. That’s why I use a lot of non-professional actors and write scenes where surprise can arise at any time.
In 1992, your third feature film, In the soup , made an impression and made you one of the strongest hopes of independent US cinema of the time. But none of your films have been released in France since Louis and Frank in 1998 and you have only shot 4 in 23 years. Did you ever think of stopping everything?
I make films because it is essential to me. Otherwise, I’ll go crazy. And as soon as I have a new idea, I instantly forget all the blows I could have taken, all the tears I could have shed on the previous project. Nothing matters than pursuing this new idea. I love nothing more than picking up impossible bets.
What has changed the most in Hollywood since you started?
It’s getting harder and harder to make a living from a certain type of independent cinema. I no longer count the producers I know who have gone to work in real estate. For me, there is still an audience for this type of cinema, but we have to manage to monetize these films. And I’m sure we’ll get there. However, in my eyes, the cinema has been hijacked by a certain elite, in which I include myself. We have tended to forget too much the popular side of this art and the gap is widening between popcorn movies on one side and pure auteur cinema on the other. And ultimately, this danger is deadly. This is why I am so happy that my film is released in France. When I was younger, seeing films in Paris was my cinema school and for me, this city remains the capital of cinema. You still have an incredible number of rooms! But despite Netflix, Amazon and the others, nothing can replace the fact of walking into a theater and watching a movie surrounded by strangers. It’s like a religious experience.