“In ‘Les Cowboys’ things are not what they appear to be.”
On a sunny day in midtown Manhattan, I had the pleasure to meet with French writer and director Thomas Bidegain about his new film Les Cowboys. A longtime collaborator of filmmaker Jacques Audiard, Bidegain has written scripts for Audiard’s Rust and Bone, A Prophet, and Dheepan, as well as for Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent, which was the 2014 French Foreign Language Oscar submission.
We began our conversation talking about writing controversial and hot button subject matter, as seen in the film Where Do We Go Now, which he wrote in collaboration with Lebanese director Nadine Labaki. (The film centers on a group of Lebanese women who try to ease religious tensions between Christians and Muslims in their village.)
Bidegain: “I went to Lebanon for a month to write with Labaki; they already had a script but they were not quite happy with it and we found the right tone for it. It’s a great film about women.”
When describing his latest film, Les Cowboys, which took a year-and-a-half to write, Bidegain stated: “It’s the story of simple folk who are projected into the chaos of a world they don’t understand.”
About Les Cowboys
Country and Western enthusiast Alain is enjoying an outdoor gathering of fellow devotees with his wife and teenage children when his daughter Kelly abruptly vanishes. Learning that she’s eloped with her Muslim boyfriend, he embarks on an increasingly obsessive quest to track her down. As the years pass and the trail grows cold, Alain sacrifices everything, while drafting his son into his efforts.
The film is inspired by director John Ford’s The Searchers (screenwriter Frank S. Nugent, from the novel by Alan LeMay) about a Civil War veteran who embarks on a journey to rescue his niece from an Indian tribe. But the story departs from Ford’s film in unexpected ways, and escapes its confining European milieu as the pursuit assumes near-epic proportions in post-9/11 Afghanistan.
The Evolution of the Screenplay
TB: “I’ve worked a lot with Noé Debré. It was an idea I had and I told him the story. We took notes and we ended up with a six-page treatment and that’s pretty much the film. I went to see a producer and he bought it. It was always a very tight script. The first version of the screenplay was 85 pages and the story takes place over the course of 15 years. In the script, the characters don’t talk too much; the people are from the mountainside so it’s true to their characters.
Producers always want you to have likeable characters but if the characters are likeable then nothing can happen to them. For example, the father’s obsession to find his daughter Kelly turns into a form of narcissism.”
Kouguell: “It’s interesting how the protagonist shifts midway through the film from father to son, as Kid gradually takes on the role of the caretaker and continues on his father’s quest to find Kelly. On one level, the story is about a father and son relationship, yet the father’s journey to find his daughter underscores a father who doesn’t know his daughter at all.”
TB: “Yes, the father is myopic. He thinks he’s a cowboy and believes that the Muslim Community is the Indians.”
Breaking the Conventional Screenplay Rules
SK: “The film begins by following the conventions of the western genre and then it shifts.”
TB: “There are many things in this film that are on page two of screenwriting books of what notto do — and I checked them all. Such as, changing horses in the middle of the race — with the father and son storyline, not marking the ellipses to be very clear — by not labeling them you have to watch every frame and ask what’s going on, and not revealing too much information about Kelly. You then put the pieces together and start to understand. It gives room for the audience to get into it. I always find especially in American films that the films are formulaic. I believe the audience is ready for more challenges and attitudes.”
TB: “There are four parts of the film that are separated by ellipses of several years. In the first part, the young woman disappears, which is the period of investigation. The second part is the relationship between father and son during their trip to Northern Europe where the son becomes his father’s keeper. The third part is the adventure piece with a cross-country journey on horseback and a killing. And the last chapter is the love story and the return home.”
Creating the World of the Story
TB: “In the opening scene we see the main characters’ community — the Cowboy reunion and the country western festival. We see the family. It’s very friendly and at one point it’s 6 o’clock and the mother says, “Have you seen Kelly?”
This question sets the narrative in motion and presents the major conflict: Where is Kelly?
TB: “I also wanted to tell the story of community. Kelly leaves the community and the world loses its balance. We always knew we wanted to tell the story in the course of two or three generations; the time it would take for the world to find a new balance. The community explodes, the family explodes and then there’s a new generation, a new family and a new balance. That’s the time it will take for the cat to fall back on its feet and to see reconciliations be possible.
There is a mirror effect in the screenplay between the father and the son. There’s that scene in the beginning when the mother says to the father, “Don’t go,” and then the scene with the son and the young woman Shahzana when she asks him not to go. In that scene the feeling is very optimistic; there is hope that our sons will be smarter than we are and listen to their women a little more.”
SK: Was there any improvisation or did you stay close to the script?
TB: “There’s not that much improvisation, but we have another book in addition to the script with other scenes and monologues, so it’s almost like improv. We called it the B book — like a B roll in filming. It has things that define the characters. Everything that we have in the B book we use in the film at some point. We give the B book to the actors when we start filming.”
SK: “You made some thought-provoking choices throughout the film, including utilizing several images of international terrorist attacks shown on televisions.”
TB: “We wanted to talk about the world, to talk about the early years of the 21st Century. When Kid sees the World Trade Center collapse on a TV screen, instead of seeing an international catastrophe, he sees in it his sister. It’s at this point that the smaller story becomes part of the bigger picture. We started writing the film right at the time of Bin Laden’s execution. The film ends in 2011 with the emergence of the Islamic State when they executed Bin Laden. The idea was to tell the story of our first world war, not the one of our grandparents, the ones that took place in the first years of this century.”
Among the many accolades, including four César nominations, ‘Les Cowboys’ was included in the Directors’ Fortnight section at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and at the New York Film Festival. ‘Les Cowboys’ opens domestically on 24 June.