Interview with Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache, the directors of Untouchable
LONDON - As The Digital Fix sits alone in an office sandwiched between Savile Row and Regent Street waiting to interview the Gallic writing/directing duo behind the latest French worldwide smash, Untouchable (Intouchables), one can't help but wonder what to expect when they enter the room.
Admittedly, little is known on these shores about the two fortysomething year-olds who have forged a powerful link with Harvey Weinstein which has seen their culture clash buddy movie rake in over £350 million worldwide, upset several American critics for its racial stereotyping, and has been officially submitted to the 2013 Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Clearly they are thinking grande for their fourth feature together.
Eric and Olivier are finally ushered into the room, both say bonjour, and plonk themselves either side of the table. To my left, Eric Toledano sports a goatee and blazer. To my right, Olivier Nakache is slightly more casual and cleaner cut. He will check his iPhone a couple of times during this interview, possibly because Eric does a lot of the talking.
Eric and Olivier seem amiable, cool and happy to be here. I don't have long as there are many other journalists in other small rooms waiting to speak to the pair. So I come out with it and ask them about the racial stereotyping comments due to their casting of Senegalese Omar for the part of ex-con turned full-time carer Driss - the original Driss was an Arab named Abdul.
“This was actually our third film with Omar,” Eric explains,” and in France everyone knows him. He wasn't chosen because he was black but because he was Omar and lent some authenticity to the part. In the projects you have many immigrants and this is a social group and Omar represents the group. He grew up in the projects. No one in France was like 'hey, he wasn't Arabic, why'd you choose Omar?'”
Eric continues: “We never thought it would be a problem, but, I have to say, having travelled to 50 countries, in the United States it was a problem - they were like [impersonating an angry yank] 'you can't treat blacks like this'!”
Olivier adds: “When we first met Omar, we knew he had a chemical problem [laughs]. He is very humble, funny, a good father. He knows how to respect everyone. Because he didn't go to drama school he is very spontaneous and natural. We liked the fact that he grew up in the projects, far from Paris. I don't know if we would have attempted the film without his decision to be involved.”
You can make the obvious connections to the films title which has been tweaked in different territories: Intouchables in its native France, Untouchable in the UK, and in America, it's the odd hybrid of The Intouchables. Perhaps they didn't want any confusion with Brian De Palma's Al Capone movie The Untouchables!
“When we said we were going to do the real life story of Philippe, everybody was saying 'don't touch that!' because we don't touch comedy about disability and we don't touch comedy about the projects and immigration. This is a big taboo in society.
“Also, the title applied to the kind of separation both characters face - Driss living on the outskirts in the projects, away from society, and Philippe is hidden away behind the walls of his mansion. Also, how can you touch a man who can't feel and is treated like a baby - feed him, clean and carry him. Driss thinks it's disgusting -he's untouchable.”
For the most part, the script keeps things safe but there are some wince-inducing moments such as when Driss accidentally pours scolding hot water from a kettle on Philippe's leg. When Philippe doesn't react, he empties the rest of the kettle as if to prove Philippe really can't feel anything - the scene reminded me of 80s comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels when Michael Caine repeatedly whips the legs of Steve Martin's faux disabled conman Freddy Benson.
Driss wisecracks about disability and introduces Philippe to marijuana and takes him speeding (in Philippe's Maserati); he even asks him if his penis still works and Philippe confesses he gets off from having his ears rubbed instead. It never feels sinister or cruel on Driss's part and Philippe takes it on the chin and seems to enjoy the cheeky banter.
“As rich as Philippe is, he can't avoid his suffering,” explains Olivier. “We were thinking about emotions of joy - light and dark. Philippe can be in a depressed state and Driss is able to get him out of it by making him laugh even if it is at his expense.”
The toe of Eric and Olivier's script certainly crosses the line and, even though they have been accused of using derogatory stereotypes, their film has already proved to be a worldwide hit and its arrival in the UK has come at an interesting time - the most successful Paralympics ever has raised awareness of the disabled and
created heroes and household names of disabled athletes who are now seen as equals to their able-bodied Olympic colleagues.
“We chose to bring the film to the UK mainly because we feel an affinity with British cinema,” admits Eric, with Olivier adding: “We like the social comedy of England and crossing the line - Ricky Gervais and Extras, Sasha Baron Coen and The Dictator, and the comedy of Monty Python.”
And with that admission, our time is up and Eric and Olivier are ushered to another little room to do more interviews, but not before Eric swipes a bottle of wine from a nearby cabinet and jokingly tries to stuff it in his inside jacket pocket. Blimey chaps All Bar One is just around the corner - go grab some Champagne on the Weinstein tab!
Untouchable is released in the UK on Friday 21 September and is also reviewed here.