Romain Duris is a leading French star who remains in our minds for his indelible performances in Cedric Klapisch’s The Spanish Apartment (2002) and its sequels Russian Dolls (2005) and Chinese Puzzle (2013), Jacques Audiard’s The Beat that My Heart Skipped (2005) and Pascal Chaumeil’s Heartbreaker (2010). He is also perfectly suited for classic period dramas and played the title roles in Arsene Lupin (2004) and Moliere (2007).
Recognising this, director Martin Bourboulon cast the actor as nineteenth century engineer Gustave Eiffel in the big budget Eiffel, which opened this year’s French Film Festival.
Bourboulon is currently filming two epic movies, The Three Musketeers: Milady and The Three Musketeers: D’Artagnon, where Duris stars as Aramis. Though the 47 year-old actor is quick to point out that he is not only starring in period dramas as he will soon film a zombie movie, Z (comme Z), which follows a film crew being attacked by real zombies as they shoot a low budget zombie movie [a remake of Japanese film One Cut of the Dead). The Artist’s Michel Hazanavicius directs.
“It’s going to be exciting,” Duris says. “There will be a lot of energy, a lot of blood and gore,” he pronounces with a laugh, noting how he loves watching zombie films and is happy to finally be in one. “The luck of our work is to do many different things.”
Eiffel focuses on the engineer’s relationship with Adrienne Bourges (Emma Mackey from Sex Education) as a major force in convincing him to build the gargantuan metallic tower. So, in a sense the Eiffel Tower is also a character in the film, exerting a driving force.
What is your relationship to the Eiffel Tower?
“I grew up in Paris, so I’ve always thought it is something quite magnificent. My dad is an architect, so I was brought up with a certain sensitivity to architecture and monuments. I feel the Eiffel Tower has both majesty and magic. There is no brand, there is no logo that can truly describe it. There’s a real authenticity and originality, and this is why I really love it still.”
Why didn’t you follow in your father’s footsteps and become an architect?
“Early on, I could see how the work of an architect is very technical and how much knowledge of maths is required. Sometimes, children take the opposite direction from their parents and I chose something that was more chaotic and freer, without the necessity of calculations and all these very precise blueprints to design monuments. Initially, I wanted to paint so I can appreciate the beauty of those drawings and the building to be built.”
How did you create the Gustave Eiffel character?
“Martin wanted me to read a lot of books, a lot of biographies in order to understand him, but there’s little known about his intimate life and his personality, so there was a lot of room to invent. It helped that we started with the characters when they were more mature and understood themselves, so then we could free ourselves and become more playful and lighter in their early years.”
Can you talk about the history of the project?
“This script had been originated 20 years ago and there have been different versions. I came onto the project in 2017 and I was immediately struck by the ambition and the breadth of the story. I was taken with the love story that took place during the construction of the Eiffel Tower. I worked with various screenwriters, including Caroline Bongrand who was the original scriptwriter.”
How true is the story?
“There are certain parts that are based on history and others that aren’t. What we know for sure is that at Adrienne and Eiffel knew each other in 1860, that they had a romance and it ended. What we know less is what happened with the relationship later in life. We know for example, that Eiffel was not interested in working on the tower. As we see in the film, he was much more interested in the underground Metro but then suddenly he decided to throw himself into the tower project with great passion. It had been undertaken by his employees and he bought the rights from them, so for us the only possible explanation for why he changed his mind and suddenly devoted himself so passionately to the project was the idea of this romance.”
How difficult was it to recreate the construction of the Eiffel Tower?
“This was one of the greatest challenges for us. On the one hand, we had a construction absolute to scale of one of the legs of the tower built in metal so we could shoot that in scenes with the actors. At the same time, it was essential that we use special effects that would be absolutely believable and bring the Eiffel Tower to life in a way that we’ve never seen before in the cinema. So, we see it being built on location in its setting. For us, the idea of being able to pull that off was essential in making the film work.
“In the end, what I was most concerned with weren’t the large technical sequences, but much more the intimate scenes, where the actors would have to express this great emotion.”
Why did you cast Romain Duris as Eiffel?
“Romain was my first choice. In fact, we never thought of anyone else, and we never offered the script to another actor in France. To me, he was the obvious choice because he’s very romantic as a lead, he’s also someone very modern and he was also at ease with the period costumes.”
Clearly you decided that the film would focus on the building of Eiffel Tower and not be a proper biopic from life to death.
“For us, the film was never going to be a biopic, but that we would focus on a very specific moment in Eiffel’s life. However, we drew on many elements that we know from his early life that obviously influenced who he was. At the later point in his life, he was extremely wealthy, extremely powerful, extremely well known, he had a lot of projects that were successful. And that gave him this energy, this drive and this stature in French society. So, we were basing it on what we knew about his life as a whole, but focusing on his relationship with Adrienne.”
Still, it’s interesting that you bring in the other monuments that were being built, that there was a kind of race, a competition as to who could make the best monument, with the likes of the Trocadero. Then the Pope didn’t want there to be competition with Notre Dame. What is your favourite Parisian monument?
“I grew up in Paris where there are so many wonderful monuments. There were many rivals of Eiffel’s at the time, who didn’t want to see the Eiffel Tower built, because they felt perhaps that this would overshadow their creations or what they were hoping to create. That was the case of the architect behind the Garnier Opera House, because he felt that this would overshadow his creation and interest tourists. At the same time, I was interested in how you can create or add something new within the context of an existing city. In my lifetime, something similar happened with addition to the Louvre when Ieoh Ming Pei created the Pyramid and a lot of French people objected to the idea of something new being created in the established order.”
The Trocadero was being built at the same time, as you show in the film.
“It isn’t the Trocadero that exists today, so when we were shooting we had to use special effects to create a faithful version of how it looked at the time.”
Your father is a producer [Frédéric Bourboulon]. Is that where your love of cinema came from?
“Yes. Growing up, I saw him at work, and I was always passionate about film and wanted to work as a filmmaker. I started as an assistant director with such luminaries as Jean-Paul Rappeneau and Bertrand Tavernier and then went on to make my first two French features which were very different because they were comedies, Daddy or Mummy and its sequel Divorce French Style.”
Now, you’re making two blockbuster French movies of The Three Musketeers (budgeted at around US$73 million, Eiffel was US$27.5 million).
“Yes. It’s been a long time since The Three Musketeers story has been adapted in French cinema. I’m very excited about the cast; it’s a champagne cast of French stars. Besides Romain there’s Eva Green, Vincent Cassel, Louis Garrel, Francois Civil and Pio Marmai. It’s a new adaptation and I’m happy to again be making a costume drama. Since COVID, I think it’s interesting to work with historical subjects, because contemporary life doesn’t have the same charm or the same sparkle that it did before.”
Eiffel is in cinemas September 2, 2021