Adapted from the acclaimed novel The Great Swindle, See You Up There sees director and star Albert Dupontel as Albert Maillard, a World War One veteran who, with his grotesquely disfigured comrade-in-arms, Edouard Péricourt (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), hit upon a scheme to defraud French towns by taking commissions to build war memorials that will never be made.
In an ironic twist, these two destitute con men are the heroes of the story. The villain is their former commanding officer Henri d’Aulnay-Pradelle (Laurent Lafitte), an ambitious, avaricious, and ruthless man running his own scam, taking advantage of the war-weary and grieving. We caught up with Lafitte to find what it takes to play the bad guy.
How did you come on bard this one, and what was it that attracted you to the part?
I just received the screenplay, Albert sent it to me a few months before shooting. I had read the book, so I knew the story quite well. When I heard it was Albert who would do the movie adaptation of the novel, I thought it was a great idea because he has this kind of… a very energetic way of filming stories, and I thought for that kind of novel it was a very good idea. Not just to stay in a sort of period drama – I knew that he would push it further.
Your character is the antagonist of the piece, but a very charming one.
We tried to do a baddie that you would enjoy watching, that you would like to see from one scene to another – not a completely repulsive guy. The funny thing about him is that he has this theatrical dimension – he knows the effect that he has on people, and he plays with that in a theatrical way. So it was fun to play around with that.
Does he know he’s a villain?
Yes, he knows! He knows because he does illegal stuff. He absolutely knows what he’s doing, but he thinks that’s not a problem – that’s what makes him a villain.
The received wisdom is that the best villains always think they’re doing the right thing, or acting for the best reasons, though.
He’s aware of that but as an actor I mustn’t be aware that he’s a bad guy. I mustn’t play what I think of him. So I always tend not to judge my character, and just to give him life – with no judgement.
With the sort of heightened, theatrical tone of the film, does that give you license to go over the top a bit, or do you need to be grounded to anchor the drama?
It’s a mix I think. It must never be a caricature – I think it must be believable all the time because he’s a real threat for the two heroes, and if he’s too much of a caricature he won’t be a threat any more. So I just trust the director – he pushes me in one direction or another. He also brings the comedy moments, too.
How do you find Albert Dupontel as a director?
He rehearses a lot, which is quite unusual in France. We normally never rehearse that much prior to shooting, so when you arrive on set you already know what he wants, so he doesn’t need to spend too much time on directing you – he’s already focused on the image, the camera moves, the light.
With a film like this, which was clearly a very technical, detail-oriented shoot, do you have much room to improvise and try different things, or are you very constrained by the demands of the shot?
No, he [Dupontel] is very open to proposals. You can add things. I don’t know if you remember but when I touch Madeleine’s (Émilie Dequenne) tear in one scene and I licked it, that was completely made up on the spot and Albert loved it – it was completely twisted! It wasn’t written, so he is open to suggestions.
Dupontel is a triple threat on this one – he directs, he co-wrote the script, and he takes one of the lead roles. How does he go about directing himself?
I don’t know! I really don’t know! As an actor if I was directing my own movie I wouldn’t know how to choose the takes and how to direct myself. I don’t know how he does that. You need a very good cinematographer.
Do the production design and the costumes help get into the right head-space for something like this?
Oh yes – especially the costumes, of course. Yes, particularly for period dramas, because it’s a completely different way of finding yourself and it helps you find the way the character walks, the collars keep your head up – there are many details that will influence the way you build the character.
Tell us about the book. Where does it fit in the modern French canon?
It’s a very Hugolian kind of novel. It’s very epic, popular, political. And the interesting thing in Albert’s vision is that there is a contemporary reason to tell this story now in 2018 – otherwise it would just be a period drama, which wouldn’t be that necessary.
As a fan of the novel, is there anything that didn’t survive translation that stands out to you?
There are several things missing because it is so dense – it is a very thick book. He had to sacrifice some elements. The fact that my character, for example, is an aristocrat who buys the old family house, which is in ruin, and he tries to refurbish it, and it’s one of his motivations in what he’s doing – it’s very interesting to know that. Or the fact that Edouard, in the book he’s obviously gay and that’s why his father doesn’t want to keep in contact with him, and it’s not really treated in the film. You can understand it because of his sensibilities, but in the book it’s clearly an issue between the father and the son.
What was the most difficult challenge on this one for you?
The balance between the threat that he represents and the comedy, the theatricality that Albert wanted in the character – it was that mix. It was hard to achieve.
See You Up There is in cinemas from July 19, 2018. Read our review here.