Nicole Palo is a Belgian-American filmmaker.  She is at EIFF with her second feature Emma Peeters.  A black comedy about death, suicide and love.  We enjoyed it very much, and chatted to her about the film and finding the comedy in very tough subjects.

Can you tell us about Emma Peeters?

It’s the story of a girl called Emma Peeters.  She’s been struggling to become an actor for nearly fifteen years.  She had moved to Paris because she’s a Belgian girl.  It doesn’t work out, so at one point she realises she’s never going to make it.  So, in a very radical solution she decides to commit suicide, and plans everything for the next week. During her preparation she meets a funeral home employee called Alex Bodard.  Once he discovers that she’s going to die he decides to help her.  There’s a sort of weird romance that starts between the two and we don’t know how it’s going to go.  Will he save it all, or is he crazy enough to help her go all the way?  You have to go and see the film to discover what happens.

You wrote the film as well.  How did you come up with the story?

It came from a time in my life where I was very frustrated.  I had made a first feature film, very low-budget, and I was trying to do something else in the film business but noone was answering my emails or interested in anything I was doing.  All my projects seemed doomed to failure.  I thought, “Okay, what do I do now?”  So I had this idea of creating a character who would actually decide to ‘let it go’ but for real.  It helped me with my own frustration.  I had a lot of fun writing the script.  It was therapeutic for me.

Did it take a long time to get the tone of it right so you stayed respectful to the subject?

It took a long time to find the right tone.  I knew from the start I wanted to make it comedy, but I also wanted to be true.  I wanted to be psychologically true.  I had to find this balance between emotion and comedy.  It took a while to discover the mechanics of the story.  What I discovered was when I had a pure scene of talking about death which was funny, I had to have an emotional scene just before that to help the audience relate to the character and believe that she would actually do it.  You have to believe that she really wants to commit suicide.  You assume that when love comes into it she’ll rethink but she doesn’t.

It would be too easy for her to be just saved by a man.

Yes.  You had to believe that she had a real, deep difficulty with life, which is being Emma Peeters.

Is there a theme or subtext of women’s autonomy, bodily and in general?

I don’t think it’s feminine in particular.  I didn’t see this film as being particularly feminist.  It could have been a man living the same story.

Early in the film Emma says that 35 is the expiry date for actresses.  Is that how you feel about the industry?  Is that your own experience of the industry?

Yeah.  Filmmakers, we have a little more time.  But for actors the age is really important.  If you haven’t had your breakthrough before that age it’s difficult to be a beginner at 35.  It’s still a business that only puts young people forward.  You have big stars that are 40, but they’ve been famous since their twenties.  It’s very, very difficult for an actress to break through at that age.  But you can do all kinds of different things; writing for example.

Monia Chokri who plays Emma is really fantastic in the role.  Was she involved from the beginning?

The film took seven years to write and finance, so it took a long time to find the right Emma. First we were looking for Belgian actresses, and then French actresses.  Then we had this idea of co-producing with Canada and I remembered her from a film by Xavier Dolan [Heartbeats].  She has this thing where you can believe she’s serious enough to want to commit suicide. She has this charisma of… depression!  At the same time she has a comic sense.  I sent her the script  and she really liked it.  We met a few times and read the script and the character evolved from what [Monia] is.  Emma was based mostly on my personality, but she also added from hers.

It’s a very contained performance.  A lot of it is communicated through her eyes.

She’s not extroverted in the acting sense.  But we have Fabrice Adde [as Alex] who is the reverse, so there’s a balance between the two.  He’s the external, comical one.

How did you fund the film? It could have been a difficult subject to sell.

At first I got the writing and development money quite easily.  Then I hit a brick wall with the subject of treating suicide as a comedy.  In France, we were looking for money and we didn’t get it.  So I discovered it wasn’t that easy.  Each time I had to go back in the writing room and rework.  In the end I think it was good because the script improved a lot because I thought, “they don’t believe it, so I have to rework it.”  I think it was true because I hadn’t completely found this balance.  In the end I didn’t have it until I found my actress because they are they ones that are going to convey this tone.  You never know until the end if it’s going to work.

It feels like a love letter to cinema – there are nods to silent film, the French New Wave and Bergman among others. 

Some people thought that was too much [laughs]!

No, it felt like you were giving the character the chance to portray the melodramatic heroine she never got to play.

That’s it.  She lives out her fantasy.  Suicide is in fact another of her fantasies.  She doesn’t really want to die.  She just wants to see what happens if she did. I had a lot of fun with the references.  Some of them were in the script.  Others we added later.  The silent film [a scene of Emma climbing into a coffin] for example wasn’t in the script.  In editing I had to change the music.  I was trying other music so I had to cut out the sound and realised it worked with no sound.  We had a lot of fun and it added to the character.

Was it always going to be set in Paris?

Yes, because if you know a bit about the French-speaking World, an actress in Belgium has absolutely no future.  You have to go to the big city to break through.  A French-speaking Belgian actress has to go to Paris.  It also had to be, for me, the dream city.

Did you have any specific influences while you were writing the film?

I think it shows in the film that I have many! People always ask me my favourite director, my favourite film and I can never come up with one answer.  I like the melting pot of putting it all in.  There’s the Nouvelle Vague, the 60s French films, there’s Woody Allen.  Some people talk about Frances Ha, which I really like.  But Noah Baumbach also does the same thing.  He goes to a sort of Woody Allen, Nouvelle Vague-kind of style. We all grow up with the films we like.  I don’t want to copy anyone else, and I hope in the end my film feels original because it’s a whole mix of things I like.  I think the originality comes from the characters, who are a bit offbeat.

The title animation is brilliant.  How did that come about?  It feels like a classic Saul Bass piece.

One of the reference I gave [the animators], the Leonardo DiCaprio film Catch Me if you Can.  I wanted the 60s look to it.  I had the idea of the animation as there’s a lot of American films who have animation in the titles and I like that.  I was lucky to find two girls who worked for two months with a very small budget and they made this wonderful sequence that showed how Emma is sort of decomposing.  Her life is going backwards and you can understand it.  Animation helps on the symbolic side.  Also, it helps the audience realise straight away that the film is going to be in a different kind of tone.  A bit of a fantasy.  It helps you get into the film.

Have you seen anything else at the festival, or is there anything else you’re really excited about seeing?

I arrived last night and had a conference this morning, but I have three tickets so I hope to see good films.  You should tell me more!

Emma Peeters screens at Vue Omni Centre Sat 29 Jun 2019