Wednesday 22 November 2017

Cedric's Marseilles connection

Cedric Jiminez is a rising French film-maker poised to break into Hollywood. We met him for a chat and a verre de vin in his hometown of Marseille

Cedric Jiminez and his wife Audrey Diwan
Cedric Jiminez and his wife Audrey Diwan

Julia Molony

The French true-life crime thriller The Connection is stylish, sun-drenched and full of Southern European swagger. One could say the same too of Cedric Jiminez, the filmmaker behind it. And indeed, of Marseille, Jiminez's home town and the city at the centre of the action.

A couple of years ago, Cedric Jiminez was a virtually unknown young director, a little short on experience perhaps, but big on style and confidence. Then, in 2014 a fairy Godfather in the guise of French film industry power-broker Alain Goldman saw his debut feature, Aux Yeux des Tous, and, upon hearing his idea for The Connection, promptly commissioned him to write a script, and then handed him the largest budget of any French film that year and sent him off to his hometown to make it.

The Connection is set in Marseilles in the late 1970's. At that time, this spectacular city, which sprawls, nonchalantly beautiful, across the French Mediterranean coast, was a global capital of heroin processing and import-export, and a key supplier of the drug to America via New York. Into this corrupt and anarchic seaside metropolis stepped Pierre Michel, a crusading magistrate determined to clean up Marseilles. His mission brought him directly into head-to-head conflict with Gaetan Zampa, legendary Mafioso figure and the most feared gangster in the city.

The film is based on real-life characters and true events. It's a legendary story that any kid who grew up in Marseilles in the 1970s and 1980s would be more than familiar with. But for Jiminez, it was closer to home than most. His father ran a beach-front nightclub back then, and as such, came into daily contact with the Mafia bosses who were the city's unofficial, self-appointed governors.

As portrayed in the film, most local businesses at the time would have accepted that they forfeit protection money and the Jiminez family business was no exception. "Yeah sure," Cedric says with a shrug when I ask him about it. It is sunset and we are chatting over a glass of rosé at a waterfront bar in Marseilles, with the sea on one side and the iconic Corniche coast road, which runs the full length of the city, on the other. He seems nonplussed about the way things were run in the bad old days. "It can be something good. It can be something normal. It's just you open a club and you know this guy so you call him and you say, 'look I'm opening this club do you want to be with me,' and you share the money. It can be very cool actually."

Jiminez remembers well the shadowy figures who populated the periphery of his childhood. "I was a child. It was like, my uncle, my uncle, my uncle - there were like, 20 uncles. I remember how they spoke, how they were, how they laughed, how sometimes they were angry. So this is a music you remember. But it's about a music. It's not about something you know happened." All this experience, he says, helped him conjure the world of his film.

Walking around Marseilles with Jiminez, he seems to know everybody despite the fact that he's been based in Paris for years. He stops regularly for back-slaps and handshakes with bar and restaurant owners in every corner of the city. His father knew Gaetan Zampa personally, and his connections to the Zampa family remain firm. To this day, he remains close friends with Zampa's daughter Celine.

The macho, deeply codified world that still exists under Marseilles's glittering, efficiently-run exterior is one that Jiminez knows intimately. But it doesn't define him. Self-taught as a director, he spent his teenage years "smoking joints in my room, devouring movies," but left as soon as he was old enough. Rather than going to study, he drifted instead to New York where he took bar jobs and worked as a model. He spent some time in London too before settling in Paris, and taking his first steps into the film industry.

"I started as a producer," he explains, chain-smoking while talking rapid-fire in heavily-accented but otherwise proficient English. He is 38, but has the gangly, restless physicality of a teenager. "I produced four movies. But I wanted to make movies. So of course directing is the thing, I realised after, that I really wanted to do. . . But I thought there was God, and after, the directors of movies. So I thought I was very far from God, and equally far from being a director!"

A key turning point in his fortunes came, it seems, when he met the woman who is now his wife. Audrey Diwan is a beautiful Parisian journalist and scriptwriter of Lebanese extraction. She worked with him on his debut feature and has been on board as his co-writer ever since. He's quick to credit her on being instrumental in all of his work - not least The Connection.

"Audrey, she's a very talented writer. On The Connection, I brought the atmosphere of the city, the story of course, the knowledge of the characters. And she brought something even more important, which is the structure." She forced him to focus and edit ruthlessly in order to best serve the story. "She helped me to share the story. A lot. And to structure the story. She'd say 'this thing, you think it's important. We don't give a fuck! Forget that.'" She also brought, he says, a vital female perspective to the storytelling.

"This story could be too much male, and she brought sensibility, and her point of view. . . it was another point of view and it was very nice." He admits there were creative conflicts. "Sometimes we argued, like, "no! you don't understand anything!" But he seems glad of the times he was pushed to concede. "I think if this story speaks to you to, it's because she came on board. We have a very good and complementary working relationship. I'm more director than writer," he says. "I like to write, because if I don't write I feel I don't get involved enough. But I write to direct. And Audrey writes because writing for her is more important than directing." Indeed work becomes something of a fixation for them as a couple. "We are completely obsessed about our work," he says. "We have children (both he and Diwan have children from previous relationships) and we have to say, 'Not today. We don't speak about that today.'"

When he sat down to write The Connection, Jimenez knew immediately that he wanted to cast two of France's most sought-after leading men - Jean DuJardin (of The Artist) for the magistrate Pierre Michel, and Gille Lellouche for the Mafia Don Gaetan Zampa. "I wrote the script for them," he says. "Which was actually kind of dangerous because Jean and Gille are, kind of, two of the most famous actors in France. But it's very difficult when you write a script and you know the face of the real people. And when those people are so charismatic. Zampa was like the fucking, super-sexy gangster. You can see him in pictures. And Pierre Michel was a very tall, very French guy. And it's very difficult to say 'ok, which actor will be able to be at this level?' They were big men. Ok, not actors, not stars, but big fucking men, you know? Jean and Gille were so evident for this role."

Luckily, he managed to persuade both to agree, the first of a series of coups that has turned The Connection into box office gold in France.

His next project, which Diwan also co-wrote, is an English-language feature with an internationally famous cast, including Rosamund Pike, Jason Clarke, Mia Wasikowska, Jack O'Connell and Ireland's own Hollywood export Jack Reynor. The kid from Marseilles's transition to internationally-renowned director seems complete.

The Connection is in cinemas now. The film is supported by The 2015 Stella Artois Film Bursary.

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