Eric Toledano, one of the directors of the French box-office smash, THE INTOUCHABLES had been barely been in Philadelphia a day before he learned a new word. There is no direct French translation for the phrase, and yet when it was explained to him Eric couldn’t think of a better word to describe his relationship with directing partner Olivier Nakache.
The two met as counselors at a Summer Camp where they bonded over their mutual love of cinema. The two both claim to have always wanted to make films – Eric remembers fondly coming home from school during lunch to have the house to himself to watch whatever films he wanted. Yet Eric’s Moroccan parents had other plans for him. “When you grow up the child of immigrants from Morocco in France,” Eric started, “there are certain expectations that you will make something of yourself with a respectable career, such as a doctor, lawyer, or dentist… filmmaking wasn’t on (his parents) short list.”
Despite his parents wishes, Eric and Olivier banded together and tried to write a number of screenplays. “We were quite naive at the time and thought we would make it immediately,” Eric reminisced. Yet the refusal letters came in a constant flow. Eric and Olivier took pride in the fact that people were bothering to look at their material at all, and decided to frame each and every one… OVER 80 refusal letters! They were inspiration.
Eric and Olivier made their first short film, Le jour et la nuit, and it was, as Eric put it, “a total failure… no one understood what we were trying to say.” Undaunted, the duo used the short as a learning experience and two years later they put out a 25 minute short on 35mm that garnered them immense praise from viewers and critics alike.
By their fourth short, the duo began working with a young actor named Omar Sy (Driss in THE INTOUCHABLES). The pair truly enjoyed working with him and by 2009, had done one short film and two features with Sy. “He has this charisma that is truly unique,” Olivier commented. “He’s an absolute joy to work with and it shows on the screen.” The pair began looking for a starring vehicle for Omar Sy. The pair were initially deadset on crafting a comedy about illegal immigration in France (what could be funnier?) but were having trouble getting the script write. Yet while continuing onward in their drafts, they caught a documentary on TV that showcased wealthy quadriplegic Philippe Pozzo di Borgo… but it wasn’t Philippe that caught their eye. Neither Olivier nor Eric could tear their focus away from Philippe’s large, black caregiver who would pick him up and put him down like a rag doll without taking any of his shit… and from that documentary that happened to be airing on TV during a bout of writer’s block… THE INTOUCHABLES was born.
Once THE INTOUCHABLES directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano saw a documentary on television showcasing wealthy quadriplegic Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, author of the 2001 book The Second Wind that recounts his tragic gliding accident and his journey through life and love, they were immediately inspired to develop a film. They journeyed to Morocco and stayed with Philippe to interview him about his life and his relationship with the caretaker who had caught their eye in the documentary as a potential part to be written for frequent collaborator Omar Sy. After one week, the duo knew they had found the story that they had been looking for.
They flew back to France and on the flight home, Eric Toledano wrote the opening scene to THE INTOUCHABLES in its entirety. The screenplay came together swiftly, with extra attention being paid to transcribing the true emotions conveyed by Philippe in their meetings. The pair knew immediately that they had touched upon something special.
Filming commenced in France and Olivier Nakache recounted how they felt lucky with each step of the process. “I’ve always felt that the truth in film comes from the unexpected. We could not have had a better cast to capture this – with François Cluzet (Philippe) and Omar Sy (Driss) being such incredible, reactionary performers. There were multiple instances while shooting the film where we would give specific direction to just one actor to allow the other to more honestly react to the situation. The mustache scene towards the end of the film is a prime example – we did not let him know what would be revealed each time the new cut was revealed so that we could create a sequence with more natural humor.”
With the film wrapped, the directors embarked on an AGGRESSIVE marketing tour of France with the film – holding word of mouth advanced screenings in 42 cities! They were quite nervous about how the film would be received, but after the first screening, the audience left the theater overwhelmingly charmed by the film. “I thought it was just a fluke,” Eric admitted, “but then the same thing kept happening at each screening – laughter, smiles, and immense applause! It took five or six screenings before I realized that it wasn’t a fluke – that people truly loved the film.”
French President Nicolas Sarkozy loved the film so much that he invited Eric and Olivier to lunch. “We’re still hoping for lunch with Obama when the film comes out in the U.S.,” Olivier joked. The scariest screening for Eric was a private screening in Paris for none other than Harvey Weinstein. “He came and sat down to watch the film and had the entire theater to himself. We anxiously waited for what he would say outside the theater when the film ended, but Harvey just sat there until the credits had finished rolling. Then he got up and simply said to us, ‘I’m buying your film,’ and then he left.”
When THE INTOUCHABLES finally hit French theaters on November 2, 2011, it was an instantaneous hit – becoming the biggest box office smash of 2011 in just FOUR WEEKS! It set a record in January 2012, holding the top box office spot for TEN STRAIGHT WEEKS (even in the U.S., only four films have stayed at the #1 spot for ten weeks or more)! On March 20, 2012 – before the film had even been released in the United States, THE INTOUCHABLES broke the record for highest-grossing non-English film that had previously been held by Oscar-winner Spirited Away. Speaking of Oscars, Jean Dujardin, who won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Motion Picture for 20th Annual Philadelphia Film Festival film The Artist, ended up LOSING to Omar Sy’s performance as Driss in THE INTOUCHABLES in the French equivalent to the Oscars, the César Awards.
“All of the success of the film continues to take us by surprise. We are so excited to be bringing the film to America,” Eric said. Olivier was especially excited to bring the film to Philadelphia – the setting of one of his all-time favorite films, Trading Places. “Eddie Murphy is hysterical in that film. Omar Sy has those same comedic sensibilities but with this unique charisma. Omar is a comedian and he reminds me a lot of cast members on ‘In Living Color’ with his ability to freely speak of French society and race with such a fantastic blend of humor,” Olivier shared.
When asked of his favorite American films, Eric Toledano couldn’t pick just one, he could only name a director: Woody Allen. “Annie Hall, Crimes and Misdemeanors, etc… they’re such great films,” Eric stated. Olivier and Eric both cited Woody Allen as an inspiration of theirs and as a director whom they greatly respect. “Woody Allen brings so much humanity to his films and we genuinely try to capture that in each of our works.” Olivier added.
The pair, unfortunately at the last minute, could not stay for a Q&A following a PFS Member Sneak Preview of THE INTOUCHABLES, but they were thrilled to hear that so many members had loved their film. “We really are hoping to find a balance of art vs. industry with our films, and I am so glad that it is being so well received here in Philadelphia.” Olivier concluded. Eric also wanted to thank members of the Philadelphia Film Society for showing their film so much love.
Many PFS members are calling THE INTOUCHABLES their favorite film of the year so far. What did you think of the film? LET US KNOW!
Didn’t get to see the film yet? You’re missing out! Check out this fantastic film at the Ritz 5 theater in Philadelphia!
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