Directors Lise Akoka and Romane Gueret on their feature debut The Worst Ones
When does a fascination for colourful characters fall into condescending and morbid curiosity? Where is the line between being given a chance and being used? Such questions of ethics and respect have always animated documentary filmmaking, but less often examined is the way they apply to the concept of casting itself, and street casting in particular. Add to this the even thornier matter of casting children and you get The Worst Ones, Lise Akoka and Romane Gueret’s feature debut, which premiered in Directors’ Fortnight at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.
This fiction film follows four children street-cast into a movie supposedly based on their own harsh lives in the banlieue. Early on, the director, Gabriel (Johan Heldenbergh), is asked by locals why he chose “the worst ones” of the neighbourhood: all of the kids he has picked have explosive personalities and the difficult lives that go with them. Of course, we know why: they’re so ‘real,’ so raw, so unguarded… The Worst Ones shows the way this film shoot fits into the complicated and often painful lives of four children, who are all affected by it in different ways, with an eye to the joy and excitement of doing something creative and new, but also to the fear and confusion of the same. All four children find the experience puts them face to face with their own limitations and pain; not all find that productive or beneficial.
Frequently hilarious in how it satirises filmmakers who seek to add a touch of urban ‘authenticity’ to their work, the film is also a highly emotional experience, sharply defining the unequal stakes of the experience for the director, his crew, and the children cast, who have few prospects and know it.
How did this film come about?
Romane Gueret (RG): Lise and I first met while working on the casting for a feature film. Lise was the casting director, and for me it was my first casting experience, so it was a bit of a discovery for me. On that film, we were looking for several children to cast, and we’d been sent in small groups to different places to do some street casting. Lise and I had been sent to somewhere near Valenciennes, where we held casting sessions for a week. While there, we found two wonderful children, a young girl and a little boy, and we suggested them to the director. We really believed they had a chance, and were especially rooting for the little boy. The director really liked him and selected him. But in the end, he found another little boy for the part. Lise and I were really disappointed, we had really fallen in love with this kid, and on top of that it also made us think about our own share of responsibility in all of this. This child was in a difficult social situation, living in a foster home, surrounded by psychologists — we thought it must have been painful for him to hold out so much hope. That was how the idea for our short film, Chasse Royale, was born: we wanted to create a film in which we could cast those kids. With Lise, it was our first experience as directors, and we didn’t really know each other much, even though we got along very well. We just thought, let’s go, we’ll make this film with our friends and it should be fine. Then, against all odds, the film was very positively received. It won the Illy Prize in the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes, which kind of encouraged a desire in us to continue making films. We had gone from casting directors to film directors, and we felt we still had things to say about those experiences. Chasse Royale was about our experiences as casting directors, and The Worst Ones brings together our experiences as casting directors and as film directors, the encounters made in the process, the difficulties we’d faced, and the rather profound questioning that those experiences had triggered in ourselves.
The film does not just play with the distinction between fiction and documentary, it is about that, and about the sometimes condescending gaze that directors can have on people who are street cast and told to play versions of themselves.
Lise Akoka (LA): Working in the gap between fiction and documentary, it’s kind of the only way we can work. We need to feel that the things or events we write have some truth and have happened in real life, we struggle to write things that are not based on things we’ve seen or heard happened from the children. When we write, we need a long period of immersion with the children, to absorb their stories, their language, etc. We choose actors who are close to the characters they play, and even if it’s not exactly like their real life, they each share something with their character. But then, I also feel like this distinction between documentary and fiction is something that is a little outside of our grasp, too: lately, we’ve been a little afraid that the film might be suffering from it, that people watching the film might believe it’s a documentary. That we’re telling the stories of those kids, that we just put the cameras there and let them roll. In reality, the film is very written, the end product is very similar to the screenplay, and the children actually worked very hard to play their parts, and we think that’s worth pointing out. They weren’t passive; they were actively working. They are children who are talented, and not just fiery, raw…
RG: It really reassures people when, at the end of a screening, we explain that these children were playing characters. That even though this was street casting, and the actors resemble their characters in many ways, they are not them, and they actually had to make a lot of efforts to step into the shoes of the characters they played, just like professional actors do. We worked on both the text and the characters with these actors, we explained to them all of those differences. Some of the stories we wrote, we purposefully distanced them from their own. Not getting into something that is just exactly like their real life is also a way to protect them, and it’s important to us to make that clear.
LA: In the opening scene, it almost looks like a real audition tape: the image is a little dirty, a little raw… And then, little by little, it’s as though fiction and documentary intertwine more and more, and the film moves more and more towards fiction and something more dramatic. That’s the movement of the film. It kind of sketched itself out in the later stages of the process. In any case, we weren’t necessarily aware of it at the writing stage. It was by putting the film together in the editing room that the film took this shape.
RG: What’s certain is that opening the film with this audition shot on the camcorder, which is very different from the rest of the film, was a choice that was already present in the script. We wanted the viewers to be submerged in a sort of immersive experience, similar to what we had ourselves experienced while holding auditions. That was very intentional. Of course, beginning the film this way is immediately going to make viewers wonder whether what they see is real or not. People often ask us whether the auditions seen at the beginning of the film are real auditions. We wanted to create this sensation, and it might have worked a little too well. I think that most people believe these are real auditions, even though the actors have different names from the characters they play. But it’s interesting to see how realism always takes precedence over everything else.
You explained that the film goes from a more documentary sensibility to something more obviously fictional and more dramatic. What’s also interesting are the very precise boundaries of its various perspectives: there are characters we sometimes see alone, others not at all; some that drop out of the story altogether at various points. How did you work on that, and was perhaps part of it decided at the editing stage?
RG: We spent a very long time writing the script precisely because we wanted it to be an ensemble film with several voices. Elénore Gurrey, Lise and I were constantly trying to solve that puzzle. It was all already very present in the script. We knew we couldn’t be alone with Gabriel, the director, because we didn’t want to enter his point of view. We had decided to make a film from the point of view of children. We had started writing a version of the script where we adopted the perspective of four children, and it turned out to be too rich, too abundant, there were too many things to say. So we decided to prioritise certain things, and we made certain choices. That was our work on the script: always pruning things to try to get to the heart of something, without forgetting the fact that we wanted to talk about the different paths of four children as they went through one shared experience. Some things were eliminated in the edit, but there are no characters that were completely removed then, the final film is very close to the original script.
LA: Of the four children that go through the audition at the beginning of the film, the way that some of them drop out at a certain point follows the real logic of what it’s like when children are involved in a film. Here, two out of four children find the experience ultimately not productive or effective, and are in some way abandoned, or abandon the shoot themselves. For these two, it’s like they don’t go to the end of an experience that could have done them a lot of good. On the other hand, Lily and Ryan find that this experience has a positive resonance, in different ways. For Lily, it may change her life, in the sense that we witness the birth of a potential vocation. For Ryan, maybe that’s not the case, but this unique experience may allow him to be more connected to his emotions and better able to put them into words. It’s as though these two went to the end of an experience that proves to be helpful for them, contrary to those that we sort of lose along the way.
The film is very accurate in the way it portrays children’s emotions. They are not like little adults; they behave, react and feel the way children would. Still you do justice to those emotions: although the things that affect them may not seem all that important to an adult, you respect the way it feels for the children. How did you work on that?
LA: We spend a long time with the children before filming, so we know them well long before the cameras start rolling. We know more or less what their acting abilities are and what kind of emotions they’re capable of communicating. These factors are why they were selected in the first place. Then, it’s much easier for some of them to play certain emotions than it is to play others. For example, the child who plays Ryan, Timéo Mahaut, really struggled to get into a really angry state. Ryan, the character, is someone who takes refuge in his anger, while Timéo really isn’t a child who gets angry when something is wrong. So we worked on that a lot with him, and we even had to cheat a little bit sometimes, because we really reached his limits. The final result is a mix of things that are very pure and raw, that some of the children bring, and of things that are completely fabricated. There are no rules. Sometimes, to bring a child to a certain emotion, the child has to be very aware of what they’re playing; in that case, we’ll talk about the character a lot, re-read the script several times, to make sure the actor knows the trajectory of the character and where they’re at on that journey at a given moment. It’s an approach that goes through something psychological, where the child needs to really understand the character. In other cases, it’s not like that at all. Instead, it’s technical or mechanical. For example, we’ve understood that when this child looks in that direction, with this kind of concentration, when he’s listening to something, it communicates something of the character that we want to say at that moment. It’s like working with clay, in a way.
Then, working with the text, a lot of it is just based on the way things sound. Sometimes, I feel like I’m a musician who can hear whether a note sounds false or not. We try to hear whether the dialogue rings true or not, whether a syllable stands out a bit and pulls you out of the emotion and the verisimilitude of the scene. It’s rather meticulous and precise in that way.
RG: I think we’re very demanding on that level; where others might let a wrong syllable get through, we won’t, and maybe that’s what makes the film. It’s like we scan the scenes and filter out everything that rings false. The same goes at the editing stage. We never lose sight of that throughout the process.
It’s also in the way we film things, in our osmosis with the director of photography Eric Dumont, who has worked on all our projects so far. There’s a kind of grammar of realism that we implicitly share. He’s always paying attention to the rhythm of the children and he always manages to capture and follow all the moments of beauty and grace in the moment, even if they’re acted. I think this fusion of those two rigorous approaches is key.
Do you each have a designated role in the making of the film, or does this state of osmosis expand to the entire process? It’s interesting how in the film, the character of the director, Gabriel, seems like a much more classical example of the director-god who makes all of the decisions on his own.
RG: It’s true there is a real difference between us and Gabriel. We wanted to talk about a character that speaks to us because it is in general what we’ve encountered the most, male directors who are usually a little bit older. It’s also, globally, the kind of directors there are the most, we know there are fewer female than male filmmakers. But at the same time, we wrote many aspects of ourselves into this character. We totally include ourselves in the critique of the character, and in the irony we place there.
Regarding the division of tasks, there isn’t one, really. In preparation, in the writing, we’re always together, it’s a constant dialogue. On the set, Lise takes the lead a little when it comes to directing the actors, while I’m more often working with the crew. But we don’t stop ourselves from doing both, simply because I don’t think we’d be able to have a complete division. Being two people allows us to have one who’s paying attention so that everyone sounds and looks right, while the other is directing. It’s very hard to do both at the same time, to be able to take a step back and see the bigger picture while you’re also talking and working on a scene, and vice versa. The way we work is complementary, it allows us to be more precise and faster, too.