It was accidental because I just waited for the right one to come. I saw all kinds of actors, also known actors, and I felt like the most important thing is that we end up having the moment when we feel like this is the right one. He was just the first one, the first one that I saw him on stage doing Hamlet in London. He was Hamlet age 23 or something, and I thought he was just really mind-blowing. Then I had an amazing audition with him, where he showed all these ambivalent potentials and presented this sort of feral quality about him that I really thought was exactly right.
Casting Dustin Hoffman might not be the most obvious choice. What made you think of him?
I always wanted to work with him. I read it and it was my immediate first thought. He came to me because I believe he has so many elements that Baldini the character also has. This irony Theres something narcissistic and at the same time ironic about him. Theres a flamboyant attitude about the character that is lovely. I wanted the character to be very likeable. I wanted people to have a space in the movie where you can breathe and where theres some fun involved and a certain lightness.
Dustin, of all actors, I think, is one of those actors who is always able, no matter how burlesque you might go, he will always give some gravitas to a character and some dignity and some history so that theres always a complete character. I love that energy that Dustins able to infuse into characters, that they are always alive even though they are a little bit over the top sometimes. But he takes them being over the top from their personality and he doesnt put more on top of it, which is lovely.
I read that you shot their scenes in order. Was that to help the actors build up that teacher/student relationship?
I wanted them to build the relationship, yes. Also because it was one of the first things we shot, I also wanted Ben to discover his character through this voyage with Dustin together. It was one of the few times when he had somebody to actually act with. Many places in the film he was just alone with himself - or with a dead body.
Theres not that much real dialogue from Ben Whishaws character in the film.
So it was important to discover his own character through this kind of dialogue sequences.
Why did you decide to go with practical effects rather than CGI?
Well there is a lot of tiny CGI corrections, but I mean, its more like wire removers, architect extensions in there. But basically I wanted the film to be as 3-dimensional as possible. I wanted people to really enter that period on a level that seems completely and massively physical. I loved the drastic quality of the novel. I loved so much that it was quite brutal and direct and overwhelmingly real in its depiction of that period of 18th century street life in Paris and France. I felt like if we imitate that on a computer screen, we will never get the life into it that we wanted. We will never have people interact. Its all about interaction, you know? There was dirt and filth everywhere. People were wading through mud, and that mud was just rotting stuff, basically the s**t and the pee that was just thrown out of the window because there was no sewage system in that day. I wanted that to be physically conceivable in the film. And therefore I felt that anything we can do to make things become plastic and direct and 3-dimensional, we should. If you have to construct a model for things, you build a model not in the computer but you may build it for real. Beyond that we really tried to find the locations and then dress those locations.
We had to find streets that still have 18th century architecture in shape and in French style, which is a little bit of a problem because Paris was completely rebuilt in the 19th century. It was completely taken down, reconstructed, this whole boulevard and avenue idea was actually invented only in the 19th century. Because the city was quite narrow and the streets were all pretty small, and for security reasons and for organizational reasons and because more and more carriages were running around, they needed to change that. So the entire city was changed, so you cant go to Paris and shoot 18th century its not there. We needed to check out other capitals in Europe and discovered some really amazing stuff in Barcelona, which is all 16th, 17th, or 18th century. We used a little of that for a backdrop.
Were there any special challenges to filming in Barcelona?
We were really lucky. The Catalonian world is very open-minded, experimental; great extras, really good craft. Its in Barcelona in particular, the film business in Spain is in Madrid, but in Barcelona they shoot a lot of commercials there so you had a lot of potential crew members to come from Barcelona. And, of course, we shot our scenes in France because I wanted the real locations as much as possible.
We really went to the places that felt most vivid and alive, to represent the period we wanted to represent. Because it was an idea not to make an idealized, beautified version of 18th century, we wanted to make it the way Sûskind did it. Make it plausible to people that 18th century street life was quite a nightmare to be part of.
And you really did show the gritty, dirty, disgusting side to life at that time in history.
Yes, because usually you see aristocratic people in their country houses having tea and thats really not what life was in those days. Its just the two percent of society that lived like this. They were completely disconnected, these two worlds, and its quite interesting I think. My film is something like the counter of Sofia Coppolas Marie Antoinette, which I really liked the film. I thought it was quite amazing, actually, also in its radical approach to just showing that world and showing how people living in that world were so ignorant to the rest of the life around. It was just this kind of rich, ritualized life. And we are showing actually what was happening in front of the doors.