Growing up on Indiana Jones, E.T. and Aliens, French scribe Guillaume Lemans has translated his childhood passion for genre films into a successful screenwriting career. His latest films in particular – sci-fi disaster flick Just A Breath Away, and survivalist zombie movie The Night Eats The World – present viewers with thoughtful stories of tension and fear, through a unique Parisian lens. Currently in Singapore for the French Film Festival and Singapore Writers Festival, we caught up with Lemans to discuss the state of genre in French cinema, his history with sci-fi and horror, and his fantastical adaptation of comic-book Les Sentinelles for TV.
We read that you were studying history before becoming a writer. What path led to you becoming a writer?
I’ve always loved to tell stories, but unfortunately there aren’t many writing schools in France. There are more now, but there weren’t many options for me back then. Despite that, I was passionate and pursued it. I’ve been a screenwriter for 15 years now and have finished 11 screenplays since then, so I like to keep telling stories.
Your earlier movies like Point Blank, A Perfect Man and Mea Culpa vary from from crime thrillers to action-adventure, but lately you’ve been delving into sci-fi and horror. Is there a big audience for genre in France?
No, it is very difficult to market or do big box office business in France actually, because the audience there isn’t as receptive to it. There isn’t a big tradition of sci-fi or fantasy in mainstream cinema. Nowadays only dramas and comedies do well in theatres. But these French genre films can find a global audience, and I’ve found that they travel well. One of my recent films, Just A Breath Away is being distributed in over 100 countries, so it’s selling well overseas. Genre is a great way to export French cinema around the world.
Speaking of Just A Breath Away, and another zombie film you did called The Night Eats The World – how did you develop a love for genre?
I grew up on American movies in 1980s! I loved the works of Steven Spielberg and James Cameron, and it’s those sci-fi and fantasy movies that inspired me. Those are the kinds of stories I like to see, and I write the kind of movies I want to see. With Just A Breath Away, it was a universal story that transcends countries, while still being uniquely French. We’ve seen sci-fi catastrophes in London or New York, but we’ve never seen something like this set in Paris.
Similarly, we’ve never seen a zombie movie in Paris either! Zombie movies are well-known for their allegorical storytelling, ranging from Dawn of the Dead’s metaphor for consumerism, to Night of the Living Dead’s commentary on America’s racial turbulence. What themes did you want explore with The Night Eats The World?
It’s a survivalist movie, similar to Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away. Sure, the zombies in the city are an external problem. But the real problem is what happens when he barricades himself inside the apartment. The problem is inside his head – so I wanted to explore how someone deals with the horrors of isolation, and how madness can come from it.
The main character Sam in The Night Eats The World speaks primarily English. Did you write the movie in English?
No, I wrote it in French. But we shot it in French and English, so we had double takes for everything. Our lead actor Anders Danielsen Lie is tremendously talented, and he delivered all the scenes with dialogue in both languages. This was so we could have separate cuts for the local French audience, and for international English speakers. That being said, the movie is mostly wordless because he’s alone most of time, so this wasn’t difficult to execute. The story was about his loneliness and that was brilliantly expressed by the actor without words.
I don’t know if you know this, but a lot of French movies are being made bilingually these days. As I mentioned earlier, it’s very difficult to sell horror movies in France especially, so it’s important that we can reach out to fans around the world with English language versions.
How is The Night That Eats World doing in France?
The critical praise has been very good. But the release is very limited – maybe 20 theatres at most. The public here just don’t have an appetite for it so neither do the distributors. Once in a while, a movie like Get Out or the Blumhouse releases might prove to be popular, but it’s almost never the French-made ones. The French genre movies finds most of its audience overseas.
That’s a shame, because it really is a great film. Speaking more generally about zombie movies, which films or directors have inspired you the most?
I’m a big fan of Danny Boyle and 28 Days Later!
Interestingly, some zombie movie fans hate the fast moving zombies from 28 Days Later, and prefer the traditional slow-moving Romero zombies. Which side do you fall on?
(Laughs) Both! In The Night Eats The World, my zombies are slow-moving most of the time like the old-fashioned movies, but when something catches their attention, they can run as well. Why not have both?
Next up, you’re working on the adaptation of the comic, Les Sentinelles, into a series for Canal+. For those unfamiliar, what is Les Sentinelles all about?
It takes place during 1911, and it’s about a French colonel attempting to merge man and metal to create the ultimate soldier. It’s basically Robocop during the First World War.
How is the development coming along, and what are your plans creatively with this series?
Honestly, acquiring the rights to this was a big deal for me because I loved the comic, and I’ve always wanted to work on a long-form series. This is actually my first series. I’ve already written the pilot and the structure for the first season. I want it to be a premium series, so the scale needs to do the story justice. It’s about $2-3 million per episode which is very expensive to develop for French TV. I’ve had offers elsewhere, but I think it’s important that we do it in France and in French, because it’s quintessentially a French story at its core.
There’s a lot of battles and huge sequences and superpowers, but this isn’t a superhero show. My story is more about men who have been transformed into monsters, and the implications of that. It’s also an espionage tale set in Paris. I’m introducing a new character, who is a French spy working for Germany. I can’t say more, but this is a lot more fantastical than anything I’ve ever written, while still remaining emotionally grounded. I love this project so much, and I can’t wait for you all to see it.
Just A Breath Away and The Night Eats The World are screening as part of French Film Festival 2018. Get your tickets here.