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Learning to ‘Breathe’

Mélanie Laurent on directing the dark, daring new film

Mélanie Laurent is perhaps best known for her work on screen in films like Don’t Worry, I’m Fine or Inglourious Basterds and the forthcoming By the Sea, but that could all change when Breathe, Laurent’s sophomore effort as a director, is released this week. The film, based on a bestselling novel, tells the tale of two young French women—Charlie and Sarah—who are locked in a mercurial teenage friendship of a particularly toxic variety. Here, Laurent explains what about the story drew her in, and how working as an actress prepared her to be a director.

Your movie’s based on Anne-Sophie Brasme’s book Respire. You’ve got copies right there with images from the film on the cover!

I didn’t know they were going to make another version with the poster on it! I love it.

It looks great! How did the book first come to you? 

I read the book when I was 17. The author was also 17 and everybody wanted the rights to the book because it was a huge success. I called her and I gave her my vision of her book, and she said, ‘Oh, my God, we are on the same page. Please do it!’ I couldn’t find any producers because I was too young, I guess, but I’m so happy because I just needed more experience as an actress, more experience as an actual director, and I needed to be more mature. I needed to take distance with the subject.

What did you learn from making your first film that helped you to make this one?

The first thing you learn is that when you write, you do so knowing you’re going to cut the scenes. You write something knowing I’m never going to film that. It took me four years to write my first one, but I wrote Breathe in two months. For the next movie I’m doing it’s been almost like a year. There are no rules. 

How did the story change for you from when you were a reader to someone adapting it for the screen? 

I think that you can adapt the whole book with just one line. I started to write the script and I didn’t read the book again, the script was based just on my memories. And I changed kind of everything. I gave the script to the author, saying, ‘I’m so sorry. I changed everything.’ And she said, ‘It’s cool! Let’s do it.’ 

The story follows two complicated young women in a tumultuous friendship. What about it struck a chord with you?

I was Charlie so many times. When I read the book for the first time, I was like, ‘Oh, thank God, someone understands.’

What were you looking for in your leads? What made Joséphine Japy and Lou de Laâge right for you? 

I wrote for them. I had their pictures on my desk. And when I met them, I was so nervous because they had to take the parts.  But the auditions were terrible! Still, I wanted them so badly so we just worked it out. Because I am an actress, I knew they were too nervous. And on set, they amazed me every day. Each day they were so amazing. I could just have filmed them forever.