Interview by Ceri Wheeldon
How do you approach a film about an iconic star, Romy Schneider who in Europe, was the famous actress of her time. Referred to as ‘Romy’ with no last name required, she was a legend in her own lifetime.I asked director Emily Atef about the challenge of taking on such a project.
Q: What prompted you to become involved in the project?
Romy Schneider is a mega superstar in France and in Germany, she’s part of the culture there. I’ve known of her since I was very young, and known her films, especially the French films. I was always fascinated by her, because she was also a fashion icon but I was never a total, unconditional fan. I would never have thought of making a film about her.
Then, I was approached by a producer and he told me about Romy Schneider and these pictures done by Robert Lebeck, done in Quiberon in her last interview. I saw these pictures and I’d never seen these pictures. It wasn’t pictures of a superstar, or this icon or this myth, but these were pictures of a woman, like me, 43 years old, totally without any make up. You could see a woman in crisis, basically. It totally touched me. And then I read the interview, which read like a discussion with a psychotherapist, or a discussion with your sister or your best friend. I couldn’t believe how far the journalist went and how far she was willing to go.
That was the idea of during these three days, on that half island in Brittany, that I saw a film there. That’s what interested me.
Q: How much did you know about Romy before you began the project?
I knew a lot of her films and I knew the big dramas of her life, like everybody in continental Europe. Meaning that she left Germany quite young, that she was with Alain Delon, that he broke her heart. She always had these ups and downs with her personal romantic life. That her son died in a tragic accident, basically three months after Quiberon. That she died very young at the age of 43.
Everybody knew that she was an amazing actress, that she was a workaholic, she died at the age of 43 having made more than 60 films, sometimes two or three a year. She was 14 when she started making films. She did Sissy that was humongous, in Germany, Austria, France, It was huge. She became like Michael Jackson or Judy Garland, like a huge TV star.
Q: How did you go about researching the story?
I’d never done a film about somebody real before. All my previous work had been fictions and about made up characters. So I wanted to meet the people that were there; the photographer, the journalist and the friend that was there.
The friend, the girlfriend, I met her twice but she didn’t want anything to do with it, she didn’t want to be immortalised on the silver screen. But she allowed me to create a friend. That was really important for me. I don’t think I would have done the film if it had just been Romy and the men, Romy and the press. Even though Lebeck was also a friend, but it wasn’t the same. I really needed this person with a bit of disinterest, who didn’t have anything to do with the press. This female intimacy, this friendship that really interested me as well. It was also about the quartet, it isn’t merely about Romy, but everybody develops in the film. It also has to do with manipulation, who is manipulating who. They’re all manipulating each other actually.
That was the first thing to do, was to really find out how it was. What was it? Robert Lebeck was also quite old and he passed away, but I was very lucky that he and his widow gave me all the rolls of film that he made during those three days. That was the biggest treasure which influenced the film a lot. There were 20 photos that he allowed to be printed in books and in newspapers and on the internet, but I got 580 pictures. All the pictures that he did that weren’t good enough, or were too intimate, and that was fantastic for me. That was a treasure that I could observe, I could also look at the other characters. Then I looked at all the films again and read all the biographies, just to understand the character.
I also went to Quiberon, and there were even two people working at the hotel that I met that were there during those three days, that was also very interesting.
Q: What are the key insights that you’ve gained from making this movie?
What I’m really hoping to achieve with the film is first of all of course for people to be moved. To have the luxury to be for almost two hours, with Romy. Of course, for audiences who don’t know her, to also go and see the films. She was an amazing artist, an amazing actress. She gave a hundred percent. Because of her German background she played a lot of victims of the second world war. She was so intense.
She did a few really cult films, she was also in the Trial of Mores and Wells, What’s New Pussycat but the really interesting films, I find, are the French films, like La Piscine. I’m really happy about, in France and Germany and elsewhere, that I’ve had a lot of younger people saying they’d like to see her films. That would be for me something amazing.
The really good ones, the cult French ones, have aged so well, they’re still cult. They’re very, very cool these films. I’m hoping that in England, maybe the BFI, will come out with a season of her films. So that people who’ve seen 3 Days In Quiberon can then really see what she was like as an actress.
Q: How much do you think the media’s treatment of women has changed since that time?
I think at that time it was probably worse then that now. I think Romy was an extreme case, because she didn’t protect herself. She didn’t have any of these filters to protect herself. She didn’t give a lot of interviews because she was afraid of them. Because people would always try to get the grittier things, it’s like tabloids. They wouldn’t ask her about her films and her acting, which is what journalists are supposed to ask about.
What was also interesting to me was that in France and Germany people called her Romy, not Romy Schneider. You wouldn’t say that to Eve Montant, you wouldn’t say “Eve” or to Alain Delon, “Alain”, or to Robert Redford, “come on Robert”. Not in France, anyway. And not in Germany. There was a respect that wasn’t there, you didn’t take it as seriously, you could be more intimate. Not with everybody, you wouldn’t say with Catherine Deneuve, “eh, Catherine”, but with Romy, it was always just “Romy” and still today. As if everybody gets to have a part of her.
In the UK you could draw a parallel with Diana, it was that level of public adoration. In Germany, and also France and Austria. There is a thing where she’s part of our family. On one hand, you cannot say anything about her, but on the other hand everyone just wants to know everything about her. With Diana the press killed her, but with Romy the press also killed her.
Q: What were the challenges of making the film?
It was like, as though you were making a film about Diana. People would look at you and say are you crazy? Courageous!
I was less afraid than Marie Bäumer
, my actress. She was terrified. She couldn’t get through the myth to tackle the woman. Whereas I was so touched and inspired by the pictures of Robert Lebeck, where I only saw the woman, that interested me. It wasn’t the myth, or the star, that in itself doesn’t interest me. Of course that’s part of her, that she’s an actress, and her upbringing and how she couldn’t get away from her fame, but it’s the woman that interested me. That, and maybe because I wasn’t an unconditional fan. I was just concentrating on trying to get the essence of what I felt was the truth. It’s still a fiction, but I wanted to go deeper.
It was a challenge, first of all not thinking about all that, and trying to be as honest as we believed possible. For me to give Marie the protection for herself. Marie is also a very big star in Germany. It was extremely hard for her to play that role. Since the age of 16 she has non stop been compared to Romy Schneider, non stop. I always say that Sissy was Romy Schneider’s trauma and now Romy is Marie’s trauma. She couldn’t sleep, it was hard. Then for me to be there for her and also to give to my other actors, it was a tough shoot. Very emotionally intense.
Q: What have you found most rewarding?
The reaction of the audiences. They have been so moved. We’ve had so many people come and write us. One woman wrote to us on Facebook that she had been to see it ten times. How the film has moved people, more than we ever would have thought. What moved me is that we had people from the younger generation as well. Even the young generation in Germany have heard of her, but they don’t know her like those in their 40s, 50s and 60s. They’ve been saying they want to see the films.
Q: What do you want an audience to take away from the film?
I want them to be so intrigued by this woman that they want to see her films. It’s not like making a film about an actress where the woman is interesting but not her films. These films are cult films. They’re so amazing I can only say, go see them. Also is how the press treats stars, but doesn’t have to be stars, but also others. Especially when they start very young, how celebrities can be totally destroyed, because they’re too young to know better.
I don’t know many young celebrities in the acting, music and art world who have led very happy and stable adult lives, really, when you think about it. When you think about Amy Winehouse, Michael Jackson, Judy Garland. It would be interesting to find out any child stars who have gone on to lead happy lives. Being young then, being 14 then was like being 8 now. It was very, very different and to not have any protection from the parents or anyone. Robert Lebeck said to me, “I couldn’t understand why she was so unhappy, man, she had everything, she was a star, she got to play with the directors she wanted to, she had money, she had lovely kids.” But go deeper, that’s very superficial, but when you don’t have that stability or the fact that you’ve not learned to have something else, a private life, or a protection to regenerate. But to go from one set to another, with photographers, and no privacy at all.