Interview: Planetarium director Rebecca Zlotowski discusses her unique foreign film and how an Oscar winner came to be involved

As the 28th annual Alliance Francaise French Film Festival makes its way across the major Australian states through March and April, the toast of French cinema will be at the ready for audiences seeking a sense of European style.  One film sure to hold interest throughout the festival is Planetarium, a lush pre-war drama starring Natalie Portman and Lily-Rose Depp as two American sisters in Paris whose supernatural inclinations earn the attention of a curious film director.  Talking with The Iris as the film premieres at the festival, director Rebecca Zlotowski discusses the inspiration in structuring the picture, and how a major star like Natalie Portman came to be involved.

Having just watched Planetarium, I found it hard to peg it to one genre – what was the inspiration behind the story?

The first inspiration was really just to work with actors and create a kind of trance-art, which led me to the story of the two American sisters who were at the beginning of practicing spiritualism in the US.

The connection to spirituality and the origins of making films both have a strong presence in the film – have they been a subject that has always interested you?

I’ve always been interested in the creation of fiction and, to me, storytelling and creating fiction is what the film questions.  And how do you capture “death” on film, so the origin of cinema and the medium and the connection with God all interested me.

How did Natalie Portman come to be involved? Did she reach out to you or did you contact her?

I think there’s two reasons why a huge star like Natalie Portman ended up being interested in the film.  Firstly, she’s incredibly smart and she’s drawn to emerging cinema, and I was lucky enough to have her notice my first film.  Hollywood sadly doesn’t always give (the actresses) the right parts too, and she knows she has to pay attention to cinema outside the US, so I think thats the reason she paid attention to my work,

I found her French impressive…

Me too!

Did she have to learn that specifically for the film?

I think that because when she spoke French her Israeli accent came through, as opposed to an American speaking French, it was easy for her to connect with something so close to her origin.

When you wrote this film did you have Natalie Portman specifically in mind? Was she someone you ever imagined would take this role?

Sometimes I feel that your unconscious tricks you because I felt like I was writing it for an American actress like Natalie Portman.  At the very beginning of the process it wasn’t written for her, but I think after the first version (of the script) I knew it was for her.

And Lily-Rose Depp, I believe she’s fluent in both French and English, how did she come about the film?

It was actually Natalie Portman who gave me the tip! When Natalie gave me her name she was not that famous and she was living in LA at the time. She’s only 16-years-old, so still a baby, and she (Natalie) knew we were looking for someone to play the younger sister so she sent me a picture of her looking almost exactly like Natalie. And when I met her (Lily-Rose), it was just so obvious.

I feel it’s a shame that female directors are still considered something of a rarity in the industry, do you find that an issue?

Of course I do! I feel there’s a different vibe in France though.  I feel like i’m part of a certain wave of female directors, so in that respect I don’t feel lonely in my country.  There’s still an issue with salary though and it’s still a fight we are involved in

Now that you have filmed Planetarium with segments of English language, is there any plans to film a full-length English film?

I think some French directors view Hollywood as some sort of climax but I am not really dreaming of it.  I love American actors but I am very French and I am going to continue making French films for the moment.  If any of my films were to be remade in English I would love to do that but I am still dreaming of French films.

European films tend to feel less confined by the classification system and have a greater sense of freedom…

Freedom, that’s exactly the word.  I feel very free in French film.

With this film crossing so many genres, do you hope to emulate that in your career, to not be defined by one genre?

That right there is the very definition of freedom.  I think the most important thing is to follow the film before the genre.

What have you got lined up next?

I have a few projects lined up.  The first being an adaption of a graphic novel, the other a screwball comedy.  So, I don’t know…We are living in such dark times now, and my first three films I felt were threatening in their own way, so I wish for myself that the next project will be lighter…full of hope.

Planetarium is travelling around the country as part of the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival. For more details head HERE: http://www.affrenchfilmfestival.org/film/planetarium