Though he isn’t a household name in the States, those who follow international film are already well aware of writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda, who began his career as a documentary filmmaker before transitioning to narrative features in the mid-’90s and making a name for himself on the festival circuit. His moving human dramas, frequently centered on themes of family, immediately set him apart from his peers and earned him comparisons to legendary director Yasujiro Ozu. In 2013, his film Like Father, Like Son took home the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, where his movies have consistently earned widespread acclaim, and in 2018, he finally won the coveted Palme d’Or for Shoplifters, which also went on to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars.
This week, Koreeda makes his non-Japanese language debut with The Truth, another wry and witty family drama that examines the fraught relationship between an aging French screen legend (aptly played by Catherine Deneuve) and her screenwriter daughter (Juliette Binoche) upon the publication of the former’s memoirs. This is remarkably Koreeda’s seventh — yes, seventh — Certified Fresh film in a row as writer and director, and it marks a successful transition for a filmmaker who has found great success working in his home country. We spoke to Koreeda ahead of the film’s scheduled release to find out what prompted this change and what it was like working with Catherine Deneuve, but first, he gave us his Five Favorite Films.
One film is Floating Clouds by Mikio Naruse, which I first saw as a teenager. When I first started really watching Japanese films as a film director, obviously the films of Akira Kurosawa were kind of superficially more dramatic and appealing, but I keep finding myself going back to Floating Clouds. It’s a film that if I rewatch it in my twenties and thirties and forties, it keeps growing in complexity and it keeps kind of developing within me, and I’m sure that I’ll watch it again in my sixties and seventies, and it will resonate in new ways.
Last year, I was able to have a public conversation in London with Ken Loach. To prepare for it, I watched everything that he made, starting with his programs that he made for television, and was again reminded of what a brilliant director he is. But I have to go back to his early work, his early film Kes, which takes place in a working-class coal mining town. As the wild kestrel flies in the sky and then the coal miners descend into the earth, it has so many incredibly poetic elements, and that lead character’s young boy’s face will always stay with me.
I recently went to the Berlin Film Festival because Ang Lee wanted to have a public conversation with me. He chose to talk to me, and so I went to the Berlin Film Festival for the first time in 25 years. Rewatching his films, I saw again Brokeback Mountain, which is a film that I really, really adore. I think in a sense, it’s like Floating Clouds. It’s a depiction of an extended relationship between two people who love each other, and of course it’s a very, very wistful film. I’d have to say that, as a fellow director, what I so admire is that… Of course Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal are wonderful, but all the surrounding actors, their respective wives and parents — they deliver such great performances. I think it’s Michelle Williams who played Heath Ledger’s wife. She was especially wonderful.
When I was in Paris, before we started filming, I was staying in a hotel in Montparnasse. I went to Jacques Demy’s grave to let him know that — I left flowers — to let him know that I’ll be working with Catherine Deneuve. While I was there, his wife Agnès Varda died and so there was a memorial by their grave, and of course Deneuve was also present. Demy didn’t make the kinds of films that I do that are suffused with kind of the details of daily life. His films are much more dreamlike, but he made so many wonderful films, and I think if I have to choose one, I’m going to choose The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
I know that Parasite and Bong Joon-ho has done so well, but I would like to… I was with the Korean director Lee Chang-dong, who most recently created Burning. We were together in Los Angeles for the Academy campaign. We spent some time. I’m going to say my fifth film is Secret Sunshine, which is from about 10 years ago, about a piano teacher whose son is kidnapped, but that’s a film that I could see over and over and over again. I really love it. That’s my fifth film.
Ryan Fujitani for Rotten Tomatoes: I know the initial spark for The Truth came from Juliette Binoche, but what ultimately inspired you to make your first film outside of Japan?
Hirokazu Koreeda: Well, in terms of your question about what finally persuaded me to make a film outside Japan and in France, I was able to meet with the French director François Ozon several times in Japan, and he was very positive and supportive and said that, “There are a lot of people who like your films in France. I’m sure if you make a film in France, it will be successful.” I think his words really stayed with me and really helped to persuade me. Right before filming, I met with him to tell him that I was working with [Catherine] Deneuve, and he said, “Everyone says that she’s so difficult, but honestly, she’s the kind of actress who really wants to serve the entire film. So you’ll be fine.” It was very persuasive and reassuring to have him talk to me that way.
RT: On that note, it seems clear how Juliette Binoche became involved with the project, being that she met with you early on, and I read that you were eager to meet with Ethan Hawke for his part right after you won the Palme d’Or last year for Shoplifters. But what was the process like for casting Catherine Deneuve?
Koreeda: Let’s see, I had the idea suddenly in 2015 on my way back from France to Japan on an Air France flight. I had written a Japanese play for an aging Japanese actress, and it suddenly occurred to me to completely rewrite it and set it in France. And I thought, “Well, if Deneuve is the aging actress, Binoche is her daughter and Ethan Hawke is Binoche’s husband.” That’s how I start my diary entry for that day. It happened in a flash on an Air France flight.
And then I had, I would say, about a total of six hours of lengthy interviews with Deneuve, and then I processed all of that, what I got from her, into strengthening and developing her character in the script. But about half of those six hours was her talking about restaurants and movies.
Thumbnail image: Everett Collection, Focus Features, Cinema Service