Oscar® Watch: A Prophet (Un Prophète)
by Danielle Alberico
A Prophet, the powerful new crime drama from Sony Pictures Classics, tells the intense story of survival by a young man who is sent to a French jail and quickly forced to adapt to life as an inmate—while learning valuable lessons along the way that ultimately move him up the prison ranks. Script caught up with co-writer and director Jacques Audiard, co-writer Thomas Bidegain, and star Tahar Rahim to talk about their contributions to the movie that recently caught the Academy’s attention, nominating A Prophet as Best Foreign Language Film (France).
Sitting in a bright room at Sony Pictures Classics in Manhattan, I find Jacques Audiard’s friendly demeanor an uplifting introduction to our interview. He’s quick to smile and is ready to discuss his newest film, A Prophet, along with fellow collaborators Thomas Bidegain and Tahar Rahim:
Let’s talk about this fascinating character, Malik.
Jacques Audiard: I tend to believe that the character of Malik has few virtues. He is really positive, he is a criminal, but he has no vocation. He’s a person that fundamentally doesn’t like gangsters and doesn’t like violence. He’s definitely not greedy, not showing off his money. For instance, that is a virtue.
Why do we like characters like Malik? You’re right, he sort of lives in the light instead of the darkness. We care for him so much; he becomes almost like our brother, and then becomes a leader of a large gang, which isn’t morally right.
Audiard: It’s the only way for him to survive. There is one thing that we really wanted in the writing process. We adapted the screenplay from the original idea by Abdel Dafri and through that screenplay, we were able to create ours … and we spent three years writing it. And then it became A Prophet, which was first a story of a small gangster who becomes a big gangster. We were interested in the story of a homeless guy at the beginning who has nothing–he doesn’t even have the words to tell his own story–and then at the end, he has a home, he has a family, and he has a wife and child. He has a complicated family, but all families are complicated, and some are very different than others. At the end, yes, it’s more the story of a homeless man who finds a home than a gangster story. So in the writing process, we had ideas on how to write Malik. We always thought Malik interested us when he was learning, so it was important for him to be learning all the time … and he was eager to learn. The second rule we had when writing Malik’s character was that when you see him do something, that’s when you see him learn. If he has to kill someone, then he has to learn from someone how to kill. If he does a big drug deal, then he has to learn about that. If he has to speak Corsican, he will have to learn Corsican. So everything that you see him do, he has learned while in prison.
Was there any surprising element in the prison subculture when making this film?
Audiard: I know why I made this film–I made it because I wanted to work with people I wouldn’t normally work with, and I really was rewarded for that. It was tiring and a very long process. I really went toward things I didn’t know before. I worked with people I certainly would have never met, and also worked with actors that were not known or who were not actors at all. It was a very interesting journey.
What research was involved?
Thomas Bidegain: We researched a little, but not that much. We didn’t research surviving skills and such; we researched about the reality of jail, what happened during meal time, what happened when the mail arrives, what are the stipulations in the buildings. But the fact of how to kill a man with a razor blade, it’s all fiction.
Focusing just on the script, on the writing process, how is it working together with someone, versus working alone?
Audiard: I have never worked alone. There’s a big difference. That’s why I make movies–it’s a group process. To make movies is to start out as an individual project and then collect ideas along the way. If not, I would be a novelist or a shoemaker.
From the start of the adaptation, how long did it take to complete the writing?
Bidegain: Three years. It was a long time.
Audiard: We are stubborn. We are slow, but we worked every day. Three years to start with one script and arrive with our complete version. We were always having problems with the script being too long.
What is the significance of the movie’s title?
Audiard: Well, I’m not crazy about the title to tell you the truth. The title imposes something on the viewers, like where is the prophet, when is he going to arrive? And I don’t like that. We saw that title with a lot more irony. Simply, Malik announces a new type of gangster, a new type of man.
How does religion play into the film? You see all kinds of prayer in the prison and other signs throughout.
Audiard: When we first saw the title, we didn’t see it in a religious way. Yes, there are religious parts in the story of Malik. He’s a Muslim, and the relationship with the ghost has to do with a certain spirituality, but that is not why the movie is called A Prophet. We saw it as a more secular way of doing things. That might be the irony of the title. This is a new type of gangster. Or it could be the new name for a gangster, like you would say to one, “Hey you, long face” or “Hey you, big guy.” “Hey you, prophet.” It was more of the name for a gangster. We weren’t very interested in religious paraphernalia.