I Started This Film With Zero Dollars and It Ended Up on Netflix: 'Paris is Us'
It began with a simple observation.
Each year, more than 220 French feature films find their way to theaters but amongst them, very few actually move me. Though France has one of the most productive film industries in Europe, we lost the experimental curiosity and the creative freedom that defines our rich cinematic history.
There is a saying, "be the change you want to see in the world."
So I decided to make a film outside the box.
In 2014, I gathered a small group of talented individuals (actors, a screenwriter, technicians, musicians) and started shooting in realtime in the streets of Paris... without money.
Also, without a producer or a script.
We had no certainty about what this would become, we just followed our instincts.
Five years later, on February 22nd, Paris is Us was released on Netflix and is now accessible in 190 countries.
I didn't go to film school. I learned what I do know from reading books, watching films, and spending hours on websites like No Film School. There were many times when I doubted myself but today I am so happy and honored that I can report back what I have learned to the community that helped develop me.
A feeling and a minimal setup
The creative process definitely began with a feeling. I wanted to make a film about the confusion I think my generation experiences. What does it feel like to be a young adult today? What is it like to feel lost in this world? From there we decided to use the chaotic political and social setting of present-day Paris to make an intimate film about deeper thoughts and inner life.
Paradoxically, starting out with no money was our strength. We defined some production rules that would help us transform our limitations into creative energy.
- Shoot with the lightest crew possible: Director/DP (me) and a sound engineer.
- Shoot outside: this helped avoid having to set up lighting.
- Learn to adapt to context rather than the opposite: we used current events as the background setting, so we shot during protests, concerts, or mass events.
It was so low profile that nobody batted an eye, meaning that we could infiltrate any space without attracting attention or causing disturbances. We loved that this configuration freed us from the inertia of a classical film crew, therefore, allowing more creativity around how to imagine the scene.
I decided not to write a traditional script but instead to create room for a story that would evolve along with the shoot and the editing. I set the actors free, allowing them to use their own words and to improvise around story guidelines we had established. The cast was also really small: only 4 actors among which the Swiss actress Noémie Schmidt (Versailles) had the lead role.
A long process
Shooting this way wasn't fast.
We shot the film over more than 3 years (from 2014 to 2017). We shot about two or three days a month because we adapted to everyone’s schedule as well as to the socio-political context going on in Paris at the time.
We started editing in 2017, while we were still shooting and it took us more than a year to finish it.
Three editors worked on the project. We had to dive into the scattered material with faith that our story would emerge, and that the path we carved for the characters was embedded within. It became more intuitive than intellectual.
"If you have an idea and a camera you can do it."
At the same time, we were also searching for how to finance post-production. So, we started sending emails to a lot of producers in France, but it didn't get us anywhere.
We were frustrated but never gave up.
You can never plan for this sort of thing, but it happened.
The video went viral and it has been seen more than 4M times. It brought a lot of visibility to the project.
We aimed for 10 000€ (a little over $11K) and got about 90 000€ (a little over $102K).
Suddenly producers contacted us to work on the film.
But since we already got this far, we thought we could go further. Most importantly, we wanted to stay in control of the artistic choices.
So we used the money that people gave to us to complete full post-production: we recorded the soundtrack with an orchestra, did ADR and Foley, added some VFX and colored it in theater conditions. Thanks to the visibility of the crowdfunding, we were approached by Laurent Garnier, a French electronic music pioneer, who composed three originals tracks for the film.
Our first intention was to release the film in theaters. As it is a sensorial film, theatrical conditions would have been ideal to immerse the audience inside Anna’s character.
But after the viral video, we got contacted by a dozen of French distributors and Netflix. We showed them Paris is Us.
The major distributors turn down the offer. Maybe it was too different from the French cinema they are accustomed to.
From the first edit, Netflix enjoyed the experimental side of the film. So they agreed to buy it as it was, leaving to us total artistic control.
It was a big decision that we felt not only concerned producers and the director but also the rest of the crew. So we actually gathered the entire creative team to discuss.
We all wanted the audience to have access to the movie as easily as they had access to our presentation video.
But Paris is Us is an experimental film, that really did interest arthouse cinema distributors.
This type of distribution would have been too limited and as a result, it would have excluded many of the types of people who donated to the film.
Our audience was young and unaccustomed to frequenting arthouse cinemas. We wanted this movie to reach them, and honestly as many people as possible.
Netflix was the way to go. As film lovers, we discovered tons of masterpieces outside theaters. For us, cinema is an art form not restricted to one type of space.
Facing critics and criticisms
The last step was maybe one of the most difficult we experienced.
Netflix is not an easy distributor for a first feature-length film without the major festival pedigree. Even if the film was short-listed in major festivals, it wasn’t selected. It had no festival legitimacy. Plus, the French Press wasn’t very kind to it since it was coming from outside of the institutionalized system.
The film was fragile and different.
Netflix offers high visibility and that means it also comes with lots of reactions and comments both good and bad.
A film like Paris is Us, is more sensorial than narrative; it’s based on feelings. That kind of cinema is not so easily accessible.
People want to understand what you're up to, and if they don’t, they feel insulted and they send back their frustration. So, when the film was released, we understood that it would be wise to follow the release from afar and just make room for both the positive and negative reactions flow. There would be plenty of both.
The film also received an outstanding marketing campaign: tons of posters in Paris, trailer in theaters and lots of press. It was really impressive for a no-budget film.
We’ve received tons of messages from people, and impressive reviews from all over the world. But perhaps best of all, people from everywhere were inspired by the way we pulled it off.
Paris is Us taught us that we don’t have to wait for money or validation to make a film.
If you have an idea and a camera you can do it. You have nothing to lose to be free, to challenge both the industry and audiences alike with new content, and fresh ideas. The amazing thing is nowadays it can actually work.