'Jimmy P.' Director: 'I Was Obsessed With Not Betraying the Community'
This is the second part of our interview with Arnaud Desplechin, director of Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian, which stars Benicio Del Toro as a Blackfeet Indian suffering post-traumatic stress after returning home from World War II. Click here to read the first part of the interview. Jimmy P. premieres tonight as part of the New York Film Festival.
Did you choose Benicio Del Toro as Jimmy because you needed an actor capable of supporting the production, or had you also thought of a Native actor?
For economic reasons, I needed to arrive in the United States knowing which actor I had chosen. So I had to do the casting through watching Native actors in movies that my assistant brought me back from the United States. It was very difficult, as I could not find “Jimmy,” or anyone with enough charisma to play the role. Then I remembered The Pledge, and Benicio Del Toro‘s great performance as a Native; and it appeared to me that with this background of a Hispanic from Puerto Rico, settling in the US, and achieving such a career, he could have something in common with the Native people. So I brought him The Exiles, by Kent MacKenzie, and told him: “You would be the best Jimmy.” And strangely, with Benicio Del Toro, Jimmy appeared. So the decision really came from me; it was not just a production issue. Benicio liked the role of Jimmy, and found some common roots with the Native experience.
How did you cast the Native actors? Did you find directing them different from your previous experiences as a film director?
No, it was very easy; other than cultural differences, it was like working with any actors. I told them I knew nothing [about Native American culture], and asked them, “Do you agree with this, or that?” I was obsessed with not betraying the community. We discussed where to shoot and how to develop the dialogue. When I saw the movie Frozen River, I understood that Native Americans could represent themselves; I knew Misty Upham from Frozen River, and wrote the role [of Jane] for her. And the presence of Gary Farmer at the beginning of the movie, as a mythical figure, was important to me.
What about Del Toro’s linguistic performance speaking as a Native? Was he assisted by a Native coach?
Yes; he worked with Marvin Weatherwax, his Blackfoot coach from the Browning, Montana reservation, who had been in the Vietnam War, and is a professor of Piikani studies at Blackfeet Community College. Marvin taught Benicio how to pronounce the words, and their encounter was intense; Marvin stayed during the whole shooting, and Benicio learned from him – not only the Piikani, and the phrasing for the role, but also as a war veteran.
What struck you most in the Native universe? Did you know it before?
I knew very little, by reading Sherman Alexie and James Welch, who inspired me. I was struck by a special Blackfoot sense of humor, a kind of understatement. My first encounter with Native people happened in a Mohawk reservation near Montreal, just after the Oka crisis. I remember coming out from the rez -- a paradoxical place, as keeping one’s culture is beautiful, but there’s something nostalgic about being exiled -- I was with some guys from Montreal, and we were stopped by two men carrying guns who searched our cars. I was so happy, I would have kissed them! While the Canadians were terrified! But to me, they were just policing their territory, and it was legitimate. This first encounter on a reservation is a great memory.
Were you confronted with any specific difficulties -- limits or taboos -- while shooting on the reservation?
No, as we were doing the movie with the people, and the casting director was from Browning; thus we did not feel limited. We would not shoot a sundance. We asked the people to tell us when not to interfere; we strove to respect the rituals. We did everything with the community.