Thomas Cailley on Turning Reality Into Fantasy With ‘The Animal Kingdom,’ Cannes’ Un Certain Regard Opener

A bold departure from France’s cinema tradition of social realism, Thomas Cailley’s widely ambitious sophomore outing “The Animal Kingdom” is equally a creature-filled dystopia, an emotionally charged father-and-son drama and a coming-of-age tale.

The character-driven film world premiered to warm reviews at the Cannes Film Festival where it bowed the Un Certain Regard section. “The Animal Kingdom” is represented in international market by Studiocanal and was produced by Pierre Guyard at Nord Ouest Films, and co-produced by Artemis.

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“The Animal Kingdom” takes place in an undetermined future in France which has been swept by a genetic disease causing people to transform into creatures that are being hunted down and killed or institutionalized by authorities. Kircher, the breakout star of Christophe Honoré’s “Winter Boy,” plays 16-year-old Emile whose mother was institutionalized after showing first signs of a genetic mutation. He lives with his father Francois (Romain Duris) who is struggling to overcome grief.

Cailley has made a critically acclaimed feature debut “Love at First Fight” which world premiered at Cannes’ Directors Fortnight where won four awards in 2014, and went on top to win the Cesar Award for best first film, as well as best female and male newcomers for Adele Haenel and Kevin Azais who play a young couple who enlist together Army survival program.

In an interview with Variety, Cailley said “The Animal Kingdom”‘s post-apocalyptic ending serves as a sort of prequel to “Love at First Fight.”

“Like ‘The Animal Kingdom,’ ‘Love at First Fight’ was a film that ‘mutates’ into something that we don’t expect,” said the highly articulate young director. The film also started in a realistic environment and transforms into a fantasy, which he said allowed him to “surprise audiences and defy expectations.”

He said the story of “The Animal Kingdom” came to him after participating in a screenwriting jury at La Femis film school where he studied. He came across a script penned by a student, Pauline Munier, which was about a cross-breeding between men and animals. “It was a different story that ‘The Animal Kingdom’ but it was a metaphor that tackled all the themes that I was interested in, like parenting, guiding, and a world that has been destroyed by humankind. It was also an interesting way to take an up-close look at actors, film their skin…” He said he and Munier took a long time to find the core of the story that would be “universal yet intimate,” inspired by a wide range of movies such as “A Perfect World” by Clint Eastwood, Yasujirō Ozu’s “The Only Son”, Sydney Lumet’s “Running on Empty,” and Bong Joon Ho’s “The Host.”

“The genre of the film isn’t that crucial, what I wanted was to make these characters relatable and show how the power balance gets reversed in this new order,” he said.

“The Animal Kingdom” is also a rare creature film that isn’t a superhero movie or a horror pic. “Our characters are mutating progressively and we don’t really know when they’ve become something else. It could also happen to anyone.”

While Cailley started working on the script in 2019, before the pandemic, he said the reality caught up with the fiction. “Our story begins in a perfectly normal world that is disrupted by fantastical elements and when we started envisioning it was a pretty bold bet, we didn’t know if anyone would buy it. And then a year later we were on lockdown with curfews and scenes that seemed desperately absurd,” said Calley, adding that in “The Animal Kingdom” as in reality, the “system” is resilient, it adapts, it does everything to avoid questioning itself.”

Cailley also made the bold choice to portray the creatures with minimal special effects and not resort to any green screen as the movie shot entirely in real settings. In his quest to portray creatures in the most realistic and compelling way, Cailley read several encyclopedias about animals and worked closely with a comicbook author, Frederik Peeters, for six months.

“I would send Frederik notes on the characters and photos of animals and actors and we would try to create a sensible description of how humans would become mutants. Then the character designers worked on the aspects of the skin, muscles, skeleton, etc.” Nord Ouest Films tapped the best vfx supervisors in the French industry at MPC and Mac Guff (“Despicable Me”).

The main actors, especially also prepared for their respective roles for months. The character played by Tom Mercier for instance worked with bird singers to learn how to “speak bird” by sucking in sounds instead of projecting them. Kircher, meanwhile, learned breathing techniques and special sounds, grunts and cries as his character transforms into a wolf. Kircher, Mercier and Duris star in the film opposite Adèle Exarchopoulos (“Blue is the Warmest Color”).

Nature is also a central character in “The Animal Kingdom” and produces increasingly loud sounds as it awakens. “What we’ve tried to show is that this mutation is presented as a terrible disease but it ends revitalizing a world that was dying,” said Cailley.

The director, who previously directed the dystopian limited series “Ad Vitam” which played at Toronto and won Series Mania in 2018, pointed out French filmmakers seldom venture into full-blown genre, partly because it’s costly.

“A lot of directors censor themselves and there is preconceived idea that we don’t have that culture like Americans do, so they think no one will want to go watch these films in theaters. But that’s wrong, because French cinema has always had wonderful fantasy films, starting with Georges Melies.”

The budget can be a barrier, Cailley admitted, because fantasy films demand more time and ressources than other type of movies, which is why having Studiocanal on board was crucial to finance the film.

“When we started writing the film at some point I sensed that it was going to be very complicated to show what we had in mind, and my producer Pierre (Guyard) told me right away to go with it, to write everything as freely as possible so that the film would find its tone and form.”

“The Animal Kingdom” will be released in theaters in France by Studiocanal on Oct. 4.

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