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Q&A: Urban Poet-Turned-Director Fabien Marsaud on his Anticipated Debut ‘Step by Step’

Variety logo Variety 1/14/2017 Elsa Keslassy
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PARIS– Fabien Marsaud, aka Grand Corps Malade, is a popular French slam poet who has been filling concert halls across the country and has collaborated with some of France’s biggest music stars including Johnny Halliday and Charles Aznavour. But before undertaking this career in music, Marsaud was a promising basketball player whose dreams of becoming a professional athlete got smashed by an accident that left him quadraplegic for some time.

“Step by Step” is the feature film adaptation of his autobiographical novel “Patients,” a bestseller which chronicles Marsaud’s experiences in a physical therapy center where he made true friends and regained, to some extent, the use of his limbs. “Step by Step” is produced by Mandarin Cinema, the Paris-based outfit behind “OSS 117,””Les Kairas,””Frantz” and “The Innocents.”

Gaumont is co-producing, selling and will be distributing in “Step by Step” in March. As with “Intouchables,” Gaumont has been orchestrating a vast promotion tour across France for “Step and Step” and has already garnered strong viral buzz and a positive word-of-mouth, notably among French multiplex exhibitors who gave the film their labels.

Some insiders are already comparing “Step by Step” with “Intouchables” for its potential to strike a chord among a wide range of audience, from young adult to families from diverse ethnic, social and economic backgrounds. Like the French comedy “La Famille Belier,” “Step by Step” opened Sarlat Film Festival and won the audience prize (along with two other awards). It also played on opening night at Arcs Film Festival last month and might be shown at Tribeca. Variety met with Marsaud during the UniFrance Rendez-Vous to discuss about the making of “Step by Step” and what he hopes to achieve with it.

How did you find the strength to revisit this chapter of your life and shoot in the actual physical therapy center where you spent one year?

It happened 20 years and I don’t have a bad memory of my time there. Granted, everything that’s in the film is based on something I saw or heard but the idea with this film wasn’t to make a biopic and find some kind of catharsis. Pablo (Pauly) doesn’t really play me, that’s why we didn’t call him Fabien, and I didn’t ask him to imitate me. I wanted to make it a universal tale, one that can speak to many people. More than anything, it’s film about friendship, family, relationships, about hopes, about what it’s like to be handicapped and about life in a hospital.

So why did you want to adapt your book if it wasn’t to talk about your own experience?

I think that, in all objectivity, my story is a very unusual one – an aspiring athlete who becomes tetraplegic at 20. I discovered another world at this physical therapy center, I met wonderful people who, like me, had lost their autonomy and it was both very though and very funny at times. I found out that the disabled have a special brand of black humor which is very trash and harsh.

It’s also one of the rare French dramedies set at a medical institution which shows doctors and nurses in a realistic and non-stereotypical way.

Yes, we’ve been getting such an upbeat feedback from nurses, even nurse schools, physical therapists who told us the film was particularly interesting because it gave them the perspective of patients. The staff described in the movie is based on real people. I didn’t mock any one, I tried to describe them with humanity. The character of the physical therapist was an amazing professional and a warm man.

It was certainly a challenge to make a film entirely set at a hospital. Did you watch any other medical dramas to give you some ideas about how to work within that constraint and make the film visually appealing?

With Mehdi, we drew up a list of hospital movies that we wanted to watch and in the end we watched none because we started having ideas and we went with them. For instance, at the beginning of the movie we filmed Ben (the main character) in closeups and fixed shots to reflect the fact that he’s completely paralyzed, and we gradually shifted to a wide shot once Ben finally regained some autonomy and was able to move around in his wheelchair. We wanted to do some beautiful images and find some natural light even if we were filming in a hospital.

“Step by Step” is anchored by a great cast of fresh talent like Pablo Pauly, who plays your alter ego, Nailia Harzoune, who plays his love interest, and the actors who play your buddies, Soufiane Guerrab, Franck Falise and Moussa Mansaly. It’s nice to see new faces in a French comedies. How did you find them?

It’s one of my biggest pride with this film. Mehdi Idir (who co-directed the film) and I really wanted to show new faces that people had not seen before — we worked hard to find them, we did a casting for three or four months. We knew that the film would only work if the actors were good, I mean it’s not a special effects movie, it’s really driven by characters. I’m so proud of their performances, I think their careers are going to take off.

With the presidential election coming and the rise of the far right in France, “Step by Step” could also have a positive impact on the perception of minorities – namely French-Arabs and black men from under-priviledged suburbs – which are usually depicted negatively in films. And to a larger extent, it shows disabled people like we’ve never seen them. Was it intentional?

Yes, it’s one of the goals of the film. It’s to show very different kinds of disabled people; there are jerks, though ones, nice ones, funny ones. It’s just what Soufiane Guerrab’s character says in the film: At first, when you’re disabled, it becomes your primary identity, and people just perceive you as a disabled person, but reality is much more complex. It’s a prejudice that’s similar to the one that minorities face because people don’t always look beyond appearances.

Was it a one shot as a director or do you see yourself directing another film at some point?

Yes, definitely. I’m already thinking about another film with Mehdi Idir! And in parallel, I’m pursuing my music. I have a record coming out at the end of the year and I look forward to begin touring again.

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