Julie Delpy: I’m not a megalomaniac. I’m a perfectionist

The creator of cloning film My Zoe refuses to be pigeonholed

"Sorry, sorry, sorry," said a flustered Julie Delpy, who was a few minutes late for a video interview. "My son is doing online school, and there is always something complicated to sort out." She paused and took a breath. "But it's nice, too, having this time together."

Motherhood, its deep pulls of love and its concomitant potential for terror, is the central subject of Delpy’s new film, My Zoe. It’s a tough depiction of an antagonistic, divorcing couple who are struck by tragedy, but then (spoiler alert!) moves into futuristic terrain as Delpy’s character, Isabelle, a geneticist, searches for a radical solution: cloning the child she has lost with the help of a controversial fertility doctor, played by Daniel Brühl.

Brühl, who has worked with Delpy previously and was also one of the film’s producers, said in a telephone interview that the questions the film raised about ethics and morality – “about what might be possible, or what is perhaps already possible” – were deeply interesting to him. His character was “driven by his scientific ambitions to hold these questionable moral positions, but also driven by a growing empathy for the despair of this one mother,” Brühl said.

My Zoe, Glenn Kenny wrote in the New York Times, "is an unusually compelling domestic drama with sharp ears, a sharp eye, and up to a point, sharp teeth." It's probably not the kind of film that mainstream audiences associate with the 51-year-old, who may be best known for the Richard Linklater romantic-comedy trio Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight. In those movies, spaced nine years apart, she played Celine, a strong, flawed heroine at the centre of a compelling and equally flawed romance with Jesse, played by Ethan Hawke. (She also co-wrote the films, earning two Oscar adapted-screenplay nominations alongside Linklater and Hawke.)


I am not scared of difficulty, struggling, even chaos

The French-born Delpy has been acting since the age of 14, when Jean-Luc Godard cast her in Detective, and she has worked in European art-house cinema as well as mainstream Hollywood movies. But Delpy, whose parents were actors, has always wanted to write and direct, and she has done so since the mid-1990s: My Zoe is her seventh film, and she has a number of writing and directing projects in the works, including a television series, On the Verge, in production for Canal Plus and Netflix.

In an hour-long interview from her Los Angeles home last week, she talked about the genesis of My Zoe, the ethical questions around cloning and whether conditions for female movie directors have improved. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

What made you take on a subject and a genre so different from your previous films?
When I worked with Godard, he published a book of letters he had written to actors and never sent. To me, he wrote, be careful in your life because people will put you in a box. He knew I wanted to direct, not just be a pretty actress. For me it's essential not to stay in one place, it's just not interesting. I love to mess up and not go in the direction that is expected.

The story of My Zoe comes from a few different places. I was witness to a terrible accident with a child who died at my school and to the grief of the parents. And then being a parent yourself, you always think about this and fear it. But I think I had the idea even before that. I remember talking to [Krzysztof] Kieslowski when we were making Three Colours: White and discussing the idea of fate, and whether you could change things.

I have seen so many movies in which people deal with death, and the main idea is acceptance. When you think about it, loss is an ancestral burden, particularly for women, who for centuries routinely lost babies at birth or young children. Isabelle refuses that condition of loss; she rebels and tries to re-create a child who is only hers. That’s the No 1 fear of men, and I think that’s partly why this idea upsets many people.

You divide the film into three parts, and the first shows the grim, petty realities of divorce. Why was it important to you to set up the story in that way?
I was writing the film in the middle of a separation and sorting out custody of our kid, and it was important to me to have the first act be all about that horrible stuff, because I wanted to show how people forget the big thing: the well-being of the child. Sometimes in films, you get the bigger picture of separation; they don't do the minutiae of breaking up with a child [involved]. I wanted to build a story from something rooted in reality, so that when you move into the next act, it doesn't feel like science fiction.

The second part, after Zoe’s accident, is luckily less familiar to most of us but still grounded in reality, and then we move into the third part, to events that are a possibility in the near future if not now. I didn’t want to be judgmental about Isabelle’s actions, just show her point of view. I am not saying that cloning is a good thing, but I’m saying, let’s not blind ourselves: When [in vitro fertilisation] was first done, people called it evil, and now they don’t think twice. For me, it’s an allegory of what people are capable of doing.

I feel I'm at the same level as male directors, and probably have almost the same opportunities. I see this particularly clearly in France; America isn't quite there yet

Daniel Brühl said you can be "very nerdy, very precise, a real perfectionist" as a director. How did you manage that role alongside this emotionally draining part in My Zoe?
Often I would really rather have another actress play my role, but I always do these low-budget films, and it helps to have a bit of a name. It irritates people that I do everything; they think it's megalomania. But it really isn't, just necessity.

Yes, I am a perfectionist, and this film was really hard. The actors and I talked a lot before takes, but it’s very hard to judge the quality of a scene if you are also acting in it. The main tool is the playback; you need time to look at your own performance and make sure you are giving very different colours to scenes. In this case, I was very conscious of not turning it into a melodrama. We had a low budget and limited time – not a good combination. But I am not scared of difficulty, struggling, even chaos. Perhaps that’s the one thing I have in common with Isabelle.

You've been outspoken about the difficulties facing female filmmakers. Do you think things have improved in the last few years?
I am happy to say things have improved. Now I feel I'm at the same level as male directors, and probably have almost the same opportunities. I see this particularly clearly in France; America isn't quite there yet for all the talk about feminism and racism and equality. But there has been change. When I made "Two Days in Paris," aged 36, I had to battle for a half-a-million-dollar budget; talking to younger female filmmakers now, that's not the case. – New York Times