As the broadcast of the event mini-series “Les Combattantes” continues this evening on TF1, director Alexandre Laurent talks about the genesis of the project, the writing of the characters, and the filming of the war scenes.
AlloCiné: From The Charity Bazaaryou wanted to leave with the producer Iris Bucher and the actresses of the series for a new adventure?
Alexander Lawrence (director of female fighters): Yes, I think we started talking about it as soon as the filming of Le Bazaar de la Charité started. Iris told me: “Alex, I think I already have our next project together”. And it’s true that the Bazaar adventure had been pretty crazy for all of us, so the desire was necessarily there to join this team again to tell another story.
And I think it was the day after the premiere at the Grand Rex that we said to ourselves “Come on, we’re trying to do this new series in two years”. It will have taken five more months, but when we started there were only treatments, the story of the characters invented by Cecile Lorne. And we managed to get out The Fighters in two and a half years. Despite the Covid. It was a real challenge, but it set a course. The challenge of time was really part of the project.
Is the budget of the series more important than on The Bazaar of Charity?
It is higher, yes. I think it’s 20 million for all eight episodes of Les Combattantes. The Bazaar was a little month old. It seems to me that it was around 16 million.
You left with the three actors from the Bazaar, and Sofia Essaidi was added to this initial trio. How was Sofia chosen to play Caroline?
In fact, we had really set out to take on the same three actresses. We even asked ourselves the question of doing it the Splendid way, by taking on all the actors from the Bazaar of Charity in new roles, then we said to ourselves that for the viewers it was not bad to have novelty. So the idea, at the start, was to have three heroines and to find Audrey Fleurot, Camille Louand Julie de Bona.
But in the plot of Marguerite, played by Audrey, there is the character of Caroline Dewitt who has arrived. He’s a character who shouldn’t have been so important at the start, who was more secondary. But this Caroline pleased the channel and, suddenly, the character grew as the writing progressed. And quickly, after a month of development, we said to ourselves “We would need a fourth heroine, that would be great”. So we made this character of Caroline, whom Marguerite met in the first version of the screenplay, more important. And we are delighted because Sofia is great in the series. It’s a great meeting.
Over the episodes, the war sequences take up more and more space. Was filming the war the main challenge of the series for you?
It was especially great (laughs). It’s true that war slowly enters the series, it starts with civilians, it’s a real choice. We get into it little by little through the eyes of our characters.
I have seen a lot of war movies. What I kinda had in mind was master Spielbergand his masterpiece We have to save the soldier Ryan. It follows a character on a battlefield, and I really liked the idea of being behind the character you’re following, because there are a lot of characters in this kind of film, you can quickly get lost. And it can take us out of perspective.
As a result, I wanted to film the war in the same way, from the point of view of the person following it. Like Marguerite’s in episode 3. It takes a lot of rehearsals. We only had 95 or 96 days of shooting for the whole series. Which is less than 12 days per episode. It actually corresponds to what we have on a classic mini-series that is not period and not war. We couldn’t have more. In the beginning, there were more, but you can’t have 3,000 extras, great sets… There’s an equation to solve.
As a result, we prepared the scenes enormously with our stunt adjuster and his team. We choreographed the sequences beforehand, then we rehearsed several times with the actors before shooting, in order to be really ready when it was time to shoot and not waste too much time setting up. It was a huge time saver.
Even if the heroines are fictional, such a series requires historical accuracy. Have you collaborated with historians?
Completely. We had two historical advisers, two historians, in addition to the other advisers who collaborated on the series. For example, we had a day-to-day military adviser on set. I didn’t do military service, because it wasn’t compulsory at the time, and I didn’t want the series to be “fake”, that there were big mistakes.
To ensure that we are as close as possible to historical accuracy, we consulted and sent the texts of the various episodes to two historians: Françoise Thébaud, who helped us with the psychology and positioning of women during the 1914 war -1918, because it is his specialty, and Jean-Pierre Verney, who is a specialist in the war of 14-18, who constituted with his collection the Museum of the Great War of Meaux.
We sent him the texts, he told us what was going well or not. We still had a few small sprains. In particular, we took liberties on the use of weapons. We thought that in this village it had happened two months earlier (laughs). For script reasons. But otherwise we were ultra faithful. To tell you the truth, at the very beginning of the project, before reading, while fantasizing, I said to myself “We’re going to try to shift the tone a bit and tell it all in a bit of a western way”. Because I told myself that war was a zone of lawlessness, I thought that made sense.
And finally, in a week, after speaking with historians at the Museum of Meaux, I understood that there was a real duty to remember. Hence the epic music and a tone that is quite realistic and respectful of the story. We are tackling a part of the history of France which still marks people today. We were invested with a real form of respect. We didn’t want to distort. It was important, especially since the series focuses on showing the role of women during the Great War. Because we know that they are the great forgotten of history.
Was it difficult to find the right balance between the realistic aspect of the war and the very soapy side of the story of these four women?
I think it blends really well actually. We are on something hard, horrible, hard-core. This is the reality of war. And the positive aspect, in terms of storytelling, is that it exacerbates all the feelings. That is to say that each heroine, each person, is placed in extraordinary situations. And those we chose to follow and those for whom we invented stories become strong.
And as much as we show the horror, as much as I find that the inspiration of Les Combattantes is these four women and all the other men who gravitate around them – I’m thinking of the character of Tom Leeb who is a surgeon and who gives of himself to help others. We are in mutual aid, in humanity.
The Bazaar of Charity was above all on the background of feminism. This is something that we obviously find in Les Combattantes because we tell the story of the work of these four women and the others through the workers, the nuns, everything that has not been told and highlighted in the end of the First World War. But I find that it also deals, more generally, with humanity and mutual aid. How do human beings stand up to horror? All of our characters are heroes. They are there to help France, to help others.
And there is a character that we hardly see in the first four episodes, it is that of the priest embodied by Laurent Gerra. What can you say about this clergyman? He’s the main antagonist of Mother Agnes, right?
Before being the antagonist of Mother Agnès, it was also the point of view of the Church at the time, which had been separated from the State and which, through war, was trying to recover a place within society, within the state. And, yes, he’s the patron of the convent, but I can’t say much more. It’s very salty afterwards (laughs). But, yes, you will see that it is a real antagonist.
What I find interesting is that, unlike the Bazaar, we dug much deeper into the secondary characters. The two villains that we see from the start, embodied by Gregoire Colin and Yannick Choirat, we really dug their psychology. We had Lenverpré in Le Bazar who was very, very bad. He was a stereotype villain, it was great. But here our villains also have a flaw.
Despite the fact that Grégoire Colin’s character is a big pig, who abuses a prostitute, and that this scene serves to show what an abominable character he is, we will also enter through Sandrine Bonnaire in his childhood, we will explore certain things. Same for the character of Yannick Choirat, there is a story with his sister. We enter into their family history. The characters are more accomplished than in The Bazaar of Charity.
Were there things that were complicated to do or to show as a bonus on TF1? Nudity, everything that happens in the brothel, it could quickly have been too daring for the channel…
With TF1 we agree from the start, these things were written. Grégoire Colin’s scene in the brothel, for example, is a scene that could be debated, if only in relation to the audience we are addressing. She could do this sequence two more minutes, but in this case it is no longer family. It is no longer for premium on TF1.
As a result, this kind of sequence is very cut up, we shorten it. The idea is not to scare people away. We treat what an abominable character he is, but we don’t show too much either. And the important thing is that nothing is free.
Now that Les Combattantes is on the air, what will the sequel look like for you? A third series with the same actresses? Or do you want to return to more contemporary series?
We are discussing with Iris Bucher and TF1 a third series yes, which would take place once again in another era. But nothing is done. We have to wait for the hearings of Les Combattantes in particular.
And beyond that, I’m reading stuff. I would love to do anticipation, for example. After recounting the fights we had to fight to obtain the rights we have today, I would like to do a series on the fights we have to fight today so as not to find ourselves in shit again late.
There are genres that have been seen and reviewed, and today we need exoticism. Stories and genres that surprise us. Viewers need this. And me too.
I started on RIS: Forensic science twelve or thirteen years ago and it’s crazy to see how much French fiction has evolved since then. I’m not just talking about Fighters. I think of black butterfliesat Vortexat Prometheus, which will be coming soon. These are series that I want to discover.