Martin Bourboulon on ‘Eiffel’

French biographical drama Eiffel follows the creator of the world famous Tower during its construction, weaving in the true story of a love affair between Gustav Eiffel (Romain Duris) and Adrienne (Emma Mackey), through imaginative (and passionate) speculation. We spoke with director Martin Bourboulon about his romantic epic.

Between your leading men Romain and Pierre there must be a small fortune in Caesar awards, whereas you’ve noted relative newcomer Emma Mackey as a fresh face as far as French cinema is concerned. What motivated these two different approaches to the casting of Eiffel.

While I was working on this movie… I’ve always loved Romain; he can do everything, he can do a lot of things, he can take on different colours, a bit like a chameleon, whether its romantic, epic or anything, he’s able to do it. From the beginning, he was always my first choice and my only choice. I also believe Romain has got something of modernity in him and I wanted this because I wanted something that was out of time – and he can represent this – I wanted this contemporary feel involved, and to have this tone of the antique times in which the story takes place. As for Emma, of course we knew her from Sex Education on Netflix, but we didn’t know about her French origins.

With Vanessa van Zuylen, the main producer, who used to watch the show with her teenagers, we discovered that Emma can speak French. We came to tell her about the project in London and she just loved it. And it was a very good idea of ours because Emma is just a fantastic actress; she can do so much, and for us it was very interesting to have her on her first French movie. The casting of her with Romain, the alchemy there, it was perfect for us; in the sense of its modernity.

Speaking of modernity, there seemed to be a sense of spontaneity to Gustav and Adrienne’s romance, was it important to you that their relationship feel contemporary, considering all the pomp and elegance of their lives in front of others?

Yes, that is true, we wanted their relationship when they’re together to feel different from their relationships with the other characters in the movie. We wanted to have a very sensual, and precisely realised relationship between Adrienne and Gustav.

You’ll be reuniting with Romain for The Three Musketeers, but previously you’ve focused your talents on paired down, small-scale comedies with great success, what was it about Eiffel that made you shift focus to a big budget historical epic?

That’s quite an excellent question, thank you for that. Indeed, as a young director I felt that I wanted to explore a different universe because I did indeed start with contemporary comedies, and for me it was a very exciting and motivating prospect to do something different with the context of the costumes and all that. I didn’t want to be stuck, labelled as a comedy person; I wanted to do something different. So, yes, The Three Musketeers is also something that is quite thrilling for me.

It’s a big budget movie, which is very exciting especially in these times post-Covid, where cinemas are under threat. The Three Musketeers acts as a signal that we can still make big movies – great movies – that are worth seeing in the movie theatres.

Romain Duris and Martin Bourboulon

The construction of the tower and converting Paris into its old self will have involved significant effects work, but per cinematographer Matias Boucard, the production avoided greenscreen where possible, so that there would be a credible weight to scenes like the leveling of the tower and to the many factories, offices and dugouts. How important was maintaining this sense of authenticity to you?

Yes, indeed, the question of the special effects is one that came up very early in the filming process and we had to create different feelings to communicate the height; like vertigo. We wanted to see subjectively what the workers were experiencing when they were building this tower. We wanted to combine the reality of it, because we had the desire to remain realistic during filming, so we wanted to combine special effects with realism and that is why we actually built – really built – a whole foot of the Eiffel Tower, and used it for those scenes.

You skirt the fashion of the regular biopic and its tour of accomplishments to explore a particularly emotional set of life experiences, what was the most important piece of creative license that was taken for the sake of improving this story?

We did use creative license in some cases, but there were actually different aspects, we had two approaches in fact: first, all the aspects concerning the building of the Eiffel Tower, the engineering of it – since Eiffel was a real engineer, and he built this tower, though to begin with he did not want to construct it. All of these aspects are factually true. The other aspect; the love affair, it’s a true story, that did transpire – a love that was not allowed and which was impeded.

We found it interesting to try to figure out how he could change his mind so quickly, why was it that he changed his mind in only 48 hours, when before he did not want to do the project. He does join the project finally within the 48 hours, so we wondered why the reason couldn’t be because of this first love of his life, and when they met again. That was an idea which allowed us to marry our two aspects together; the epic and the romantic were intertwined.