Interview: Director Nicolas Wright on ‘French Girl’ and Zach Braff

"[Braff] is a comedic ninja and to have our lead guy also be a super talented filmmaker in his own right? It was amazing to have that presence on set, just as a sort of a spiritual brother," Wright said.

Actors James A. Woods and Nicolas Wright have been friends for more than 20 years, both starting out in Montreal before moving to Los Angeles. They soon began to write together and after some success, remembered a script they wrote 13 years ago, called French Girl. Things moved quickly for them and after getting financing, they decided to make the film their directorial debuts, co-directing a cast that would eventually star Zach Braff and Vanessa Hudgens.

The film stars Braff as Gordon, a hopeless romantic who finds that his plan to propose are shot when his girlfriend (Evelyne Brochu) is given a job offer in Quebec by her celebrity chef ex (Hudgens). Both Wright and Woods wanted to make a classic 1990’s style rom-com and they definitely succeeded. It’s quick, funny and Braff brings his comedic gold to every scene he’s in.

In this interview, Wright talks about the film, directing Zach Braff, his shift from acting to directing and his advice to actors on auditioning. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

This film feels like an old, it’s like a comfy blanket.

Nicolas Wright: That’s what we wanted from the get-go. We wanted to make an old school rom-com from the ’90s, because they don’t make those movies anymore sadly. As you know, with the shifting tides in our business, sort of getting more internationally driven and that pushes comedy to the side. It’s just not a global export because culturally comedy is so specific and unfortunately that means we see less and less of them, which I hope the pendulum will swing back because my God, do we ever need to laugh now more than ever. It was a real blessing that we got to make this movie and I hope it brings a smile to people’s faces.

When did you start writing this?

Nicolas Wright: We wrote it and conceived of it like 13 years ago. James and I have known each other for 20 years. We both started out as actors here in Montreal. We both got cast in shows and movies together and we developed this kind of comedic rapport. And eventually we said, we should try our hand at writing. And we did.

We started writing pilots and short films and features and we crafted this film because both of our fathers are English-Canadians who married French-Canadian women. We were flabbergasted that hadn’t been done yet as a backdrop to a romantic comedy, like with an element of culture clash to it. And so, we set out to write this movie and we did, but we got busy with other stuff, and we put it in a drawer.

We both moved to LA, and we got busy, which is great. And then about five years ago, we had the chance to take it out again and really look at it. And we had a pathway to production, which was amazing for us. And so, the rubber really met the road about five years ago. It’s been a long gestating project and it’s kind of surreal now that it’s over. What are we gonna do?

After I’m done something, especially like those long runs in theater, there’s just this sort of depression that sets in. Being directors now, do you get that as well?

Nicolas Wright: Oh my God, yeah, because it’s so much more investment. I mean, we look at each other now, and we’re like, ‘why did we stop acting?’ Like you just go, you do your stuff, you leave, you get paid, that’s it, you’re done. Like now, you do a film and you’re in the trenches for years.

As writers, we always lament the fact that it’s so hard to attach directors to projects. That’s one of the biggest hurdles, right? I mean, if you’ve got a good script, that’s great, but directors are so spooked, because like when they sign on, it’s years of their life. Everyone else comes and goes. Like all the actors we worked with on this movie, they’ve all shot 17 films since we started filming French Girl. And so here we are still pushing the French Girl boulder off the mountain. So, to speak to the question, like the depression is real. It’s gonna hit. Next week it’s going to be tough, but you just start on the next project and just pick up a new boulder and push it up the hill.

How did Zach Braff get involved?

Nicolas Wright: He was at the top of our cast list as an archetype basically. And never did we think we could get our hands on Zach Braff, but our fearless producers, Valérie d’Auteuil and André Rouleau were able to slip our script through the cracks of the Hollywood engine. And we got it to him, and he read it and he loved it and then he zoomed with us. And when he realized we weren’t total psychopaths, he’s like, “Yeah, let’s do this.”

And it was a blessing, man, because, A, he’s a comedic ninja, and B, to have our lead guy also be a super talented filmmaker in his own right? It was amazing to have that presence on set, just as a sort of a spiritual brother. And he just brought so much of his filmmaking wisdom to the table when it came to his character. And seeing his arc from 30,000 feet, not being myopic about it. He’s got a filmmaker’s brain, so he’s able to see the whole story and sort of pick up on crucial things that need to track through the movie and always remind us of those things. And it was really hugely, hugely helpful.

He went out of his way to be like, “No, it’s your movie. You guys are in charge.” He would make suggestions, but he was also polite and he deferred to us. And quite often, when it came to the script notes that we worked with him in pre-production, he just had such amazing insights. We welcomed his ideas, and we were never precious about it.

James and I are a duo. We’re collaborators by nature. We’re also actors. You’re an actor, you know. We’re always collaborating with people. You can’t really act by yourself, that just doesn’t exist. So, from the beginning of our careers, we learned how to work with other people in a healthy, positive way. And our mantra is always the best idea wins. It doesn’t matter if it’s a gaffer, or the sound guy or the lead actor, whoever, like if there’s a good idea on the table, we’re happy to take it. We just gobbled up all of his wisdom he threw our way.

I don’t know him personally, but I’ve heard stories when guys like Ben Stiller go to be in a movie, they’re happy to just acquiesce and not make decisions, because it’s exhausting being a director. You have to make 10,000 decisions every day. So, some of these actors who are directors, when they go to work on somebody else’s set, they’re happy to not pry their nose into what lens are you using. And I would put the light over there. And did you think of a dolly push? They’re like, “No, I’ll be in my trailer” or “I’m gonna read my book, call me when you need me. I’m here, I’ll do my thing, and then it’s your movie, dude, so figure it out.”

There’s one really funny moment where he’s standing up and he’s just not sure whether to sit down or keep standing while this conversation is going on in front of him.

Nicolas Wright: He’s got such a strong comedic instinct for all physical comedy, intellectual comedy. He’s got amazing rhythms.

And Vanessa Hudgens, I mean, she’s great in this.

Nicolas Wright: Yeah, she’s good. She has a musician’s brain obviously, but that translates really well to comedy because it’s about timing. It’s about rhythm. And she just crushed it. She’s also open. She’s open. She has no ego. She’ll try anything. And as a director, that’s the biggest gift you could ask for. Our job is to set up just a safe environment where people could play, and we encourage that because with an acting background, that’s what we want. And she is so playful, so I hope that she does more comedy.

I’ve worked with a couple of directors who have been actors and the feel on set sometimes is just totally different. It’s still hurry up and wait, but more it feels like it’s more of a nurturing and safe environment.

Nicolas Wright: Yeah. There’s a sense of protection. Like, ‘let’s carve out the time and let’s not rush.’ Yes, we’re on a schedule. Yes, time is money. But when it comes time to asking for that extra take, an actor who’s a director, a director who’s an actor is far more like to say, “yeah, yeah, let’s do one more.”

And we know the agony. Look, you’re putting yourself out there and it’s so frustrating when you work so hard, you prepare all this work that you do to build this character and then you get like one and a half takes and then it’s over. You’re like, f*** man. We know what that pain feels like innately and our process is always to carve out as much time in the schedule for takes and to make that space available for the actors to explore and to play.

And sometimes that came at the expense of some other shots that we wanted to do, but look, if you don’t have the performances, it doesn’t matter how fancy your shots are, like your movie’s going to suck. Especially in a comedy like this, you need to have the performances. And if that means getting six takes instead of two, then do the six takes and forget your crane shot. That’s not going to be the thing that’s gonna make people talk about your movie. It’s the performances that matter, you know? So that was our guiding principle the whole way through.

You said you kind of stopped acting, but was there any moment where you thought, “I want to do this one-line part, just to play with Zach Braff.”

Nicolas Wright: I think for this movie, we needed to be wholly focused behind the camera. We shoot our own pilots and we write stuff and develop TV. We just did one this summer and we’re in talks to get to do the full series, so we still act in that sense.

But for our feature debut, we really wanted to wholly be focused behind the camera. I think we needed to give ourselves that mandate, because we couldn’t split our attention and risk f***ing it up, because you get one shot at a feature debut and they’re very happy to say, “Yeah, never again.” We’ve been in movie jail before and it sucks. We were like, ‘let’s not indulge.’ Have you ever directed?

I haven’t, no.

Nicolas Wright: In a way you feel like you’re performing because you’re giving them ideas. You’re like, “Oh, try it with this spin.” And then to see somebody do it better than you probably could is in a way more gratifying. You’re like, ‘oh my God, they did that so much better than I could,’ but it was still my idea to sort of do it with this spin or this bent, you know?

But for us, it was just so important to just give our entire focus to being behind the camera so we wouldn’t mess anything up, because you risk splitting your attention and that can be a little dangerous, I think.

Since you guys have been on both ends, acting and directing, when you watch self-tapes, which I imagine is a lot now when casting, what do you see on your end that stands out?

Nicolas Wright: First, I want to say that I really lament the fact that in-person casting is kind of going the way of the dodo. I think that sucks and it’s weird to say that because our medium is on camera. You know what I mean? If you can’t deliver in a clip, then why am I going to get swayed by you in the room? That’s false advertising almost. I gotta see what you can do on camera.

There’s something about meeting an actor. We did our casting in-person for French Girl, except at the very onset, but most of the casting was done in-person. Even through the tail end of COVID, we were like, “let’s do it in-person. If they’re not comfortable, they can send a tape, but like we’ll be in the room with masks.” It’s really the period of directing between takes that I think is crucial. And is so important to be in the same room as someone, to feel their energy, to feel their emotions, to be able to meaningfully talk to them about where they went left when they should maybe try and go right. Do you know what I mean? Like that moment is so sh***y over Zoom. It sucks.

You don’t even get to Zoom sometimes. It’s just like, send in a tape and then fingers crossed and then you either never hear from them again or they’re flying you out to set. And that’s great but the moment of connection between a director and an actor in a room, that’s part of the audition process. How is it to work with this person? Can they respond to direction? Am I giving good direction? Do they understand? It’s also hearing the dialogue from a director writer’s point of view in the room. Does this sound stilted? I hope the pendulum swings back.

To answer your question about like what to tell actors, I mean, God, I don’t know. I’m still looking for advice on that front. Zoom auditions are so hard, dude. It’s so hard, as you know.

That’s the other thing, you can’t break the ice on Zoom as easily as you could. I remember going to rooms during pilot season, and you walk in and there’s 15 people behind the table and you’re one of 200 people they’re going to see that day. But you walk in and there’s like a weird, stained couch in the corner and you make a joke about it and it immediately breaks the ice. And then everyone’s like, ‘okay, good.’ Harder to do that on Zoom.

What I will say, and this is tropey advice, but it’s true, so it bears repeating: Casting is an agonizing process for everybody involved. Nobody likes it, it sucks but it’s the only way to do it.

However, I think what actors need to remember, and what I have taken from being on the other side of the table is that whenever you walk in, they are hoping and praying that you are the choice. They want you to be the choice so that they can stop this madness, stop the process, cast it and move on and get into production. So, if you can hold that in your heart to know that they’re not against you when you walk in the room, that they’re actually batting for you, believe me, that’s true. Everybody who walks in, I’m like, please, please, please, please… So that’s a good thing to remember.

Quite often you feel like it’s you against the world. But, man, are they on your side. I think that’s something that’s really important for actors to remember, because it takes a bit of the pressure off. You’re like, ‘okay, they want me to shine, they want me to crush this, I should just crush it. Let me do that, that’s what they want, that’s what I want. Let’s make everybody’s lives easier and let me just crush it.’ That’s easier said than done, but it’s worth remembering that everybody wants you to succeed when you walk in that room, if that makes sense.

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