Rebecca Zlotowski Interview – Director of ‘Other People’s Children’ / Available On Streaming Rental or Purchase


Films have long explored themes of fatherhood and motherhood, but the role of a step-parent has often been pushed to the side. Stepmothers are traditionally depicted as evil villains (notably, in Disney movies) and one-note caricatures incapable of being caring humans. With Other People’s Children, Rebecca Zlotowski puts the stepmom at the heart of her story, empathetically exploring the bond they can form with a child that is not biologically theirs.

We see Zlotowski’s fifth feature through the eyes of Rachel (Virginie Efira), a happily fulfilled Parisian high school teacher in her forties who suddenly feels a desire for maternity after falling in love with Ali (Roschdy Zem), a divorcé whose four-year-old daughter, Leila (Callie Ferreira-Goncalves), Rachel grows attached to. The film’s title takes on a double meaning as she also becomes a surrogate mother to a troubled student she tries to help. Inspired by her own experiences, Zlotowski crafts a tender, bittersweet, and wistful character study of a woman at a crossroads in her life, perfectly capturing maternal desires that are constantly in flux. 

Earlier this year, we spoke with Zlotowski during the Sundance Film Festival about what compelled her to tell this story, subverting stereotypes, and a cameo from the great Frederick Wiseman. 

Projektor: I read that the film originally began as an adaptation of Romain Gary’s novel Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid, with a man at the center of the story. At what point did you decide to shift the focus to a female character?

Rebecca Zlotowski: [During] the pandemic, I was stuck in my place. I could not escape, and I could not escape from the subject. There’s always this moment in the process of writing [that’s] like when you work with an animal, and eventually at a certain moment you know how it works. The writing is the same: I start by hiding myself, usually behind male things, for instance a motorcycle ride or nuclear plants; I did those films before. After four films, I could finally conceive the fact that female subjects could be as interesting as others and that they could be as major as the others. It took me time, but the pandemic helped me because I could not go outside, have dinner with people [or] interview other people. I’m like a journalist when I’m a script writer, I like to meet forbidden places [and] persons. Eventually, the pandemic made me confront myself and I understood that the subject of impotency was not that of a male but one of a female turning 40 years old.

Do you feel that you drew more from your own experiences to inform the story as it evolved into having a female perspective?

Definitely. The romantic material was very close to me. I just built it as a story with a different ending from my own life, hopefully, because I liked the ending for this woman and the tragedy that sublimates something in her life, but my personal life was different. I was pregnant during the shooting, which [leads to] a totally different perception of the story. It was totally connected to the claustrophobic time we were living through, and I tried to be victorious over this claustrophobia—not take it as a weakness, but take it as a strength. So I made out of this material that could be sad sometimes and bitter sometimes a very light and shiny story.

It forced me to do something totally different than I was used to. It changed my paradigm in a way. I feel that sometimes we need to switch. It’s also the history of the film, the fact that facing impotency made me feel powerful. We keep talking about the power of women, or how much we need to be powerful, but it’s also a very strong assignation for women that is difficult to follow. I’d never felt as powerful as when I confronted my own impotence. It’s a paradox, but I feel that it’s something we should share. 

I want to talk about Virginie Efira, because she’s wonderful in this film—as she is in every film. What was it that made her perfect for the role of Rachel?

The answer is in the question. [Laughs] I would have been a very bad director to make her feel like a bad actress in this film. I feel that it was such an obvious choice. It’s been 10 years that I’ve been liking [and] looking at her, following the path she is brilliantly occupying in France. I felt that for this very character, I needed a person that would be fulfilled, that would not be bitter, dry, [and] eaten by envy, but the opposite. Virginie Efira carries that in her body and on her face. She’s absolutely in her forties—even older than the part—but she is at the beginning of something. When you see this woman, you feel that everything’s fine with her. She’s funny, gorgeous, sensual, witty, [and] fast. She’s fulfilled in life. And for the beginning of the film, I needed to depict a character that would be in lack of nothing—to create the desire of something after not needing the desire. 

The city of Paris is also a character in the film, as displayed by the opening shot of the Eiffel Tower at night. Is there something about the city that inspires you?

It’s the first time I’ve filmed my own city. It’s really connected to the desire of the film. I still have the pandemic excuse [because] we could not really go too far away, and I had my city in front of my windows while I was writing the script. It was a strong desire to talk about myself, to talk about my social area. The fact that [Rachel is] a teacher in the suburbs, this is something I did, this is the job that I had. These [are] places that are familiar to me. It’s the same thing with the music, finding very popular music. And Paris was the same approach: it had to be the Eiffel Tower in the first sequence, for the rom-com genre. It’s a false beat because the rom-com [tone] stops eventually after 15 minutes, but I needed the postal card of a Parisian lifestyle, of pleasure and brightness, to put that [sense of] solitude and modernity in the film.

We keep talking about the power of women, or how much we need to be powerful, but […] I’d never felt as powerful as when I confronted my own impotence.

The figure of the stepmother is not commonly depicted at the center of a story, let alone with an empathetic approach. What is it about this role that you found compelling? And was it your intention to subvert the stereotypes associated with stepmothers as well as “the other woman”?

I think the purpose was not to break it, but the journey made it break. In the making, I knew there was a political statement at certain moments. For instance, when I wrote the scene between the ex-wife and Rachel at the end, I knew for sure that I wanted to have [a] non-hysterical relationship between them. I directed the actresses and wrote the scenes in order to go against the paradigm and stereotype of rivalry between the ex-wives and step-moms.

There’s another aspect of the rivalry that is possible because Ali chose another woman. You’re right when you say “the other woman”—the thing I wanted to do is change the shape, the length, and focus. It’s not about advocating only politically for something because it would have been an ideological project. It’s just someone who’s usually the secondary character, the supporting actress, who becomes the protagonist. When you do that, you change everything. And if you change the perspective, you break the stereotype. You break the archetype that is so strongly rooted in our representations, because it never happened that this character had been the hero of the story.

It’s nice that you also extend kindness to Ali’s ex-wife [played by Chiara Mastroianni], because oftentimes someone is weaponized in that type of situation. Here, they’re cordial with each other, even if deep down they might not tolerate each other.

Cinema is about heroes and heroism. I’m done with anti-heroes. I want to have strong heroes on screen because I use cinema in order to behave myself [and] to be inspired by people who are different than I am, who would behave in the world differently than I would. It’s not about making [humanity] look brighter and more beautiful than it is in real life; it’s much more the opposite. I feel that in our civil lives, people are like that. No one is yelling at each other in the streets outside—I mean, sometimes but it’s pretty rare. I feel that there’s a system of emotions that prevails in fiction for a long time. This system, even if it’s super interesting and creates heartache and makes us follow the storytelling, to me it has become a little bit obsolete. This system is very common, because it’s easier to create strong scenes with hysteria and conflict. But as soon as we try to understand the characters, and to detect them with ethics, it’s not about morals, it’s just about being heart-driven. 

I appreciate that the film never tries to make a statement about what’s right or wrong for Rachel, despite the pressures of society and the thought of the ticking biological clock looming over her head. Was it important to you that you present a portrait of a woman whose feelings about having her own children are fluid?

Thank you for watching the film this way. Even if I didn’t want to have scenes that mention the pressures of society—it’s very easy to have a cab driver saying, “How old are you? You don’t have children?” It happened to me all the time; it’s a small intrusion in your life, and you deal with it on a daily basis when you’re a child-free woman in your forties. But I didn’t want to have those scenes, because I wanted to make the audience feel the inner obstacles that the character would have. And it’s not connected to society or any pressures outside because she’s strong enough to not care [about] that. It’s something much more inner, more moving to me, that’s kept her away from maternity at this time. 

It’s rare to see women who are fulfilled in their lives without having children or being married. 

To me—I was born in 1980—I know that we still had to struggle for that, but it was done, the struggle that women can be child-free and unmarried. It comes from the struggles from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Women can be absolutely fulfilled and strong characters without having that, but it’s still painful the year you have to surrender to the fertility clock. This is something I was very happy to mention, because this is the kind of nuance and ambivalence that we can add to the political statement of freedom for women. It says yes, she’s at the end—eventually she sublimates that and she knows how to transmit. She knows that biological family is not the only script for family, but it was a pain the year she faced it.

The film has some comedic elements, and they come from Frederick Wiseman. Could you talk about how his brief appearance as a gynecologist came to be?

He’s an amazing filmmaker. He’s someone that is so strong and important to me in the way he embraced reality and American institutions, and [is] such a strong mind for the 20th century and after that. He lives in Paris, and I knew that he sometimes did cameos in other films from France. And then one day we became friends. I was very jealous, I said, “How come you make films for others and not me?” He told me, “Just give me a part.” I did not write thinking of him, but when I felt that Fred was just waiting for my script, I’d reread it and say, “Okay, there’s one part he can play.” It’s much more interesting to have Wiseman as a gynecologist than a woman in her sixties who would have been nice. When he jumped in, I rewrote for him, and then all those sentences like, “Life is long and short,” and the fact that he’s so old, like the world itself—[Laughs] You don’t even know how it’s possible for a doctor to still be a doctor at this age. It felt good [and] fair to have this character, his wittiness, kindness, and the wise man that he is. 

I felt that those scenes at the gynecologist were always very difficult to film, because people are not used to that. When [producers] read the scripts, they’re like, “Oh, you really want to do that?” They feel it’s odd, [but] it’s part of our lives. It’s a very strong moment in a woman’s year, because you go there and you learn difficult things in your life. This is an uneasy situation for women, so this is difficult to [have] as a scene, but with Wiseman it could be lighter and funnier.

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