Lila Says is a youthful story that revolves around eroticism
in an edgy way. I always wanted to do a story about adolescence. For
me, adolescence is a time where we are clumsy, immature, and jealous,
just like Chimo is around Lila. However, Lila the character is a hard
one to pin down. A friend of mine once described her as “an angel
with a whore’s mouth.”
I knew right away it would be very difficult to find the right actress
who would be able to deliver Lila’s lines without becoming vulgar.
Earlier on, during writing, I had gathered a few photos of girls from
various magazines to get an idea of what Lila should look like. Among
them was the supermodel Natalya Volyanova. I had seen Natalya on a Gucci
billboard once while driving in Beirut. I took a photo of it and sent
it to the casting director in Paris to give her an idea of the type
of look I was after. We even considered at one point doing an audition,
but Natalya did not speak French and was too tall.
We started the casting in Paris, and hundreds of photos were sent to
me. I spent nine months interviewing actresses, both professional and
non-professional. When I finally did a selection and became interested
in a couple of them, they turned the role down because they were afraid
of the erotic language. I also saw many models from Eastern Europe.
The casting agent brought them in because Lila was supposed to be blond
and around sixteen years old and most of them fit that description.
Unfortunately none of them convinced me.
Nine months went by and more than 500 actresses were interviewed. Three
weeks were left before the shooting and I still did not have an actress.
Finally, I was given an ultimatum: make a decision immediately or risk
loosing the English financing if we don’t shoot on time. I felt
I could not take any risk on Lila’s character, and everything
came to a halt.
Two days later, Vahina Giocante happened to be in the casting office
in Paris on an audition for Oliver Stone’s film Alexander.
The casting director handed her the screenplay and asked her to take
a look at it. I had seen Vahina in a French movie called Marie Baie
des Anges when it showed in L.A. in 1999. She was fourteen at the
time, was very sensual, free and childlike.
The next day, I received a call from Vahina. We met in Place Des Vosges
in Paris, an old park. It was a casual meeting that lasted about 45
minutes. When I asked her how she would describe Lila’s character,
she replied that Lila was an “aerial” girl, someone who
walks a few inches above ground. I knew I had Lila.
I did not want to rehearse much with the actors, instead opting to
show them a few of
my favorite films. We saw Léolo, Rumble Fish, The Cement
Garden and Blade Runner.
During pre-production, I went shopping for clothes with Pierre Mattar,
the costume designer. We worked on always finding the detail in Lila’s
clothes to make her offbeat. Elements that would remind us that although
she’s talking like a pro, she is still a clumsy adolescent just
trying to make a boy love her. We would choose a light sexy dress, then
pair it with large black motorbike boots, to keep an inconsistency in
To show the impact of the neighborhood on the lives of Lila and Chimo,
I took many photographs of the locations with my still camera using
a 12mm lens. The narrow streets of “Le Panier” neighborhood
in Marseille looked more dynamic, distorted, almost menacing. I wanted
the same look for the film. I showed John Daly, the Director of Photography,
the still photos. John said he had never worked with such wide lenses
before but was curious to try them. Vahina photographed beautifully
with wide angle lenses, and in some shots it even added mystery to her
During the filming we often listened to music, especially Vanessa Daou’s
songs, a few of which are in the film. The whole moped scene was filmed
while we played back the songs “Black Forest” and “Juliette.”
It was by coincidence that I first heard Vanessa’s music in 1997,
at a record shop in Santa Monica. I had never heard about her before
and I picked up the album simply because of the cover photo. There was
a ‘parental advisory, explicit lyrics’ tag on it.
Her music was terrific. It was a mix of jazz, ethereal and electronica—a
very erotic album, both in lyrics and music. Vanessa’s music is
very visual and inspiring, and most of the visuals of the film were
inspired by her songs.
A series of contacts led me to come to New York and finally meet her,
along with her composer/producer, Peter Daou. We spoke about collaborating
on a film, and she agreed. A few years later, I started Lila Says,
and her music made it to the movie.
The producers expected that I would use mainly Arabic music and songs,
but I had a different idea in mind, and wanted to avoid a cliché.
I used a few popular Arabic songs for the scenes when Chimo hangs out
with his friends, then used Vanessa Daou, Air, Starseeds and William
Orbit for the Lila/
Chimo scenes, and also an original score by Nitin Sawhney.
I’m glad the film is now getting a chance to be shown in the
states. I remember when I first finished the screenplay and passed it
to few producers in the U.S. to get some feedback. Their first reaction
was that a film that contains such raw language would have no chance
to be made in the U.S. I was told “you should probably go do it
in France.” When the film was finished I showed it to the French
distributor, and the first thing he said was, “this is not a typical
French film, but I’m sure we’ll find a distributor in the
U.S.” I hope you’ll be happy that we did.