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In a poor, mostly Arab section of a French town, stunningly beautiful blonde Lila (Vahina Giocante, Marie Baie des Anges) creates a stir riding around on her bicycle in a short skirt. Sweet would-be writer Chimo (Mohammed Khouas) quickly becomes captivated by her flirtatious teasing and sexual boldness, but hides their relationship from his macho friends. This simple story of the perils of youthful passion is enhanced by dreamy visuals and the smoldering charisma of its two leads. Directed by talented Lebanese-born Ziad Doueiri (West Beirut).

 Lila Says

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 her clothes.

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 face.

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.