by writers and directors Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache
We were always very interested in the lives of immigrant workers. We had seen them smoking outside restaurant exits, dressed in kitchen aprons; Africans, Asians and Sri Lankans taking a few moments before going back to work. We tried to imagine what their lives were like on a daily basis. Before making The Intouchables, we wrote a ten-page script on this subject.
Then we discovered Delphine Coulin’s book, Samba pour la France or Samba for France in English, which depicted the difficulties these clandestine workers face in Paris. We were very impacted by the book, which inspired us to pursue this for our next project. When developing the script, we were very excited about the various themes that the book presented, but we also decided to incorporate the character of Alice into our film, which did not exist in the original novel. The Alice character was very important to us, as she embodied a premise similar to our adventure on The Intouchables: burnout, stress, working irregular hours and weekends. We began to observe ourselves in these men and women who crack under the pressure to perform, for whom work gobbles up everything else in life.
Naturally, these two subjects overlapped. Because deep down, the theme is one and the same: the relationship with work, seen from the highest and lowest points on the ladder. On one hand, the audiences see Samba, an illegal worker who has left his native country and is seeking to legalize his position in order to take up a job promised to him. The contrast is Alice, a senior manager possessing all the ingredients necessary for happiness, yet who is constantly overworked and exhausted to the point of suffering a mental breakdown. Both see work as the supreme value, but when they meet each other, they discover new horizons and attempt to carve out another path towards happiness, different than that imposed by the world of work and social success.
We wrote the Samba role for Omar Sy, as we were very keen to work with him again since The Intouchables. Omar has shown repeatedly that he is a great actor. For a man born in Trappes, a suburb in Western Paris, playing the role of an illegal worker was transformative. He had to gain weight, work on his accent and fully become immersed in the role of being rejected by society.
Omar is a reactive actor. The Samba character is very different from Driss in The Intouchables. Samba is more sensitive, timid and fragile. He is vulnerable at times due to the situations he has to deal with. We felt his character had to be surrounded by someone who embodied delicacy and finesse. It had to be a character that could show tenderness, but also strength. We were considering whom we were going to cast opposite him. It was very clear to us that the person who captured these qualities best was Charlotte Gainsbourg. We were thrilled when she decided to be part of the experience and become Alice to Omar’s Samba.
Our hope for this film was to be able to discuss profound themes whilst adding a dose of humor and lightness. As in real life, we seek a perpetual transition between laughter and emotion in our films, between moments of intense happiness and others of tragic adventure, between comedy and drama. Somehow, this mix of genres allows for the element of surprise, fundamental for us as spectators, and it becomes even more pertinent from a director’s point of view.