An Interview with Emmanuelle Chaulet
Emmanuelle Chaulet is an actor, director and founder of Emmanuelle Chaulet studio and creator of the Voice Dialogue Acting technique (VDA). I spoke with Emmanuelle about her work with Eric Rohmer, Emmanuelle Chaulet VDA Studio, and her work as a director.
How did you land the role of Blanche in Boyfriends and Girlfriends?
It was a mixture of luck and determination, which is something I teach my students now. I was in an acting school in Paris. It was Robert Cordier's acting school, now called Acting International. We were doing these showcases that were really special. That year was about Bertolt Brecht. At the time the internet didn’t exist of course, so we would do postcards of invitations to the shows that we were doing. I sent postcards to the all the directors I wanted to work with in France: Alain Resnais, Eric Rohmer, Godard, etc. Rohmer answered and I was very lucky because the one day he wanted to go out and see people, my postcard was there on his desk. and he came to the showcase. That was the luck aspect. He was also somebody that was very respectful, very concerned with ethics and respect. At the end of the showcase he had noticed me on stage as an actor he wanted to talk to. But he wasn’t sure if I was the one who had sent the postcard. So the first thing he asked me at the end was, ‘are you the one who sent me the postcard?’
We had tea pretty much every other week at his office in Paris. That lasted around two years and he recorded every interview. He kept telling me there is no film and eventually I knew there would be a film someday. I wasn’t a fool. I had read about him and eventually he said there was film. He wrote it based on our conversations, but also he had a little short film he’d done called The Musical Chairs. It was the same idea. He built the screenplay based on conversations with me and Sophie Renoir. He was doing the same with Sophie. He has asked her about finding the boys and actors and she brought the two actors in (Eric Vieillard and François-Eric Gendron). Then two years later we shot the film. It was a very long process.
So you already had a very good understanding of the character?
Well the characters were based on us. At the time it was based on parts of me. I teach these techniques about different parts of the psyche. At the time I was young and there was a part of me that was very shy and insecure. Today that part is way in the background, but at that time in my life that was a very strong part of my personality. He based it on that.
How much of the dialogue was improvised?
Not at all. The Green Ray was improvised, so it depends on the film. Each film is done in a different way. Boyfriends and Girlfriends was very scripted and Rohmer was adamant about doing the text the way he wrote it. It was very important for him that we respect the text.
We tried very hard, the five actors, to act in a way that was as natural as possible, but the text is extremely literary. It was very difficult to do something natural with such a literary text. Some filmmakers have a script and you can improve around the script, but he was not allowing that.
What I really like about the film is how Rohmer plays with colour and the matching outfits in the final scene.
He made us believe it was an accident, maybe he had planned it. He had a great ethic and was very respectful, but he loved manipulating things like that. Making things look a certain way. He had a sense of humour about that. In one scene there is a loud speaker from the beach saying so and so is requested at the beach. We look at each other and there is a long pause. That was an accident he kept. We were waiting for the sound to go away, but then we kept acting in silent and he thought it was very interesting and so kept that.
Rohmer’s exploration of love between people is extraordinary. He’s really a very special filmmaker. The shoot was very small. One person on sound, one assistant and one on camera, and then Rohmer. Only four people in the crew. If we were doing a scene in a street he would not block the street, he’d use real people. He didn’t ask people to sign authorisation. He wore a University cap and if people asked anything he’d say it was a student film. If there was a crowd we’d wait for people to disperse and then shoot. It was very low key and student film type of atmosphere.
Were there any other films or creative references you looked at before shooting?
A lot of paintings. We would have tea and talk and we’d go to different museums and on lots of walks. We really looked at Mondrian’s work. Rohmer was also into architecture and the new cities at the time were designed by architects concerned with urbanist development. Cergy’s building where my character Blanche lives was designed by the famous Ricardo Bofills. They were very conceptualized cities. Cars were banned from the central parts of these new cities. In one way that was great, but it created problems later on with the suburbs, but at the time they were brand new. It was a very new concept and Rohmer wanted to show that it was a very old concept of urbanism in a new city. That was his point.
What was the biggest thing you took away from working with Rohmer?
I had studied for three years with a very good teacher, Robert Cordier. He was an excellent teacher and one of the best teachers in France and he had taught me a lot. I was trying to apply the craft that I had learned. It was extremely hard to apply that craft with someone else and this is the case for most actors. Most actors develop their craft in acting schools with teachers and then when they go into the real world of film they work with people who have no idea of the craft. Rohmer was a brilliant filmmaker and artist in terms of the way he writes, and films but he had absolutely no clue about the acting craft. It was really hard to work with that because he wanted to create things with us as if we were not actors but real people who did not know anything about acting. For example, in one scene we were supposed to be hungry and have a sandwich with Fabien. Rohmer didn’t want us to act, he wanted us to be really hungry and we shot at 4PM without food for the whole day. That’s not the way you’re supposed to do it. We ended up eating on the side and hiding from him because it was impossible! There were moments like that and I know it happens a lot with filmmakers.
This is my big complaint with film schools. They don’t teach acting at all! Filmmakers direct actors without any clue about what the craft is. I was in my twenties and very shy, it was very hard. So that’s what I took out of it. The experience with Claire Denis on Chocolat was very different. She really understood acting and the process and was enabling the process to take place without trying to prevent it. It was a totally different way of directing and I think that’s also because she is a woman. Some directors are really going to work with the actors and some directors are really going to work against the actors.
Do you think that’s why a lot of actors go into directing?
Yes. This is why I went into directing! If you have a strong personality and are also a man you can impose the way you want to work, but if you’re a young actress it can be very different.
Hopefully that’s changing now for the better?
Yes. I hope that film schools are going to include acting coaching. I do this now. I coach actors, but I also coach directors. It’s important to know the acting craft as a filmmaker. Actors are not just puppets. There is a whole psychological process that needs to be facilitated. I find actors coming to me that are totally destroyed. There is the #MeToo side of course, but some directors are going to play psychologically with them to get to a result. The result can be really good on film, but the person is destroyed at the end of the film. Rohmer was extremely respectful and a gentleman, but psychologically would play games with the cast. He wanted to create jealousy between Sophie and I for example. He got a great result out of it. But there is a price to be paid for young actors.
You run your own acting school. Could you tell me more about this?
My school is called Emmanuelle Chaulet VDA Studio. I’ve developed my own method of acting which is a mixture of Stanislavski, Michael Chekhov and an American technique called Voice Dialogue. I call that Voice Dialogue Acting (VDA). Voice dialogue is a coaching technique that is used by coaches and therapists. It’s from Carl Jung's archetypes and sub-personality research and was developed by two Americans, Hal and Sidra Stone, PhD. I didn’t train with them directly, but I trained with people who were really close with them. In France we have an organisation that is called the AFDialogue, the Francophone Voice Dialogue Association. Voice Dialogue is actually all over the world. It isn’t very well known to the general public, not as much as NLP or all these other things. However, it is very well known in the field of therapy and coaching. As far as actors, there is one school in LA that uses it and one coach in London, In France, I’m the only one who is using it with actors. It is a very intense method of acting and is really powerful for actors.
You’ve also coached acting in America…
Yes, I lived in America for 25 years. I moved there in 1991. Shortly after Boyfriends and Girlfriends, Rohmer gave me a recommendation to get a Fulbright scholarship. Thanks to his recommendation I got a Fulbright in acting at the Lee Strasberg Institute in New York. That was an amazing time in my life. Then, I met lots of people and did a couple of trips back and forth to work with Xavier Durringer who is a French filmmaker and theatre director. I worked a lot with him. That’s when I worked with Xavier, Vincent Cassel and Pascal Demolon in a play called Bal Trap and we toured in Louisiana and then Europe. I went to the States thinking that I wouldn’t necessarily love it, but I did. Then I decided to go back to France. As a Fulbright you have to go back to your own country for a couple of years in order to give back because you get a scholarship. I got married to an American man whom I’d met in Paris and we had a son. We settled in Maine. I thought that from Maine I could go to New York easily, but that wasn’t really possible! I eventually got citizenship. Then, I got divorced and remarried with the French painter Jean-Pierre Rousset and we decided to move back to France in 2013 and I haven’t gone back to America in a while because of Covid.
Could you tell me more about your work as a director?
As an actress, I had shot a film in New York, All The Vermeers In New York (Jost, 1990). It got the Best Independent film prize in LA in 1991 and prizes in Japan and Germany, but the film wasn’t picked up in France. I got so disappointed. That is when I thought I’d go into directing and I became a director to be more autonomous. I became a director and teacher from that point on. I started really getting passionate about it. I found not only that actors experienced the same things I’d experienced myself as an actress. I was able to find solutions, that as an actress nobody gave me. It was really gratifying and interesting for me. I wrote my book about the different aspects of the craft that I’d discovered and that’s what I’ve been doing since.
You can find copies of Emmanuelle’s book, A Balancing Act here:
Links to Emmanuelle’s websites and workshops: