Down in the docks

Down in the docks

June 27, 2023


Writer Baptiste Fillon and director Vincent Maël Cardona discuss De Grâce, a French series about the lies and redemption of a unionist’s family confronted with drug trafficking in the docks of Le Havre.

In the French port city of Le Havre, Pierre Leprieur is a respected figure from a powerful dockers’ union. But as he celebrates his 60th birthday, his world is about to be turned upside down.

Six-part French drama De Grâce follows Pierre as his two sons, Jean and Simon, are implicated in a cocaine bust and are arrested by the police. He asks his daughter Emma, a criminal barrister to defend her brothers, who claim to be innocent. But believing he has been the target of a plot, Pierre decides to investigate himself. However, the truth is dangerous and brutal, and behind a sprawling drug-smuggling operation lies a curse affecting the city and the Leprieur family.

Produced by Ego Productions’ Pierre-Emmanuel Fleurantin and Vincent Mouluquet for Arte France, the show stars Olivier Gourmet as Pierre alongside Margot Bancilhon, Panayotis Pascot, Pierre Lottin, Astrid Whettnall, Gringe, Eliane Umuhire, Nailia Harzoune, Alyzée Costes, Samuel Theis and Xavier Beauvois.

The series was created by Maxime Crupaux and Baptiste Fillon, who wrote the scripts with Sylvie Chanteux and Malysone Bovorasmy. Vincent Maël Cardona (Magnetic Beats) directs, taking on a TV series for the first time.

De Grâce had its world premiere at French television festival Series Mania earlier this year, where Bancilhon was named best actress in the international competition category. It is distributed by Mediawan Rights and will debut on Arte this autumn.

Here, Fillon and Cardona tell DQ about their partnership on the project, the importance of location and why they wanted to smash stereotypes about dock workers and criminality.

Baptiste Fillon

What are the origins of De Grâce?
Fillon: At the very beginning, Maxime had an idea for making a series about Le Harve – the city, the skyline and its history. Then he came to me. He knew I’m from Le Harve and I had written my first novel, so he knew I’d be able to write something. But I said, ‘You know Maxime, I have never written any kind of script for television or cinema.’ He said, ‘Let’s go for it anyway.’
We worked together for five years, and today [looking back], it’s pretty amazing. I know the television industry more. It was a bet for them. We started to write, to meet people. We met a few friends online; my father knew a few people on the docks. Then we started to write. The family of De Grâce came very quickly. We had Pierre, we had Jean, we had the mother. Then Arte said yes and it was just amazing. The work went very easily. That’s the strange thing – the making of De Grâce was very smooth.

What did you discover about writing TV compared with your work as a novelist?
Fillon: It’s very demanding because you have to set many cliff-hangers all along the series. It’s demanding as a narrative structure. But what I love and why I want to go on in the television industry is that it’s very demanding in terms of how you build your characters across the season. It’s challenging and interesting.

How would you describe the show’s protagonist, Pierre?
Fillon: Pierre is loud; he’s the voice of the city, which is between two worlds. It’s a very small city, and it’s the beginning of the world. You can smell it when you work around Le Havre – when you speak with some of the people who work there, they used to work in America or Brazil, so you feel like you can smell the world. On the other hand, it’s a small city that can have a classic Provençal atmosphere, and we wanted to the audience to feel it.
Pierre is Le Havre, definitely. He’s torn between the past, the unions, the hope of revolution and the new era we’re living in, what in France we call liberalismé. He’s at the centre of two big tensions in Le Havre.

De Grâce stars Olivier Gourmet as Pierre, a dockers’ union figure whose life takes a turn

Vincent, why did you sign on to direct De Grâce?
Cardona: The city is a very singular, specific place in the country for us. I’m from Brittany, much like Maxime, and we have a few cities like this that were totally destroyed and erased during the Second World War. Then they rebuilt those cities. It’s like a martyr – you suffer and you are reborn in a way; you come back from extinction. That means the architecture of the city is really unified, which is quite rare. It looks like a new city when one or two architects have control over the whole city, so it’s like something from science fiction. But it’s also a very old city, so it’s a mix of those two elements. This is great for imagination.
The second reason was the promise of the script, of course. There was the possibility for a TV show to deal with tragedy, great storylines and the pure archetype of the patriarch, which is the key to this ancient world. With the fall of the patriarch, everything falls apart. All the monsters can come to life. So that was crazy. With the promise of the city and the promise of the script, it was obvious that in six episodes, we could go far.

Vincent Mael Cardona

Did you create a specific visual style for the series?
Cardona: What I like in feature films is how you can make symbols – when a house, a character or an object becomes a little bit more than that, so it has a narrative purpose or a meaning. There are a lot of examples of that in this series.

How did you both work together?
Fillon: We were finishing writing the story when Vincent came on board, and he led us to symbolism. He said, ‘You have to deal with the mythology, you have to deal with the tragedy, so go on and write something that may seem quite heavy.’ We had to endorse the vision. With Maxime, we developed it for a few years. I remember saying in our first meeting with Vincent, ‘I’m not a director. I don’t have the skills or vision to tell a story with pictures. But I want to give the baby to Vincent.’ We gave the baby to him and we trusted the way he wanted to handle the symbolism and the mythology of the city.

Cardona: We are all beginners, in a way. We’re fresh to this, so we didn’t have a lot of ego issues. We all had huge expectations of what we should try to do. So it was really easy because we had a very good, fluid relationship.

What did you look for when it came to casting? 
Cardona: It’s just like any shoot. The important part is the casting and the moment of choosing them. This is work we did with Constance Demontoy, the casting director, and there was a lot of thinking, discussion and exchanges between us. We thought about the family as one big pack, and I wanted something quite homogenous in the richness of it. Each character is really colourful, so we wanted actors who could meet two expectations: naturalism – we have to believe they are living in Le Havre nowadays and we can feel the truth of it; and they also need to have a little spin, something that is like a fantasy, something weird or a bit different from what you might expect.

The show is produced by Ego Producciones for Arte France

Was the whole series shot on location in Le Havre?
Cardona: We would have loved to shoot everything there but it wasn’t possible to go on the docks. We couldn’t do that for political reasons, because the dockers didn’t want us. It’s hard to get authorisation, so we had to shoot those scenes in Belgium. That was quite hard for us to take, but ports and containers are all the same, everywhere. That’s something that is one of our big symbols in the city. We are insects behind those huge, modern monsters.
The other thing is that in France in particular, the dockers don’t want to be associated with drug trafficking, because there is a lot of press where you always have dockers linked to cocaine. For them, it’s just unbearable. They say, ‘Hey, we’re just workers, we’re not traffickers. We’re victims of it,’ and for them, our project looked like once again these people from TV are talking about dockers and cocaine. The thing is, I wish I could have had the time and found the words to tell them this stereotype exists without this series, it’s there. We can’t do anything about it but let people see that, in our series, our dockers are victims of traffickers and maybe this could change something in terms of representation and stereotypes. That’s exactly what we did, and I hope they like it.
The situation is a pure tragedy. You’re 25 and, for 10 minutes work, it’s €60,000. You take it. In the world we live in, with inequalities and this fucked-up relationship we have with money, for 10 minutes, you take it. It’s hard not to take it, but there are very few who actually take it, so we wanted to talk about that.

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