thomas bidegain jacques audiardThomas Bidegain, a longtime and close collaborator of Jacques Audiard, is a Cannes veteran — and yet this year he’s also a sort of neophyte. Bidegain has been in Competition twice for writing the screenplays of films directed by Audiard: Rust And Bone and A Prophet. Last year, he was here with Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent which he also wrote and which went on to be the French Foreign Language Oscar submission. The tables have turned somewhat and he’s now here, in Directors’ Fortnight, with his feature helming debut Les Cowboys. He’s also in Competition having written Audiard’s 2015 entry, Dheepan.

Les Cowboys, a modern-day tale that’s being compared to a French riff on John Ford’s classic, The Searchers, screened today to a warm reception. Bidegain recently told me he’d wanted to direct for a long time before finally jumping into the saddle. Working in close concert with those directors throughout the filmmaking process stoked his desire, but the key came from wanting to work with actors. “It’s fundamental, you can’t put that on the page. That’s what really interested me.” That, and “to tell stories with people — and not just with my computer.”

“I have very often had ideas for stories, but they were too close to what Jacques would do — his influence was too evident,” Bidegain tells me. So, in order to choose the project he would first direct, he took time to reflect after conceiving Les Cowboys. Ultimately, the decision was made that this one wouldn’t be a fit for his helmer friends. “I couldn’t propose it to either Bertrand or Jacques. It was my song and it was very important for me to sing it.”

Les Cowboys kicks off in the heart of France’s Country & Western-loving set where all is well until the 16-year-old daughter of a family goes missing. François Damiens, who has been known for lighter fare, plays the father who becomes obsessed with seeking out the runaway. John C. Reilly, who himself has three films in Cannes this year, later turns up as an Urdu-speaking bounty hunter in the film that spans continents.

Contrary to some auteurs, Bidegain says he never writes with particular people in mind for a part. “I think it reduces the character and the actor.” In casting Damiens, he says he “saw something in him that other people didn’t see. I needed a sort of John Wayne, someone very physical. Often French actors have a small build and I needed someone who could wear a cowboy hat.”

Of Reilly, he says, “I adore him and I find him all-American. He’s a rare actor who can do comedy and drama and be very touching. It curiously wasn’t hard to convince him. I sent an email and had no answer for a few weeks. Then he wrote me in August, saying, ‘As soon as I saw your email, I said of course I’m doing this!’” Reilly recently told me he jumped at the part and is keen to continue working with European filmmakers.

Bidegain credits Audiard with teaching him the directing ropes. “We’ve spoken every day for 10 years and written four films together. I learned a lot from him.” So much, that he has a hard time pinpointing something specific. But he offers that the method he and Audiard employ informed his work on Les Cowboys with his co-writer Noé Debré. “I asked him to do exactly what I do for Jacques. He took notes on the rushes and notes for the next day’s scenes. It’s hard to remember things while you’re doing them, so he would remind me.” Bidegain and Audiard keep a “B notebook” which holds extra scenes. “If they were in the script, they would weigh it down, but they’re also scenes that if we shoot them, we’ll be happy to have in the editing room… This little document nourishes the shoot. Debré did that for me.”

Although he’s been here before, coming to Cannes is still a new experience each time. “It’s always very important and emotional to unwrap the gift.” And, the jitters haven’t subsided. “There is a worry when you’re so close to a film for so long — you need feedback to know what it says to people. It’s really nice in Cannes because the opinions are very different and they’re coming from people who are interested in more than commerce.”

“Sometimes,” he laughs, “you don’t learn anything, but it’s always interesting.”

Bidegain isn’t only in the art-house game. Last year, he did an overhaul of the script for La Famille Bélier, a heartwarmer that also starred Damiens and which went on to be the No. 2 film at the 2014 French box office.

Bidegain says he isn’t sure what the future holds in terms of directing. “I would like to write for me and for others. I have a hard time considering directing a vocations. Jacques says screenwriting is a vocation, directing is a state of being.”