For a documentary that has won numerous awards and enters the Oscar homestretch a strong contender, Faces Places began modestly enough.
“We didn’t aim big at the beginning, we aimed to just work together and do it on a scale that would be small enough that it would be no pressure and we could have fun,” co-director JR tells Deadline. “I was like, ‘Why don’t we do a three-minute video and just put it on YouTube?’”
That proposed small-scale collaboration with French New Wave legend Agnès Varda would become a 69-minute film that has charmed viewers with a tone by turns whimsical and poignant. The cinematic odd couple—she in her 80s, he in his 30s—spend the film perambulating through rural France in a succession of warm encounters with ordinary people.
Varda views their journey partly in terms of social science.
“It’s [an idea] of documentary which is like being a sociologist but not as a teacher—sociologist as a friend. I say it as a ‘smiling sociologist,’” she explains by phone from Paris. “It’s clear that the film has been noticed, and here we are.”
What has also been noticed is the touching bond between the co-directors, despite the age gap. As an artist, one of JR’s longtime fascinations has been elderly people—he has photographed them around the world for a series he calls “Wrinkles of the City.” Varda alluded to that when they first met.
“Agnès said, ‘I know all your projects and you’re going to like me because look at my [wrinkled] hand…You don’t have to go to Cuba or to Spain or to China [to photograph people]. I’m right here!’” JR recalls, adding, “We really forgot about the age difference from the beginning because we would talk about making film…We were just two filmmakers and artists trying to create together.”
As they rambled across France in a van equipped with a photo studio, they took pictures of the people they met, printed the images in large scale and pasted them onto walls, railcars and other broad surfaces.
JR took a page from that book when the Oscar Luncheon rolled around earlier this month. Varda elected not to cross the Atlantic for the occasion.
“It’s a 10-hour flight to come for the lunch,” she declares. “No way!”
Not content to attend the luncheon without his friend and co-director, JR took a couple of pictures of Varda in Paris, including one of her with her cat, and then while on business in San Francisco, he turned them into life-size cardboard cutouts.
“I didn’t want to print it in Los Angeles and just grab it the day of the lunch. So by having it done in San Francisco, I had to travel with her in the plane. And I didn’t want to fold her, so then began the journey of trying to go with cardboard the size of a human through security, through check-in,” he says, recalling that airport and airline personnel proved remarkably accommodating.
“They all wanted to dream with me and give her a seat and take photos with her,” he marvels.
But once at the luncheon at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, Academy officials initially told him cardboard Agnès couldn’t appear in the Oscar class photo.
“I told them, ‘Look, Agnès is 89 years old. She’s never been nominated her whole life. It’s the Oscars’ 90th anniversary, she cannot not be in this picture,’” he remembers insisting. The Academy relented and two-dimensional Agnès became something of the life of the party.
“Meryl Streep and Greta Gerwig and Steven Spielberg held her, and then she was part of the whole thing,” JR says.
Back in Paris, Varda got a kick out of JR’s beau geste.
“It’s mini-Agnès. Very flat. Thinner than me,” she laughs. “Look, it’s a gag, it’s a nice joke, but it means that he feels that we really made the film together. It’s reality, but it’s imagination that’s put on reality.”
On the Oscar red carpet the pair will be reunited, and this time Varda will not appear in cardboard form.
“I wouldn’t accept JR going alone. We’ll both go,” Varda affirms. “We’ll laugh, whatever happens.”
JR, too, says he’s looking forward to the Oscars.
“We are already going there, so happy that we can be there together. To do it with her is something that I’ll never forget,” he shares. “So I’m going to enjoy every second of this moment, because I’ll be with her.”