With a Friend Like Harry
Interview with Dominik Moll
interview by Paula Nechak, 30 March 2001

Comparisons to Hitchcock, Chabrol, The Coen Brothers and George Sluizer might be enough to stultify any director. Especially when the film contrasted is your second feature after a first film -- "Intimacy" -- barely raised a pulse at the box office. Compound the contrasts with the fact that Paris-based, German-born writer and director Dominik Moll won the French Cesar Award for Best Director for the effort in question -- "Harry, He's Here to Help" (as well as prizes for Editing, Sound and Best Actor) -- and it all just might be enough to muster up a major anxiety attack from the pressure.

But Dominik Moll seems anything but anxious in person. Perhaps he has other outlets for life's headier moments. For instance, he drew his pensive and delicious psycholgical thriller from his own world, using it as a point of departure for what became "With A Friend Like Harry." it's the story of a young, hen-pecked writer named Michel (Laurent Lucas) who is straddled with a distracted, fed-up wife (Mathilde Seigner), three noisy, small daughters and a set of parents who refuse to butt out of his life. Michel is incapacitated by his passiveness until he coincidentally meets an old school friend named Harry (Lopez) on a disastrously hot summer's drive with his family. Harry is Michel's antipode, living an idyllic existence that includes a compliant and sexually-liberated fiancee named Plum (Sophie Guillemin), inherited wealth, a slick Mercedes instead of a perpetually broken down Peugeot -- and the ability to solve problems almost magically. What begins as a casual invitation for a drink out at Michel's ramshackle country house turns into something else entirely.

Harry may be Michel's Id, making the pains he is incapable of acting upon disappear by conveniently -- and gruesomely -- disposing of them. Or he may be real; perhaps he's just a nice guy trying to do a favor for a classmate fallen on hard times. Or -- just perhaps all those comparisons to Hitchcock are warranted after all...

Paula Nechak: Why has the film had a title change from "Harry, He's Here to Help" to "With A Friend Like Harry" for its U.S. release?

Dominik Moll: Miramax was not happy with the original title and they asked me if I'd mind their changing it. I gave them the okay as long as the new title was better. They suggested "With A Friend Like Harry," which I thought was very good though I didn't know the saying, "With a friend like that who needs enemies." I thought it worked.

PN: All articles I've read about you and the film feature some critic or writer comparing "With A Friend Like Harry" to some other director's work. So far I've counted Hitchcock, The Coen Brothers' "Blood Simple," Claude Chabrol and George Sluizer's "The Vanishing." It's an easy out on the part of the reviewer; a lazy way to get across a point. How do you feel about being continually compared instead of having your film gauged on its own merit and individual accomplishment?

DM: (Laughs) Granted, it's a bit strange. Of course when you make a film you'd like people to accept it for what it is and as your own work. But I don't know, I guess its natural for people to try and find comparisons. When they compare me to Hitchcock I'm flattered. It's a bit exaggerated, I mean he's [gesturing] up there and I'm down here somewhere. Some of the other comparisons I don't quite agree with. With Chabrol it's probably because he's also a French filmmaker and there are crimes in his films. But I think we're very different because he sets his movies in a very particular social strata, mostly bourgeoisie, the French province and it's more like a satire on those characters. His stories also stick firmly in reality where, for instance, with Hitchcock there's always another level that takes you someplace else. It's true that that is also something I try to do -- to have my films work on several levels.

PN: Now I'm going to shoot myself in the foot and make a comparison. I felt there was more literary influence to "With A Friend Like Harry." It unfolded like a novel, especially reminiscent of the novels of Patricia Highsmith who wrote the Tom Ripley series.

DM: You're right there. She has been an influence. I really like her novels and actually as I was writing the script I was re-reading her books; not to take things from her but to create a particular mood. I like her books because they often depict strange relationships where you don't really know what motivates the characters. Everything starts with day-to-day situations and little-by-little they glide into something really strange and you're in the middle of a frightening situation and you don't really know how you got there.

PN: Was it fun for you, as a filmmaker, to shoot in Cinemascope?

DM: It was the first time I used Cinemascope and at the beginning it wasn't easy to get accustomed to. It's really a strange format and if you've never handled it it takes time.

PN: Outside of the Freudian implications of the story -- Harry is an extension or wish-fulfillment of Michel -- how did you personally perceive Harry, especially in light of the fact that the film initiated out of your own life experience as a harried new parent?

DM: I started writing and initially saw Harry as a real person who existed essentially in opposition to Michel's life. He's everything Michel is not. Harry's life doesn't even look like real life, it's fictional, people dream of it but I don't know anybody with a life like that. So I created him in opposition to Michel and later, while I was in the middle of the process, I realized he could also be seen as the dark side of Michel on a metaphorical or psychological level. I tried to have it work both ways. My life always provides a point of departure but I think the most important thing is not to stick to it closely but to fictionalize it and take it somewhere else. I feel in my work the starting point will always be from me and my life and the questions I ask myself about that life.

PN: The casting of Sergi Lopez as Harry also contributes because as a Catala n, he's an outsider by heritage. It works very well in the context of Harry's role in the film. Plus another interesting element to the story is how all of the characters eventually desire what the other has. It may have been easy to make Harry a bad guy but in reality, he's far more sympathetic than the protagonist, Michel.

DM: Yes, he is, he is. He's very positive and he wants things and tries to get them where as Michel is very passive. Viewers always like active characters better than passive ones. What's also likeable about Harry is his sincerity in all he does, which is the main reason I cast Sergi Lopez. He really is well-intentioned and sincere.

PN: Do you view your own family differently after making the movie?

DM: (Laughs) It's difficult to say. I think it evolved with my life and also with the film. I know at the beginning when I had my children it was a strange thing. I think it's stranger for a man because he can't give birth to the child, you know? Suddenly there are children and they take all your time. I know for me, I couldn't say for the first year that I was full of happiness and joy though I love my children. But they are 4 and 6 now and I see it just took time to find my marks again and find where the good things are in that new life.

PN: How many people have told you the characters you created are them and that they wish they had a Harry?

DM: (Laughs) Quite a few have said they wished they had a Harry in their lives.

PN: You received BAFTA nominations and won the French Cesar for directing. Does winning an award as prestigious as that fuel your creativity or does it place pressure upon you to meet or exceed the honored effort? Does it feel like freedom or constriction?

DM: It's a little bit of both. Of course it puts on pressure because audiences and critics will await my next film. It's better not to disappoint. On the other hand, it's more stimulating than frightening because my first film had good reviews but didn't do well at all at the box office. It was strange because you ask yourself if you have legitimacy as a filmmaker. People ask me what's my job? When you've made only one film it's difficult to say 'I'm a film director.' So now that I've made a film that works and has found its audience I can tell myself, 'Yes, this is my job. Not only do I like doing it, I can make a living at it.' It's something quite comforting.



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