Director Sophie Barthes on Cold Souls and Her Spirit Awards Breakthrough


There are good years for a filmmaker, and then there are great years. Sophie Barthes' 2009 was an all-out great year, beginning with the premiere and acquisition of her feature debut Cold Souls at Sundance, followed by the critical acclaim that greeted her Paul Giamatti-plays-himself dark comedy upon its release last summer. Add a new baby and three Spirit Award nominations (including Best First Screenplay) to the mix, and Barthes has a considerably tough act to follow. But as she told Movieline in the days leading up to the Spirits, she's ready to get back to work -- even if it means contending with awards madness.

I remember talking to you when you were developing this film, and now here it is in contention for the Spirit Awards. Looking back on it, what's your take on how it came together, how it was received and where it is now?

The story of how it came together is really just beginner's luck. I met Paul, and it all just came together quickly. I was really lucky. And then the distribution and release of the film is another story that takes a long time. For a filmmaker -- or for me -- it's more interesting to make the film than to do all the promotion and the festival circuit. I like to keep writing. But it's been quite a journey. I'm very happy about what happened with the film and with the Spirit Awards. It's fun.

That's interesting, because your short film Happiness also went to something like 70 film festivals. How do you keep going?

I don't really feel like I have that much experience. It's my first film, and I've only done like three shorts before. I feel like I'm just really starting in the industry. Luckily I didn't go to all 70 festivals where the film was playing. That's the problem: You have to keep working and focusing and concentrating on the writing. It's very distracting, the whole launching of the film. It's your job; you also have to be there to support the film you've made. But I think there's also a lot of vanity and ego and all these other things. So I think it's good to be in the margins and just try to continue... See, the thing that's important is to work, and try to continue working whether you have success or you don't.

And yet you are nominated for an award. Do you think much of the awards culture in general and your place in it?

I think it's great for a young filmmaker who's starting out to get awards, because that's what allows you to make a second film and a third film. So yeah, it's very important. But not for my ego. It's nice that people consider your work, and that there might be a reward for that, and just that people have seen the film and liked it. That's always very nice for the filmmaker. But I think also you shouldn't focus too much on that but just on your humble, day-to-day life and work. There is this whole thing here about Oscars and awards and all these things. And of course it's important. but I think it's like the Olympics: It's more important to participate -- to make things -- than to just go to win things or for the awards.

I talked with Paul Giamatti last year about this film, and we weren't sure why the character in this film had to be "Paul Giamatti" -- why it couldn't be Paul Giamatti playing someone else. Why was that?

Well, it didn't have to be. We had different versions of the script, and we went back and forth before deciding that he should be called Paul Giamatti. I think it was just to play a sort of joke with the audience because we always think that we know actors. We see them on screen, and we tend to imagine they belong to us -- they're perfect personas. So it was just a way to play this joke with the audience. Is this the real Paul Giamatti? Is he as neurotic as he looks onscreen, or is he just an invention? That was the idea.


As a filmgoer, which of this year's Spirit Award and/or Oscar nominees are you particularly glad to see recognized?

I loved the Coen Brothers. A Serious Man. I saw it three times already. I love it. I thought the sense of humor and the intelligence of the script is incredible. I love all their movies, but I thought this one was particularly deserving of attention. I don't know what to think of the 10 nominations for Best Picture. It's kind of a strange mix of things that are super-commercial and independents. But the Oscars are always kind of strange.

You're a recent new mother, right? How's family life?

Yes! I have a baby. Six months old. It's been nuts. With the film release and the baby, it's been a crazy year. But that's the most amazing experience of my life -- being a mother.

How does the most amazing experience of your life impact your creative process?

Well, it does impact it, because all your brain cells go into the breast milk, you know? For six months I had no brain at all. You don't sleep, and then you're constantly watching this being developing. You couldn't even imagine what it is if you don't have a kid. I could never have imagined it would be such a transformation in my life. I'm just starting to write again. It took me a good five months to get back to reality. But it's nice, because I have a new sort of energy, and I'm looking forward to working again. In the beginning you can't even think straight. You're in a kind of strange haze all day long.

So what are you working on?

I'm adapting a book. It's still kind of confidential; I'm dealing with all the legal aspects of the option, so I can't really tell you the title. But it's a French book. It's a very dark story. It's not like Cold Souls. And it's a period piece; it takes place in the '60s. So I hope it'll work. If it doesn't work, I have a few other books I'm interested in, or I'll write an original story.

I'm surprised you went somewhere dark, especially under the circumstances of your break. Was it something you wanted to adapt prior to motherhood?

Yeah! Yeah, yeah. I've been interested in it for the last year. It's very melancholic; it has a darkness to it, but it's very poetic. I really like the tone and the melancholy of it. It's not a comedy at all. It's very different from Cold Souls. There's a little bit of humor, but mostly it's a drama. Heavy drama. I think it's nice to change. It's nice to not do the same things over again.