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Prickly? Not 'The Hedgehog's' director

French filmmaker Mona Achache is persuasive, however — a trait that came in handy when she was trying to make the movie.

August 22, 2011|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times

Mona Achache possesses the power of persuasion. The 30-year-old French filmmaker managed to persuade a seasoned producer to make her first feature film, the coming-of-age drama "The Hedgehog," which opened Friday in L.A., and persuade the author of the novel on which the film is based to grant her the rights to the book.

"She really has something," said producer Anne-Dominique Toussaint.

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"I met her when she was 26, and she was very talented. I had seen one of her short films she had done and I told her, 'I like your work, and if you have a good script or idea, I would like to produce you one day.'"

Achache took up Toussaint on her offer and brought her an original script. "It was very dark," Toussaint said. "I said, 'I don't want this story. If you find another story that is more light or more positive, I can do it.'"

So Achache, who began her film career in 2003 as assistant director to Michel Boujenah on "Pères et Fils," found the right property in Muriel Barbery's bestselling "The Elegance of a Hedgehog," about an 11-year-old girl, Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic), who, fed up with what she sees as the hypocrisy of adults, decides to commit suicide on her 12th birthday. That all changes, however, when she befriends Renée (Josiane Balasko), the building's grumpy concierge who is not exactly what she seems, and an elegant Japanese man (Togo Igawa) who moves into the building.

"I read the book and fell in love with the three characters," Achache said during a recent phone conversation via a translator.

So did Toussaint, who happened to be reading the book at the same time. But as the book became more successful, numerous producers and directors vied for the rights. "I was a bit pessimistic," said Toussaint. "Mona was 28. She had done only short films. But the publisher said the author is going to choose among all the offers she had. She wanted to meet Mona, and after the meeting, the author decides to give her the rights to it."

Book to film

Achache admits she had difficulty finding a way to make the novel's internal narrative work as a film.

"The book is very literary," said Achache. "Paloma writes a journal — she has an internal conversation throughout the book. I had to figure out how to find visual correspondences to make it interesting for the film."

The initial script didn't work. "She followed the book too much," said Toussaint. "The first draft was too conventional."

But her second attempt was the charm. Achache ditched the journal and had Paloma use her father's old camcorder to shoot her life and the lives of the denizens of the Art Deco Parisian apartment building.

"She found the right music, the right color for this film, which is a mix of humanity, humor," said Toussaint. "She can mix all of that to make something quite simple into a very rich affair. I think that is her talent."

Working with kids

Achache exhibits some of the same ability to work with children that famed French director François Truffaut displayed in such films as 1959's "The 400 Blows," 1970's "The Wild Child" and 1976's "Small Change."

"It's very natural to work with children," said Achache. "I have two children. My two short films are with children, and I made one documentary about children. I think maternity and children for me are a fascinating subject, and working with children is very easy, because we play with them when we direct them."

Before shooting began, Achache said she spent a lot of time working with the young actress about how to play Paloma — "the way to approach her, lowering her voice, how to interact with her glasses, these sort of things. So as we went along, I found that Garance started looking like me."

The comparison didn't go unnoticed. "I think Mona put a lot of herself in this character," said Toussaint.

susan.king@latimes.com

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