Waiting for the Oscars
As a boy, Jean de Meuron would rise in the dead of the European night to cheer the Academy Award recipients ascending gilded stages on the far side of the Atlantic. He relished this annual celebration of a world he deeply admired: he was a student of Hollywood history, a fan of Spielberg’s Indiana Jones, a dreamer gripped by the allure of the American entertainment industry.
So here he came, from Switzerland, in 2008, embedding himself in studies at the New York Film Academy, USC, UCLA and the New School; bunking down in internships at the Weinstein Company, MTV, Viacom International Media Networks and Paramount. He would go anywhere – New York City, Los Angeles, Mexico, Buenos Aires – as he produced student films and peppered executives with questions at every stop. He learned about marketing campaigns, about the importance of everything from color schemes to timing to creating effective trailers.
It was an immersive course in filmmaking and marketing, fueled by an unwavering vision of what his life ought to be. It was this resolute focus that led him to the 2012 Basel Gässli Film Festival in his native Switzerland, where he met a young director named Timo von Gunten, a preternatural talent whose work – the editing, framing, storytelling – echoed legendary Amelie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet. And it was his partnership with von Gunten, as executive producer (along with Bela Böke) on the short film La Femme et le TGV, that last month opened up the Oscars in a way de Meuron’s boyhood self would not have believed: live, at the event, as a nominee.
It would be the culmination of a lifelong ambition, the highest professional acknowledgement in one of the most prominent creative industries in the world. But like an artisan crafting a beautiful piece of furniture, a filmmaker does not spring wholly into the existence with the knowledge of his art, but learns it through a long apprenticeship. For de Meuron, his time at Paramount would prove crucial to plan, produce, edit and promote La Femme et le TGV.
A rich, nostalgic world
It helps to understand, first, what they have made, for an Oscar nomination is reserved for those things that are exceptional.
La Femme et le TGV is set in an idyllic mountain landscape pancaked with cliff bands in the green and field-dotted wilderness outside the impossibly quaint town of Monbijou, Switzerland. At the center of this world is Elise Lafontaine (Jane Birkin), and hammering through it in a shimmering streak of steel and noise is the twice-daily TGV high-speed train. Every day for 32 years, at 6:18 a.m. and again at 7:13 p.m. Lafontaine has leaned, Swiss flag waving, from the window for these joyous passings.
Hers is an otherwise mournful existence, dusty and analogue, a typewriter and rotary phone her primary modes of communication. Her only friend appears to be a bird that she straps to her antique bicycle for her daily commute into town, where she is proprietress of a moribund bakery. A swaggering young Lothario, whose dirt-peeling escapades incessantly disrupt her placid journeying, is her omnipresent foil. Her son, otherwise too busy with work to acknowledge her, is on a crusade to plant her in a nursing home.
It is while trimming her grass with a large push contraption (even her lawnmower is analogue), that Lafontaine’s story is upended. There, caught in her mower’s blades, she discovers a handwritten letter, tossed earthward by a passing TGV conductor.
“Dear Madame, I have been traveling past your house for many years, and every day, your waving fills me with joy on my lonely journey. Seeing you on my route feels like a ray of sun. I would like to say dearly: thank you. Best regards, Bruno Zubrist.”
A frantic correspondence begins. With handwritten notes and tossed rounds of gourmet cheese, Monsieur Zubrist becomes Lafontaine’s dashing buccaneer of the high-speed rail. Barreling through Europe at 300 kilometers per hour, the continent passes in a blur – “all except for you.” He has a taste not only for fine cheeses, but for Paris and photography. He asks about her life. She is rejuvenated.
Until, one day, the TGV does not appear. She is deeply rattled. She calls Swiss Railways, demanding answers. The train, it turns out, has been rerouted. Permanently.
Learning from the best
In the midst of his globetrotting quest to find his inner filmmaker, de Meuron landed a Paramount internship in 2014. It was an exciting time on the studio’s Hollywood lot, where the considerable energies of the international publicity and marketing departments were turned toward that summer’s premiere of Transformers: Age of Extinction. Immersed in this group, de Meuron absorbed how they orchestrated the timing, platform and audience for each part of the campaign, from teaser and trailer to posters and events. The film went on to earn more than $1 billion worldwide.
Those lessons stuck. Armed with this experience, de Meuron’s La Femme team – which was competing against 136 other short films for a spot in the coveted pool of five Oscar nominees – orchestrated a deft promotional campaign, strategically locking in a screening for Academy members on Nov. 3, a week before the unavoidable distractions of the U.S. presidential election.
It worked. Or, at least, as de Meuron learned in late January, the film earned the nomination, a moment that acted as a starting gun for a two-week lobbying period before Academy voting started on Feb. 13. Again, de Meuron’s Paramount experience informed his strategy, as he ran a nimble effort fueled by the sorts of guerilla marketing tactics that he credits in part to his experience with Paramount’s Vantage group, but on a fraction of the budget available to a large studio.
“At Paramount, I saw all the effort and the care with which each campaign was carried out, and it made me realize: you can have a good product, but you also need to be able to expose it and exhibit it,” de Meuron said. “It’s about how you can make your audience excited and intrigued by the story.”
There are probably very few places more suited for learning the art of filmmaking than Paramount’s Hollywood lot, a history-rich expanse that is the archival home of some of de Meuron’s deepest inspirations, including those beloved Indiana Jones movies and some of the work of JJ Abrams.
“I couldn’t believe it when I drove through the gates for the first time,” said de Meuron, who is now 31 and works independently out of Los Angeles. “As a boy from Switzerland, I remember watching the iconic mountain and stars fading into Paramount movies. I had the most wonderful experience at Paramount. I was like a sponge. From the moment I arrived, I was surrounded by amazing people like Jim White, Lisa Buch, Jordan Park Peed and Scott McPhail, and the entire international publicity and marketing teams. I wouldn’t be where I’m at with them without their guidance, help and support.”
More than two years later, with an Oscar nomination, he has returned to the lot to thank his Paramount mentors. He calls sharing the film with them a “very proud moment.”
It was a year after he had met von Gunten at the Basel Gässli Film Festival that La Femme et le TGV began to blossom from concept to final product, sparked, appropriately enough, by a missed train.
De Meuron and von Gunten were having dinner in Switzerland when the latter missed his train home to Zurich. De Meuron offered to drive him home. During the hour-long journey, von Gunten shared a story he had read in a Swiss tabloid about a woman, Sonja Schmid, the real life Elise Lafontaine, who had been waving to passing TGVs from her balcony for 16 years before the trains abruptly stopped. (You can read the original account of Sonja Schmid here – if you can read German, though Google Translator will give you a rough sense of what it says).
“He told me this story as we were driving, and he had every single shot laid out,” de Meuron recalls. “It was incredible to witness and I told him he had to send a script to me. When I read it, it took me only about a second to realize that this was something very special. The film really resonates with people because it’s about embracing values and it’s about nostalgia, loneliness and solitude, and it touches people a lot because it is very heartwarming and uplifting. And I think that’s why it was nominated, because people crave something uplifting and happy.”
De Meuron charged into the project alongside a crew that included Producer Giacun Caduff, immersing himself in pre-production, raising funds, tackling script development, and doing early publicity by peppering his industry contacts with teasers about the forthcoming film. His post-production work included editing, designing posters, overseeing the teaser and trailer, and blazing ahead with the marketing and publicity for the Oscar campaign, organizing screenings and designing the ads.
“We didn’t set out seeking an Oscar,” said de Meuron. “We wanted to make a great film and tell a great story. The rest fell into place, because people started to really respond and encouraged us to submit it. In the end, awards are wonderful, but I think you should define the success of your film on whether people have a response to the film. I think that’s beautiful too.”
La Femme et le TGV has been a regular on the festival circuit over the past year. The most up-to-date list is on the film’s website. See the full cast and crew here. More news and updates are available on the film’s Facebook page. You can download the film on iTunes.