"He would never talk about his problems but it was impossible not to feel his anxiety," says young French director Mia Hansen-Love of producer Humbert Balsan, who she worked with on her debut feature, Tout Est Pardonne, winner of the prestigious Prix Louis Delluc in France last year.
Later this year, Hansen-Love hopes to begin production on her second feature, Le Pere De Mes Enfants. The $4m project, presented at Rotterdam's CineMart in January and being produced by Paris-based Les Films Pelleas, has already provoked curiosity among distributors and potential co-producers because of its subject. The film was inspired by the life of Balsan - a legendary figure in European arthouse cinema who committed suicide in 2005.
Hansen-Love met Balsan when he was on the jury of a film festival where one of her shorts was being shown. "When you want to make films, you need to be determined but lucky too. My luck was to have met (Balsan). He was a very unusual producer - a sensitive, courageous and determined man."
Hansen-Love had previously acted in such Olivier Assayas films as Fin Aout, Debut Septembres and Les Destinees Sentimentales. She was also established as a film critic at Cahiers Du Cinema. Even so, she credits Balsan with enabling her to kick-start Tout Est Pardonne.Balsan saw an article by Hansen-Love in Cahiers and summoned her to see if she had any feature ideas.
When Balsan died, he had spent around a year as producer on Tout Est Pardonne, a closely focused drama about a young father and would-be poet whose delinquency and drug addiction destroys his family. Some of the budget was in place and there were plans to shoot in the summer of 2005. Hansen-Love had to rush to find new producers.
David Thion of Les Films Pelleas, who took over, talks of "the huge impression" Hansen-Love made on him. "Sometimes, you can feel as a producer that the director is going to be someone important," he notes. "What struck me was her maturity. She was very calm."
On one level, Hansen-Love's new project (also being produced by Thion) is risky. However, the writer-director is at pains to explain her film is not a biopic of Balsan. It is a fictional drama about the last few weeks in the life of a producer before his suicide. "The main character is really inspired by (Balsan) but I knew nothing about his private life and I don't want to know," she says.
Balsan's widow has already given the film her blessing. Hansen-Love is now casting and hopes to begin production in the summer.
Like Truffaut, Rohmer and Godard, Hansen-Love is a critic turned film-maker. Working at Cahiers Du Cinema was, she suggests, an excellent apprenticeship. "It was much more my ideal than being in film school," she says. "But it didn't help me at all to find money. When you come from Cahiers, people think you're an intellectual and so you can't make films!"