It Took A French Director To Create Amazon’s ‘I Love America’
As streaming platforms increasingly go after international audiences, following the success of projects such as Squid Game, Amazon’s Prime Video has been increasing its French output. That includes a film debuting this week, I Love America, about a woman who moves from France to Los Angeles.
Writer/director Lisa Azuelos based it on her life, with famed French actress Sophie Marceau portraying “Lisa.” Crossing continents, the movie has characters split between speaking French and English.
In the movie, Lisa faces the death of her mother shortly after she comes to L.A — but after a trip back to France, she continues with her new American life, processing it in the background. The movie is based on Azuelos’ experiences when she moved to the United States herself. She described the film as being written inside her before she literally wrote it out.
“It’s super close [to my life experiences]. Honestly, I didn’t try to make a border between my life and the movie,” Azuelos told LAist. “All of my movies are about my life and what happens to me. And I’m trying to fictionalize a little bit to have more layers, or more humor — but basically, this is what happens to me.”
The film uses a combination of tones not seen as frequently in American films, covering comedy, slice-of-life drama, intimate relationships and more.
“Comedians can be so freaking funny, saying horrible, terrible, sad things,” Azuelos said. “You never laugh as much as at a funeral, and you never cry as much as at a wedding … So as much tone as I can have in a movie, [that’s] as much as I enjoy the movie. For people, sometimes it’s more comfortable to be driven in one zone or another, but I like to mix them all.”
Lisa’s Los Angeles
I Love America is a tribute to L.A., Hollywood movies and disco, according to Marceau.
“For her, L.A. is like a second mother,” Marceau said. “We wanted to show American people how French people see L.A. It’s still the California Dream, as we say — the light is spectacular, the beauty of the geography, and it’s a very specific place.”
The movie brings an outsider’s perspective to the city, exploring both everyday experiences and perceptions of what Los Angeles is. Actor Colin Woodell, who plays Lisa’s love interest, John, was struck by some of the specifics Azuelos writes about in the film.
“When reading it, I felt like, Oh god, no, don’t expose that part of it — like your Uber driver telling you that he has an audition the next day,” Woodell said. “[Things] that you can’t experience anywhere else but L.A. You’re like, God, I’ve gotta drive with this guy from Santa Monica to Silver Lake.”
He worried about the use of some familiar locations in the film, such as the Santa Monica Pier, but found that they were all presented without falling into the stereotypical versions of those places.
“It actually made me, as someone who’s lived in Los Angeles for eight years, actually re-appreciate all these things that we have at our disposal,” Woodell said. “Because it’s truly a magical place.”
How American Movies Indoctrinated Lisa Azuelos
Azuelos’ love for the United States — and specifically Los Angeles — comes largely from our pop culture. She has a deep love for American movies, which became a security blanket for her throughout a childhood often spent alone.
It started with the first movie Azuelos saw growing up, Gone With The Wind, followed by the second one, the Academy Award-winning The Deer Hunter.
“Suddenly I craved American movies — I was watching everything,” Azuelos said. “I was going to the movies two or three times a week. And I’ve been very lucky to be at a specific moment between the '70s, the '80s and the '90s, where the American movies were so incredibly fresh and different and well done, compared to French movies, which sometimes felt a little bit less interesting for me.”
She sees her movie as a way of saying thank you.
“Usually, French people love to say, Ah, we don’t love America, and to be very judgmental about this culture,” Azuelos said. “This movie is like my gift back to this culture — because it fed me so much more than the French culture.”
Lisa’s personal arc includes meeting a younger man on a dating app. That part is played by Woodell, who recently co-starred in the first season of HBO Max’s The Flight Attendant. After spending time in the mind of a killer on that show, he was ready to try on a romantic role.
Woodell was reluctant to do I Love America at first, wondering why he was being sent this script when he doesn’t speak French. But after reading it and watching some of Azuelos’ films, he was excited to be cast.
The depiction of Lisa and John’s relationship also included Marceau and Woodell filming a sex scene on his first day on set.
“Is it a torture mechanism? They say it’s scheduling, but I don’t really know if that’s true,” Woodell joked.
That meant showing up to a French set and facing language and cultural differences — such as many of those on set smoking, according to Marceau — while also getting familiar with an intimate scene partner. It was a great learning experience, Woodell said, figuring out how to communicate his own wants and needs as an actor with this French crew.
“I was incredibly fearful of overstepping boundaries, and there is a difference in terms of comfortability when it comes to being nude in front of a crew between French and Americans,” Woodell said. “There’s a lot more guidelines for the Americans than there are for the French.”
“I think everyone was very happy to see a handsome, beautiful American actor on the set,” Marceau said. “We just met, we hugged to make sure that we touched each other.”
While the scenes include sex, Marceau noted, they were scenes about these characters discovering each other emotionally and as people. That included talking, laughing and being stupid together, she said.
Woodell’s one big regret: not learning at least a little French as part of the experience.
“Thank God the movie’s called I Love America, because I think I got a lot more sympathy,” Woodell said.
Disco And Quantum Physics
A recurring motif in the film is the power of disco music, inspired by Azuelos' own love of the genre ever since Saturday Night Fever came out. The disco ball itself becomes a jumping-off point for reality-breaking moments, even being used to weave in a discussion of quantum physics, as the ball’s small mirrors reflect surreal images.
“I see the disco ball — it looks like the Earth,” Azuelos said. “It has many, many different mirrors — and the Earth is a mirror, in a way, and our lives are different mirrors.”
This is the second film in which Azuelos has tried exploring quantum mechanics through her own filmmaking, but she feels that Christopher Nolan has done it better in his senses-shattering films. Still, she’s hoping to bring the Nolan sense of sci-fi interconnectedness — as seen in movies such as Interstellar — and do it in a romantic comedy.
Azuelos wants to keep pursuing that love of disco on screen — she’s planning to make a film inspired by Disco Demolition Night at a 1979 Chicago White Sox baseball game, where people chanted “Disco sucks” and destroyed records after the height of that music genre.
Constructing I Love America
Ultimately, according to Azuelos, her movie is an exploration of forgiveness. Lisa forgives her parents for the way she was raised, with the real-life death of Azuelos’ mother letting her explore things she’d never been able to.
“The goal of this movie is really what she says at the end — that forgiveness doesn’t change the past, it transforms it,” Azuelos said. “It means that a relationship doesn’t end because the person is dead, or because the person ran away. Relationship is something that you have inside of yourself.”
Marceau had also recently lost her own mom, which Azuelos said helped the actress bring far more to the role and how she played the death of her character's mother.
“There is something in you that loves your mom, whether you want it or not,” Azuelos said. “And when she disappears, only love stays. You can choose to stay connected with the hate, or the resentment, or all these things, but I was absolutely touched by the love of my mom when she died. And I didn’t feel any regrets that we couldn’t experience this when she was alive, because I know in her own way she did her best, and in my own way, I did my best.”
Marceau and Azuelos have worked together several times, which Marceau said allowed them to rely on each other.
“It’s a very sensitive subject. But that’s the main pact, the deal that actors and directors have to make to start with — it’s to trust each other,” Marceau said. “It doesn’t mean falling in love or to agree on everything … but it’s to trust the person that’s going to incarnate your character, and the person who’s going to shoot you and film you, and the person you’re going to open your heart to.”
You can watch Marceau playing her own writer/director Lisa Azuelos in I Love America, which premieres on Prime Video this Friday.