Dimitri Rassam, Son of Cinema
Dimitri Rassam comes from one of the most powerful clans in French cinema, and as a film producer he is behind some of the country’s biggest commercial and critical hits
Photography by Jen Carey
Fashion by Tess Pisani
His mother, actor Carole Bouquet, needs no introduction. His father, Jean-Pierre Rassam, was a key figure in French cinema in the 1970s, a producer with the adventurous personality to rival Maurice Pialat, Jean Yanne and Jean-Luc Godard. His uncle, the discreet Paul Rassam, was the most American of French producers, whose credits include Apocalypse Now, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus, Dances with Wolves and Blue Velvet. Another uncle, Claude Berri, was the man behind some of the great French films of the 1980s and ’90s, both as director (Jean de Florette and others) and producer (L’Ours [The Bear], Tess). His cousin Thomas Langmann won the Oscar for Best Film for The Artist. In short, Dimitri Rassam, born into one of the greatest dynasties of French cinema, has a lot to live up to. Such a heritage might be a burden when it comes to standing on one’s own two feet, but Rassam has been proving just the opposite since he began producing films 15 years ago.
He found his way to success by regularly producing such high-end popular films as Le Prénom (What’s in a Name?), Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) and Papa ou Maman (Daddy or Mommy). In 2023, he broke new ground with an adaptation of Les Trois Mousquetaires (The Three Musketeers). The most ambitious French film to appear in recent times, it has a prestigious cast that includes François Civil, Vincent Cassel, Louis Garrel, Eva Green, Lyna Khoudri and Vicky Krieps. The first film in the two-part “fresco,” D’Artagnan, was a public and critical success. As the second part, Milady, was being readied for the silver screen, we met up with this filmmaking force to find out more about his career.
THIERRY CHÈZE When you grow up in a family like yours, do you ever imagine yourself working in any other profession than cinema?
DIMITRI RASSAM I wasn’t obsessed with the cinema when I was growing up, but since I had the chance to immerse myself in that world even before I understood what it was all about, it seemed like a playground to me, and I automatically felt very much at home in it. Beyond what my parents passed on to me, I’ve always loved watching movies, many of which have marked me for life: Indiana Jones, Cyrano de Bergerac and, most of all, The Bear. When I finished high school, I decided to try my hand at working in the film industry because, deep down, I didn’t want to do anything else. But it was really not planned in advance.
T.C. Did you spend a lot of time on movie sets as a child?
D.R. No, not really. My mother mostly protected me from that world. I have more memories of being in locations like Belgrade for Bunker Palace Hotel. But what I remember most from my childhood are the summers I spent between the ages of 10 and 14 in Napa Valley with Francis Ford Coppola. I remember conversations with him and the producer Mario Kassar [Rambo, etc.], a great friend of my uncle Paul. It wasn’t until years later that I connected with the films they had made!
T.C. You’ve always worked in production. Did you ever think about being an actor, director or screenwriter?
D.R. Never an actor. I’m open to the idea of being a screenwriter or director in the future. In any case, I’ve always thought of myself as working only behind the camera.
T.C. You chose to learn to be a producer on the job, without studying first. Why?
D.R. Because I wanted to get in on the action right away. I started by working in management on Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s Bon Voyage, where I met Martin Bourboulon, who was working as an assistant director. It took four years from the time I decided to become a producer, when I was 18, to the time I really was one. I took advantage of that time to work for Thomas Langmann’s production company, La Petite Reine, in Swiss Army knife mode, in response to his injunction to stop talking and start doing. It was a fascinating experience: although I was vaguely involved in marketing, I had almost unfettered access to all of the company’s activity.
T.C. You had already set up your own company, Chapter 2, at the time?
D.R. Yes, and every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, I’d go to the L’agence du Court Métrage to watch films. I was looking for young talents to produce. That’s when I came across Before, Nicolas Bary’s second short film, and decided to produce the next one, Judas, in 2006, followed by his first feature, which also marked my debut in the format: Les Enfants de Timpelbach [Trouble at Timpetill].
T.C. Is it fair to say that you were off to a strong start with a €15 million film?
D.R. It’s a good thing I didn’t fully understand the risk I was taking; otherwise I wouldn’t have done it. It was a costume film with children as the main characters and lots of exterior shots. But I wanted a project that would illustrate a certain desire to break from the ordinary. Nicolas’s playful world contrasted with what was happening in French cinema at the time, Jean-Pierre Jeunet aside. I learned a lot from that project. I understood that a film is a pact and that producing one is a very special exercise in which you fantasize about something before coming up against a wall of budgetary reality. It’s an unspoken rule: whatever your film’s budget, there’s never enough money for what you want to do. Otherwise, the filmmaker or producer’s vision is not strong enough.
T.C. How would you define your job?
D.R. It’s not just about financing but about protecting a vision. That means taking risks and refusing to compromise. But you only learn over time. So, in the beginning, all that really mattered to me was getting films made, without having the necessary distance to take charge of what was done with them once we had the means. Only in France do producers finance and produce films, two distinct professions. I was able to finance films fairly quickly, but it took me longer to learn how to produce, to help someone with the creative process, share their vision and assemble a team that could do the same.
T.C. Does that explain your desire to be a long-term collaborator with the writing/directing team of Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre de la Patellière and with the director Martin Bourboulon?
D.R. Yes, because together we can work on increasingly ambitious projects. With Martin, we’re making 13 jours, 13 nuits dans l’enfer de Kaboul [13 Days and 13 Nights in the Hell of Kabul], which is about the exfiltration of the French Embassy and the local population when the Taliban arrived. With Matthieu and Alexandre, we’re shooting Le Comte de Monte-Cristo [The Count of Monte Cristo]. Those two projects of insane scope can only be made in the context of mutual trust, with the pooling of skills and a common approach to all the monstrous problems involved in bringing them to life.
T.C. And to take them into worlds that are, on paper, far from their own: Delaporte-de la Patellière from What’s in a Name? to Monte Cristo, Martin Bourboulon from Daddy or Mommy to The Three Musketeers.
D.R. The competitive spirit among us makes us each other’s first viewers. When I talk to them about a project, I’m very attentive to their spontaneous reaction: does it trigger desire? And they do the same with me. What I like about this job is fantasizing about something and then leaving room for the person who takes it on to enrich it. I think we’re living at a time when people once again expect a very high level of ambition from a film, and I take great pleasure in arousing that desire.
T.C. Was the box-office success of What’s in a Name? the turning point in your company’s history?
D.R. Yes, but that was also the year of my first complicated film: Escobar: Paradise Lost, with Benicio Del Toro. Those two films laid the foundations for the rest of my career. They made me realize that even if miracles can happen on the set, if you don’t choose wisely at certain moments in the preparation and casting, correcting mistakes is almost impossible. What’s in a Name? gave me a foundation but, most of all, a desire for further successes. At the time, I thought we’d have them every year. I soon realized that it’s more an exception than a rule. [Laughs]
T.C. And yet, you soon scored again with The Little Prince, your first foray into animation.
D.R. Thanks to that film, I learned to free myself from technical constraints. The only thing that differentiates American animation from French animation is the production process. They allow themselves to shoot the equivalent of three films to make just one. And they have the freedom to refine it at every stage and in every area. I tried it out with The Little Prince, and even though you can’t strictly apply this method to a live-action film, you can draw inspiration from it. To come back to what I was saying earlier, just because you’ve got the financing doesn’t mean that everything is set in stone. You have to keep questioning what you’re going to say to live up to the promise. At the same time, you have to reassure those making the film. It’s a fine line that’s tricky to manage.
T.C. Did the fact that you are from a real film family put any pressure on you?
D.R. No, because I was surrounded by kind people who never put me in that position. I can understand how it might make some people nervous, but in my case, it galvanized me! What’s hard is making films and seeing how they are received, not living with my own name. For me, the worst thing is not failure but indifference: to spend several years working on a project that provokes no reaction, positive or negative. In any case, I’ve never worried about disappointing my family, and nobody in my family has ever made me feel that if I screw up, I’ll disappoint them.
T.C. Are you feeling the pressure ahead of the release of the second part of The Three Musketeers?
D.R. I’d be lying if I said we weren’t nervous.
T.C. After The Three Musketeers, does tackling Monte Cristo mean you want to tell the story of certain types of French heroes?
D.R. No, it’s more a desire to create frescoes. Apart from Alexandre Dumas and a continuity of production philosophy, there’s basically no connection between Monte Cristo and The Musketeers. The stakes are different. The time periods are different. But it’s true that I am reconnecting with the cinema I grew up with – Claude Berri’s productions, Jean de Florette, The Bear – not to mention the comedies I’ve made and enjoyed. But my desire right now is to make the kinds of films that made me want to be a producer in the first place. That’s why I was a bit nervous when D’Artagnan came out. I was hoping it would be a success so I could continue to make the types of movies that give me such pleasure!
This interview was published in Mastermind 14, available for purchase here.