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Shane Atkinson, humble disciple of the Coen brothers

“I’m not a great conversationalist.

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Shane Atkinson, humble disciple of the Coen brothers

“I’m not a great conversationalist. But all the compliments I receive in Deauville go straight to my heart even if they leave me speechless,” Californian director Shane Atkinson apologized last September during the American Film Festival. The thirty-year-old, in a simple vacationer's t-shirt and straw hat to face the Normandy heatwave, seemed overwhelmed by the enthusiasm aroused by his first film, LaRoy. “I blush at the very generous references to the Coen brothers. It's intimidating. They are so talented! No one comes close to matching them. It's like comparing a musician to the Beatles. The Coens were a big source of inspiration, especially their first feature film, Blood for Blood: few resources, a handful of characters and settings. He was my role model.”

Despite his protests, his gripping thriller about a suicidal cuckold mistaken for a hitman and deciding to play a misunderstanding won a rare hat-trick in Deauville: grand jury prize, audience prize and critics' prize. Quite a comeback: LaRoy emerged from a moment of depression and frustration. “For ten years, I fought to put together another feature film project. Several times, we reached the goal before losing funding at the last moment. I needed to develop something new, where I could inject my sense of humor. Just for me,” recalls this graduate of Columbia University in New York.

If Shane Atkinson had co-signed the screenplay for the senior “cheerleader” comedy Pom Pom Ladies in 2019, with Diane Keaton, this time he is venturing towards the genre that has fascinated him since childhood: detective stories and of crime. The creators of the iconic private detectives Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade have his preference: “I grew up near San Francisco in a chaotic family of six children. I devoured the new pulps, the novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

Also read: Jesse Eisenberg in Deauville: “I have a lot of admiration for Woody Allen”

A photograph of a man in a suit, decked out in a cowboy hat and a string tie, inspires the character of Skip, the former classmate turned bloodhound with whom the hero Ray forms an alliance. “This look seemed so improbable and uncomfortable!”, wonders Shane Atkinson. Ray, this loser whom life has continually demeaned and who, by a twist of fate, slips into the clothes of a killer and discovers another level of stature, came naturally to him. “Unlike Aaron Sorkin, who crafts intelligent, competent protagonists, like in The Social Network, crafting likable, unlucky losers is more up my alley. It’s closer to me,” confides the filmmaker.

A portrait of a funny friendship, LaRoy is also funny behind the camera. Script in hand (it will be little edited), and encouraged by his wife, who is his first reader, Shane Atkinson contacts the producer Sébastien Aubert. The Frenchman is distributing his two short films, Penny Dreadful, crowned in Clermont-Ferrand in 2013, and The Ambassador, filmed in 2017 on the Côte d'Azur. Seduced by the “sincerity of this comedy”, Sébastien Aubert commits without hesitation. Filming in twenty-two days is a sprint. A grant of 50,000 euros won at the Wrocław Festival, in Poland, made it possible to complete post-production at the last minute.

Shane Atkinson recreates in New Mexico a small imaginary Texan town that resembles so many others in the state: dusty, with old houses, rundown motels and diners... A town where everyone recognizes themselves. “We didn’t have time for big rehearsals. Our wonderful actors understood that LaRoy could only work if we played all these situations seriously. No question of making fun, of winking at the camera, no insolence,” emphasizes Shane Atkinson, who cites the absurdity and darkness of Martin McDonagh (The Banshees of Inisherin). It is this mixture of seriousness, dark humor and comedy that Shane Atkinson infuses into his new project: a horror film. Touched by the welcome given to LaRoy in France, he would also like to one day be able to film in France.

The Note of Figaro: 3/4

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