I love the work of Michel and Nico. I first became aware of them in 2017 when their first ever commercial work launched for Gillette - disclaimer: it was amazing and we spoke all about it here. I don't want to drum on too much about the past but I'm maybe a little biased whenever I see a new piece of work of theirs.
Anyway, I recently did see a new piece of work of theirs and WHAT A PIECE IT IS. It's a four-minute film that isn't for a brand. Really it's a four-minute masterclass (in my eyes, anyway) in parenting. Inspired by their sons' respective addiction to video games and lack of concentration, they challenged the pair of them - both eight years old and good friends - to spend an entire month without any screens, and they would capture it on film. But there was a catch. The boys - Sacha and Robinson - could do whatever they wanted. Whatever their hearts desired, their dads would sort it.
The entire thing is an absolute joy to behold and will bring positivity to whatever part of your day or week or month that you are reading this in.
I spoke with Michel to find out more.
LBB> Tell us about your boys! Are they good pals with each other? What are they like?
Michel> They are good pals for sure, really close friends. I mean, I am best friends with my brother, so Sacha and Rob are used to being together a lot - it’s a deeper level than just simple cousins. Our parents have fun seeing in them what we were like as kids.
As you can see in the film they are really different Mine (Sacha the blonde) is brave but shy, deeply in love with sport and competition but always doubting his abilities. Nico’s Rob is the opposite of a shy boy, really positive and fun - sometimes too fun with somewhat a lack of concentration. He is the one who talks easily. And that’s what makes a great duo. They never deal with activities in the same way, and we knew they wouldn’t have the same ideas (going to surf, motocross, etc. for Sacha and playing with firebombs, meeting firefighters for Rob). Their difference and friendship is the key here.
LBB> What inspired this challenge? What kind of habits do you see in their use of screens?
Michel> At first our goal was absolutely not about making a film from this idea. I mean, my son plays video games like many kids, I play with him, we watch movies, TV shows, etc., and we love that. I never had a real problem with screens but, to me, Fortnite created a new problem, a real one this time. I was OK for Sacha to play sometimes as every friend he has at school is playing Fortnite and I found it fun that he was already playing online. My first feeling was, OK, that’s modern life!
But addiction came really quick - and I use that word because that is exactly what it was, he was an addict. Nothing was as important as Fortnite, watching a movie with us was less interesting, playing football was less engaging, going outside was less surprising, etc. I mean everything was about this fucking game and, I promise, he was not a regular player. I understood fast he was not only playing with his friends online, but people we didn’t know - and at eight it was not acceptable. Shame on me.
So to me it was about this game, finding a way to open his mind. I am OK with passion but not with addiction. Nico’s son Rob is a bit different in the way he uses screens, he’s not as addicted to video games. But as a kid he can really easily spend time staring at nothing on YouTube or the iPad. Rob is a kid who can lose focus easily, he’s a really active kid, sometimes too much. So real activities are better than lazy ones for him.
LBB> So it was observing their habits that came first, instead of the desire to make a film?
Michel> The idea was not about a film first but about finding a way to open their minds, I believe this is every parent’s purpose. The right thing to do was to spend time with them. I mean, it’s simple and obvious that it’s all our fault first and foremost and we know it. As adults, our time is precious and screens can help us in winning some freedom at home, at a restaurant, in the car, even on holidays. An iPad or a Nintendo Switch is your best friend but honestly, that’s not the right thing to do.
Nico told me about the film concept one day because his daughter did it for some days at school and I thought it was a brilliant idea - and maybe a bit hypocrite here because we say ‘no screen’ and then we do a film. But we don’t want to say ‘screens are evil with this video’, that’s absolutely not the purpose. With the right use, screens are amazing. You can learn, you can be entertained, you can help and be helped, you can communicate everywhere, and you can show positive things as we’ve tried to do here. But they can’t replace life, true life, true friends, true experiences, true love, true friendship, true family connections. Everything is about finding the right balance and I believe that’s what this little film is about.
Sacha and Rob did a BBC film with us last year, for budget reasons, and we shot two scenes with them in France. They really enjoyed that so we knew that they enjoyed acting because it was the possibility of spending more time with us. It was a win, win - we had great dedicated actors helping us to complete our film and they were able to spend more time with their busy dads.
So this idea for this new film came from there too. They wanted to act more because they felt they were good at something. Winning confidence for an eight-year-old kid means everything. And so making a film was more than an excuse - it was about challenging them more, challenging my son to not be shy on camera, and challenging Rob to focus on shooting.
LBB> How did you pitch the idea to them? How did that conversation go and what was their reaction like?
Michel> The reaction you see on screen at the beginning is real and honest. Even if we exaggerated the challenge a bit in our own words - we originally told them ‘no screen’, but replaced by tons of homework or different things that weren’t fun, so you can understand why they are so upset.
We told them some weeks before about a film project (without telling them the subject) and they were really excited, so shooting and showing the frustration at the beginning was the most challenging. Honestly, while seeing us with the camera, they were really excited to discover things and spend time with us because they love being filmed and they love seeing themselves in the final product. But we needed to show them frustrated, because yes, frustration was real, especially for Sacha. I told you that he was an addict, and the first days without his video game dose were painful - so it was a mix of both, frustration and excitement at the same level.
What you see is real. The day after that we told them the real concept, telling them that anything they wanted to do we were in. And that’s the conversation they have in the second part: “I am always worried - we can trust them”, and this trust was an honest one.
LBB> From a production standpoint, how do you plan for a production like this? What were your main aims and ambitions? How did you want this film to feel for the viewer? And why?
Michel> Nothing was challenging about the production as we were free and had freedom and time - those are the two main words that don’t really exist in advertising. No client, no expectation - just us. But on the other hand everything was challenging because we had no money except one small part of our holiday budget. We wanted something real but beautiful - and beauty in cinema costs money! I mean, it’s a commitment we must have with the people we work with and the companies that represent us. If we create something we need to make it good enough for them to be proud to rep us - even if it’s personal and not commissioned at all we need to work on it in the most professional and dedicated way.
There are no rental services where we live and we needed gear for 30 days, which can be really expensive. We have some Lumix cameras but we wanted to up the quality a bit. Fortunately Blackmagic launched a pocket camera last year with an amazing vintage look quality for such a low price. Not everything is perfect as we had no proper lights - 50 euro per lense - and we were both directors, DOPs, focus pullers, gaffers, perchmen - and fathers! - at the same time.
The main goal for us was to let the kids be free to create most of the time, but at the end we got better footage than we expected. We learned so much from shooting commercials and working with talented crew so we tried to reproduce everything we saw on set - just the two of us. I love the quote from Robert Rodriguez: “If you’re creative, you’ll always have to rely on technical people. If you’re creative and technical, you’re unstoppable.” It illustrates what we are trying to do. It’s just the beginning, we’re still in the learning process, but we learn fast.
Our main ambition was to have them living as we did when we were young, where everything was easier. I remember spending days outside with no phone, so no contact with my parents. I lived real life adventure with my bro and friends. Today we are afraid of that, we always need visual contact with our kids and so they lose confidence, they lose identity, they lose passion.
Everything we do needs to feel positive to the viewer because this is our identity as filmmakers. We don’t want to say screens are bad, we just want to say, life is great, adventures are amazing, friendship is wonderful, kids are awesome. There are enough bad vibes everywhere, we just want to be on the good side. Some will probably find this simple and naive but I don’t care. The only goal with this is to put some smiles on faces. I think it was good for all four of us. I loved spending time with them. We’ve got so much great feedback, the best being ‘I need to do this with my kids’. I love to read that, it proves that we have a responsibility as directors - even for small ones like us, what we do can be important. Even if it’s important for just one person, it’s a success.
Everything we do need to feel positive for the viewer, because this is our identity as filmmakers. We don’t want to say, screens are bad, not at all - we just want to say, life is great, adventures are amazing, friendship is wonderful, kids are awesome…
LBB> How did you decide what they could do in those 30 days? Tell us what you and they got up to in that time! It looks wild.
Michel> We told them everything was possible - no filters. You could think that it’s a risk for us, but not at all. They are only eight years old and we knew that they weren’t going to ask to go to Las Vegas for example! They are kids and simplicity is what we lose when we grow up. They've got really simple things in mind, if we observe them in their freedom, they can play for hours with just two sticks and live amazing adventures. This is exactly what we love and what we were looking for, but at the same time helping them to reach a bit more scale.
Their first wish was to go to the beach with us, only that. I mean, we live in a beach city, and this is something I do rarely with my son! Shame on me. Playing football, cycling in the forest, chilling… the 10 first days are about that. We filmed a bit and spent time together, all four of us. Somehow it was like rehab for everyone.
Then we pushed them to have more imagination and desire! A bit more kid ambition - even if we had big budget limitations we were always keen. We asked them to take a notebook and write everything about their dreams and passions. I discovered my son wanted to surf and Nico organised meetings with firefighters before his son asked because he knew it would come up.
And little by little the brainstorming worked. My son came one day with a proper script on a blank page called ‘The Astronauts’, describing the tiny scene you see on screen, nothing more. He knew it was not possible to go on a real spaceship, but said to me, ‘we can imagine a fake one because cinema is always fake’, same for cops, knights and many characters we don’t show here! I said that Nico’s son’s dream was to meet real firefighters, so they never expected to be real ones for one day. And what you see is just a few seconds in one full dream day!
When the process started we were ok with everything and so today they’ve got new ideas like going in a Formula 1 car, helping the homeless or meeting Mbappé and Ronaldo because they understood we were keen to find a way for everything. But at first they asked nothing and were a bit bored. The experience took 30 days but what you see in the film mostly takes place in the last 15 days when the addiction is gone and their minds were ready to enjoy, ask and create. But everything comes from them, 100% - farming, fishing, exploring, flying, and everything in between. We were only the directors, they were the creatives.
LBB> Did they play with dynamite?!
Michel> Haha! No it’s not real dynamite. My son called it that - the magic of good acting and sound design gives that feeling. These fire bomb explosions were a bit disappointing to be honest, and the kids never used fire, Nico did. But they were both, one morning, in the middle of nowhere, in a sort of desert in the north of Spain playing with their fathers and firebombs. Nothing was better, even for us.
LBB> It starts almost like a trailer for a horror movie before descending into unadulterated fun - was that your intention or is that just how the narrative went?
Michel> We follow what they really lived and so we tried to express the mood here. It’s not easy illustrating 30 days in four minutes even when 90% of what you’re filming is not so interesting. But we knew before that three main parts would be important - frustration, acceptance and joy - and so the fun would come only after frustration. It wasn’t just fun, even for us - we spent really boring moments, especially during the first half of the month. Rehab was for everyone.
As always the music helps the mood and to separate the parts - in our creative process music is in the middle of everything. We tried three different edits with different tracks and mood and this is the one we liked. Maybe it’s not for everyone but that’s the mood we wanted to build. Our first attempt was lovely and powerful but somehow too serious. The second was folky and too obvious. This one, to us, was surprising. The track gives this ‘90s feeling and craziness that we like. And yes, it’s all about love so was obviously the final choice.
LBB> How did you work with them in front of the camera? Did you give them much direction? And how was it for you both, as dads, to work with your kids like this?
Michel> Maybe it’s harder to work with our kids. I believe it’s harder for everyone. We’d already worked with kids we’d cast and that’s easy because we love kids and the way they work. Agency kids are prepared to consider us - because of what their parents say - as really important people. So they listen and they do.
Our kids can tell us ‘NO’. And on the other hand they want to impress us more so, in a way, my son is better with Nico on set because he doesn’t have this big father pressure on his shoulders. I’m not pushing him, I believe, but I know it’s the same for sport. He always plays better when he knows I’m not watching.
They’d already worked with us on the BBC film so they were ready. We wanted them to be really natural so the goal was to let them do everything they wanted and if something was interesting we asked them to reproduce it, just to get different angles. So it’s a mixture between natural docu-style shots and more precise action. This is actually how we work - long takes and if something was interesting we remember and we work on it. When they had discussions we shot with two cameras. We asked them to speak about their feelings and when something was good we asked them to repeat in different ways - so they acted a fair bit in the end.
I don’t really know if it’s a good way but usually it works - they are still kids and when you want something precise you’ve a 10-minute window. Outside of this they are not focused anymore. With this film project I believe we only shared our passion with them. We are self taught so we started our career shooting what was around us. Being back to basics helped me understand why I really love this job.
LBB> There's a beautiful graininess to the imagery - how did you achieve that and why did you approach the film in this way?
Michel> Thanks mate, we appreciate this question as it was a challenge for us to do something that was beautiful enough. For us this tiny camera from Blackmagic camera is a total game changer. We’ve already used it as a B camera on set during our last three commercials so we knew how impressive the picture is and that we wouldn’t be frustrated with the final look of the film.
A lot is shot with phones and GoPros as the priority was fun and movement at certain points. But we needed to start and end with a lovely organic look. Because this film is already in the past, it’s already a memory for us and the kids - film grain, different ratios, vintage warm grade, everything illustrates memories. That’s what we wanted. From a technical point of view, we just observed our DOPs. We took note from their setups, we imitated their settings. We learned from the best.
LBB> What was the reaction of Sacha and Robinson by the end? What kind of effect has it had on them?
Michel> They just want to start again, nothing more. Netflix and other screens came back and I am the first to be happy about that, but Fornite totally disappeared from Sacha’s life. I mean totally, he did not ask once. I’m really happy, surfing has replaced it and I think this is a good thing. The deal for video games now is, OK, but we play together, it needs to be a social activity.
Nico’s son is determined to be a firefighter and we spend more time together as a four. We are a great crew and they are happy the camera is now off as we can get up to even bigger bullshit. I think I know Nico’s son better now as well and Nico knows mine better. We built special things and we are really proud of them for being special kids. I love my kid, Nico’s kid and I deeply love them as a duo. Hopefully my son has won more confidence and Rob knows he can concentrate on everything. They did something really difficult, but the camera helped the challenge - without it, 10 days would have been the maximum.
So yes, everything is not perfect here for many reasons, but who cares? Life and love are not about perfection and this film is only about life and love, you know that now.
LBB> How did they enjoy seeing the film?
Michel> They watched it 100 times, their mothers 1000!
LBB> Any parting thoughts?
Michel> Are you kidding haha? Oh yes, if someone, a brand or someone else, wants an episode two, we’ve got the actors ready :).