VI - The Perfectionnism Trap: "Only The Best Will Do"
Narrator target: Natalie Portman
written late in May/June 2021
Narrator target: Natalie Portman
written late in May/June 2021
I’m writing this in May 2021. It’s been 3 years.
3 years since the MIT screening.
7 years since I started the project.
What took so long? Where did the last three years go? I’m 34 now. My character in the film is 27. It’s tough coming back to this blank page, but I have to finish the story. For myself, first. To take stock. To make sense of it: how is it that psi was almost finished 3 years ago, and yet here I am, only now on the verge of actually completing it?
Let’s go back.
Early 2018... I was in the US. Thom had visited for the first time, I then stayed with my Dad in Reno and launched a doomed Kickstarter campaign. It was after the MIT screening of psi, in April, that I set sights on achieving what I believed to be the final piece of the puzzle: the narrator. At the time of the screening, the film was edited with a stand-in narrator, voiced by American actress Tiffany Hoffstetter, who I’d met in Paris through common friends. We’d recorded her voice at Julien Rochard’s studio, and she’d done a great job, exactly what I’d asked of her. However, her voice was always meant to be temporary, as I had other plans in mind for the final narration of the film.
Originally, what I keep calling “the narrator” was the psychologist of the 6th version of my character, the one who’s stuck in his apartment after being unable to choose which life to lead. The concept was that, in a bid to help her patient, she had devised a revolutionary strategy: she’d travelled to parallel universes to interrogate his alternate lives, in order to show him who he could have become and spur him out of his paralysis and into his own life. Midway through the movie, she faces her own crisis as she questions her own sense of agency and life choices, as in becoming a psychologist, she’d given up on her dream of becoming an actress. To resolve this, she goes to meet an alternate version of herself, who’s made it as a famous Hollywood actress, and learns a lesson that she will then pass onto her patient: freedom is about making decisions and owning up to them, wherever it takes you. I wanted her character to have this internal conflict because it allowed her to go through her own emotional journey, and also provided some commentary on how acting and films are like experiments for living other lives - which all tied in nicely with the project’s overall themes.
And from the very beginning, I kept toying with a rather fanciful idea: how awesome would it be to get an actual Hollywood actress to voice this character, as an alternate version of herself, one where she hadn’t become an actress, but instead gone on to become a psychologist? This psychologist in the film would be her, in another life, one where she kept wondering about who she may have become had she actually pursued her dream of acting (which, in our world, she did). Throughout 2016 and 2017, as I edited the film, what was just a recurring daydream slowly became a tangible goal as I started considering it more seriously: was there actually a famous actress out there whose past experiences were such that she could very realistically have become a psychologist, and not an actress?
And I didn’t need to do any deep dive into the biographies of Hollywood actresses to find the answer, as there was one who immediately sprung to mind: Natalie Portman. She had indeed graduated from Harvard with a degree in psychology, and so she could very well have become a psychologist. Obviously, at first, identifying Natalie Portman as a good match for the film was a bit like picking the best player in the world for your Fantasy Football team. But quickly, other links between her personal life and the film cropped up, emboldening my conviction that this actually made sense.
Portman’s life was also one of mixed identities and major forks in the road: not only did her parents leave Israel and move to the US when she was 3, but aged only 12, she was famously cast as Mathilda in Luc Besson’s film Léon. This part was her “big break,” the moment where the causal chain of the universe clicked in such a way to hoist her on course to having the great career she’s since enjoyed. Would she have become an “A-lister” had she not passed that audition? Who knows, but that part clearly put her on the map and made her one of the most recognizable talents of her generation. At that time, also, she decided to take on a pseudonym: Natalie Portman took over from Natalie Hershlag, her birth name. I thought it would be interesting, then, that in psi, her “psychologist-self” would be called Dr. Hershlag, as in that life she would never have had a reason to change names. Finally, 3 of the 5 cities in psi are central to Portman’s own life: Jerusalem is the city where she was born, where she has often claimed her heart belongs and where she directed her feature debut A Tale of Love and Darkness. Los Angeles is the city where she spent a great deal of her life and where her career has thrived. And finally Paris is the city where she was living at the time, with her husband Benjamin Millepied (director of Dance and the French Opera Ballet) and their two children.
For all these reasons, Natalie Portman just seemed to be the perfect person to voice this character. She was, of course, also one of the most “unattainable” targets I could have. I had no connection to her and nothing much to offer by way of money or reputation. But still, I thought: why not? And my friends who actually were involved in some capacity in the film industry did too. They encouraged me to figure out how to contact her and go for it. Everyone is reachable. What’s not knowable, of course, from the onset, is how these people are, what makes them tick, what they are really into or not, what their schedule is. But that’s just how it is. Either your project is something they like, or it isn’t.
In this case, there were several other elements I felt played in my favor. Firstly, I wasn’t reaching her because I was a fan who “always wanted to work with her,” nor was I just trying to get a “big name” to leverage her celebrity status. I was contacting her because of her personal connections to the part and to the film. The fact she’s a famous actress in this life only makes sense because her character in the film isn’t. Secondly, I felt that the logistical aspects of the project could help convince her: the amount of work required was very small (a day’s worth of recording, at most), it could be done any place and time convenient for her, and I wouldn’t ask her for any further involvement, such as for promotion purposes. In fact, I liked the idea that her role be kept a secret, like an easter-egg in the film, so that the audience would only maybe recognize her midway through the film and realize that this Dr. Hershlag is in fact Natalie Portman from a parallel life. All these reasons, I thought, further served to prove that my motivation for contacting her weren’t opportunistic, but purely artistic.
And so, a little naïvely, I thought my chances of success rested wholly on the hope that, if this project actually got to her in the right circumstances, she’d have what the French call a “coup de coeur” - that is that she'd connect to the project on a personnal level and say: “Y’know what, I’ll do it.” Of course, objectively I knew this had very little probability of actually working. But again, I could also very easily imagine a scenario in which it did, and so it was just down to me to at least try. If I didn’t, then for sure, this outcome would remain a hypothetical. I also refused to shut down my own optimism, as it was this very same “anything-is-possible” mindset that had propelled me into this project and fueled me throughout. If I doubted myself now, it was like I was disavowing all my past efforts and achievements. And I wanted to keep it going as far is possible.
The challenge, then, was: how do I get in touch with her? After editing the film, I built a private webpage specifically destined for her, pitching the project and presenting all the arguments listed above. It also included a video introduction of myself, a screener of the film and a transcript of her character’s lines. At the end of 2017, when I finished the first edit of the film, I decided to give it a go. After some Googling, I tracked down her representatives on IMDB: she had an agent in LA, but also one in Paris, so I thought he’d be more attainable. His name was Laurent Grégoire, head of the Adéquat talent agency. At the time, I’d never heard of him, but he’s one of the biggest – if not the biggest agent in Paris. I sent him an e-mail (his address is available on Adequat’s website), cc’ing his assistants, with my pitch and the link to the private page for Portman. After a couple weeks without reply, I sent a follow-up, to no avail. This was towards the end of 2017, and at the time, I thought: no big deal, this was to be expected.
It was around that time that I felt it necessary to adopt a different strategy to generate some “buzz” around the film. I put the pursuit of Portman on hold and flew to the US, did the failed Kickstarter Campaign, and later, the MIT screening. Recalling all this now, I wonder why I didn’t seek help, from producers, or agents, or people with experience in this industry. I think I felt that contacting all these potential collaborators, convincing them to watch psi, and then building a rapport with the ones willing to help me would require just as much time and effort as trying to contact Portman directly myself.
After the MIT screening, I felt the event itself and the critical response in the press would provide some exposure and credibility in order to bolster my second attempt at contacting Portman’s agent, which I planned to do as soon as I got back to Paris. But before flying home, I headed south to New York and visited an old friend of mine from my days at the EICAR film school in Paris, a Brit called Oli, who was now a fashion photographer in Brooklyn. As we sat in a diner one morning, he asked me what the next step was for my film: I vaguely confessed I was trying to contact “some famous actresses” to redo the narration, and when he asked who, I hesitated. I didn’t want him to try and talk some sense into me. But I also didn’t want to be ashamed of my goal either, so I replied as though it was nothing: “Natalie Portman.” I expected him to frown reluctantly but he just continued munching on his hash browns, so I rolled out the compulsory caveats: “I know it won’t be easy, I already reached out to her French agent – no reply yet - but I’m gonna call them again and…” At which point he interrupted me and said: “I can get you to her.” He let that cliffhanger sit there while he slurped down his coffee then went on to explain that one of his friends (let’s call him Terry) regularly worked with Benjmain Millepied – Natalie Portman’s husband – and without further ado, he pulled his phone out and called him. Terry asked me to send him the private “Portman page” and promised he’d forward it to Benjamin Millepied. And just like that, a few days later, I left Brooklyn with a personal connection to Portman and my hopes rising.
Back in Paris, I postponed writing back to Portman’s agent until the Millepied avenue ran its course. And for the first few days, I impatiently waited for my phone to ding. Would Terry e-mail me with the news? Would Benjamin Mellepied contact me to ask for more details? Would Natalie Portman herself call me after viewing the project?
A week later, Oli called to say that Terry hadn’t yet sent Millepied the project because he was working, but he’d do it the following week. Fair enough. A couple weeks later, Oli called back with some good news: Millepied had received the project, said he’d take a look at it and pass it on to Natalie. We were getting closer. Oli was also getting genuinely excited: he and his entourage all felt the project was solid enough to spark her interest. They believed in it, and so did I, every day a little more.
So I waited. And waited. And finally, almost a full month later, Oli called with the news: “I spoke to Terry…” - yes? - “Millepied has seen the project…” - yeess? - “… he thinks it could indeed be of interest to Natalie…” – yeeeessss? – “… but she’s swamped with work right now, so he’s not comfortable adding to the pile. But he says you should definitely call her agent in Paris: Laurent Grégoire.”
And just like that, I was back to square one.
Of course, I felt disappointed that this 2-month build-up had fallen flat so suddenly. But I couldn’t be upset about it either, because everyone had done their bit: Oli had called Terry, Terry had written to Millepied, and Millepied had taken the time to reply. So I decided to draw the positives from the experience and power on.
By now it was the summer of 2018. I had to reach out to Portman’s agent in Paris again, but this time I could beef-up my pitch: psi had been screened at MIT, it received a good review from The Boston Globe, and I was now “recommended” by Benjamin Millepied. I e-mailed Laurent Grégoire and his assistants at the Adéquat agency. After 2 weeks, I called (no answer), left a message (no reply). It was getting frustrating.
That summer, I spent a lot of time hanging out with Zoé Wittock, an old friend from EICAR who I’d reconnected with over the past few years. After graduating from AFI in LA, she’d moved back to Paris and had just written and directed her debut feature film, Jumbo, starring Noémie Merlant and Emmanuelle Bercot. While we had taken opposite paths into the film industry and were at very different stages in our careers, we enjoyed each other’s company and advice, and had a good group of friends we regularly hung out with. Among them were Amélie and Isabelle (these aren’t their real names), two junior agents working in two of the biggest talent agencies in Paris. When I told them about my current predicament, both offered to help as they felt my project was strong enough to at least be presented to Natalie Portman. Amélie even knew Laurent Grégoire personally and promised to call him the next day.
And guess what? A few days later, I received an e-mail from Grégoire’s assistant, that read: “Thank you for your project, psi. I am sending your information to Natalie Portman and will get back to you as soon as she’s seen it.” I couldn’t believe it, and immediately called Amélie to thank her. She was almost apologetic in acknowledging that, yes, in this business, her phone call was the difference between my e-mail being condemned to the graveyard of unopened trash and getting forwarded to Natalie Portman within a couple hours.
And so the anxious wait began. Thankfully, I had a good distraction: that summer was the FIFA World Cup, held in Russia, and the two teams I support – England and France – were both having great tournaments. It dawned on me then that I had watched the previous World Cup when I was in Jerusalem. I remembered seeing Germany smash hosts Brazil 7-1 on a projector screen outside a bar off Jaffa Street. It had already been 4 years. I was feeling the heat: I had to finish this film soon. It was becoming increasingly uncomfortable answering friends who routinely pressed me: “So when is it ready? When is it coming out? We can’t wait to see it!” Every day, I checked the stats on the private page I had made for Portman, hoping to see the view count rise. But it hadn’t. I e-mailed Grégoire’s assistant a couple times to follow up, but each time, they asked me to be patient. On July 15, France won the World Cup beating Croatia 4-2, and Paris erupted. I got swept away in the bustling, partying streets of Montmartre, drenched in beer with red, white and blue paint. It was a great summer.
And then finally, on July 31st, Grégoire’s assistant e-mailed me: “Following up on Natalie Portman, unfortunately she won’t be able to respond favorably. Thank you for considering her and please excuse her.” It hadn’t quite sunk in yet that I wrote straight back to ask if they’d received any other information, any reason as to why she refused, any feedback whatsoever? “No, sorry, she’s very busy at the moment.”
This e-mail whacked me pretty hard. Not so much because Portman said no (I mean, a little bit because she said no), but because it was so abrupt and matter of fact. And almost instantly, my skeptical brain kicked in: did Portman’s agent actually send her the project? And if so, did Portman actually ever get round to opening it? Did she really see the private webpage I designed for her? And if so, what did she think? Why didn’t she like it? Did she find it too amateurish, boring, pretentious? Did she just not have time? Did she actually really dislike it for some reason, in which case I should feel lucky I got such a brief yet polite turndown?
It was all so frustrating. This sense of being “stuck on the outside,” of swimming against the tide, of being denied access not just to Portman but to the knowledge of what really happened. I kept imagining the following scenario: if I had been an “insider,” say, a colleague of Portman’s on some project, or a family friend, and found myself sitting next to her at dinner, exchanging pleasantries, I would have been able to lightly bring up the topic of my film, engage her in conversation and spark her interest. Maybe she wouldn’t have done it in the end, but I would have had the opportunity to know whether she had any interest in it whatsoever. And I know, I know this sounds entitled, because it doesn’t matter how much work and desire I put into reaching her, no amount of effort on my part means she has to do anything on hers - she doesn’t owe me anything, not a look, not a response, not a second of her time. That’s all true. But what was frustrating to me, really, was the brute sense of failure and inability to get beyond the gatekeepers. And there was nothing I could do about it.
For the first time since the beginning of the project, I felt I had to just accept that something was beyond my powers and belief, and give up on it. I couldn’t go any further, without pushing boundaries I wasn’t comfortable overstepping. For instance, a few months later, a journalist friend called me to say that Portman (who’d apparently moved back to LA at that point) was in Paris for the week-end, staying at the Plaza Athénée hotel near the Champs-Elysées, and urging me to go and see her. But that was a step too far. This was stalker territory. I didn’t want to be the crazy fanboy waiting in the lobby for her with my little presentation, ready to interrupt her private life and intrude on her physical space. No way. And yet, no joke, I had no shortage of people egging me on: “Y’know, this might be your chance, don’t miss it! If I was her, I’d find it ballsy. Now THAT would grab my attention!” These comments really pissed me off, because they me feel like a chicken and a loser for having some principles.
I had to direct my focus elsewhere.
Thankfully, following this failure, two other leads presented themselves to contact “famous actresses”: on the one hand, Isabelle, the other junior agent I’d met in Paris, was in a position to contact German-French actress Diane Kruger; on the other, a DP friend of mine, Peter, had a direct personal contact with Juliette Binoche. Both Isabelle and Peter loved psi and wanted to help me achieve this goal of casting a famous actress as her alternate self. And while Kruger and Binoche weren’t initially on my radar, they both presented some thematic resonance to the film: they had international backgrounds, lifepaths that could have gone in different directions, and interesting voices when speaking in English. So I drafted pitches tailored to each of them and passed them on to Isabelle and Peter to work their magic.
On some level, launching them on this quest and having to wait for a response gave me a good excuse to turn my attention away from psi and onto other projects. Earlier that year, when I was staying in Reno with my Dad, my friend Thom (who by then was pursuing his career as an actor) had come to visit and we shot an improvised short film in Monument Valley, called “The Valley.” By the summer of 2018, I was sending it to various film festivals – it eventually got screened at the Montevideo Fantastic Film Festival, where it won best European Film.
Later on, in the final months of 2018, I shot two short films for the Nikon Film Festival: “Je suis partagé.e” – a sort-of mini Black Mirror episode - and “Je suis les 18, 19, 20 Octobre 2018” – a video poem shot in Barcelona, inspired by Tim Urban’s “Life Calendar.” Writing and shooting these short films was a real breath of fresh air and for the first time in a long while, I felt productive and excited. Just not about psi.