Director Fred Schepisi knew he needed a mature and sexy actress with the acting chops to work with Clive Owen for his role as the spirited art teacher in "Words and Pictures." He found all of those qualities in Juliette Binoche.
What the director didn't expect was the bonus he got after he had cast the Oscar-winning French actress.
"Words and Pictures" looks at the academic argument between an English teacher (Owen) and an art instructor (Binoche) over which is more important — words or pictures. Coming up with the words part to use in the film was easy as the script is filled with quotations from giants of the literary world. The rub was that he couldn't take the same approach with the art because the work had to be original creations by the teacher.
"Also, I didn't want to end up with a kind of abstract art that would alienate the audience," Schepisi says. "It couldn't be middle of the road or silly stuff. It had to have a certain quality to make the movie work."
His search ended when he discovered that Binoche is not only a talented actress but an equally skilled artist. She painted all of the artwork that is seen in the movie.
Art imitated life as Binoche plays an artist who must change her painting style due to crippling health issues. Although it had nothing to do with her health, Binoche had recently started to change her style of painting, going from being a portrait painter to more abstract works produced on huge canvases.
In the film, the art teacher uses a giant version of a brush used to do calligraphy because it's easier to hold and manipulate. Binoche had been using a similar type brush for her own work after studying calligraphy in China.
"The giant brush worked because it hung from the ceiling, so there was no weight," Schepisi says. "A lot of what you see in the film is just her painting while we filmed her. Having her do the artwork gave us a real freedom to work."
Owen was always Schepisi's first choice as the director had been a fan of the British actor since he saw him in "Gosford Park." The director says he learned his instincts were right as soon as filming started. Owen arrived the first day with a complete understanding of the character and a passion for the project. The only acting conversations the pair had were concerns by Owen that he was playing the role exactly how the director wanted it played.
It was always a short conversation.
"I didn't have to do a lot — a turn of the screw here and there," Schepisi says. "He's very flexible when it comes to doing a scene and can improvise when needed. The only thing we both concentrated on was that he wasn't doing something that he had done before."
Schepisi, 74, knows how important casting is to making a project work. During the 40 years the Australian has been making films, he's directed two Oscar-nominated performances by leading actresses: Meryl Streep in "A Cry in the Dark" (1988) and Stockard Channing in "Six Degrees of Separation" (1993).
All of his TV and film projects have given Schepisi plenty of time to work with words and pictures. He used all that experience to make sure that when making "Words and Pictures," he never let the film get too reverent about the words or the art. Schepisi treated them as equals.
"There were plenty of scenes where I trimmed out quite a few words and I also trimmed pictures," Schepisi says.
As for the pictures Binoche created for the movie, they are now in France with the actress. The director says how she got to keep the paintings is "another story."