Interview: Laura Wandel Discusses Her Oscar-Shortlisted ‘Playground’

Set in the tumultuous but formative time of childhood schoolyards, Laura Wandel’s Playground is a little film that packs a big punch. Seen through the eyes of a 7-year old girl and her older brother, this striking drama explores the familiar challenges of school bullies and peer pressure. After its award-winning premiere at Cannes, Playground also resonated with Academy Awards as a finalist on the Best International Feature shortlist. In our recent Awards Radar interview, Wandel explains the long journey to this moment and her special approach to crafting this debut feature.

Shane Slater: How did you decide to make this film for your first feature?

Laura Wandel: When I write, I always start from a location. And this time, I wanted to start from school and to start with a child coming into this world for the first time. Into this world of the school. And because this would naturally bring the issue of the need to fit in. This is something that comes back all the time later in the life of adults as well. But everything is more intense when you are a child. It’s this formative time, the first time you experienced it. So everything is more intense.

As a child, you spend at least 12 years with eight hours a day in school. So this formative time is actually really impactful and it will determine the adult that you become. And I wanted to focus on learning how to deal with others. That’s why most of the action is focused on what’s happening outside of the classroom, when children interact with each other. And I also wanted to speak about siblings and the connection you have with your sibling in order to fit in.

SS: This is a relatively short film, but I can imagine working with child actors and the heavy subject matter must required a lot of preparation. What was that process like?

LW: I developed a relationship with the main actress a long time before the shooting began. I even taught her how to swim. But then after that, we worked for three months before principal photography started with the children. So they never got to read the script. And they worked with pedagogy, which helps people learn in the right way.

So the first step is that they would actually make a puppet that would represent their character, so that they would make a distinction between themselves and the character. They would just explain the beginning of a scene and then they would come up with their own ideas about how that scene would unfold. Then we would ask them to improvise. And sometimes, I would even rewrite stuff because what they would come up with would be much better than what I had written. The last step was that they would need to draw the scene. So at the end of this, they would have like a whole storybook that was actually drawn by themselves and they would bring this to the principal photography. And they would come back to this to know where exactly in the film they were shooting.

SS: Did you have a particular audience in mind for this film? How did that determine some of your choices, like the shallow focus cinematography and the portrayal of the bullying scenes?

LW: Actually, I made the film mostly for adults. And I wanted adults to remember what it meant to arrive in school and to be a child in that environment. But I also think that children from the ages of 10 to 12 can definitely watch the film. In France for instance, I already had some reactions from the audience from children who watched the film, and it helped them verbalize things with their parents. So obviously it influenced the way I wanted to film. The fact that I wanted to have the camera at the level of the children’s gaze, because I wanted adults to remember what it feels to have that restricted point of view and to be immersed in that playground.

SS: How did you work with the two young actors to create that a genuine sibling relationship at the core of this film?

LW: We spent a lot of time in the swimming pool together and also with the actor who plays the father, Karim Leklou. So there would be bodies that would come together in a natural way in a swimming pool. You play together and you’re close to each other. Basically they spent a lot of time together. So they went eating ice cream and they watch a lot of films, stuff like that.

SS: It sounds like it was a cheerful environment even though you’re dealing with a very difficult and intense story.

LW: Yeah, the shooting was actually a really fun moment for all the children. At the end of the shooting, some children were crying that they were finished already. Everything was organized so that they would feel at ease.

SS: What was it like to premiere at Cannes, then getting selected for Belgium and now being on the shortlist?

LW: The film was already selected in 2020 for Cannes. So I had to wait for a year for it to be shown at the actual festival. So when it finally got screened, it was the most beautiful day of my life. Especially because I worked for seven years on this film. I fought to have it financed. It was really hard to get it financed. And Cannes was actually the first main film event post-COVID. So that was just incredible. And now the shortlist, I would never have dreamt of anything like this. This is crazy.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]


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Arnie Stern
Arnie Stern
1 year ago

Personally, I perceived this film to demonstrate the hostile behavior of human beings which begins at a very early age. It reminded somewhat of the film “Lord of the Flies”. Sorry to repeat what a physician once told me about the human condition. “Mankind is a flawed species”. Today we are witnessing another example of man’s inhumanity to man in the Ukrainian Russian conflict.



Written by Shane Slater

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for, and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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