Black Flies: an interview with Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire

BLACK FLIES © David Ungaro

An adaptation of the novel 911 by the American author of noir novels Shannon Burke, Black Flies takes place mainly in the Bushwick neighborhood in Brooklyn, where the director lives. After the child soldier Johnny Mad Dog (Un Certain Regard, 2008) and the violent and thwarted story of the young boxer Billy Moore (A Prayer Before Dawn,Out of Competition, 2017), Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire tells, with this film in Competition, a part of the author’s life, when he was working as an ambulance driver in the tumultuous New York of the 90s. Tye Sheridan and Sean Penn play the main roles. Here’s his interview with the Festival de Cannes.

How did the project come about?

The producers suggested Shannon’s book to me over five years ago. I was interested in it because it was so true-to-life, but also because of my connection to Shannon’s fictional character, a young New York paramedic named Ollie Cross. The daily violence of his new job makes him question his spirituality and his relationship with death and life, and changes the way he sees the world and himself. Shannon’s book is set in the 1990s in Harlem, in a different era of crack, guns, gangs and AIDS. I wanted to adapt this story to the present day, not in Harlem, but in Brooklyn, in some of the neighbourhoods that still conjure up that atmosphere today.

Is realism important to you?

It’s true that reality, in its documentary form, is important to me as a narrative tool to construct fiction. I always need to believe in the situations I’m going to film. And to know the truth of it and to be able to transcribe it, you have to confront it. So my first approach was to meet Shannon and go with him, i, Tye Sheridan and the writer to the “crime scene”.. The second step was to put on the uniform of an ambulance driver and for more than a year, thanks to Wyckoff Hospital in Brooklyn, to have the chance to experience for ourselves the various situations that we see in the film.

Is this adaptation faithful to the book?

It seems to me, strangely enough, that the more we allow ourselves to be unfaithful to it in the writing, in the shooting, the more faithful the film will be to it. At least I hope so. Because the important thing is basically what the author of the book says in its universality. By the way, Shannon took part in the writing of the screenplay for Black Flies. After that, changing the time, the context, the neighbourhood, forces us to adapt the situations.

Tell us a little about your actors?

I must admit that all the actors in the film, at different levels, impressed me greatly. Working with Sean Penn is a real privilege, he gives his character an experience and an emotion that only he could bring. The same goes for Tye Sheridan who’s already had an incredible career despite his young age and who totally let himself go, pushing his limits without any fear, while making his character bright and angelic.