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David Perrault Explores the Family Bond During the Civil War In 'Savage State'

February 15, 2021
3 min read time

Filmmaker David Perrault doesn’t just believe in conflicts between characters in his stories — both externally and internally — but in the time period in which their stories take place, as well. Which is why he chose the Civil War to be the backdrop for his latest film, Savage State (L'état sauvage).

For Perrault, a writer-director born and raised in France who studied screenwriting at La Fémis in Paris, to tell his story during the American Civil War presented a lot of challenges. One being that Civil War films have been told countless times, and another being his lack of general knowledge (pre-research) about this time period in American history. Unless he sought out information about the war, it’s likely he didn’t learn it when growing up.

How does a writer tackle a significant time period he’s not familiar with? Perrault’s method wasn’t finding the story in the Civil War, but rather knowing what story he wanted to tell, and then finding the most compelling way to do so.

“My first idea was to stage a group of women in an enclosed space and tear down these walls to propel them into the great outdoors,” Perrault states. “That’s when I thought about the Western and approaching it from a European angle. Both in what it would tell (the story of these French settlers) and in terms of style.”

In the end, Perrault felt his story about three young women was best told against the backdrop of the Civil War.

Thus Savage State is a character-driven film with big set pieces, giving a nod to the transition of the Civil War to the Western. The story takes place in Missouri, far from the major battles fought during that war; most of the major conflicts took place on or near the East Coast or further south, such as Pennsylvania, Virginia and Georgia. Missouri, while not immune from the conflict, only hosted two battles in which there were more than 1,000 casualties.

This was a choice Perrault made because he didn’t want the center of the story to be the Civil War, but rather he wanted to create a conflict situation in which the larger problems of the country did not directly concern these French settlers, at least initially.

Perrault states, “I like to stage passages from one era to another; how one era dies and how it gives way to another. The historical film is ideal for that. It also allows me to talk about the modern world, but in a less direct way with a kind of filter that I find playful.”

The Civil War does play its role in the film, because as the war starts, France orders its French settlers to remain neutral. Two years into the war, settlers find their hometown under the occupation of the Union Army (Missouri was a Confederate state) and their lives disrupted by entitled soldiers. Determined to return to their native country, the father decides that his wife and three daughters should set off on a journey across the United States. He hires Victor, a mercenary who has his own mysterious and dangerous past, to guide them.

As if a country raging with war isn’t bad enough as they embark on their journey, they are being chased by Bettie, Victor’s former lover who, along with her thugs, are tracking him and suspect he is carrying stolen diamonds.

Perrault’s approach to writing is a lesson for screenwriters struggling to meld history and fiction. For the Civil War, Perrault did plenty of research, but adds, “The documentary dimension doesn’t really interest me. I don’t have a realistic approach. If a historical fact ignites my imagination then I transform it into a pure sensation.”

From the beginning through the journey across the country, there is a constant focus on the family and Victor. This meant creating scenes with the same five-to-six characters and ensuring that they were all fully developed and wouldn’t get lost in the crowd. Perrault approached this by giving all of his characters the same intensity.

“For me, there aren’t really any secondary characters in a movie. They are all important.”

And that’s how all screenwriters should approach their writing. There shouldn’t be a character in a scene for the sake of more voices. Each character, regardless of their purpose, has a backstory and a solid reason for being there.

The film's reason for being? Perrault doesn’t have anything specific he wants the audience to feel at its conclusion, but rather prefers his audience to find their own meaning behind the film. That’s not to say that there isn’t a message he wishes to convey, but he purposely shies away from stating it too loudly.

“I prefer when they look like daydreams. Each spectator can project their own obsessions into it.”

The process for Perrault starts with a feeling; an atmosphere. In this case, it’s the notion of three young women who bond with their family while facing insurmountable external challenges in Civil War-era America, and as they struggle to survive, battle their own internal conflicts.  

Savage State is now available On Demand and Digital.


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