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Director Zeno Graton on The Lost Boys: Interview

We sat down with the director of The Lost Boys, Zeno Graton, for an interview ahead of the film’s release in UK cinemas.

After premiering at the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival and being presented at the 2023 London Film Festival, Zeno Graton’s The Lost Boys will be released in UK cinemas on 15th December.

Set in a juvenile reform centre, The Lost Boys follows Joe (Khalil Ben Gharbia) as he is about to leave the detention centre and meets William (Julien De Saint Jean), who has just arrived there. In a place where intimacy and physical touch are forbidden, Joe and William find love in the most hopeless situation. As the movie goes on, we also see their journey in the detention centre, helped by the educators who work at the centre on the young boys’ rehabilitation process. With his debut feature, Zeno Graton touches on various social issues that many people in the audience will certainly relate to.

Before The Lost Boys premiered at the London Film Festival, we sat down with director Zeno Graton to talk about his film, queer cinema and social injustice. Read our full interview!

Zeno Graton on the Idea and Research Behind The Lost Boys

How did you first get the idea for The Lost Boys?

Zeno Graton: There were two main things. Firstly, I really wanted to make a love story – a queer love story. I’m very inspired by the writings of a French author from the 40s and 50s called Jean Genet. He wrote a lot about queer love in prison and was himself incarcerated a lot of times. Genet was very unapologetic in approaching these issues when back then it was forbidden. But he would write it in a very free and sensual way. It is also very political, and it made an impact on me as a queer person.

The second reason is that when I was a teenager, a member of my family was placed in one of those centres. I saw that it did not really do very much good for him, so I developed a sense of critique about those places. Those two elements together got me writing the story for The Lost Boys.

Are there any other autobiographical elements in the story or in the characters in The Lost Boys as well?

Z.G.: Not really, because I was not in these centres, but maybe in the love story. I am half Tunisian and I wanted to portray a leading character that was queer and Arab. I also wanted to try and reflect myself in it as someone who would not have any inhibition or shame towards his own sexuality. I wanted a character that would have a drive of desire towards the other guy, a protagonist that would be outside of the box where queer characters are placed into, which is often a place of fantasy fetishization or victimisation – it’s always one or the other. And it was important for me to portray someone who would be leading his own life and his own desires and place him at the centre of the story.

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Director Zeno Graton on The Lost Boys: Interview – a still from The Lost Boys (Peccadillo Pictures)

What research did you do about these detention centres, during the writing process for The Lost Boys? They are usually not spoken about or even shown in media.

Z.G.: Yes, exactly, that was important for me. Like you said, these are invisible places: no one really knows what’s happening to the people behind those walls. I got authorisation from the Ministry of Youth to actually access and enter these centres. I had a little apartment in the countryside near the facility and I would go every day, trying to be just an observer. And they knew what I was doing during these observations.

But then the kids really opened up to me about their issues and what they were experiencing there. I also got to talk a lot with the educators about what they were working on, I was really impressed about these educators who were giving their 100 per cent, they were very far from the bad guardians that we often see in prison movies. They’re there for the kids, but they are facing a system that is actually pushing against what they’re trying to do.

I also thought that it was important to create empathy for these young people who have done something very wrong because the way society treats them is not always helping them to act differently. There is also a problem in society in not acknowledging that the act of delinquency is often linked to social inequalities, racism, and gender inequality. I learned all of this from being there, it was a life-changing experience just to be there and learn a lot from these very clever kids.

Zeno Graton on How The Lost Boys Reflects on the World We Live In

You talked about institutional racism. Was that something that you wanted to explore with Joe’s character?

Zeno Graton: Yes, I wanted to explore it in The Lost Boys, but I didn’t want it to be the centre of the story. I also did not want to characterise Joe as Arab, throughout the whole film, because it is only one aspect of his personality, but I wanted to portray so many other aspects of his personality too. It was important for me to show this part of this identity less with the dialogue and more with the music. That’s why we have this rap scene, for him to actually open up about this racism.

The music does this: it was important for me to have an oriental composer and I was lucky enough to work with Bachar Mar-Khalifé who I have admired for a long time. And his input with the music is an emotional one, the music is also there to show Joe’s background and the roots that he’s cut from. I also wanted the music to be present during the romantic scenes, it’s a way for me to connect the queerness of the character with his Arab identity because these are often two elements that we see as completely separate from one another. In The Lost Boys, we had a joyful, powerful and proud mix of those two identities.

Was there an idea of calling out this system when you made The Lost Boys?

Z.G.: I really wanted to call out the system but in an accurate way. As I said, a member of my family was placed in one of these centres and when that happened, I felt very angry towards the system. When I started looking into it, I understood it more: it didn’t calm the anger, but it just made it more authentic and accurate. I was angry for the right reasons. Like I mentioned, the educators trying their best is something very real that I learned during this process. During the early stages of the scripts, the characters were not written exactly like that so this immersion into life at the centre helped me change some elements a little bit.

We also had a lot of panels in Belgium with judges, educators, and directors of the centres: we reached out and created a conversation around that. And that was the main goal: to create this conversation and for the audience to see with their own eyes what’s really happening in these centres and change their point of view. Public opinion is divided into two extremes, and they are both very wrong: on one hand, some people see these centres as terrible prisons, like a gulag, where the kids are sent to die.

On the other hand, there is a perception that it’s like a holiday camp where criminals get a lot of privileges. With The Lost Boys, I wanted to create a sort of middle group and explain that it is neither of those things. But yes, there is definitely a political take on it because I wanted to call out the system and create a conversation.  

Director Zeno Graton on The Lost Boys: Interview – film trailer (Peccadillo Pictures)

Even if The Lost Boys does have a sad ending, I think it’s very hopeful. Do you think there’s hope for the kids in these centres?

Z.G.: Like I said, it’s very complex. I wish there would be some reforms for me to be able to see that there is hope. I think some kids get benefits from it and a lot of them don’t, it’s a very individual path each time. It’s an institution and sometimes institutions can be very hard for people, even schools for example. I can’t say that I have hope, but I wish I could, it’s a hard question. What I’m fearful about is that we will head for the worst instead of making it better. We have far right-wing governments that are burgeoning across Europe. In Belgium, it may happen soon, because we have elections soon, and the polls are not very good. So those kinds of governments can make these places harder than they already are. This is why I’m not very hopeful: because I know what’s coming.

I thought The Lost Boys was very timely in that sense, because it’s happening before our eyes.

Z.G.: It really is, and I wanted to have an anti-antiauthoritarian vibe in the film, and to also praise this youth who’s fighting it, in the broad sense of the word. Much like in The Lost Boys, they’re fighting an authority that is that is imprisoning them. And for me, it was also a metaphor of this youth trying to break out of the walls that the ancient generations put them in in terms of race, class, and even when it comes to the environment. I was very inspired by the youth of today.

In the early stages of the movie, while I was writing it, I was also inspired by an interview with Patti Smith: she was talking about the fact that right now as humans we are like adolescents, she said, because we know that we don’t want the world we live in, but we don’t know what we want. And it’s a bit like a teenager way of thinking, you know, we’re rejecting everything, not knowing what we want. And she says we’re in this phase in the world where we know there are extremely violent policies against the environment, extremely violent policies against migrants trying to escape war and environmental crisis that we created. So, I wanted to work on this image of the teenager to also represent our world.

Zeno Graton on How Making Short Films & Studying Cinematography Influenced the Making of The Lost Boys

 I also know you studied cinematography. How did that affect The Lost Boys?

Zeno Graton: Well, I guess it made the writing process more difficult for me, because I didn’t really write before. It was also important for me to have a cinematography that was flamboyant: I wanted to make a love story, so the cinematography had to reflect that. In the writing process, for me, a lot of images came first, before the actual plot. Initially, I gathered a lot of images and some kind of storyline and that is when I got the help of a wonderful co-writer in France who has helped me finish writing The Lost Boys. But then I also worked with the cinematographer and that was very nice because he is someone I admire and I trust him a lot, the communication flew really well.

We also had fun; it was a very joyful process to create a cinematography that was sensual with CinemaScope and the camera movements. I didn’t want the fact that we were shooting in such hard environments to take control of the cinematography and make it all grey and sad. In Belgium, we have a very long tradition of social cinema, with the Dardenne brothers’ legacy, and it feels like as soon as you touch any kind of social issue, it almost takes over the film. I felt like I had to break out of this and my studies made me understand that there is a lot more in shooting a film and you can actually choose what you want to do.

You also did some short films. Do you think that affected the writing or the shooting of The Lost Boys in any way?

Z.G.: Yes, making short films is like going to places you have never been before: you can decide what you like and what you never want to do again as well as understand what you find difficult to do and what is fun to create. Making short films made me a lot more grounded when I approached making The Lost Boys. But it is also completely different: a long feature is so difficult because it is a lot longer and very tiring, more so than a short film.

In my short film Jay Amongst Men, I explored the themes of masculinity and sexuality, focusing on how guys at 14 and 13 feel forced by the patriarchy to perform a certain kind of masculinity. It was a really sad movie and I felt like after having done that, I wanted to make a joyful film where I could show the masculinity that I wanted to see, which is more tender. In this sense, making Jay Amongst Men allowed me to be free to do The Lost Boys, so that I could be a little more utopian in this film.

This meant not showing homophobia because I wanted to portray a generation for whom sexual orientation is not necessarily something they had to attack. The characters in this film are just companions of misfortune in the centre, they are trapped there together, and they bond through that so much that the other differences between them don’t matter anymore.

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Director Zeno Graton on The Lost Boys: Interview – a still from The Lost Boys (Peccadillo Pictures)

The Love Story in The Lost Boys and Queer Cinema

A lot of the story of The Lost Boys relies on the chemistry between the two actors and the characters. Did you do anything to have that on set, or before shooting the film?

Zeno Graton: When we cast them, I took people who were already questioning the construct of masculinity for themselves. For example, Khalil loves David Bowie, Jay Morrison and Kurt Cobain, who are all stars with very gender-nonconforming presentations of themselves; Khalil also had that. It was very important for me to cast people who can have a sense of critique about the construct of masculinity to be able to show that in the film, because The Lost Boys is a lot about that. I really wanted to question the representation of masculinity on screen and show this solidarity.

With The Lost Boys, you have seven guys who can be there for each other and care for each other. The main relationship between Joe and William was shining on the others with their tenderness and love. As regards the chemistry, it comes from the casting process as well. Sometimes during the casting, you just feel when people are going to be friendly with each other. We tried different couples during the chemistry reads, so it is something we pay attention to, and I felt that Khalil and Julien were going to work well together.

We also had rehearsals for a week, which is something that’s not often allowed because the producers don’t see the value of it. But it was very impactful for the rest of the shooting. During this rehearsal week, I took them to the centre that I researched for the writing. I spent a lot of time there and I knew the people very well, so I brought them there for one day. They could see with their eyes the reality that they were going to represent, I think it gave them a sense of humility, but also a responsibility to tell this story because they have seen certain things happen the very first day they were there: some guy tried to escape and there was a fight between an educator and a kid. It left a big impression on them.

They were very dedicated during the shooting, because of this experience, but also because we were shooting in a real facility. We would see them every day and welcome them on set, we had workshops with them. The Lost Boys was made in such a way to avoid being colonisers in this space – do what we had to do and leave – but instead give the actors a sense of responsibility.

The theme of community was very strong in The Lost Boys, and obviously, freedom and love as well. Do you think that’s something you would want to explore in a future film?

Z.G.: The idea of actually fighting for freedom is something I think I would want to explore because there are so many more stories to tell about that. And so many more fights to do too. I am thinking about it, for the next project. I am writing but I am also still looking around.

I think these films in general are very necessary, do you think film is a way to create or suggest the world you want to see?

Z.G.: It is exactly that. And that’s why we tried to show that two guys can be tender to each other, that the issues of inhibition and shame can belong to the past, and that we’re not victims only. I mean, there is a homophobic society out there. But it’s out there and I don’t want it to be inside of the soul of the people. That’s what we wanted to do with these characters. We tried to break out of the common narrative of queer cinema, especially with young characters, where it’s always revolving around the overcoming of shame. But there are so many much more interesting conflicts that need to be told which we tried to do in The Lost Boys. It’s like saying: you can love who you want and be who you are, and yes, it is going to be difficult, because the world out there is made of walls, but you are stronger than them.  

Are there any films in queer cinema that inspire you?

Z.G.: A lot. In making The Lost Boys, we were very much inspired by a film called Happy Together by Wong Kar-wai. I am also amazed by this new generation of shows like Euphoria, the HBO English series. There are the films and shows that give me strengths, Euphoria for me changed the game completely. It is a love story between the character played by Zendaya and another character who is a trans woman and it is treated in a very beautiful way, with a new angle. The conflict in the show is not about the fact that these are two women or that one of them is trans, which leaves space to analyse much more interesting conflicts between them. It was a major hit in the US and everywhere in the world, so I think we should be conscious of the fact that the young generation wants more stories like that.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Lost Boys will be released in cinemas in the UK & Ireland and on digital platforms on 15 December 2023. Zeno Graton will take part in some Q&As this month: find out more on Gruvi and read our review of The Lost Boys.

The Lost Boys: LFF Film Review – Loud And Clear Reviews
Film Review: In The Lost Boys, Zeno Graton tells a powerful love story in a place where the desire for romance and freedom come together.
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