We spoke to Quebec director Daniel Roby about his Parisian disaster movie

Dans la brume is a haunting old-school thriller.

Daniel Roby and Romain Duris on the Dans la brume set

An earthquake rocks Paris, followed by a series of explosions. Soon, the streets are filled with a thick, opaque fog that causes people to convulse and die. Mathieu (Romain Duris) has just returned from Canada, where he was researching new advances in technology to help his daughter Sarah (Fantine Harduin), who has an autoimmune disorder that means she can never leave the highly regulated “bubble” set up in her mother Anna’s (Olga Kurylenko) apartment. Mathieu and Anna are estranged, but they still have to work together for their daughter, and it’s at Anna’s that Mathieu finds shelter once the explosions happen. They soon discover that the fog only rises to a certain level; anyone above it is safe, so they hole up with an elderly couple (Michel Robin and Anna Gaylor) until they figure out what to do. As they wait it out, however, the fog shows no sign of dissipating, and the resources keeping Sarah’s “bubble” in working condition are fast running out.

Dans la brume has a very old-school set-up: limited resources, contained spaces, an all-encompassing “villain,” extremely tangible stakes… it’s a thriller in the purest sense of the word, but it’s only one of the many things that appealed to director Daniel Roby about the material.

“There were several things from the get-go,” says Roby. “One of them was this idea of making a genre film in France. Before I even read the script, I knew that if Quad, the production company, sent me something to read, it would be interesting. There was this possibility of working with Romain Duris, which was also appealing to me. But when I read the script, it became clear that it would be a second genre film in my filmography, and I’d wanted to make at least another (after La peau blanche) because I absolutely love working in genre. I was happy to be offered that, but when I actually got to reading the script, I was intrigued by several aspects. I liked the aspect of the daughter’s illness, which had a lot of potential; I liked the fact that it was set in the very near future; I liked the visual potential of Paris under this thick cloud of smoke and the ambiance and suspense that we could create with that concept. There haven’t really been many disaster movies in Paris — usually they’re in New York or Los Angeles. That was an original element that I’d never seen before.”

Paris’s specific architecture is what essentially drives the plot forward. If Dans la brume were set in a more modern metropolis with taller buildings, the film would have to be markedly different.

“Paris is built in a way where all the buildings are more or less the same height of about five storeys,” explains Roby. “It’s perfect for this kind of story. It allows the characters to move around the city without being in the sky. It was certainly part of the original spark of the idea that the writers had, as Parisians. But there’s also a particular look and feel to Paris that comes in after the disaster — a silence and a worrisome element that anything could be lurking in there.”

Romain Duris in Dans la brume

As the film progresses, Mathieu has to scamper across rooftops in order to get to other buildings and obtain supplies. The narrow streets of Paris and the closeness of the buildings creates a sort of road system — almost like a map seen from a bird’s-eye-view. “That’s the way Paris’s architecture is,” says Roby. “All of the buildings are more or less of the same vintage. They were all built or rebuilt around the same time, and they all sort of look the same. The roofs are all stuck together and that’s just the way it goes!”

All of Roby’s films prior to this one were set and shot in Quebec; he’s open in saying that the overtly French and Parisian elements of the story appealed to him. “The retirees are another very Parisian element to the film,” he explains. “In France, there’s a respect for older people and their relationship to history, the way they live… there’s something very Parisian in that part of the story that you wouldn’t see in a Hollywood film.”

Roby does have some experience working in France, however: he helmed three episodes of the prestige series Versailles. “There are lots of similarities,” says Roby when asked about the relationship between working in France and in Quebec. “An actor’s an actor, a team’s a team and a scene’s a scene. That doesn’t change. There are elements that I find in France that are fairly particular to France. I feel like teams in France have a really particular passion for cinema. That’s not to say that people here aren’t passionate, but what I found in France is that people have a passion that’s similar to the one film students have when they’re in school. Everyone is excited by the idea of cinema as an art form. From the propmaster to the gaffer, everyone is sort of filled with this mythical passion, and it applies to everyone in the team. Everyone has their own ideas about what we’re doing — which is very French in itself — but there’s really this idea of passion that’s entirely palpable.”

Our assumption these days is that any and all special effects are put there with a computer; I certainly assumed that all of the smoke you see in Dans la brume was computer-generated. “Oh, no, no, no!” says Roby. “When they’re standing in smoke, it’s real smoke! It would’ve been too expensive, even though it’s already been done. We took a look at pretty much everything that had already been done in terms of doing the smoke for the street scenes, for example. We watched something — I think it was The Hills Have Eyes or something like that — where there’s a girl in a village filled with fog. The whole thing was shot on greenscreen — the village and the fog! We started doing tests but it turned out to be extremely complex and extremely expensive to get something that we could actually work with. In the end, it’s cheaper to rebuild the streets of Paris on a set and pour smoke into them than do it with computers!” ■

Dans la brume opens in theatres on Friday, Aug. 10. Watch the trailer here: