Cédric Le Gallo spills on ‘The Shiny Shrimps,’ the kinda-true story of an all-gay water polo team

Director Cédric Le Gallo with Alban Lenoir

We could listen to Cédric Le Gallo talk all day. Besides his musical French accent, he speaks with conviction and empathy–the hallmarks of a real artist. Incidenally, he’s also earned the title: his first film The Shiny Shrimps plays August 23 at aGliff.

Based on Le Gallo’s real-life experience, and co-directed with Maxime Govare, The Shiny Shrimps follows a popular French swimming champion named Matthais (played by Nicolas Gob) who commits career suicide after uttering a homophobic slur during a TV interview. With a major championship months away, Matthais makes a desperate bid to resurrect his standing by agreeing to coach the Shiny Shrimps, an all-queer water polo team led by Jean (Alban Lenoir), an unapologetic gay man harboring a dark secret. Together, Jean and Matthais form an unlikely alliance with the goal of taking the Shiny Shrimps all the way to the Gay Games…if the flamboyant misfits can stay focused.

With The Shiny Shrimps picking up buzz on the film festival circuit all over the world, we managed to nab some time with Le Gallo just ahead of the aGliff screening.

So this film is based on a true story. I also see that the original idea was yours.

Actually, it’s more based on a true water polo team. Some parts of the movie are real, and some parts are fiction.

That begs the question: how much of it actually happened?

Well, for example, everything about Jean, the leader of the Shrimps, is pure fiction. But all the spirit of The Shiny Shrimps is real. They love every situation. I don’t want to spoil too much for your audience, but all the humor is from the real Shiny Shrimps. Some of the jokes are exactly the jokes we do. The karaoke is real. The costumes are real. All the spirit, all the humor. We work as a family, and the Shiny Shrimps really changed my life. Joining them eight years ago, I didn’t have many gay friends. For me, now it’s like family.

That’s wonderful.

We did a lot of training for actors for the water polo scenes. Water polo is a very tricky sport, even if you are the best player in the world. And I brought the actors to training with the real Shiny Shrimps. It was nice to have the real Shiny Shrimps meet the actors, not only for the water polo, but also to discover the humor of the characters.

The real-life Shiny Shrimps

And the film is very funny. So what did the real Shiny Shrimps think?

They’ve actually seen it many times. The real premiere in France was in January. The film wasn’t completely finished. It was at a huge festival in France called L’Alpe d’Huez Film Festival. It’s not an LGBTQ festival, it’s a comedy festival. In France, we didn’t have a gay comedy movie for 25 years.  Alpe d’Huez is a long way from Paris, so they came by bus or by train. They saw the movie for the very first time with 1,000 people—a real audience.

Very impressive.

We had a lot of drama movies. And you know, in France, and I guess everywhere in the world, comedy has a big success. It’s the most successful genre in France, so the festival is quite big. So I thought it was the time. All the team came.

That’s wonderful.

And you know, nobody knows the reaction of the audience [before the screening], or if they would think it was only for gay people. It’s funny, because the director of Universal Pictures in France gave us a lot of freedom to do the movie. Just before the screening, it was a bit stressful. He told me “Maybe we should cut [one of the racier jokes].” But the audience reacted well, not only to that sequence, but to the entire movie. We had a 10-minute standing ovation after the movie. It was the last screening of the festival, and we were the only movie to have a standing ovation.

Wow.

And the audience was not gay at all, except for my boyfriend and the team. The 1,000 people there were mostly old people, like a lot of grown-ups!

[Laughter]

They came to me after the movie and said “I love the movie. It reminds me of my friends.” Obviously, I have nothing in common with their friends except happiness and joy. I felt a lot of emotions that my very personal story could be seen & understandable to such a large audience.

The cast watching a scene on set

That’s even more impressive, and rare. Now you have a co-director on this film, Maxime Govare. Working with a co-director is always tricky, and quite rare in the United States. How did you and Maxime develop a working rapport?

Well when I came with my story to the production company, the producer was very excited about the movie. He introduced me to Maxime because I had never written a movie before. I used to do documentaries and TV reports. I was a journalist for 18 years. I did airplay on the side, and a short TV series. It was very short, only three minutes for each episode. So I never wrote long fiction.

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So he introduced me to Maxime saying “There’s no obligation, but maybe it’s better if you work with a co-writer. Writing alone is quite tricky and boring.” I’d started working on the project by myself for three months. And I like starting a project alone. You know, when you’re a journalist, you meet a lot of people all the time. Being alone: it is quite boring. And Maxime had some great ideas. I liked his ideas. And I think, because Maxime is straight, we are very different. And this was very helpful to have my movie teacher, in a way, because I had all these ideas and he helped me a lot to structure it.

It’s interesting that Maxime is straight. In many ways, it sounds like your relastionship is quite like Jean and Matthias in the film.

It’s exactly that. He’s exactly like Matthias. Most of the time, I go to bed at the time he wakes up. He’s a very morning person, I’m a late person. We are completely different. I think that is why it works well. It was also important to me to talk not only to the gay community, but to bring a general audience to my gay world. So that was a tricky thing. It’s important for me that the LGBTQ community not feel betrayed.

That’s understandable.

I think it worked because I do all the parties in Paris and Europe. I’m really a party guy.

[Laughter]

I met a lot of people. One guy one day told me “Thank you for the movie. Now I can tell my parents ‘If you want to know me, go watch this movie.’”

Oh my.

That was huge compliment because this gay guy saw himself on screen. It’s hard to represent, and I don’t want to represent—all gay people. Of course, we are all different. But some part of the gay community felt very concerned about the movie. And in its own way, it was important not to exclude straight people who don’t know anything about the community. Some straight people know a lot about the community. They go to gay bars, they have gay friends.

Yes of course.

There are also straight people who have no idea what’s going on in the gay community. How we talk, what kind of jokes we do, what kind of parties we do—they don’t even know they gay games really exist. Maxime was very helpful for that because when I had some ideas like very specific jokes he did not understand, I’d say “Ok, these jokes need an explanation.” So it was like a battle all the time to make this community leap off screen and make it understandable in the same way.

Now when you talk about the concerns for the community: by and large, the team is comprised of very flamboyant men. Some are effeminate, some very silly and outrageous. Did you worry at all that you would be criticized for playing into stereotypes?

Exactly. Yes, I was very concerned. I knew the worst critics would come from the gay community.

Interesting.

And actually, Têtu which is a French gay magazine, wrote a very long article about the movie. It was very dishonest, actually. They said the movie was homophobic without saying I’m gay. They said these characters didn’t exist, and didn’t mention that the real gay team exists. They didn’t mention that it won at Alpe d’Huez. They said it was badly directed, and they didn’t mention the award. So that was very dishonest. And at the same time, of course, I know that we don’t have all the same eyes, but I’m not pretentious enough to think I’m going to do the Wikipedia of gay life. I just want to tell my story and the story of my friends. My friends are really flamboyant. Some of the gay community is really flamboyant. And some gay people are not. I was just doing a one hour and 40 minute movie, not to make a movie about every gay that exits.

Yes.

And actually, except for that magazine, the community was very supportive. They really loved the movie. And in Paris, there were a lot of Shiny Shrimp parties because they wanted to support the movie. I didn’t ask for anything, they just did it on their own. They called me because I know the organizers of most of the big parties in Paris. They all called me saying “We want to do a party. Can you come with the actors? It’s amazing.” So the gay community was very enthusiastic about the movie. I saw on the Metro all these debates and rioting, and gay people defended the movie. They said “Yes, we are flamboyant.” You know, if a movie shows a gay couple with normal jobs, with kids, some gays would say these characters are too heteronomative…

Oh yes. We have these debates in the US too.

And if you show flamboyant gay people, some will say “This is too much.” And there’s a kind of second degree when viewing a scene. To play with a stereotype—that’s the fun part of a scene because we know who we are. We know we are too much. And especially in a group, we always play a role, if you’re gay or straight. In my film, we all play a kind of role and exaggerate a little bit. And we exaggerate a bit in real life. We exaggerate more when we are together because when we are together, we are like kids.

Sure.

And we need to be proud of the stereotype. When Têtu said the movie only shows hysterical queens…well yes, but it is hysterical queens who fight for our rights. I’m very comfortable about all the ways we can be in homosexuality. We can be leather men, we can have kids, we can be a drag queen, and we can be everything in between. This year was 50 years of Stonewall, and I was there in New York with my water polo team. It reminds us how much queens fight for us. We have to protect them.

Well said. It’s a huge task to direct a film, particularly your first film. When it’s based on something that you lived, I would imagine, emotionally, it’s very exhausting. What did you realize about yourself in making this?

Wow. I think it’s very true for the first movie, the first book, the first music album: it’s the most personal. You put everything you have in it. Really, it’s a very positive story, so it’s not really about my demons. It’s more an homage to my friends. In these scenes, something magical is happening. In all the gay water polo teams, I’ve noticed we’re the same. We share a lot of traveling, a lot of tournaments. Actually, the water polo team is the people I see the most in my life. More than my boyfriend, more than my colleagues, more than anyone else. We share everything.

That’s friendship.

So yes, I wanted to make this movie because we were very conscious we are living something extraordinary, something about love. I’m not a very cynical person. Most of the time, especially in gay cinema, you can see something cynical. Especially in France, movies with gay characters are drama, not something very joyful. I have so much joy with these people. And we face it together when something difficult happens. I wanted to make a movie that I would have watched when I was 14. When I when I was a teenager, I was a big fan of the series Friends. But I thought it could help me a lot to see a gay Friends on TV or in cinema.

Yes!

Something to show me that we could be great, and it could be amazing. You can have a job. You can have a boyfriend you love, or you can be single and very happy. You can have friends. It’s going to be cool to be gay. When I was a teenager, I worried a lot about being gay. So that’s why I did this movie: for the young generation to have a kind of model and see something positive about being gay.

So what are the plans for the release in America?

The US territory is quite complicated for a very technical reason. It’s about the music rights. You know there are a lot of hits in the movie—Celine Dion, Bonnie Tyler. When you buy music rights, it’s super expensive. So most of the time the producers don’t buy the music rights for the US territory. The Shiny Shrimps is a small movie, so we didn’t buy the rights for the US territory. We sold the movie to the entire world: Canada, Japan, Italy, Germany, Spain, England. It’s great to see the movie has interest everywhere in the world, but in the US, with the music rights, we can only do festivals. For festivals we don’t have to pay music rights. But for a proper release, we’d have to pay. So the US distributor must take the risk for expensive rights. So that’s why there’s no release set for the US.

Have you been approached about an American remake? Hollywood loves to remake foreign hits.

I would love to. I’d love Ryan Gosling as the coach. That’s my dream, I’d love that. We’ve heard about remakes happening in the US. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it does not. It’s always a long process. I don’t know why it’s so complicated, but I’d love to see The Shiny Shrimps remake in the US.

The Shiny Shrimps plays at aGliff on August 24.

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