GUILLAUME CANET couldn't believe it when director Michael Apted sat down across from him at a luncheon in Los Angeles a while back. Apted's next project at the time was to be an adaptation of Harlan Coben's novel "Tell No One," the very book that French actor-writer-director Canet was obsessing over, seeing in his head how he'd turn it into a film.
"I saw all the work and the changes I wanted to make in it for a movie," the baby-faced Canet said during a recent visit to Los Angeles. "I was fascinated with all of those characters. I said to my producer, 'I want to do this film.' That's how we heard the film was going to be made in the States by Michael Apted. We just gave up on it. But I was thinking about it all the time."
And it was still weighing heavily on his mind at that luncheon. "I looked at Michael Apted and said, 'It's amazing because I have been talking about you for a while because you are going to do a movie of a book that I loved,' " Canet recalls. "He said, 'I have known for a couple of days I'm not going to do it. Do it yourself if you want to do it.' He said it as a joke."
But it was no laughing matter to Canet, 35. "I stood up and pretended to go to the bathroom. Instead, I called my producer. After that, we got into the negotiation process with Harlan Coben."
Canet, an utter charmer who resembles a scrubby, Gallic Patrick Dempsey, went so far as to write to Coben describing his passion for the project. "I explained to him to please trust this young French director," Canet says. And to sweeten the pot, Canet, who also acts ("The Beach"), sent along his feature directorial debut, "Mon Idole," which he describes as a "black twisted comedy about manipulation and power."
Coben was impressed and eventually the young director and his producer bought the rights to the novel. That dogged perseverance has paid off handsomely.
The film, which opened in Los Angeles on Wednesday, was a huge hit in France in 2006 and won several César awards, including best director for Canet -- the youngest French filmmaker to earn the honor. Reviews in the U.S. also have been stellar.
A pulsating romantic thriller, the film revolves around Alexandre Beck (François Cluzet), a pediatrician who has slowly been attempting to put his life in order after his wife, Margot (Marie-Josée Croze), was murdered by a serial killer eight years earlier. But when he receives an e-mail supposedly from his dead wife with a link to a recent video clip of her, Beck's life is thrown into the maelstrom once more. Canet, who co-wrote the screenplay, also appears in a supporting role as a particularly vile young man.
"Nobody wanted to do the part," the director says, laughing. "For a long time, I played a lot of these naive, really gentle parts. I thought it was fun to show something else."
Unlike Apted's planned version of the film as a straight thriller, says Canet, his adaptation focuses on the love story between Alex and Margot. "I was not particularly a fan of thrillers," he says. "But to see this love story emerging from the thriller. . . . We can imagine Alex has been through eight terrible years and, suddenly, something happens like this [e-mail clue]. There were strong characters. That is the most important thing for me."
Canet had his mind set on casting Cluzet as Alex. "He's someone really sensitive with a big temper and he's really nervous and sometimes tortured," Canet says. "I liked that for the part. . . . I think it's very important for a director to know which actor to offer a part."
But Cluzet's stock in cinema had gone down considerably in the years before filming "Tell No One."
"He had not worked for such a long time," Canet says. "He was starting to do some commercials. I was seeing him on TV and in some not really good movies. This actor is so talented, 'Why isn't he working more?' So I went to see him and I offered him the part. He was so touched."
But it didn't sit quite so well with the film's financiers, who wanted the insurance of a big-name star.
"I stuck to it," Canet says. "So we went, like, four months and, finally, fortunately, we found a [financing] partner who didn't care that he was not famous and trusted me and liked my first movie."
And, as it turned out, "Tell No One" turned Cluzet's career around. Besides winning the César for lead actor, says Canet, "he is working so much now."
Canet is still deciding what his next project will be as a writer-director. But he won't be going behind the camera any time soon.
He's slated to begin production in January as an actor opposite his girlfriend, Oscar winner Marion Cotillard ("La Vie en Rose"), in a film called "The Last Flight of the Lancaster."
"It's a film that takes place in the 1930s -- it's a beautiful love story," Canet says with a shy smile.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times