The director of one of France’s most commercially successful recent movies is a German who studied in New York, so it’s appropriate that the film, With a Friend Like Harry…, opens in a place that doesn’t evoke conventional images of France. Dominik Moll’s second feature begins in a freeway landscape that could be almost anywhere in the industrialized, automobilized world.

“When we were looking for the location, it was important for me that we should find something that should not be necessarily typically French,” says Moll, who speaks fluent, lightly accented but stentorian English. “It should be a location that could also be in another country, not a typically French surrounding.”

Although France is a much-photographed land, Moll believes that he found an area that had never been seen in a feature film before. “Of course, it is French, but even in France a lot of people ask me, ‘Where did you shoot that?’”

Like Harry’s title character, who enjoys the freedom of living outside bourgeois expectations, Moll is something of an outsider. Born almost 40 years ago in Bühl, Germany, to a German father and a French mother, the director grew up film-deprived. “The city I grew up in was quite small,” he notes. “In my family there wasn’t a big tradition of going to the movies anyway. So I thought Paris would be a good place to go to catch up with films. It’s a good place to see films.”

Unsure of what he wanted to do, Moll studied both film and art in Paris. Then an exchange program sent him to the City University of New York for two years. “That’s where I really started to study film seriously,” he recalls. “That’s where I did my first short films, and that’s where I found out that I really enjoyed making films. When I came back to France, I went to the national film school there. And since I went to film school in France, I had all my professional contacts there, so it seemed quite natural that I stayed in France and did films there.”

The director shot his debut feature, Intimacy, in 1992, and it was released in 1993, seven years before Harry. “I guess I’m rather slow at doing things,” he admits. “I like to take my time. Also, after my first film, I started to work on a screenplay that I never completed. It took me some time to decide to put it away. During that same period, I worked on other people’s films. It just took me time to find a good idea for a new film.”

Moll worked as assistant director on one of Laurent Cantet’s films and was preparing for the same job on the latest one, Human Resources, when Harry began to come together.

Harry is the story of a financially and emotionally stressed couple, Michel and Claire, who are aided by the title character. Harry’s attempts to help, however, ultimately become violent. Moll and Gilles Marchand co-wrote the script, which began with the former’s “experience with my children and then with the idea of wanting to confront people who have different approaches to life—one who was stuck in his everyday life and the other one who represented some kind of complete freedom.

“At the very beginning, I didn’t know that Harry was going to kill people. That came as we worked on it. It was pretty much my co-writer, who also co-wrote Human Resources, who pushed me to make things more radical. At one point, it was quite funny, because it was almost as if he represented Harry and I represented Michel. I was always resisting when he had more radical ideas. I had the idea of the scene where Harry should offer Michel a car, and I thought it should be a new car, but a regular car, and Gilles thought it was not radical enough. He thought it should be a four-wheel drive, and I said, ‘No, that’s impossible. If I was Michel, I could never accept a four-wheel drive. It’s too vulgar.’”

The movie was released in Britain last year as Harry, He’s Here to Help, and Moll says that he likes both English titles. “When the film went to the Cannes Festival, we had to have an English title, so the translator suggested two titles, Friendly Harry and Harry, He’s Here to Help. Miramax was not too thrilled by it. They thought maybe it was a bit too long, so they asked me if I’d mind if they looked for another title.”

Although Moll is a Hitchcock buff, he didn’t choose the name Harry as an homage to The Trouble With Harry. “In France, nobody’s called Harry. It’s a name that doesn’t really exist,” he explains. “For me, it was important to find a name for this character that would not be an everyday name, because he’s not an everyday character. Where Michel and Claire come from everyday life, he comes from almost nowhere. He brings all the fiction into the film, and for me Harry is really a fictional name. You often find it in films, not only in The Trouble With Harry but also Dirty Harry or Harry Lime in The Third Man. There are always Harrys hanging around in films.”

Moll didn’t intend to cast a non-French actor to play Harry, worrying that “if he had a foreign accent, wouldn’t it be too much pointing him out as an outsider?” Yet he ended up hiring a Spaniard, Sergi López—which led to changing Harry’s surname. “In the original script, I think his name was Harry Gregory. When I decided that Sergi should play the part, I decided that at least his last name should sound a little bit Spanish, because you can hear that he has a Spanish accent. So we came up with Harry Balestrero. I have a Spanish friend whose name is Balestrero. It was funny, because I met Tom Tykwer, who did Run Lola Run, and he asked me if I had called him Balestrero because in Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man, Henry Fonda is called Balestrero. I hadn’t thought of that.”

The director chose López because “he had that perfect combination of sincerity and straightforwardness and at the same time something darker about him.” He cast Laurent Lucas, who plays Michel, for his everyman quality, and then Mathilde Seigner as Claire because her energy contrasted Lucas’ introversion. A different sort of thinking guided the selection of the three girls who play the couple’s young daughters.

“I had friends who had already worked with children, and they said, ‘Oh my God, this will be hell,’” Moll laughs. “So I was a bit nervous about that. But it went really well. I think one of the reasons is that I have children about the same age, so I knew how to handle them.”

With the children, Moll says, “I shot in really tight close-ups, so I could really pick the moments where they were best. In a wide shot, it’s more difficult, because they are not good all the time.” For the opening scene, in which the girls respond crankily to a long car trip, Moll used a Method-style technique: “I made them repeat things over and over again until they were really exhausted.”

Harry was a French hit, Moll reckons, because “there hadn’t been a French film for quite a while that played around with tension and suspense. So that was something quite surprising and refreshing.”

The director also supposes that the film was popular because it wasn’t merely entertainment. “I think for a lot of people it worked like an exorcism, especially with people who had children. The film talks about things that most of us feel at one time or another—wanting to strangle our children, or getting rid of our parents—only we never do it. And here’s somebody suddenly who puts all those thoughts into action. It does have something frightening, but at the same time it’s very liberating.” —Mark Jenkins