‘Anatomy of a Fall’ Director Justine Triet Says Her Courtroom Drama Has One Thing in Common With Steven Spielberg’s ‘ET’

Warning: This article contains minor spoilers about the plot of “Anatomy of a Fall”

Actress Sandra Hüller is receiving raves for her performance as the enigmatic woman at the center of Justine Triet’s “Anatomy of a Fall.” In the Cannes-winning mystery, she’s a novelist, also named Sandra, accused of murdering her husband at their wintry chalet in the French Alps.

But there is another character in the film, also a leading role both in terms of significance and screen time, that contributes to the film’s overall success.

It’s Daniel, the 11-year-old son of Sandra and her deceased husband, played by the captivating young actor Milo Machado Graner. The character of Daniel is visually impaired – he was partially blinded by an accident years earlier, an event which is only briefly addressed in the film, though loaded with implications about parental responsibility.

While meeting for orange juice and coffee at a restaurant in New York City, Triet flashed a big smile when Machado-Graner’s name was mentioned. The director, a mother to two children with her partner and co-screenwriter Arthur Harari, smiled and laughed again when she recalled the audition with Machado Graner.

“You have heard the story about when Steven Spielberg was casting for the main kid in ‘E.T.,'” Triet asked. “This audition with Milo was quite similar to that story.”

As Spielberg recalled at the time “E.T.” came out, when Henry Thomas auditioned for the role of Elliott, “I was blown away by this nine-year-old. Then I came to realize he’s an adult actor, not a nine-year-old. The improvisation was so heartfelt and honest that I gave him the part right there.”

In the case of Triet casting for Daniel, the search began more than 2.5 years ago.

“I started looking in March 2021,” she said. “At first we were searching only for blind and visually impaired kids, but we didn’t find anyone who was perfect for the role. By July or August, I was feeling very anxious. Because I was also thinking about the balance of the movie and knowing how much this child was going to have to do on screen.”

She mentioned, “In my previous films, I’ve worked with little babies and animals, but not children of this age. It was a big challenge for me because it’s really not the same kind of work, on set. We have to be very protective and build the day around the child’s work.”

Triet was also dismissing certain feedback about the child’s role in the screenplay. “Everyone said to us, ‘This script doesn’t really work because a kid does not speak like this.’ I said, ‘Huh? My 8-year-old daughter speaks like this. It is definitely possible.'”

With the casting opened to include sighted children as well (Machado-Graner is not visually impaired), Triet was still insistent that the role of Daniel should be played by a blond-haired child. She thought that would make him more convincing as Sandra Hüller’s son.

“So at first I’d been dismissive of Milo, because he has very dark hair and he didn’t look too much like Sandra,” said Triet.

“But one day, I was just laying in bed and checking emails and Arthur came to me and he said, ‘Look at this kid’s tape, but actually don’t look. Just listen to the sound of his voice.'”

In a certain way, Triet’s momentary, voluntary blindness allowed her to see the actor and the character more clearly. “The way that Milo was talking was different,” she remembered. “It didn’t sound like a little kid, and I really liked that about him.”

Milo Machado Graner in "Anatomy of a Fall"
Milo Machado Graner in “Anatomy of a Fall”

So in November 2021, mere months before filming was to begin, “We organized a callback with Milo. When I saw him, I said, ‘I like you, but in the movie you’re going to have to really open up emotionally.'”

At the audition, Machado Graner was asked to act out one of the emotional scenes in the script. “And in 10 seconds,” Triet recalled, “he became totally different, totally in the character.”

“He had tears all over his face, really. And in that moment I asked him to say the lines of his character at the end of the movie, which no one had really done perfectly for me before. And he did the whole scene, right there, right in front of us. We were so impressed. It was so complex, all the things that were going on with him at that moment. But he made it look so easy.”

And that, Triet said, is what made her think of this Thomas’ audition for “E.T.”

“What I love about the story of Spielberg and the little kid,” said Triet,” is that at the end of the emotional audition, Spielberg just says, ‘OK kid, you got the job. Because, of course, of course he did.”

She remembered having the same certainty with Machado Graner. “I mean, after Milo’s audition, I just said, ‘He’s the one. Obviously.’ I sent the tape to the producer: Here he is, we found the boy.”

And what about the fact that Machado Graner didn’t have blond hair, which would help to make him look more like a son of Hüller?

“Really, who cares?” Triet said with another big smile.

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