French Director Jean Louis Milesi stands before a mural at Santa Fe and Gilman, one of the locales in his first American feature filf Don't Give Up the Ghost. Photo: Ingrid Hazard
French Director Jean Louis Milesi stands before a mural at Santa Fe and Gilman, one of the locales in his first American feature film, Don’t Give Up the Ghost. Photo: Ingrid Hazard

By Ingrid Hazard

“Ghosts are like love. There are people who believe in them, and others who don’t.”

Those words open up Don’t Give Up the Ghost, the first American feature by acclaimed French filmmaker Jean-Louis Milesi, now a Berkeley resident.

Inspired by the spectral sight of fog creeping over San Francisco Bay, Milesi’s new comedy adventure story tells the tale of three brothers who wander the streets of Berkeley in search of their mother’s missing uncle. Starring Milesi’s own sons, the boys discover that their uncle is a ghost – but not gone from their lives.

Milesi, who has silver hair, a white beard and blue eyes,  is known for his award-winning, independent and emotional movies, like Marius and Jeannette and The Snows of Kilimanjaro, both co-written with Robert Guédiguian. The Snows of Kilimanjaro was selected for the 55th San Francisco International Film Festival, won the best screenplay trophy at Prix Lumières 2011 in Paris, and was in competition at the Cannes International Film Festival, as were many of Milesi’s other films.

Sympathetic, unpretentious and welcoming, Milesi’s joviality and simplicity reflect his Mediterranean  origins. A native of Italy who moved to Provence when he was two, Milesi revels in the simpler pleasures of life, like making his own Limoncello and gathering with friends around a glass of pastis or rosé wine.

Milesi, 56, moved to Berkeley three years ago. The filmmaker originally thought he and his family would live here for one year. “We just wanted our three sons, Matteo, Hugo, and Lino, to learn to speak English,” said Milesi. But like many other expatriates, he fell in love with the Bay Area.

He was particularly struck by the natural beauty and abundant wildlife. “My eyes are not accustomed to all this nature, and to see a skunk or a deer here, within the city, for me, it was just incredible,” he said. “As soon as I saw all this beauty and diversity around me,” he said, “I felt the urge to film here.”

Milesi also found himself captivated by the fog that rolled across the bay and enveloped his house high in the Berkeley hills. ” In this house at the end of the summer, by late afternoon, temperatures are cooling and you can clearly see the fog rolling over the bay and enveloping the city. Then suddenly you cannot see the tree in front of the house anymore,” Milesi said. “The fog creates this strange atmosphere: everything becomes ghostly in the fog”.

Milesi wanted to make a film in the U.S., but the notion seemed daunting – until he met Graham Leggat, then the director of the San Francisco Film Society and the San Francisco International Film Festival. Leggat asked him why he didn’t make a film in the Bay Area. The suggestion made Milesi believe everything was possible, he said.

But when Milesi returned in August 2011  from a trip to southern France to launch the project, he discovered that the 51-year old Leggat had died after an 18-month battle with cancer.

“So I decided to dedicate this film to his memory,” said Milesi.

At that point, Milesi still had no idea of the story he wanted to tell. “I was living in an old house located in Berkeley Hills overlooking the Bay fog, I was just thinking of Leggat. And that’s how the ghost entered in my life,” said Milesi.

Once Milesi got the idea of a ghost, he was inspired to write a family movie with a ghost at its center.

Milesi does not know if he really believes in supernatural beings, but he is open to the possibility. “I believe in magic and fantasy. I like to tell myself everything is not always rational and straight,” he said. “And even if it does not exist, it’s still beautiful to believe that there is a magic side.”

In this film, the improbable family is composed of a sour French father (Milesi himself), a disengaged mother (the American actress Michelle Anton-Allen) and three brothers (Milesi’s sons).

The boys follow their American mother to Berkeley for summer vacation and settle in uncle Graham’s empty house at the very top of Berkeley hills. As soon as they arrive, their mother disappears to look for her uncle, who has been reported missing. Left alone, the brothers launch their own search for the great uncle whose specter haunts the house. Their journey to uncover his whereabouts takes them through the Berkeley hills, to the marina, to the sculptures on the Albany Bulb, to Chinatown and Alcatraz,  “It is like a big hunt in the Bay Area,” explains Milesi. As the brothers solve the puzzle of their uncle piece by piece, they grow closer to one another. (See trailer below:)

YouTube video

The film is mostly in English, with a smattering of French. But since Milesi hopes to show it in both the United States and France, there are subtitles translating the actors’ words throughout. When Milesi started shooting, his sons, now 17, 14, and 7, only knew a few words of English. “It was a challenge for me as for them,” admitted Milesi. “When we arrived, they barely spoke the language. And making this film in English with my children was a truly beautiful experience.”

The movie also includes appearances by Blues singer Taj Mal, who happened to be Milesi’s neighbor, and the actor Big Spence, who plays forensic scientist. And then there is the fog, a character in itself, evaporating all around and figuring the ghost in a dreamlike atmosphere. For the filmmaker, “That is just the Berkeley spirit!”

Milesi raised $50,000 for the film from a June 2012 Kickstarter campaign. That gave him the funds to start shooting. Milesi has almost finished the film and only needs to sync the music and add special effects. He hopes to submit his 95-minute comedy to the next Sundance Film Festival and then get it shown in American and French theaters.

Don’t Give Up the Ghost is both a detective story and a family comedy, just one that deals with death. Milesi hopes it will make viewers both laugh and cry because, for him, “laughter and tears, c’est la vie!”

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