Seen at Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, Montreal (Canada) Format: Cinema Release date: 27 September 2017 (France) Distributor: Océan Films Distribution Director: Géla Babluani Writers: Géla Babluani Cast: George Babluani, Vincent Rottiers, Charlotte Van Bervesseles, Benoît Magimel
On the release of his tense new thriller, the French-Georgian director best known for 13 (Tzameti) talks about unlikely bungled burglaries, fragile criminals and the prisons we build for ourselves.
Over 10 years ago, French-Georgian director Géla Babluani made a memorable directorial debut with 13 (Tzameti), a stylised black and white tale of greed, desperation and dangerous games. He is back with a taut crime thriller that recombines the main ingredients of his debut, namely money and suicide, into a mature, tense study of human nature punctuated by flashes of absurdist dark humour. Set in the grim port city of Le Havre, the story revolves around three friends who break into a politician’s mansion to steal a suitcase full of money. But from the moment they enter the house, things go wildly off plan. As the characters are faced with a situation they could not have foreseen, each decision they make leads them inexorably down an increasingly perilous path.
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Stacy Martin, Liam Cunningham
UK, France, Hungary 2015
The actor-turned-director talks about Scott Walker, politics in cinema and the dilemma of having a high standard in filmmaking.
Loosely based on the short story of the same name by Jean-Paul Sartre, Brady Corbet’s directorial debut The Childhood of a Leader might be best described as the sum of its parts: historical psychodrama, arthouse horror and period mystery all come together in this demanding but strangely compelling film, which draws its study of the rise of fascism out of an unruly young boy’s tantrums and power struggles as he moves with his parents from the United States to France at the end of World War I. Set against the background of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, the 27-year-old American actor-turned-director has crafted a film that is every minute as relentlessly rich and mesmerising as the striking, full-volume orchestral score by the great Scott Walker that accompanies it.
Pamela Jahn caught up with Brady Corbet at the Venice Film Festival in September 2015 to talk about Scott Walker, poetic films about politics and the dilemma of having a high standard in filmmaking.
Pamela Jahn: Your film has been one of the most eagerly awaited debut features to come out this year – no pressure then?
Brady Corbet: I knew that it would be a love it or hate it movie. To tell you the truth, the divided reactions that I experienced were more in the process of putting the film together, because when you are making a movie like this, where there is no exact road map of what it is supposed to be, people get very nervous and shaky, because they are frightened of what the reaction is going to be. And it was hard for myself to anticipate how the audience would take it, but to my surprise, the reactions have all been pretty good. People have been very patient and receptive to it and I am feeling a lot more relaxed now. Also, the film is inherently a little bit of punk, because you open with classical instrumentation but it’s like they’re playing ACDC…
It is also a very loud film.
Yes, I like things really fucking loud and Scott Walker does, too, so it was sort of a request that everything is at maximum volume (laughs).
It’s an impressive film not only from a technical point of view but also in terms of its narrative and production value, especially given that, I believe, it was made for very little money?
I’ve been given instructions to not ever say the budget out loud, but you are right, it wasn’t much and a lot less than what I think it looks like, too. The first person who really made the movie seem possible, in both a physical and creative sense, was our production designer Jean-Vincent Puzos. He designed Amour for Michael Haneke, but he’s also designed video installations for Philippe Parreno or blockbusters for Roland Emmerich, so he’s worked with a 6000-dollar budget right up to a 49-million dollar budget, and I mean 49-million dollars just for his department, not the film. He really had the solution for every problem that arose and he realised that, because of the way we set out to make this movie, we were going to be extremely specific about what we were seeing and what we were not seeing, and that helped a lot. And frankly, the film was so unconventional in its structure: a UK, Hungarian, French and Belgium co-production with an American director and a Norwegian producer and writer… basically the movie was the fucking Paris Peace Conference, at least it was about as effective. The amount of miscommunication was just shocking, on a daily basis. We had contracts that had to be translated into three different languages, the closing of the finances, which usually takes three or four weeks, took like four or five months.
Where did the idea for the story come from?
Part of the idea was to talk about how everybody is responsible for the events that define the twentieth century, that there is a certain sense of culpability, and that partly goes back to Margaret MacMillan’s book Paris 1919, where she gives a very sober account of the events of the Peace Conference. Her book is infinitely more complex and academic and more intelligent and well-rounded than any movie on the subject could ever be, but we didn’t really set out to make a political film anyway, we set out to make a poetic film about politics. It’s interesting though, because historically speaking there already are a lot of poetic film about politics, everything from The Conformist to Saló, not just on the subject of fascism, but those are the ones that spring to mind right now. But weirdly, when we were trying to raise soft money for the project, we were told poetry and fantasy do not belong with history, and I found that really bizarre, because the thing is that history is always only a version of history anyway, it’s always a bit of fiction. And therefore there is a reason why a new book on Napoleon comes out every nine or ten years, and you wonder, what more could you have possibly learned in the last nine years to make it a new definitive account of the events, that the last guy who wrote a book on him didn’t know? It’s always a point of view. So, the fact that we were dealing with history, in a sense, never disturbed us from borrowing from a number of different events and sources and to sort of merge them into something that was original and cinematic.
Looking at your film on some level it almost feels like it could have been made in the 70s, though with a contemporary twist. Do you sometimes feel like you would have preferred to make films back then?
Not really, and I definitely don’t resent my era at all, because I am only 27, and so I think we are going to see a lot of amazing things over the course of the next 30, 40, 50 years… depending how long the universe decides to keep me around. But something that bugs me is that I see probably 200 movies in a year and I come out of my year talking about only five of them. There is a lot of content around these days, and images and films are more disposable than ever, and mediocrity is… it takes an awful lot to make a very good film, and it doesn’t happen very often any more. And of course I can only speak for myself and what I see, but I feel like something happened in the 90s, where a lack of ambition became really celebrated for some reason. It partly happened because of the digital revolution, I think, which first was genuinely exciting but now you are almost expected to do something anti-cinematic, just because you can. And the only reason that frustrates me is that somehow that very low standard in filmmaking has made it very difficult to have a very, very high standard. So I am not resentful of my era, I think right now I am just a little tired. Because you work so hard on something, and although you don’t need it to be accepted by everyone, you want to make sure that it doesn’t just go to the graveyard either, so you work even harder.
How tricky was it to get Scot Walker involved?
A lot less tricky than it was to raise money for the film, for sure. First, I didn’t think he would say yes, but we thought we would really try, because we thought it would be so appropriate given that he has written so many lyrics on the subject of tyranny in the twentieth century, and it’s a recurring theme in a lot of his music. Also because of the architecture of his avant-garde pop songs… and they really are pop songs in the way that it’s very easy to listen to them over and over again, despite them being abrasive and challenging. There is some kind of souterrainian [is this the right word?] melody in his music that keeps you coming back for more. I find everything about Scott Walker deeply inspiring but especially for this project. So we wrote a lot of letters, it was the same letter but we sent it to a lot of different sources, to make sure he would get it. And he did, and three days later he said yes. And I got this email which said, ‘Dear Brady’, and I kind of thought, oh, this is really nice that he made the effort to write this rejection letter himself. I was the most excited I’d ever been to get rejected. But then he said, ‘Great, I really look forward to working together’, and I was just really amazed. I mean I was 23 or 24-years-old at that point and I couldn’t really believe it. And as you know, it took years to finally get the film together, but he’s used to working on projects for a long time and so it all worked out in the end.
Writers: Mary Laws, Nicolas Winding Refn, Polly Stenham
Cast: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves
France, Denmark, USA 2016
The composer and musician talks about working with Steven Soderbergh and Nicolas Winding Refn, his earliest movie music experiences and why the greatest scores can’t save a bad film from its downfall.
Cliff Martinez started his career drumming for Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Captain Beefheart before making his big leap into cinema, writing the music for Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies & Videotape, The Limey, Traffic and Solaris, . He’s since formed a close bond with Nicolas Winding Refn, composing the scores for Drive and Only God Forgives. Their latest collaboration, Refn’s shiny new offering The Neon Demon, which premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, has an intriguing, pulsing electronic score that is haunting and emotional in equal measure, while the film itself unexpectedly divides critics and audiences alike.
Pamela Jahn spoke to the composer and musician about working with Steven Soderbergh and Nicolas Winding Refn, his earliest movie music experiences and why the greatest scores can’t save a bad film from its downfall.
The Neon Demon is your third collaboration with Nicolas Winding Refn. Did the fact that it features women rather than men in the lead role, which is quite unusual compared to Refn’s work in the past, change your way of approaching the music for this film?
Cliff Martinez: No, Nicolas had told me very early on in the process, ‘This is going to be a very different film because the subject is going to be women.’ And when he told me that, I was curious what it would be like. But then when I got to saw the film and I saw the shower scene and things like that, I thought, ok, so that’s how Nicholas is making a film about women, of course. So, no, for me it didn’t feel so much different. It was more a departure for Nicholas himself, I think.
Do you think there is a specific link between electronic music and fashion in the way those two worlds seem to complement each other?
Oh, I never thought of that, but it’s an interesting idea. Maybe there is some sort of connection, I don’t know.
The music to Drive is widely regarded as one of the greatest scores of its time. Did it feel special to you when creating it?
I loved Drive from the minute I saw it, but I don’t think anyone imagined at the time how successful the film was going to be, or at least certainly I didn’t have a clue. It was just a great project to be working on. I’ve never really grasped quite why that particular score got so popular. And I’m still kind of fascinated by the fact that in my 25 years of working as a composer, that’s the one score that people keep talking about.
In 2014, the BBC created a televised re-score of the original Drive soundtrack – what did you make of that new version?
I’ve heard of it but I’ve never actually seen this new version, so I don’t know. I heard that it was re-scored but that’s about it.
You also worked with Nicolas on Only Good Forgives, which has these great karaoke moments. Were you involved in creating these scenes?
As I recall it, the script and the actual film turned out very different from each other, but I think the karaoke material was there from the very beginning. I remember that it was the first thing that I did when I started working on the project. I usually don’t come in until the film has been shot but this time the ground floor was really the script, because there were several karaoke scenes that they needed the music for so they could shoot. I’d never done any karaoke for film before and I remember in the beginning Nicolas had this idea about iconic country western songs but then he decided to go with Thai music instead. So, I think I created five of these Thai karaoke tracks, each track was then tested and got changed several times to be performed at the karaoke bar, but in the end I think we used the original tracks.
You started your career as a composer working with Steven Soderbergh. Was he your first sort of soulmate in cinema, in a similar way that Nicolas seems to be now?
I don’t know, we just seem to work together very well. We seem to agree on films, their philosophy, musical genres and so on. We have a similar taste, I guess.
You’re currently working with Soderbergh on the TV series The Knick. Does it make a difference to you if you compose for the big or small screen, apart from the fact that it’s a longer process?
That’s the thing, it’s more exhausting than feature-film work but, in the end, it just feels like a ten-hour Soderbergh film to me. But there are some differences as well, I guess, one of which being that you have to mix the score so it sounds right on very small speakers, because most people will see it on their normal TV at home. And you also really have to develop your theme and your emotional peaks and stretch them over ten hours as opposed to two hours.
You are working across the board, from cinema to TV and video games. How do you choose your projects?
To be honest, it’s more that people chose me rather than me selecting things. Directors like Steven, Nicolas or Harmony Korine, for whom I composed the score for Spring Breakers, have asked me to score their films. So I feel that if I have worked on these great projects, it’s not so much because of my decisions, but because people have chosen me and trusted me with what I can bring to their work.
Was there a score when you were younger that first made that feeling, that relationship between music and movies, click for you?
There are a couple of films or film scores that come up actually, like the old scores by Bernard Herrmann and especially Ennio Morricone. One of the first film scores that I owned on vinyl when I was young was A Fistful of Dollars. Another thing that resonated with me from the beginning was the TV show Saturday Night at the Movies. I would watch The Day the Earth Stood Still three or four times a year, and the music just got to me, I listened to it every time it came on.
A film might be flawed but the music can still be brilliant. What do you think the score can bring to the movie as a whole?
Well, the score depends on the film. The music has a significant role, especially if there is not much dialogue. People turn to the music to maybe explain a bit more about what’s going on.
Do you think a great score can save a film from being terrible?
No, I don’t think the music has the power to salvage a terrible film, but I do believe it has the ability to completely transform a film. It’s hard to explain what it is, I didn’t understand it myself until I saw a film without music and then with the music, but when you do that, you can appreciate the power of music. But still, I think it’s a bit of a stretch to say that music can rescue an utterly flawed film and turn it into an entertaining, successful film – no musical score can do that.
Cast: Finnegan Oldfield, Marilyn Lima, Daisy Broom
Original title:Bang Gang (Une histoire d’amour moderne)
French director Eva Husson talks about adolescence and excess, shooting sex scenes and creating cliché-free female characters.
One of the great surprises of last year’s London Film Festival, Eva Husson’s bracing debut Bang Gang paints a frank, uninhibited and nuanced portrait of modern youth. Based on a real-life case, the film follows a group of teenage friends who engage in sex parties in a small French seaside town. Experimenting in this way will lead each of them to find their own limits and work out their own singular relationship to sex and love.
Virginie Sélavy talked to Eva Husson at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2015 about adolescence and excess, shooting sex scenes and creating cliché-free female characters.
Virginie Sélavy: Bang Gang goes against all the clichés about today’s youth and the panic about the internet. Although you integrate things such as posting photos online in the story you show that the characters’ exploration of sexuality is just part of growing up.
Eva Husson: I’m interested in the exploration of limits. I think that’s the job of teenagers, and the characters just do their job. Some are more confused than others, and some go further. A number of people asked if I thought the film represented youth. No, I don’t think that young people are constantly having intense group sex. But I think that it is very likely that similar excessive behaviour goes on, and it reveals archetypes and issues that are common to everyone. I think it’s much more interesting to choose an excessive type of story to approach that than a more traditional little love story that no one would have cared about.
It is based on a real event, is that right?
Yes, it was inspired by something that happened in 1996 when three hundred kids got syphilis in a small town. That’s what caught the attention of the hospital. They started to think it was a little strange, all these kids coming to them with that same problem. They questioned the kids and they realised there was something a little off. So it’s not something that is recent, and at the time you didn’t have all these issues of videos and photos. I included that in the film because I felt I couldn’t ignore it.
The way you portray the parents is very nuanced. They are quite sympathetic, they’re not repressive, they just don’t really understand what is going on.
I felt it was important that the parents shouldn’t be repressive caricatures because that’s often the way they are represented. I was touched by the fact that the parents try their best but fail, they’re a little clueless. They are quite open-minded and could understand their children if they talked but of course adolescents don’t talk. So I was looking back with sympathy at my parents and my friends’ parents, who were middle class and well-intentioned but got so much wrong. I was angry with them for a while and then I realised that they just did what they could.
You play an adult in the film, the maths teacher.
Yes, because even though in my head I was a teenager until I was 35 it was impossible to continue being a teenager. I love acting because I started as an actress, and I liked the idea of having a small role. Due to the intensity of the shooting I didn’t feel able to play a bigger role. And my husband plays the chemistry teacher, my mother plays the Spanish teacher, my brother is the disabled father and my cousin plays Alex’s mother. It’s a family affair.
What was the shooting like?
It was hard, because of the financial situation. We had limited means compared to our ambitions and so it was difficult to do all the things we wanted to do with the quality we wanted. Also we shot in some isolated places. All the scenes in the house were shot in the country and it was hard to be all crammed together in one place, day and night. The kids were fed up with each other, they were at each other’s throats. It was a bit like a holiday camp, it was drama after drama. To be honest I found it all quite funny. But there was also a lot of enthusiasm. The creative team was really close, there were many happy moments. I’d just had my baby and so I felt a little like a warrior: I’ve just given birth, I can do anything now, all problems have solutions. But I was scared, it’s not like I went in thinking, ‘great, I’ve just had a baby and now I’m making a film, that’s so cool’. I went in thinking, ‘oh shit…’ It actually gave me a strength I didn’t suspect I had.
Was it the first time you made something so explicitly sexual?
For a long time I was worried about the project for that reason. I found the story fascinating, I found the exploration of the extreme fascinating, but as for the sexual aspect of it… I’d shot one or two sex scenes before and I knew they weren’t the most pleasant scenes to film. Everyone is uncomfortable, watching people pretend to moan is not great to be honest… And so I wasn’t too happy about that, but at one point I said to my actors, ‘look, it’s very simple, your bodies are tools, you think of it as dancing, we’ll think about bodies in space, we’ll choreograph them, we’ll do it as a physical relationship to space. Don’t let yourselves get overwhelmed by your own emotions, it’s not about you, it’s about the characters’. And that’s the guiding principle that we all followed. When the actors talk about it they don’t seem traumatised. The other thing is that I kept the sex scenes to a minimum. I wanted it to be about the trajectories of the characters and for those scenes to exist only in relation to their emotions.
Those scenes feel very frank, very sensual, and never empty.
We spent a lot of time thinking about why we were filming each scene, what needed to be shown, in fact what was the minimum we could show, without overdoing it because others have done that, and I wasn’t really interested in that as a filmmaker. We thought a lot about what it meant for the character, which made a lot of decisions easier. When it came to nudity, I wanted it to be something simple. That’s why I had a couple of scenes where you see them naked early on so that afterwards you know that they can be naked, it doesn’t need to be all frontal. I didn’t want to focus on the genitals because people don’t really want to see that.
You’ve created great female characters that are very complex and different. They do what they want to do without compromising and they don’t get punished for it.
That was very important to me. As a woman I was thinking about how women and female sexuality are represented. I thought that a full-blown teenage female sexuality can be explored in a way that doesn’t necessarily end badly. Of course, if you shag lots of people, there is the risk of sexually transmissible diseases. For me that’s not punishment, that’s a fact. But at that age there is also that extreme malleability that means that you learn the lesson of what didn’t work, of what was a little too much, and you carry on, and you construct your identity. The construction of female sexual identity fascinated me, that’s something I really wanted to explore. I think there will be viewers who will find it hard going because it goes against the patriarchal view of things – even in films I love like Breaking the Waves, the female character really suffers, it’s punishment after punishment after punishment.
It’s interesting that syphilis is what happened in the real story because today the big STD threat is AIDS. That’s something that would change your life because there is no treatment, whereas now you can treat syphilis, which removes the potentially tragic element of STD.
Well, I did wonder if I should keep that in, so it was a real narrative choice, because a lot of people were saying to me, syphilis is over. It’s not common, that’s for sure, but it does happen. And it’s precisely no longer a lethal disease these days so the kids can move on, and that’s what’s interesting. I had a fairly wild youth, not in terms of orgies, but drugs, and people around me took lots too, and we all turned out OK. So it’s possible to explore your limits without it destroying your adult life. For me it’s a lie to say that if you mess up as a teenager you’ll ruin your life. It’s the only moment in life when you can go very far and make a full U-turn without any real consequences. I liked the idea of exploring that.
The film also dynamites all the clichés about girls, sex and love, the idea that girls are romantic and boys are not.
Yes, for instance, for Gabriel, a boy, and I know many boys like him, intimacy is something that is very strong and intense and he can’t do collective sex. However, he’s enough of a freak, in a good sense, to think that it doesn’t matter what this special girl who means so much to him does with her sexuality, because he’s someone who sees what really matters. George, on the other hand, is a romantic girl, but for her that’s not connected to sex. So she can sleep with boys without it being in contradiction with her sentimental side. And Alex may initially seem like a little bastard, but through him I was looking back with tenderness at teenage boys, realising that they were just a bit dazed, they didn’t understand everything. At the time I thought they were obnoxious, but in fact they were a little lost because learning about love and relationships is actually not easy – now, 20 years ago or 2000 years ago.
Based on the fairy tale collection Pentamerone by: Giambattista Basile
Cast: Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel, Toby Jones, John C. Reilly
Italy, France, UK 2015
The Italian director talks about fantasy movies, casting Toby Jones as an eccentric king and why every director only needs to make one good film.
Matteo Garrone might have made his name with the gritty, realist mafia drama Gomorra (2008), but his latest offering is a different beast entirely. A fantastically bizarre, wildly imaginative and highly stylized affair, Tale of Tales features a trio of stories, set in three neighbouring kingdoms and focusing on the increasingly mad and often hilarious miseries of their royal leaders, all of which are loosely based on the folk myths collected and published by the 16th-century Neapolitan poet and scholar Giambattista Basile.
Pamela Jahn met with the Italian director at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2015 to talk about fantasy movies, casting Toby Jones as an accentric king and why every director only needs to make one good film.
Pamela Jahn: It seems like Gomorra, which turned out to be your most successful film to date, and your new film Tale of Tales could not be further apart?
Matteo Garrone: Yeah, it seems strange…But, for me, there are also dark fairy tales in Gomorra, in the same way as the tales talk about archetypes, about human beings, so they are also somewhat modern too. And my approach is always one that starts from a realistic approach, from observation of contemporary reality, but at the same time there is also a fantastic dimension. In this case, I started off with fantastic tales and tried to bring them a little closer to reality. But all my movies are very visual, so the approach was not so different from my point of view. I actually felt that the line was quite natural, especially since I always talk about obsessions in my films, and Tale of Tales is about desire and how this desire becomes obsession. Of course, the language of Gomorra was much more based on a documentary style, but behind this choice of the language is an important visual work.
There are not many fantasy movies coming out of Italy these days.
No, but we also have directors who in the past worked well in that genre. For me, one of my references was Mario Bava, for instance. He worked with horror but also with fantasy. And I also like the early work of Pasolini, his short movies and fairy tales in particular, so we do have a heritage of that in Italy too.
When did you discover Giambattista Basile’s tales for yourself?
As a kid, I read tales like the ones by the Brothers Grimm like everyone else. I discovered Giambattista Basile only four or five years ago, through a friend of mine, who is a painter. I immediately fell in love with them, with the different characters of the stories, but also with the visual aspect.
This is your first English-language film. Do you think anything got lost in the translation of the stories into English?
No, because, first of all the original stories were written on the streets in the Neapolitan dialect of the 16th and 17th centuries. So even when you read the book in Italian you are already reading a translation. I also think there is something Shakespearean in the way Basile writes, and hopefully we helped a little to make him known in the world, finally. Because it’s really unfair that nobody knows this author who wrote the first book of fairy tales in Europe and who was the first to write about Cinderella and about many other famous tales…everybody only knows the Grimms. And at that time, the tales were not for kids, they were seen as entertainment for a mixed audience. That’s partly why these tales are also very dark sometimes and also almost oral because they are of medieval origin. It was important to me to keep the soul of Basile’s writing, the violence but at the same time also the comical aspects, because Basile is a master of mixing comedy and fear.
Toby Jones is brilliant as the eccentric king whose love for a giant flea overpowers the love he feels for his own daughter.
Yes, he’s wonderful. Jones is an actor, who like Vincent Cassel, can play comical and dramatic, all at the same time, and always in a way that never becomes cliché, he’s always believable. And that was very important for me with Basile’s tales, to find the right balance between comic, dramatic and the grotesque.
Like in the scene in which Salma Hayek, who plays a queen desperate to receive a child, has to eat a sea monster’s beating heart.
Salma was very generous with me. She’s Mexican, you see, and when we met, she basically told me I’m like a Mexican director because I’m so crazy. But in all honesty, when you believe in something the rest doesn’t matter, so she went through that scene without flinching because she believed in what we were doing.
What is she actually eating in that scene?
It’s a sort of disgusting cake, I think.
Together with Paolo Sorrentino, you are one of the most acclaimed Italian directors today. Is it true that you live in the same building?
Yes, it’s true. We meet in the elevator sometimes, but since he won the Academy Award for The Great Beauty I decided we shouldn’t meet too much. (laughs)
Why did you decide to work with Peter Suschitzky, the cinematographer, who is also a long-term collaborator with David Cronenberg and who shot all of his films?
I saw the work he did with Cronenberg. It’s realistic in its roots but at the same time you can feel something that is artificial in a way. And that’s exactly what we wanted to do with this film, we wanted to create an image that is believable but at the same time you feel like it was created in a studio. Almost like the beginning of the cinema, like the Méliès, something that is almost a performance, something that can surprise the audience, visually and emotionally. But at the same time you feel it’s artificial.
You used to be a painter in your earlier career. Why did you stop?
When I stared making movies I stopped painting, because for me making movies is always a figurative art, and it’s my way of painting now. Unfortunately, I can’t do both, because when I do cinema I think about it 24hours a day, I’m constantly thinking about the language of cinema. It’s something that I cannot combine and think about both at the same time. So if I ever start painting again I have to stop making films. But I’ll probably need at least two years to switch my mind because it takes time. I am very curious though to see what would come out of it, so maybe if I make a movie that is a complete disaster, I’ll go hide in my studio and start painting again.
You mentioned elsewhere that making this film was a very difficult experience for you.
I learned a lot about the technical aspects with this movie, but sometimes it was very frustrating for me because I like to have the control, especially the visual control. And sometimes when you work with special effects you shoot only with a green screen, so you have to imagine what it will actually look like. It’s like you’re giving away your brushes to somebody else and see what they do with them. And it took a long time to see something, like for example, even only to see the giant flea, I had to wait five months.
Has that somewhat discouraged you from making more ambitious fantasy or genre-twisting films like this in the future?
I think making films is always difficult. The world of cinema is somehow connected to something almost esoteric, because when you make a movie in a way you’re blind. Every day you make a piece but you forget what you’ve done the day before, it’s not like when you’re painting that you always see the colour that you put in front of you on the canvas. Instead, putting all the different pieces together is like a mosaic and finally, hopefully, you understand the tone of the movie. But sometimes it is easy to lose the control, visually. And my point of view is this: if a director makes just one really good film in his career, that’s enough. Then you can make mistakes. But imagine if every director would make just one good movie, how rich cinema would be!
Writers: Sebastian Schipper, Olivia Neergaard-Holm, Eike Frederik Schulz
Cast: Laia Costa, Frederick Lau, Franz Rogowski, Burak Yigit, Max Mauff, André Hennicke
German director Sebastian Schipper reveals the secrets behind his one-take tour de force, from his football coach approach to directing to his fascination with bank robberies.
Only ever so often comes a film that gets under your skin, not only because of the story, the brilliant performances or pumping soundtrack, but because it is fresh, radical, vigorous and raw and, most importantly, highly entertaining. Victoria is all of that and more, as the film follows its eponymous heroine (played by newcomer actress Laia Costa) in one continuous 140-minute shot from her first encounter with a gang of four persuasive thugs led by the charming Sonne (Frederick Lau) on a mild summer night in Berlin to an ill-fated bank robbery and the nerve-racking police hunt that follows it – all in all zipping through 20 odd locations in the early hours before the city awakens. No doubt that a venture like this required not only months of meticulous planning and an excellent crew, but also one big leap of faith. After two disastrous attempts Schipper managed to pull it off, making Victoria not only the runaway favourite at last year’s Berlinale but the most exciting film to come out of Germany in a very long time.
Pamela Jahn talked to the actor-turned-director about his football coach approach to directing and his fascination with bank robberies to get behind the secret of his one-take tour de force.
Pamela Jahn: What came first, the concept of shooting the film in one take or the story that you wanted to tell?
Sebastian Schipper: To be honest with you, I cannot separate them. What I actually had in mind was to make a film about a bank robbery that grabs you like one. It was, first of all, an emotional concept in terms of how to make it feel real, how to share the experience. And why is it, that if you make a film about a bank robbery, it always has to be the biggest bank robbery in the world? Presumably, that’s because it means you create the greatest possible experience for the audience, but I think that sort of approach sometimes kills the opportunity to really get into the moment, to feel what is actually going on. That’s how the concept to do the film in one shot evolved. The more we worked on it, the more I realised that this is not necessarily a film that tackles the brain or the mind, maybe it doesn’t even affect the heart, but it feels as if it has a direct impact on your nervous system. And I really like that. Of course, there are many mistakes in it, which, ultimately, I would have liked to cut or correct in the editing process. But at the same time I feel that because it’s all in there, because time flows and you can’t really escape the high points and the low points, it is almost like you’ve been conditioned by the way you watch the film.
You both write and direct. Does that make it easier when you’re shooting, especially with a project like this?
I wish I could say it’s easier but I find writing a script really painful. It takes an awful long time, sometimes years. Even if you write fast, it still takes at least two years, and that’s only the basic amount of time you are investing. But for some reason I feel I have to do it myself. Having said that, for this project I wrote only 12 pages and we didn’t edit anything in the end. When I think about it, the one big idea I had was that I wanted everything to happen in a team. Of course, with that kind of approach you lose a lot of power as a director in the overall hierarchy on set, but everybody else gains more. At the same time, the pressure is on everyone who is part of that crew. Like the smallest runner, everybody knew, ‘I can’t fuck it up! If the elevator is not downstairs when they come, I am the one who’s made that mistake.’ So everybody involved has a lot more responsibility, and I like that. I also wanted to bring the creation of the characters, of the story and the rhythm – which is normally part of the scriptwriting – into the entire process. To some extent that was a crazy thing to do, but it was also really beautiful.
Apart from the responsibility you also give your actors an incredible freedom to improvise.
It’s funny that you’re saying that because when I did my first film Absolute Giganten, people would ask me, ‘So, did you improvise a lot?’ Back then, I felt almost offended and said, ‘I didn’t, I wrote it all myself.’ And now it’s the complete opposite. That’s something that is very important to me, to have a sense of how people speak, for example, or how it really feels to talk to a friend, a soul mate or whoever. I am very interested in that. And I love actors. But again, this was different to when you direct actors in a more conventional way where you give them instructions about how you want them to say this line or that line. This time I really talked to them about their deepest feelings about the characters, not about the scene, not about the moment, not about the line. I felt almost like a football coach telling them their position on the field, and then they had to play football and follow the match and know what was going on all the time. They all had to take care of themselves.
Did you rehearse at all?
Yes, we had some rehearsals. But I don’t really want to go too much into detail about the way we made the film, because it takes away the magic. All I can say is that we did have rehearsals and then we had three days where we shot the whole film three times. So theoretically, there are now three films, but honestly, only the last one is actually a film. The other two are works in progress.
Did shooting become more difficult after the first run-through, because you then had a version of the film, an idea of the dialogue, the action and so on?
No, thank God. It was an improvisation, but there was still a very strict structure we had to follow from the outset every time we did it. It’s like a band who is playing an improvised piece. You’ve still got to know when it’s your solo, or that this is the rhythm, this is the tune and so on. But most importantly, you have to really know your instrument if you want to improvise. So we were very focused in that way.
How much do the three versions differ from each other?
A lot, mainly in quality. In the first one, nobody wanted to fuck it up, so everyone was very concentrated and technical, but there was no sparkle, no chemistry. So afterwards I said to them, ‘OK, guys, you’ve got to be alive. Make mistakes! Be chaotic, just go with it’. But then they tried that too hard and were all over the place. Those three days were horrible, because I was very nervous and tense – again, like a coach at half time. It was all very heartfelt and so I said to them, ‘You know what, we don’t have to win this game, but we have to start playing football. We have to show them that we are a good team. So don’t be afraid of making mistakes, but please, please concentrate’. And after that they really put it all together.
You talked about the rhythm of the film earlier. How did you manage the energy between your main cast?
They very much managed it themselves. I just had to organise it slightly. For me, it was all down to the casting, especially if you have them improvise so much as in this film. It’s very important that it feels organic, that it flows. And Burak and Freddy are friends in real life as well. First I was sceptical about that because Freddy showed me a picture and I thought Burak might be too much of a macho type and I didn’t want that. But when I met him in person I realised that he is actually very charming in his own way and that he has the biggest heart of all. And then it made sense to me, because he is like the heart of this group, Boxer is the leader while Sonne is good in talking to people, and Fuss is the little sidekick who always comes up with a crazy idea. I think if you structure a group like that then they become a team. It’s a natural process so they don’t all fight for the same spot. In a way it’s like an X-Men group, they all have their little super powers and that’s what I think is really important here too.
Where does your obsession with bank robberies come from?
I think it’s because I have that feeling that we sometimes get trapped in thinking that life is just one consecutive stage after another. You did this, now you are allowed to do that. Then you go a bit further, you move up into a better position, you get a little more money, a little more respect, and this is your life. And I guess the thing with bank robberies is that you walk in and pull your gun and you say, ‘I want everything, motherfucker! Give me my life, right now! I don’t want to be good anymore, I don’t want to wait’. And that’s why Victoria is the piano player in the film. She tried so hard and she’s always been the good girl, but I think we live in a world where things are getting more and more absurd, where you don’t have to be good anymore. On the contrary, it seems like you have to be sneaky and you have to betray people to get further in life. And that’s also what I see in this bank philosophy, it’s all about the money and no one cares about anybody else anymore. It’s like Brecht used to say, ‘Bank robbery is the business of amateurs. True professionals found a bank’.
Cast: Udo Kier, Geraldine Chaplin, Matthieu Amalric, Charlotte Rampling, Maria de Medeiros, Louis Negin, Géraldine Chaplin
The co-writer-directors talk about the perks and pitfalls of collaborating, Udo Kier’s haircut and the best remedy against forgetting people’s birthdays.
No barrier could hold what is unashamedly unleashed in Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room, and equally there is no stopping the wonderfully twisted mind of the Canadian filmmaker as he consistently pushes further the various ideas he has developed in his previous films, from his hypnotic debut Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988) right through to the magical and haunting Keyhole (2012). This time, Maddin has co-written and directed the film with his collaborator Evan Johnson (who has been working with Maddin since 2009). Together they have crafted a perfectly chaotic, yet fiercely formal, billet-doux to the lost, destroyed and forgotten films of previous decades by reimagining their very essence, sometimes based on little more than the original title of the films or the bare bones of their narrative. Immersing itself in a mad melange of wild plotlines, colour saturations, tints and overlays, the film initially evolved out of an even more ambitious project called Seances. Maddin and Johnson made lost films in public, filming at the Pompidou Centre in Paris and at the Phi Centre in Montreal, and these films will be made available next year on a website devised so that each user’s experience is unique and unreproducible. Part of this complex project, The Forbidden Room can and should be watched a number of times, not only to discover the cinematic treasures it hides but to appreciate the relentless effort and sheer love that went into its making.
Pamela Jahn sat down with Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson at this year’s Berlinale to talk about the perks and pitfalls of collaborating, using intertitles in talkies, Udo Kier’s haircut and the best remedy against forgetting people’s birthdays.
Pamela Jahn: You’ve been working together on other projects in the past, but this is the first time you are officially co-directing. How did that come about?
Guy Maddin: We all worked together on the companion piece to this project, the interactive website called Seances, ‘we’ meaning Evan and I, and also our third writer Robert Kotyk. We co-created it just through discussions in the screen editing room. But when it came to shooting, Evan and I were very close together, we’re inseparable. I consult with Evan for advice all the time. I tend to hold the camera more often…
Evan Johnson: I never hold it.
GM: But you have done on other films, on My Winnipeg and other short films, you’ve actually done the cinematography, so occasionally you do shoot. And it’s basically all just filmmaking. In the same way I long had a guilty conscience about my editor John Gurdebeke because, if an editor gets a bunch of found footage and makes a documentary out of it, he’s called the director, but if he’s just editing footage that we’ve shot, he’s called the editor. And I remember years ago, before I started working with Evan even, I asked John if he wanted to be called the co-director, but he said, no thanks, he’d rather be paid. So I kept him to that but I do try to give a shout out to him as a fellow filmmaker. And Evan is my co-director because he, too, is a filmmaker, even though our duties aren’t exactly the same. I couldn’t have made the film without him, or the editor, but John got paid eventually and Evan and I haven’t, so there’s that. Evan also does editing, or assistant editing for John, who gets things in a rough draft from us. And he does all the colour timing and effects along with his brother, the production designer Galen Johnson. I don’t do any of that, but I sit in a big comfy chair and write intertitles, the silent movie text.
What inspired you in the first instance to use both dialogue and intertitles in your films?
GM: I first became inspired to include intertitles with dialogue by the precedence set in Josef von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress. I like the way he uses intertitles with lots of dialogue and I thought, yeah, why would you abandon this wonderful vocabulary unit, just because you can have actors talk? Why not put these intertitles in which you can really establish a lot of flavour, in which a lot of expositional work can be done. And just like the way a child – if he or she learns a new word – doesn’t cough up the last word, so the vocabulary just keeps getting bigger and bigger. So, we kept the intertitles as an option here as well, even though our movies are essentially talkies.
The film is multi-layered with different storylines, genres and characters. How did you decide how to connect the various parts and, eventually, to frame everything with a prologue on how to take a bath which feels like another film within the film?
GM: When we were shooting some of the larger elements – there is a Filipino ‘Aswang’ vampire film and lumberjack-‘saplingjack’ film – we knew that those where going into the feature, and we knew ‘How to Take a Bath’ would be part of it. But then we had to start planning the links, and some of that was done after the shooting was done, which meant we had to go back and shoot some transitions. The narrator of ‘How to Take a Bath’, Louis Negin, and I ended up in Havana last year on a vacation together, and at one point I put him in a room – he didn’t really know what was happening – and I just pulled out my camera and there I had him. I mean, it’s clearly not shot the same year, the same country, the same camera, because I just opened up the laptop with his lines on it in really large font, and I just sort of scrolled down for him while holding the camera, so he could read the lines. But I love that because I’ve always loved the way my granddaughter could just gleefully slap together items and make a collage or a drawing, something with a noodle glued on, and I love the way Ed Wood or Oscar Micheaux did the same thing with film. And so I thought, well, I need some transitional exposition from Louis, and I’ll just take my camera and shoot this stuff before he goes to the beach.
Despite the dipping in and out of different storylines you end up with a surprisingly classic melodrama-like structure that carries the film.
EJ: We literally structured the whole thing like a classic Hollywood movie.
GM: Yeah, we bought Robert McKee’s book on how to write a screenplay, or a story, or whatever it is called – I never said I read it, but I bought it. But no, we worked way harder on this. I like working quickly on set, but I’ve always kicked myself for working too quickly at the screenwriting stage and never writing a second draft, and this time, we did second and third drafts of each different episode even. It took a long time, but I really enjoyed collaborating with Evan. I have always feared confrontation, and whenever I drew up designs for sets, half the time, the production designer would say, ‘No, you can’t have stairs’. I think I made eight movies before I finally got three steps in a movie! So in a way, collaborating was actually just compromising heartbreak and me hating myself for not sticking up for myself. But in the writing room we’d all collaborate and we argued things through and whenever it got personal – we can argue quite vehemently – there was no hurt feelings, and I think I learned that from Evan and it feels really good. And since his brother is the production manager there is none of that other stuff either. I got stairs, I got other things… I understand that things needed to be cheap but I was never just told, ‘no, you can’t have this or that’. And because they are brothers, they almost always worked things out between them and I never had to deal much with that. Before, my editor was my collaborator, and the most important collaborator was the happy accident, but now I have many collaborators and I really love collaborating.
You mentioned the Seances project earlier. Can you tell me a bit more about it?
GM: We shot a bunch of our own adaptations of long-lost films at the same time in Paris and in Montreal, in some cases with the same cast even, like improvised live ‘happenings’. That’s going to be an internet interactive, where anyone visiting the website can call their own a seance of lost cinema: little fragments of films will come up and interrupt and combine and collide to form new narratives. The programme will generate a title for that film, you’ll watch it and then it’ll be lost again. The programme creates and loses unique films and the title will be entered in an obituary list. Hopefully the two companion pieces will help each other, that’s the master plan.
Are you using some of the footage from The Forbidden Room when creating those seances?
GM: There is a little bit. Some the stuff from the film will be used as raw material in Seances, but it will be much altered in many cases, because they are alternate plots that you can change to incredible degrees by just re-wording the intertitles. That part gets hard because you have to come up with a completely different story that somehow fits the same edit – that’s the part that has racked my brain the most. But it’s really fun, it’s really satisfying when you come up with a plot that somehow fits. I guess it’s somewhat akin to Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily? where he took the whole movie and changed its plot, but I’ve never seen the film, I’ve only read about it. And with Seances, there are literally 500 billion different permutations that are possible and I still don’t have a concept of that number, so every now and then I go, ‘Are we really losing and destroying those movies afterwards?’ But yes, we are!
You’ve also made an incredible effort reworking all the palettes and colour-timing the raw material, as if to give it a new life of its own.
GM: At one point we discovered that movies weren’t just being lost in the 20s and 30s but that the Khmer Rouge destroyed many films in the 70s and sometimes they even murdered the directors. And there were low-budget exploitation films that were getting lost just because there was only one print and the director lost track of it, or he died and his widow didn’t care, something like that. There were lost films from all over and, for example, when Evan was colour-timing that little musical number with the obsessive man he decided to give that a lurid 70s palette. Whether or not it reads as that is beside the point, but it just felt ‘nower’, not just imitating the very limited two-strip Technicolour palettes of real film history – basically a blueish green and a pinkish apricot – but creating other palettes as if from a parallel universe of something.
EJ: I think in that case it was more Udo Kier’s haircut.
GM: Yes, Udo had a blonde Moe Howard thing going that determined the palette. It was really despairing while shooting because it was my first experience shooting in raw colour HD video and I just didn’t have the right attitude, I wasn’t seeing things that were really beautiful. But I have a lot more courage now, knowing how much the footage can be fixed. I actually made a colour movie way back in 1992 (Careful) where I controlled the palette literally by painting everything. I would paint people’s faces, their clothing, the walls… I even painted the plants, literally. But because we were so poor on this film, we had to take our props from anywhere and there was just no palette to the naked eye, no order, no control, no art, no thought put into the colour. I just couldn’t afford to think about it, so it had to be added later.
Given the low budget, you worked with an incredible cast. How did you convince them to take part in the project?
GM: They just seemed to be up for an adventure, because there is no way they could have known what exactly they were doing. I just told them they’d be acting in public. They saw the scripts eventually because they had to memorise some lines in some cases, but I think they were just up for finding out. We didn’t waste time asking people who would just say no. It was just a matter of meeting everyone for a coffee or lunch, one on one, talking to them for a little while and, every time, they agreed to show up. I couldn’t believe it. I was just waiting for them to just storm out of the set, but they never did.
As always in your work, there is a great sense of humour in the film.
GM: I’m a laughter slut, ho ho. I always take a laugh. I know people earlier in my career didn’t know whether the laughs were intended or not, so it made people very uncomfortable or embarrassed for me to the point where they had to go home early. But then, because I never quite had the nerve to make a joke, if it got laughed at, fine, but if not then I could save my dignity and the joke hadn’t failed. This time though, I started to make some changes and I made some conspicuous gags – although they are not that conspicuous, there are still probably not more than two people laughing at once.
You talked about your obsession with dreams before and there are some Freudian references worked into the film. Are you a fan of his work?
GM: I am a fan in theory, but I think my publicist at the Sundance film festival described me as a six-year-old pervert…
EJ: a cross between Eisenstein, Italo Calvino and a six-year-old pervert.
GM: Exactly right. I’ve only read a little bit of Freud, on the interpretation of dreams, standing up in a book store and it just ruined dreaming for me for the next couple of months because I was interpreting them while having them. And I like having dreams, they just come out of me and mystify me, and I start figuring them out later, but I don’t need Freud’s voice nattering in my ear all the time telling me what to think. So I just have a basic cartoon understanding of what’s going on, just like a lot of people probably did before he existed anyway.
How much of this film derived from your dreams?
GM: A few episodes came straight from dreams – that I am willing to admit. I don’t know about Boba and Evan. But there are a few guilt dreams and empowered-ness dreams… The dead father one is a recurring dream I’ve had since my father died in 1977. But there are other things like forgetting wives’ birthdays… there are not just dreams, they happened in real life too, and then they revisited me as nightmares over and over again. It’s about time to get over that. And what I’ve learned is that by making movies about things that really matter to me, things that I have experienced, I sort of cure myself of them. It’s a form of therapy. I don’t know what kind of therapy that is, aversion therapy maybe, where you just make yourself sick of something, because in the act of making something that matters to you into a movie, you have to turn it into work units, you have to cast the thing, you have to design a set, you have to shoot it, edit it, sound design it, then you have to talk about it with people and by the time it’s finally over, you’re cured. I’m cured of My Winnipeg, I’m cured of my childhood, so now I am finally cured of forgetting peoples’ birthdays – I am going to keep forgetting them, but I don’t care anymore.
The Austrian zither is synonymous with The Third Man (1949), considered by many cineastes to be one of the greatest films of all time. A combination of guitar and harp, it is a five-string fretboard that belongs to the piano family and is played with the left hand.
The pleasant and alluring signature sound of the zither score starts with the eponymous theme tune – re-titled ‘The Harry Lime Theme’ in the UK after Orson Welles’s character. This seemingly inauspicious musical moment singlehandedly introduced the post-war world to a very unusual Austrian instrument. ‘The Third Man Theme’ enjoyed 11 weeks at number one in America. This kind of stand-alone success didn’t go unnoticed by the movie moguls. It pioneered the use of soundtracks to market and sell films.
Like all the best innovations and cultural phenomena this paradigm shift was entirely down to chance. Director Carol Reed was picking up carafes of wine for his crew when he spotted Viennese local Anton Karas playing the zither for pennies in the courtyard of a small sausage restaurant on the outskirts of Vienna. It was the first time Reed had heard this strange instrument. His mind raced as he wondered if it could carry a whole film score.
Karas was a virtuoso; he’d been playing ever since he found a concert zither in his attic in 1918 aged just 12. Reed brought him back to his Austrian hotel and after successfully testing recordings of the zither with rushes from the film he invited the stunned Karas to score the music for The Third Man.
The Austrian musician spoke no English and initially took some convincing to come to London. Eventually one night he asked Reed to listen to a new tune he’d done – this turned out to be the first recorded version of ‘The Third Man Theme’. Reed loved it and, unappreciative of the skills required, asked him why he hadn’t played that before. Karas supposedly told him that the tune takes a lot out of your fingers.
In the wake of The Third Man’s success the venues for Karas’s performances changed dramatically. He was invited to play the zither for Princess Margaret in Buckingham Palace and for the Pope in Rome. With the money he made from the film Karas bought a bar in Grenzing, Austria… and called it ‘The Third Man’.
I recently answered a few questions about Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) on Radio 4’s Today programme on the occasion of the film’s re-release in cinemas. Set in a circus, Freaks tells of the love of midget Hans for beautiful trapeze artist Cleopatra, and the revenge of the other deformed performers when they find out that she has only married him for his money. The brief radio spot centred on whether the film’s representation of disability was offensive. As it was not possible to go into much detail in such a short time, this article is a follow-up, expanding on the issue in greater depth.
It is interesting that 73 years after its release and numerous positive reviews, it is still the question of the film’s exploitative character that was the focus of the Radio 4 spot. The fact that some of the initial American reviews and audience reactions were very negative, and that the BBFC refused to grant it a certificate in 1932, effectively suppressing it for 31 years, seem to have been enough to lastingly colour the perception of the film. Also detrimental was the exhibition of the film on the grindhouse circuit after the war by exploitation king Dwain Esper, under the title Forbidden Love. It was only after the film screened at Cannes in 1962 that the BBFC allowed a limited release with an X certificate in the UK the following year.
And yet, the early responses to the film were more complex and mixed than this may suggest, and it was even a box-office success in a number of cities in its full-length version, before it was cut by producer Irving Thalberg from 90 to 64 minutes, with a happy resolution tacked on at the end. More importantly, the reasons for which the film was vilified by some critics at the time would be deemed utterly unacceptable now, and demonstrate exactly the kind of intolerant, insensitive attitude towards difference and disability that director Tod Browning intended to fight. The Variety review started with praise but found fault with the story: ‘Freaks is sumptuously produced, admirably directed, and no cost was spared. But Metro failed to realize that even with a different sort of offering the story still is important. Here it is not sufficiently strong to get and hold the interest, partly because interest cannot easily be gained for a too fantastic romance.’ In a passage that has now been cut from the text published on the Variety website, it went on to state: ‘It is impossible for the normal man or woman to sympathize with the aspiring midget.’
This sort of ambivalence was found in many of the contemporary reviews. Richard Watts, Jr., wrote in the New York Herald Tribune: ‘It is my impression that Freaks is, in its quite repulsive fashion, a dramatic and powerful motion picture. It is obviously an unhealthy and generally disagreeable work, not only in its story and characterization, but also in its gay directorial touches. Mr. Browning can make even freaks more unpleasant than they would be ordinarily. Yet, in some strange way, the picture is not only exciting, but even occasionally touching… Mr. Browning has always been an expert in pathological morbidity, but after seeing Freaks, his other pictures seem but whimsical nursery tales.’
Also symptomatic of the time’s attitude to disability, The Film Daily found the reality of the performers’ deformities an obstacle to the enjoyment of the film: ‘It is a most unusual production, made at the time when the horror cycle appeared to be in full sway, and as a picture of this type it was produced with expert hands. But the nature of its theme makes its chances problematical. First, the fact that the ugly human monstrosities in this picture are that way in reality, whereas in other films the audience knew it was all make-believe seems to induce a different and not pleasant reaction.’
Contributing to the problem was the critics’ view of cinema as entertainment rather than art, as one of the articles on Freaks published in the trade journal Harrison’s Reports suggests: ‘Any one who considers this entertainment should be placed in the pathological ward in some hospital.’ And the Louisville Times: ‘I cannot believe such a show will entertain any but the morbidly curious, or those poor souls with jaded appetites who are even looking for a new thrill.’ (This view of cinema has been one of the grounds for the BBFC’s decision to cut or ban films in the UK, including A Serbian Film a few years ago.)
Tod Browning was most certainly a film artist who created a powerful and singular world of dark, disturbing poetry and bizarre beauty, exploring the marginal, misshapen, misfit corners of humanity. Yet he was also an entertainer. At the age of 16 he ran away from his well-to-do family to join a circus. For a number of years he did various jobs there, including performing in an act called ‘The Living Hypnotic Corpse’, before acting in slapstick short films in Hollywood. His directorial work includes comedies and exotic dramas, as well as the first horror film produced by a major Hollywood studio, Universal’s 1931 Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, which was a big box-office success. This enabled him to make Freaks for MGM the following year, but the financial failure of the film derailed his career. However, he managed to make Mark of the Vampire in 1935, and, more importantly, the masterpiece of fantastique cinema The Devil Doll in 1936.
Tod Browning’s background goes some way towards explaining the richness and complexity of Freaks, and the tenderness he felt for his characters. His work at the circus gave him a deep understanding of, and affinity with, the deformed members of his cast (the circus was the setting for a number of his films). His insistence on casting real ‘freaks’ gives the film a gritty documentary aspect that deepens and adds substance to the strange and nightmarish atmosphere. His respect for his cast is also demonstrated by the fact that he insisted that his performers had other talents and were not simply cast for their deformities. Early scenes show the sort of prejudice and taunting that the characters constantly come up against. Later sequences portray the characters in their daily lives: the armless Frances O’Connor eating dinner with her feet; the birth of the Bearded Lady’s baby; Siamese twins Violet and Daisy Hilton with Daisy’s fiancé. Some of these scenes, such as the courtship of the sisters, are full of humour and lightness, which adds another level to the representation of the characters. Others, such as when Prince Randian, a man without arms or legs billed as ‘The Living Torso’, lights a cigarette, will have audiences stare in disbelief and wonder at the skill and ingenuity involved in performing a seemingly impossible act. Some will argue that featuring such scenes is no better than the exploitative freakshows that treated people with deformities as mere attractions. Indeed, one of the problems Freaks has had to face in its reception is that, as a film about freakshow acts, it has been confused with the freakshow itself. There is no denying that these scenes have a spectacular quality, but it is a spectacle presented to elicit not uncharitable curiosity or horror, but admiration for the inventive manner in which the characters deal with the difficulties of daily life.
Watch the original trailer for Tod Brownings’s Freaks:
These scenes are also important for another reason: they contribute to the fact that the disabled characters never appear as passive, weak, dependent people, but as fully functioning, mobile, autonomous human beings, including those with the most challenging deformities. In keeping with this, they are given a full range of emotions, from love and desire to violence and vengefulness. It is very clear that the film’s sympathy lies with the ‘freaks’, and that physical deformity is not equated with wickedness, rather the opposite: the villains of the story are the characters associated with physical perfection – the tall, blonde Cleopatra and her strongman lover Hercules. But Tod Browning does not offer a facile, simplistic vision of the disabled characters as poor helpless victims of their villainy, and he gives them the power to act on their emotions, including the darkest ones. The extraordinary final scene, in which the ‘freaks’ wreak their revenge on Cleopatra and Hercules during a dark stormy night, menacingly crawling under the trailers towards their victims, is made all the more creepy and nightmarish by the deformities of the characters. This has been seen as exploitative by some as a scene that re-establishes the association of physical deformity and villainy. But this simply ignores that the scene is part of a whole, and that Freaks shows the many facets of its characters. By presenting a morally complex, physically active portrayal of fully rounded characters, Tod Browning treats his disabled characters exactly as any able-bodied character. This refusal to paint a worthy, sanitized view of disabled people as all-good unfortunates to be pitied may well be one of the reasons for the discomfort the film has caused in some viewers and critics.
Another thing worth noting is that most films that deal with disability will only have one disabled character, an anomaly among the norm, an exception among the majority. Freaks remains deeply unusual in that the majority of its cast is disabled or suffering from a deforming illness. The circus is their world and there it is the able-bodied characters who are the exception. The film gives visibility, legitimacy and screen presence to a large number of people who would have been ignored by the film industry. Tod Browning introduced the reality of disability and deformity in the midst of a Hollywood obsessed with physical perfection (MGM was Greta Garbo’s studio). The protests of MGM personnel during the shooting are revealing of contemporary social attitudes to disability and the sort of reaction the cast would have had to face on a daily basis. The studio executives refused to take their lunch with the performers because they could not stand the sight of them, which meant that most of the Freaks cast had to eat outside in a tent especially set up for them. This shocking aspect of the production highlights how subversive the making of such a film was in the context of the time.
Throughout his work Tod Browning was interested in the blurry line between what is considered normal and what is seen as abnormal, and one of the implications of Freaks is that that line is easily crossed. It is something that he explored in The Unknown (1929), a film that provides an essential point of comparison with Freaks. In this silent film also set in a circus, Lon Chaney plays Alonzo, a knife-thrower who pretends to have lost his arms in order to woo the pretty ringmaster’s daughter Nanon (Joan Fontaine), who has an uncontrollable phobic fear of hands. There is a stunning scene, remindful of the scene in Freaks when Frances O’Connor eats and drinks with her feet, in which Lon Chaney lights a cigarette with his feet, his arms lying motionless by him, having become so used to pretending to be a cripple that he forgets to use his arms in private. The Unknown is the fascinating tale of how a man, seemingly ‘normal’, falls for a girl with an ‘abnormal’ sexuality, acts ‘abnormal’ to seduce her and then really becomes ‘abnormal’ in his desperation to secure her, only to find out that she has become ‘normal’ and now wants a ‘normal’ partner – again, a strongman.
Watch a clip from Tod Browning’s Unknown:
Emphasizing the idea that the line between ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ may not be as clear-cut as it may seem, it is suggested in Freaks that the ‘tall people’ may not be as fully endowed as they should be, and therefore are ‘abnormal’ too in a fashion. In a spirited quip to Venus, Phroso the clown reveals that he is impotent (‘You should’ve caught me before my operation.’). And in a scene that was edited out, the sexually frustrated Venus wants to look for ‘a couple of sailors’ and ‘have some fun’ (which became ‘falling in love – getting married – having kids’), which would place her very much outside the moral conventions of her time and therefore make her a social outcast.
Both The Unknown and Freaks are as much about sexual abnormality as they are about physical and social abnormality, and it is perhaps its sexual undertones that made Freaks so unsettling to early viewers, despite the fact that many of these scenes were cut out. The characters of Lon Chaney in The Unknown, Venus and Phroso in Freaks, are about sexual excess or lack, and the impossibility of making individual desires coincide. Throughout his films, Tod Browning shows much sympathy for misguided, mishandled, mismatched, miscalibrated desires and the terrible, tragic acts they lead people to commit. Hans’s desire for Cleopatra is poignant because, despite his childlike appearance, he is a man, as he constantly reminds everyone, and she does not treat him like one, as exemplified most dramatically in the humiliating wedding scene where she carries him on her shoulders in a grotesque cavalcade around the deserted banquet table. For this, she will pay dearly, and will be made ‘one of them’ after being horribly mutilated by Hans’s friends (the violence has been cut out in the film as it stands). Her punishment for scorning his manhood is to be stripped of her beauty. As for Hercules, in the original version he was castrated by the deformed characters, making the sexual element of the film very explicit. The seemingly ‘diminished’ characters are able to take away the potency of the traditional virile strongman. Sexual and social power are aligned here and the ending depicts a subversive act of revenge by the powerless ‘abnormal’ against normative potency.
And yet, amid the darkness, there is also a humorous and lighter side to the strangeness of human desire: in a scene where Siamese twin Violet is kissed by her suitor, sister Daisy is seen to visibly enjoy the pleasure of the kiss. It is a lovely scene that celebrates the wondrousness of human life and an openness to all the shapes and forms that it may take. And so the answer to the question ‘Is the film offensive?’: no, certainly not, because it paints an exceptionally complex, nuanced, multi-layered portrayal of human beings on the margins of mainstream society that refuses to kow-tow to conventions and offer any facile reassurances.
One of the most talked about films at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Gaspar Noé’s latest offering is a labour of love, in every sense of the word. Noé’s first feature since Enter the Void (2009), the drama takes intimacy to a graphic third dimension, chronicling the sexual and drug ventures of an American who falls in love in Paris. But even if Noé is pushing the envelope in a similar vein as he did with his previous films, Love (3D) is more sensual experience than exploitation.
Pamela Jahn caught up with the Argentine director right after the film’s premiere to talk sex, Salò and pubic hair.
Pamela Jahn: Has the response so far been as you’d expected?
Gaspar Noé: I don’t know. I haven’t read many reviews yet. And actually, I fell asleep while watching the movie. I woke up when the credits came on, so the only response I had was from the people at the afterparty.
It’s the first time you shot in 3D, but it’s used in a quite subtle way throughout, apart from a couple of scenes.
Yeah, I didn’t want to do ‘pop-out’ all the time. There are only two, or maybe three moments, where you see things pop out from the image, mostly penises or the hand of the girl. I think the reason why I wanted to make the film in 3D is mostly because it looks a bit more real when you see the images on the big screen, or even on a smaller screen. There is some kind of vulnerability in those images that makes them more touching or emotional in 3D.
Was it difficult to get the actors to do exactly what you wanted them to do?
No, not at all. One day though, Karl Glusman was worried when we were shooting the scene with the transvestite. He asked me, ‘Where are the limits with that scene?’ And I said, ‘There are no limits.’ Actually, I knew that nothing would happen, but he didn’t know what I would ask him to do, so he was afraid. But when he realised what was going on, he started laughing. It was the funniest shooting day ever.
You found both actresses in nightclubs. What exactly where you looking for in terms of their characters?
Klara was just dancing, but she was dancing extremely well. But it didn’t need to be a club. I also quite often stop boys or girls in the subway or on the street, to ask them if they would be interested in playing a supporting role in a movie, and I take their number. I never talk about the main character because then people get overexcited, but once you make the first contact, all you have to do is film them with your phone or a small video camera to see how they look on screen. And I did a test with Klara and Aomi and they were both great. So then I had to introduce them to the guys who would potentially play the main character. At that point, I was still considering three or four guys, but I also thought that Karl was by far the best choice, and the girls agreed.
In the film, Karl plays a young film director and the posters on his walls seem to reference your personal taste in cinema. How autobiographical is his character?
It’s not autobiographical, it’s just the kind of people I know… or, let’s say, a mix of me and many different guys that I know. Even if his cinematic taste might be similar to mine, his behaviour is totally not. And mostly he is in his own mind anyway. He talks shit about women, but in a way, you don’t know what most people think, why they don’t talk.
Do you feel Love is maybe a bit more conventional than your previous films?
Maturity! I’m getting to a maturity zone… [laughs]
No, it’s just… if you want to commit a new crime, make it different to the previous one. I’m not going to redo any of my previous films. And actually, shooting in 3D was a new game for me, plus I was always talking about making a film with lots of sex scenes and here it is. I dreamt for years of watchching a movie of this kind, where sexuality is portrayed as it is in life and not as it is in adult videos or what they call ‘erotic cinema’ these days. Because actually, erotic cinema has disappeared, it was a genre in the 70s that really existed and now it’s nothing – there’s erotic photography but no erotic cinema. But also, I would still not call it a conventional film. For me, the way sex is portrayed is very banal or close to life in a good, healthy way, yet it’s not conventional… but maybe less intentional.
Was it a conscious decision by you that the girls would keep their pubic hair?
It’s sensual, I wanted the movie to be vintage. Personally, I really don’t get aroused at all by girls who shave their pussy, and I wanted the women to be attractive on screen. At one point I was considering a very pretty young porn actress from the States to play the part of Aomi, but the issue was that she was shaving and it would have taken too long for her to let it grow again. We even thought about maybe sticking some fake hair on her, but it was very messy, so finally I decided it wouldn’t work. Also, the lack of pubic hair reminds me of adult videos, or what people call pornography, because now in modern porn images the girls are always shaving. But also, that even shocked me when I watched La vie d’Adèle, because at one point her girlfriend is painting her and you see she has no pubic hair and I thought it didn’t fit with her character. She is supposed to be very natural, almost like a country girl, and seeing her shaved just looks more like a porn image to me.
What do you make of adult cinema today?
I don’t know, I lost track. I haven’t watched porn since I was 25. I liked the movies from the 70s like Defiance (by Armand Weston), or the French pornography from the 70s like Jeux de langues by Francis Leroi. For me are they were arousing, much more than those Californian videos with girls who look like firemen or soldiers with tattoos. But also, your sexual interest changes during your lifetime. I remember when I was 20, I would get very excited watching two girls having sex together, and nowadays I feel it can be good and that’s it, I don’t get aroused. But maybe that’s because I have less testosterone than when I was 18 or 20.
Are there any boundaries in cinema that you wouldn’t cross?
I don’t know, because when you say that I don’t know which boundaries I could think of. Irreversible always comes second or third place in a list of the most violent films ever, amongst A Serbian Film and Pasolini’s Salò;. But even Salò , for example, is a clean movie. As long as not everything is fake and the message is right… Salò might be hardcore to watch, but it’s also a very clever movie, a useful movie.