It was a tiny arthouse theater in New York city, with only a handful of audiences, I first watched Lucile Hadzihalilovic's breathtaking film, Innocence, more than a decade ago. The allegorical, dreamy, hypnotic film made an indelible mark in my head. Her dark, gorgeous images imbued with hidden meanings recall the world of David Lynch, but not thetered to the usual macho noir trappings. I thought Hadzihalilovic was a major new talent and was very much looking forward to her next project, any project.
12 years have gone by without a peep (although she made a 12 minute short in 2012), and after finding out that she is a real life partner of one of cinema's major provocateur Gaspar Noé, I was very eager to see her new offering Evolution at this year's New Directors/New Films series. And it didn't disappoint. And I jumped at the opportunity to interview Hadzihalilovic when she was in town.
Evolution opens in theaters Friday, Nov 25th in New York and Los Angeles, and on VOD
ScreenAnarchy: It’s a big honor to meet you. I’m a big fan of Innocence. I think it’s an amazing film. Now some ten years later, you come up with something that is equally, if not more stunning. First of all, what took you so long to make another feature?
Lucile Hadzihalilovic: It has been very difficult to finance it. I didn’t expect such a difficulty. Because it’s a kind of genre film, I thought that it would be easier at first. In a way it’s less abstract than Innocence and so on. But in fact, it was the opposite. in France, the genre films are not well considered. And it’s not really a commercial one or a mainstream movie, and more like an arthouse film. To be financed as an arthouse film you have to go through the system- the commissions and such which would consider and greenlight such projects. But they couldn’t get a consensus - some understood the project but others didn’t. People in general were not too keen on children being in a horror movie. I thought in France or Spain, they would be quite used to putting children in horror movies. (laughs)
So, it was much more complicated than I thought. Also I began to work with the first producer and thought we could get money by rewriting the script to make it more explicit or more digestible… So we tried in many ways - adding more elements with my co-writer but we realized that it was a very dangerous way to go because…I think the film should stay with your original vision and should not be compromised.
So I realized that it wouldn't be made with this producer so I tried to find someone else. It was (producer) Sylvie Pialat who said, "We can’t get any more money than this much. So we need to cut a lot from your script". So I did. So it was a project that was a lot bigger in concept but it shrank to what it is now but also back to the essential. I had to cut a lot out. It came back to maybe essence of what was the project in my mind in the first place. It’s more about the subconscious and that’s the original idea of the film anyway. I don’t regret what I cut. And that’s why it took a long time.
That’s crazy. I would think after such an amazing film you wouldn’t have any problems finding funding.
Innocence didn’t seem to help, like when people say, “Innocence is ok but I don’t understand this new project.” I thought Innocence could show them what it was going to be. But they didn’t seem to make that connection. I think people who are working in financing films or commissions are usually not the type of audiences for my films. I probably made many mistakes dealing with them, I don’t know. (laughs)
Speaking of connections between Innocence and Evolution. For me it’s pretty obvious. Evolution is an amazing companion piece to Innocence about fear and mystery of growing up. Was it conceived as a companion piece to begin with?
It was not like, 'ok, now I’m going to do the boys version'. Not at all. It was more of a small intimate story in the beginning between a boy and his mother in the hospital. It was only after that I developed an environment around them and I had this idea that it had to be on the seaside with the water, etc. And then it was a village and then an island and other women and children. So it grew like that. In the very beginning of the project I had an idea for it but then I got to do Innocence. I liked the organization of the village (where the girls lived). So only after that, I somewhat created that micro cosmos in Evolution. But it didn’t come from this idea of creating a cosmos, it really came from the boy and his mother and the boy’s fears and expectations and all that.
Your co-screenwriter, Alante-
Alante cavaite, she is a director too. you know her films?
I saw the trailer for The Summer of Sangaile. It looks beautiful.
Yeah. It does. It’s a beautiful film.
Did you have Alante in mind to collaborate with?
I’ve known her for a long time. In the beginning she was a reader for different drafts of the film I went through, then I found out that she was a very good writer. And little by little she became more involved in the writing. Even though we do very different films, we have the same tendency and yearning for surreal, fantastical elements, not realistic portrait as much. Her cinema is also very physical and visual experience. So that’s what we had in common. She helped me a lot to build up the structure out of this materials I accumulated over the years and to help me to find the story and to make the world in Evolution as current as possible.
How was shooting in Lanzarote, Canary Island? And how did you find the place? It’s an amazing looking place.
When I was working on the script, I didn’t know about Canary Island. But one of the producers knew a lot about Spain and knew the island. So thanks to him we found the place. We chose it for artistic reasons but also we could do it there for the money we had. It was a perfect combination. We did some scouting in different parts of the island. And I found this village in Lanzarote. There was another village in another island so I had to choose between the two of them, but Lanzarote was more simple and minimalistic. There is something very strong about the island. It’s volcanic with its black sand and
rocks so its very dramatic. But at the same time the white village is very familiar.
That’s a real village then?
Yeah. but it's not abandoned, really. People are not actively living there but they come for the weekend to relax. We didn’t do almost nothing to decorate the village. We just added a bit of dirt sometimes on the doors and the windows. There were a lot of green and blue color but it was too pleasant, so we did change that a bit. We didn’t have any time or money to do anything, so the village is pretty much like what you see on screen.
Wow. that’s crazy.
It was even better than what I imagined it to be.
Watching the film, the whole time I was thinking about the little wormy green gruel stuff the mother is feeding the boy. It looked very disturbing.
Very healthy. (laughs)
What was it made out of?
Maybe you should ask the guy who was in charge of the props. But it was just pasta and seafood but we added some green food coloring. But he wanted to make it taste good for the boy. But I thought it would be better if it didn’t have such good taste because it’s very hard for children to pretend. So I thought, 'ok, it should not be too delicious'.
Innocence was shot on Super 16mm film. And this was shot on digital?
Yes we shot it on digital camera. I wanted to shoot it on super 16 like Innocence but it was difficult. It wasn’t really about money but it was time constraints. We had to do it very fast and we were on this island, so in order to develop the film and see the dailies, it would’ve taken a lot longer. We had a very little margin of error window because of time we could afford. So we decided to shoot digitally. I was afraid that it would be too flat and not dreamy enough, not only physically but mentally. But we tried to work on it to have more texture and added fog. We did a lot in post production to add more texture and grain. That was what we were always looking for, texture all the time - texture with the sun, texture with the set, on the actual image and material. We tried to get that 'ethereal but also concrete at the same time' feeling somehow.
The whole film seemed it was intentionally underexposed. The film is physically dark.
There was a lot of night scenes and inside the hospital scenes are very dark.
So you did a lot of colorgrading and post work.
We did a normal colorgrading. We did make color a little more intense but it was not like totally changing the image. The image was captured like that by Manuel Dacosse.
How did you find Manuel to be your DP?
Few years ago I watched the film he did called Amer which I loved. I loved the work he did on it. There were both exterior and interior scenes in that film with lots of different colors and so on. Then I saw Strange Colors of Your Body’s Tears, also the colors in it were amazing. And we did a short film (Nectar) together before this. With Evolution, we were really heading into the same direction. He’s very quick. It was quite difficult shooting in Lanzarote because it was very hot and shooting with water was quite challenging physically. But we understood each other very well.
It’s so gorgeously shot.
I was very lucky to have him. And my set director, Laia Coll, who is great. She can do a lot of things with nothing. She was always happy and had a lot of great ideas. She and Manuel worked a lot together, especially in the hospital scenes. There were a lot of logistics to figure out because of the location with the set and the lights, but they worked together very well.
You’ve worked on many of Gaspar Noe’s films.
It was long time ago. When we first started making films. We founded a film production company (Les Cinema de la Zone) together because we wanted to produce our own films. But it was more for short films. But after that we didn’t produce our own films. Gaspar produced his last film (Love) himself but for mine, I didn’t produced it with the company. I did a medium length film called Mimi: La Bouche de Jean-Pierre, long time ago and he worked on it and I worked on Carne. But then we stopped working together because it became a normal production company.
Did he see the film? What does he think about it?
Yeah yeah yeah. He thought it was very strange. (laughs)
Well some thought it was strange and some people thought it was very familiar. I like that. I hope it’s not only strange but I’d like to be touching as well.
It's touching, it is very touching especially at the end.
It’s interesting about your take on the palpable male fears - fear of penetration and of pregnancy. I do fear those elements.
You said it was a bigger film. Was there more element to that of male fear?
No it was more to do with elements that gives context to the situations, like more things about the women- who they are, that maybe they are all part of the experiments. And the people who are doing experiments… Those elements wouldn’t have changed the nature of the film, they would’ve simply make audience understand more as to what’s going on. It was a funnel to create all this but then when the time came for me to cut, it seemed to me that those are not the heart of it. By cutting it I was going back to the emotional, the fear aspect of it.
When I was first experiencing Evolution, I felt that I needed more explanations but now I talk to you about it, keeping all its mystery, I think it’s perfect.
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema and beyond can be found at www.dustinchang.com