A few weeks ago the Locarno Festival held its 70th edition. Among the festivities, Let The Corpses Tan -- the third film by Belgian duo Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani -- had its world premiere on the majestic Piazza Grande. We had the opportunity to sit with the filmmakers and while we chatted about their adaptation, their creative process and their references, we also learned some exclusive stuff about their next project. Spoiler: it may concern Japanese animation.
So how did you come up adapting Jean-Patrick Manchette's LET THE CORPSES TAN?
Hélène Cattet: I was the one who stumbled upon it. I was working at a library for about ten years, and at that time a collection with the full work of Manchette was published. That how I discovered it. It was the first novel I read of his and I told Bruno: "This is truly incredible! You'll see, it will sound familiar to you". To be honest, I'm not so interested in adaptations, I don't see the point of it. But here it was the first time that it could work for us, because I felt we belonged to the universe.
I told Bruno: "You'll see, you'll have images in your mind, images of Italian Western and crime films of the 70's". Bruno read it and totally agreed with me. We decided that one day if we decided to make an adaptation, then it would be that one. And well... it happened (laughing). One thing leading to another, we ended up talking about it with François [Cognard, a producer with whom they have been working since Amer] who told us that he knew the rights-holder of Manchette's work.
Bruno Forzani: In fact, this goes back to the DVD release of Amer. We visited the French distributor and François meets a guy, talks with him and mentions Let the Corpses Tan! as it being an impossible book to be adapted for cinema. And we told François: "That's weird, because we think that if there's only one book that we would adapt, it would be this one!" (laughing). I don't remember why he felt like this about the book, but we kept thinking about this discussion, with this idea of an probable impossible movie.
During the adaptation process, we had so many problems that we ended up thinking it was a curse project. We tried not to be superstitious but we really had a lot of issues. First, to find the location and set-up, and then, one month prior to the shooting, the house we were thinking of using happened to be too dangerous and that it was falling apart. There were several accidents, so many that I told myself "Fuck, we're in deep shit, it really is a curse project and we should have never done it!". We eventually went through it but this story kept pursuing us us for a long time.
HC: We really had this kind of Sword of Damocles above our head... With something like 15 accidents during the shooting (laughing).
Your adaptation seems to be quite close to the novel - you notably kept the structure with the time passing by. How did you manage to infuse the film with your artistic personality? How much did you want to deconstruct the storytelling to get to this result?
HC: It was a huge work. We deconstructed everything while being absolutely faithful to the book.
BF: In the book, this storytelling with time indications is used all the time. At some point we broke it a bit to go somewhere else, towards something more fantastic and oneiric, to give another...
HC: ... dimension to the story.
BF: Exactly. That's why we kind of broke the "narration panels" thing.
HC: Yeah, we wanted to try to have another point of view on this gunfight and to move more towards Luce, the artist's subjectivity. That what really interested us in the beginning, this time panels construction, the flashbacks, while also breaking free from all of this.
Your mise en scène is truly incredible. Can you discuss your creative process? How much do you plan before the shooting? Is there any room for improvisation?
HC: Our goal is to get on the set and know everything, having planned everything. Firstly because we don't have a huge budget - the shooting conditions and the set were complicated.
BF: The set wasn't reachable by car. We could only reach it on foot.
HC: Every morning we had to walk uphill for half an hour to get there. We had to be super organized because there was no technical logistic there.
BF: That's for the practical aspect. Then, we have the theoretical side: our storytelling really relies on the shots breakdown, editing and sound. We think about all of this a lot to be as coherent as possible with what we want to tell. We work like this for economical and artistic reasons.
If you were to get an astronomical budget for a new project, would it radically change your creation process?
HC: I don't think so, because that's the way we learnt. That's how we did our short films, which we produced ourselves. We were extremely conscious about our budget and what could do or what we couldn't. Everything was storyboarded, we filmed ourselves, we tried things with the editing, with rhythm.
BF: The fact that we prepare beforehand allows us to think about how we are going to make the film. The mise en scène thus isn't a mere ornament, it really becomes a language. It's not here to make things more beautiful but to tell something. This process takes months and months. It's because of this we get this result, something that we might qualify as being organic.
HC: Yes, because everything was thought since the very beginning. When we write, every element is already settled: the music, the frame, the light, the speed of the editing. Everything was planned at a the writing stage.
BF: I guess that if we start improvising... well, I can't picture this! (laughing) But let's admit it, we wouldn't have the same precision with what we'd like to tell or what we want to make the audience feel.
HC: It's as if you were a novelist and you were suddenly asked "come on, write that way!". It wouldn't be possible.
Does this creative process create any frustrations among your crew?
BF: Before it did, but now it doesn't anymore.
HC: I mean, now we always work with the same team. It's true that for newcomers it's a bit difficult to get into the mood... (laughing) We always work with the same core, with the same producers, the same DOP, the same editor...
BF: But it's true, at first, as we're always around, the initial crew had the feeling they were only here to push buttons, that they weren't allowed to bring their sensibility. But by keeping the same collaborators, they end up finding their place.
HC: The idea is to channel their knowledge and experience on a very specific thing. Same thing with the actors. They can be frustrated; it's true, there are some actors who couldn't bare our working method, with a very definite frame. It's within that frame they have to find their bliss. The camera will never start following for them nor the light being adapted.
BF: For Let the Corpses Tan, we had more actors and we didn't encounter any problem. As we already made two features, maybe some kind of confidence has grown.
HC: And the team is very collaborative, which helps the actors. They feel very confident. It was pretty similar to a big summer camp! (laughing)
How do you explain that you can express your creativity only through this extreme search for precision, for the tiny detail? Don't you ever feel oppress by this will to deliver something that precise?
HC: We don't feel oppress because we really perceive our work like a puzzle, with pieces that we put next to each other. Like a domino. The problem is when we fail a shot. It ruins everything. We know that and it's reassuring, because that's really how we create our sentences, we know every frame...
BF: It's fucking reassuring, because if one piece is missing then you're really in deep shit! (laughing)
HC: We shoot a lot of shots per day, so we're reassured to know why every shot is there. When we shoot it, we know how it will fit within the film. But if it's fucked... of course it's not so reassuring at all.
BF: Since we imagine the film in our head, we do everything we can so that it will end up looking as we pictured it. So it's really not oppressing, on the contrary. It's work, persistence to get the result you're fantasizing.
And I guess the load of work beforehand is colossal?
BF: Pfff... it's huge.
How do you two work together? Do you split tasks?
HC : No.
BF : For The Strange Color, we split some tasks but for this one we really worked together so that we...
HC : ... didn't get frustrated.
BF : Yeah, because when you think about a sequence, for you it might be right but not for the other. This is why we did everything together, to be...
HC : ... on the same wavelength.
BF : Yeah, not to have points of view that are too radically different.
HC: And the same goes for everything: we don't work in our corner, we work together otherwise it explodes! (laughing)
Could you come back on the oneiric dimension mentioned earlier. Did you have any references in mind? How did you approach the purely aesthetic creativity of these scenes?
BF: The thing is that in the book, the character of Luce is rather secondary and we decided it should be the protagonist. It's because of her that the whole action can take off. She's the one allowing to diminish the down to earth aspect of the story. The gunfight becomes some kind of happening. In fact, in the novel, she's described as some kind of Niki de Saint Phalle, shooting on pictures. This made us think about the new realism artistic movement, with Klein and Tinguely. It dealt with performances linked to destruction. They were demolishing cars - which suits the "actioner" side of our film - they were shooting at Christs; they were breaking sexual and religious taboos, and so on. We borrowed on this aspect for Luce to bring the film somewhere else.
HC : Yeah.
BF : Also, we went to the Biennale in Venice. We saw the work of a Vietnamese collective who used bullets entering ballistic gel. We drew some inspiration from that, regarding the way to kill one of the characters.
Were you tempted to diminish the narrative side of the film to tackle onirism even more?
HC : No.
BF : We liked the novel so much that we wanted to be very respectful, and at the end we were drifting...
HC : ... towards something different. But it's true, we remained rather faithful to the book because we liked it a lot.
And do you like working on these more narrative sequences?
BF : Well, it was okay...
HC : It was okay, it was fun.
BF : Yeah, it was okay for that very specific film... (laughing). I was a bit worried because the storytelling is completely different from The Strange Color. And for The Strange Color, narration wise, I was happy with what we did with those nesting dolls. Something that was in a way a bit similar to Satoshi Kon. But then, moving on to something more straightforward, it got me worried because with what we've been doing since the beginning was searching for a very particular type of storytelling. So personally, at first, I was kinda freaking out, but when we started writing the script, doing the adaptation, it was so enjoyable that it wen rather well (laughing).
You mentioned your first features and your shorts that were tackling the giallo genre. With your third film, you are still exploring Italian genre cinema with the poliziesco and spaghetti Western. How did you approach this change?
HC: It came with the book, which is between the western and the thriller. It really came with the book, even though when we were reading it we realized that it was also kinda our dream... We really wanted to shoot a western! (laughing)
BF: The giallo and the Western are both genres focusing on the mise en scène. From Dario Argento to Sergio Leone, you have great directors. These two genres are purely bound to mise en scène so we were really up for it.
HC : Oh yeah we really were excited. It was the perfect opportunity.
Did you have any films or any specific references in mind while working on this third feature? Or was it more like an interconnected pile of impregnating things?
HC: There were the Westerns that we like, that we watched over and over again. But, did we really draw inspiration from them? Maybe we did with Keoma which is really good and that we had in mind, but it's different... (laughing)
BF: As you say, it's more a pile of things. In fact, to us, references kinda worked like counter-references. I mean, we watched Sergio Leone's duals to avoid making the same thing. Come on, they're so awesome that it's bloody stupid trying to mimic them. When we worked on the action sequences, the gunfights - things we never done before - we didn't want to end up making John Woo stuff, or The Raid 2 style. I adore this but it's another kind of violence. Rather we wanted to stay faithful to what we do and thus to approach these action scenes through editing, through radical choices of framing. Also, regarding the guns, we had Bullet Ballet by Tsukamoto in mind. It was kind of a reference but in the end it's not so present in our film, except for this fetishist use of guns and the organic feel. I also like a lot Quelli che contano by Andrea Bianchi. It's a poliziesco with Henry Silva. It takes place in Sicily and there's this mix between the poliziesco and the Western, with this arid and Mediterranean side of Sicily, without the very urban set-up usually attached to the poliziesco. But in the end, all these things were things we were thinking about, not really a framework of references we used.
HC: Yeah, it was somewhere but in the end it's not so present.
BF: When we read the book, it made me think a lot about Cani arrabbiati by Mario Bava, especially the beginning because afterwards it becomes something completely different. In fact, the only true reference was the book. It's very visual and offered a lot ideas regarding lighting, things we developed following our work with Amer and The Strange Color, notably on the night shots. The novel already kinda proposed a shot breakdown.
You mention BULLET BALLET, but LET THE CORPSES TAN also evokes another film by Tsukamoto, TOKYO FIST, with its relation to the flesh, with this carcasses, with the flesh shredding...
HC : This was the book.
BF : Well... not really.
HC: The carcass?
BF: It's... briefly mentioned (laughing)
HC: Of course, there are several elements in the book that are briefly mentioned, in one sentence or even one word, but we sometimes developed some of these things in the book.
BF: In the film.
HC: Oh, yeah, sorry (laughing)
BF: Regarding Bullet Ballet, it has more to do with the work on sound. We really tried to give a twist to the gunfights. There's this scene in Bullet Ballet where a gun fires and you get this huge explosion. For Let the Corpses Tan we used cannons and various types of gunshots as well as various framing effects. We tried to find a mix that gets under your skin.
HC: Since we shoot without the sound, it allows us to mix various tones for every sound, so that we can get a particular impact on the viewer's subjectivity.
BF: And that you get a physical impact, that the gunshots really are... pfff!
We surely felt it last night on the Piazza Grande! (laughing) I have the feeling that in your film there's a meta-discourse, in particular with the aerial stills with the ants. They give the impression that there's some kind of distance with the location, with the film itself. Do these photos have a specific function?
HC : Well, it's exactly that. To get this distance at that point of the story, to move to the point of view of the artist, Luce, who's watching all this violence with the eye of a creator of happenings.
BF : As if it were... her last work of art! (laughing)
In a way it transforms the film into a contemporary artwork...
HC : Yes, our goal was to transform this gunfight, to make it slide toward a happening. Towards the last performance of this artist.
BF : Personally, I don't think we could have done the film if it had been a very straight-forward thing. This character really gave us the opportunity to go somewhere else...
HC: ... and to give another perspective to the action. Another point of view.
Which brings a very radical dimension to the film... Your film being screened on the Piazza, which usually shows films that are more accessible for a general audience, did you have any apprehensions regarding the audience reaction?
HC : Honestly, we didn't give it a lot of thinking. This time at least. Usually I'm really stressed out, but this time I really managed to let it got. I did not anticipate it. I told myself "just relax and see what happens!" (laughing). It's just right before going on stage that I started saying "oh my god, oh my god!". But we did without getting too serious about it.
BF: It was our very first experience on the Piazza Grande so I didn't know it was more intended for a general audience. We were happy to watch the film, almost in the first row, so we didn't really see the reactions... The screen was so big, the sound was super loud... We rediscovered our film.
HC: We really didn't think about it.
BF: And to be honest, every time we watch our films with an audience for the first time, we are always disappointed. Because it represents a lot of work, and suddenly "pouf"!
But what is disappointing in the end? The final result, the audience reaction?
HC : No, it's just a farewell.
BF : There's a deceptive feeling.
HC : That's when you say goodbye to the film. You give it away. It's a farewell.
BF : But this time... it was awesome! (laughs)
With LET THE CORPSES TAN, the genre was imposed by the novel, but would you be interested in exploring other genres with further projects? You've mentioned a few times your interest in Japanese cinema: would that be something you'd be keen on exploring?
HC: It has leaked, it's not possible.
BF: It has fucking leaked! (laughing)
HC: Oh yes yes yes yes, you know something!
Not at all! You've talked about Satoshi Kon, Shinya Tsukamoto... and since they're directors I like, I was curious.
HC: Canada has leaked! (laughing)
Well, I don't know if you can talk about it, but I feel like it's already too late! (laughing)
BF: Oh, well... Basically, our next project will be an animated film for adults that we'd do between Japan and Canada. And there's also the third part of our trilogy after Amer and The Strange Color that we would like to do. But our top priority now goes for the animated film.
HC: Yup, the anime.
BF: For adults.
Is it going to be an adaptation or original content...?
(Both directors are laughing in a very complicit way.)
BF: You already know quite a lot! We won't go into details... (laughing). But it was awesome. I mean... We start going to Japan, we met Satoshi Kon's producers and it was... amazing. It was awesome. Anyway, that's it! (laughing)
Interview conducted by Thomas Gerber and Loïc Valceschini.
Thanks to Ursula Pfander and Karine Durance for making this interview possible.
Portrait: Locarno Festival © Samuel Golay