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The Art of Reinvention: An Interview with Leos Carax

 | Interview |

  BY Ian Birnie


Three years ago at the 2013 Mumbai Film Festival, Leos Carax arrived at the festival for a brief retrospective of his movies. He conducted an extensive interview hosted by programmer Ian Birnie and was present for the screenings of his films: Boy Meets Girl, Mauvais sang, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, Pola X and Holy Motors.

The audio for these interviews was conveyed to us by the volunteers of the festival. But as a result of misplacement of the original AV files, we were not able to transcribe or publish it. Fortuitously, we recently managed to relocate the original AV files, and are now publishing this long delayed interview in our magazine.

Special thanks are conveyed to the volunteers at the Annapurna International School of Film and Media. The students of this film school based in Hyderabad played a key role in organizing the interviews, the groundwork and the workshops at the 2013 MAMI. They were especially helpful to us in giving us the audio for this conversation.

IAN BIRNIE: I know that Holy Motors was screened here in 2012, and that was especially well received in India. So maybe we can start with how that film came about and proceed to the rest of your career?
I hadn’t made a film for ten years. I was trying to make films, mostly projects outside of France, they were bigger projects. And I couldn’t make them. I decided I need to make a film. It had to be in Paris, a cheap film with no problems with money and casting. So I decided to make a small film, shot in digital, with Denis Lavant, who I knew. The whole idea came fast and the film was made very fast.

I’m surprised to hear that the film was made cheaply. It’s an epic film, 10 or 12 separate vignettes, different locations, some of it involves CGI. Was it carefully worked out so you could shoot a minimum number of days.
That’s the only good thing in digital. [Laughs]. I made a short film in Japan [Merde! For the anthology film Tokyo!] that I shot in digital. I realized that I didn’t have to see the dailies. So that saved time. I used to look at the dailies and say, we need to reshoot this and reshoot that when I was shooting on film. So this made the process longer and longer on film, but with digital it’s much shorter and this saves more time.

Was this film made with a complete script? Because there’s this sense of spontaneity that is totally infectious, but I am sure there was some amount of planning, the dialogue and scripts.
I always had a script, because you are not going to get money without scripts. I rework every day before shooting and during shooting. This is a film I changed a lot during the editing stage.

And Denis Lavant has changed a great deal. He was always a good actor but here he plays a role that I imagine very few actors could properly take on.
We’re the same age, the same size. We met when we were 20-21 and we made three films in the 80s. But we don’t know each other. I mean we live in the same neighbourhood and if we meet, we’d greet each other but we aren’t really friends. When I made my first film, after I made the film, I thought I didn’t use him well because he’s a very physical actor and I used him more like a sculpture, I didn’t give him a lot of movement. And I wrote my next film thinking to give him more to do. Now he’s grown up. At the beginning he was a limited actor, interesting but his range was small, but now he has grown and he can play anything, his field is unlimited.

Did you rehearse some of the scenes? Because they seem very elaborate. Such as the musical scenes like the accordion...
We never rehearse normal scenes, let’s say. But in all my films I put in physical scenes or musical scenes and those scenes are rehearsed. Like in Mauvais sang, he had to jump out of a plane and that involved stunts so it had to be rehearsed. In this film, we had to rehearse some sequences, the motion capture sequence especially.

The sequence featuring motion capture in Holy Motors

IAN BIRNIE: Yes, that was what I meant. The Motion Capture scene I thought that involved CGI, I wondered how that worked out because they dematerialize from being human to figures of light.
We used black light, and little light spots, but it is motion capture. That’s what I showed in the film. It starts with a few images of 19th Century Chronophotography by Étienne-Jules Marey, where you see people, the little child running. The first images of cinema in history which is already motion capture. That’s what cinema is, motion capture.

Marey was the scientist behind the scientific experiments; he would attach electrical instruments to his subjects.
At the same time as Marey, you had Eadweard Muybridge. Muybridge was more horses and animals while Marey was more about the motion of people.

In the film, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, which is shot entirely on sets. There’s one sequence, I don’t know if it’s meant to be Bastille Day but there’s fireworks lighting up the skyline of Paris. The main characters do this amazing ballet like movement which seems like an extraordinary undertaking. Do you enjoy working on sets on that level of artifice?
Yes, if I had more money I would do everything on sets. I am not good at real locations. That’s why I like shooting at night. When it’s night in a city, even Paris, it’s like a studio, so you have to bring the equipment and light it. But in the case of Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, it was not intended to be shot on sets. We had intended to shoot on the real bridge, but it was not possible. So we had to rebuild this neighborhood or Paris and the countryside.

I am wondering if we can get some questions from our audience.

Q: Why was it not possible to shoot directly on the Pont-Neuf? Was there objections from the municipalities.
Yeah, it would have blocked traffic and the authorities did not want that.

Q: How did the name came out, from Alexander Oscar to Leos Carax?
It’s a secret actually.

BIRNIE: The lead character played by Denis Lavant is Monsieur Oscar. Critics see Monsieur Oscar as your alter-ego, not that he’s autobiographical but that he represents all the possibilities of your cinema, this theatrical person who can play any role and wears many hats.
Well I always gave Denis’ characters in my earlier films, the name Alex, which is my real name. This time I gave him Oscar. I don’t know what it says. I don’t have much imagination, especially when it comes to names. In my movies characters always have the names: Alex, Pierre, Florent, Anna and I keep reusing the same names but I don’t know what it really means.

When did you develop an interest in cinema? I know that for a brief while you worked as a critic. So was this in high school or college.
As a kid, I liked going to the movies, like any kid. I went for the actors. The new Charles Bronson film, the new Marlon Brando film. But I discovered cinema, that there was someone behind the camera, when I was 16, when I moved to Paris. I saw a lot of movies at the Cinématheque

Do you still go to the movies? Do you follow new movies?
No. I don’t. I followed lots of films at that time, when I was 16-24, where I would see silent films, Russian films, American films, the New Wave films. When I finished my second film, I decided that I had seen enough films.

I think we have another question?

Q: There are long gaps between your films. What do you do in that time period?
I try to make films mostly. [LAUGHS]. But I travel, I read and write, I fall in love, I fall sick. I do what everybody does. But even if I didn’t have problems with getting money for my films, I don’t think I would have made many films, maybe a few more than what I have made now but not many more. I have to feel when I am making a film, that I am not exactly the same person as the guy who made the last film. I think that’s what Holy Motors is about, how to reinvent yourself.

Denis Lavant as Merde in 'Tokyo!'

[LAUGHS] You don’t see shorts as say, a rough study or a rough draft for you to make features.Q: You once said that you wanted to make a superhero film, is that something you are still interested in? Because your film, Merde! Is like a superhero film, about a character that seems to fit the mold.

I always wanted to make a superhero film, but the problem is I can’t invent an interesting super power. Most superheroes they can either fly or hit someone really hard, I want to do something more unique and interesting but I can’t think of an interesting ability.

BIRNIE: I know that between features, you make short films. Many of them I haven’t really seen anywhere.  Holy Motors in many ways is a succession of shorts. So was that a frame of reference?
I don’t think I’ve made many good shorts. Except for Merde! In Tokyo, the anthology film. I like that segment. But the other shorts were like, I was asked and I did what I could so you didn’t miss much.

Not really. I didn’t study films, I didn’t go to shoots so from the beginning it was kind of a bluff when I would go to people and say, “Give me money, I know how to make films”. It’s always been like that. I don’t feel like a film-maker, for me each time I make a film it’s like my first film and my last film. So short films are not really exciting for me.

I read in an interview that you did, that you often start with one image. That you had an image of this very old woman who begged in Paris.
I am not a storyteller so I start with one or two images or one or two feelings. With Holy Motors, I started with this image of this old woman whose back is completely bent and of course these cars, these limousines. The two feelings that are opposed in this film is what we call in French: la fatigue d'être soi. It means being tired of being yourself. The opposite feeling is the need to reinvent yourself in order to survive and if you have the courage and strength to do it.

In some of your earlier films, the impetus to change yourself comes from love. Obsessive love, it changes your daily life, your actions to other people.
It’s a romantic vision. I made this trilogy in the 80s, the first film is called Boy Meets Girl and they can all be called Boy meets girl. The need to reinvent yourself, to be lighter, to go faster, that you look through a woman and you can escape gravity. But what happens when you fall down. That’s not what these films are about.


One of your films is based on a literary source, a major literary source, Herman Melville’s Pierre; or the Ambiguities. Was it an image that came from the novel?
In this case it was a novel which I read when I was young. When I came to Paris, some guy gave me Pierre; or the Ambiguities. This was a novel Melville wrote after Moby-Dick. That book was a failure and nobody read it, so he decided to write something popular. He wrote Pierre which was an even bigger failure and then he stopped writing for years. When I read this book, I thought this was my book. It has every question a young man should ask himself. It’s like Hamlet. I never thought I would make a movie out of a book that was so important. But after Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, I hadn’t made a film for ten years so I decided to make it. The only fear was that I wouldn’t find a boy and girl for the cast of the film, but I did.

It’s also about obsessive love, mad love, which focuses on the most unlikely object.
It’s a brother-sister story. Sister in French, is soeur, which to me is the most beautiful word in French. It’s very close to coeur, which means heart. But nobody went to see the film.

It was a very high profile film. It had Catherine Deneuve and it’s tough that sometimes a film gets lost in the hustle, it gets badly marketed.
I respect the film, maybe it was too dark.

When you think about the audience when you make the film? In a way beyond having to raise the money?
Yes and no. I mean the audience always includes me. But then you have to go and get the money. And if they ask me what Holy Motors is about and I say, it’s about the experience of being alive today, they won’t give me any money. But if I say there are limousines and beautiful women and monkeys, then they give me the money.

[LAUGHS] So true.
When you edit, you think about the audience. Because I don’t edit alone, I have an editor, so if she doesn’t feel what I am feeling, I start thinking twice, and that is when the public comes in.

For me and for a lot of people, it’s a very funny film, I must say. It’s witty, which I didn’t think is true of your earlier films. Did you think of using humor in an, almost anarchistic way in your films?
Well, I hoped that there was humor in all my films but the experience in making this little film in Tokyo, really gave me more freedom because it was a thirteen minutes of this character called Merde, which means Mr. Shit, which comes from the actor Denis Lavant who had this feeling of jubilation and joy and that really went into the movies. Holy Motors I would say was one of my easiest shoots. We had young people in the crew. It was lucky, we had a very good crew. But for each film, I always make sure that there was some amount of joy. That’s why I like to have physical scenes, musical scenes.

So many movies these days are so humorless and stiff. Early cinema was not like that, in Méliès  films there were gags, there were tricks, vaudeville, all the things that went on before cinema. Denis Lavant comes from street theatre, from the circus and we talked about how important that was. Play is such an important word in art.
I think we forgot what cinema was capable of. You can do anything in cinema and we have forgotten that because we try to tell a story. In the beginning of cinema, in the silent era, the freedom was complete. I think cinema has to reinvent itself all the time. The first images showed a train coming to the station so that people were scared. Today of course, the images don’t have that effect but we need to keep reinventing the medium to give audiences that experience.

Orson Welles always said cinema was the biggest train set a boy could ever want. He was also a film-maker who believed in reinvention, in putting everything into the films. I imagine he’s a film-maker close to your heart.
Yes. But here in India, there was a film-maker called Guru Dutt who had this imagination and freedom, so you know, it’s what cinema is made of.

Any more questions?

Q: Who are your favorite French directors?
They are dead. [LAUGHS] I saw many films when I was younger, there were so many film-makers I came to know and feel indebted to. It was a miracle for me to discover cinema. I see it as an island where you can see life, and death, and love that you can see from a different angle. So if I have to give one name, I have to give many names because there are many French and non-French directors I feel grateful towards.

You said Holy Motors changed during the editing, could you explain what changed? I have a second question: You talked about reinventing yourself with each film, so where do you see yourself going from Holy Motors?
I think it has to do with the fact that I imagined it so fast that when we started to edit it, in my mind it was organic but it turned out to be a series of sketches. So I had to work to change that to make it flow better. What I rarely do is change the order of the film, the scenes and the sequences. I love editing and I could do it all my life but I stop because the producers want the film to be released. So the film is the film that was ready for Cannes a year ago. But probably as you edit, you think about how long can you expect the public to be kept waiting wondering what’s going on? So I thought maybe 20 minutes. [Laughs].

On the second question, well I am in the position of having finished a film. When you make a film and finish it there is this sense of emptiness and as I said I don’t want to be the same person who made the last film and well, it’s actually impossible not to be the same person but I have to think of myself as someone who has changed. It’s only through experience, by travelling by meeting new people that you start to change and as of right now, I have no idea what my next film will be.

You mentioned that for Holy Motors you had to change the sequences, what was the connections of the new order you put in place? Were the scenes related to each other?
Hopefully everything is related. Making a film is like making a world, and when you feel you have a project, you make something that is coherent, it has its own reality. The coherence, the relations between sequences of characters in the film are very intimate.

Denis Lavant and Edith Scob in 'Holy Motors'

BIRNIE: The connection is that it takes place in one day: Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Some of the sequences are more nocturnal, interior.
I knew that when I made the film, right away, I wanted this whole spectrum of experience. The experience of being alive. I invented this job where this character, Mr. Oscar, moves from one life to the other. If I didn’t do that, in a classical narration I would need to use flashbacks. If the character was a butcher, a doctor you need flashbacks which I can’t do. So I had to invent this world where a character does all this, and for me it’s the life experience all in one day.

Q: You said that your films are limited by the burden of storytelling. What limitations are imposed by storytelling?
Everything you make comes from limitations. My limitations are as a storyteller. I would love to be a storyteller, I would love to be Hitchcock, let’s say. And even Hitchcock, I’d argue, is not a storyteller, he’s a poet. It’s always very hard to say what a film is about. The Birds by Hitchcock is not a film about birds. Stories can be many things, but because I don’t have the gift of storytelling I have to find other ways to tell stories.

Q: How do you keep the energy going for a production like Les Amants du Pont-Neuf which took three years to complete?
Well it was extreme but it was three years to complete and not three years of shooting. Over three years we shot a lot, more than 50 weeks. It’s not just the shooting, it’s the life of the actors, the team to be suspended for three years is a very long time. But on the shoot, if you can’t do that, if you can’t bring people together in this tunnel, you find out on the first day of making your first film if you can do that or not. It’s not always easy. Cinema is about meeting the right people. You can’t make it alone. It’s not painting or writing. You need a producer, a writer, an actress. You have to feel that the people who are working with you are gaining an experience. That’s the great thing about Holy Motors where we had young people. It’s the same thing in casting. If you are hesitating between casting two actors for the same role, you should choose the one for whom the film will be more important in their life.

BIRNIE: I would say all of your films are beautifully shot. Your first film Boy Meets Girl which is shot in black-and-white, and your colour films are also ravishing. How do you work with your cinematographer, do you discuss coverage?
Well it’s very different if you are talking about film or digital. I started with film and so when I was young, I was lucky to have met Jean-Yves Escoffier who was ten years older than me and we became best friends and like a brother to me. Before the shoot is when we really work. Six months before we start shooting, we look at photos, we look at paintings, and we talk. But I’ve worked with different cinematographers and it wasn’t hard for me to go into making digital, because I knew that I wouldn’t have that same experience I did with Jean-Yves again. Digital is much poorer but people say it’s richer because you can do anything, you can shoot something in daytime and make it night, which makes people lazy.

I wonder with digital, it’s less precise visually. But you make a different kind of movie, it’s not as fixed as a visual image, the plan-séquence is different.
Well, for young people, my daughter for instance, she’s small now but in a few years she and others won’t be able to tell the difference between film and digital. I don’t like to be nostalgia, I decided to be angry rather than nostalgic. I decided to shoot in digital five years ago. I probably won’t make films in celluloid anymore. But the essence of cinema is film and not in digital. In cinema, between images you have dark, you have black and you have to keep blinking. If we don’t blink our eyes get dry and we get blind, and that’s what digital is doing, for me.

Q: Between the lengthy intervals between your films, in this age of recession, how do you finance yourself?
I am very lucky because the French system is probably the most friendly for film-makers.  Many of my films travelled in space and time. This year they are re-releasing my first films in America and Asia so I get money for that, and some of my films have been “box-office successes”. In-between, I written some songs, I edited a few commercials, I worked on music videos, I drew and I worked on projects where even if I didn’t make a film, I get paid for my work.