40th Sitges - Interview with Frontier(s) director Xavier Gens and lead actress Karina Testa

At the 40th Sitges Film Festival I sat down this week with Xavier Gens and lead actress Karina Testa. An interview with both follows on Frontier(s) and I also have a 20 image wallpaper gallery showcasing them out here (view here). I finally got to see Frontier(s) for the first time this week and being a fan of survivalist horror films I thought it was much more exceptional than routine. I do realize its a movie that people will either love or hate. I fall on the side that loves it. In particular I love the entire third act and the gripping and electric performance Karina Testa turns in.

As for the Hitman controversy (Fox responds on Hitman) while at Sitges a source very close to the situation confirmed the previous rumors about this. Based on that I didn't get the impression it was just a disagreement on what violence to keep in or out but that Fox had taken it away from Xavier to do their own cut.

Now onto the interview with Xavier Gens and lead actress Karina Testa on Frontier(s).

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BLAKE: Xavier did you put Karina through any sort of horror boot camp to get her prepared for her incredibly physically demanding role in this film?

XAVIER GENS: At the beginning she worked alone because we did not have a lot of budget for the movie and Karina took upon herself a training program to be the character with a lot of sports activities. When we started doing prep work for the movie at that stage it was more psychological acting preparation that we did together.

BLAKE: According to Karina she considers herself incredibly shy so I was wondering who the hell I saw up onscreen then who put in one of the most intense performances I’ve ever seen? Where did she come from?

KARINA TESTA: I don’t know (laughs). I don’t know. I gave everything. This character isn’t something I could be in real life. Sometimes you just want to scream and do everything. And sometimes I was wondering if I had a problem and if I would have to see a specialist. (laughs) I don’t know.

XAVIER GENS: She is very very crazy. She looks normal but she’s crazy.

BLAKE: I heard she was listening to sad Arabian music on the set all the time?

XAVIER GENS: Yes she was listening to it all the time. She always stayed on the corner of the set doing this away from everyone else. Even the first time I saw her on the set she stayed off like an artist on the side. She just arrived and from then on was a wild animal.

KARINA TESTA: (LAUGHS)

BLAKE: Xavier what was that like in working with Karina and keeping her character arc through such a demanding performance with so much blood and crying throughout?

XAVIER GENS: We had established before shooting a dialogue together because I wanted to establish as much emotion from her character on the screen as possible. Karina was in the moment all the time. Even between takes she stayed in character. For example in the hospital she stayed the entire 10 or 12 hours of shooting and cried the entire time.

KARINA TESTA: I think that was my toughest scene now that I think about it because it was the beginning of the shoot. I didn’t realize how long it would really take to shoot this scene. I wanted to be ready at any time to be at the right emotion.

XAVIER GENS: In all the takes I needed an evolution in the emotion because she has just lost her brother. At all times she wanted to be ready to have the right moment for each scene and for an actress it’s really difficult to be ready at the exact time because you need to grow into the right emotion. In the preparation for that scene I have a dolly in on his face and I want in that moment for her to cry, which is very complicated since she is not a computer. She has to work so many times to have that right moments. For many actresses it’s tough to begin from the beginning of an emotion. You have to really work hard to get the good moments.

KARINA TESTA: He is very nice with the actors. He is very sweet to us the entire time of the shoot. Other directors can be torture to work with.

XAVIER GENS: When I asked her to do the mud scene she says, “Oh, yes ok!” And that’s it. She did whatever we asked without hesitation.

(EVERYONE LAUGHS)

BLAKE: Did you try to shoot everything in order?

XAVIER GENS: We tried to do that but it was too difficult for the schedule. We did do several scenes at the beginning in order. Then after that with both parallel stories (two guys and then the story of Yasmine) I was obliged to follow that logic and order as much as possible with the actors. We tried to do everything and order and especially for Karina that was better for her.

BLAKE: Going back to 2002 when you were first writing the script at what point did it take the turn and become a survivalist horror film?

XAVIER GENS: In 2002 when I began to write the script I wanted to make something that spoke about the political problem in France and make a movie that was a love letter to the movies of the 70’s and 80’s that I loved. When I began to work on the movie I wasn’t sure if it could ever be done. I couldn’t find money to do it and everyone said it would be impossible to make a movie like that in France. When we began to shoot we didn’t do any of the violence in the film as the production asked us not to shoot the violent scenes. So in the night we [secretly] brought in a second unit that shot all of the gore and violent scenes in the back of the production. Then at the end when we were doing the editing [I brought out] those reels of the violent scenes and put those into the movie. It was a renegade thing to do.

BLAKE: How much change was there from the original script you worked on to the finished film?

XAVIER GENS: In the original script there are two scenes that aren’t in the finished movie. One is where they prepare a [human] body for the great lunch at the end. In the original we were going to show how they cooked the body. I had a lot of problems in trying to [justify] shooting it. They said, “It’s impossible and too perverted!” In the scene we show someone pull out a long stake which they put in the ass of the body that goes out through the mouth like a [stuffed] pig. They said this is impossible to film.

With the children in the mine there is one more scene when they attack the bald character and he attacks them with the sort of axe that Karina gets at the end when she is running through the corridor. He kills one of the boys with it but we [decided to] cut it because it really wasn’t necessary, as we didn’t want to show them too much because it’s a whole other story. It perhaps needs another movie to tell [their story properly]. [Ultimately] we preferred to keep mystery there.

BLAKE: Just as well since you are going to have cannibals attack shipwrecked people in your next film!

XAVIER GENS: (LAUGHS)

BLAKE: Throughout the film there are several bouncy cam type shots (where the shots seem to have an added bouncing effect to heighten the tension of the moment). I was curious to hear you talk more about your use of this technique.

XAVIER GENS: Before I shot this movie I made several short films that have gone to several film fests like Venice, Los Angeles and Tokyo. This is my style of camerawork. When I made Frontiere(s) I didn’t have a lot of time to shoot so it was the intention of the camerawork to go really fast inside the action to be more visceral for its emotion and be closer to the actors. We got gave us very good stylish direction for the movie. When we know we can’t use the dolly or crane or steadicam, we just use a camera on shoulder with a good lense that gave us the opportunity to go inside the action with our actors since they are crazier than the camera.

BLAKE: There are some shots in the film where the camera appears to pan back through impossible spaces. The one that most comes to mind is when the camera pulls back through the inside the hospital and then back through the street and then back entirely through and out of the characters parked car. Could you talk about how you pulled these shots off?

XAVIER GENS: We put a long lense on a camera. It was a very long lense like a periscope (shows an outline of this with his hands making it appear to be like an extra wide skinny tube). We put that on the camera on a dolly. It’s just a tube and there is a place for it but not the camera (shows how it extends out from camera itself). And this is how we can achieve that sort of effect.

BLAKE: One of the striking themes for me in the film was that of the human will. We have characters trying to go beyond their means to press ahead despite truly hellish odds and obstacles.

XAVIER GENS: There is that but for me at the beginning of the movie we put in a new sentence that is voiced over from Karina. I think it’s important to have this voice over in the movie because it gives the schematic of the movie. For me the schematic of the movie is the respect for human rights. This is why we showed them in that [beginning] situation. We [also] showed the political problem because it’s a problem for the respect of human rights. If the character fights against the people that don’t respect that then you can have a good survivor with a nice subtext inside the movie.

BLAKE: Karina what was your most memorable story in working with Xavier on this film?

KARINA TESTA: There are so many things. Everyday there was something really incredible that happened. I never had a director like Xavier. He’s a really unique and… normal person (laughs). In [my experience] in working in cinema there are some really strange directors that create their own star systems. Xavier for me is very selfless, simple and incredibly sweet with actors. Frontiere(s) was a unique movie in my career where everyone was more like friends.

XAVIER GENS: It was like a little family and after shooting everyone still stays in contact. After working on Hitman, Frontiere(s) stayed for me as the most memorable moment because there was no money, no stars and it was just like a band of brothers that want to make a great movie together and go on an adventure. All the shooting was done in seven weeks on pretty much one set so it confined everyone and made everyone even closer. You can’t have that same feeling in a big Hollywood production.

BLAKE: By chance has Ringo Lam or Tsui Hark who you worked on films for as a training assistance seen this film?

XAVIER GENS: No there are no opportunities yet for them to have seen it. It’s only played at Toronto and now Sitges but I do hope to show it to them someday.

BLAKE: North American audiences by and large can first see this movie at 8 Films to Die for?

XAVIER GENS: Yes and that will be happening in November.

BLAKE: Any US distribution updates for the film?

XAVIER GENS: Maybe something with Lions Gate but we will have to wait and see.

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And now for the spoiler part of the interview. This part below is for fans of the film and I go into some scenes that would be considered spoiler-ish.

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SPOILERS

BLAKE: In the film you had to crawl through mud, get your haircut off and probably be covered in blood for more than a week. So what exactly attracted you to take on such a highly demanding role?

KARINA TESTA: For me it was really different from what I’ve done before. I’m just a young actress [that has only] been working for four years. My [previous] roles have only been as a fresh and sweet young girl in comedies. When I met Xavier I read the script for the main character of the movie. I like sports and it was a real opportunity to do something I hadn’t done before. The character was a really strong woman who has a lot of emotion and I wanted to change my [previous] image and take some risks. It was a real present when Xavier gave me the script. He told me it would be hard, you have to run a lot and it will be very cold (though the weather ended up being terrific). It was a challenge and I was even really happy to have my haircut.

BLAKE: When was the haircut scene shot?

KARINA TESTA: It was done during the last two weeks of shooting. And the most difficult part when doing that scene in front of the mirror was I that only had one shoot to do it. I didn’t want to feel like me as me Karina to see myself in the mirror. I had to be that character in the moment and it really took strong concentration. During the entire shoot I was really strange in my mind. I was completely in the movie. I couldn’t see a lot of people outside of the shoot like my friends. I was completely in my character at all times.

BLAKE: Karina was that the toughest scene for you in the film to do?

KARINA TESTA: No the haircut scene was because I was really afraid I wouldn’t [capture] the right emotion.

BLAKE: You approached the role with method acting?

KARINA TESTA: Yes, that is how Xavier likes to work. So I did it and it was very fun.

BLAKE: How many takes for the mud scene?

KARINA TESTA: One.

BLAKE: Wow you only did one!?!?

KARINA TESTA: It was hard I was really afraid during it. It was really frightening because I had the chain necklace and there was a little place to get inside. I was afraid I would be blocked inside. The problem was the pigs. I had to come up with my head [and arms] first with the pigs right there.

XAVIER GENS: She has to go through a lot of mud and there are a lot of pigs... and you can only imagine what they have done.

BLAKE: So that was a real set?

XAVIER GENS: Yes it was a real.

BLAKE: And no rehearsal for it?

XAVIER GENS: Yes but she is brave.

(EVERYONE LAUGHS)

BLAKE: Where did the zombie walk at the end come from (where Karina gets out of the car at the end with bar arms raised and extended while shaking uncontrollably)? I thought it was an absolute brilliant touch and really generates one hell of a haunting ending.

KARINA TESTA: It came from my imagination because I never personally have experienced such a story. I’ve never experienced violence or all my friends are dead all around me so I had to imagine and create what can a normal person become if something terrible arrives in their life. For me I saw Yasmine as an animal at the end. This touch was my imagination. If there is a Frontiere(s) 2 she won’t be like that she probably is now a vegetable (laughs). She’s now crazy!

BLAKE: Great touch!

XAVIER GENS: All the actors and particularly Karina brought a lot to their characters to the movie. We all worked in preparation together and I asked them to explain to me the different ways to say the lines I wrote for them in the script and to then take and adapt these lines to craft as their own. They came to me with a lot of propositions and ideas for how to give more flesh to their different characters. This was a great present for the movie and the movie can never be like that if they don’t work on writing and getting inside each of their characters.

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"Frontiere(s)" can next be seen on October 24 at the L’Etrange Film Festival in France (which will be its first official public screening in France). In the North America it will be shown at 8 FILMS TO DIE FOR in November.

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