L'Etrange 2012 Interview: Jan Kounen on WINDWALKERS, the French Version of BLOOD FREAK and More

Brian Clark, European Editor
Director Jan Kounen has been a favorite here at Twitch pretty much since the site's inception. Coming from an art school background and beginning with animated short films, Kounen has since carved a completely personal and unique career path, and proved himself impossible to pigeonhole.

He established a cult following with his first feature, the hyper-stylized, ultra-violent gangster film Dobermann, but rather than following that up with more of the same, he has since made documentaries about Shaminism and Eastern spiritual figures, created a singular, mystic reworking of the Western with Blueberry (AKA Renegade), taken on the modern advertising world in 99 Francs and (deep breath) and chronicled an infamous love affair with the chamber-drama Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky.

It's no surprise then that L'Etrange Festival in Paris has given him a carte blanche this year, in which he chose an equally diverse array of films to experience with the public. Kounen will present the screenings this Friday and Saturday, and even do his own live commentary over the Turkish film Three Supermen at the Olympic Games. On the eve of the screenings, I had the opportunity to talk to the director about the program's personal significance as well as his currently in-development motion capture film Windwalkers and why he won't be going to Hollywood anytime soon.

Twitch: Can you talk a bit about your history with the L'Etrange film festival? I know you've had a few films shown here -- Vibro Boy and Giséle Kérozène
Jan Kounen: Ah yes, my short films! A long time ago. I suppose have a long history then. It's interesting, at the time this festival was like an underground thing, and it was great to be a part of it. It was also the beginning of the festival, and there were just a bunch of people who knew each other; Frédéric Temps, Gaspar Noe and so on. We were all just starting to make movies as well.

I couldn't do this Carte Blanche before, and so I'm very happy to do it this year. Unfortunately I haven't had the time recently over the last years to come to the festival because I was working -- September is always a busy month. But yes, I'm happy that the festival exists and that its successful, and I'll fight to keep it running.

At other festivals and also generally in the industry of cinema, there is less and less space for arty films and bizarre stuff. I think in the 80's and 90's it was more open, even on TV channels. But now, I think now there is less space for those films, so it's good that this festival which allows us to discover things we can't see anywhere else has survived.

Could you give me a bit of personal history about the first time you saw each film in your Carte Blanche?
Sure.

We might as well start with Blood Freak...
We can say almost the same things about two films: Blood Freak and Three Supermen at the Olympic Games. Those came from a film freak named Romain Hannebert, a friend of Gaspar Noe. At that time we were short filmmakers. We met each other at film festivals and we were always a bit on the sidelines, like leper people, which was fun. One time Gaspar and Roman came to my place, and Gaspar had a big smile and a plastic bag containing those films. And many others too.
 
I love Z movies. When I studied in art school I made an exposition about the Italian Z movies, like the sword and sandal movies where you see someone's watch, or cars in the background or whatever. I was fascinated by these. So, when I discovered Blood Freak I was amazed. I was amazed by two things. I was amazed first by the French version of it. The voice was so perfect. If some comic guy tried to create such an odd, crazy, creative and funny mockery, they would never get to this level of quality. So I think it's an incredible accident from the team that dubbed it in French.

Will you be showing the French version at the festival?
Yes. I've never seen the original version.

That's the one I saw back in high school.
So you should come see the French version! I was fascinated by the form, when I saw that. And someone told me that they didn't have the dialogue, so they had to improvise, and that made the quality special too, like an accident. So, I'm like 18. I'm avoiding the dubbed version of films in every language. For me, it's a horror when I have to do it to my films. Always a disaster. But in this case... I mean, I've seen parts of the English version, but I think the French version is like an object -- the worst, or maybe the most crazy dubbing I've ever seen.

The film itself is so insane as well. And the fact that they reinvented the dialogue makes it even more artistic, like a performance. For me, it is like an artifact of art, like an artistic accident. You can't imagine that the human brain has conceived of these things!

Three Supermen at the Olympic Games is in Turkish. I've never had a dubbed version. And now I know information about that film that I didn't have before, which I won't talk about because I'm going to talk about it when I show it. When you see that film, again, you think, "How could the human brain have conceived this?" It was such a pleasure when I was younger and just beginning to make short films. Every time I went to a party, I came with these tapes and showed them to my friends and I'd comment on them. I'd say look in the back, see that! It was like a happening.

I don't know if it's a good idea, or what's going to happen when I show it. Maybe it's fun with some beer and two friends, and maybe with 300 people in their seats its not the same experience. But I've always wanted to share it on another level, to bring it to the museum. And I think L'Etrange Festival is a living museum of cinema. So I want to bring this to the museum as a happening. And to talk during the film, because otherwise you'd be bored sometimes.

So that part of the program is one side, like Z movie accidents. The other side consists of interesting modified state-of-consciousness films which I quite like. I like this idea of exploring a language without words and giving an experience to the audience. That's how I feel about Baraka and Koyaanisquatsi and probably also, Samsara which I haven't seen yet. I will discover that one soon.
 
I originally wanted Baraka, but they couldn't get the rights for my carte. So they said we are going to get  Koyaanisquatsi, and I said, "Sure why not? I haven't ever seen it at the cinema." Baraka though, I saw in 70mm in Paris at the Max Linder. It's amazing! It's like the difference people see from DVD to 2k. I really love the experience it offers of looking at humans and the earth with the tool of cinema. It's really beautiful to me.

So you have Koyaanisquatsi, which I have only seen on DVD and which I like very much... and also, it was the beginning of that kind of cinema in the 80's. The feeling that Baraka gives is nearer to my perception, but Baraka director Ron Fricke was director of photography for Koyaanisquatsi. Basically, I think many people have seen these on DVD, but I want to share it at the cinema, to give that experience.

It's completely different in the theater.
Yes, and you share the experience.

Right, and without any distractions....
And the scale of every shot too, yes.

Okay, another film I've never seen in a good screening is Dziga Vertov's The Man with a Camera. And the way for me to see it was to put it in the program! But I think there is a link between Koyaanisquatsi and this this one in terms of the exploration of cinema. I like the idea of exploring an experience of motion and sound. Of course, Vertov was silent, but it's still something that can inspire artists looking to explore the canvas of film as a painter would. It shocked me when I was still in art school watching a bad copy on a small screen. It shocked me 20 years ago and it still shocks me today. 

Then there's Crimewave, which is one I saw on VHS in high school.
Exactly, so Crimewave is for you. I saw it at the cinema. I wanted to give film freaks the opportunity to see this amazing film by Sam Raimi, which I haven't seen since.

It's almost never screened.
Yes, so let's screen it! As I remember, I was starting at art school at the time and when I went to see it, there were three people in the theater. But I was amazed by this adventure! I don't remember the film well, I just remember plates flying and things like that. And it influenced my way of filming for Vibro Boy. I love early Sam Raimi work. I like the later work too, but I especially like films like this, and Evil Dead -- and of course, it's the beginning of Coen Brothers too, who wrote the script. This cartoonish style was a world I wanted to share. I want to give people who love the film an opportunity to see it and to let people who haven't seen it discover this great film, and also to be amazed because Sam Raimi has done Spiderman and things like that since.

We know more about Peter Jackson's beginnings, which were very trashy and outrageous. But the newer generations, they don't know about this stuff. Maybe we should screen Peter Jackson's early films more often too, to remind them where he's coming from.

I was speaking with L'Etrange Festival director Frédéric Temps about France's cultural relationship with bizarre and genre films. He commented that a lot of the most interesting filmmakers have been leaving France.
I haven't left France! I don't know, maybe someday I'd like to make a film in Hollywood. It's not like I don't ever want to, but I don't dream of it. Some French filmmakers dream of making films there, but not me. I used to have that dream, but then I went to Hollywood, saw a bit, stayed a couple weeks, and I thought that it was not necessarily for me. I think in Europe I have ways to put together the budgets for films in English, sometimes with American actors, and to make those films with the respect that a director gets here. That freedom is the dream of American filmmakers, but few get it. And certainly, I wouldn't get it if I went.

I'm not looking for a career, I just want to be able to do my films and be happy doing them and be proud of what I do. I want to explore. Not all of my films always succeed completely. You know for me there are always things I'd change... but you try! And I think Europe gives filmmakers that space. I am quite lucky because I still have a decent budget for films and quite a lot of freedom. Now, if at one point I have less freedom -- because the system is changing, even in Europe, especially with pressure from TV channels, it becomes more and more mercantile -- then it will be better to go to America. If you have to have the same pressure, you might as well go there because their cinema is more global and also because there are so many things that they do so well, you know, technically etc. But for me Hollywood still a mermaid -- I'm a bit frightened.

Also, I don't want my films necessarily to be seen by the whole earth. I mean, of course everyone wants to be successful, so I'm part of that, but basically what drives me is to make quality films, to earn enough money to live well with my family, and to have space to write and do other things. And if I still have pleasure in this little space, which is already very lucky for any filmmaker in the contemporary cinema, if I keep that, I have no reason to want to do Batman or whatever.

You make films that don't fall in line with traditional French cinema, and there really aren't so many filmmakers in contemporary France taking these types of risks. Do you encounter a lot of resistance trying to get your films made?
My recent five year story is like this: I develop five scripts that I cant get into production and I accept two from outside, which are great, which I am super happy to have done. I would never think about doing those films otherwise. With Dobermann and Blueberry, I developed those myself. But 99 Francs and Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky were brought to me. Really, I like the idea of getting a script and doing it, as long as I can agree with the producer to change it and put my universe in it, which is easier in Europe. 

I'm lucky in a way because I am really happy with the films I've made. But I'm unlucky in the way that none of the recent ones were brought by me.

How is production going on your new project, Windwalkers?
There is a lot of talk about it. For the moment we have a rough script and I'm going to Japan to meet with motion capture studios. It's a very ambitious project, and we are going step by step. It's still very early in the process. I'm really excited because it will be 3-D, all CGI motion capture. I also get to work with Marc Carol, and work with Alain Damasio, who is a really important cult writer for me, as important as Frank Herbert. Also, when I started to make films, I was making animation, so it will be nice to come back to that. But this one was brought to me as well. I'll follow the track of this film, and then I'm starting to develop scripts, some in English some in French and we'll see what will happen.

For screening times and tickets to the Jan Kounen Carte Blanche program, visit the L'Etrange Festival Website.
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  • mightyjoeyoung

    "For the moment we have a rough script and I'm going to Japan to meet with motion capture studios."
    Surprised by this....I thought the french had motion capture studios for this purpose already....great interview, Mr Clark.
    I didn´t know he was such fan of Crimewave.

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