"I Don't Need To Be Put On A Pedestal": An Interview With BASTARDS Director Claire Denis

Dustin Chang, Contributing Writer
Claire Denis goes all-out noir in Bastards, a brooding, nocturnal thriller where innocents get punished and good men die. With a star studded cast, Denis creates a film experience so seductive and mesmerizing, it reminded me of the exhilaration that I haven't felt in theaters since, gosh, maybe Mulholland Dr.?

The film's strong sexual contents are stirring controversy since it debuted at Cannes (in Un Certain Regard section). It will be a divisive film for sure. But there is no question that the film demonstrates Denis as a filmmaker in her prime. I had a pleasure of chatting with her for the second time since her last outing to NYFF with White Material in 2010.

Twitch: BASTARDS plays out like a hardboiled film noir in the vein of James M. Cain and reminiscent of CHINATOWN. I know it's co-written by your long time collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau. Is the story based on anything?

Claire Denis: Yes, it was based on something. I wanted to work once more with Vincent Lindon (they collaborated in Friday Night, 2003) and have him to play someone like James Caan or Toshiro Mifune -- someone solid, someone we can depend on. But I like seeing bad things happening to those hero types.  So I started with some Kurosawa revenge movies from the [60s] -- Bad Sleep Well and High and Low. Then with Jean-Pol, we decided that if we wanted to do a noir, then we should write it straight forward, scene by scene, brick by brick. Otherwise it wouldn't work because I have a tendency to revise again and again.

There is a plot but like many of your other films, it's all about the mood and atmosphere you create. I'm wondering how much of the script is translated on the screen?

In Bastards, the script was exactly the blueprint of the film. Nothing was invented on the set. One scene was cut and I wanted the killing of Marco to take place on the seaside. They were going to carry the little boy off by the boat and she (Chiara Mastroianni's character) shoots him and he falls into the sea. But that' about it. The weather was bad and it was going to cost too much. Other than that, there was really no big change made. Everything was planned well and it was different than shooting in other countries where I had no control over all those sudden changes. I love the locations and it was very easy shooting in Paris.

The mesmerizing soundtrack, once again, is composed by Stuart Staples (of Tindersticks). How does this collaboration work?

We are always in the process together. We go through the script and we discuss, then he sees the dailies. In this film, I told him about Tangerine Dream. I wanted something electronic, something inhuman.

It's really gorgeous.

The way Stuart helps me with the project, he is not only a working companion or musician. He's much more than that. He is someone who I trust so much. In White Material, he was the only one who made me cut out a scene. I wouldn't do it for anyone but he said, "I don't understand that scene," and I said, "Alright, if YOU don't understand it, I'll cut it out."

Wow.

No it's because...he is such a great poet, such a great musician. His feelings are so intense.

And his sensibility matches with what you are trying to do?

It's more like I try to match with him.

You are so modest.

I'm not modest, you know. When you are making films, you are clumsy because you have to take care of a lot of stuff. I'm not exaggerating about Stuart. A collaboration with him is like me flying and he is my co-pilot.

So the great Agnes Godard again shot your film. And for the first time you shot on digital video. I'd like to know what you think about the whole digital revolution that's been happening and if you liked the result shooting on video.

Of course, I like the result. We chose to shoot the film that way, so it had to work. I was happy to do it. I was thinking about shooting White Material on video already. But I thought the look of digital was too cold for the project. So we chose to shoot with low speed Kodak film with almost pinkish tone to express the heat on Isabelle [Huppert]'s face. This heat you can't get it on digital, unless you add it in [color] timing in post. But it's not the same. It still seemed too cold to me. The heat comes from the depth of field and the reaction to the film itself. For instance, when it's very hot, the RED EPIC camera won't work. You have to put an icepack around the camera. Because digital can't stand that kind of heat.

Right. The camera itself gets very hot.

Yeah and it needs to get ventilated all the time. And it's very noisy on the set. It only gets quiet when it's recording. It's like having a computer on set. It took me a week to recreate the relationship I had with Agnes because I don't like to watch film on monitors and I like to be close to the camera. So in the beginning, I felt I was outside the film for a while and I had to fight my way back!

Would you shoot on digital again?

Sure. The thing about shooting digital is trying not to make it look like film. If it looks like digital, it's fine with me.

BASTARDS is stunning though. I love how it looks. And I'm a film guy. But I teach college students how to use digital equipment now. And a lot of kids are not shooting film anymore and it makes me feel sad.

I've seen The Master by PT Anderson last year, shot on 70mm. I mean, wow--

Not many people are doing that though.

I know it's expensive and everything, but it's such a different experience. We should fight to keep them both.

We should.

Because it expresses something else.

I totally agree.

Let me move on to the actors. Whew, such a star studded cast in this one, including your regulars -- Vincent Lindon, Alex Descas, Michel Subor and Gregoire Collin and some actors you haven't worked with before -- Chiara Mastroianni and Lola Créton. I'm wondering if you had those actors in mind when you were planning this film.

I had Chiara in mind for such a long time. But we were shy about approaching each other. She is an impressive actress, you know? Then we became very close. And Lola, I saw her in two films and I immediately wanted to work with her.

Was the process of working with those two any different than working with your regulars?

No. But I spent a lot of time together with Lola before shooting. I wanted her not to be afraid and trust me and to be the master of the ceremony. I didn't want her to be the victim. So I spent a lot of time with her for that. And Chiara, I know her well, so the trust was already there. But she is someone who doesn't need a lot of psychological explanation. She does it without being told. And it's good for me because I don't like explaining things. So it just the question of being together with those two.

But Vincent is different. He needs a lot of explanation. He always needs more and more. It's because he is such a generous actor. He's always afraid he is not giving you enough.

I saw Lola Créton last year at the festival here.

For Olivier Assayas'?

For Mia Hansen-Løve's GOODBYE FIRST LOVE.

Ah yes.

She was doing a Q&A session and she was so amazingly shy. But in GOODBYE FIRST LOVE, she just gives it all. I am wondering if it was the same for you.

She is shy but you can be shy and strong at the same time. She is both.

There was controversy this year at the Cannes Film Festival where people were protesting the lack of women filmmakers represented. Do you think those objections have merits?

I don't care if I don't win competition. I just don't have time to think about that. If I did, I would become furious. So I'd drop the whole thing completely and just accept everything I'm given.

I remember once watching a Godard movie and afterward I was in a bar next to the theater with Agnes Varda, eating and drinking wine because Agnes was starving. Godard walked by us without giving us any attention and Agnes called him out, "Hey, Jean-Luc Godard doesn't even say hello to me?" So he turned around and said in a slightly sarcastic, slightly comical way "You expect to be decorated (like Legion d'honneur) eh?", as if wanting any acknowledgment was a sin. Varda said, "Look Jean-Luc, I'd accept everything I'm given." And from then on, I think, 'yes this is true: it's better to accept everything you are given and try not to contest'. It's a waste of time. The controversy about Bastards...I accept that too. I don't feel like a victim just because I'm a woman. I might be victim of myself but not of others.

The thing is, I really want you to be recognized at some point though. You are one of the great directors of our time and I feel sad you don't get that recognition.

Then, what the fuck?! (we laugh) You know what I mean? What can I do about that? Some people like my work and some people don't. Maybe my films are too weird. For some people I am important, but a pedestal I don't need.

Museum of Moving Image is doing mini retro of Claire Denis which culminates to the preview screening of Bastards on Oct. 22, a day before its release in New York. It has a limited release in theaters, VOD and Digital on Oct. 25. Please visit MOMI website and IFC Entertainment website for tickets.


Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions can be found at www.dustinchang.com
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  • dustinchang

    Thanks. Maybe it doesn't show in the interview but I was completely being a fanboy around Ms. Denis. It was very much like Chris Farley interviewing Paul McCartney. I just wish I had more time with her.

  • Ard Vijn

    Great interview Dustin! I was lucky enough to be able to interview Claire Denis myself when 35 RHUMS was released, and I constantly felt outclassed in every subject that came up. Without a doubt one of the most intelligent people I've ever spoken with (let alone asked questions to).

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