“The first monster that an audience has to be scared of is the filmmaker. They have to feel in the presence of someone not confined by the normal rules of propriety and decency.” – Horror master Wes Craven
Gaspar Noé does not make horror films per se, but… some sequences are like cutting off your eyelids and packing the sockets with salt. The filmmaker Just. Does not. Cut. The camera is not going to pan away. No one is holding your hand. You are just going to have to sit and watch the horrors of life: rape, murder, psychedelic trips gone wrong (and the eventual end of the Vincent Cassel/Monica Bellucci marriage).
Beyond story, the camera sometimes seems like it’s glued to a broken car-assembling robot. There’s the movie told backwards (Irréversible). There’s the movie shot on two cameras at once (Lux Æterna). How about a movie, told from a ghost’s POV, where the character gets reincarnated, or not, depending on the cut you see?
Gaspar represents that pinnacle of filmmaking: you just sit down, buckle your seatbelt and give up. You are not in control, there is a mad man at the wheel. A real leary psychopath. So when Honeysuckle flew to Paris, what could we possibly expect for our interview, only confirmed at 10pm the night before?
Gaspar… total fucking sweetheart.
Maybe it was the themed “LA MORT N’OUVRE AUCUNE PORTE” shirts we had made for the trip. Maybe it’s that Ronit and I are also total cinephiles. Gaspar was literally skipping out on pre-production for his next film, a companion piece to Lux Æterna. Very pressed for time. But once we sat down we chopped cheese; for hours.
Our only regret was when he asked us for the inside scoop into contemporary American films, we admitted we don’t really watch them. Actually, we watch a lot of French films.
Gaspar, notorious filmmaker, secret sweetheart, sat down with us for the following interview on life, movies and his early creative life:
(The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
RONIT PINTO: The first movie you ever saw was in New York?
GASPAR NOÉ: Yes, because my parents moved to New York when I was a few months old. I don’t remember the first movie I saw in the theater, but I know that the first memory I have is watching 2001: A Space Odyssey when I was six… Certainly I had seen other movies before, but I don’t remember. The problem with memory, it’s very selective. It’s like a hard drive. You have to empty [it] every week, every year because you can’t keep all the useless memories. They say that the memories you have from your childhood are the ones that have been reactivated every three or four years. If you stop reactivating a memory, it disappears.
RONIT: How do you reactivate it?
GASPAR: Each time you think of the past and you talk about it, you rearrange it, so after many years, the memory of you talking about something creates memories. The past is very blurry unless you have photos… If one day you were in an amusement park and you had a toy and you were photographed with [it], many years later when you see the photos [you go], “Oh yeah, I had that toy.” But you had certainly forgotten the toy.
RONIT: Did growing up with an artistic father influence you?
GASPAR: Yeah, of course. Actually, when you have a father who’s a painter or who’s bringing you as a kid to all these exhibitions, openings, etc and everybody’s happy and they’re drinking… He had all these books of art [and] he was also teaching painting to younger painters at my home… I was watching all the time.
I think my visual education comes from my father, but the real cinema buff in the family was my mother. She was bringing me to see [the films of Rainer Werner] Fassbinder when I was nine, because she wouldn’t want to leave me alone at the house… That’s how I learned what lesbians were, [from the movie] The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. I was probably nine… [My mother is] the one who brought me to see [Pier Paolo] Pasolini’s Salo when I was eighteen. She’s the one who brought me to see 2001. She loved literature, she loved movies.
Also, we had a cinematheque three blocks away from my house. My father met the guy who was selling tickets. Then we became friends… I would go almost every two days to see what was going on in there. If the movie was forbidden [to kids under 18], the guy would still let me go in.
SAM LONG: That’s awesome.
GASPAR: Yeah, movies are addictive. We’re all addicted to something. Some people are addicted to food, alcohol, social working. I got addicted to cinema very early. I was also addicted to comic books, but then I said, “No.” Probably because it’s closer to life, I switched to movies.
RONIT: Why do you think you were addicted?
GASPAR: It’s like dreaming. A movie’s a conducted dream. Then you choose your channels.
RONIT: Do you have a favorite part of filmmaking?
GASPAR: I like showing the movie. I don’t like the pre-production. I like shooting. I like editing, but the problem with editing is that when you get there, you already have some pressure for delivering the movie… You have the material and you can’t relax and do it at your own pace because they say… “You have to deliver the movie before Cannes.” They were psychotic about that. Also, when you make a movie and you’re broke, when you get your salary, you’re so happy. You go to eBay and buy all the movie posters on the planet and then you’re broke again. (Laughs)
RONIT: What about the idea, the inception?
GASPAR: I don’t really believe in inspiration. You’re inspired by other people’s words, by drama in your own life [and] your friends’ lives. Sometimes you go, “Well, I have to do a movie” because you have to pay your rent… Also, because people say, “You’re good, so you should do another movie.” You say, “Well, I’m going to get again into a tunnel of work.”
Mostly, you know what you don’t want to do for a whole year. People say to you, “Why don’t you do a bad, crappy movie?” I say, “No way, I’d rather stay at home watching DVDs and eating sandwiches than do a bad, crappy movie…” You exclude all those things you don’t like and because you’re a filmgoer and a DVD addict, you end up finding scenes in some movies and say, “I really like this moment in this movie. One day, I should put something similar in my own movie.” Or you just open the newspaper and there’s a drama that you have never seen onscreen and you say, “Why has no one ever done a movie about [this]?”
Nowadays, I’m more fascinated by documentaries than by feature films, probably because I’m a filmmaker myself, so you see all the tricks. You see the people acting; you can even sometimes feel the makeup. There’s so many elements that seem fake to your eyes… Movies are flat. It’s not like being with people or doing psychedelics that blow you away. You are in front of a big screen or a small screen, but it’s just a flat screen with people pretending to do scenes that you know are fake. At least when you watch a documentary, you know that the point of view of the director is always fake, but what is portrayed mostly is not.
RONIT: What happens if you are in a situation where you don’t want to do it, but you have to?
GASPAR: Why? When do you have to do things that you don’t want to do?
RONIT: You don’t. But just for work, or something like you were saying.
GASPAR: The good thing about shooting movies in France is that legally, the director has the final cut. There’s always tension with the distributors. There’s always someone who comes from a business school who tells you how you can make your movie better and more successful, but you just don’t listen to them and they get angry and say, “I have the final cut. Shut up…” That’s why I feel safe making movies with French production companies, is that you have the law on your side.
In which situations can you cut? Sometimes if the financiers don’t raise enough money to do a movie the way you want it, they ask you to cut a quarter of your script. Then you have to make the decision: “Should I cut a quarter of my script or not do the movie?” Of course, you cut a quarter of your script, but it’s not about censoring… You have less toys, but sometimes it gets better.
SAM: I think my favorite edit of all time is when you just cut a whole reel out of Enter the Void for the theatrical showing.
GASPAR: There are moments you say, “Well, I’m inspired.” They were putting me [under] so much pressure when Enter the Void was released because the movie… The original cut was two hours and thirty-five minutes. Nowadays, it would be distributed later because of all these TV series and also because of some blockbusters that were three hours long – people considered that a movie that’s two and a half hours can be successful – but the movie was so weird as a product when it was shown at Cannes… It was not fully completed, by the way. It was a first mix, first edit; I was still working on everything when it was show at Cannes.
I had so many film critics hating me since I’m born that the first thing that would come was “This movie is too long.” At that moment, I was showing an unfinished version in Cannes. So then the financiers said, “Oh, you have to cut the movie down.” In my contract, I had the final cut for the French version, but it was written in [that] if the movie was above two hours and thirty minutes and the foreign distributor asked for a [shorter] copy, you have to deliver a copy of two hours and twenty minutes maximum.
They didn’t know how to cut because also at that time, the movie was probably the last I had printed on 35mm. It was the first year that I discovered the existence of DCPs and all the digital projection. So I said, “If I cut the movie, I’ll never see my cut anywhere because the negative is going to be cut.” They said, “Well, you have to listen to us. You signed the contract.” I said, “No, I signed the contract for the foreign release, but in France I can do two hours and forty minutes.”
Finally [I found] probably one of the solutions that I’m most proud of in my whole career. I [reconstructed] the whole movie. On film cans, the maximum is twenty minutes. The movie… was made of nine cans. Then I checked how I could cut the cans, and I compressed some. Some of them were twelve minutes… In order to say, “Okay, we print the nine cans, but if you want to pull out reel number seven, you can screen the movie without one reel… But you have to deliver my whole movie to everybody.”
It worked. It’s very weird, but I couldn’t believe that it would work so well. In Japan, they released it with eight reels. In America, they initially released it with eight reels… then two weeks later they said, “And now we have the director’s cut!” They already had the reel in their projection room, but –
SAM: They weren’t playing it.
GASPAR: Yeah. Sometimes even on the DVD, you have the short version and the long version. It’s just that there is a seventeen-minute cut.
RONIT: That changes the entire film – that scene.
SAM: But what I enjoy about the movie with the different reels is that it does become another movie, like Possession.
RONIT: Like completely… How do you get into the psychology of your characters?
GASPAR: You just pick up people [who] have the charisma needed to portray a character, but then you let them by themselves inside their own characters. I’m not pushy with actors. Just people that I think are funny, talented, whether they’re professional or non-professional. It’s just some people grab your eyes and your brain in a particular way, but it’s always better to make movies with people you really like even if they’re very different from you. Then let them find their own words.
Even if I wrote some film scripts that were long, like for I Stand Alone, Irreversible or Enter the Void, I never wanted to give the screenplay to the actors. I was refusing. I said, “No, you’re going to learn the lines. Those lines, I wrote them, and I don’t have your language, so please once you read the script, give it back to me.” I seriously didn’t want anybody to learn any lines because I like scenes happening on the set because it’s fresher. You’re not doing a documentary, but you create the scenes with a group of people that you selected.
RONIT: But in terms of the characters, the inner dynamics and psychology – do you intend it to be so subtle? I don’t know if you intend it, but sometimes it’s almost like a statement. Irreversible was all about different kinds of men, like male toxicity, I thought. And it landed on one woman, but it’s different versions of male –
GASPAR: Monsters. Yeah. In my movies, the male characters are mostly more stupid than the women. At least, you can tell that they’re driven by their hormones in a more predictable way.
SAM: And definitely love.
GASPAR: No, but the… Then you ask people who know how to portray the characters.
RONIT: Why do you think that’s important to you as a filmmaker to bring that out, highlight it?
GASPAR: You know which movies touch you, which things in life touch you. Then there are things that don’t touch you. I don’t like filming dialogues, for example… I think it’s boring to film dialogues. If on the set, you don’t feel you’re filming dialogues, it’s just people that are being, then you edit whatever is good, whatever is bad. You can tell, for example in Enter the Void, most dialogues are useless. I think literature is great for dialogues. But then it’s just how people portray the situation… but the body language is more important than the words.
Pasolini was saying the audience isn’t stupid. You can ask any actor to say anything where people watch a movie, or as they do in real life, they consider people for their acts, not their words. So someone can say, “I’m going to save you.” If he looks tricky, if he’s a greedy character, he can talk about the Bible, but life is the same. Some people talk about the future of this planet. They can be vegan, they can be humanist, whatever, but you know behind that, they [can be] just as evil as the worst cop of the town…
I like movies like [Carl Theodor Dreyer’s] Day of Wrath. It’s a movie about inquisition… There are many characters involved in the story and there’s drama. You can understand the psychology that it’s not made of white or black. There’s always gray and brown of all the characters and how they fight for their own survival and drama appears. Mostly people behave in a way because of their traumas, because of their education, but they’re all part of the same humankind [regardless of] color, gender, etc. American cinema is far more… How do you say?
SAM: Black or white.
GASPAR: Oh mon Dieu, since the first scene, you know who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy. Mostly in commercial movies, you know that the bad guy is going to be destroyed, so people come out happy.
SAM: That’s like in the old Westerns. The person wearing the white hat was the good guy, the person wearing the black hat was the bad guy. You just had to look at the color of your hat.
GASPAR: Then even in the storyline, for example, in a Hollywood movie, you know that anybody who misbehaves will have bad luck at the end of the movie… In real life, the people who survive are the strongest ones or the most manipulative ones, but people don’t want to see that in a movie theater. In America, and in the rest of the world… people will go to the movies to relax. If you want to learn about life, you watch a documentary, but sometimes people want to forget. They don’t want to learn.
RONIT: Well, I don’t [want to forget], and that’s why I’m extremely engaged when I watch your movies because it’s like I’m there. Are you nervous your audience won’t get it because you’re not selling them? Do you assume they’re intelligent, or you don’t even care?
GASPAR: Most people understand it. I don’t know if they’re intelligent or not. I don’t think I’m intelligent, but I see many stupid people around all the time. It’s just like you don’t do a movie for an audience. You do it for your friends, for yourself…
In my case, I have one obsession. When I make a movie, I think, “I’m going to show it to Scorsese [and] Cronenberg.” Show it to your idols. I don’t have an edit complex besides with the film directors that I admire, even if they’re younger… It’s not an art, but you are kind of professionally or humanly competing and sharing with people who do the same kind of things that you’re doing. But for me, the ultimate spectator of my movie is not a film critic. It’s probably, of course, the people who are close to you and then the directors you admire.
SAM: Have you had any feedback from directors who have seen your work?
GASPAR: Yes, I’m not good at names, but my favorite liked my last movie, so…
RONIT / SAM: (In unison) That’s awesome.
GASPAR: When I see a movie with someone that I know or I don’t know, immediately I want to call the person or send him a message even if I don’t know him. Just to go, “Congratulations. You surprised me…” It’s good to compete in a happy way, a non-dominant way.
RONIT: Do you relate to the movement Cinema of the Body, the French extremes?
GASPAR: I don’t know what that is. I know that some critics… invented a genre called the New Extremity. Let’s just say that in France, the production system gave more freedom to directors than the TV channels were giving or that some American producers were giving to their own cinema. So some scenes happen in the French cinema because you could go with a project like Irreversible… French people are more selfish, not in a financial way, but in a mental way. Everybody in France thinks he’s one of a kind and that his movie has to be different from all the others. It’s not a commercial issue; it’s more like an ego issue.
Not pretentious, because pretensions [can] fail, but that’s also why artists like coming to France, because it’s about developing your own identity. People don’t want to be part of a group… Most of the people here want to be just the king of themselves.
RONIT: I have to ask about the sex. That’s a big part of your movies. Is it just part of everyday life that you’re exploring?
GASPAR: You don’t have sex every day.
SAM: I wish.
GASPAR: Sometimes yes, by periods. But I don’t see why things that are essential in everybody’s life should not be portrayed. There are things that you don’t want to portray for legal reasons or emotional reasons. The good things in life, why would you prevent yourself from showing them, giving to other people? I loved erotic cinema when I was a kid…
I have memories of watching naked couples or naked women. I think that’s missing now. The fact that even Playboy Magazine now puts bras on every girl. I say, “What the fuck?” It’s like they’re demonizing something that made my childhood and my adolescence happy. I would masturbate a lot, but I felt better after masturbation. When you masturbate, you release serotonin, endorphins. I know nowadays teenagers masturbate on a cell phone or watching gangbangs on YouPorn – what I experienced in the 70s and 80s was far more rewarding and fresher.
RONIT: They lost the art.
GASPAR: [On the other side], if a girl puts a nipple on Instagram, she gets banned. I can’t believe that nipples are banned nowadays. You see nudity in every part and you see pornography in the old Indian temples, and nowadays, nudity is the representation of evil. We’re getting back to an old way of thinking.
RONIT: Do you think that will affect film?
GASPAR: Of course.
RONIT: Does that make you angry?
GASPAR: No, because I live in France. I make my way, but the planet is becoming more Victorian or religious or this or that. There’s so many ways of controlling people, of mass controlling… Demonization. Demonization of sexuality. It’s so weird. It’s the source of life.
RONIT: What’s next for you?
GASPAR: I don’t know.
RONIT: Do you ever know?
GASPAR: Probably an atomic bomb. (Laughs)
RONIT: But if you could do anything, your dream.
GASPAR: One thing is the scenes you want to see… The projects that you can think you’re strong enough to do them. Like for example, Enter the Void took me such a long time that I don’t want to get into a process of two years of pre-production, one year of shooting, the effects, then one year of promotion. I didn’t know at the time that it would take me six years, but I like things that are short because I want to be free to move around. Nowadays I’m doing short films, or feature films, but in a short time because I don’t want to get stuck for two and a half years on a project. The ones I dream of seeing, they’re complicated so probably I have one day to –
SAM: To do it?
GASPAR: To get the cross again and carry it on my shoulder and go to the cornfield.
Check out Honeysuckle’s photo gallery of the shoot with Gaspar by our Creative Director Sam C. Long.