Monday, September 20, 2010

"I never get killed in dreams but I often kill in dreams" - An interview with Gaspar Noé

Gaspar Noé is one of the most daring and controversial filmmakers working in contemporary cinema. His three feature films to date – Seul contre tous, Irreversible and now Enter the Void – have each offered an unforgettable cinematic experience marked by the director's stunning technical ability and his willingness to explore the very depths of human nature. In every film he makes, Noé seems determined to see how far he can push both himself and his audience, and Enter the Void is his most audacious work yet, depicting death as the ultimate trip. I met the director when he was in London recently to talk about his extraordinary new film.

This has been a dream project of yours for so many years. Why has this film been such an obsession for you?

I would say it's because my favourite movie ever is 2001: A Space Odyssey. I saw it when I was seven years old and that was my first drug trip. I was with my parents and when I came out of the movie I was totally stoned. What was that tunnel of light? What was that weird baby with the big head at the end? They told me that the foetus is a baby before it is born and I was told by my mother that before I was a baby I was a foetus inside her belly, and that was because my father put his penis inside her vagina, so maybe I associate that movie to me learning about my origins. My whole life I was trying to reproduce the shock I had with 2001: A Space Odyssey, so when I started smoking marijuana at the age of 13 and taking acid at 15, it was because I wanted to go through the tunnel again, but you never get those images again. When I went to film school I said I wanted to do a trippy movie that could reproduce the vision and perception you have when you are stoned. The whole dream was to make another movie like the one I saw as a kid, and to put people in an altered state like I was put in when I watched 2001. You have been in the world of Oz and you want to become the Wizard of Oz years later.

And at what point did you make the decision to shoot the film from the main character's point of view?

Accidentally one day when I was 20, I was on mushrooms and I went home and saw The Lady in the Lake. I thought it would be great if the trippy project I had could be seen through the eyes of the main character so all of the distortion would be linked to his perception, and then I was reading books about out of body experiences. At that time I didn't know what the movie was going to be about but I started taking notes and I was obsessed with movies that were dealing with hallucinogenic things, like Easy Rider and Flatliners, and when I put all the pieces together I realised I should make a movie about someone who gets shot and then you follow his dream of coming out of his body. I thought I should also apply the structure of The Tibetan Book of the Dead so the trippy part of the movie with him outside of his body could be much longer. I had been doing lots of breathing exercises, inhaling every three minutes, because I read that it could lead to out of body experiences but it never happened to me. I studied hypnosis and tried lots of chemicals to come out of my body but it never happened, so I came to the conclusion that you cannot separate the soul from the flesh and the only way of coming out of my body is by making a movie. I can put a camera on a crane and film that, and that can be my only out of body experience ever. So it's a long process and I was also buying experimental music and watching experimental videos, and while I was working on other projects I kept on working on this one. It is like a collective dream. Maybe there's something you believe in and you want to procreate that collective dream. I don't know if Steven Spielberg believed that aliens and flying saucers existed when he made Close Encounters, but there's a collective dream that you want to portray.

What were the technical challenges that you faced as you set up those long tracking shots?

We had to rebuild all of the locations that were shown in the flashbacks, they were real locations but we had to rebuild them in the Toho studios in Tokyo. We were shooting from above on a crane, each crane scene took a whole day, and we were doing many different shots because we knew we could not cut those scenes. Thankfully, working in Japan is very different from working in the States. The people are so passionate; they can work 12-13 hours a day, six days a week. At the point where they get their salary they are not counting the minutes like they did in Montreal, because there are so many guilds, or whatever. So you pay the same salary in Japan, but you don't have all of the extras that you would have in many other countries. The thing I liked in Japan was that the team was very perfectionist and for a perfectionist director to have such a team is the ultimate dream.

The Japanese setting is hugely important for the film as well. Tokyo looks incredible on screen.

Originally the movie was to be set in France. I decided it would be better to film in English because it could be shown in most countries without subtitles, so I came to London and New York, but then somebody said the best country to move this story to would be Japan. It's far trippier and it looks like Las Vegas with the lights, and it has this psychedelic feeling.

Was it a challenge to get such an ambitious and experimental film financed?

It was hard convincing people to put money into the movie. I knew from the beginning that there would be a few explicit sex scenes, that I didn't want to use famous actors, that I wanted to shoot in Tokyo and that it would be very experimental – how can you convince people to put big money on that? What helped me was that Irreversible, which was a very violent movie, was commercially very successful, so the same people who sold that movie abroad ended up financing this movie. I don't know if they're going to get their money back. I'm sure in the long term they will but in the short term I think the film is too anguishing to be a hit. The script didn't show that it was an anguishing movie, it looked far more sentimental, but once you put the drums on the soundtrack and the effects of the bad trip, I was conscious that the film would be more anguishing than I ever told them. You don't tell your financers that, though, you always tell them, "Oh, it's going to be like Trainspotting mixed with Mulholland Drive and those movies made great money" [laughs].

I was interested in the different versions of the film, because I saw the cut that was presented at last year's London Film Festival, and I watched it again in a shorter version that was screened to the press recently.

When we first watched it in Cannes the movie was not completed. The very final cut of the movie was shown in Sundance, in January of this year, on a 35mm print, and there are just two versions of this movie. The official version, which was shown in France and some other countries, that is the 2 hours 35 minutes version and I had to sign a contract that said if it goes over 2 hours 20 minutes I would do a shorter version. Instead of re-editing the movie, to make it shorter for other countries, I decided to re-cut the reels, so you could just pull reel number seven out and you can show the movie with either eight reels or nine reels. I guess the version you've seen during the press screenings is the shorter version, where 17 minutes are missing, just a whole segment. During the London Film Festival they were showing the long version, but now they're going to be mostly releasing the shorter version and then they'll put both on DVD. I like them both. Maybe the people who really enjoyed the shorter version will see the longer one. They said they would show it at the Curzon Soho in the opening week, the last screening of Friday night and Saturday night, they will show the longer version.

How did you make the decision to lose that particular reel?

The scenes that are missing are mostly some astral visions and the moment in which the guy wakes up at the morgue and thinks he has come back to life, but people say, "No, you didn't come back to life, you are just a zombie, you can't even talk" or whatever. But I think both versions work, and weirdly, it is not a censored version, because the reel that is missing doesn't contain any explicit sex or anything that is shocking, so it's not because of censorship. It's mostly because they saw that the shorter version could be more comprehensible and more commercial, that's all. Maybe if someone liked the shorter version they will make sure the second time that they see the 17 minutes that were missing, like now they are re-releasing Avatar with nine more minutes, so why not? [laughs]

You seem drawn to melodramatic narratives...

Life is melodramatic, I cry very often. If I just think for one second of my parents' death I start crying and just by saying the words my eyes fill with tears. The moment you fall in love with someone you are already afraid of losing that person so you have these obsessions. There are aspects of the brain that are very universal, so if you put two kids in the movie who are losing their parents, that talks to everybody. I was watching Toy Story 3 and the moment you see all of the toys close to getting burned and they hold hands, I started crying, and I couldn't believe I was crying at a 3D cartoon, but anyway. Even if you want to make a movie that's as trippy as can be or as cool as can be, the thing that makes it closer to life is the fact that there is some melodrama inside.

You also enjoy challenging your audience and provoking extreme reactions from them.

We all enjoy playing spectators with our fears, and when you go to see a movie it's like a shamanic trance, you want to be scared by seeing things that you don't want to happen in your real life. It's like in a dream, I never get killed in dreams but I often kill in dreams, and I want to wake up because I'm so scared that I will be going to prison, but then I'm back in the safe world. When you see a movie that's a bad trip, you come out and your life seems so much sweeter compared to the bad trip. People say the movie is pessimistic, but you can say it has an optimistic secondary effect of people coming out and saying, "Whoa, my life is so sweet and I'm so lucky." Even with Pasolini's Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom that happens, seeing what torture is and what fascism is can turn into, "I'm so lucky we're living in a safe country and not living in wartime."

Now that you've finally completed this dream project, what are you planning on doing next?

There is one thing I was thinking of for many years, I have never seen the ultimate love movie. I suppose it would be a love story, a melodrama and a porn movie. When I fall in love, I have sex, and when you have sex in real life it's hardcore, so why can't you mix love and sex in a movie? In most erotic movies there are no feelings, and in life there are feelings, but since the beginning of the history of cinema nobody ever came close to what your everyday sexual life is. Sometimes an arty movie will include an orgy scene or a gay sex scene, or they will show a blowjob in the movie, but the point is not about showing the thing, the point is why can you not portray a loving sexual encounter between a man and woman on the screen without there being a scandal?