Monday, March 12, 2018

"All of the things that are a little bit swept under the carpet in other films are fiercely important for me." - An Interview with Robin Campillo

120 BPM is a film 25 years in the making. In 1992, when he was thirty years old, Robin Campillo joined the AIDS activism collective ACT UP-Paris, protesting the government’s inaction as the epidemic devastated the gay community. He subsequently forged a career as both a successful screenwriter (working primarily with Laurent Cantet) and as a director, but his past experiences have never left his thoughts and he has finally exploited his memories for his most ambitious feature to date. 120 BPM follows a group of young protesters as they fight to make their voices heard, with the relationship between HIV positive Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and his HIV negative lover Nathan (Arnaud Valois) giving this sprawling ensemble film an emotional through line. Recipient of the Grand Prix at last year's Cannes Film Festival and a big winner at the recent César Awards, 120 BPM is a powerful, passionate and exhilarating piece of filmmaking, and I met Robin Campillo during the London Film Festival to discuss it.

Are you enjoying the experience of revisiting your past as you're doing all these interviews?

It is interesting. I've been talking a lot about this film but as I am talking I still find new things that I didn't realise a month ago, so that is interesting. I think I did this film to close a door on my youth, and also a door in cinema, to do something else. I have this feeling that I had finished a phase of my life. Maybe I won't have anything to do now – I hope I have some new ideas! But I had this feeling that I had to do this film, and for 25 years I was trying to do this film.

So all the way through the two films you previously directed, you felt you were working towards this one?

A little bit unconsciously, but for instance, when I did my first film Les Revenants it was a kind of allegory of what I lived in the '80s when the epidemic started. It's a film about not living your own life as a ghost, and also from a directing point of view, it was the only film I did with 35mm and I didn't like it. For me it is an old filming process, you know, the fact that you put the camera down and you know exactly what you want in the frame, you know exactly what you want the actors to do, you know the light, everything. You are in control of everything and when you do a take everyone is silent, everyone stops breathing, and for me I don't want to make a film like this. My second film [Eastern Boys] is about my way of thinking that cinema is the art of metamorphosis. How do you go from this point to that point? From this character to that character? From this form to another form? I tried to do that. I decided to make a film where I could breathe normally, and after the experience of The Class – that was the first film we did with digital cameras and multi-cameras – I did it like this. In Eastern Boys, the main character Daniel, who is played by Olivier Rabourdin, is like me. I decided that I was not making a film against the other but I let the other invade me, and I filmed this invasion as something that is a little bit frightening but also a little bit fun. Because my way of directing was more fluid I decided I could do a film about this.

I think I recognise that impulse in Eastern Boys, because the film does have an unusual shape and rhythm, and it goes in so many unexpected directions. It ends up feeling like a very different film than it was at the start, and it seemed like a narrative that was just unfolding spontaneously.

Yes, that is exactly what I meant. You say it much better than me, which is a shame for me! [Laughs] Even for BPM, I think if you read the script you would say it's quite the same thing as the film, but it's really not. I think the characters are not at all what I was thinking of when I was writing the script.

You feel like you are discovering the movie as you make it?

Yes, and I liked to be open to what was going on during filming. If you are constantly fighting against the weather, because this scene is supposed to be sunny and it is raining, you are going to die doing films, you know? Maybe rain is a good thing and you have to adapt. You have to do a lot of mutation, and there are so many details I changed. It takes a lot of energy during the shooting, I never worked so much, but I really worked here just to be able to stay open to what was happening. That is actually easier for a director because you don't have this stage fright, you don't have this tension, and I wanted my actors and my crew to feel the same way. When I went to the set with my cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie, we had three cameras and we tried to make the first take twenty minutes long because we wanted to go fast. We would do the scene in one take, and the actors might look a little bit lost or you can see the other cameras and a microphone, but it's not a problem because we are using digital cameras and we are not afraid of the price of the 35mm film. After that one take, you realise all the problems you have to solve, and you just do it naturally. You change the places of the actors, and after a moment the actors understand that everything is a mess – it's not just them – and they forget there are cameras around. We tell them they can take all the time they want because we will fix it in the editing. Don't rush, do it as you want. For me and for all of them, it's better that way. I'm sorry, I don't know what was the original question!

That's OK, it was an interesting answer! Actually, to follow on from the idea of the script changing and evolving as you filmed, I wanted to ask you about your writing process because your co-writer Philippe Mangeot was also a key figure in ACT UP. How did you collaborate and use your memories to build this story?

You know, it's very difficult for me because when I'm writing I need to write alone, but I also need someone to talk to very often, at least once a week, to have a long talk about things. I have all these memories and I did the film out of my memories, I didn't go through many documents. I created these characters and sometimes they are close to real characters and sometimes not, so I needed to have this talking process to be sure of what I was trying to do and to put it in perspective. It was very important for me to have this dialogue, and obviously Philippe was a very strong personality in ACT UP and very influential in the group. I'm not talking only about the script when I'm talking with someone; for instance, we were talking about the representation of the disease, and because we were talking about that I said the main character had to get thinner and thinner. Philippe said to me, please don't go too far with this kind of presentation because after a while it is embarrassing, you know, to put a lot of lesions on the skin. For things like that, you need to have a dialogue with someone who has been involved in this disease. I said to him that we have to stay realistic, we can't do nothing with the body, but it's true that because we had this dialogue I realised the stigmata is not the topic of the film. You already have a lot of films about that; you have a film like Silverlake Life: The View from Here where a guy is filming his boyfriend dying, for example.

I knew at this moment that when I was thinking about Sean as a character – and when I found Nahuel Pérez Biscayart it was so obvious – I was thinking about a character who is not protecting himself in front of this disease. It is consuming his last strength in the political struggle; he incarnates so much his own political struggle that he dies of it. That was the main thing. Nahuel is obviously a very baroque actor and we see that Sean is very theatrical and has a little bit of a theatrical distance from his disease, but when he gets really ill and goes to the hospital I told the actor, "At this moment you stop playing, it's over." For me, that was the most melancholy thing in the film. He has no distance anymore with the disease, and this distance is important when you want to have a political struggle. It cannot be political anymore if you are caught in the intimacy of your disease. That is the subject of the film and that happened because I was talking to someone about a very small thing, and it made me realise that I didn't want to see someone with a lot of stigmata, I just wanted to see someone playing less and less and less.

I think one of the most moving aspects of the film is the relationship between Sean and Nathan, and the way that you present a sexual relationship between one character who is HIV-positive and another who is negative. I can't think of many other films that have explored this kind of material with such frankness and intimacy.

It was so common at this moment, I didn't realise that I was showing something strange! People are talking about this as a beautiful love story and I think...hmm...I mean, love story? I can accept the expression if we agree on the fact that the most important word is 'story,' because 'love,' I don't know what it is. We had a lot of sex in this group and in our lives, but you had couples that just existed for five or six months, because one of them was dying. It was very weird. Nathan and Sean, they are not together for ten years, they just have a few months, or one year tops. I wanted to talk about that, the fact that you have this quick intimacy, which is very strong, and I think Nathan is more in love with Sean than the other way, but I think Sean doesn't feel his love so much anymore. All of these things are in the sex scenes. First of all you have to find good actors, that's the main thing, and then I told them that I didn't want the sex scene to be like a performance. I don't want people to do the Karma Sutra, to make the spectator feel guilty that they have such dull sex! [Laughs] I told them, it's a scene like the other scenes, you have to play things, it's not a pornographic film.

In fact, the sex is of secondary importance in those encounters because these are the moments when they reveal themselves to each other, sharing very intimate memories and stories.

Exactly. I started with this. What I'm interested in when I do this kind of scene is what is beneath the scene. I don't like a film when you see a sex scene and it's just a sex scene; people don't talk, they just have sex and they do amazing things that you would never do in your life. For me that doesn't exist. When you have sex, you have this first phase when you have to get naked, and all those details are important to me. Then because we are talking about a film about the AIDS epidemic, you have to put on a condom, you have to put on gel, and when you are finished you have to take the condom off. All of the things that are a little bit swept under the carpet in other films are fiercely important for me. And when you have sex, it happens that it's a little bit too quick, and just one of them is having an orgasm and the other is not, so you start talking about your life, and I love to film this. The fact that they have sex, and then they stop and start talking, and then they start to have sex again, and then you have the ghost of the one he had sex with years ago, I love to shoot this kind of intimate scene. This scene is like a continent by itself, it is such a big landscape. They are talking about their past and you realise that Nathan is talking about politics and that makes Sean a little bit glum because it's not the moment, all those details are very important. That's why I tell my actors not to focus on the sex thing, because you have to play something much more difficult. For me, Nathan is in love with Sean because he is in love with the group, it's important for me to feel that, I have to feel the fact that Nathan is very naïve about all these things, I have to feel that Sean is protecting himself from this love, and all that. It is a lot of work, in fact.

One of my favourite scenes in the film is when Nathan is talking about reading the magazine article about AIDS, and he says something like "I'd never seen a gay couple in a magazine before and now they were telling us that we're going to die." It's a very powerful moment and a reminder of how invisible gay lives and gay culture was in mainstream society, until this epidemic shone a very harsh light on it.

As I said, when Nathan is talking about his past it's really my experience, it is very close to me. When my first boyfriend died I had this feeling that we never happened as a couple, we never existed. That's why I was really angry, I think. It was such an obsession for me that I put the face of my first boyfriend in the film, you know, when they are talking about the guy who died. It's his name and his face. I don't mind if his family is cross about that, I really don't mind, because it's my story with him. Weirdly, I didn't have any photos of him so a friend sent me a photo of him via the post, and all the other photos had been lost, so the last photo of him is in this film. For me, that was so important because I didn't want to put a sentence at the end of the film with a dedication, I wanted him to be in the film. When I was writing the screenplay, I remembered that first time I saw a picture of a gay couple in a newspaper. ACT UP exists because we didn't exist for the first ten years of the epidemic.

You know, I love the film Freaks, and for me it was very close to what ACT UP was. In Freaks you have this group of abnormal people, and during one hour the director explains to you that even if they don't have arms or legs or they have all these disabilities, they are human like us, they have the same lives, they have love stories and everything. But at the end because they are threatened by normal people who try to get money out of them, those people who are seen throughout the film as being more human, they become like monsters in order to terrify the normal people and get revenge, or justice. So for me ACT UP was exactly the same thing. If you are afraid of us because of the disease, we are going to frighten you; if you are not OK with gays, we are going to become the evil fags. That was something we accepted, to not be lovable. Today there is a generation that has gay marriage and all this vindication, but this is important for them to know, and I think for young people it's important. When we were in this group we were not even thinking about gay marriage or domestic partnership, but at the same time we had a lot of cases in a couple when one of them was dying and the other was being kicked out of the flat by his family. So it has always been connected.

It must be interesting to work with all these actors in their twenties and thirties, who surely have a very different perspective on gay rights and AIDS and all of these issues.

Yes, it is. For instance, they are mostly gay, but I realised that nowadays we tend to say that young gay people are not afraid anymore, but they are afraid, they are really afraid. I have this feeling that they think they cannot express themselves, they cannot complain, and they should just be happy to be in a world with rights and medication, etc. But they are still afraid of many things, like taking a lot of drugs, and it's not fun. It's a really problematic thing. We talked a lot when we were working with these young actors because I realised they didn't understand a lot of the words we were using. I realised I had to change the dialogue because if they don't understand then the public will also be lost. I mean, I like the public to be lost but you can only lose them to a point, you know? So we talked a lot about that and when they read the screenplay they were very touched because they didn't know about any of this, they really didn't know.

Did you think about younger people watching BPM and how they might relate to the activism in the film? We are currently living in a time of mass protest and resistance, but it takes a different form to the actions of ACT UP.

No, I was really making the film in a very selfish way, but I knew of these movements. We have a lot of groups in France, like anti-racism groups about black people or Arab or Muslim people, because the Islamophobia in France is very, very strong. I said in a few interviews that these groups – like we have Les Indigènes de la République in France – I don't always agree with them on a lot of points, but they exist. You have to stay a little bit more open to what is happening now, because if these groups are very radical it's because there is a lot to fight against. I have this feeling that people think they are very dodgy, but it was exactly the same thing with ACT UP, so when people are very welcoming to the film today we have to think and remember that we were not so welcome 25 years ago.

120 BPM is released in the UK on April 6th