Exclusive: Sex and Drugs and Gaspar Noé

France’s Gaspar Noé may forever be one of the most controversial auteur filmmakers, having earned quite a reputation with the reactions to his 2002 movie Irreversible, starring real-life couple Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci. Certain scenes in the film were so graphic and shocking that many people walked out of the theater revolted by what they had been subjected to.

Undaunted, Noé’s latest film Enter the Void premiered at Cannes in 2009 and promised to test the limits of moviegoers with its long running time and experimental camerawork that would try to recreate the effects of taking drugs and even more ambitiously, try to simulate what the afterlife might be like.

At the heart of the film are brother and sister, Oscar and Linda, played by Nathaniel Brown and Paz de la Huerta, who make a pact to never leave each other after being orphaned at childhood. Years later, they’re both living in Tokyo–he’s a small-time drugdealer and she’s stripping at a club–but after a horrible accident involving a police bust, Oscar has to try to make his way back to his sister to keep his earlier promise.

In order to tell their story, the film jumps back and forth in time as Noé’s camera often seems to defy the law of physics and gravity as he utilizes groundbreaking techniques we’ve never seen used to tell a story, effectively making the viewer feel as if they’re taking part in some sort of astral projection. To some, it may be a trying experience, to others it will be revelatory, since Noé clearly has made Enter the Void a film experience like no other, surpassing many of his French peers and putting himself on another plane as a filmmaker. Possibly the best comparison we could think of is Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, and even that didn’t have as grand a design as Noé’s vision for Enter the Void. And yes, as the title of this interview promises, the film has lots of drug use and explicit sex and nudity throughout, which guarantees the movie won’t be shown in multiplexes in rural American anytime soon.

With the film finally getting a theatrical release after appearing at just about every major film festival, ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down Noé when he was in New York last month to present the extended version of the movie for the Film Society at Lincoln Center.

ComingSoon.net: I talked to Vincent Cassel when he was in town a few weeks back. We were talking about your movie, and I felt you’d achieved another level with this film, because while it’s a straightforward story, it’s hard to put into words what the experience is like. How hard is it to talk about this movie and are you the type of filmmaker who doesn’t like talking about his work?
Gaspar Noé: There are movies that are more cinematic and movies that are more narrative in a literal way. I guess it’s easier to talk about “Irreversible” or about “I Stand Alone” than to talk about this one, because maybe the best parts of the movie are some visual aspects that are more difficult to transfer to words. For example, my father is a painter, you see his paintings in the movie. The painter pretends to paint paintings that actually were my father’s paintings. Sometimes I read reviews about his exhibitions and think, “How can people describe abstract or expressionist painting?” and yet, this movie had many references. When I started shooting it, I was thinking of course of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” of “Videodrome,” of “Altered States,” some shots in Brian De Palma’s movies where the camera is floating above or “I Am Cuba” for the long master shots. But also, I had in mind Kenneth Anger’s “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome” and “Eraserhead,” which are dreamy movies that are very hard to describe. You cannot describe colors, not when you have 20 colors, so you just say “it’s colorful.” I knew this movie should be more visual than the previous ones, but that’s also why people are more pissed off, because for some people, it’s too visual, too experimental. I got much better reviews than I’ve ever had in my life with this one, but I also got the worst reviews I’ve ever had with this one. One (critic) said, “This is the worst piece of sh*t that has ever been shown in the Cannes Film Festival” just because of the flickering effects, the out-of-focus effects, at a point make you feel very stoned. For people who don’t like feeling stoned, then they refuse the experience and they feel as if they’ve been brought somewhere they didn’t want to go.

CS: Maybe that’s why I liked it, because I do like going to movies and being pulled into this experience where you can experience it without analyzing every single frame, because if you did that, you’d probably go crazy. When I tell people, “You have to see this movie ‘Enter the Void,’” and I say, “It’s from Gaspar Noé, the guy who directed ‘Irreversible,’” I almost always get a odd reaction, because I think they’re worried they’ll be shocked or disturbed.
Noé: This one is not violent, but I got the weirdest, the most unexpected reactions to this one, but when I tell people, “No, there is no violence in this one.” Actually, the most violent scene in the movie is just a car crash, which is just a car crash.

CS: When you started thinking about this movie was it a very simple movie about the brother and the sister in the city or did you always see it from the visual standpoint?
Noé: I think the concept was there before the story. At a point, I was considering if I should do it with a boy and a girl who were boyfriend and girlfriend, but then I thought it would be better if these two humans were linked by some traumatic past. I thought that if it was a brother and sister relationship, then I can have them losing their parents and making a pact in their childhood. There was a concept at the beginning that was portraying reality through the eyes of a normal teenager who is doing drugs, so you could see through his eyes or through his mind what being stoned feels like, and then he would start agonizing and then we’d follow him into the ultimate trip. When I was 18 or 20, I was watching movies like “Altered States” but I was also reading these books about life after death. There’s one called “Life After Life” and I was also reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead and books about astral projection. I don’t believe in life after life. I just believe in life during your lifetime.

CS: I think you read that you had other cities in mind before you ended up in Tokyo?
Noé: Yeah, at the beginning I wasn’t considering because I thought it would be too difficult to shoot there, but I went there many times to promote my movies, my first short “Carné” and then I went again with “I Stand Alone.” I took some holidays there and then I went back with “Irreversible.” Just before shooting “Irreversible,” I knew that I wanted to shoot a movie in Japan, especially in Tokyo. I don’t know any other big cities in Japan besides Tokyo, and the big problem was really to convince people to finance a movie that was very risky without famous actors, with explicit sex scenes, that’s going to deal a lot with drugs, that’s going to be very experimental conceptually-speaking, and that also would be shot in Japan where they’d have much less control then they would have on a production that is shot in France or in America, where the way people work is very similar.

CS: I know you do a lot of your own camerawork but did you have a fairly small crew while you were filming this?
Noé: I wanted a small crew but it was not so small. I met Paul Schrader and his producer, and I met the producers of “Lost in Translation,” and they all said, “If you shoot in Japan, you better bring as few foreigners as possible. If you can just be two or three French guys and have a whole Japanese crew, it’s much better for you.” And that’s what we did in the end. We were just four French guys on the set and all the rest were Japanese, because there’s a Japanese way of working that works very well, and they’re very dedicated to your movie, but then you have to learn their sense of hierarchy, but they’re very hard workers and very passionate. I think I might have problems shooting again in France because people are very lazy compared to Japan.

CS: Was it easy to explain to the crew exactly what you were doing or going for?
Noé: Unfortunately, I don’t speak Japanese, so there was some tensions that I could not understand. If I had some notions of Japanese, maybe I would grab some words, but then I would understand whatever they would translate to me in English or French.

CS: You mentioned “Lost in Translation” and there’s that scene where Bill Murray is trying to communicate with the director and the translation is much shorter than what he’s saying, and that must be frustrating as a filmmaker with such a specific vision to try to get everyone else to understand that.
Noé: Yeah, also, it’s another weird thing is that they don’t say “No” in Japan. Saying “No” is very unpolite, so they say “Maybe” or “It’s complicated” or “We’ll see,” but at a point, you would wish they would say “No” like the Western way. There are other things like they’re not supposed to make personal phone calls to anyone during the shooting, and even if the director picks up his cell phone during the shooting, it’s like an insult to the crew.

CS: While Paz de la Huerta has quite a bit of experience making movies, the other actors are pretty much new to acting, so can you talk about how you went about finding them once you decided to mainly use non-actors?
Noé: I used to working with non-professionals, but when it came to “Irreversible,” the film was financed without a script, just by dropping the names of Vincent Cassel, Monica Bellucci, Albert Dupontel and myself, so that’s how the movie got financed and there was no script at all. We got the money just by name-dropping. In this case, it was the opposite. I had a huge script and I’m used to working with non-professionals, especially for small parts, but in this case, even Nathan who plays the part of Oscar and the guy who plays Alex had never been in front of a video camera before. They’ve never expected to be in a movie during their lifetime. Or even the drug dealer Bruno, he’s just an English teacher in a regular school in Tokyo.

CS: You said you had a big script for this so did you have all the lines written pretty much?
Noé: Yeah, also because the movie is very visual so I wanted to describe as much as possible what the camerawork would look like or the colors, and yes, it’s a very visual script.

CS: But did it have specific lines for the actors or just information about the situation and allowing them to get into the roles naturally? Some lines are important to the narrative obviously.
Noé: They all read the script but besides Paz, who had a copy of the script, the other ones I said, “No, no, just come to the set and I’ll tell you what to say on the set,” especially for a non-professional, if you read the night before the lines, then people become very stiff. I’ve done the same with Philippe Nahon, the actor who plays the main character in “I Stand Alone,” I would give him the script at the very beginning of the shooting and then I would take it off his hands and said instead to just come to the set and we would improvise together and improvise in front of the camera. Actually, I don’t like rehearsing without the camera or lighting or the set, so I did as I did for my previous movies and would just start shooting and visually, the first two takes are not good, but it’s better to shoot with the camera and then you know that the first two or three takes are going to go into the can. In some cases – for example, in this movie, there is one shot where Paz is screaming at Mario, she turns crazy and says, “I want to die, I want to die!” Actually, that scene that was the first shot but for scenes that are very dramatic where people have to cry or scream, sometimes you’re better to rehearse technically without the actors so you’re sure that the camera movements and focus are going to work, because you cannot get such a performance many times, and sometimes, it comes with the very first take. For very dramatic scenes, I would rehearse with body doubles or with the actors asking them not to put any energy (into it), just to walk around and so we just checked the focus and the camera positions.

CS: Even with Paz’s previous movie experience, I can’t imagine she’s ever done anything quite like this either before… or since. How do you explain the way you work to an actress who is used to working a certain way…?
Noé: I don’t like explaining to actors. No, they learn
I know that Paz, who has been in many movies before mine, even if the parts were smaller, she was used to having the camera in front of her eyes or on the side, but at a small distance. Because half of my movie is shot from above with the crane as a vision of the ghost, she was kind of disappointed because she felt that the camera was not on her, and I know that we had some, not fights… but we were not discussing so much about her character, it was just worried about the fact that the camera… “What are you doing with my performance? If I cry and scream, is it worth having me crying if you don’t see my tears?” And I said, “Look, the movie is very conceptual. It has to work as a vision of the ghost. If I come down with the camera and do a close-up, it’s going to turn into a normal movie.” She was puzzled and maybe I was puzzled that she was puzzled, but at the end, she’s also a film director. She did a few shorts that I really liked that I saw before we started shooting, and because she’s willing to direct movies, I thought that was the best thing to happen to me, to have someone on the set who is both an actor and director at the same time. The shorts that I’ve seen are really good and I think she’s preparing something longer now.

CS: Throughout the movie, we see a lot of the same scenes from different camera angles and points of view. When you have scenes that are being seen from Oscar’s point of view and also with the camera behind his head?
Noé: The reason I was shooting from behind his back for the flashback was because when I consider my own past or when I dream, I always see myself as a shadow inside the frame. In present time, you perceive it as POV but when you reconsider the situation just one minute later, when you relive the scene, you remember this moment but you might see yourself inside the frame from the back of your neck or shoulder. That’s why I said, “Well, if I want to reproduce what my mental perception is, I should put the guy inside the frame for all the flashbacks.”

CS: Were you shooting those scenes with two cameras, one behind and one in front?
Noé: No, no, we shot the scenes twice. Most locations were real locations where we shot, like in the first part of the movie, when he’s alive and you see his POV or when he’s reconsidering his past and you see the same locations from the back of his head, those were real locations, but when you see the locations from above, those sets were reconstructed in a studio of the real locations where we shot before. We had to bring all the furniture to a studio and recreate the whole thing. That was a lot of work but the art department did a great job. Marc Caro who directed “Delicatessen” supervised all the sets that were done in Tokyo. He didn’t come to the Canadian part of the movie but then we had an art designer in Japan who was extremely talented but they worked together, so all of the Love Hotel rooms are totally recreated.

CS: Did you actually create a giant set of the Love Hotel with all of the rooms built?
Noé: Yes, yes.

CS: I was curious, because there are so many single-take shots and as you watch them, there are no seams and in theory, you could use computers to fake it, but it seems like you didn’t do that, and with the Love Hotel, it really looks like you created this long shot that goes in and out of the windows of the building. How do you prepare for something like that?
Noé: Actually, each time you go through walls, you can choose another take, so we had maybe ten takes for each room and then we would match with the wall, so if we had Room #1 that was good in Take #4 and Room #2 was better in #7, then we could match them.

CS: But you did create a giant set where you could go from room to room with one camera shot, right? It’s wild you worked with Marc Caro, because “Delicatessen” was similar in that they had to create this giant set that eventually would fall apart.
Noé: Also, because Marc Caro and Jeunet come from animation movies, so they’re used to recreating the world in a studio. I would say I come from a school where I came from cheap movies where I had no money so I had to use real locations, but it was great to work with him, because he really enhanced the whole visual dream.

CS: I understand that it’s going to be shown in the United States in a shorter version and essentially, they just removed one reel.
Noé: The French, German and Russian version of the movie is made out of 9 reels and it’s 17 minutes longer, but the one reel they take out is one 17-minute reel that starts right after the abortion scene and before the camera comes out of the cemetery.

CS: Does that take anything important from out of the story?
Noé: There’s a lot of astral visions and also, in those 17 minutes, there’s a 9-minute segment where Oscar dreams that he wakes up at the morgue and you see a POV of him coming back to life and he watches himself in a mirror and he has the face of his father and doesn’t understand what’s going on, and people say, “No, you’re not alive, you’re a zombie.” Actually, his friend Alex tells him, “Come on, you’re dead, you’re just dreaming that you’re coming back to life.” I would say it maybe gives a second level like in “Videodrome” but it doesn’t have anything violent. There’s just one orgy scene where Paz has sex with another girl in front of Tito. I know in England they’re going to release both versions, but I guess it’s going to be on the DVD or maybe they’ll put it at midnight so that once a week (they can see the full version). But for some people, the movie is really too much as it is, and if it’s too trippy, I know that when you do mushrooms they last too long and when you do acid, it lasts too long, and I wanted the movie to be long, so they say, “If you want the movie to be more accessible, it’s better to show it in the States the shortened version.”

CS: I was curious about your thoughts on 3D filmmaking, which is something a lot of people are getting into. This movie has a lot of scenes that give you the feeling of being in 3D without actually being so.
Noé: You know why? Because you feel the perspective because the camera is moving all the time so your brain recreates the perspective of 3D, and actually I think 3D movies should go towards long shots, because if the 3D movies keep using the grammar of TV, you go from one close-up to another close-up every two seconds, and I think your eyes cannot adjust or cannot perceive the depth, and I would say the most pleasant 3D movie would be a movie that is made of one long take. They say that your brain can recreate the 3D just by moving. Maybe in the future, but in this case, the movie is already too complicated to add the problem of shooting in 3D. Also, when we shot it, it was one and a half or two years before “Avatar” came out, and it’s been since “Avatar” that people have really been considering the power of releasing movies in 3D. But I’m not a big fan of putting glasses in film theaters and even less in front of a TV set.

Enter the Void opens in select cities on Friday, September 24.

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