Interview: Alain Guiraudie
In the Jan/Feb issue, Jonathan Romney takes us through the career of Alain Guiraudie, and its curious mix of reality and fantasy (on view Jan. 24 – 30 in the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s retrospective “Alain Guiraudie: King of Escape”). Guiraudie’s latest feature, Stranger by the Lake, plunges into the deep end with a story set (and gorgeously shot) at a lake by a cruising spot. In the film’s look at love and desire in the shadow of murder, a young regular named Franck falls for Michel, a hunk with a very dark side, and strikes up a friendship with a rumpled loner, Henri. FILM COMMENT spoke briefly with the director last September at the New York Film Festival.
It’s been a few years since your last film, The King of Escape . How did you choose the story for your latest?
It’s not a bad idea to talk about this film in relation to the previous one. After my last film, I took some time off, about a year, working with a friend, just writing and developing the idea for a script. And the script really was the total antithesis of what this one is. It was a story about heterosexual love, it took place in the city, and in the winter. And after about eight months, I realized that it wasn't going anywhere. So I dropped that project, and I decided that I really wanted to focus on writing a story that would be simple yet would recount the story of very complex things. And I also wanted it to take place in the sun, in the summer, and in the country.
What I decided to do was to talk about something familiar to me. So the story was about homosexuality. Because in my previous films, the world that I had created was really rather fictitious. This time I wanted to base it on something I really knew, and I wanted to write a film that was about love, about desire, about really passionate love. I had shown family love and playful love before. But I really wanted to explore this idea of a passion where the other person really gets under your skin.
The movie gets under our skin, because you put us so close to Franck’s experience of desire and the fear he eventually feels. And I wanted to ask how you cast your actors, because the actor who plays Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is part of what makes it possible for us to get into this scenario.
None of the actors in the film are particularly well known in France. When I was writing the script, I had an idea of what the characters would be like. But when I write, I never have a particular actor in mind or a particular look. It's always a little bit vague. Once the writing is completed, then I go out and I try to find actors who would match my idea of who this character would be. So for a film like this, we saw 400-500 actors, in Paris and Marseilles. And we found our actors in Paris. They came by different routes, by direct screen tests or maybe a casting director saw someone and would send me a video test.
For the characters of Franck and Henri, the older man, the actors that we found very closely corresponded to the idea I had in my head. On the other hand, Michel was totally not like what I was thinking of.
What did you have in mind for Michel?
I had this very diffuse idea of what Michel was like, but the first thing I thought was that he would be someone older. I had originally thought Franck would be about 35, Michel would be 50 or 52, and Henri would be in his sixties. But I made everybody younger.
What a sellout!
[Laughs] I had never really considered a California surfer type that looked like Magnum P.I. or Mark Spitz for this character, at all. So, it was really only when I met Christophe [Paou] that I had this total re-conception of what the character would look like physically, what he would be like.
It's interesting to hear that Michel was different from your original conception, even vaguely. He's such a specific type.
It's interesting and a little surprising to me that I wasn't able to pinpoint what I wanted the character of Michel to be like before I met Christophe. And it's an aspect that is reciprocal. You have actors who really feed off the character—this is what they are. But in a certain way, sometimes they give the character a dimension that maybe the writer didn't originally have. I really like that interplay between what I originally conceive of as what the character is like, what his world is going to be, and then what the actor himself contributes to that part. I don't like it if the actor completely immerses himself in some idea preconceived by me.
The film’s lake setting is so rich, as a metaphor too. What drew you to that setting, and where did you shoot the movie?
It’s 150 kilometers northeast of Marseilles, in the direction of the Alps. It's Provence. The lake was a little more concrete than the actor—you have less choice between lakes than you do between actors. There’s a lake not far from where I live, and it's really rather small and round, and has very simple surroundings. I had this in mind. But when I was trying to find a location to shoot, which region of France, I wanted to pick the region that had the most sun so that we wouldn't have any problems with rain when we were shooting. But as far as the idea of the sexual metaphor, it's true that the lake itself has a sensuality—it's something that is very inviting, that makes you want to go in and take a plunge. The other thing that's interesting is that this area of Provence, in addition to being the sunniest, also has the most wind. I like having the wind as an element—it also contributes to the sensuality of the film.
The film’s look is so textured—the color and light are so vivid in a realistic way. You feel like you're there. How did you work that out with your cinematographer, what you wanted it to look like?
The Ditch and Uncle Boonmee were good examples in the sense that the lighting in those films was very sensual and works a lot with shadows and half-light. We worked only with natural light—there was no added light at any point. And what I found while we were working is that the light during the day is extremely nuanced. So, for example, you have the afternoon light, but then you have a different light at the end of the afternoon. You have the twilight light, and then you have a very different one at the very end of twilight. So we scheduled our shooting schedule really with the rhythm of the natural light. And we would have never achieved this look if we had worked the 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. working hours that are traditional in French cinema. Our rhythm was with the natural light.
This is the first time I worked in digital. I had thought originally maybe that I would shoot it in 35 mm. But we did some digital tests using the RED Epic. It’s shot in a true cinemascope way, with anamorphic lenses. I was very satisfied when I saw the results of the tests, because of the density and depth. It's something I hadn't seen before in my other work.
We worked very hard in creating the look of the film also with respect to the design, the set. We worked very carefully at choosing the forest area, what the parking lot would look like, what the hiking paths in the forest would look like. I worked with three artistic directors on this film, which I think really added a great deal of depth to the way the film worked. And also the costumes, even though there aren't very many costumes!
We also worked with a relatively small crew: we had 14 on our technical crew, and the three art directors. Because it was a very small group, we were able to work in that natural environment much more easily. I wanted to really specify that because I didn't want you to get the idea that because we had three art directors, maybe we were like a crew of 90. We weren't!
With that kind of attention to detail, we experience the place like we’re someone who goes there regularly.
Yes, yes. That's one of the attractions of filming on the same set every day. You get to see these nuanced changes, and you create this sense of familiarity.
Thinking about the depiction of desire in the film, another aspect is the imagery of the body. Could you talk about how you approached that?
I was very interested in showing a variety of bodies. I think that by doing so, you're showing reality. There are the really handsome ones and there are the ones that are a little plumper, a little rounder, maybe not as handsome, not as attractive. That was really an element that was present in a rough state in the script. But I think what wasn't quite so clear in the script—but which became clearer for me as I made the film—was how I wanted to show the sex scenes in the film, and to deal with the whole question of what is pornographic. Did I want to film it in a way that is what we normally consider to be a pornographic way of showing it, or did I want to take those kind of images, and take them out of what is pornographic, and move them in the direction of what's lyrical and poetic? That's of course the direction that I went with, but that wasn't obvious to me in the beginning.
As a filmmaker, you’re based outside of Paris, right?
I live 700 kilometers from Paris, and most of my films I choose to shoot outside of Paris. But almost all of the other work of the film is done in Paris. The production work, the post-production, the editing, the mixing. And even a lot of the pre-production work.
Do you feel like more of an independent filmmaker in France, is that something you would identify with?
I'm pretty far from the Parisian circles. The less I am in Paris, the better I feel [laughs]. I don't want to do any kind of anti-Paris propaganda. I have lots of friends there; culturally it's very rich. I think also it's very important, even though I feel like I'm independent, for me to go to Paris and to be in Paris at times. The film industry needs a major center like that where everything is concentrated—where people can meet each other, see new ideas, interact with each other. That's an important aspect of business. I also think that I'm one of those very rare filmmakers: I really did grow up in the country, and I grew up among the peasants in the country, I'm homosexual, I have experience as a Communist. In that sense, I am unique.
Where in France did you grow up?
I come from a department in France called Aveyron. It's about 150 kilometers north of Toulouse.
What attracted you to cinema?
I think I actually came to cinema rather late, when I was around 15 or 16 years old. But the desire to make movies goes back before that because I was very much influenced by television. I used to love to watch series: The Untouchables with Robert Stack, The Prisoner, The Invaders with David Vincent. What attracted me even more fundamentally than that is the whole idea of the image. I wanted to go out and capture the world around me, capture it in an image. And Tintin was also very important to me. In all of those kinds of comics, but Tintin in particular, there is something inherently very cinematographic about it.
Tintin is wonderful, the use of full-page panels.
Like the one with the Incas, Prisoners of the Sun, when they burst in.
I think cinema to me also represents something far off. It was far off both in a geographic sense, because it happened in Paris. And also, in a sense it was socially far off, because it was something for rich folks. That's why I think a filmmaker like Eric Rohmer was very important for me, because he was somebody who made his films in a way that was very simple, very pure, and basically relatively low-budget. That made them much more approachable. And the idea of making a film like that was much more approachable.
And what brought you to this story?
I think one of the things that interests me is telling a story through literature. I write novels. And I work on these novels, and after writing a novel and working on it for six months, I throw it aside because I can't manage to finish it. But then I find things in the novels I wrote that are absolutely appropriate for a screenplay. So what is it about this, that it's easier for me to show it in the cinema than it is to actually finish it in the novel? My explanation is that there is a dialectic that's at work, and it's really the dialectic between what is real and what is fantasy. And I think that when you work with cinema, you're working with something that's real, that's concrete. But very often in the stories, you must move toward something if not totally fantasy, at least something a little less real, a little less an everyday experience.
On this whole question of desire, and capturing the idea of what is desire, what it feels like, what it is, the one who really did that was Marcel Proust. Maybe I'm really just a frustrated writer.
Well, there should be more frustrated writers like you.