Interview with Pascal Laugier (Director of Martyrs)

In recent years, France has delivered some fine horror films. Some have been breakneck entertainments like Frontier(e)s or Haute Tension, and others have made a point about the times we live in like Ils or A L'interieur. All though have shown a vibrancy and drive that the industry of Hollywood can only dream of. But what Tinseltown doesn't have, it comes calling for and Pascal Laugier has been secured by Harvey Weinstein to "reboot" and reinvigorate the Hellraiser franchise.

Laugier's popularity has come about because of the reaction to his second movie Martyrs. Of the recent French horrors, his film has seemed to be the most accomplished in refreshing tired tales and hitting the viewer right in the gut. You can catch my review of Martyrs here along with Michael's review of Laugier's debut here, and I was keen to discover whether the man behind it was the interesting character I imagined. I found him straightforward, direct and surprisingly funny, a man for whom the attentions of Hollywood may turn his head but not for too long.

JW: "Martyrs has received some strong reactions, both positive and critical ones, what do you hope viewers get from seeing the film?"
PL: "I've done a horror film, and horror is supposed to divide the audience as horror is transgressive. It's not a genre that is supposed to please everybody. I feel very comfortable about the fact that the film creates such controversy - I would do romantic comedies if wanted to please my mother...(laughs). So I think it's really cool when a film from the genre creates so much buzz, so much against it, so much for it.

I was touring the world at festivals showing this to the audience. I lived so many extreme, surreal moments from people who were really upset, or moved by the film. People coming to me crying, saying how moving the film was. So it has been quite an experience, and I am very pleased with any kind of reaction."

JW: "One of the debates around the film..."
PL: "I understand the debates around the film very well. The film forces the audiences to have a position about it. And I understand it, and I'm not sure as a member of the audience that I would love the film. I'm not sure at all. It's not a very likeable movie, it's an exploration. Once again, I always understand the horror genre as transgressive, as an experimental one, and I wanted to do a film very far away from actual formulas. I wanted the film to be free, experimental, so that the audience would have some feeling whether that's a love or hate relationship. They would have a strong feeling and an experience."

JW: "Your first film, Saint Ange(House of Voices), is quite a different movie in a lot of ways...
PL: "It's different in the style and in the way it tells a story to the audience but honestly there a lot of common points.

If you look at it closely, it's almost the same story. I would say Martyrs is the extravagant version of the first one. When I did Saint Ange, I was kind of young and I was hiding a lot behind the genre archetypes. In Martyrs, I felt I had to be impudent, I had to take risks. I had to show my balls to the audience ..and I understand perfectly that some of the people of the audience don't want to see my balls!"

JW: "It's three or four years between the films, what were some of the lessons you learnt from Saint Ange that you applied to Martyrs?
PL: "That you can't hide your whole life. That if you're too cold, too self-referential, too driven by your influences, then you won't reach the audience's heart and, once again, I really wanted to show myself. For me it's a very impudent film, and that's why I can't watch Martyrs with an audience. It's just unbearable for me, too personal."

JW: "Saint Ange, as you say, is a referential film. There are things in there that when I was watching them reminded me of Argento, Fulci..."
PL: "I'm still very happy with the style, but it's a first film. I had to start somewhere, and I feel like I have been much more honest with Martyrs."

JW: "One of the great things about watching Martyrs is that audiences are trying to incorporate it into their own experience. So they're watching a bit thinking 'this is a bit like such and such a movie', but the thing with Martyrs is that it is very difficult to do that."
PL: "Cool, I'm glad to hear it.."

JW: "It kinda feels like you are being deliberately original with each twist the film takes. Was that a deliberate part of the planning?"
PL: "It was one of the goals as I was writing the film. To play with the archetypes and codes of the genre, trying to bring something fresh to it...I wanted to do a film that was as unexpected as possible so that the audience wouldn't leave the film. They would wait for the last few minutes of the film to find out the whole point of the picture. That was my intent. Because the more I was writing it, the more I realised how brutal it was, and, after a while, I realised that the brutality and the violence was the subject of the film itself. Normally, it's there to tell a story but here it's the very point."

JW: "One of similarities between your films is that they both have innocent young women at the centre of them who are destroyed by the powerful."
PL: "Absolutely, and the idea of the quest. That you have to cross very dark moments to know more about yourself or to learn the big secret. That's the crossing of the mirror..."

JW: "Am I right in thinking that there's also something about the desecration of beauty as you start with young beautiful women and deal with the terrible things that happen to them"
PL: "Yes...they are getting more and more unclean. It's because the idea of a quest, it's a very hard journey, it's very tough and you have to get unclean, nasty, to know more about yourself. Something like that, I'm really influenced by Lewis Carroll. Journeys filled with mysteries and very dark elements make you learn more about everything."

JW: "Horror is often described as a very conservative genre, especially the personal politics of the movies. Yet you describe Martyrs as being a film that's on the side of the "Indians" rather than the "Cowboys". What do you mean about that?"
PL: "I first loved the genre because the genre was at least giving a chance, it was talking about misfits, talking about the freaks, the ugly ones, the ones that you never see in fashion magazines. And I was very very upset, very annoyed by a lot of horror films that are made to comfort people in their dominance, and I love the genre for the opposite. I loved the genre because it revered the graves of the freaks and the monsters. That's why I was talking "Indians vs Cowboys". And Yes, I want to do films that are on the side of the weak ones."

JW: "And that's what's interesting about watching the film for the journey, to get out of the other end of it. For the audience, at the end of Martyrs, there is a very difficult feeling to be broached in getting through the film"
PL: "Hmm.."

JW: "You leave that deliberately to the viewer to work out for themselves.."
PL: "I love open endings. One of my biggest sources of influence in my life was The Twilight Zone TV series. At each ending of each episode, you as a watcher were falling in to a kind of a vertigo because the endings of the episode were so open. It just twisted your mind and you had to think a lot about what you had just seen, and I love the idea whether you like my ending or hate my film. I loved the idea that you have to think about it a lot and I know that a lot of people need some time to understand their own relationship to the film, they need time to wonder about whether they like it or not, and that's something I'm very pleased about."

JW: "How would you describe your approach to directing actors?"
PL: "As a very difficult thing, as a thing that I will have to improve a lot. It's still a big learning process for me. I came to cinema because of directors, directors were my heroes. As I was a teenager, I was never crazy about any actor. My connection to cinema was going through the work of directors, I love the style of them, I love the visuals...So it's still a learning process for me.

But I think I was very close to Mylene and Morjane on the set of Martyrs. We spent 2 months doing rehearsals, we never rehearsed the sequences of the script, we worked about getting very close to each other, finding the trust between each other. So they would not fear my watching them when they were crying and losing their control in front of me. It took us 2 months to reach that point, and after that on the set they were really ready and they were real troopers. We were all together doing the same film."

JW: "Presumably with such a physical film as this one, such a stressful one, it's quite a challenge for them"
PL: "It's a hard challenge in France. As in France, actors are more trained in school to be doing good dialogue. It's a very cerebral approach and the horror genre allows you to be very physical. You have to know how to open a door, close a door, to run. It was very intimate, very primitive. I guess they liked it, they liked that kind of "no psychology on set" approach with very concrete actions.

JW: "Both the films that you've done so far, you have written the scripts for. Dario Argento once said how he far prefers writing to directing. Is that an opinion you share?"
PL: "No. To be honest, I don't like anything in my job. Writing, I find very hard, when I shoot I find it unbearable, and when I edit it I find it very boring. Sometimes when I am doing a film I am wondering why I have chosen this profession, and when I have finished I am glad it's finished. After one month or two I just can't wait to do another one. It's like a disease, I am exaggerating a little bit, but yeah it's the truth. Sometimes I am wondering about when the pleasure starts! Maybe it will come with maturity, I don't know."

JW: "In a number of interviews you've talked about film-makers that you admire and two you have mentioned have been Polanski and Andrzej Zulawski, emigrés working in France. Are there French directors you admire as much?"
PL: "I love all the classic wave of French directors, French cinema from the 40's and 50's. One of my favourites is Julian Duvivier, Clouzot, you know Henri-Georges Clouzot, Franju...all the guys. I don't want to sound provocative, but French cinema during the 40's and 50's, we had the best in the world and I have a feeling that since 2 or 3 decades, French cinema is less interesting because our national industry is filled with national comedies, produced by and for TV. I am not interested in those kinds of movies. That's why I am trying to propose something else, but yes I am not too fond of modern French cinema."

JW: "It seems France has recently started making horror films again with quite some success. Why do you think that is"
PL: "The fact is that we are much more successful in foreign countries and in our homeland it's always the same stuff where you're never a prophet..What I mean is that even the horror fans, the French ones, they are very condescending about French horror films. It's still a hell to find the money, a hell to convince people that we are legitimate to make this kind of movie in France. So I know from an American point of view and probably an English one too, there is a kind of new wave of modern horror film, but it's not true. It's still hell. My country produces almost 200 films a year and there are like 2 or 3 horror films. It's not even an industry, French horror cinema is very low budget, it's kinda prototype. I think that a genre really exists when it's industrially produced like the Italians did 600 spaghetti westerns. So we can't really say that there is a wave of horror in French Cinema, I don't believe it."

JW: "I understand that your next two projects are Dogs and obviously there's the Hellraiser remake. Could you tell me a little about them?"
PL: "It's a bit too early to tell you things in details but it's a fact that I have been very lucky to sign for 3 or 4 different films. One for the French market and one is for Hollywood. I'm still very quiet about it because I am not 20 any more, I'm 37 and I know how Hollywood can kill you in a blink. Hollywood is like a beautiful lady that you want to fuck, but you know that the lady holds a knife behind her back and she can kill you in a second. Right now I am working on the script, I don't want to do a remake of Hellraiser because the original was so good, you know redoing the original with more money - that's not the point. The point is to bring something new and fresh to the franchise, and still staying very faithful to Clive Barker's work. As much as I want to, I know that Hellraiser is very transgressive material and right now I am not sure that Hollywood is going to let me be as transgressive as I need to be to do a good work with the Hellraiser film. If they want me to betray Clive I will definitely leave the project in a blink."

JW: "How involved is Clive Barker?"
PL: "Clive is the executive producer, I don't think he has a real influence on budgeting. Dimension has bought the rights to Hellraiser and they basically do what they want."

JW: "Do you see your future as making films abroad or staying in France?"
PL: "Once again in France, we are not so delighted to do genre stuff. After Martyrs I received one French proposition from a producer. At the same time I was receiving 40, 50 American propositions. I really wanted to stay in France to make films because for me it was much more interesting but after a while you kinda feel desperate and you go to people who desire you much more. People who tell you 'Pascal we love you' we want to propose you this.

Making a genre film in France is a kind of emotional roller-coaster, sometimes you feel very happy to be underground and trying to do something new and sometimes you feel totally desperate because you feel like you are fighting against everyone else, you know."

And so he was gone. Laugier seemed a bit of a misanthrope, and there's little I enjoy more than speaking with another of my kind. I wonder whether he will endure the experience of the Weinsteins as he works on Hellraiser, and I am amazed that his homeland has proved so unreceptive to supporting him more.

Laugier seemed a man with a lot to say, and home or abroad I hope he gets the chance to say it. It seems likely that he may have to leave his native France to fulfill his career and he may become an outsider abroad, much like the Polish directors he admires so much. For a film-maker so interested in the excluded and the dominated, his professional fate may prove poetic.

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