An Interview With Bruno Dumont – Martyn Conterio
Tell me about the inspiration behind your film and how that developed into Hors Satan.
Dumont: After Hadewijch , the idea was to try to realise the new world; the profane world–if I can describe it as such, and to try and tell a simple story that could be the myth of this new world. So it’s the new world, but at the same time, it’s archaic.
How long does it take you to write and go through this process of exploration?
I took over a year to write it and I had to work on the world and the sensations it brings. Also, to find the style of the film and how that comes from the literary style I write in.
I’ve heard your writing process is very different from employing the traditional script format and you, essentially, write a novel. Is that true?
Does this approach allow you better access to your ideas and a better feeling for your story?
Absolutely. The film script, as a format, is very cold and when I write I go into the world [of the story] and understand it. I get indications on light, on sound. It also enables me to talk to the actors and the technicians. It’s a need for me to write in this style. I need to prepare this knowledge of an interior world that one is trying to reach cinematically.
Have you always worked this way?
Since the beginning.
How do financiers and producers deal with your method? Does it put them off when they’ve got to read a novel-length treatment and not breeze through a script?
Yes, they react very badly [laughs]. I put it into a script purely for the people who see the financiers.
A key element in all your films is landscape. It plays such an important role–it’s almost there as another character–and in Hors Satan you use it much more mythically, even spiritually.
There’s a fusion between the landscape and the spectator. Through the landscape the spectator can grasp the metaphor. At the same time it’s a secret language and something the spectator feels. But it’s nothing that can be translated or necessarily explained. Through landscape one can access beyond. It’s not so much the landscape, but the gaze, the way we look at a little pond, not the pond itself. The way to fine tune that is the mise-en-scène and the placing of the camera. You need the landscape but also the framework.
I felt like the landscape almost existed out of time in Hors Satan-as an almost a supernatural place. Was that the intention?
Yes. I think the supernatural comes from the story when the story…the further you go into the unreality of that world the invocation of the landscape goes with it–to such an extent that it probably becomes poetic.
Were you familiar with this landscape before deciding to shoot there?
I live there.
Where does this idea…I don’t want to use the word obsession…come from regarding landscape. It’s there in all your films and gives them a unique quality.
It comes from my readings but also having a sensitivity and insight that’s very sharp. I manage to see things in a landscape. It’s the gaze…it’s the vision.
Hors Satan is a departure in a few ways. It feels like you’re playing around with traditional style much more…such as that magnificent sunset shot, that is almost like a painterly composition, and use of tracking shots, etc.
It’s about reaching the sublime through the basics of cinematographic principles. You can’t reduce it to just one still or shot.
Where did the idea for this moment come from?
It comes from the emotions and experiences that one can feel. So it’s representing the emotions felt. It’s not the representation of a sunset…but the feeling one gets.
And what about the use of tracking shots and wide and low angles?
I’m interested in representing our presence in the world. It’s not filming the world, but finding the different angles and shots to interpret the different sensations.
How do you judge the rhythm and pace in your films? It’s very measured …some might call it slow.
I chose to edit [Hors Satan] myself. I cut the first twenty minutes of Hadewijch and enjoyed doing that. So after that, I took training with technicians to learn and as a result I’ve become my own editor with an assistant for the things I cannot do [technically]. But where to cut and the plan? It’s like literature, I have my pen and I was able to make mistakes in cutting and linking shots, something an editor would never do. I was able to do that.
You also play around with subjective shots, in Hors Satan, and sometimes leave out shots we’d expect to see such as reaction shots, and things like that.
I wanted to break the traditional line regarding subjective shots. It does break the relationship to the subjective shot but you have a continuation with the sound. At some point what you can hear you no longer need to see. And sometimes what you see you no longer need to hear.
Are you going to continue editing your own work in the future?
Yes because it [feels] like a return to the writing. There are lots of possibilities that present themselves.
I’ve always enjoyed your use of sound design. Is it true you record it live and do very little mixing in post-production?
There’s no sound editor, so it’s direct sound. It’s not always direct sound from that scene … it can be the sound from the take of the first shot placed within shot four. It’s always mono and direct … with elements I cannot control … a motorbike or aeroplane [in the background]. I always like to taint and dirty the sound so that – for example in the sunset there is an ugly sound – and it stops the moment becoming a cliché.
Why this approach?
You need a balance, really.
I’d like to talk about actors and faces, now. David Dewaele has appeared in your work before. Why did you choose him for the lead in Hors Satan?
I like to put somebody who is in a small part into a lead role. In real life, he’s a guy nobody looks at. That’s what I wanted to do. It’s the idea to put forth something that is usually put backwards.
You have a great ability to find very interesting faces–is it a comment on Hollywood and the movie industry’s bland focus on beauty?
Actually, they are stars. They have a presence that radiates and shines and stops everything else. There’s no explanation it is chemistry. David Dewaele is like Marlon Brando in that sense…it’s about presence.
You’re inviting the audience to experience a film in a different way than perhaps they’re used to.
It’s not all intellectual. It’s going to move the spectator. It’s not intellectual, it’s [about] sensations. Initially, there’s this stunned response because there is no music, no dialogue [at points]. It’s very different to how cinema is experienced nowadays [where] the whole thing is given to audiences on a plate, but with Hors Satan you have to work with it a bit.
I’d like to talk about the title of the film itself. Outside Satan suggests Dewaele’s character is a force for good. But could we have a duality and make it Outside God…why focus on the evil?
It does come from the subject of the film because the character spends his time trying to extract evil. But you’re right, the film could be called Hors Dieu…but you have to choose.
The miracle scene polarised fellow critics when I saw it at the press screening. I’ve seen the film twice now, again at the public screening last night, and I find it remarkable. It seems some can take it as a metaphor but you push it as a literal occurrence.
It’s perilous because it attempts a miracle outside the supernatural. It comes down to how the spectator, on that day, feels. You see it and believe it or not [within the movie’s narrative]. I do try to keep the rope tight for as long as possible. The spectator always has the freedom to leave or not accept it, but it’s the risk I take. I don’t add sugar and salt to spice it up. But at the same time you could be grateful for the simplicity of the scene because it’s made and filmed straightforwardly.
How’s the reaction to the film been, in general?
Good. It’s not always easy to talk after [seeing] a film but there’s always somebody who will attempt to discuss the experiences and sensations they felt. Then they are slightly embarrassed about expressing themselves, but that’s good, because they’ve been disturbed or upset and gone through something.
In your films, is there anything specific you are searching for in particular?
Emotion. Cinema is an art form dealing with emotions. It’s to find something sensational in the purest form and not superficial. If it’s there, in terms of a shot, then that’s important to me. If it’s there, it’s there.
Do you feel like you’re represented by the press and even film enthusiasts as an overly intellectual film-maker? You’ve spoken a lot about emotion and sensation as the key to your work and that feels readily accessible to just about anybody…if they’re willing.
Yes. The gleaning [process] is intellectual but the end product is not. I do regret the projection of a film sometimes overtakes the simplicity of the film itself.
Do your films satisfy you after you’ve completed them?
Never completely. There’s always a certain satisfaction with scenes but the dissatisfaction is why we carry on [as film-makers]. It gives me the desire to make another one.
Do you go back and watch your older films?