It was with some trepidation that I watched Catalonian director Albert Serra’s Historia de la meva mort (The Story of My Death) at this year’s Viennale. After quickly gaining notoriety as an enfant terrible of the festival circuit in the wake of his first two films – Honor de cavalleria (2006) and El cant des ocells (Birdsong, 2008) – Serra’s more recent work has mainly been within gallery environments. Would this shift end up having a corrosive effect on his long-awaited third feature, which, clocking in at 150 minutes, notably includes Casanova and Dracula as its two protagonists? My fears were only compounded by the mixed critical reviews The Story of My Death had garnered since its premiere at Locarno (although Serra’s work has never been to everyone’s tastes).
In fact, there was no need to worry: the film is a triumph, as stimulating, unbridled and provocative as its predecessors. As luck would have it, the interview I had scheduled with Serra the following day was the last on his agenda, and the 30-minute slot that had been granted to me ballooned out to a free-wheeling dialogue lasting well over an hour. In spite of the director’s idiosyncratic English and the circular nature of some of the discussion, there seems little sense in tampering with his comments, so what follows is close to a direct transcription of the conversation, as it unfurled on the seventh floor of the Vienna Hilton.
Before watching your film, I was concerned that you might have something a little like “second album syndrome”, like rock bands who make their breakout album, and then their second album has so much expectation attached to it that the work can often suffer. Given that you hadn’t made a feature for five years, what was the process that led you up to Story of My Death?
I had some commissions from the art world which, at the beginning, I was not very interested in, but nowadays financing films is getting more complex, especially for me, because I don’t have anything that appeals to financers. I make radical films that are long, often very dark, and without any professional actors, so getting financing for my films is tough. I have none of the attributes they are looking for. If you just add two or three big name actors to the production, or make the film a bit shorter, or add a bit more narrative, everything becomes much easier. So it was a long process for me to get money for the film, even though it’s not an expensive film: the budget was about 1.3 million euros.
And so last year I did a 101-hour film for Documenta in Kassel, The Three Little Pigs.
I saw a little bit of it at the Pompidou Centre.
It was not very beautiful there, it was not very well done. The problem is the subtitles. You must understand German, no?
So, for you it’s not a problem. But to show it abroad without subtitles makes no sense at all. So they started to make some subtitles, but it was a huge amount of work.
It would almost cost more to do the subtitles than to make the film.
But now I am discussing with one or two places to show the film in better conditions, or possibly to put it in a broader context. I think I will have the possibility to improve it and expand it into a show in Germany that I have started preparing. It hasn’t been approved yet but I think it will be done. It’s a work that will keep growing, it’s not finished, it’s something that will continue.
But to come back to your question, I also made a film that was a letter to Lisandro Alonso, The Lord Worked Wonders in Me (2011). It’s a film that I am very proud of, that is very interesting, and that will last forever, I think. For all the people interested in my cinema this will be my most moving film because it talks about my way of working and also about friendship, and about the possibility of building up a collective way of working – not a collective, but the possibility of creating a group, the mechanics of a group that is in some sense an innocent group, the idea of making films with innocent people, and how it ends, its disintegration. It’s a very interesting movie, and in time I think it will gain more recognition.
Do you see your work as part of something bigger, like a broader movement or tendency in filmmaking?
The problem is that nowadays everybody is isolated. In the past you at least had national cinemas; nowadays this is over because as communication is so fast, and as it is so easy to move around the world, people nowadays have lost their own country, in general. People are more linked with other filmmakers in the rest of the world than with people who live in their own country. Nonetheless, I still believe that part of the character of the great filmmakers that I admire is their roots with their own country. But these are cultural roots; they are not roots in the cinema.
In a way, you bypass the nation altogether: on the one hand your work is part of a global network of festivals and galleries, and on the other hand you stay close to your local identity, that of Catalonia, and the village of Banyoles where you grew up.
I am one of the only ones, huh? Because all the other people who have been linked with me – Lisandro Alonso, Miguel Gomes, etc. – have all started to work with professional actors. I am the only one who has resisted this. So every time it will be difficult for me to get films financed. But I am the only incorruptible – I am incorruptible and incorrupt. It’s difficult, but for me it makes no sense to work with professional actors.
I thought that one of the highlights of this film was Lluis Serrat’s performance as Casanova’s butler Pompeu.
Over the course of the films you’ve made with him, his performances have reminded me of a term used by Gilles Deleuze: “professional non-actors”. He uses it to speak about figures from the nouvelle vague, such as Jean-Pierre Léaud and Anna Karina, who are distinct from non-professional actors in the more traditional, neorealist sense…
They are exceptions. I know Léaud, in fact I was involved in a project with him, and he’s very pure. Léaud is a very strange example because he told me that he only makes films with those filmmakers he likes. He has never made a single film with somebody just for the money. He’s a really incorruptible guy. He will never be in second-rate films, never. Although I will always prefer my own actors, it would not be a sacrilege to work with him, just because of his purity. But all the others… Some other actors do get close to the approach of these “professional non-actors”, but it’s not just about that. It’s also about the system. When you work within the system, you end up lapsing into academicism. Even these professional non-actors are used to working in a different way, they can not imagine the way I work. In some sense, they will always be very academic, and very far from my methods. Even if the final result of the film is not academic at all, even if it is an avant-garde work that is very beautiful, the way they work, I can assure you, is academic. For me it’s a little bit sad. I decided to make cinema in order to have fun, to change my life, and even if it sounds a little bit pretentious, to introduce some kind of subversive element in my life, and in the cinema.
There is a way in which, as spectators of your work, we can sense the joyfulness of the shoot in the film itself.
And the irony also. This is something that is very important because it was an influence on the avant-garde art of the 20th century: irony was there, the playful side was also there. People were not ashamed, they were not scared of inserting some irony or some strange elements that would go against the serious nature of the work. This playful side was a major part of Surrealism, Dadaism, Futurism. Nowadays, everybody thinks they are a great artist, and they are scared of including something that could go against the film’s critical acclaim. But I like that. For me, a film should always be risky. And in this film I think I have achieved some really risky things. I knew from the beginning, just because of the mix of the two characters of Casanova and Dracula, that the line between the sublime and the grotesque would be very thin. But I think at the end I have produced something interesting. My films will never be perfect because it’s not possible: the energy that allows me to make things that nobody else can make is precisely what prevents me from making a perfect film. They’re the two sides of the same coin, you can’t have everything. You can only have everything with an academic approach, but with this approach it is impossible because you can not separate them, it’s part of the style
Something that really struck me when watching the film was this very persistent analogy between, on the one hand, artistic production (writing, or, on a more meta-level, filmmaking) and then, on the other hand, shitting. This seems to be the grand metaphor presiding over the film.
There’s the idea that I can take the most horrible, the most shitty things – the most horrible actors, the most horrible technicians, even the mix of characters is horrible: Dracula and Casanova…
It sounds like a 1970s schlock horror film.
Yeah, like a Z-grade movie. But in the end it doesn’t matter: with my knowledge or my talent, and with the actors, something grows out of it. But at the beginning it is picked up from detritus. This is the metaphor behind the scene with the alchemists converting shit into gold. And this is a metaphor for my work: we use the cheapest cameras. Did you see the film here in Vienna, on 35mm?
Ah, here it was beautiful because it was on 35mm. On DCP it’s not so beautiful, but here I think it looked great. It’s this idea of going from nothing to the sky… For me this is the importance of using non-professional actors, which is a moral question. From the moral point of view, film critics, and people in the industry, do not appreciate or love this choice as much as I do. It’s a moral choice. What is the cinema about? Obviously it’s about what you see on the screen, and what counts is the final result, it shouldn’t matter whether you use professional or non-professional actors. But beyond this, they should be moved by my decision to always use the same actors, people who I know from my small village, people who are very good, they are as good as professionals. Rarely do I find somebody who tells me: “Your film encouraged me to follow this path.” This is very strange, it’s something I am a little bit sad and disappointed about. Because nowadays everybody is inside the system, they even lose the possibility of seeing how beautiful this choice is, from the moral point of view. Nobody says: “Albert, how incredible it is that you always choose these people. What a brave man!” Nobody admires this choice. And even in France, where my films are the most widely distributed, nobody says this because they are all inside the fucking film financing system, with the power of the actors… Actors all hate me, and so do other people in the industry, just because I make this choice. It should be the opposite. Perhaps they don’t admire me because it’s against the principles of the industry. But at the same time, if you have a heart, you should be moved by this, huh? I never talk about this, but it’s the first time in my career that I have felt that this was a brave decision, and that it is moving, from a moral point of view. Do you know what I mean?
Absolutely. Particularly with the European art house circuit there is a self-perception of themselves as being open and tolerant, but actually there’s a real intolerance towards certain practices.
A film with non-professional actors, for example, will never be bought by Wild Bunch, out of principle.
Even figures such as Straub/Huillet or Pedro Costa have suffered constantly from this.
Those critics that never praise me, and praise the films in competition in Cannes (my films will never be in competition in Cannes), one hour later these same people are praising [Pier Paolo] Pasolini for his popular roots, which is absolutely ridiculous. The hypocrisy of these people upsets me – but that’s life.
This question of morality is also thematically present in your film. You were talking about Lluis Serrat as being a figure of purity, but his character Pompeu is also very specifically counter-posed to Casanova, who is a deeply hypocritical figure. He is trying to reconcile two completely incompatible tendencies: his aristocratic sensibilities on the one hand, and the sensuous world on the other hand, in which he is basically a tourist.
I like to be provocative. Casanova is a figure who is dubious from the moral point of view. But also, the way I work, all the manipulation, is a little bit evil. I don’t touch the materiality of my films, but there is manipulation in the edit, after the film – never during the shooting. The shooting is very honest, very pure, very rough, very wild. But after the shooting I start to manipulate people – not only actors, but also technicians. It’s the only way I can keep some kind of control over the material without touching it during the shooting. It’s very complex. For example, if I am editing my film and a friend drops by, I’ll say, in a very serious, harsh manner, “That cinematographer is such a fucking idiot! What is he doing? He’s fucking insane!” I am joking, but I try not to show it, because I know this guy will talk with the cinematographer, tell him that I was very upset, and put some pressure on him. And on the next film the cinematographer will remember this conversation, and there will be some tension. So I can manipulate the image a little bit, but not in the moment itself, because the shooting has to be fun, and I don’t like to communicate too closely with the technicians and the actors. I want to stay remote from the purity of the material. You have to be a little bit evil, because how can you control a film without touching it during the shooting? How can you do what you want to do without manipulating the shooting? It’s difficult.
There’s a general idea – and this goes back to the theories of André Bazin and Sergei Eisenstein and so on – that there is a total opposition between preserving the materiality of the shoot, and editing as an act of manipulation. But I think in your work it doesn’t happen like that, I feel like the editing actually adds to our access to the reality of what happened in the shoot.
How do you mean?
I feel that the juxtapositions you make in the editing accentuate the events of the shoot, they can foreground the truth of what you filmed on a higher level than a more straightforward form of continuity can.
That’s an interesting point of view, because people always have this idea that you build up the film in the editing. But this is not the case with me. That would be easy: if you have 400 hours to build a film, you can build it any way you want. So what you’re saying is important because it’s about being sensitive towards the material. It’s what you said: finding something that is already in the material, and really following the beauty of the material. I like the approach you mention, because it’s about sensitivity, not about creativity. Picasso said, “I do not search, I find.”
So when you’re in the editing suite you don’t have many preconceived ideas about how you are going to construct the film?
No, nothing. It’s the same attitude as when I’m in the shoot. In fact, Casanova says this during the film: writing is always ahead of you, never inside you. It’s in front of you. You don’t have to project. Well, Godard also said that there are filmmakers who make films with the camera, and those who make films with the projector. But the projector doesn’t shoot, you have to film with the camera, you have to film what is in front of the camera, not what you have in your mind.
It’s also almost a Nietzschean concept, as well: the notion of being open to the ideas that come to you.
Yes, and you have to accept everything. If everything can be repeated forever, then it means we have to accept fatality. For me, the guarantee that I can withstand this fatality is that the concept is beautiful. First, the honest side of me, with the choice of actors, my honesty as an artist and as a human being. Then, the beauty of the concept. So these two things act as a guarantee for the film. It may be good or bad, but at least we will have… How did you put it?
Access to a deeper truth…
Yeah, it’s a Platonic idea: that beauty will be linked with truth, and that the truth will be beautiful. That is the guarantee. Even with the manipulation that you have to apply in the editing, it still has these roots. Truth is beautiful and beauty is truth. Beauty is linked with truth here, which doesn’t always happen with professional, academic cinema.
A moment in the film that is an emblem of this notion is the scene where Casanova is fucking a servant girl in an alcove and then suddenly, out of nowhere, the window smashes. Casanova is stuck in his own little world for so much of the film, and then in that moment reality hits him.
It’s also humour, the playful side. I like these things. Here, as I had a little bit more money in the budget, I could try to put in a few more crazy things, because in my previous films if I wanted to break a window…
It would double the budget.
Yeah, you’d need a bigger budget, and you’d need to figure out how to do it. You’d need to bring in people to make it happen.
And if the take’s not right, you’re screwed.
And you end up losing two days just for this one fucking scene, whereas in two days I can shoot twenty dialogue scenes. I shot Honor de cavalleria in ten days, and Birdsong in 16 days, so I am fast. And I always start at 10am, rather than this myth of starting to shoot at 6 or 7am. Our timetable starts at 10. Everyone wakes up at 8:30 or 9, has breakfast, and then we start at 10. This is also our playful side. We are not there to work, we are on holidays, taking time off from our daily life. It should be subversive. So now I can afford to put in more crazy scenes, and I would love to do more of them in my future work.
In fact, my next film is about the contemporary art world. It’s a feature fiction, and the main character is an artist. It’s a very innocent film, because the cynical approach would be very easy. But now I am in such a mood that I want to believe – this is the subject of the film: the desire for belief in reality. Reality is the glass and it’s shocked, and when belief starts to be fake, it’s hypocrisy. But also I have a desire to believe in the contemporary art world. Which I never did in reality: I always thought it was full of thieves and bullshitters.
People who don’t really care about the work. The work is just a pretext for cocktail galas.
They don’t care about aesthetics. It’s about hanging out with people, money, vanity, I don’t know – I’m not interested in knowing. Something that has influenced me a lot was a Duchamp quote from a conversation in the 1960s, where he said that nobody wants to make masterpieces anymore. They want to make art, they want to sell their pieces, but not masterpieces. So the film will be about an artist’s desire to create a masterpiece.
Not a “statement”.
Not a success, a masterpiece. Can you imagine a film about this innocence, this belief, a young artist in the middle of this world? Because it’s a subject I have never seen in films. Have you ever seen a film about the contemporary art world that is not basically cynical?
It’s interesting that this will be your next project, because up until now you’ve dealt with historical subjects, using characters from the literary canon. Is there a reason for shifting to the contemporary world?
Perhaps I’m tired of it. But it’s a pity because something that I like to do a lot is artistic direction. I like to prepare the historical costumes, etc. I like to put my actors in historical costumes, at a remove from their normal environment. For me doing this is also playful, it’s fantasy.
Roberto Rossellini said he liked making films set in the Middle Ages, because you could just put someone in a potato sack, and that was their costume for the film. You didn’t have to worry about continuity.
The point is, the films I make are not historical films.
They’re not period films. There’s no attempt at historical accuracy.
You need to live inside the time in which you’re making the film, and the mentality of the people. I think with Casanova I achieve this.
On that question, there’s the leitmotiv of “the revolution to come” in The Story of My Death. That seems like a pretty obvious nod to the present day.
Of course. In fact, I only used one dialogue from Casanova’s memoirs. Everything else is invented by me. I don’t like to follow the sources. So why not this theme of revolution? I like the idea of Casanova as a visionary. But obviously nobody knew that the revolution would happen at that time because it was completely unexpected and unpredictable. Nobody could expect this kind of revolution ten years earlier. Another thing I read in a biography on Casanova (not in his memoirs), is the dictionary of cheese. It’s a beautiful idea, a very modern idea, in line with Diderot’s encyclopaedia, but it is based on the words. What interests him is not cheese, but the words, the etymological approach. This is what interests me.
The main goal of the film is to have dialogues that are interesting, but where you never feel the presence of the scriptwriter. This was my obsession. It’s very difficult to achieve this in dialogues: to have these kinds of dialogues, but where you don’t feel that there has been a scriptwriter – it’s very difficult. It’s a goal, and I think I achieve it in some way. Well, it helps that the actor is very good. Were you at the conversation after the screening?
I was there at the start, but then I had to leave for another film.
Ah, because there I explained how I build up dialogues.
I think I read about this in your interview with Cinema Scope: you edit different parts of the dialogue together.
It’s a performance, with the idea that the dialogue is born when you see the film. It’s never what happened in the mind of somebody, and it was never done in reality. So it’s really born when you see the film.
I think this is an example of what we were speaking about earlier with the juxtapositions you make. In one sense it is a form of manipulation, but actually these two blocks of text have resonances with each other.
Of course, it’s already there. You simply improve it a little bit. It’s not that you build it from scratch. You just try to make it more fresh, more subtle, following your sensitivity to the pre-existing beauty, but trying to make it a bit sweeter, a bit more acceptable. The shooting is so wild and rough that all the beautiful moments are very isolated from each other. So editing is just trying to give these moments some company. It’s simple.
In the documentary Waiting for Sancho (2008) that Mark Peranson made about your earlier film, we see these takes where the actors are performing, while the whole time you are trying to undermine them in some way, interrupting them, or trying to make them laugh, or fluff their lines. Were you doing the same on this shoot as well?
A little bit, but less so. Now my approach is to manipulate, but not during the shoot. I have more knowledge, and I’m a bit more distant from the shoot. Even at that time I often wasn’t following the action, I barely listened to the dialogues.
In a way, because you don’t rehearse with your actors before the shoot, you take a leap of faith with them. You have a trust in them.
And at the same time it’s very different with this film. In the earlier films it was more homogeneous because you have two or three actors. Here, there are a lot of actors, a lot of different combinations, so you can not have the same system. In some scenes there is almost a shot/reverse-shot system, like Dracula’s conversation with the servant girl, which is relatively easy to manipulate in the editing, but then you also have scenes like the one with the horse cart: it’s a single eight-minute take, so manipulation is not possible. You can not play the same games with the two actors.
So you have multiple combinations, every scene is very different, depending on how the actors in the scene react to each other when they are together. Every scene needs a different approach. I think I am quite talented in discovering which approach fits with which situation. This is not the approach of academically-minded filmmakers, who always shoot the same way, who have the same system for every moment. Here it all depends on the actors, on the edit I have in mind. There are no rules. I want the actors to make beautiful things. The reason why it takes time and why I shoot so many hours of footage is that when I start the scene, I have to concentrate and see which system I need to apply to the moment. It’s complex, and it’s risky. You never know how it will turn out. I have been lucky up till now, because it’s risky. Now I don’t have any fear, because I am very good. But it’s always a new miracle. I don’t have fear, but the miracle has to happen, and there’s no guarantee that it will happen.
Do you think this is one of the differences between making films for the cinema and making gallery work? The cinema requires that kind of miracle.
Yes, whereas in galleries it’s not necessary. But at the same time, I have learned things from people in the art world. They do not see films the same way we do. They are more free sometimes. When they see a film (even my feature films) they approach them in a different way, and I like this freedom. They do not judge films. Well, this is one of the causes for the state of confusion in the art world – they do not judge anything at all. But sometimes this approach is useful. They simply focus on things they like, but they do not make judgements. If they did, the contemporary art world would not exist, because they would realise that everything is horrible.
You caused a bit of a storm recently by saying that your films are “unfuckable” by critics. A critic either has to accept the entire film or reject it totally. There’s no middle ground. The game of film criticism right now is to pick up on the little things that can be criticised, whereas your films are fundamentally resistant to that.
It’s because the way I work is so performative that there is no progressive knowledge. If it’s progressive, you can see mistakes and you can see that a certain scene could be done differently. But here there is nothing, it’s performative. The film is born when you see it. You can not compare it with previous aesthetic conceptions, or what you think the film should be, because there’s nothing that the film should be. It should be what it is because the performative side of the film is so important. It’s the same with the framing: we shot it in 1.33:1, and then I decided in the middle of the shoot, without saying anything to the cinematographer, to make it 2.35:1. So the image you see in the film is really born when you see it, because it doesn’t exist in reality, nobody composed it, nobody conceived it.
So you would sometimes take the top part of the image, sometimes the middle, and sometimes the bottom?
Yeah, but I did it very quickly. I didn’t even calculate a lot. It was totally performative. I did it the day before sending the film to be transferred onto a 35mm print. It took me a couple of hours. So, the performative side is so important that there is no progress, it is not a progressive work, so you can not compare it with a theoretical script, or with what happened in the shoot. A critic has to accept this performance. When you see a performance you don’t say, “Here, at that moment, they should have…” No, because it’s a performance, it happens the way it happens. It’s valuable because it happens that way.
Possibly another influence that contemporary art has had on you is the issue of duration. It was already there in Honor de cavelleria and Birdsong, but I felt that this film pushed it a lot more strongly.
In a more subtle way, perhaps. In my previous films it was an evident, exterior part of the film. Here, I push it further, but it’s more internal to the film. It’s already inside me and the way I work. This work is less evident in this film, but it is inside the heart of my system.
Having that preoccupation with duration or time is very different in a cinema context than in a gallery context. You’re really forcing the spectator to go along with you in the cinema. Whereas in a gallery they can walk in, look at it for a couple of minutes and then walk out.
Yes, and sometimes I make a mistake, and people leave the cinema. You have to be more aware in the cinema. Perhaps I push too much sometimes. In fact, I think that the length of every shot in the film is correct. If not, I would have cut it or made it longer. Somebody asked me about the length of the film and I said, “I think it is the correct length, if I had thought it should be longer I would have made it longer.” About duration, I have never found anybody who said, “This should be longer.” Always: “It should be shorter.” OK. Well, fuck you. Perhaps it is your mind that is too short.
I know you’ve said in the past that you have a disregard for the audience, but I really feel that your films are trying to challenge them, and extend what the audience can tolerate. You try to push them in certain directions, something which other directors are more reluctant to do.
At the same time, even though there is conscious provocation, I want to make the best possible film with this duration. If I thought that one shot, or one scene, would have been better if it was shorter, or longer, I would have done it. So, by chance, it happens that it becomes a provocation, that it becomes a part of the challenge of the film, or the beauty of the film. But it’s always because it objectively matches the best possible film I can have.
It’s not provocation for it’s own sake.
No, it happens, but because I think it is better that way. I would never do it just for the sake of provocation – even if gratuitousness and provocation can sometimes be part of my style. But in terms of the length of shots or scenes, it really takes a lot of work. If it needs to be longer, or shorter, for the objective, aesthetic demands of the final film, I would do it. But gratuitousness is part of the film, and I play with that. Sometimes this comes at the price of provocation. It’s very difficult to decide with gratuitousness. If it’s arbitrary, OK, it’s like a performance. So there are no objective reasons. But it’s part of my style, it’s linked with playfulness and irony. To study it separately is impossible.
Let’s go back a little to the question we broached earlier concerning the film’s resonances for today. You were saying that Casanova has no idea that revolution really is imminent. But there is a very strong sense in the film of a historical formation that is at its end, that has entered into a stage of terminal decadence. In that sense your film reminded me quite a lot of Pasolini’s Salò (1975). There are the obvious parallels, with the scatological aspect of both films, but on a deeper level there is the idea that a point of no return has been reached.
I like the idea, although I don’t know if I had it explicitly in mind when I did it.
To call a film The Story of My Death already has that connotation.
Absolutely. But it is a special death, because Casanova is still alive. He has been bitten, but he starts a new afterlife: you can see his eyes moving. It’s a zero point. In the second part of the film, everything becomes more abstract, and in the last twenty minutes the scenes are cut in a very abstract way – even time and space become decomposed. There is a beautiful moment, which I will use more in my films: when Pompeu is eating the apple at the end, with the girl trying to bite his neck, and both are looking in the same direction, then in the next shot you see the same girl in a totally different position, behind the tree. So there is a zero point of time and space, it’s as if everything is unfolding in the mind of somebody. In a sense, the film is destroying itself. This point of no return is not just sociological or historical, it is also cinematic. There is an aesthetic saturation of the film itself.
We are not in an era of political engagement like Pasolini was in his time, so our approach will be different. People say that the “popular” aspect of the film is not as powerful as in Pasolini’s work. Obviously, we are not living in the same time. Today, Pasolini would make my films, he would not make his own films again, because his films are linked with his time. You can not be “popular” in the same way that he was, because there is no “popular” people nowadays – everyone is connected through the Internet, telephones, TV, even the poorest people in the countryside. So they are not so pure, from the standpoint of their popular roots. But you work with what you have, and from the sociological point of view this point of no return couldn’t be present, because we are not engaged in the same way. But aesthetically, it is the same thing. It has this decadence, this desire for an end. This fatigue.
That’s what the character of Dracula symbolises. He even symbolises the decomposition of time and space at the end of the film: he is a character who is alive, but he doesn’t age. He’s immortal, but he doesn’t live, he’s just a creature of the night.
This is the point. It’s like a motor, the motor of history. It’s like an escalator going around in circles. Everything is dead but the motor still turns. It’s still spinning around but there are no wheels, it’s not moving forward. Everything is broken, but the motor is still running.
As the film progresses, Dracula’s domain takes over more and more.
Dracula’s domain, or art’s domain. In the previous part of the film you have the sociological side, the historical side, and this progressively disappears. It’s only art that remains, empty images. The film becomes increasingly empty, and all that you are left with at the end is the structure, the iconography. It becomes less materialist. The camera is still shooting, but at a certain point you only have art, no history, no philosophy, no characters. Just images, pure images at the end.
There is art, but there is also nature. They’re the only two things that still exist.
I was not so focussed on nature, but it’s beautiful that it still exists in the film. Initially, I didn’t realise the importance of nature to the film, but when I saw the film I felt that this element was still there. It’s good, it’s beautiful. It gives some openness to the film.
It’s a counterpoint to the general development of the film, which is one of breakdown and decay. The first part of the film is almost all interiors, but then nature takes over more and more, which is almost a point of optimism.
It’s my way. I’m happy in nature. I’m like John Ford. You go out into nature, you work a lot, you come back at the end of the day and have a big dinner with the crew. You feel that you’ve really had a fulfilling day. This was the main reason why he liked to shoot on location.
And also because you’re in a remote location, and everyone is together, you become a kind of communal society.
I wouldn’t put it in such idealistic words, but that’s part of it. But I don’t like to see a great political importance to this. I don’t think it’s necessary, it’s just how I do things – but without being particularly proud of it. It’s nothing you have to be proud of. It’s more difficult to make the choice of using non-professional actors than to live together in a commune. There’s more courage involved in that choice. Obviously, if you’re in the countryside you all have to live together. But if you have non-professional actors the film will be a hundred times more popular and less academic and have more serious roots in political engagement than it would otherwise, regardless of whether you’re living together during the shoot or not. You understand? There are a lot of fake people in the movies.
Absolutely. But even if it’s not a political question, that style of shooting, that approach to living during the shoot, comes across in the film. There’s a certain camaraderie or a certain bond that comes through in certain ways.
With the actors it’s visible. But with the technicians and the crew… I always hate all the technicians. Godard’s latest film, Adieu au langage , was done with three people. This is my ideal. But I also like chaos. I like to put useless people in the crew, who create problems for the others. A friend of mine has a Harley Davidson motorcycle, and we were talking about it, and he said “It is the best motorcycle in the world.” And I said, “Well yeah, but it’s boring. It never breaks down.” The essence of riding by motorcycle, rather than by car, is its unpredictability. It’s more about the travelling itself than the place you arrive. So I would not love to make films with just a few people, because these useless people are valuable, they create chaos and problems. But finding a balance is difficult.
Do you tend to use the same crew from film to film?
In general, yes. But I change the director of photography. I will always change them, because cinematographers are very academically minded. In general I like to change things in life. But it’s not so easy to find good people who can fit in my system, whether technicians or actors. It was really a challenge for me to work with actresses in this film. At the beginning I thought it would be difficult, but in fact it was the same. They have the same purity as men. I was scared because women are much more self-conscious about the image that they project. But in the end, I realised that you can achieve the same purity.
The fact that the character of Casanova was played by a major figure in the Barcelona art world was also a new thing for you. Did he have more of a self-awareness about what he was involved in?
No. Everybody that gets involved in my system loses their self-awareness. I am the filmmaker, I know how to do it. At the beginning I thought it might be a little bit different, but objectively and sincerely it was exactly the same way of working. The system is so crazy and so intense that you automatically lose everything. In fact, this is why I say that actors never bring anything to a film, because if they bring something, they will remain stuck in their own way of behaving. For me, it is all the elements of the system that make the film, not the actors.
So for this reason, I don’t appreciate actors. Even non-professional actors. They should pay to be in the film. Imagine that they get money to do this! It would be like if I got money to get drunk. It would be like if I went to a nice bar and ordered a bottle of expensive French champagne, and then they paid me 200 euros. What kind of world is this? This is how I see my work.