This extended conversation with Lucile Hadžihalilović is grounded in the experience of life, film and filmmaking. The interview was conducted by dossier editors Alison Taylor and John Edmond over Zoom in July 2022, and then edited and condensed for clarity.

John Edmond: You were born in Lyon?

I was born in Lyon because my mother went to the city to have me, but my parents were already living in Morocco at the time. I never lived in Lyon and have no special attachment to the city. My father is Bosnian, but my mother was French and so she went to France to make sure that I could be a French citizen.
My parents were both doctors and they first worked in the south of Morocco, in Essaouira, Bouizakarne and Tiznit. My father left Yugoslavia in the late ‘50s. Before he was planning to go to the State or Canada, like many Yugoslavian emigrants of the time, but he had a friend in Morocco – so he stopped there. He liked very much the country and stayed there. Then he met my mother. She didn’t know what to do after studying medicine, and then she received a proposition to work at the Essaouira public hospital, so that’s what she did.
When I had to go to school my parents decided to move to Casablanca for my schooling, and I lived there until I was 17. Except for 3 years, when my mother had to go to another climate for health reasons, and so we went to the Vosges in France. It’s on the Eastern part of France, close to Germany and Switzerland. We lived in a little village surrounded by woods, so you can guess that maybe Innocence (2004) appears there. I lived there from the age of seven to ten.

John Edmond: So very much the age of innocence. From the towns, Atlantic coast and deserts of Morocco to European mountains that must have been quite striking?

Yes, that was quite a shock to arrive to this French village. I say that my films are very much autobiographical, and people laugh at that, but in fact it’s true. Except maybe with arriving in a coffin. *laughs*
And then I returned to Casablanca when I was eleven, where I stayed until the end of high school, before going to Paris to study. I didn’t plan on becoming a filmmaker. I just loved cinema. I had heard of film schools but was not how sure how they worked. After studying the history of art for three years, I had heard of the national film school IDHEC (now La Fémis). On my second application I got in. There I was with other people of my age, more or less trying to figure out if I would like to make films and how it would be possible. I made some very short films as exercises, and I found I liked it. 

John Edmond: Have you been back to Morocco at all? 

Yes. I used to go back because my parents still lived there for many years and then little by little, I stopped going. I haven’t really got any friends there now. The last time I went there, a few years ago, it was for a film festival in Salé, and it was nice experience to go back to Morocco, but through the perspective of cinema. That was a nice closing of a circle. 

John Edmond: You move to Paris in 1978, you study art history until 1982 and then at IDHEC from ’83 to ’86. 

I loved my study of the history of art. I had a wonderful teacher, among them one whose name is Daniel Arasse who taught the history of Italian painting. He had a way of telling us how to look at paintings, for how they can tell stories through details, colours, shapes and so on. And to be in Paris, from Morocco, it was exciting to see all the films and exhibitions.
At first, I was thrilled to be at IDHEC, to belong to a group of people, because I felt quite lonely in Paris. However, I was surprised to discover that they didn’t want to teach much. The pedagogy was to let us free. We had to make film a year, the first year a very short film, the second a non-fiction film – technically a documentary – but they called it non-fiction so I did something more experimental. And then a slightly more ambitious short film. Most of the people there were inspired by Maurice Pialat and Eric Rohmer when I was more inspired by Dario Argento, giallo, and horror films, these films I saw when I was a teenager, so I felt different from the others regarding my tastes and influences. Except maybe for someone in the year before me, who wrote “ET” on the walls everywhere in the school as an act rebellion. Spielberg was not considered appropriate, not arthouse film, but I thought it was nice that somebody in this school liked him.

John Edmond: And this was when you met Gaspar Noé?

Yes. I met Gaspar on a set of a short film being made at film school. He was not from IDHEC, he went to a school called Louis-Lumière for DPs and sound engineers. But since at IDHEC, we were not really learning the technical part of cinema, we had people from that school to come and help us with our films. 

John Edmond: Having graduated in 1986, then what did you do?

*laughs* Well that was the question, what to do after this, what could we do? The first question was how to make a living. I enjoyed editing at film school and a very good editor, Sabine Mamou, gave me work as an assistant editor after I graduated. Our diploma also allowed us to work on television. It was a totally different world, but also a living. I was not into it, but it was good to work in the fast and stressful environment of journalism and I discovered a lot of interesting things. But it was not cinema.
Gaspar and I decided to make short films, and we thought it was easier to be our own producers, so we set up this company we have, “Les Cinemas de la Zone”. We called it that because ‘zone’ in France means the suburbs where there is no money, but it’s also the zone of Stalker (Tarkovsky, 1979) where everything is possible.
There is a filmmaker called Luc Moullet who gave advice to young filmmakers on how to set up a company with no money. You came to him and he gave you papers on which he’d written a lot of advice and information on how to do all these things without, you know, paying too much taxes, on this kind of thing. You give him money and he gave you advice. I think it was a political thing for him to say that you can be your own producers, and that you can find a way to not enter the system, but to find another way.
At that time, it was also the beginning of Canal Plus, the television channel, and they had a program of short films led by a great guy, Alain Burosse. They gave us money for Gaspar’s Carne (Noé, 1991) and La bouche de Jean-Pierre (Hadžihalilović, 1996). So that took five to six years to reach that stage, editing, learning to make films, and setting up our company.

John Edmond: When you are setting up your company, did you ever try and go through the system? Did you pitch anything to companies? 

It was complicated. At the time, in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, there were only a few producers of this type of film. Instead it was an old system, with these arthouse French films which, not that I didn’t like them, but I didn’t relate to them. I didn’t know which producers to approach, and it seemed a good thing to make our shorts by ourselves and become more confident.
Even with I Stand Alone (Noé, 1998) which was made after Carne had been a hit, we needed to produce it ourselves because all the people we met were like you “you should do a normal film now, and not a sequel to Carne.”

John Edmond: Have you ever wanted to produce other filmmakers?

I quickly realised I did not want to be a producer. I didn’t have the skills for that, and Gaspar wanted to make his films. After this experience making short films, we decided we would not produce anyone else. Particularly after I Stand Alone and La bouche de Jean-Pierre, which took a long time, and was difficult and stressful – because somehow we are not complimentary inside the company – and Gaspar didn’t want anyone else to come into the company to help. So, we decided we would not produce anyone. That we would keep the production company, to have a co-production for his films, but I prefer to keep my films out of the company to avoid stress. 

John Edmond: When did you start conceiving of La bouche de Jean-Pierre as a project? 

We had spent time on Carne, and so I guess the beginning of the project was at the beginning of 1994 or so, but it took a year to write the script and then we got money from Canal Plus and some from CNC. I thought it would be a 30-minute film, but it went a bit longer. So, a part of the money meant for I Stand Alone went into Jean-Pierre and we had complicated debts for Gaspar’s film. We had help from Agnès b, the fashion designer. She gave money to young filmmakers and artists, and she had heard of our problems and she gave money to help finish I Stand Alone which allowed me also to finish La bouche. So, at the end, I was relieved to finish it and then the film was selected for Cannes which was a very good ending – or beginning…

John Edmond: The film is an interesting length, a tough length. 50 minutes is often considered too long for a shorts program and hard to distribute theatrically.

Well, I hadn’t thought of making a medium length film just under an hour. At the time Gaspar thought I should add a kind of a ten or fifteen minutes epilogue where the young girl would take revenge on Jean-Pierre, so the film could have a commercial distribution. But I thought it was good to finish it like that and not add more.

John Edmond: Maybe a very slow end credits?

I should have.

John Edmond: And your next film was Good Boys Use Condoms (1998)?

Oh yes. *laughs*
The idea of doing that was very fun. The idea came from the Ministry of Health who wanted to promote condoms and safe sex. It also came from Canal Plus: at the time they had a program of porn films. The man who was in charge of that really loved cinema, and he always wanted to make a link between this porn and ‘real’ cinema. However, because of the laws it was really difficult, and he thought this campaign was a good opportunity to ask normal film directors to make a porn film.
It was quite difficult. The nice thing was, we were free to do in a way so it would not look like a porn film, except we had to show precisely how the actor would put on a condom. So they were porn films, but without the grammar of them. The funny thing is when these short films were shown on Canal Plus, before the main porn film, the television audiences complained that these films were not exciting and very bad. I guess naturally it depends on the type of audience. *laughs*  

John Edmond: So you’d had success with Good Boys and Jean-Pierre and now started to turn to your debut feature? 

Yes, I made Innocence in 2004. I had begun to write something that would become Evolution, but I had difficulties writing the script when someone gave me this short story by Frank Wedekind (Mine-Haha: or On the Corporeal Education of Young Girls, 1903) and found it so great and so close to me…and I wrote a script very quickly. It was then not so difficult to find a producer and for the producer to find the money, but thanks to a coproduction with Belgium and the UK. At the time, I thought it was a bit slow to happen, but after the experience of Evolution I know things can be much, much slower.

John Edmond: Out of curiosity, how did you feel about the labels of French Extreme, New European Extreme or the Cinema of the Body being applied to your work?
I didn’t have a feeling of being part of an extreme cinema. I wonder what could be the extreme in France at the time. Was it La Haine (Kassovitz 1995), Doberman (Jan Kounen 1997), Bernie (Albert Dupontel 1996)? And then, Gaspar with I Stand Alone and Irreversible (2002).
At the end of the ‘90s, following the path of Caro & Jeunet, Beinex and Besson, several films appeared in France that were more linked to the image, to feelings, and to different kinds of stories than the usual arthouse French cinema. It was a reaction by young filmmakers against the usual landscape – but extreme cinema? It’s a term recently invented by critics. 

John Edmond: You had just made a hardcore film, you don’t think that help shape how you were regarded?

No, I don’t think so. At the time, not only in France but the arthouse cinema in Europe, they wanted to film real sex scenes – like Lars Von Trier or other directors – and they tried to find ways to have more explicit sex on screen. The directors of this group of short films – Jacques Audiard, Marc Caro, Gaspar, myself – we were interested in this because it was not something you could have in the cinema at the time, because of the laws and economical censorship. But I did not feel it was something extreme to do at all, just “cool”. *laughs*

Alison Taylor: Is there a difference in your process with work brought to you – like Good Boys Use Condoms – versus Innocence or Evolution which you self-initiate? 

It’s not a question of “self-initiating”. I had a lot of difficulty writing Evolution because I began more with images and sensations of my own which I had difficulty putting inside of a narrative script. But for Innocence, Wedekind’s short story helped me a lot in achieving the script by giving me a pre-existing frame or structure.

John Edmond: So getting Innocence up is a smooth process and it is released. Does that go as smoothly? 

It has distribution in many countries: France, Scandinavia, Turkey, Japan, England, the States and Latin America. But it did not help me at all to make a second film in France. In France, it is like I have done nothing…

John Edmond: Did people discuss why? Obviously there is the question of genre, and what the next script looks like.

Innocence has not been seen very much in France. The French press often did not know how to talk about the film. They were like “what is this?” which was a problem. The other problem was that I was very much associated with Gaspar and so people had a pre-idea that the film was some kind of violent or perverse thing…which it was not. I remember a surprising review, the first one on Innocence. The guy said that the film was worse than Salò (1975) from Pasolini and that you have to clean your eyes with bleach after seeing it. It was like “What?” What has he seen in Innocence that can be so? I was then not aware of how much the film was about how you see it even if I was playing with the expectations of the audience and what would happen to these girls. It was not until I was watching the film with an audience that I realised how much people were projecting their fears or expectations onto the film. 

John Edmond: What do you do then? You find yourself in 2006, 2007 working on what will become Evolution?

For a year I travel with the film and then I return to the script of Evolution which I still have difficulties with, so I start to work with Alanté Kavaïte, who is also a filmmaker.
I am working with the same producer as Innocence; it had been a good collaboration, and we’re trying to produce the film inside the usual system (mainly CNC and Canal Plus). But we couldn’t have the CNC and so this part of money was lacking and he didn’t want to do it with what he had found. So he said let’s try again next year if you rewrite the script. We wrote and rewrote the script with Alanté so many times to make it more understandable for funding and it never worked. and then we worked on another project – of a ghost story set in a tropical forest – that might be more open to funding, but the same thing happened except that this time it was TV money we couldn’t get and the producer didn’t want to go through with it while being short. After that I realised I should find another producer *laughs*.
Sylvie Pialat agreed to produce it, but said, “we can’t film all your script, but if you can cut part of it, quite a big part of it, then I can find the money.” So after years of developing and increasing the story I had to cut a third of it. But I understood it was the last chance to make the film. 

John Edmond: Did I read somewhere that Nectar (2014) was made to prove or demonstrate that you could still make a film? 

No. Between Innocence and Evolution I thought instead of trying to make these feature films, I should have made some short films. A friend and I thought we would like to make an erotic film. Not porn but eroticism. We thought we could find other interested filmmakers and could put together a collective feature but not enough directors were interested. So we made our short erotic films independently, and after all the difficulty in fundraising for Evolution, we raised a lot of money, at least for a short film, for Nectar

Alison Taylor: I’m surprised at that kind or response to Evolution when it is very much in line with the mysteriousness of Innocence.

*laughs* Well they didn’t understand either of them. In France, for instance, nobody was talking about Innocence in terms of how girls are educated or questioning the genre approach while in England and the States people talked about that and saw the film through these lenses. I thought this was important and helped express what I more intuitively wanted to do with this film. In France it was a just a funny film with children. I think it was children that meant it was not considered seriously, and the same for Evolution. Children and the fact that the films are very visual with little dialogue and a minimalist plot.

Alison Taylor: Your work creates a very strong sense of atmosphere, it’s dream-like. It is a style that makes it hard for critics to understand, but also how do you communicate that to your crew and collaborators?

In fact that’s quite easy. It’s about finding the right persons to do the film with you, and I have been very lucky. I have had great DPs on my films, Benoît Debie on Innocence, Manu Dacosse on Evolution and then Jonathan Ricquebourg (for Earwig, 2021). First of all, it’s about finding the right locations and design. In Innocence, in the book, they were all wearing white costumes and the white was something very strong. In Catling’s Earwig, the main characters were living in a semi-obscurity, an exciting idea. It’s about colours, lighting, it’s about framing, it’s about pace – all very concrete and not abstract. So you define some rules, to have a steady camera that moves only on certain moments, and so on and so on. It’s much easier with a crew and person to person, from the costume and the set designer to the editors because we are talking about real things and not just ideas.

John Edmond: Because of the gaps between your feature films, you haven’t been able to develop a filmmaking team that you continuously work with. Is that something you would wish for or do you like what new collaborators bring?

Well it’s a bit of both. Because of the years between the films and production requirements. Innocence was co-produced by Belgium and England: so we shot it in Belgium with a French and Belgium crew and we had to hire technicians from Great Britain for post-production, including the editor Adam Finch. With Evolution, many years later, we shot it in Spain with mostly a Spanish crew except for the DP who was from Belgium because we had money from Belgium. I had seen Manu’s photography work on Amer (2009) which I thought was great, and then I met him through its directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. Then Earwig was co-produced with British and Belgian money, so I had to have a Belgian crew but Manu was working on Fabrice Du Welz’s latest film. That gave me the chance to work with Jonathan Ricquebourg. And then I had another set designer which was excellent and so on and so on. It’s quite scary to have to find new collaborators when you’ve worked so well with the previous ones. But then I find the right persons for the new project. 

John Edmond: You don’t use storyboards. Instead, you work with the environment and the DP, but how do you work with them? Do you have an atmosphere or an approach you want? You have a set of rules but are you working with them in a conversation and giving them input, strongly or otherwise. Or are you more trying to take their approach and adapt it your requirements? How strict are you?

I give myself some strict rules as a way to control things. I don’t like it when the camera is handheld and not on a tripod. Usually, I don’t like panoramic movements. I want the camera to move only on precise moments. I like the scope format, certain colours and natural lighting. We try to adapt the scenes to the natural sources of light, and if we controlled it, it’s rather through subtraction rather than through additions. The DP did tests, of course, to determine the lenses. So that’s also a rule to change the lenses as little as possible.
I have an idea of what I want to shoot, if I should be following the character, if I had to have a close up, this kind of thing. Once on location you develop the list of shots or decoupage and the DP suggested some angles and sometimes extra shots. I never know how to say decoupage in English, it’s more the coverage I think in English.

John Edmond: I think we’ve reached the point where decoupage is the English word for decoupage.

With the DP we follow the rules as much as possible, and if they try to escape the rules I say “no,” and sometimes I break my rules and they say “don’t forget the rules.” That’s how we work. Benoit had done Irreversible and some short films with Du Weltz when I worked with him, and I knew he was great with colours and not afraid of not using additional lighting. Manu had worked with Bruno and Hélène and had an intuitive sensibility that fits with mine and can help me work in the direction I want. With Earwig we had more time and Jonathan is very much into preparation. So we spent a long time talking about the scenes and the meanings of them; Jonathan was very close to the mise en scene, so it was very interesting to work with him for that reason. He also has a great sense of framing.

John Edmond: You didn’t find that frustrating or you didn’t feel like ‘no that’s my job’?

No, because he brings ideas and when people have good ideas it’s great and then you pretend it’s yours later *laughs*. No, it was very collaborative. That’s the great thing about cinema, when you have inspired people, it’s great to work with them and the film is improved.

John Edmond: How do you work on set? Do you walk through the sets with the DP before the actors are on set, or do you do you make decisions when everything is in place? 

It’s very much like a frame and then I put things inside the frame. Of course there are rehearsals with actors to see how they perform and move. But also I work with children and they like being given clear orders or directions. Unlike actors where you say “try this and let’s see how it works,” with children they ask, “what exactly do you want me to do?”  and then nevertheless they take their freedom and they do it their way.
So it is about framing, and like putting butterflies inside a box. Yet at the same time, finding the oxygen to put into this still life. Children help me with this, because you never know what they are going to do in spite of the ‘orders.’ With actors I rehearse a little when we are in the locations, but I don’t rehearse much with children because I’m afraid that that will make them bored and like robots.

John Edmond: How do you feel at the end of the shoot, of this kind of intense period?

I feel “wow” it was a miracle that we could do it. Evolution was the hardest one because we had only 25 days to make it, among which three weeks in Lanzarote, with underwater shots, problems with the camera and the actress who played the nurse had suddenly a problem with her ears so she couldn’t dive into the water. We thought it was the end of the film, what are we going to do? It’s a very strange thing to wait ten years to make a film – and you then it happens so quickly, you think “it’s going to be a disaster,” and “I haven’t waited 10 years to make that” and then at the end it’s kind of a miracle, because you have more or less done the thing. Then you have to see the editing if it works, but that’s another step.

John Edmond: As somebody whose initial work was in editing, what is your approach to your own films? Do you sometimes re-imagine them in the editing room or edit them to a very precise plan?

I love the editing. A moment of the process where you have time to find ideas and to reconsider the narration, to reshape the story. You can play with the order of the shots and the sequences, with rhythm, you can re-frame the images, etc… It can be a very creative and exciting process, especially if you had managed to have a bit of coverage.
Apart from La bouche that I’ve edited myself, I’ve always worked with an editor, Adam Finch for Innocence and Earwig, Nassim Guerdji for Evolution. They have brought very good ideas. But I ask them to let me be part of the process, to let me try things, and at the beginning I’d like them to do a first edit the way I have imagined it. But maybe next time, it will be interesting to let the editor do his version first, without having even read the script. That could bring more inventiveness and ideas.
Both Adam and Nassim are very interested by working with the soundtrack as early as possible, to try sounds and music, to determine audio intentions and mood and to collaborate as close as possible with the sound editors and mixer. It’s so unnatural to separate the image editing from the sound editing as it it’s usually organised in post-production.

John Edmond: After the exhaustion of Evolution, Earwig was produced a lot more smoothly. 

It was quicker. Geoff Cox, who I had worked with on my scripts before as a consultant, gave me Brian Catling’s novel Earwig (2019). Geoff is a friend of Brian Catling and he had thought that I would really love it. And for the first time in my life a producer came up to me and said “I like your film and I would be happy to help you make another one,” and it was Andy Starke, a British producer, not a French one.
I also met again people from the BFI at the London Film Festival after a screening of Evolution, and they said they loved my films and that the door was open to me.
I thought ‘wonderful’ here is a star showing the direction to making a film in English. The book is set in Liege in Belgium but for me it was more like Central or Eastern Europe. German was out, but I thought English could fit as an international language and you would not know where it really happened. The main issue for me was to deal with the accents, to determine the right one.
Then we had two big problems: COVID and Brexit. We had part of the money from Britain and part of the money from Belgium, under the condition the film would be a European film. We had to make the film before Brexit, however the pandemic kept pushing us back further into the year. But we could make it… Another miracle!

John Edmond: I remember talking to Peter Strickland where had had the reverse issue, always struggling with getting funding from England and I asked why he did not pursue more European-based filmmaking and funding. For him it was a question of habit, but particularly with Brexit he knew he needed new approaches. But for yourself, coming from France – a country known for its strong support of filmmakers – and getting funding from England just as Brexit happens…

I’m very surprised that I have a retrospective of my films in many festivals this year because really people hardly know me in France. We will see what will happen when Earwig will be released here. Maybe I will become more visible, after my third feature. But I’m pretty sure that if we had wanted to produce Earwig as a French film, it would have been difficult to find the money within the French arthouse system of funding. The people in the CNC commissions would have said “what is this weird stuff? We don’t understand the meaning of it,” and so on. The system works on consensus and it would have been hard to get it. While with the BFI the few people who decide said “we don’t understand everything, but we like that.” Which was amazing. I think they were happy about the film, as well as Film Four which was more of a surprise. 

John Edmond: I understand Andy Starke is somebody who gets things done.

Exactly, I was very lucky to find Andy.

John Edmond: And next you’re working on a film called Snow Queen?

Well I don’t know how it’s going to be called in the end. However it’s an adaptation of Anderson’s Snow Queen. Now we are trying to find the money for it. It’s a film that has to be shot in winter, so we still hope it could happen this winter, but if not, then it will be next year. After Earwig, which is very much like in a dream logic and very mysterious, this adaptation of the Snow Queen happens in a real world and so it’s a bit more straightforward kind of story. I hope, I think, maybe. For me at least.

John Edmond: You’re both resistant to meaning being found in your movies, but they also encourage the production of meaning. We find miniature worlds, often loaded with potent symbols that encourage the audience to figure out the world’s logic with the children – in films like Innocence and Evolution – also trying to figure out their own world and what is happening. So there is an interplay of meaning and rejecting meaning.

It is not rejecting meaning. What I don’t like is a film having a single unequivocal meaning. With a book or short story I bring an interpretation but I like as a viewer to have the freedom to find his or her own way. First of all to receive the emotions and then from there to build an understanding of what is going on.
More than telling a story it’s building a world that you explore. These films are about images, but one image doesn’t have one single meaning; they are not symbolic – even if they can be symbolist. I think when you have to find your interpretation and to understand for yourself the film you’ve seen, it goes deeper and it stays with you longer. It’s what I want for the viewer, myself, and the characters themselves trying to make sense of the world they are experiencing.
Among filmmakers who appeared during these last two decades, I’ve found Apichatpong Weerasethakul very inspiring and moving. He has a sensory approach and blurs the difference between natural and supernatural, between dream and reality while also being very simple and minimal and letting you find your way into his films. 

John Edmond: You were both raised by parents working as doctors working in regional hospitals. You’re also both minimalists who want the audience to bring their own paths to something that could be hidden, even if his films are framed as slow or art cinema rather than genre.

Yes, his films are full of hospitals and doctors even if his are very different from mine!
And the links to nature, environment, the mystery and the different layers. The fact that you have to experience. It’s like having a waking dream.

Alison Taylor: I like that when you studied art history, one thing you discovered was how a painting or image could create a story. Then in Earwig you have a painting at the centre of the film, and which keeps returning, with people looking at the orphanage or a kind of mysterious institution. 

Yes. It’s like carrying a story into the painting. I didn’t realise that consciously until you said that. I thought, “that’s what I did, looking at that painting as the characters do the same.” So it’s a window or a door to another world. 

Alison Taylor: One thing that fascinates me about your films is the idea of rituals or hidden knowledge, like we were talking about children and the audience having to learn the rules of the world that they find themselves in. Whether it’s Iris in Innocence learning the hierarchy of the coloured hairbands, or Nicholas in Evolution seeing the ritual of the women on the beach, but it’s something that seems to come back in a lot of your films. I was wondering what interests you about rituals or the idea of forbidden knowledge?

It’s because it’s not verbal: you can read rules and knowledge through actions or objects or details or colours. Also since my films deal with children, it’s things you really do in games as a child while at school people are using rituals to teach you knowledge, or to behave in society or to structure your life. So, it’s about learning but also protection, from the unknown and chaos. It’s something you feel strongly when you are young when you want to change your rituals – protected and imprisoned, but also a guide. The girls in Innocence reflect that in various ways. The first is curious, the second one runs away to discover the world while the last is afraid to leave. It can be a mix.

Alison Taylor: When you’re conceiving of the stories, do you put yourself much in the adult characters’ frame of mind, or is it purely like what would this look like or feel like for the child?

I put myself very much into the children. Which might be a psychiatric problem, I don’t know *laughs*. I remember when I made La bouche de Jean-Pierre, people asked me “why a child?” and I thought because it amplifies the emotions which are happening for the first time. Though sometimes difficult, it is often fun and inspiring to work with children.
While in Earwig, the main protagonist, Albert, is an adult for once, even if not a mature adult, he is dysfunctional. I tried to put myself into him and find distance from the book. In the book he was angry and full of resentment while I thought his clumsy weirdness was touching and you could empathise with him. Not only be scared. 

Alison Taylor: Your soundscape such a huge part of the mood of Earwig and all your films, because there is little dialogue. Is the sound design something that’s in your head from the very beginning?

Yes, I put a lot of audio description in my scripts, likewise with the images. It’s a way to think about sound from the beginning. I try to avoid too much dialogue or music and instead use sound to create the world: the sound of waves, of wind, of sea in Evolution; the sound of a house, and people’s bodies in Earwig. With music, I like it to be a minimalistic motif that keeps coming back. In Earwig, we kept repeating the same the same piece of music to create the obsessive mood of Albert, like a ritual. I think sound creates the subjective aspect of a film and not the objective realism.

Alison Taylor: I also wanted to ask you about fairy tales. I think of fairy tales as usually having a moral at the end or some sort of instruction, whereas your films are very much open to interpretation, so what is it about fairy tales that you draw on?

I don’t agree with this idea of morality in fairy tales, maybe there’s more in some adaptations. They’re about trajectories, the learning of meaning and of who you are. Along this journey you have obstacles, meet allies and enemies. This interests me and helps me understand what I am doing. When writing the last script for The Snow Queen, I realised how much it’s about the cold mother, which is a figure somewhat in my other films, but to recognise it as an archetype that you can find in many fairy tales helped me understand the meaning of my story. 

John Edmond: You once mentioned you could have filmed Evolution in Norway if required for funding. Do you ever imagine what your parallel universe films might look like? A snowy Evolution.

Yes. The white village and the black sand and lava in the island of Lanzarote were just perfect. But we couldn’t find enough funding in Spain and I thought it could have been easier in the North of Europe. So I did some scouting in Norway. It was a totally different environment, but we found out there is beautiful starfish there and also very interesting landscapes. But the water was so cold, how could we put children in it? They would have to be Norwegian children and then what language should I make the film in?
Besides, my first conception was to make a horror film under the sun with a very white village, no mist or fog like a gothic story. I was influenced by Who Can Kill a Child? by Narciso Ibañez Serrador (1976) and also the feeling of the ocean in a sunny country like Morocco. But yes, why not Norway.

John Edmond: What does your art history bring to your films? I remember reading Brian Catling’s novel The Vorrh (2012) and the opening sequence is a careful construction of a bow from unusual ingredients – so you could easily see his sculptural practice unfurled into a story.

I have a reluctance to move the camera that might be informed by my love of paintings and photography. I want a still, steady image like a window or frame that if you look within carefully you can perceive depth and movement and other things. Taking time, a slow pace.
It also comes from working with children, because they are slow sometimes, so you have to follow their pace. I was also fascinated by this idea of being a prisoner of an image, where you are stuck inside something steady or living within the image or photo.

Alison Taylor: You mentioned in the French reception of Innocence, they didn’t take it so seriously because it was about children. Was that a perception that it was a children’s film or where does that lack of seriousness come from?

I think there is a generality that French people like to use their brains rather than their emotions and films have to match that: whether they are commercial or comedies, psychological or political, whether they express an opinion or not. So I had the feeling that, having children as characters and telling stories of children is a problem. Like making a film immature. For instance, some people said to me with Innocence that they had a problem to relate themselves to children, so they didn’t care about the children on screen somehow, so… Too bad for them.

About The Author

Alison Taylor teaches at Bond University, Australia. She is the author of the Devil’s Advocates monograph on Possession (LUP 2022) and Troubled Everyday: The Aesthetics of Violence and the Everyday in European Art Cinema (EUP 2017) and is currently co-writing a book on the work of Nicolas Winding Refn for SUNY’s Horizons of Cinema series. John Edmond works around film. A researcher and programmer, he currently runs Container, a film and moving image screening series.

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