Behind the success-story of filmmaking couple Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani is that of producer Ève Commenge. These three French expatriates have developed a very close and organic collaboration in Belgium to produce some of contemporary cinema’s most uncompromising filmography. Commenge is a key, if unsung element of this success story.
In this interview, she discusses her collaboration with the filmmakers, from her privileged position as their hitherto productrice attitrée.
This interview was conducted in person and translated from the French by Jeremi Szaniawski, in Brussels, March 2018.
J: Ève, how did you get into filmmaking?
E: I always wanted to work in film, one way or another. At an early age, like so many youths, I fancied myself a filmmaker. I thus studied cinema and semiotics in France (in Foix, then in Montpellier at Paul Valéry University). I discovered production in 1998 when two classmates asked me to be a PA on their short film. Then the three of us moved to Brussels.
J: How would you characterise your work as a producer?
E: Production work is first and foremost an encounter with artists who want to share a vision, and you just give yourself entirely to the cause of that vision. Of course logistics, financial, administrative work – tedious stuff – are involved as well. But to me the main aspect is this encounter, and having a transversal view of the project – from beginning to end. That’s what drives me, what gives me pleasure, and allows for a visionary and complicit approach with the filmmakers.
J: Did you learn producing as you went along?
E: Yes, I am a self-taught producer. I worked for five years for a production company in Belgium, where I deepened and refined my knowledge. I learned all the rules, spoken and unspoken, of production in Belgium. I did co-production, post-production, distribution… Then in 2005 I met Hélène [Cattet] and Bruno [Forzani] who had sent a short script to the production company. I read it, it was their first produced short, Santos Palace (2006). I loved it… I recognised the codes of the western and giallo, with a social background. At the time, the Brussels-Wallonia Federation supported projects with a social element.
J: Do you think that Hélène and Bruno did it because they knew they would have a better chance of getting support by adding a social element to their script?
E: I didn’t presume of their intention. You would have to ask them. All their films have a deeper theme anyways. They told me they were patronising a café in Brussels at the time, in which they would see Marina Luz Missart – who plays her own role in the film – behind the counter. They loved her, thought she was scary, and that was the starting point.
J: How did Santos Palace do?
E: It got a lot of awards. At the time, the earlier films of Hélène and Bruno had also been in many, many festivals, so they were already in demand! Santos Palace allowed them however to get on the budget, professional wagon, and into more mainstream, A-list festivals. That was the starting point of our collaboration, and of the process whereby we try to grow with each film.
J: And then came Amer (2009).
E: Yes. We all left the company we were working for. I wanted to start my own production company and they wanted to do a feature.
J: Can you tell us about your work with François Cognard?
E: We needed a co-production with France (the film was shot on the Riviera). We met François at Cannes 2007, when I was starting development work on Amer. I brought him the dossier and he was interested, as he likes the giallo genre. We met again two months later and he was enthusiastic. We got funding from the Belgian Commission de Sélection du film, and from there on we managed to convince the other institutes to give us funding, both in Belgium and France.
J: What was Amer’s budget?
E: It was made for less than a million euros – 600,000 in terms of cash. Rules are getting stricter and it’s almost impossible to make a feature for that amount nowadays.
J: You shot it on film, and you had to dress that old abandoned manor…
E: It was in ruins. We worked with Alina Santos, who also did the set designs on Let the Corpses Tan (Laissez bronzer les cadavres, 2017). All the people who joined the Amer adventure were working on their first feature – [cinematographer] Manu Dacosse, everyone. We were all very aware of the budget we were working with. Hélène and Bruno knew how to work on no-budget, self-produced films, forcing them to be economical, to work very precisely – that was key. They guided the entire crew with their savoir-faire, and with so little money. If they hadn’t known exactly what angles they needed, we couldn’t have made it.
J: They did a ‘rehearsal shoot’ on location with a handicam at first.
E: That was extremely helpful to transmit their vision to the crew. They know exactly how to do their découpage, what’s going to be in the frame… their secret lies in an enormous amount of preparation. They literally ‘gestate’ the project for nine months at first, then give birth to the découpage, and then they give the ‘baby’ to the crew, and everyone knows what to do. The production design of Amer and Let the Corpses Tan was similar: in both cases we were dealing with old places in ruins, threatening to collapse, we had to know exactly which places to redo. The set designer knew she had to do a fake wall in a designated place, and that it had to be 2.5 metres tall, and not an inch more. Pre-production was clear and precise, and there was no improvisation on the set.
J: You don’t talk much about your import, but your work is also key here. What did you bring in terms of organisation? On The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (L’étrange couleur des larmes de ton corps, 2013), you managed to secure very prestigious locations such as the Maison Cauchie and the Hotel Solvay – jewels of art nouveau, the interiors of which are difficult to access, let alone to film. That in and of itself is a feat. Can you explain what you did in terms of pre-production, giving these films this look that their budget could never provide otherwise under regular circumstances?
E: I think my role in helping Hélène and Bruno is – in the sense that I adhere completely to what they propose – to give them as much freedom as possible. That’s key for the final result. We work hard, we prepare the films very carefully, in isolation, Hélène, Bruno, François and I. We read our letters to try and convince owners of places like the Maison Cauchie, we make it all happen together. The fact that Amer enjoyed a fine reputation also helped secure this location – a person who worked there had seen the film. And there too, we told them: “we work with a small crew, we won’t make a mess,” we give plenty of guarantees, and we know we can do this because Hélène and Bruno know exactly what they want. We build a relationship of trust under difficult conditions. It was the same thing with the Hotel Solvay, designed by Victor Horta. That place has original carpets on the floor, we really had to give tons of guarantees. We honoured them.
J: On Let the Corpses Tan, how did you get the authorisation to shoot in the abandoned village in Corsica?
E: That was a complex and long process. Essentially, we met with a lot of people there. We told them about us, what films we did. Hélène and Bruno went first, then it was us – the producers – and then when the crew arrived, we made it clear that we had to be respectful of the premises. That kind of no-nonsense, serious and respectful attitude helps open doors.
J: How long were the shoots of the feature films?
E: From one film to the next, our budgets have doubled, but the number of days of shoot has remained very similar. Forty days, give or take.
J: From the start you found great actors for the parts. Amazing female performers – at once very attractive in a heteronormative sense, but with a feral, animal quality, as well as striking-looking men, rugged and virile, like Harry Cleven in Amer, but also Jean-Michel Vovk, who was already working with Hélène and Bruno before you met.
E: Jean-Michel was there from Catharsis (2001) on. I think they met him in school.
J: And Klaus Tange [Dan in The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears]?
E: Hélène and Bruno wanted a foreigner for the lead role in the Strange Colour. They wanted to give an image of Brussels as a cosmopolitan, multi-cultural city.
J: The lodger and the little girl in the film are Flemish – that surely helped secure some funds from the Flemish film fund.
E: Indeed, we received some help from Flanders on this film. This was made possible by this multilingual, multicultural Brussels that Bruno and Hélène set out to create.
J: We see the Palace of Justice, Maison Cauchie, the inside of the Hotel Solvay… but the film, shown, say, in the US (where it was distributed, and then available on Netflix) wouldn’t register as Belgian – it’s impossible for them to know it’s Brussels. It’s rather a hodgepodge, neo-Gothic giallo, ‘everywhere and nowhere’. In the same vein, you often (if not exclusively) use temp tracks for the soundtrack, a bit like Tarantino, who likes your films. That must be costly.
E: It’s a big topic. Hélène and Bruno write their scripts with certain musical tracks in mind. So we need to secure the rights to these tracks. I start investigating rights queries early on, but as the length of the piece can alter the cost of rights, I can’t start too early to clear those, either. It’s usually when we have the image cut that I can actually purchase and secure those. But tracks by Ennio Morricone are getting more and more difficult to obtain. The big majors who own the rights are cutthroat.
J: I loved the use of Stelvio Cipriani in Amer, you gave his music a new life. Lots of Italian composers in the shadow of Morricone, who wrote great music for mediocre films, provide so many tracks like these, waiting to be used properly, where their visual and operatic quality can be used to the best effect.
As far as the image edit is concerned, I have the pleasure of knowing Bernard Beets, who is also a projectionist at the Royal Film Archive in Brussels. He is discreet and humble. Can you tell us about his import on the films? Hélène and Bruno are so precise, so careful, and their cinema relies so heavily on découpage. What can an editor bring in these circumstances?
E: Bernard is apprised of the découpage beforehand. When he receives all the footage, he does a rough cut, based on that découpage. He does that without Hélène and Bruno, so they can rest from the shoot. When he’s done, they get back and they exchange and build together, and circulate ideas. How to rhythm a scene, what emotion to generate…
J: He gets the music, too?
E: Yes, and a little direct sound.
J: Not much, no doubt, the sound design in your films is amazing, very crafted, rich and layered.
E: Yes, we only use very little direct sound, everything is done in post-sync and foley/sound design.
J: The sound design does an awful lot for this sensorial, sense-based, tactile, immersive cinema that you folks are making. As a producer, vis-à-vis the sound design, do you have to tell them to hold their horses, or do they know when to stop?
E: We had a big discussion during the Amer post-production about this. A genre film, or at least Hélène and Bruno’s films, is produced with a longer post-production than usual. There is a whole second shoot in terms of sound, and the sound editing is quite huge. They told me, ‘ten weeks is okay’, they asked for so many days of foley, and so forth. I built that into the budget, based on what we had discussed. Sometimes it goes over budget by one, two days, but hardly more than that. On Amer we realised that the sound edit required more time, so it was difficult for (sound editor) Daniel Bruylandt. And we had started the sound edit, then did foley in the middle, then did another sound edit. That didn’t work, we didn’t have enough direct sound to work with before foley was added. So now we do foley/sound design first. Right after the image cut. We gather a lot of material, and then Daniel does the sound edit.
J: How do you deal with distributing, selling films that are so specific?
E: Hélène and Bruno’s films’ appeal will remain. I saw Amer on film again a couple months ago and it is just as powerful today as it was upon its original release. I saw Strange Colour and I discovered new things – and I produced the film! I got lost in it like a maze. It was great. We’ll wait and see with Corpses. They are timeless movies. Amer did really well at festivals, was sold to many countries, and we keep on selling the film (and Strange Colour, too): TV networks, DVDs, Blu-rays, VOD, retrospectives … These films are like slow food: slow cinema against fast production, where the film has got to make its money back in six months. We do slow production. Corpses gets released now, we meet the audience, young people who are blown away by it, and for whom Amer was the first cinematic shock, even without having seen the films that Hélène and Bruno reference.
J: It’s the same with Tarantino’s fans. They can feel a history, an inscription into a tradition, and they feel how cool that is. Most films they see, as you mention, are ‘fast consumption’, quickly made and forgotten. Things come and go way too fast – just check out a Facebook feed… Was Strange Colour more or less difficult to sell and distribute than Amer?
E: Depends on how you assess the commercial success.
J: On the short run.
E: You can’t just take box office numbers alone. There are other elements. Strange Colour made double the money of Amer. And both are successful on the long run. As for Corpses, the short-term success has been huge: press coverage, posters, trailers – we released it concomitantly in a multiplex in Brussels (UGC Toison d’Or) and an underground art-house repertory theatre (Cinéma Nova).
J: Hélène and Bruno’s cinema has always featured a strong component of feminine phenomenology and perception. In Amer, the woman is the madwoman, still within codes of the ‘monstrous feminine’. She’s very powerful, still. And the more we move along, the films get more and more feminist. This was very clear in the final scene of Corpses. As a producer, and as a woman, do you feel this tendency is something that is actually happening in cinema, or just a passing phenomenon, overhyped by the media, identity politics, and so forth.
E: Right now, it’s women directors who are brought forward, but not films produced by women. It’s a mistake, because a film is not made by one person. In the cinema that we make with Hélène and Bruno, the parity in terms of direction and production brings a lot of things. So it’s great that there is this celebration of women filmmakers, but it’s a bit of a fashion thing, and it doesn’t address the many other professions in film. I like that you point out the feminist aspect in the films. Hélène and Bruno are absolutely complementary, and that feminist aspect is a reaction against the reactionary politics of gialli, where women are humiliated and submissive. They have inverted these terms.
J: Even in Amer, she is the protagonist, she evolves, and survives her own death, as it were, so by that film Hélène and Bruno were already overcoming the models. So what’s next?
E: They are doing an animation film with a Canadian producer. It’s in the pipelines. In a parallel pipeline, we are working on a third giallo, which will probably be shot in Guadeloupe, with François and I producing again.
J: Do you work with other filmmakers?
E: I did a couple shorts with other people, but as far as features go, I want to preserve this unity we have with Hélène and Bruno. I don’t mean to sound pedantic, but I don’t want to enter a sort of race, enter a flow, seeking projects just for the sake of making an economic structure function – to make films that will just enter a cloud and go unnoticed. My pleasure is in following and accompanying an oeuvre that I contributed to create, and which will go on, will last, and have a legacy. That’s the most important thing for me.