Writer/director Lucile Hadzihalilovic founded the production company Les Cinemas De La Zone with Gaspar Noe and worked on several of his films, including collaborating on the screenplay to Noe’s Enter the Void. In 2004, she directed the feature film Innocence starring Marion Cotillard which, among many other honours, was awarded Best Film at the Neuchatel International Fantasy Film Festival and the Bronze Horse for Best Film and Best Cinematography at the Stockholm Film Festival.
Her new film Evolution follows the nightmarish journey of 10-year-old Nicolas (Max Brebant) who grows up in an isolated community on an unnamed island. The only adults are the sylph-like women who are the mothers. The only children are little boys. When Nicolas goes swimming in the sea around the island and finds a boy’s body floating inside the coral, his suspicions are alerted. Who was the boy? What is the significance of the hospital Nicolas and his friends are taken to and the bizarre experiments that happen there? When it is Nicolas’ turn to undergo the operation he begins a tentative friendship with a young nurse (Roxane Duran) who reveals to him some of the island’s secrets. Nicolas also begins to suspect that the woman he calls mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier) might not be his mother at all.
The screenplay for Evolution was awarded the NHK/Sundance Prize in 2009.
STARBURST: We love Evolution! What has the reaction been like from other viewers?
Lucile Hadzihaililovic: Thank you, I am very happy you enjoyed it! To my big surprise, we have received very good feedback - some viewers have really loved it and understood it, which is wonderful, especially considering when it was just a script we had tremendous problems getting the project financed because people didn’t understand it. Of course, there are a few viewers that haven’t liked it and have really rejected it but still recognise we have tried to do something different. On the whole, audiences have really embraced the physical and emotional aspects of the film. And it works very well in the theatre on a big screen.
You won a Sundance Prize back in 2009 for the script, so it took a long time getting the project in front of cameras?
Yes, it was a long journey. The script that won at Sundance was probably one of the first drafts but the award didn’t help at all when it came to making the film happen. Maybe things would have been different if the film had been made in the States or the UK where people are more used to the genre film and know how to play with it, I don’t know, but in France the problem is this: there is either ‘art’ or there is ‘the low’ forms of entertainment. And for French people, what is imaginary or metaphorical is something which is not very common to them, so I had this problem that the film was supposed to be an art house film but for people here , because of the element of sci-fi or fantasy, it was not considered so seriously.
It definitely seems like a very personal film.
Yes, it is very personal. I was quite confident after I made Innocence, even if it hadn’t been a commercial success, that I could do something personal. And maybe it’s because I’m here in France, where it’s quite well considered to do something personal, that I was able to inject more of myself into the work. But the actual mood of Evolution, the kind of film it has turned out to be, I think will be better understood overseas.
With Evolution, did the script change dramatically from the draft that won at Sundance to the story it is today?
Absolutely, in fact even before Sundance, the beginning of the project was based more on a situation and the situation was this boy going to the hospital with his mother and not getting better but growing even worse and the mother wanting to keep her child somehow linked to her. That was the very beginning of it. It was really based on that one situation and some distinct images and feelings. So I had a lot of material for a while, I accumulated a lot of elements for the film, but then I had to structure it so I looked for someone to work with and I found Alante Kavaite, who’s a director but she’s also a very good writer. Alante helped me to structure the story and we also talked a lot about this little community where the film takes place; we discussed who the women were, who are the children, how life works on this remote island, etc.
But each time we tried to make the film happen, in terms of financing, we couldn’t get the whole money and people said it was because they didn’t understand this or that, so we had a tendency to add more description and more elements to the script to give the readers a more detailed explanation. For that reason, the script became bigger and longer and more expensive, so I tried first with one producer but he couldn’t find enough money, and then I found another producer, Sylvie Pialat, with whom I did the film, and she said “Okay, but you’re going to have to cut your script if you ever want to make it happen,” because there wouldn’t be enough money to film all that we had written. In the end I cut one-third out, which was a lot, and I cut all the additional elements, the layers we put in year after year to make it more understandable or give it more explanation – I took out a lot of that – so the script kind of went back to the essence of the project. I don’t regret it in a way. I think the film would have been more like a sci-fi film if I had kept everything, and now it’s something more like a dream, like a nightmare, which is how it was at the very beginning of the project. To make a kind of Oneiric and nightmarish film rather than a sci-fi or fantastic film.
I have my own interpretation of the film, but I can see that some elements can have many different resonances for different people. I know who the women on the island are for me… the kind of creature they are has an echo in mythology or folklore and I think it works very well. For that reason, we thought we didn’t need to explain too much because these are elements that are quite familiar to most people thanks to traditional myths and legends, and also through some certain kind of films.
Evolution is very pure cinema. The dialogue is minimal, and a lot is open to interpretation…
Yes. For me, I don’t understand why film should be so closely linked to theatre or literature. I think that cinema is a part of the visual arts and it’s also linked to musical forms of art. I’m surprised that more films aren’t looking towards visual arts rather than literature or film. What I like with cinema is that it’s not verbal and it’s a way not to say things aloud but to communicate feelings and ideas through the emotions and through images and sounds.
Thinking of Evolution and Innocence, there is the obvious link between them of childhood and death, birth and rebirth. Are these themes that especially fascinate you?
It’s really what I would like to talk about. It’s the subject of my films. I don’t know why, it’s so much about this time period when you are around ten, eleven years old and you are still a bit of a child but you are on the verge of becoming a teenager and it was a period in my life where personally I had a lot of fear, expectations and all that, and there were various kinds of directions that I had to explore. I don’t know why, but for me it’s a very interesting time in a life because it’s a moment when you still have the naiveté and the creativity of a child because the world is still very mysterious, you don’t really understand what the adults want, or what they are doing, and then at the same time you begin to question what is around you and somehow begin to get a kind of independency.
So a lot of the story tension lies in the fact that children can interpret but also misinterpret what is going on around them?
Exactly! Maybe they are making an exaggerated phantasmagoria out of what is really happening. In the case of Evolution, you can imagine that maybe Nicolas has a mother who is a bit rigid and then he thinks she is not his mother and that she’s an alien. I think it is a very common moment in many children’s lives that at some point they think they can’t have come from their own parents!
With both Evolution and Innocence, audiences do have the opportunity to project themselves and their own memories of childhood on to the film. They are both reminiscent – but especially Innocence - of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Yes, Picnic at Hanging Rock was definitely a kind of a reference for Innocence. This group of girls together, which is not a very common element in films, and also the sense of mystery, of growing up, linked to nature. Yes, Hanging Rock is a film that I really loved a lot and I guess has made a big impression on me. I also really love Peter Weir’s film The Last Wave, a story about the apocalypse told from the point of view of a dream.
You were brought up in Morocco?
Yes, I lived there until I was seventeen years old.
And you filmed in Lanzarote, with buildings that have very much a Moroccan influence.
Lanzarote was very interesting because it’s volcanic, so instead of having a normal seaside we had this very dark and black stone beach, which was very interesting. Also, there is a feeling of isolation because there is a lot of space, and this small village is really apart from every other construction on the island. I was really lucky to be able to shoot there.
Did you know when you were writing the script that this was the location you’d choose?
No, at the very beginning I didn’t know the Canary Islands, I’d never been there, but I knew I just wanted this story to happen in the South, under the sun. I like the fact that it sometimes feels like a kind of horror movie that doesn’t take place in the darkness but in the light. And then some producer who knew the Canary Islands suggested it could be a very good place to shoot the film. He was really right because when we did the scouting there it was even better than I had expected.
The underwater photography was amazing. How difficult was that to do?
Under the water it’s more complicated, it takes a long time. In this case we couldn’t see what the cameraman was doing when he was under the water because we didn’t have communication with him while he was down there, so we had to explain to him in advance the kind of shots that we wanted. And then in the scenes with the actors, I don’t dive myself and I don’t use an oxygen bottle, but I wore a mask so I could go under water and watch a little bit of what the actors were doing, but I couldn’t see the images the cameraman had actually taken until we were back on the surface. He did a few shots and then he came out of the water and we watched what he’d filmed and then many times we had to do it again so it was a very long process but he was very good. To begin with he was a bit surprised because he was used to making documentary films and he wanted to have a very clean, very wide image whereas we were looking for some dirty water or some precise kind of angles that he wasn’t used to taking. Also, since it was in the sea, the actors were not able to do exactly what we wanted them to do - even a very simple thing like crossing the frame was difficult because of the currents and so on. But it was great to work with this cameraman because he knew our location very, very well. For instance, the shot we have at the beginning which would normally have been taken by an entire second unit, he did it all by himself. He knew where to go to get the kind of landscape we wanted, to get the weeds and so on, and he knew the precise time of day to get the best light. He was very open and very good, and Manuel Dacosse, the DP, gave him precise instructions about the image and the parameters for the camera, etc., and he really listened and his results were wonderful. Working with him was a gift from the film gods!
Do you change your style of directing when you work with children?
The good thing with children is that they don’t ask you why, why do they have to do that, what is the psychology of the character, etc., they just obey - more or less! But they do have to be very closely directed, which is sometimes a bit tiring because I would have liked them to be a little more… in the moment. Very often I do extremely steady shots with very precise positions in the frame so the actors have to be exactly in the right place. I don’t make it very easy for them, it’s a way to make them be more rigid, but at the same time because they are children there is a lot of accident in the way they play that gives their performances a life and a freshness. In Innocence there were a lot of little children and the two actresses were a bit like assistants, whereas in this film the nurse and the mother are more part of the action, I had to find ways to make the children concentrate. They get bored very quickly so you have to make it fun for them, but not too much fun or they’ll be laughing during the shots. In fact, the problem with the main actor, and I really liked the boy we chose, but he was laughing all the time so the difficulty we had was to help him concentrate and be serious.
There’s a lot that that little boy goes through, and a chilling moment…
Yes, but with children they don’t think! None of them really care about the story, they were more interested in the experience of the shooting. And in that moment you’re talking about, being in the tank was a privilege, so Max was very willing to do it. He was very concentrated in that moment because it was very exciting for him to be in the tank.
How closely did you work with the composer? There doesn’t seem to be a lot of music but the science fiction motif of the story comes across most clearly in the score.
At the very beginning, I didn’t want to use music at all. I thought that we could do more sound design. But when we were doing the editing, I found pieces of music to help the editor edit the film, and in the end I found that a few of those pieces worked really well, except that they were just references so we had to find musicians that could do the same. That isn’t really the right way to approach things, because by giving such precise references to the musicians it makes it very difficult for them to create, but what happened is that I found a piece with an Ondes Martenot – an acoustic instrument which is very interesting because it has a very strange and specific and unique sound and texture, a kind of intimate and melancholic resonance. So I knew that I wanted to have a kind of melody that would be played through this instrument and, like many people, I had also been totally amazed by the score in Under the Skin, so for the part with the violins and other strings we kind of imitated what Mica Levi did on that film. I was not totally conscious that what we have is a science fiction score but I see what you mean.
Maybe it’s because the Ondes Martenot is very reminiscent of the Theremin Bernard Herrmann used on The Day the Earth Stood Still?
The Theremin is quite close to the Ondes Martenot but the Martenot is more interesting, a bit more complex if you know how to play it, but yes, it’s quite close to the Theremin and very linked to that ‘50s or ‘60s sci-fi sound.
What’s next for you?
I’m not really sure. I’m working on an adaptation of an amazing book by an English writer – it hasn’t been published yet so I’d prefer not to give any more details - but it’s very dark and bizarre and very much about madness. Maybe it could be that. And for once the main character is not a child, which would be a big step for me! But I’m not totally sure if that’s the way I should go now because I have to be very careful about not having a project that will take me five years to get off the ground.
Is the process of setting up a film more difficult than when you started?
It has become harder in the last ten years, I would say, because there is less diversity and a little less source of finance, certainly in France. But I don’t think it will be harder to set up the next project than it was to make Evolution, even though Evolution was not such an expensive film. I think now I should try and find a project that begins more with reality than dreams, or that goes from reality to another reality, because doing things the opposite way – as we did in Evolution - is quite hard for people to understand on a script level. Evolution was financed through the art house system of financing, which means that we needed to get everybody’s consensus, and the nature of the project meant that sometimes people would really get it and be very excited about it whereas other people in the Commission would be like “But we don’t understand, what is it going to be?” and become very uncomfortable because of the children and the other dark elements the story involved. In the art house system, people want the films they commission to be about very serious topics and that’s a difficulty. But on the other side, Evolution wasn’t commercial enough to raise sufficient money from other avenues. And yet it’s not only a question of money, it’s also a question of politics. They want to finance films with more direct social and political issues rather than the nightmares of a child!
Evolution is in UK cinemas from May 6th.SHARE YOUR COMMENTS BELOW OR ON TWITTER @STARBURST_MAG
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