The director opens up on casting Vincent Cassel in the 90s, bribing the Tokyo mafia in the 00s, and making the epic, hallucinatory Climax in the 10s
Gaspar Noé, the Argentine-born French native, has been disrupting cinema and polarising opinions since his 1998 debut I Stand Alone. Set in France, it follows a character only known as The Butcher (Philippe Nahon), a middle-aged ex-con and former butcher plagued by racist, misogynist and homophobic thoughts and a violent temper. Through an endless storm of hate-fuelled monologues, the viewer is locked inside The Butcher’s head for three pivotal days before climaxing in the film’s most infamous scene – a title card flashing onscreen saying “CAUTION YOU HAVE 30 SECONDS TO LEAVE THE CINEMA” – followed by a 30 second countdown.
Noé returned in 2002 with Irreversible, the art house rape revenge drama told in reverse. With its powerhouse performances, dizzying camera work, and extreme sexual violence, it cemented his reputation as one of the most shocking artists in modern cinema. His magnum opus, however, is undoubtedly the 2009 drug opera Enter The Void: a psychedelic tour of life after death, seen entirely from the point of view of a young American drug dealer and addict living in Tokyo with his stripper sister. Shot in the Yakuza-controlled sex district of Tokyo, it left even Harmony Korine in awe when he came to visit Noé during filming. “I have never seen a set like this before,” he said. In 2015, this was followed by LOVE, a sexually explicit semi-autobiographical melodrama about a boy, a girl, and another girl, all shot in 3D.
But Climax is perhaps Noé’s best film to date. Set entirely in an empty school building in Paris and shot in 15 days, Climax sees an assortment of dancers losing their minds over the course of the film after ingesting a mysteriously spiked sangria. True to form, Noé slowly tracks their journey into a drug-induced hell of hallucinatory paranoia, freak-outs, violence, and anarchy.
With his trademark use of visually dazzling camera techniques and punishing sound – via his go-to composer Thomas Bangalter of Daft Punk – Noé has repeatedly pushed the boundaries of cinema and censorship. He explores the beauty, darkness and fragility of life through relationships, sex, violence, drugs and altered states all awash in strobe lights and orange hue.
I was forewarned that Noé is notorious for being hard to pin down, often not answering his phone for days. He also doesn't like doing long interviews. After a month of waiting, I got an email saying we could meet the following day. Noé had agreed to to spend an hour with me to discuss his career.
I travelled to Paris to meet the a relaxed and softly spoken Noé in his production office, in an attempt to try and understand the the most exciting and fucked up director working in modern cinema.
How did the movie come about? What drew you to a movie about dancers and a party gone bad?
Gaspar Noé: It started when I first went to see the voguers. I was invited by one of the girls who dances in the movie, I couldn’t believe the energy of all these people dancing, it was incredible. It was the best drug and alcohol-free party I have ever been to, and the energy was so joyful. I said, “Wow - I want to film these dancers,” but I didn’t know if I wanted to do a documentary or what? Maybe if someone proposed a music video, I could do a music video with voguers. Then I remembered I had an a idea for a project based on news story I read that took place at night about a bunch of people turning crazy. I thought, let’s make a free adaptation of that event, with dancers turning crazy. The movie will be split in two parts like Full Metal Jacket; people get ready for war, and then the war starts.
The film came together so quickly and without a script, just an outline. How did that process work?
Gaspar Noé: Simply for financial reasons, I had to start the movie quickly because I had to pay my taxes and other stupid things to do with surviving life. The problem nowadays to finance a feature and get it started is that you have to write a script with dialogue and lots of other things.
Everybody’s making comments on the script and before the movie even starts you already have like 100 people commenting on the project. It’s a very annoying and long process, it’s not always creative and sometimes you end up censoring your best ideas to make the production possible. You make decisions that are not artistic or instinctive, they’re just rational. The casting was made mostly on their dancing skills. I wanted to have the best dancers in France and we also flew in a dancer from Congo and a dancer from the States. The movie was prepared in just one month, we shot in three weeks and five days. Then we post-produced it in two months – four-and-a-half months later it was in Cannes.
I loved that you chose to shoot the opening dance in one static shot. The dance is so intense and captivating, you’re locked in and mesmerised for 15 minutes.
Gaspar Noé: When you do a long single take shot there is such an energy on set that you don’t get from cutting. It’s more like shooting a theatre play or a real event. There were 23 members on screen and I was like the 24th dancer around them, like a fly. I kept finding my eyes wandering across the screen watching different dancers at different moments.
Can you explain why you put the “opening credit titles” halfway through the movie?
Gaspar Noé: I thought it was a good way to cut the movie in two. The second half of the movie takes place, like, half an hour later from where it left off, so instead of just going to a black screen and opening again, I thought to put titles in the movie. What I like a lot about movies that were produced before the 70s is that the movies would end with the title saying ‘The End’. Now movies end with two-to-three minutes of credits, which is the most boring part of the movie. If I can put my production credits at beginning then I can have a sharper ending at the end of the movie.
Going back to your first feature, I Stand Alone, tell me how that came about.
Gaspar Noé: I Stand Alone was actually the second part of a short film called Carne that was only 39 minutes long, and went to many festivals. It was so successful that I decided after a year that we should probably shoot 40 additional minutes and make it a feature film. I improvised a lot of scenes and it just turned into its own feature film. It took me five years to finish the movie. But I was always remembering that Eraserhead was shot over a period of five years as well. It took David Lynch five years to do the movie that touched me the most out of his entire body of work: well, if it takes me five years, so be it.
I think it’s your most intense film, mainly due to the endless monologues. You’re just trapped inside this guy’s psyche for the entire movie.
Gaspar Noé: I knew that I would try to use relentless monologues. The Austrian movie called Angst had this relentless voiceover which impressed me. I also already used quite a lot of voiceover in Carne. I actually wrote it once I finished the first cut of the movie because then I knew how long the scenes were. It works even better when you see it in French because you can see the image and the voice together.
Were you taking influence from anyone when you were writing it? It reminds me of Peter Sotos’ writing.
Gaspar Noé: I love Peter Sotos, he’s one of my best friends. He’s got a very sentimental and cruel perception of humankind, but then he’s extremely sweet. In a very shy way, he’s the most cultivated man in the world. He was actually one of the first people to see the cut of Climax and he loved it. You always want to show the movie – before you come to the end of the editing – to people whose art you respect the most. A lot of people asked if I was inspired by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, but I was just inspired by the French way of thinking – the guys who you hear talking, workers who drink wine in the morning at 8am before they go to the factory. I wrote it in one week. I was writing it at night and I was drinking a lot at night.
How did you convince Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel to be in Irreversible?
Gaspar Noé: At the time I was thinking Enter The Void might take me years to start the pre-production, and what can I do that’s cheaper? What if I do a very explicit or dramatic story about two young kids falling in love, discovering the joys of sex and passion and it all falling apart? Which actually became the script for LOVE.
I ran into Vincent in a nightclub one night and he said, “What are you preparing? Me and Monica and would love to work with you.” I said, ”Oh, I have this project, but now you’re too famous, and would never accept it. It’s a love story between a boy and a girl that turns bad and I want it to be very sexual because that’s the essence of passion between people of that age.”
They said they’d be interested, so I found producers to do it. You have to remember they were the magic couple in French cinema, like Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise, so if they say yes – you can get it made. The producers said, “if you want to do a love story with Vincent and Monica we have the money, we’ll take care of everything.”
I finally gave them the treatment and they discussed it for hours. They said they couldn’t do it because this level of intimacy. Their relationship and intimacy was the only thing they had left in their own private life. They didn’t want the nudity and sex scenes because they already felt invaded by the press and their neighbours, and men were so crazy about Monica. They didn’t think they could handle it.
So where did the Irreversible script come into play?
Gaspar Noé: They still wanted to do a movie with me. So I said, “Okay! We have producers, we have the financiers and we have you, let’s do another movie.” Very quickly I came up with the idea and there was no explicit sex – so they said “okay!” We now also had Albert Dupontel, who is another famous actor in France, now he’s a big director, he was the third character. So with their three big names, and my smaller name, we agreed to do this rape revenge movie told backwards. And that’s how the whole thing happened, it was like a bank robbery! There was no script, just page outlines, and it was shot a bit like my last movie: in chronological order and very quickly.
Where did this incredible use of the camera come from? The camera is doing 360 rotations, it's climbing up the walls and spinning, I had never seen shots like it.
Gaspar Noé: Well, I was already thinking and planning Enter The Void before shooting Irreversible, and I was thinking, “How am I going to shoot it?” So in a way it was a kind of visual and cinematic rehearsal for Enter The Void. I was watching experimental movies and I’m obsessed with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) where the camera is spinning all the time, upside down and sometimes on its side. In the scene of astronauts floating in space, the camera is floating also. On the film set we had a camera crane. I just started playing with it and moving it, experimenting and watching the video image on the monitor and I thought “Wow this really looks crazy!” I wanted the movie to look like a mushroom trip!
“In Shinjuku, Tokyo, because of the Yakuza, there are many zones which you have to pay to be able to shoot there” – Gaspar Noé
Irreversible has two extremity notorious, violent scenes – the scene in Club Rectum where Pierre bludgeons someone to death with a fire extinguisher, and then the 10 minute long rape scene. Did you know at the time that that you were shooting extreme scenes?
Gaspar Noé: The fire extinguisher scene was inspired by a VHS I had bought in England called Executions: a documentary showing real footage of the different methods used throughout history for capital punishment. There was one scene in Lebanon of a guy who was killed in front of loads of people, I think he was shot in the head. Then someone came again with his gun and shot him again in the head and half of his head was missing. I know in cinema the guy would die immediately. But what was weird was you could see this guy screaming with half his head missing for like 30 seconds or one minute. I couldn’t believe that someone with half his brains out wasn’t dead or that it would take so long to die. I was really shocked by that image. I thought maybe one day, if I want someone to die in a movie and I watch to shock the audience, I’d want some kind of some repeated attack over a long period with half of the head missing. So for Irreversible I gave that tape to my visual effects guy, and said, “how could we do this?”
For the rape scene, when the scene was shot and digital effects were added, the results were so intense. People had seen a lot of shocking scenes in movies, but not like this. That’s also what made the movie both popular and hated. Many people walked out, and some people were fainting.
When you were filming Enter The Void I heard you had to bribe the mafia.
Gaspar Noé: It’s true. In Shinjuku, Tokyo, because of the Yakuza, there are many zones which you have to pay to be able to shoot there. There is an area called Kabukichō where they have all the love hotels inside the red light district – they are run by some kind of mob boss. Also sometimes one block belongs to one family, and then the next two blocks belong to another family, and you cannot work fully in those streets if you don’t speak to these guys. You pay them in cash or you can drop funds into their account. Luckily we had a line producer in Japan who had the right contacts.
This was your biggest budget and most ambitious film to date. How did you find the experience?
Gaspar Noé: In Japan I was very happy, but I was so stressed out because shooting was very complicated and I had never done, and will probably never do, a shoot as complicated again. The Japanese crew and the production team all wanted to make decisions one or two or three weeks in advance, and you only have one chance because they don't like you changing your mind. So my head was burning because every minute I had to give definitive answers about subjects that I couldn’t answer at the time! I had to be very careful about what I said because words were like contracts. If you tell your set designer to paint the wall in red, and then you change your mind and prefer it to be in pink, you can’t! It’s seen as offensive, like, “No. You already said red. It’s done”. My head was burning for a few months while I was shooting there, and I couldn't sleep so sometimes I was going out for drinks to the club and I would get to my bed at 4am, and at 7am someone was knocking on my door. For the three months that we shot I probably slept three hours a night.
I’ve noticed when watching your movies back to back there’s always a split-second incident or a life-changing moment that comes out of nowhere.
Gaspar Noé: It can be a misinterpretation, like in Carne, the guy thinks this girl was raped because she’s bleeding, but actually she’s just had her first period and then he goes and stabs a man and everything falls apart. It can be a car crash – I had a car crash when I was a kid – there are moments where you get into an accident and you've escaped and it all feels like a few seconds.
How did the Sky Ferreira album cover come about for Night Time, My Time?
Gaspar Noé: It happened very quickly. I had met her a few times in LA, and she liked my movies and she wanted me to do a music video but I wasn’t available. She saw some photos that I had done but she asked instead if I wanted to do the cover. We shot those photos in three or four hours in a hotel. We found the right kind of room and did all sorts of photos and then there were two photos that I really liked, in square format, so I said “here you are”. There was no reason for controversy over that cover – it's a very gentle cover – it’s just that nowadays any kind of nudity is controversial.
How do you feel about the state of cinema now?
Gaspar Noé: From time to time, you see a movie that blows your mind. I liked the last Lars von Trier film The House That Jack Built a lot, and I saw a great documentary from Japan called Caniba about the Japanese cannibal Issei Sagawa. I liked the film because it had a very experimental feel. I’m obsessed with documentaries. When I buy DVDs, I buy mostly documentaries or old expressionist German movies. From time to time I am impressed by a new movie, but I’m not impressed at all by the commercial cinema of today coming out from America. I don’t care about the Marvel superheroes, I don’t like the animation movies, probably because I grew up with movies like The Godfather, The Towering Inferno, A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Cinema in the 70s was more mature.
“When I went to see the last Star Wars movie, Solo: A Star Wars Story, it’s like they were considering ‘How can I sell this movie to China?’” – Gaspar Noé
It’s still seen by many as the golden era of cinema.
Gaspar Noé: People were considering it more as an art, while today people are considered as auteurs or artists but most of their output is just big budget commercial cinema almost completely generated by computers. When I went to see the last Star Wars movie, Solo: A Star Wars Story, it’s like they were considering “How can I sell this movie to China?” It’s sterile and it’s boring. I totally disconnect from those movies.
Would you want to make a documentary?
Gaspar Noé: I’ll probably get into documentaries. One thing that always annoys me is the concept of religion. I always come back to it and I think, “what if we could do an anti-religious movie” – but it’s not against one religion, it’s against the concept of God in general.
Do you have an idea for your next project?
Gaspar Noé: There was one that I was considering but its got similar narratives with Climax and it's a very dark project. The dream project is the movie that you haven’t seen. You don’t wanna do a remake of something you’ve already seen. You want to do something that is a good idea, that touches you, that no one else has seen before.
Climax is in cinemas now