INTERVIEW: Short Circuit; Pierre-Paul Renders' "Love" Cyber-Style
by A.G. Basoli
(indieWIRE/ 08.02.01) — Alongside this season’s digital wave (from the animation wizardry of “Shrek” to the DV flippancy of “The Anniversary Party“), a flood of cyber films has also crashed ashore. From Spielberg‘s “A.I.” to Angelina Jolie‘s cyber-heroine Lara Croft to the video game-inspired “Final Fantasy: the Spirits Within,” which features the first human-like cyber cast, virtual reality has become a summer film staple. Small wonder that a film like Belgian director Pierre-Paul Renders‘ droll “Thomas in Love” would eventually come along to challenge the implications of man left to his own “devices.”
Equal parts cautionary tale and cyber romp, “Thomas in Love” is set in a lax,
hyper-technological society not too far into the future where Thomas lives like a recluse. For the past 8 years his experience of the outside world has been mediated by video-phones, Internet and computer screens and his life is managed by an insurance company that provides for his every need from psychotherapy to vacuum repair. Clara, his virtual girlfriend provides a measure of physical relief until his shrink, in an attempt to coax him out of isolation, signs him up for an online dating service. It’s through the standoff-ish prostitute Eva, a cyber-Pretty Woman, that Thomas is compelled to reconnect to the outside world.
Penned five years ago by a remarkably prescient Philippe Blasband (“A Pornographic Affair“), the film was shot entirely on video with a deceptively simple use of “first person camera” that never shows our protagonist. indieWIRE spoke with Pierre-Paul Renders about using seven different cameras (from DV to High 8 to Digital Beta cam), directing through headphones and building thirteen different sets to create a distinctive look for each character — and in the words of producer Diana Elbaum — to make a digital film that “stands at the opposite end of Dogme 95.”
indieWIRE: You used the device of the first person cameras very consistently. From a technical viewpoint, how did you achieve the look of the characters?
Pierre-Paul Renders: It was important to differentiate each character. The DV was used to define each character with a texture and a look. We did that also with the set and costume design. The texture of the images was very important. We used different cameras. Most of the times we used a Digital Betacam. Sometimes we used very small cameras to get more pixilated images, not only to create variety, but also to underline some aspects of the story. The character of Melody had a certain texture because I wanted to keep her away from Thomas. When he tries to get close to her he zooms into her image, but the pixels become more evident and so she looks even further away. It was this kind of consideration that guided us in the aesthetic design of the images.
iW: The use of the camera is so expressive; it’s almost an extension of Thomas.
Renders: It was one way to tell us what he’s feeling, because apart from his voice, there is no way to see him in action. Zooming into the image was in my mind a way to do this. Deciding how to do it, the rhythm and the moment entailed an enormous amount of work in post-production. The movie was shot in five weeks and we ended up using nine months of post-production because we discovered many ways to get better results in the editing. I didn’t cut the film with classic editing. We thought it would be very easy because there were only 80 shots, but then we found that it was possible to do micro-clips. So the film is full of micro-clips that are hidden in the film where the image is accelerated. The original was twenty minutes longer but I only cut two sequences completely from the original shoot.
iW: How was the set arranged?
Renders: I didn’t want the actors to play for the camera. I wanted them to talk to Thomas. So I conceived a whole video-phonic system. On set in front of the camera there was a teleprompter and on the prompter you had the image of the actor who played Thomas. He was in another room, totally soundproof and there were two cameras, two prompters, earphones, microphones and they were really talking to each other forgetting the camera and forgetting all the crew because there was no crew on the set. And I wasn’t on the set. I was in a booth with a monitor and saw them on screen and was talking with them through their earphones. I was a little bit hesitant about being away from them and not having any real contact with the actors. But in fact, there was an intimacy with my voice in their ears, just whispering.
iW: So you actually didn’t have a set per se, on location?
Renders: Yes, we worked in a kind of studio. It was an old rundown school and we installed all the sets in different rooms and the technical equipment. One room was for Thomas and we were linked by cables and through a video system. We worked like in a TV studio changing rooms for each actor and different set. It was very comfortable to work that way. Because we could shoot a second take and we could do it again many times. We could do it with other intentions, rhythms. So I could have enough material for the editing.
iW: How did you prepare the actors for their parts?
Renders: Three years ago I shot a demo of the first script; it was this same script but without any budget. We shot with only one DV camera, one night in my apartment without sets or costumes, only the actors’ faces. I wanted to know if it could work and even under those circumstances I realized that the actors fit the characters perfectly. I knew my cast was good. I trusted all my choices. With Thomas it was hard work. Benoit Verhaert did a great job. At the beginning it was very hard to imagine how to bring a character to life we never see on screen. It was trial and error. The character went in many directions at first. We made some choices for Thomas at the shooting but they were too strong and his character became very unpleasant. So it was easy for me to work on Thomas’ voice again with Benoit and redo most of the scenes to bring a new orientation to the character, more soft, more likeable. Our producers had the patience to give us such a long time for post-production: nine months, not only for the visual but also for the soundtrack and the voice.
iW: What is your take on technology and its effect on human relations?
Renders: I used to say that the best relationship you can have is love, not necessarily sexuality but love. When it comes to love, if one were to choose among the five senses, sight and hearing would be the two less important. The least important is seeing. Touching, smell and taste are very important in communication, but we decided to abandon these three senses. All our communication is based on seeing and hearing. With cinema we have to work with seeing and hearing, but that’s a tragedy for us if we continue to communicate only in this way. It’s an old story; that’s why the script was written five years ago. It was before the Internet, because it’s a situation that was here before. With the new technology we’re going faster and faster in this direction and in my opinion we’re heading for a wall. I hope the crash will not be deadly.
iW: In some ways Thomas is a warning for what our society might become. A society of agoraphobics who live through their computer screens and are completely alienated and terrified of human contact.
Renders: Agoraphobia is a metaphor. My movie is not a clinical description of the disease. It’s a metaphor. We are all agoraphobics when we lock ourselves in certainties.
iW: What is your next project?
Renders: Another atypical movie but totally at the opposite end, with many actors together on location, in exteriors. It will be several hundred years of history, from the past to now and if I pursue it will be in an unknown language, one that I have to invent; it will be subtitled in all languages.