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The Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness section has long played home to some of genre filmmaking’s most exciting rising stars and their most electric — and eclectic — offerings, but even this particular crowd might be shocked by what first-time director Julia Ducournau has in store for them with “Raw.” The film, which debuted at Cannes in May, follows a young student (Garance Marillier) who discovers some uncomfortable truths about herself (and the world) when she heads off to vet school (kind of the perfect setting for a body horror film).
Marillier’s Justine is a dedicated vegetarian, so when she’s forced to endure a revolting hazing ritual (one that involves lots of blood and raw liver), she’s shocked to discover just how much she endures the taste of flesh. As Justine’s hunger for consuming meat grows, so does her desire to experience the pleasures of the flesh in different ways. Suffice to say, “Raw” isn’t the only film about cannibalism at this year’s festival — and, yes, Ducournau is very excited to Ana Lily Amirpour’s “The Bad Batch” — but it’s probably the most visceral, challenging and often just plain jaw-dropping feature to hit the screen at the latest edition of a festival that’s never backed down from a big, bloody meal.
IndieWire sat down with the French filmmaker hours before her big TIFF premiere to talk about nerves, the possibilities of genre filmmaking and the seriously tough challenge the filmmaker foisted upon herself in pursuit of the film that would become “Raw.” Read on to learn about Ducournau’s wild debut — and her unique process of creating it — in her own words.
This is the first time that I’ve screened the movie in a genre-exclusive context. At Cannes, there is no specific selection for genre, which is also very good, because you come up with the element of surprise. But here, I will be in front of very genre-savvy film buffs. It’s a bit of pressure. I wonder how they’re going to take it.
I want to hear this particular audience reacting. I want to see where they will be reacting. I am very curious. It’s like being judged by my peers, because myself, I am a huge genre and horror buff.
The reaction at Cannes was very positive — surprisingly positive, I say. Like anyone, when it’s your first feature, it’s like, “I’m going to be eaten by the wolves! Alive!” It was very, very responsive in the audience. Laughter, feelings of uneasiness, scared, crying, some people leaving the room, of course. It was very responsive. I am very happy about that.
For me, the is the first step into starting to think about the movie is the script. I wanted to set myself a writing challenge, that was to subvert the mood of the audience throughout the movie. I wanted them to feel empathy for someone who was going to commit an act that was completely contrary to their moral standards.
It’s always hard to keep the empathy on any character, but especially when the character acts inhumanly. How do you keep the audience in the room? Just in the room! I thought was very interesting.
To make this challenge even more interesting and to go to the fullest, I thought, “What’s the worst thing my character can do?” That would create a rejection, an instant rejection from the audience. And how am I going to keep them in spite of that?
I thought about the three taboos of humanity. It’s murder, but we see murder in pretty much every movie, so that was not interesting for me to do. Second thing is incest and, honestly, for me, it’s not a topic I want to write about. It’s way too dark for me. And then cannibalism.
In my previous movies, I’ve always worked with the body, I’m obsessed with the body. My visual language is through the body, showing the body, what’s inside of the body, what comes out of the body. My parents are doctors, so I am very, very obsessed with bodies. I thought cannibalism was perfect, because it’s everything about the body. It’s full circulation of body elements!
The gory scenes were not the most challenging [to film]. The most challenging and the most satisfying scene that I did was a sequence shot of the first body. It’s a three-and-a-half minute sequence shot in a basement, packed with 300 extras that I directed myself, all of them. With choreography, with lines of dialogue, with a dog that has to act in the sequence shot, without cutting, of course.
When I was in film school, I started directing small shorts — like everyone — and I actually realized that I did not want someone else to direct something that I had written. For me, it was a continuity. When I write, I write very precisely. I write about the light, I write about the costumes, I write about the song that you have to hear at this moment. But I write about everything.
I think about the whole crew when I am writing my scripts. When you’re writing, indeed you’re alone, but I always think about every head of department who is going to read the script and is going to have to identify where they have a challenge and when he doesn’t. You write for your whole crew.
When you’re a director, you’re also very alone. In the end, all the responsibilities come on you. You have to tell everyone exactly what you want. You have to be super-precise. There is a loneliness of the director on set, even if you’re surrounding by all your crew. I am there to make the movie that I had in my head when I was writing it.
I am writing my second feature right now, it’s also a genre movie. It’s about a woman serial killer. It’s really dark. I spend dark times reading alone about dark stuff, and it’s really deep. This is so dark. It’s really like you’re entering a new world. At the end of the day, you really need to take a break.
“Raw” had its international premiere at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. Focus World will release the film at a later date.