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indieWIRE INTERVIEW: Jean-Claude Brisseau, Director of “Exterminating Angels”

indieWIRE INTERVIEW: Jean-Claude Brisseau, Director of "Exterminating Angels"

French director Jean-Claude Brisseau‘s “Exterminating Angels” (Les Anges Exterminateurs) follows filmmaker Francois’ preparation on a thriller. During screen tests for a nude scene with an actress, he discovers the pleasure some women can have in the transgression of minor erotic taboos. Driven by desire to contribute someting new to the cinema, he decides to make a film that mixes fiction and reality on those very same transgressions that are a source of pleasure. Brisseau made his mark early on in his filmmaking career, taking a “Special Award of Youth” award in Cannes for “De bruit et de fureur” in 1988, and later joined the Berlinale competition with his drama “Celine” in 1992. He treturned to Cannes in 2003, winning the France Culture Award for “Choses secretes.” IFC First Take will open “Exterminating Angels” on Wednesday, March 7 in limited release.

Please introduce yourself…

I was born in 1944 and when I was a child I went to the movies three or four times per week, with my mother or, more often, alone. My mother was a cleaning woman and we did not have money. I economized, saving a part of my lunch money and train fare in order to go to the movies. Films were a way to dream, to escape from flat reality.

What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?

At age sixteen, I bought Cahiers du Cinema and I found that the films that I liked were those directed by Hawks, Renoir, Hitchcock. I really wanted to become a film director. But after graduating, we did not have money and I had to work, first as an elementary school teacher and later a high school teacher. In 1975, when super-8 sound cameras came out, I bought one and during vacations I made two films, one a tribute to Hitchcock, the other a 90-minute fantasy film. The two films were screened during an amateur festival. Pialat and Rohmer were in the audience. They liked the films. I met Rohmer, who helped me to break into the professional world. I left the school system a few years later.

Since then, my interest in cinema has remained the same. My desire has not changed but I have tried, as the years pass, to delve deeper into what seem to me to be the basic questions of cinema. I also continue to see several films per week. But in my home, not in movie theaters.

Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?

I have tried, a number of times, to make big films, one on the war in Indochina, the other on the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, they could not be made. I am really sorry about that. But, on the other hand, I have always wanted to make my “small films” which make it possible to explore things that are rarely dealt with in the mixture of genres and emotions. I would also like to return to my first love, shooting films without the cumbersomeness and the constraint of a professional crew.

Please talk about how the initial idea for “Exterminating Angels” came about.

In a way, the film itself tells its own story… In fact, during the preparation for my two previous films, I became aware of the relationship that could exist in women, in actresses, between the forbidden and pleasure. Sexual pleasure or its absence presented far more problems for women and it was all related to a kind of unexpressed taboo. So I wanted to make a film about it, to take the risk. At the beginning, it was supposed to be done in the form of a semi-documentary, semi-fictional film about the subject. But that was difficult to do so, with time, it was transformed, little by little, into a more scripted film–with a strong structure, almost tragic, that mixes emotions and genres. And [it contains] surrealist elements [and] became more and more fascinating. But at the beginning–as in the film–I based it solely on the confidences of the actresses.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced either in developing the project or making and securing distribution?

I wanted to make a tragedy that included sex and emotion to see how it would affect the audience, and to deal with the production problems that that entails. But this film, like the preceding film, was hard to finance and to shoot, because I was speaking openly about sex and pleasure. This kind of subject makes everyone afraid: the financiers, the actors, the distributors. Contrary to what one might think, there was latent censorship in France, both for the financing as well as for the theatrical distribution.

A scene from Jean-Claude Brisseau’s “Exterminating Angels,” which IFC First Take opens Wednesday. Image courtesy of IFC First Take.

How did the financing and/or casting for the film come together?

The two were not connected. There was very little money and the actors were unknown. It was already rather complicated finding women who were willing. Only the actor was known from television.

What is your next project?

I would like to make a film the way I shot my super-8 films. The dialogue is written based on what the actors say and there is time to shoot with a very small crew, but while trying to find a specific stylistic approach, and that is where it is difficult. For all my films, I have always wanted to test, to try to innovate, [and] do things that had never been done before. On the other hand, I have two somewhat more classic film projects. One is a melodrama, part thriller, part detective story, and a bigger film which would take place during the Middle Ages and in English that I have not lost hope of shooting one day. But it requires a big budget!

What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?

An independent film, for me, is a film that is made outside the big production companies and studios. If you do not make independent films, you must conform to the criteria of TV networks, and to the financiers. You are required to work with stars. You are required to make films that do not disturb, [and] you cannot take risks. If you want to make a film that does not meet these criteria, the problems begin.

Since I began making films, the audience has changed. There are more teenagers and children. Moreover, video and pirating on the Internet have completely changed the relationship of the public to film. [Audiences are] no longer asking for films for the big screens in movie theaters, but films that can be watched quickly on a computer screen.

What are some of your all-time favorite films?

I will give you a list, in no particular order, of films that I like a lot: “Vertigo,” “Psycho,” “Notorious,” “The Wild Bunch,” “Bande a part,” “Le Mepris,” “Sergeant York,” “The Westerner,” “Un condamne a mort s’est echappe,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Les dames du bois de Boulogne,” “Ordet,” “Gertrud,” “La jetee,” “La guerre est finie,” “Je t’aime, je t’aime, 8_,” “La strada,” “My Darling Clementine,” “Objective Burma”…

What are your interests outside of film?

Music. I adore Frank Sinatra. The sciences, the social sciences, physics, Freud.

What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?

Be able to write, to edit, to direct actors. Understand the stages in the construction of a film in its entirety. And then have the passion for observation, for life, in order to then be able to simplify it in a film. Finally, last but not least, learn humility.

Will you please share with us an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of?

I had the good fortune to be able to make films that others had not made, like “Celine” or the most recent one. I had the good fortune to make them even though it wasn’t easy. There you have it.

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