If there’s anything to be gleaned from Angelina Maccarone’s fascinating documentary “Charlotte Rampling: The Look,” it’s that its subject, the incomparable Charlotte Rampling (“The Night Porter,” “Stardust Memories,” “Swimming Pool”), is just as complex, wise, funny, sexy and mysterious as the array of memorable characters she’s played over the last 45 years.
Rather than present us with a typical talking-heads documentary portrait of the celebrated British actress, Maccarone uses the deft approach of having Rampling, 65, muse over a variety of large-scale topics (age, desire, death, love, etc.) with her peers and allies, to present a deeply personal look into what makes Rampling tick.
Maccarone and Rampling sat down with Indiewire in New York to talk about the film, shortly following the film’s DOC NYC premiere. “Charlotte Rampling: The Look” is currently playing in New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.
Charlotte, you say early in the doc that fear inspires you to do the most interesting things. Is that the reason you took on this film?
Charlotte: Yeah, I suppose so. It’s the motivation for most of the things I do really. I think it’s the motivation, if most people were truer to themselves. It’s like feeling that fear and doing it. It’s not running away from it, because that gets you nowhere and it makes the fear come back stronger.
You’re known as a risk taker in your choice of roles, but this marks another form of risk. You’re completely exposed.
Charlotte: Exactly and it could have been a complete disaster, because what if no one wanted to see it, no wanted to talk about it? It wouldn’t be very good for your self-esteem, would it?
(Laughs) No, it wouldn’t. Angelina, how did the concept of having Charlotte muse on a variety of topics come to be? Was this a joint decision that the two of you came up with it, or was this how you initially pitched it to Charlotte?
Angelina: I think we kind of met at that point. On my way to Paris when I was first going to meet Charlotte, I was very nervous and I thought I’d have to come up with something that matches to whom I suppose she is, because I admired her a lot, and still do. I really wanted to get to know her and share it with people. I felt I get to know people easier and deeper if we talk about subjects instead of just exchanging biographical facts. I thought, I don’t want the anecdotes either, where people say, “Oh, it was so great working with Charlotte.” Remembering things and making stories around it; I don’t think I can really feel who the person is behind the anecdote. So I suggested having chapters with headings.
I thought it was interesting you didn’t close the film with the chapter Death, but with Love.
Angelina: Even though it’s not very depressing what you [Charlotte] have to say about death, I really like what you say at the end of the Death chapter, what you say about life. “Take your life, or take the challenge.” But I thought it’s lighter hearted to let this sink in and have the Love chapter.
I just thought, what are the subjects in life that are basic for every human being? Love, death, demons are in everybody’s life. Of course I wanted to find some specific themes that I thought were connected to Charlotte, like exposure or taboo. If I was interested, then maybe people watching the film could be interested too.
Did you marinate with the topics before going to camera Charlotte, or did Angelina present them to you on the day of filming?
Charlotte: Yeah, it all had to be very spontaneous. She understood that about me; that I wasn’t somebody who could hold the tension of having concepts given to me before and having to think about them. I don’t handle that very well. I handle things very well when I’m told to do them and I do them.
Would you have done the doc if it were, say, a more traditional profile?
Charlotte: No, I don’t think I would be able to do that. I don’t think I’m suited to doing that. It’s not way I want to speak and it’s not the way I am.
Charlotte, you talk in the doc about the vulnerability associated with being an artist. Being a doc subject on screen, how vulnerable did you feel in front of the camera once the cameras started to roll?
Charlotte: Very, very vulnerable. It was very difficult. It doesn’t appear to be difficult and one would wonder why it is difficult. But then that’s true of all sorts of endeavors, where it looks as if they were born to do that. But I think all things that are of any interest anyway, when you engage, you are engaging with a huge part of your sensitivity that it’s got to be pretty scary. Otherwise it’s actually not going to be that good.
It’s like having stage fright. If you don’t have a certain amount of stage fright, then it’s not going to be that interesting. It’s not going to have the inner vibration. I think screen work needs inner vibration. It really needs people to be committed, so that what is coming out through your body, through their eyes and through words, is a charged moment of truth, of their truth.
Certainly if you’re doing a thing like this, you’re not playing a role. That’s why I didn’t want to know from Angelina what we were going to talk about, or hardly who we were going to talk with. That was of course tougher (laughs). But I needed it to be as spontaneous because I knew if it wasn’t like that then I would mentally start to work things out. And I know for me that’s not helpful at all, it’s not a good way.
Did you question what you were saying over the course of the conversations, or did you feel supremely confident in your responses? You come across as pretty secure in what you’re saying.
Charlotte: No, I wasn’t supremely confident at all. Angelina said we would only do it once, with long takes. She’d have none of me bettering my self. At the same time, there was a kind of beautiful tension. You knew it was going to be one time. There’s something really special about that. It’s about life.
I’ve only got once to say this today. Well I don’t really because I can stop. But usually, you only have one time to say things, one time to do things, one time to leap off the Hudson Bridge.
Angelina: That’s a nice example!
Charlotte: (Laughs) Yes, it is!
What was the rapport between you two like on set? How did you develop that bond that encouraged you to speak so candidly Charlotte?
Charlotte: Well it’s something you decide to do. You decide to give over. You decide to give your trust over to somebody. And if you don’t decide to then for me it’s really not worth going into collective enterprises, you should just work alone. Because if you don’t give of yourself and give over of yourself to someone and say, “Look, do what you will with me, I will be totally cooperative and give as much as I can of myself.” For me that’s the game in filmmaking. It’s the game certainly with this.
I felt with Angelina, when I first met her, that I could have a very deep and trusting relationship with and that she would not betray me. And therefore I would able to give as much of myself as I could. And that’s terribly important.
Charlotte, how is the experience of promoting a film essentially about your core, your life, compared to promoting a work in which you appear in?
Charlotte: Well, I was wondering what it’s going to be like, thinking, what if people don’t like the film, what are they going to say?
Well they’re not going to tell you to your face.
Charlotte: Yeah, they’re not going to tell me. They’d bypass the film very quickly and talk about my career or something. “And what are you doing next Ms. Rampling?” (Laughs). But if not, it’s been really revealing because what’s happened is that people have sort of reconstructed my whole personality and world. It’s as if I’ve been made into a whole person in a way, because people have a wide sense of me now.
Does what we’re doing now feel like a strange continuation of making the film in a sense?
Charlotte: Yeah, absolutely.
It’s never ending, until the press junket’s over.
Charlotte: Yeah, but on a personal level it’s really very moving, because people genuinely got something from this film. It’s very moving to share that.
You expressed how nervous you were to initially meet with Charlotte for your first meeting Angelina, but how nervous were you to show her the film?
Angelina: Well it was not easy to get the DVD to Charlotte.
Charlotte: It kept going wrong! We had this huge snowstorm. I was going off to Canada at the time.
Angelina: I was just sitting there in Berlin waiting for her call. I was really nervous for a few days.
Charlotte: I saw in on my computer in a hotel room in Berlin.
Did you watch it alone?
What was that like?
Angelina: I never asked you so I’m very curious.
Charlotte: I watched it bit by bit because I was so scared. I just watched the first chapter. I stopped it and thought, “Oh, it’s not too bad. It works.” Then I had to go off and work and do things. I literally watched it little by little, bit by bit. By the end of watching bit by bit, I thought, “This isn’t too bad.” I was completely flabbergasted actually. I was expecting, not from the film, but just from me doing such a thing, that it was going to be awful. Not awful, but very difficult to watch. And it was not.
Usually watching yourself is pretty awful. People think we all love watching our own films. We don’t. We cringe away from it.