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Claire Denis: Inside a Master’s Creative Process

The "High Life" director shares her approach to writing, narrative structure, actors, locations, and the physical nature of cinema itself.

Claire Denis

Claire Denis

Arthur Mola/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Editor’s Note: The following was excepted from two IndieWire interviews with director Claire Denis. One interview took place last spring in conjunction with the release of “Let the Sunshine In,” the second took place this week for the release of “High Life.” Everything that follows is Denis’ words, which have only been slightly edited for clarity. 

I think it would be very strange to be not interested in the process because it’s more about the process, for me, more than the movie sometimes. I know some directors like to have a certain distance with the process. As if they were in the next room, but with great control on everything, but not near. I understand that, but for me it’s exactly the opposite. I am ready to fight a [mass] shooting, I’m ready to fight the worst condition as long as I am together with the actors and the crew and feeling like we are doing something good, but together sharing something.

I have to tell you the truth, as a lonely person, I’m a disaster because my mood is so — I’m a very moody and dreamy person, I’m sad. I don’t know — I have something in me, I’m alive when I’m with someone, I feel. I like solitude in a metaphoric way, in a philosophical way, to be alone means I am with myself, this is a moment of my life.

The being alone is the only way to start a movie. If you are not alone, how could an idea crystallize? Something has to be in the loneliness of my daydreaming moments, or in my night, or listening to music. It cannot start in a group. I cannot ask someone to work with me if I don’t know what I’m going to do. [There] has to already be something in mind. Precise.

"Let the Sunshine In"

“Let the Sunshine In”

And it’s only after awhile when I sort of foresee something that I need a companion. Just one person, like Jean Pol Fargeau [screenwriter on nine Denis films, including “High Life”], who I trust, or Christine [Angot] too. A companion. Otherwise, [there’s] no point working with someone — even a clever person, I don’t need. Somebody says, “Ooooh, I would like you to meet this great writer.” Wha? What the fuck, I need the people I like.

When I’m alone I have no interest in life unless I’m reading or contemplating [reaches for potted plant next to the couch] this tree, which is plastic [laughs], or things like that. If I’m in relation — [for example] working with Christine [on “Let the Sunshine In”] was the most joyful thing because we were sharing the agony and the disaster of our lives with the spirit of, not necessarily a comedy, but because we were together it was fun.

On my own, it would not have been fun. Therefore, I think this sharing is partly in the film. It’s not only working together, it’s sharing. She loves to read aloud, so we were working in that café and she would read a scene aloud and I was laughing so much. [It’s not about] it being pleasant, it makes things real, real and connected, because in a script you share a lot of intimate moments.

Claire Denis

Claire Denis

Courtesy of A24

I always think of the structure. And then suddenly [comes] a moment when I forget about it. No, there is a moment where, “This time Claire there is going to be a structure, there,” and I realize that I — slightly like sailing, and I know I should go in this direction — and I’m deviating slowly and I can’t help it.

I guess it’s perfect when the mechanism of the perfect narration is coming fluently. For me it comes sometimes. Some moments I feel are very fluently in the right direction, but I can’t stay there. It’s not to be non-American, not true. I love this American narration type of process. I like it, but me I’m not fit for that, I guess. I’m a drifter, I think really it’s always been there, even when I was a child I was told to go there and I wasn’t going there.

Of course there is a narrative structure [in my films], I don’t abandon it, I switch, because I realize some element could be out, erased, because then there’s an ellipse, because then it will create something. I need the beginning and the end and structure, more or less – this is when I’m on my own, then we start working and [at some point] we realize we could lose an element. [Denis removes the saucer from underneath her tea cup] Have the cup without the saucer. That’s it. Not to change the structure, not possible.

I think it’s because I don’t have [pauses] …an understanding what’s happening in my life, and in the lives of people I like without support. I have to guess, I have to understand, I have to figure it out. It’s not that I want to make films difficult. I don’t want to make films mysterious. I think I try to make my best, and I hate when things are explained to me twice, three times, four times, suddenly I’m, “I know, I know. I can’t have no more.” Films were at one time not like that. Films were elusive, elliptic, the material of cinema is to put two elements together – if you put cement all around to hide the two elements [shakes her head disapprovingly]. There’s a risk [in elliptical storytelling], but there’s a good chance to tell the story in an emotional way.

Beau Travail

“Beau Travail”

New Yorker Films

Cinema always, if you look at old movies, let’s say a western, of course, it’s physical. Silent movies were extremely physical. It’s not “blah-blah, blah-blah-blah, blah-blah,” close up,’ no!

The preparation with actors and actresses is so very physical. I don’t do rehearsals because when I did my first few films I realized that I was always regretting those rehearsals. I thought the scene was not as pristine as the real thing. Now we do a lot of things, we do things that are in a way [like] rehearsal without the name of rehearsal, without saying the lines and with a sort of more concentrating on mood or wardrobe or details that seems frivolous maybe but creates a strong relation to the character. You’re speaking about the physical, you know, and sometimes you have to train, like we did on this film [“High Life”]. We went to an astronomical center, where the cosmonauts train.

A movie set is a very physical place, you know, even for the crew. It’s a place where the body exists, where the body is tired, where the body could be painful, where the body in a sort of box.

I remember because Juliette [Binoche], I’ve known Juliette for years but she was surprised because I was touching, I touch and I have to touch the prop, I have to be a nuisance, I have to be a problem. When I did this film [“High Life”] with Robert [Pattinson] — and we knew each other, of course because we were longing for the film to happen for years — but we were both very shy and suddenly one day I said, “Robert, I’m sorry, don’t be afraid, but I think today I will have to touch you because this scene, I think I will have to.”

"High Life"

“High Life”

A24

Location scouting is like a chase. You aren’t looking for location, you’re looking for the film itself. When I do choose a location it’s because I understand how I’m going to film it. If not, then I know it’s not a good location for me. If it doesn’t bring me a light, you know, it’s a connection, it’s working.

A location somehow – it’s not, “I like it or I don’t like it” – somehow a location has to jump on me, catch me and that moment is important because then I know. I have to feel how is the film going to be in that specific space.

A location, or even a place like Djibouti [a country in East Africa], or a set in a studio should be beneath the film. If they are on top of the film, I’m afraid. I remember when we [shot in] Djibouti [for] “Beau Travail,” Djibouti is such a strong part of the world you know. It’s a small part but for the crew, for everyone, [they were] amazed because the landscape can be overwhelming. I remember saying, ‘We are not filming landscape, no landscape.” Those skies and the landscape will be there for sure, but underneath.

The ship [in “High Life”] was built according to the script, so I knew the ship by heart, as if it was mine. We drew it as it was written in the script and the drawing of the interior of the ship was already according to the type of shot I wanted to do. So the corridor, everything, it became immediately ours, instantly grounded for the actors as well.

In my first film, “Chocolat,” I built the house because colonial houses in the place I wanted to shoot no longer existed. Once again, it was built according to the script. In a way you have to adapt to a studio, like a location. Of course the location is inspired by the writing, and yet by putting the light, the color, the material, you make it yours.

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