Talking to celebrated French filmmaker Leos Carax, you feel like you’re in the presence of an artist. He’s big on calculated, contemplative pauses and pondering his words deeply before offering up an answer. As if he’s genuinely attempting to get to the heart of your question, rather than regurgitate just another prepared response he’s given time and again in the process of promoting his new film. And it feels sincere. There’s much wisdom in his words, and the specific perspective he brings, as we discuss everything from film criticism to stand-up comedy.
In a filmmaking career spanning over three decades, Carax has made only six feature films, with previous feature Holy Motors having released nearly a decade ago. His latest film Annette (also his first in English) is one of the most hotly discussed and celebrated independent films of the year .
The unabashedly out there and wonderfully weird cinematic opera (Carax wouldn’t want me using the word ‘bonkers’) follows the tragic romance between a popular stand-up comedian (Adam Driver, also a producer on the film) and a famous opera singer (Marion Cotillard). The film explores their turbulent love story as well as the subsequent rise to global stardom of their child prodigy daughter, Annette, played in the film by an objectively unsettling but oddly endearing wooden puppet.
Developed by Carax along with pop rock duo Sparks for almost a decade, Annette opened this year’s Cannes Film Festival where it was met with rave reviews and much discussion. Not to mention Carax taking home the award for Best Director.
At a London hotel, the celebrated filmmaker spoke to me about the influence of Guru Dutt on Annette, his fascination with stand-up comedy and why Adam Driver is like no other actor he’s worked with.
Edited Excerpts :
I read an interview where you said “There’s something crazy about a filmmaker — or any artist — being interviewed right after they’ve finished a project”. Now that you’ve had a little distance from Cannes and all recognition, reviews and awards , what do you make of the reception to the film?
It’s always a strange time when a film comes out because you have to go through that intimate process of figuring out what you think of your own work. Are you disappointed? Are you proud? It’s always a complicated mix. Then comes this wave of responses to the film and people tell you what they think.
I guess what I’ve always heard all my life is people saying my films are strange. In America they use the word “bonkers” a lot, which I hadn’t heard of before.
Of course, in my mind, I feel my films are the opposite. I feel like I’m mainstream and the mainstream films being made today are the strange ones that we shouldn’t be making anymore. We should be moving to something else.
People think you push a button and intentionally go into ‘bonkers mode’ to surprise audiences. But that’s not how it works. You do what you can, and to me, my film Annette is quite simple in a way. Maybe too simple. So, I was surprised by the noise around it and people calling it surrealistic, or something very specific. I don’t agree at all. I have a few scenes that are maybe lyrical or dream-like, but I’m not a surrealistic director I don’t think.
But there’s nothing you can really do about it, you just have to continue making what you believe in.
As someone who’s worked as a film critic before, do you engage with reviews of your own films at all?
Usually people send me the good ones. Whether I read them or not depends on my mood. And each time I read a good one, I ask for a bad one so I can see the other side. For Annette, I’ve read positive ones and negative ones and sometimes you agree more with the negative ones. It depends on where they’re coming from.
What’s hardest is that there’s a lot of cynicism and irony in everything nowadays. That I have a problem with . Whether it’s positive or negative, if it’s a sincere discussion of the film, I accept it. But society has just become more cynical. It’s almost like everyone’s a critic now and everyone enjoys that power. And those reviews don’t come from your relation to other people’s work, it’s just your relation to that power. And that’s not nice.
I have to ask you about Annette’s opening long take song sequence to the catchy track ‘So May We Start’. It’s such a memorable, fitting opening scene which you shot on the streets of LA at night. How challenging was it to pull off a sequence like that? I imagine there were a lot of variables to control?
The project was written by Sparks, they brought Annette to me, and The song was always there. I rewrote some of the lyrics, but kept some of theirs.
The idea was to start with sound, because usually you start movies with images. But here the sound is going to bring out images. And the images are all these weird instruments that every recording studio has, plugs and cable and guitars. It starts with me sitting there with my daughter, and then I pass the film to Sparks who will pass the film to the actors. As to the idea of doing it one shot, first of all makes everyone and everything more intense. Then when you have live music – it was live singing but it was also the band playing live, so you can’t really cut in any way.
And then it’s just finding it exciting because whatever happens, happens. Whether it’s that the police came by or that the steadicam man couldn’t do it anymore after a point, so we had to find someone else who could take over.
Are you surprised how much of the conversation surrounding the film became about baby Annette being a puppet and, of course that musical sex scene. When you were shooting those scenes, did part of you know that people will have something to say about this?
For sure. It’s the first time I’ve had to think about what people call “the audience”. Usually I never have to think about that before the editing. The editor is the one that tells you people won’t understand this or that etc. But because of all these different layers of reality and the singing and the puppet etc, I had to ask myself – are people going to accept a puppet that comes half an hour into the film who’s a baby and no one in the film acknowledges she’s a puppet? I guess I thought of it also because that’s the one reason we had so much trouble finding funding because producers and financiers said, “I’m not going to do a film called Annette where Annette is played by a puppet”. So, for all these reasons I knew it was not an easy thing to accept which was fine.
I also absolutely loved Simon Helberg’s performance. Most people, of course, know him from The Big Bang Theory and haven’t seen him like this before. What went into that casting decision ?
What’s very special about Simon is that I hadn’t, and still haven’t, seen him in anything. For any film to get made it takes a few miracles and casting him was one of them. It was a 7-year process getting this film made, but I think I chose Simon 2 months before the shooting because I couldn’t find anyone else who could play piano, sing and have an interesting contrast with Adam. And I had no idea if it would be a good choice but I was very grateful for that choice. I essentially discovered Simon on the set and realised we could create this character together. I also loved filming his scenes with Adam, I thought that was a very interesting dynamic.
You’ve said you discovered Adam on HBO series Girls, back when he wasn’t that famous. In the 7 years since, he’s obviously now become a massive star. Did that change anything in terms of getting the film made?
Yeah, it definitely helped in terms of money. At one point it did make me hesitate, though. He was faithful on the project for 7 years, but at one point I did wonder if I made the right choice back then. But that disappeared when we started working together and I knew I made the right decision. We both brought different things to the film and enriched each other and the project.
His is such a distinctive performance. There’s the dramatic portions, and of course the singing, and there’s times you feel he has a lot of freedom as an actor, and there’s other times you get the sense it’s all very specifically choreographed. What went into shaping a performance like that?
It’s something I’ve not experienced with other actors. Usually the way I work is out of chaos, and I surround myself with gifted people who are very precise, like my DOP. So, Marion for example, works well with chaos and precision but she’s more on the precision side. Adam is more like me, he starts from chaos and then there’s a discipline that he brings to hone it. So, we felt at home with that. Usually I have demands that are very incompatible with actors. People say things like ‘how can I do this and that at the same time?’ or “have this mood and sing this?” etc.
That would happen with Adam as well. He’d get angry and say, ‘How can I do all of that? It’s too much’. But each time we had those conversations, I felt those are the best scenes we created – coming out of chaos and finding a way out. He’s good at that.
I don’t know what I feel about Annette, or how proud I can be yet. But I feel what Adam does in the film is something I’ve never seen. It’s not about comparing him to other actors like Brando or whatever. It has to do with the fact that he’s so much in it but there’s a part of him that’s not there at all, almost like it’s floating. And I think it has to do with who Adam is. And it escapes even me, but it’s very present in Annette and I’m very grateful for making that choice of casting him.
And his character Henry is a kind of stand-up comedian performance artist who has such a specific, unique act. What went into putting that together? Did you enjoy inventing a stand up comedian and defining his act?
That was a challenge. How do you create a stand up comedian ? There have been many great stand up comedians and a few that have been really great. And obviously nobody can invent a great stand up comedian with funny lines and a very specific, personal kind of humour. At first I thought I’d never be able to craft those two big scenes where he’s on stage doing his act.
The initial idea was to have the whole film sung. But then I realised I just can’t do that, these stage performances can’t be sung, it’s too hard. At the same time I realised he doesn’t have to be funny. What if his show is his relation to the audience and to himself and his relation to comedy? Maybe I’ll drop a few funny lines in there , but it’s not going to be a funny show. As soon as I figured those two things out, I felt liberated and was able to write these two shows
You’ve also said you read a bunch of autobiographies of stand up comedians like Steve Martin and others. Was that because you were trying to get a sense of them off stage?
Yeah, because I’ve always been interested in stand up comedy. But I didn’t know much about it and I hadn’t seen much live comedy. All I knew was what you find on YouTube. I’d seen Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks – who was very important to develop Henry.
And that’s one of the great things about making films, it forces you to research and learn new things. For example, I’ve never been to the opera, so I had to research that for Marion’s character. I met a few sopranos and asked them what it’s like and what happens to you when you sing and things like that. To me one of the amazing things about stand up comedy is the idea that someone would want to go on stage and make people laugh. That to me seems like a nightmare. Who would want that? It’s like that dream you have as a kid where you go to school and suddenly you find out you’re naked. And then when you read these biographies of comedians, you find out that these people are fucked up completely. There’s a lot of panic and a lot of self destruction. Steve Martin said he had to vomit before going on stage.
The film is of course a musical and there seems to be a resurgence of mainstream musicals in Hollywood recently. From La La Land to In The Heights to Steven Spielberg’s upcoming West Side Story. Why do you think the genre is coming back in such a big way?
I have no idea to be honest. I think La La Land was a big success and studios decided to jump back on musicals. I’ve been asked about my relation to musicals, and honestly I haven’t seen many. I’ve seen the obvious ones, the American classics that most people have seen. I’ve seen many Russian and French ones. But, because you come from India, there’s one Indian director who’s been very important to me, which is Guru Dutt. I don’t think younger Indian people know him anymore. I didn’t watch his films again, but I thought of him alot while making Annette. He was another Orson Welles-type self destructive, larger than life character, similar to Henry. So, I thought of his work a lot when making this.