After releasing the trailer for High Life, we noticed a tweet from filmmaker Rian Johnson: "Claire Denis in space. NO TRAILER REQUIRED."
We’ve since learned that Rian, the guy now entrusted with the fate of the Star Wars franchise, has seen every single Claire Denis movie, though he had never met her before this conversation. Topics covered include: shooting a prison movie in space, the dark romance of L.A., good bread, why Claire went crazy working for Wim Wenders, films that must be viewed in the dark, shooting with yellow light, the romanticization of film stock, Tarkovsky’s Stalker, and the alchemy of cinema.
Rian Johnson: Hello I’m Rian Johnson and I’m here with -
Claire Denis: Claire Denis.
Rian: What do you think about that!
Claire: Great! It’s a great meeting.
Rian: So Los Angeles, what is your relationship to this town? How do, how do you find it? I know you’re here in a whirlwind, very quick trip, and mostly in hotel rooms, probably, but -
Claire: Of course, this time it’s two days, you know. It means nothing. I wish I could stay more, because after a first surprise, my first trip here. I was surprised. And I had to learn how to drive in LA.
Rian: You were surprised? What surprised you about the city?
Claire: It was so big. Each district was so different, you know. And enormous, you know. And I had never experienced a city where if you want to buy something you have to drive on a freeway. You know, for me, a street maybe, but not a freeway. And it took me maybe ten days to be able to drive around.
Rian: That’s the main adjustment.
Claire: I was missing some exits.
Claire: A long time ago with Wim Wenders, when we were doing Paris, Texas, I was his assistant.
Rian: Wait, did you prep in Los Angeles?
Claire: We did location scouting and a prep near here, and part of the shooting in Burbank.
Rian: Yeah, yeah! I was watching an interview you did where you were talking about the shoot and talking about getting in the plane to scout the Devil’s Graveyard.
Claire: Oh yeah.
Rian: Oh my god. But also how it prepared you mentally for your own shoots.
Claire: By the Bend Territory. I became crazy at that time and I told Wim, “Wim I didn’t mind, maybe Harry Dean Stanton should cross over the Rio Grande?,” and he told me, “Maybe he would be afraid?” I said, “It’s nothing, I can cross the Rio Grande just like that. Once, twice.”
I went with my jeans on. And I kept my shoes because it’s full of stone. It was shallow, it seems shallow. And suddenly, in the middle of it, there was a current so powerful I couldn’t resist, you know. I was like a little piece of -
Rian: Did you get swept down?
Rian: Are you a good swimmer?
Claire: I am a good swimmer but the Rio Grande is much stronger than I am. And I was watching Wim. I turn around, Wim, he did not react at all. So I said, “Hey, he is not going to save my life?”
In the end I managed. I don’t know, it took me an hour to get out of the Rio Grande. And Wim flatly told me, “You see Claire, I think it’s not a good idea to do it with Harry Dean Stanton.” I said, “No I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
Rian: His point was proven! So you spent time there in the states, and here, and in New Orleans, right?
Claire: Port Arthur. Yes
Rian: Ok, right. Port Arthur. For Down by Law?
Claire: Ah, Down by Law, yeah. Down by Law was New Orleans and some bayous.
Rian: Yeah! But you haven’t shot one of you own films in the states?
Claire: No. I had already, I came to New Orleans, and I was already finishing my own scouting in Cameroon.
Rian: For Chocolat?
Claire: Yeah, settling the co-production with Cameroon’s government. So I was ready, in a way, but I had to wait for the good season. So when Jim [Jarmusch] called me, I said, “Ok let’s.”
Rian: That must’ve been an experience. Do you get to, after this trip, do you get to rest a bit or do you have more?
Claire: No, I was with Wim. So I was already in great shape, but I was not sure. I liked the people I was working with but the city was a little bit strange for me.
Rian: Yea, it’s a cold city.
Claire: And it’s, uh, the second or the third time I came here? I realized it was a city, very cool. And where, yeah, it’s interesting to stay.
Rian: Yea, there’s a dark romance to the city. I have been here since I went to university here, so twenty-five years? But it took me ten years, maybe, to discover that I liked it.
Claire: Yeah, yeah, yeah! (affirmative)
Rian: I felt kind of trapped here for a long time.
Claire: Yeah, it’s not immediate.
Rian: No, no. But that’s also why, when you do fall for it, you fall very hard for it I think. I meant, so after this round of press, do you get to go home and rest for a while or do you still -
Claire: I go home. Rest not really because there is, I have to go to Germany and England also for the film.
Rian: For more promotion?
Claire: Yeah. I will see. But I will be home.
Rian: It will be good. What do you do to recharge? What is the thing that you’re most looking forward — you get home, you put down your bags, what is the thing you most look forward to?
Claire: Yeah, washing machine, one or two. Gives a good reason. To go buy a good piece of bread. And um, to stay in bed a little bit. And, you know.
Rian: Stare into space?
Rian: Are you reading anything good now? Or I guess you don’t have time when you’re on the road.
Claire: No, I wanted to go and buy a book in the bookstore nearby.
Rian: Book Soup?
Claire: I hope I will go there this afternoon if I have the energy.
Rian: Yeah! Well your films have meant a lot to me for many years.
Claire: Thank you.
Rian: I was excited and a little frightened to meet you.
Claire: Oh no. Are you sure?
Rian: I loved High Life and thought it was absolutely gorgeous and it was very interesting. The ways that it’s, the similarities it has to previous work and also the ways in which each one of your films pushes and does things that the others haven’t, and is coming at the same sort of stuff from different angles.
But I thought it was absolutely amazing. I saw it in the theater just yesterday, actually, and I’m so happy I got to see it. It feels like a film that needs to be seen in the dark.
Claire: I think so, yes.
Rian: I mean obviously it was your first time doing an English language film, and I’m sure you’ve talked a lot about some of the differences. The main thing, just as a fan of your work, the main thing that struck me, and I apologize I’m sure you’ve talked about this a lot, but the fact that it was on designed sets as opposed to — and the thing is that the effect of that for me largely came through in your use of color and the intentional use of color.
Claire: Yeah. (affirmative)
Rian: Which I mean, but you also, I don’t know, in Vendredi Soir you do the same thing with the lights on the street at night, and the impressionistic — so you always use color, but there was something about the concentration of this I thought that -
Claire: But I mean Vendredi Soir was on film, and here we were shooting on digital.
Rian: Well this is interesting.
Claire: And the reaction of colors are not at all the same.
Rian: How did you, because White Material that was film right?
Claire: Film, yes.
Rian: So this was your first digital?
Rian: Oh was Let the Sunshine In digital?
Claire: Digital, yeah. And Bastards, digital.
Rian: Was Bastards digital? I didn’t realize that. I love that film.
Claire: So no. I wanted digital for the ship. And not very extra, Sony 10K. Whatever. I wanted a simple camera.
Rian: Was it an Alexa?
Claire: Alexa, yeah. Then we knew we were going to shoot the memoir, the image from Earth.
Rian: The forest.
Claire: Yea, the trail and everything, with the Super 16.
Rian: Oh that was Super 16? That makes sense.
Claire: And I did it with a young, Polish DP [Tomasz Naumiuk]. Very interesting to go and be with four days with a small Polish crew. And the end of the film when they go into the black hole, father and daughter, we used 35 scope.
Rian: Oh so it switches? You could feel an emotional impact of it, but I couldn’t tell you what.
Claire: Because it’s a yellow light, I chose it because it has a — it’s a light that kills a lot of other colors. It gives the skin a bronze, grey greenish-bluish bronze color. The red disappears completely. And I said, this is great for the black hole because so many things disappear in the black hole.
Rian: Yeah. (affirmative)
Claire: But of course we did test with Olafur Eliasson, the artist who invented this light. Not for the black hole actually, did he invent this light, but for himself and other things. But anyway, I told him I want this ray of golden light in the film at the end.
And I realized when we did it with a Sony 8K and on film there was absolutely no — you could not compare.
Claire: Because the digital is fighting against the effect of that color. The digital tried to balance, but with film, no.
Rian: Film gives into it. Film lets it overtake it. That’s very interesting. I noticed you worked with not your usual DP, Agnes Godard.
Claire: No, with Yorick [Le Saux]. Because Agnes was tired after the other film and she was not so happy to work with a complete German crew. Because she was tired. So Yorick, I knew Yorick.
Rian: Yeah, I’ve always worked with the same cinematographer. How was it working with someone new, how did it affect your experience?
Claire: Very good. Because he knew me, he knew Agnes. And we decided to settle on something that Agnes may not have been happy to do. We programmed all of the light, the day the night, the bright day, the dark day.
Rian: With LED lights?
Claire: Everything was programmed. It gave us a sort of — first of all, it was fast. And also gave us a sort of, we were like in a spaceship.
Rian: Yeah, yeah.
Claire: Are you preparing now?
Rian: I’m editing right now.
Claire: You’re editing? Ah.
Rian: Yes editing.
Claire: And for how long?
Rian: We are — I’m pretty deep into the editing. I’m making a, it’s sort of like an Agatha Christie murder mystery, which I as a kid loved those books, so I’m using that to kind of explore some things using that genre.
Claire: Sure, and you shot in LA?
Rian: Shot in Boston.
Claire: Ah, in Boston, yes.
Rian: It was very cold. But it was the first movie, I was asking because this is the first movie that I had shot on digital. I’d always used film before and it was a big change.
Claire: It is a big change.
Rian: Yeah, but a tool.
Claire: For me, the first week of shooting in digital.
Rian: So was the first you shot Bastards?
Claire: Was it Bastards? Well with White Material, we wanted, but then we tested and also because of the heat we were losing the pinkish skin of the white people. It was colder. And I said, it’s not possible. The earth is red, Isabelle’s [Huppert] skin is a little bit reddish, red hair. And we were lucky enough to find a Kodak. Not a fast one, a slow one.
Rian: The slower film. Because the sunbaked feeling of those exteriors is so, um, yeah.
Claire: So we were lucky to have this Kodak.
Rian: Yeah interesting. It’s another tool. I think there can be a tendency to, understandably, romanticize film, I think especially with, I talk to young film students and filmmakers and there’s sometimes almost a religious fervor about the notion of film as this sacred thing. Which I understand.
Claire: Yes but it was so very, religion about, “Oh if you go to the new system don’t stay.” And I think, for me, what I like is that both exist. That’s all.
Rian: Yeah, to just use whatever is appropriate. It’s funny, when I got out of the movie I had a conversation with my wife about whether, because I felt in the ending, hopefulness is the right word? For me, it was a very similar emotional experience, strangely, of Let the Sunshine In. Where all arguments point to the contrary that this should be depressing, and yet there’s these two people who — It’s hard to describe, I guess.
It’s funny because on the one hand when I meet any filmmaker who I admire I want to ask process questions. But on the other hand, especially with your films, there’s something about them. I don’t know. I almost want to not, because there’s something about them that feels very, I don’t know, they feel like they are such pure expressions of your own obsessions.
Claire: Yeah, for sure. But then it’s also because I am a very tactile person, so I have to figure out what it will be.
Rian: Yeah, which that comes through. I mean I think about Andre [Benjamin] putting his feet into the dirt in that one scene. Or all of Beau Travail, there’s so much in your movies. I feel like I’ve had a wonderful hug with a very sweaty person.
Claire: But you know, this is the exercise they really do in the army. After a fight, they have to hug to calm down.
Rian: Yeah, yeah. That’s I mean -
Claire: It’s interesting to understand it.
Rian: It makes so much sense. It’s fascinating. That film, and that’s something that is similar with [Robert] Pattinson and that baby. The masculinity, the way that you feel.
Claire: He’s like a soldier, in a way. He decides to be a monk, to protect himself. You know? He had no life before.
Rian: It’s interesting imagining an older actor in that part. It’s very, very interesting.
Claire: I don’t know why I had it in mind, because I’m getting older too, maybe. I don’t know. I was, at that point, I was so fascinated, it was maybe my craziness, by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. And I said, a guy like that won’t fight, he will let it go. He’s tired with everything. I had something in mind, well I mean he died. Then the casting director tells me, “You know Robert? He would like to meet with you.” And I said, “Robert? He’s too young.” And the casting director said, “Meet with him.”
Robert told me now that he was sure I would say no. And he said I was trying to be, I was trying to show not how disappointed I was. And me, on the opposite, I found him extremely great. And I said, but it’s the best I did, never would I change it.
Rian: Do you enjoy the — and I know for you, the casting, you don’t do auditions or read, it’s more just connecting with people. Do you enjoy that part of the process? And also, when you’re writing, are you generally thinking of — because you work with a lot of the same actors over and over?
Claire: Sometimes, I know one of them would be in the film because I’ve been thinking about them. But for Robert, it was strange, because it was the opposite, and yet.
Rian: It clicked.
Claire: After a little pre-production, I told him, “It’s strange. It’s like I’ve been knowing you for a long time.”
Rian: Well I am curious, I know it’s a term that is, not just the word “science fiction” is something that -
Claire: I always say no at a certain point to tell my producer, “Don’t freak out. It’s not going to be Star Wars. It’s simple. It’s a jail in space.” And also I realized, working with an astrophysicist [Aurelien Barrau] while we were writing the script, that everything there was already known. There was no invention. And it’s true, four days ago you have seen the picture of the black hole?
Rian: Black hole, yeah!
Claire: What a strange thing, like ours.
Rian: And it’s orange! The picture is orange like your idea in the end of your movie.
Claire: You know? It’s true. There is something to keep it very simple. And not to invent the extravaganza of the black hole is leading us to another universe and blah blah blah. Which, in a way, the scientists, they don’t believe.
Rian: And your use of sci-fi, my favorite science fiction movies are the ones that use it the way you do. Which, one of my favorite cuts in the movie, is when Mia Goth’s character has been impregnated and you cut to, what at first you assume is space, it’s this nebula.
Claire: Yeah, but it’s a womb.
Rian: Yeah, but as you travel in you realize it’s an interior space. And I think that’s a very good metaphor for the way that the best science fiction and the most thoughtful use sci-fi. And you very much do. You very much use this movie, you could not set this movie in a prison on earth and it would be the same. You use the science fiction and those elements in a way to get deeper inside the characters.
Claire: The void. And the fact that there is no going back home. Never. They can’t escape. In jail you can still dream, maybe.
Rian: Yeah the complete isolation. No, it’s very much, I mean, I don’t know how you feel about this reference, but it’s similarities to the way Tarkovsky used science fiction with Stalker.
Claire: Of course, I think Solaris, and Stalker, for me, it’s a masterpiece but it was really, also — the shock I felt on the way to The Zone when the black and white image cut to the color. I remember I thought I was going to faint. My heart stopped beating for a second, and I wanted to understand why, sometimes, something that is so simple. Almost nothing. Black and white and color. Because in that context, with the Stalker on the machine. Suddenly, and the noise of the machine.
Rian: Which turns into a music.
Claire: I think this is cinema. It’s the mystery of cinema. Sometimes very little can do a lot. Sometimes.
Rian: And it lulls you. One of the things in that movie that I think is a color that is not used in the modern palette very much, is, for lack of a better word — it’s the wrong word — but I’ll say the word ‘boredom.’ The lulling you, not being afraid to make you get to the point where you are not just being, “Hey hey hey’d!” Where you’re lulled into — and I think that cut very much relies on the thirty minutes that came before it.
Claire: That cut is like, “Wow.”
Rian: It’s alchemy. I think in Vendredi Soir there’s the point of view where the woman comes out into the streets and the headlights are lighting her up and then you do a jump cut and she’s gone. And, I remember watching that and feeling both this kind of, like you said, a little bit of a physical reaction to, and also, it felt like when you’re having a night out, it feels like the way you see the world at night. I don’t know, it’s a combination.
Claire: Maybe with Stalker it is even more grandiose because nobody knows what the Zone is, and suddenly we understand, “Wow. There is a Zone. It’s true.” And the Zone suddenly became a dangerous place.
Rian: And the film not explaining it. And this has similarities also with High Life. It gives it room for you to take that and plug it in to the back of your head.
You have the shot, I’m sure it wasn’t a direct reference, but looking down into the water, when she drops the fetus and the splash it reminded me of the well [in Stalker] and stuff. But did you work on The Sacrifice?
Claire: The producer of Wenders was also produced, Anatole Dauman, produced The Sacrifice. The Swedish people. And Andrei hated to be obliged to use a French actress for the co-production. And he was terrible with the casting director. And Anatole asked me, “Claire please go, help me, help me.”
And at that time, I had very short hair. And Andrei looked at me, and I could feel immediately he thought, he told me I looked like Joan of Arc and he would accept me. Because he told me I didn’t look like all those French whores.
Rian: Oh my god.
Claire: You know, he was hard. And he saw so many actresses and said horrible things. You know. Anyway.
Rian: Oh my god.
Claire: You know but it was, it’s strange. Like him and find him terrible was the same thing. Because he had this pain in him. He was longing for his wife and son to come. He didn’t know yet he had cancer. He was ignoring it.
Rian: I want to thank you so much for sitting down and being able to talk. Like I said, your films have meant so much to me and I was just really looking forward to sitting down and meeting me.
Claire: Thank you, I’m a poor thing.
Rian: I know you are. Please, please rest. Like I said, I hope we will get to meet again and talk again.
Claire: If I survive this trip.
Rian: I have a feeling you will. When do you go home?
Rian: Tomorrow? Ok good.
Claire: Yeah and the doctor has decided I am a very strong woman. He told me like ten times to make sure I won’t forget.
Rian: I could’ve told him that. Mrs. Denis thank you very much. Such a pleasure.
Claire: I have a little fever.
Rian: No, oh my god. Please, good luck with the rest of the trip.