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Horror and Transcendence: An Interview with Pascal Laugier

Wednesday, July 18, 2018 | Interviews

By: Robin Ono

Relentless and bold in his creative strokes, director Pascal Laugier truly embodies the figure of French cinema’s enfant terrible. Having marked his debut with House of Voices (Saint-Ange), the French filmmaker’s name quickly made itself known in the genre scene, rising to infamy with the release of Martyrs; a milestone classic in the New French Extremity movement whose audience has yet to fully recover from. Though violence and dark subject matters are the bread and butter of horror, what sets Laugier’s body of work so distinctly apart from that of his peers is the eloquence with which these elements are used to serve the purpose of his stories and their rich, deep-rooted subtext.

Earlier this year, the director marked his long awaited return with Incident in a Ghostland, a dark, twisted tale of horror and transcendence starring Crystal Reed (Gotham) and French music superstar Mylène Farmer. The film premiered at the Gerardmer Fantasy Film Festival, earning no less than three prizes including the Grand Prize for Best Picture, a well-deserved distinction for a director so unrelentingly bold and uncompromising. After three months of waiting since the initial European release, Incident in a Ghostland has finally hit the North American market and is ready to haunt curious audiences and eager fans alike. Curious to learn more about the films’ subject matter and production, I met up with Laugier over a coffee on a beautiful sunny morning in Paris to discuss his work.

(Warning: Spoilers ahead!)

First off, can you tell us about the initial premise that gave birth to this film?
You never really know exactly how ideas come to us. It’s always a mysterious process. I wanted to tell a story of two sisters because I’ve got an older brother and our relationship is in many ways similar to that of my two main characters, symbolically speaking. I was interested in diving into this subject. I wanted to make a film on the imaginary, on what it means to be creative and to have this calling. The plot came to me gradually once I had come up with the twist, the shift in perspective that kicks in halfway through the film. I pulled the thread, the film unveiled itself to me and I felt like I had something quite original.

How long did it take to write it?
I wrote the film in four months. I didn’t do many drafts, the film came to me pretty quickly and clearly. I sent it to a few producers and I quickly found out that everyone wanted to make it. I felt like things were just right between the script and its readers, namely the producers. There was something very clear, as though it were already set on track. The film got set up very quickly. Less than a year later, I found myself shooting in Winnipeg.

Why did you choose to set the story in North America, once again?
I’m saddened to say that I’ve given up on the idea of making the kind of movies that I make in French. I’ve done two films like that and I believe you would need a major paradigm shift to make French audiences watch these films in their mother tongue. The French public has been brought up to believe that arthouse films or comedies are French and that movies that fall into the “genre” category are necessarily American. Like my fellow colleagues, I’m not able to change these paradigms, which forces me into exile and to pretend that I’m a North-American filmmaker, even though I’m a French director. It’s not too different from the Italian directors in the sixties that went under American pen names to pretend that their films were shot in Hollywood rather than Rome. We’re in a similar situation, a laughable one, but a last resort nonetheless. I very much feel like a European filmmaker, but so long as this type of cinema struggles to find its place to thrive and grow in France, French audiences will not prefer nor even consider watching French horror, sci-fiction or fantasy films over their American counterparts. I’m forced to leave, which is strange because I’m leaving without really leaving. I shoot my films abroad whilst living in Paris and having my films produced by the French film industry. I set up these odd, almost prototypal co-productions for each film that I make.

One interesting detail about the character of Pauline (Mylène Farmer) is that she speaks a few words of French here and there.
That wasn’t planned at all, actually. When we were putting the cast together, I decided to work with Mylène Farmer. She had called me up to direct a music video for her, which I was glad to do. We got along so well that we decided to keep things rolling and work on this film together. She hadn’t played in a film in over 23 years, so it was really exciting for me to mark her comeback to the world of film. I liked her so much that I brought her onboard and tweaked the plot a little bit for her. I turned the mother into a French woman with two American daughters who speaks French from time to time. I didn’t want to ask Mylène to take an American accent, I wanted to use who she was and use her French accent. We can imagine that this woman arrived in North America and must have had two daughters with an American guy and ended up staying there. That’s the story we found for her when we were defining the character with Mylène.

Dolls hold a central role in the film’s imagery. At what point did this symbol come into play?
At first there were much fewer dolls in the film because it was a lot less ‘baroque’ in its artistic direction. It was less heavy, less Italian at first. But I came across a brilliant artistic director called Gordon Wilding, who is not only a production designer, but also a very talented painter and sculptor. His style is very twisted. His thing is to combine contradictory elements – the ultraviolent and the candid – and create things that are unsettling through their fake innocence. I like what he showed me so much that we filled up the house with more and more stuff and we went from a stripped down farmer house similar to that of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to something much more European, warm and baroque. Later on, I understood that I would be setting the scenes based in reality as the most spectacularly baroque parts of the film. Everything that indulges in excess is based in reality, and everything that is on the simpler side is set in the dream world, which is typically the exact opposite of what is usually done. I knew it would be an interesting approach and so I decided to go all in on it. This all happened during the pre-production phase when I was on location preparing for shooting, and it all came from my meeting with Gordon and his side-work outside of film as an artist. It was such a perfect fit for the subtext of the film. I felt like the film needed to be a fairytale, for if it were too realistic it would be an unpleasant one. I knew that the film was very dark and violent, and I figured it would be interesting to counterbalance this with a gateway into a children’s fable, a sort of dark fairytale for children, that children are not allowed to see. One of my visual references was Gustave Doré and the gravures he did for the Grimm Brothers and Perrault stories, which is where the film’s ogre and the witch came from. It’s a coming-of-age movie of sorts, a fable, and Gordon Wilding’s work as an artistic director helped me go through with this vision.

I’d like to flip a question that Beth is asked in the film during her television interview: Incident in a Ghostland is one of your most personal works to date. Is there not a parallel to be made with your own work, considering that Beth is an author who is trying to break free from the influence of her idol(s) to find her own voice?
Absolutely. I’m glad to hear you say that, because some people have criticized the film for not being Lovecraftian, which is, to me, a stupid point of criticism. The film cannot be Lovecraftian, because it is “Elizabeth Keller-ian”! The film is the portrait of a child who is about to turn into a young adult and decide to create her own body of work, become an artist and use the darkness of what she is going through as the future material of her oeuvre. It would have been completely contradictory to make the film Lovecraftian. Then again, some people see Lovecraft at the start and end of the movie and wonder why the film isn’t Lovecraftian, which to me, feels like a lack of perspective. The film is about this young girl finding her voice. The scene with Lovecraft is something we’ve all dreamt about when we were young teenagers, back when we had idols and heroes, which was my case. I dreamt a thousand times that Argento or Carpenter had appeared to me and said “Pascal, you’ve made it, you’ve found your voice. You’re no second-rate copy of me anymore.” All of my short films were second-rate copies of this or that, a copy-paste of elements from people I loved and imitated. We’ve all been there at age twelve or thirteen. It takes a lot of time to find your own style, it takes a lifetime. We gradually develop our own world and we start to feel like the rightful teller of these stories. The scene with Lovecraft meant a lot to me, though it was, of course, one of the scenes my producer wanted to have cut out. They didn’t think it served the story too much. Of course, that scene was one of my intimate reasons for making this film. Nevertheless, for all of these aforementioned reasons, the film simply could not be Lovecraftian, but rather “Keller-ian” since everything that happens in the film becomes the basis of her novel.

Was there a particular idol, a Lovecraft of your own that you needed to consciously stray away from to make this film your own? Any clichés, tropes or archetypes you needed to avoid or subvert?
There wasn’t anything to subvert, since I no longer make any films with specific references. I’m a filmmaker who makes horror films and I gladly tell in interviews that I’m part of the “genre film” scene, because it’s true. There are a lot of filmmakers, namely in the horror genre, who keep saying “Actually, I didn’t really make a horror film, I never really considered this to be horror”. A lot of filmmakers have a problem with this, especially in horror. I find it really obnoxious when they say these kinds of things. I’m not like that, I will proudly say it: Incident in a Ghostland is a horror film. With that being said, I’m not basing my work on preexisting references. I always start out from very personal sentiments, extremely emotional material. I never use other films as a starting point. I simply use the archetypes and clichés we’ve seen a thousand times, like the dolls you mentioned earlier, like the candy truck, the ogre and the witch… These are our common tropes and my using them is what makes me identify as a genre filmmaker. I use clichés and archetypes because I love it, but only if I’m able to twist and play with them and make something personal out of it and make a film that resembles me. However, I had a ghost following me on this film. My Lovecraft was Tobe Hooper, because I was often tempted to censor myself. When you wake up after three hours of sleep, you don’t always feel in the mood to jump right back into a scene where an ogre grabs a fourteen-year-old girl who is peeing allover her face. We’re sometimes tempted to soften things out, out of fear of losing our audience. Every time I was about to go down the easy route out of discouragement, I reminded myself of Tobe Hooper and his fierce take on horror. I had his guidance floating in my mind. He gave me courage. He was telling me “You’ve got a fierce, dark and feverish vision for this film. Go for it. If you don’t, you’ll be betraying yourself”. I thought a lot about him. As it so happened, he died only a few days after I had finished putting the film together, which affected me a lot. I thought about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, a film that is, in my opinion, very underrated. The film carries this feverish, crazy atmosphere all throughout it. I should hope that there is something similar in mine. It’s hard to put together a movie that is so “wholly possessed”, wholly twisted, transgressive from top to bottom. We’re tempted to slow down a little over the course of forty days of production, but I felt like I needed to stand my ground and keep going for this one.

Do you expect a different reception from North-American audiences compared to European audiences?
I should imagine, yes. I’ll have to wait and see. I would have loved to see an American studio give my film a wider release though. My biggest pride about this film is that it got sold in fifty different countries and that it’s getting the largest amount of screenings abroad out of all of my films. I was convinced that one particular studio was going to give it a wide distribution, but our timing was unfortunate, what with the Weinstein scandal having just broken out. The American studios thought the film was very effective, but that it was too transgressive for the countries’ current state of affairs. They were very bothered by the fat ogre playing around with a little girl. In a way, this was both the worst and the most fitting time, as the current context reinforces the films’ subtext. I’ve obviously always been on my main characters’ side. Always. A small part of the press has, since Martyrs, accused me of making misogynistic films, which is a dreadful misunderstanding. When the Weinstein scandal came out, I knew what it was about, I knew what it came out of, because I’ve been talking about it since my first film: these female characters, these women who are victims of power abuse are trying to push through and survive. That’s all I’ve been talking about since the very start. When the Weinstein affair broke out, it seemed to me like I understood the underlying premise of it all. There were a lot of commonalities with what I was trying to convey. Interestingly, it all weighted against my releasing the film more widely in the United-States, which I, of course, find a little unfortunate.

Your use of graphic violence always fits into the narrative syntax of your films and your message. It’s never gratuitous nor close to what some call “torture-porn”. Is there not, nonetheless, an intent to turn your back on a certain audience through your use of such extreme forms of violence? Or is it simply the unfiltered product of what comes to you naturally, of your own language as a storyteller?
I think it’s something that comes to me naturally. I’d like to appeal to the largest audience possible. It would certainly make things easier for me, and I’d be able to shoot more films [laughs]! It all comes with the subject, and it’s a writing process. I could very much see myself making a film with a more joyous, “fun” form of violence if I find that it fits the subject matter. I’ve got no dogmas, no hard principles. It just so happens that Martyrs and Incident in a Ghostland were written while I was in a state that demanded that I invest myself completely alongside my characters; that I understand the tragedy of what they were going through, and that simply could not be anything fun. When I understood that Ghostland would be the portrait of a future writer and that she was thus going to experience the darkness of what she will then use to fuel her work, I realized that this pain and darkness also needed to be felt by the audience. It all came from the subject matter. I could not talk about someone transfiguring her pain if the audience doesn’t feel it as well, otherwise they wouldn’t understand what the film is about. If I had cut out the scene between Elizabeth and the ogre or even made it more “fun” and reduced the impact of the scene on the audience, I don’t think people would understand what the film is about. The film is about resilience, transcendence; it’s about taking the worst from your life experiences and turning it into gold, into something that makes you greater, stronger, something that defines your story. You could even make this the very definition of horror. People who don’t like horror keep asking: “What’s the point? Isn’t there enough violence in the world already without horror films adding to it?” They simply don’t understand that it’s precisely one of the great joys of the genre itself. It’s about taking in the worst of the human condition and making it into a piece of art, a creative work. It’s a paradox that has always fascinated me about genre. This aspect is exclusive to the horror genre. It bears all of the questions and subjects that the western world tries to avoid; getting old, sickness, death, etc. Horror takes on these subjects head on and tries to make stories out of them, to turn them into creative strokes. 

Martyrs is celebrating its 10 anniversary this year. Has your outlook on the negative and hostile reactions to your film changed?When Martyrs came out, the reaction was both violent and fascinating from a film-buff’s perspective. It was interesting to see how people reacted to the piece. I experienced some surreal moments where even a part of the horror film fanbase could not stand the effect the film had on them. People came up to me to insult me, to tell me that I was sick and that I shouldn’t be allowed to make films like this. I stress that some of these were even part of the horror film fanbase. They were shocked to discover that a horror film could have such an effect on them. These people have a relationship to genre that is completely different from mine. The idea of a horror film failing to make a lasting effect, leaving you exactly the same as when you went into it, is really sad to me. That’s not how I see genre and that’s not the way I remembered the films from my adolescence. The first time I saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it messed my head up. I didn’t know what to think of it. I was subjugated, fascinated in a morbid state that was hard to describe. I almost felt angry towards the film, and that’s what I liked about it. There are some people that don’t have this way of looking at horror. That doesn’t make any sense to me. Nonetheless, it was interesting to go experience this with Martyrs, a film that took me literally around the world, but that was truly understood by very few people at the time. The mainstream press destroyed me. It was brutal, but interesting. Over the years, however, I’ve noticed a sway in the films’ general reception. It took six or seven years, until I fell on an article – I believe it was in the New York Times – in which the journalist explains why Martyrs is one of the most important horror films of the twenty-first century. I found that to be just as excessive as the negative press I’ve received, but I’m just giving this as an example to illustrate the shift that took place. A lot of kids still come and talk to me about it. It’s the film that sold the least amount of tickets, but it’s also the one people talk to me about the most. A lot of young people came to see me to tell me what the film did to them, that they remember precisely when they went to see it. That really moves me. The film has come a long way.

Was the negative press mostly in France?
It was everywhere, but in every country there was a small part of the audience that immediately got it. Some people just pick up on it immediately and others need some time. Even Rue Morgue, who featured the film as the front cover, was on the fence. Jovanka Vuckovic wrote a long in-depth article asking whether the film was acceptable and “healthy” to watch. She was a good sport, she felt like the film was bold and so she featured it on the front cover, but she still questioned it. It was very interesting!

It’s interesting that you mention that. Our current Editor-in-Chief, Andrea Subissati, actually wrote the preface to a book about the New French Extremity by her Faculty of Horror podcast co-host Alexandra West.
That’s great! If only she knew how we were treated back in France, she’d be surprised! It’s true that this French movement was incredibly well received overseas, or at least with interest. Without the overseas market, we would have all made one or two films and called it quits. Thankfully, some French producers eventually picked up on what was happening and came up to us to make some more films. It helped us a whole lot. If we had counted solely on the French market and on the French press, I’d be earning a living selling burgers at McDonald’s.

You have also stated that you see these films as “exceptions” rather than the product of a real, emerging “movement” within the French film industry.
There is no production model, no. There is still no industry to make these kinds of films in France. However, we do have countless debates as to whether and how we should make French genre films. There’ve been debates, long articles and documentaries on the subject for twenty years now. We like to talk, here in France, but concretely things are just as complicated as they always were. There is no production system to make these films. I just finished Ghostland and I have no idea what my next film will be, who my next producer will be or even where I will find the money for it. I’m starting from scratch, once again, just like with each and every film I’ve made.

A huge thank you goes out to M.Perrin and M.Laugier, who made this article possible!