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Climax: An Interview with director Gaspar Noe
October 7, 2018
Climax is horror, shock, sex and freak show, amalgamated into an continual pulsating sequence, exploring the dark depths of the human psyche under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs. Based on a much smaller scale factual news story, director Gaspar Noe amplifies events by adding fictional personal strands. A spiked punch unleashes sodom and gomarrah on an unassuming dance troupe at a post rehearsal drinks get-together in a gymnasium setting, one snowy suburban Parisian night in the mid nineties. As the drugs kick in and barriers come down, debauchery and panic ensues.
Noe’s films have always courted controversy, with a desire to explicitly show the ugliness of life as well as tap into and satisfy our voyeuristic streaks, Climax being no exception. Noe came into prominence with his second full length Irreverssible, specifically it’s 10-minute long brutal rape scene which renders Monica Belluci’s character Alex into a coma. He has since released equally contentious, but equally masterfully offerings, such as the ethereal Enter The Void and the overtly erotic Love, both of which were shot from the internal perspective looking out.
Climax reverts back to filming with the camera looking in, creating a sensory overload, super aggressive with Noe’s accustomed edginess. As the camera flows from room it documents the party-goers’ escalating drug trips which reach a viciously cataclysmic, and for some of them, life-altering crescendo.
We had the oppurtunity to interview Noe a few weeks back in London. An extremely talkative and open figure, tirelessly talking about his film, relishing the chance to speak and expand on all answers put forward, making him one of the most refreshing interviewees I’ve had this year.
Hey just wanted to let you know, there are three questions that I get asked all the time.
How did you cast the movie? Why does it take place in 95? And the other is why did you put the French flag in the flag? Other than that, any question is fine.
I did have some question about the cast, but now I will refrain.
No don’t. Feel free to ask
Ok, but firstly I would like to congratulate you on your exceptional film and of course, for all your other exceptional films. I want so much to ask you about Enter the Void, but.. again I shall refrain as we are not here about that.
Well there is elements to the film with Enter The Void, like in the way its an interpretation of a psychedelic point of view, how someone who is stoned and has an altered state of perception. In the case with Climax, even if the characters are drugged against their will, I didn’t want to do any visual or sound effects to reproduce the feeling you are having when you’re on drugs. I thought it would be funny it do it the other way, like shoot almost documentary style with long cuts, seeing how the effects of drugs and alcohol are experienced, how its seen from the outside. Like how it all shows and not how it feels.
It captures a lot people’s early experiences with drugs, well mine at least, when its taken in some dingy, dirty night club or a rave.
Well I don’t get drunk as much I used to. But when I was young, I used to smoke marijuana but nowadays even if someone is smoking next to me, it makes me feel bad and paranoid; it’s the substance I avoid the most. It doesn’t relax me. It’s like some people who used to drink and then stopped and then have a few glasses of something and they are gone, on the floor. Marijuana has this thing, once you stop it and then smoke again it puts you in a bad place. Not much fun!
What was the interest in this particular story?
I was interested in the theme of a group people creating something together and then collapsing. It was based on a true story; but that story was on a much smaller scale than the one I presented in the film. Yes there was a party, things turned sour when they dis have their drinks spiked, but nothing really bad happened. I was writing various scripts at the time and then I was invited to a Vogueing ball room and I was inspired by the dancing and the atmosphere and I was thinking I would love to involve this somehow. Should I keep working on this film or make a documentary about these kind of dances?
Sounds a bit like Paris Is Burning.
A little, but this is in the suburbs of Paris, but likewise it was very gay, very black. The energy was so joyful and crazy. I had met Kiddy Smile a few times, he told me to come up to the stage to see the contest from the judging panel. And I became very interested in doing something with what I was seeing. I was introduced to a few dancers and I took their numbers and they introduce me to others. I had seen the David Lachappelle movie about krump called Rize. I liked the way they danced high on drugs. Young kids, battling each other out.
Then I met some French krump dancers. And then there is another kind of dance called ‘waacking’. Mounia, the tall girl dancing in-front of the French flag, her hands and arm movements giving such a great performance, they are just so pretty to watch. And then I was looking into who are the best ‘waackers’ in Paris. Also, I met this girl from Russia who came to Paris for the Voguing Ballroom. I asked her if she would like to be in the movie, she was all excited as she wants to be an actress etc etc. It was people recommending other people, and in just one month I met all these dancers, from Paris but also others from around the world coming to Paris.
You mention in interviews you don’t do story boards for your films. With events in the film appearing to take place in real time. Was there no planning at all?
There wasn’t even a script. But we knew the storyline. I knew the start and the end point, but I didn’t know the in-between. For example, initially I thought Sofia Boutella’s character, Selma, would end up with a boy, then I thought maybe it could be a girl. When I met the Russian girl dancer and I asked Sofia if she minds ending up with her, she didnt….so the whole thing was quite organic. Then I didn’t know how the story of the DJ would end… oh maybe he ends with the young dancer…. But everything was shot in chronological order, which keeps the door open for any kind of re-writing.
To make a movie of out a script you decide which order, according to: the set, the location, the availability of the actress/ actor. In this case they were all free for the 15 days and everything took place in the same location. So, it was easy to shoot in the way we did, which keeps the doors open for any new ideas that arise and we can then easily execute them, like adding another story strand or killing off characters etc etc.
So the dancers were driving the movie?
I would say yes… overall they did. The mood on set was so joyful and friendly. People were not getting wasted. I asked them what you would enjoy doing in the movie? How would you want to shock an audience? I would never ask them to do, what they would not like doing. Tell me who you want to kiss? Who you want to smash? Who you want to insult? And I would ask the other person, would you mind if this person wants to do this or that. And of-course the reciprocal person was welcome to anything.
There were all quite keen to get to the second part of the shoot, with the drugs and everything going crazy. I showed them all these videos; people high on LSD, mushrooms, crack, whatever. Then after I asked each one how they would want to portray their owncraziness.
Is there a risk in casting non-professional actors?
Not really. In Climax there are only two dancers who were also actors, Sofia Boutella and Souheila Yacoub, who I just met a couple of days before shoot. The Saturday night, two days before the shoot, I was looking for someone who was able to scream and shout on demand, and an agent recommended Yacoub, who is also an acrobat. I met her and we did a quick casting to see how much she could scream and dance….and she was excellent and I was like can you start on Monday… she thought I was joking at first.
Every single dancer makes this movie. It was a very collaborative process and that’s why I feel this movie is so fresh. Yet the performances of Sofia and Souhelia would have been too hard someone who is not really an actor, as they were more complicated psychologically. The scene in which the two are talking and the one tells the other she’s pregnant… every single take was perfect, when it came to them two acting. We had only had to keep re-doing because of the camera technicalities on my side. They were both just perfect in the 18 takes.
In the beginning it feels you don’t know what is going to happen: the woman crying in the snow, the end credits appearing, the long-extended interviews with each dancer.
Well I look at is a book and there is a prologue, or at the end an epilogue, a bibliography, or an additional personal note. In the case of this movie, the first exaggerated scene with her being bloody, crying in the snow, it wasn’t meant to be. It was just snowing in Paris for two days and the second day, I thought about possibly taking advantage of the weather. We got a drone and filmed the girl in the snow from above. I didn’t know how to use that footage at first. Later in the movie when they open the door, I thought that could fit in with the previous footage, if we made it snow outside and make it look like they were locked in. So I got some snow machines to re-create the whole thing.
When people mentioned that there was some reference to The Shining it wasn’t that at all. I liked the idea of getting rid of the credits at the beginning of the movie. I hate ending credits. I like movies from the 40s, 50s of which movies would end abruptly. So, I knew how I wanted to end the movie. I found like a satanic icon that I could put before the movie starts. Like an omen, that’s something is going to turn bad, there was going to be a big drama, that the world is going to turn to hell.
The interviews with the dancers you see before, that wasn’t supposed to be in the movie. But my line producer, best friend, partner-in-crime, Serge, suggested that the cast are so great, he wished they talked more in the film, and he came up with the idea of interviewing them for a possible extra footage for the DVD release. And we started interviewing them, like a casting session. It was an idea that we came up with like a week before shooting. We had the camera ready and slowly interviewed each one of them. Everything was invented in the moment, a collaborative process. The French flag for example that you see, wasn’t intentional. We were trying to decide which background to have for the DJ box, we happened to try red, blue, grey and the idea of flag came from that.
So, there was no symbolism in having the flag there?
Maybe. It was a bit like a microcosm on set, everyday. In voguing they have families, and the whole thing is a bit like a womb, you can say, everyone working together in this small, cozy space. I guess you could link the womb to a nation.
The movie was shot and produced in France. I am happy that I live there. I dont see this film produced anywhere else but France. It would be impossible to get it off the ground in the States. Or like my previous film Love, I would never imagine it take place there or even in the UK. The presentation of sex is different in the Anglo-Saxon world. So I’m happy to be a French-based director. Probably if I was in Berlin, I would have put the German flag.
When the drugs kick, barriers come down, people start to behave differently from each other. You captured that perfectly.
People on drugs or after a few drinks do change. Do drugs reveal the authentic self? But then, what is the authentic self? Maybe altered self? Some people do ecstasy or smoke weed and they think they are all cool. For some people, their perception shifts they become very heavy or very cruel. It all depends on your own personality and how repressed you are.
We are animals and have some primitive behaviours, but some these mind-altering substances, like alcohol which is probably more dangerous. When the effects kick in, some people switch into another identity. I’ve seen it happen with friends, even with myself, like getting into fights because I was drunk. And the next day I’m like how come I behaved like this and said all this horrible stuff. The problem with most things, whether its alcohol or weed, it’s the point where you stop noticing you are getting drunk or high. The moment you stop counting, you crossed the line. You think your drunk 4 glasses of wine, but in fact you had 12.
What parts of the story are true and how much fiction?
It’s a overall true story but somethings are exaggerated. Like I didn’t respect the original amount of people. We invented a lot of the personal storylines. It’s based on a real story, but I altered it a lot. Like in real-life all the majority of dancers were white. Everyday you read in the papers stories that would make great movies. But then if you want to stick to the real story, you have to use the real names and then be respectful of everything and that becomes tricky territory. Especially in unsolved cases, you bring your own mental perception of the situation, so its good to change things so as you are not restricted with the outcome. I have boxes with all these newspaper cuttings and years later I come back to them and think oh this could be added, or this could be a family drama…. So, no… not completely a true story.
Climax is out now.
Words by Daniel Theophanous @danny_theo_ .
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