The unedited transcript, presented in Q&A form, of an interview conducted face-to-face with Pascal Laugier on the release of his 2009 film, Martyrs:
A Chat with Pascal Laugier
August 2009, Paris
What do you think about the current wave of French horror?
“It’s over. From a foreign perspective, you have an exotic point of view of what’s happening in France, but the reality is much harder. It’s already finished. The French movie industry does not want to produce these films anymore. They don’t do very well at the box office in our own country. They make money by being sold all around the world, but it’s probably not enough for French producers to be interested in making them.”
“In France, the DVD market is like everywhere else – it’s difficult. Martyrs really made profit by being sold in 55 countries. In France, we [horror directors] are very underground. We are not very considered in our own country. That’s why a lot of young French genre directors go to Hollywood because they feel more appreciated – more loved – in America than in our own country. So I am announcing the best of the French horror film is over. For years, in my country, it was impossible to find the money to make a horror genre film or a fantasy film. Then it’s been kind of possible in the last 10 years and it was like a strong energy being unleashed – that could explain why the French films have been so violent, so wild and so free.”
Where did the idea for Martyrs come from?
“Well, it was quite obvious I didn’t feel well at the time I wrote it. I really felt I had to use the horror genre as a way to express myself, as a way of direct expression. So I tried to move all my dark state-of-mind onto the screen.”
“With my first feature film [Saint Ange], I was hiding a lot behind the style of the genre, the beauty of the visuals and everything. With Martyrs, I wanted to do the opposite – I wanted to put my balls on-screen. I was trying to be as honest and as sincere as I possibly could. I didn’t take the time to think too much about it. If I had taken the time to think about it, I wouldn’t have dared to make such a film. I would have thought about my career and I would have been scared about the eventual consequences of the project. So it was a very intuitive process. Of course, I thought a lot about the material I was manipulating because it’s very on-the-edge material. I certainly didn’t want the material to say things I disagreed with. Right now, I feel very comfortable with every frame of the film, but in terms of energy – in terms of the kind of movie I wanted to make – and about the radicality of the violence in it, I didn’t think too much about it.”
It’s a very personal film, but you chose to express yourself through women…
“I don’t know why, but this was also the case in my short films, and the same with my first picture. It has always been easier to connect with female characters than with men. I don’t know why. Also, it allows me to spend two months shooting surrounded by beautiful girls, which is also something very easy to understand.”
“When David Cronenberg was asked the same question about why he chose a lot of female characters, he said ‘Because as a straight man, it’s my favourite gender’. Also, I felt that the story would be more just and more meaningful if the character was a woman. I didn’t invent that myself – in the history of martyrs through Catholic history, a lot of the saints were women. So it was a stronger statement.”
“I really wanted to give answers to the audience for the amount of violence I was putting them through. I’m not the kind of guy who can show very brutal sequences without a reason behind it. It wasn’t a matter of self-justification – because I hate that – it was more a way of helping to relieve the audience, to give the audience a reason to stay in the theatre. Believe it or not, I didn’t make the film to shock or create any sort of scandal. I wrote the film in a very sincere state of mind. I was feeling pain and I wanted the audience to share the pain as part of a very honest process. I wasn’t aware at the time that I wrote it that I was crossing any lines. I was thinking I am going to make the audience feel the real pain. I’m going to make the audience share the real experience of pain and violence as a way of communion. It was a very Catholic process. I have a very Catholic mind. Let’s share together what’s worst in life – the very worst of the human condition – and maybe we can reach another state after the screening. That was much more my intention. Also, my feelings are very compassionate with my characters.”
“I was so tired with the last wave of horror films. I don’t want to seem arrogant, but the last wave of horror films was very formulaic – made by fans for the fans. The horror genre was again trapped in a kind of ghetto with constantly the same imagery, constantly the same script… zombies… Texas Chainsaw Massacre variation… the slasher… constantly the same thing. Especially with the new era of digital camera, which allows people without the money to make a feature film – which is really cool – but it should be more of a free, liberated cinema. It shouldn’t be that close to the classics. I was feeling desperate about the lack of originality in the horror film, so, very modestly, I tried to propose something unexpected, at least, something – a twist – that would challenge the audience.”
Where do you start writing something like Martyrs? Where does the creative process begin?
“I probably start with archetypes. I really wanted my film to be a real genre film, not a pure arty movie. The film is a strange crossover between archetypes, the genre and my French sensibilities. I wanted to combine all of this.
“I started with a good strong archetype – the vengeance sequence. The first thought I had was of a girl, knocking on the door of a very noble family on a Sunday morning and the father opens the door and he’s shot, and she kills all the members of the family. That was my starting point. Of course, I wondered – why is she doing this? I thought about the past and what would be the consequences of her actions, so I thought about the future. It gave me the entire story. And the more I was writing the sequences, the more I realised how violent and brutal it was, and the more I wondered about how the violence was not only the dominant energy of the film but the subjective energy as well, and the pain.”
What do you think of being labelled ‘torture porn’?
“I have no problems with that label. That label comes from the horror press and that’s the press I read. For me, it’s meaningless. It’s a label that’s been given to a wave of very brutal horror films, but it’s already over.”
“As a fan, I love Hostel. I think it’s a good exploitation movie. It’s close to all the pure exploitation films that I loved from the ‘70s – it’s that spirit. Of course, it’s racist. Of course, it’s kind of stupid. But, at the same time, it’s cool and it’s very well-made. The direction is good. The light is beautiful. It’s the kind of B flick I loved as a teenager, so I can’t be condescending with that kind of movie. I’m still the same. I love that kind of spirit, you know. Of course it’s very impure, but I love impure cinema too. I love the masterpieces, I love the classics, but I can love a very well-made B-movie as well, you know. So I have no problem with being labelled ‘torture porn’.”
“I know my film is different – it is not the French version of Hostel. “For me, it would have been meaningless to make a French version of Hostel two years later. My film is different. But I don’t care about the label. Really, this label is ridiculous because the Japanese were making torture porn in the ‘60s – they made hundreds of them. Torture is a very interesting subject, especially for the horror film. I have nothing against it. It depends on the way you do it.”
What was the shooting of the film like? How did the actors handle it?
“It was a matter of casting. I really had to choose two soldiers. I was refused by a lot of actresses, including totally unknown ones who didn’t even want to meet me after reading the script. It was like I was proposing to them a paedophile porn film!”
“In my country, the horror genre is very despised by the industry. I went through a very traditional casting process for the film – met a lot of girls, made a lot of video tests – and finally found two great, young actresses that really wanted to have that kind of experience. These two girls were very brave, counter-cultural enough and on-the-edge enough to accept, to handle that kind of material.”
“On-set we fought while making the film, so sometimes it was very difficult because I was forcing them to hurt themselves, I mean spiritually. It’s very easy to cry on-camera for one hour, but it’s very difficult to do it for 12 hours a day, six days a week. Sometimes they were totally exhausted. Sometimes I needed one more take, two more takes, and they were completely devastated, and I had to manipulate them, to force them, to cry again and to find their dark side again in order to be good on camera. So sometimes it was very difficult. We screamed at each other a lot. But I guess we had the feelings to fight for the film.”
“I always consider the horror genre as an offensive genre. That’s the honour of the genre – to be transgressive, to subvert, trying to twist the dominant opinions. It was created to break the rules of society or the genre has no meaning. I would rather see a good comedy than a bad horror film that doesn’t offer anything. Transgression is what the genre is about. There are so many horror films that don’t do anything to me, that are totally safe.”
“As a fan, I really want the genre to stay offensive and stay dangerous. I’m very proud that my film is a very dangerous film. That was my intent. To me, the horror genre is the bravest of the genres. It tells you things that society wants to hide. Not to compare myself – I’m not crazy – but when the first Frankenstein – the James Whale masterpiece – was released in 1933, it was considered pornography by the audience. Journalists hated it. You can’t put that kind of things on the screen. It’s perverse! I want horror to keep having that strong element.”
Are there any regrets now the film has been released?
“For me, it’s impossible to watch the film with an audience. I’ve only done it once [in England] and it was a nightmarish experience. Once again, I had the feeling that all the audience were watching my balls on-screen and I was feeling naked. The feel is very shameful. It is like showing myself on-screen.”
“I have no regret at all. I feel I did what I had to do with this film. I have a very mixed relationship with my work. I’m not proud of the films I make. Pride is a very stupid feeling when it comes to art. I don’t do my films to be proud of them. I do them because I need to do them. Sometimes I hate my films. Sometimes I kind of like them. I don’t know what to think of Martyrs right now. But I have been honest and sincere, so that’s the best I can do. The whole industry, including Hollywood, have been quite open-minded – much more open-minded than I ever thought. The film has helped me a lot, even on the professional side. I have no regret at all.”
What do you want the audience to take away from the film?
“I love the idea that the film stays in the audience for days – maybe even weeks – after they’ve seen it. I do my films for strong reaction. I like to think the audience feels a strong cinematic experience – something that stays inside. It’s not a film that gives answers to the audience so I’m not about to give to you the answers that the film doesn’t give. Do I know the secret of after death? No. Do I know things you don’t know about death and pain? Not at all.”
“I see the film as a dark melodrama, as a dark love story. I see the film as a direct way to express what we all feel when we’re alone, when we feel lonely, when someone we love leaves us – all things that we feel in real life. I would love the audience to feel things – even very uncomfortable things. To me, it’s a very sad movie. I would love the audience to feel sad after the screening. I don’t want the audience to feel disgusted. That was not my energy. I know some people do. I never love it when people say, ‘Oh Pascal, I love your film – it’s so gory, it’s so cool, it’s so violent.’ That’s not my intent. Not at all.”
Who are these people who want to know about martyrdom?
“People with a lot of money, and people who don’t accept the idea that death is the last way for every one of us to be equal, be the same. What I mean is it’s a kind of comment on our time. Money can buy everything. And maybe one day, money will be able to buy the secret of death also. That will be the last frontier. Right now, as a part of our actual system, money can buy everything.”
“If you are very wealthy, you can buy children. You won’t be troubled by the law. You can escape from the law. You can do anything you want. It’s called capitalism, and that’s exactly what we’re living right now. If you don’t have money, you can die under a bridge and nobody will care. So, one day, why not? People will be able to buy the secret to death and that will be something the poor people don’t know. Of course, it’s a fable – it’s an allegory, it’s a metaphor of the actual times. But in a kind of twisted, strange way, I also see Martyrs as a comment on the world we are living right now.”
“I have a feeling that our actual world is one of the most brutal ever known. It’s not the brutality of the Middle Age – it’s another kind of cold, polished brutality. Institutionalised brutality. Behind the surface of what we call ‘civilisation’, the coldness – the brutality – is everywhere. We are so individualistic. We are so stressed by the future, by how we’re going to make a living, how are we going to pay the rent and so on. We all know in the dark corners of our brain that, if we don’t have money tomorrow, we’re going to be in big trouble. Everything right now is driven by the power of money.”
“Look at what’s happening with world economies? But what are we doing to cure it? Nothing. So the bad guys in the film are not what matters in the film, it’s the content of the film. They’re just a symbol of oppression. Basically, the story is of two poor girls – of being attacked by something cold and brutal and violent. It’s like the ending – the ending is not the real subject of the film, it’s about pain – it’s not a film about the secret of death, it’s about transcendence. What are we supposed to do with the pain we constantly feel on an everyday basis, from the pain we constantly do to each other without even knowing it?”
“Some people in the press – the bourgeois, official press – especially in France were totally offended by the ideology behind the film, because they were pretending that the film was justifying the violence, that it was saying we need to suffer to be a real person. This comment is totally stupid, because that isn’t what the film says. We don’t have a choice when it comes to the pain. We constantly feel it in our real life, for rational or irrational reasons. That’s a fact. We are suffering creatures. That’s the way we were made, so we don’t have a choice. So what are we going to do with the pain except try to transcend it? I’d rather no suffering, but it’s impossible, unless you take pills. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I have no reason not to feel good, but I don’t feel good – that melancholic feeling that is very dark. I don’t understand why. It must come from my youth or something. We all feel that.”
Has anything offended you that’s been written about the film?
“Everyone has an opinion. But for me, the stupidest statement that has been made about my film is that I was a woman-hater, because I dedicate it to Dario Argento, because it shows women killed in a very stylised way. Martyrs is a film made by someone who really cares about women – the way I film them, the way I am constantly on their side. I never laugh at my victim, the way I stay in the basement for 20 minutes with my victim then doing a more entertaining movie.
“I took a lot of risks in the second act of the film. And I was shooting the film saying to my crew, ‘Right now, we’re losing 20 percent of the audience – they’ll be turning against the film’. But I had to do that as a matter of personal morality, as a matter of integrity. I didn’t want the second act of the film to be too cool, to be too fun, to be too stylised. With my editor, it would have been very easy for me to make a shorter version of the second act, but I wanted the audience to realise what the film was about – it’s a film about transcendence. And the coldness of the process.”
“When you feel pain, time is so long. If you put your hand on a hotplate and you look at the clock, it’s so fucking long. Same when you feel the pain because your girlfriend has left you… whatever. One hour is like one day. So I couldn’t make this monumental thing too short. Some of the horror fans on the Internet – while I was watching the sites, the forums, the blogs – said ‘I loved the first act of Martyrs… It’s so cool, but the second act was so boring’. For me, they didn’t understand a single thing about the film.”
“For me, loving horror movies is like loving William Shakespeare, loving Francis Bacon, loving people who talk about the dark side and the worst aspects of the human condition. A lot of people don’t want to be affected by art. They just want art to entertain them. Even a lot of horror fans are very conforming. Sometimes, I had some very surprising reactions coming from people who didn’t like horror films who were very moved by Martyrs. I lived some very strange moments with the audience. Some people were very annoyed, very pissed off with me and were very violent after the screening towards me. Cool. And a lot of people – a lot of girls – would come up to me crying, saying ‘Your film has touched me, and is very connected to my difficult teenage years’.
Do you want to continue in the horror genre?
“It’s not that conscious. When I start to write on a blank paper, I’m never saying to myself ‘I’m going to write a horror film, I’m going to write a genre film’. I write what I have in mind. It’s a very strange process for me. It’s not that self-conscious.”
“As a member of the audience, I am conscious of the genre I’m facing as anyone else, but as a director, it’s very different. My two feature films are genre films. Of course. I feel very attracted to the idea of genre, because genre, the more I do them, the more I respect them, because for me it’s the most difficult thing to do. Doing a pure, free art film is easy. There is a feeling of randomness in pure art films that I don’t feel admiration for, because I think it’s too easy. When you’re dealing with genre, you have to deal with codes, archetypes… It creates limits and, at the same time, freedom from the limits. There is no such thing as pure freedom – I don’t believe in it. Even art, you are facing things that have been done in the past, narrative rules, things that are very powerful.”
What moves you in cinema?
“Honesty. Sincerity. I love directors who put their balls on the table. I love directors who like to take risks. I don’t like post-modernism. I don’t like tongue-in-cheek films. I don’t like directors who put some distance between themselves and the stories that they tell – winking at the audience, pretending that they’re more clever than the film they’re making. I hate that.”
“It’s very hard to sum up in one line – I love lots of cinema – but maybe the connection between all the cinema I admire the most is sincerity. I always loved genre films. I always loved Dario Argento, John Carpenter… because they were using the cinema as a way to express themselves. Right now, I’ve got the feeling that a lot of genre directors are using the genre to look clever, as a way to show off. ”