Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Mathieu Kassovitz Interview: "I'm Dumb as a Fucking Duck".

I had the lucky opportunity to interview Mathieu Kassovitz (Amélie, La Haine, Munich), for Front Row Reviews. It was a bit of a gamble as I received an email from the editor the night before the screening of Kassovitzs' new film, Rebellion, in London, stating the possibility of interview later down the line. I couldn't interview  if I hadn't seen this film, and there were no other screenings we knew of. I might have not even been able to conduct the interview at all. But anyway, sod it, I thought. I wrote a university essay on La Haine and had an Amélie
poster on my bedroom wall for years, so I am taking this chance. I travelled down from Sheffield to London to see the film, and luckily it paid off. 

I got half an hour alone with him and he was lovely, and I was incredibly nervous. It also happened to be my birthday, which was strange. It was difficult to look at him without visualizing him riding on a motorbike with Audrey Tatou clutching his sides and grinning euphorically. He amused me when he was speaking about the professionalism of the French government soldiers who helped them make the film, recalling how he asked them why they didn't smoke and they responded that it simply distracts them from their work. Of course, what other reasons would there be? It's hard to imagine an English person taking that approach, more likely they will light up whilst mumbling apologetically about it being a disgusting habit, and they really ought to quit. I later took part in a group Q and A too, but that was rather brief. 

Mathieu Kassovitz is a politically engaged moviemaker. He gained global fame in 1995 for directing the hugely influential cult French classic La Haine, a work that sparked a genre of its own and has film critics and academics picking apart to this day. As an actor, Kassovitz is well known for playing the quirky love interest of doe-eyed Audrey Tatou in the adorable, whimsical romantic comedy Amélie (2001). The success of the film led his face to be in demand by Lancome, and he was asked to model for their scent Miracle, a request he initially thought was to be direct the advert rather than star in it. He has played parts inBirthday Girl (2001) alongside Nicole Kidman and Vincent Cassel and Munich (2005), alongside Eric Bana. Directing is his true passion, however. He “doesn’t enjoy acting” despite his obvious talent for it. He has made films spanning many genres, includingAssassins (1997), The Crimson Rivers (2000) Gothika (2003), and Babylon A.D (2008).

Kassovitz is known for speaking candidly in public. He referred to his Babylon A.D as having parts that were like: “a bad episode of 24”. He is disillusioned with the French film industry. After the Cesar awards where Rebellion only gained one nomination, he posted on Twitter: “Fuck the French cinema. Fuck your shit movies”. His latest film, Rebellion, is a thought provoking and revealing account of French military history set in 1988 on France’s New Caledonia territory in the South Pacific. It tells the real story of a group of Kanak separatists who seized 30 gendarmes in an attempt to gain independence. Kassovitz plays the lead role as Phillipe Legorjus, a negotiator that mediated with Alphonse Dianou, the leader of the rebels. The government resorted to drastic and violent measures, the details of which were kept hushed. The film took ten years to come into fruition.

Now aged 45, after such a huge project, he is taking it easy in LA. He loves the Hollywood industry and intends to continue working within it. Having given his everything to a feature, he fancies: ‘resting his brain and building some muscle tone”. Front Row Reviews were privileged enough to have a conversation with him. In person, Kassovitz is down to earth and exudes friendliness. He appears relaxed in the Odeon Covent Garden bar, with his beer and Rolos, of which he kindly points the bag in my direction. His press schedule is extremely busy but he seems unaware of the fact. I mention I will see him later at a roundtable interview, followed by a Q and A, he responds: “I have a roundtable interview? Oh. And another Q and A? Oh okay, I like Q and A’s.”

When you made this film you clearly felt strongly about making a movie that offered an alternative perspective on a political situation. Why did you choose this particular incident?

That story had a different perspective from the one that we knew about in France. I stumbled upon a book which told a different story, ten years later. The true story was amazing and it was not the one that the government had told us. That was the reason I wanted to make a movie about the different perspective. When you hear a story and discover there is another reality, that’s part of the reason you want to make movies, to show something that isn’t known. Movies can do that.

So the story was news to you also?

It was news for me too, I was surprised. I knew the official story, where nineteen guys were killed and got what they deserved. We didn’t know that story and it’s a very important part of our history. We didn’t know, because we had been lied to.

You play an incredibly passionate and dedicated negotiator. Did working directly with the real negotiator, Phillipe Legorjus, help kindle passion for the role?

It’s not so much passion, it’s more professionalism. These guys are very well trained, they are very professional. They put themselves in very dangerous situations on a daily basis, they don’t let emotions take over because they can’t afford them to. They have to make split second decisions and make the right one. They don’t smoke, when you ask them why, they say because it distracts them from what they have to do. Meeting him and talking to him about his profession and what he experienced gave me the tone for the character. Just seeing how he was a person, well-mannered and polite but doesn’t express much, helped me with the character.

Did you have special training?

Yes I worked with Legorjus and other military supervisors. We worked with other guys from the same team, also from the police and the military. To make it professional we had various people to help us create that reality. Of course, it was very important to be accurate as to how these people worked together so that we could understand what went wrong.

How do you choose your roles?

It depends on different things. The director, the script and the timing. My priorities are still about directing. Right now I have no movie that I have to do as a director, so I’m being an actor.

Amélie paved the way to be a romantic lead but you haven’t really gone down that road, even though that may have been the easiest route. Many actors may have been typecast. Do you like to seek out controversial topics?

Not really, as an actor I don’t care really. I’m not very much into acting. When I’m offered movies that are a little too good, I back off, I don’t want to work that hard. I love directing, but I don’t really like being an actor. I don’t enjoy it.

Did you enjoy acting in Rebellion?

It was part of the direction, it was one less actor to deal with. I could make sure that actor wouldn’t fuck with me as a director.

Woody Allen is famous for only watchi
ng his films once after production. Do you ever re-watch your films and think about how you could have improved?

I stumbled across La Haine the other day on TV. I was with a friend and we started to watch it, it was funny. But it is very painful to re watch films. I like to do it for the DVD and Blu Ray release, when you have to re watch the movie and give commentary, that’s usually the last time I see my films. You see it so many times before its finished, you’re a little disgusted by it. You don’t want to have to deal with it anymore. And it’s done. But it’s good to look over work, I don’t do it that much but I should.

La Haine was a massive success, do you still feel the pressure from this when making other films?

No, because La Haine was such a phenomenon by itself, which I’m not really responsible for. It was the right time, the right moment. Movies like that come along very seldomly, you cannot do it again. If it was just my genius then I would have done it again, but I can’t do it again. I could have done La Haine two. But I did science fiction, I did horror, so I don’t like to do things again. I like to try different things. It’s like being a romantic actor. If you know you are good at something, either you keep on doing it and enjoy it as much as you can, or you can challenge yourself a little bit. You can say if I can do it and have done it, perhaps I should do something else.

What would you say to people that compared Rebellion to La Haine, in terms of its ferocity and its rawness?

I’m proud of it because I think Rebellion is, for me, the follow up of La Haine. It’s not as immature and funny and because it’s a very serious matter and there were not a lot of things to joke about like in La Haine. It’s the same energy, the same kind of cinema, it’s from the same need to make movies. I’m very proud of it because for me it’s almost La Haine two.

You had hassle from the police and journalists after La Haine. Have you had hassle from anyone after Rebellion?

Well, we didn’t get help from the government or the military during the making of the film. I got some people who said the movie wasn’t true to the facts, which I had a couple of fights over. I had a discussion on TV in France with the two real generals and they told me that the movie was a lie, and when I asked them to explain to me where, they explained they hadn’t seen the movie. They hadn’t seen the movie but they know I was lying. Of course, it’s had some sort of negative reaction.

Who are your favourite writers? Would you ever do a literary adaptation?

My favourite writers? I’m going to tell you something. I’m dumb as a fucking duck.

I’m sure that’s not true. I’m sure all the academic writers who wrote about La Haine would disagree with you.

Yeah, but I cannot disagree with them because I didn’t read them. No, I’m not good, I haven’t read that much. I always told myself that I would read when I don’t have anything else to do. I stopped reading around 25, because these guys were way smarter than I was. If you want to read Plato when you’re 27/25, he wrote it when he was 25. I don’t want to change my life around this people. I want to live life as I intended to – dumb – I do it my way. When I’m 70 years old and I’ve done everything my way, I will read.

Okay, how about directors then? You’re a huge fan of Spielberg.

I’m a fan of hundreds of directors as I love that job and I love what they do. Sometimes you can love a director for ten minutes in one movie, for one scene, for one shot, for something he will not do again. But I have to admire the guys who can do it again and again and again. Those are the directors I really admire. It’s not just that you can do it once, if you can do it again and again, then that makes you a genius. Spielberg is one of them. He’s been doing it for 40 years. Others are the Cohen Brothers and Scorsese. There are very few directors who are that level of accomplishment. I believe that good directors make their best movies within the first 3 movies, as that’s when they give everything, and then it becomes a job. That’s why the guys who transcend that and continue making good movies are very impressive.

Do you ever struggle with self doubt when it comes to your work, and how do you push through it?

You have a schedule. Your first AD tells you ‘hey hey! Stop complaining! Go to work!’ You have doubts every day, all the time, 24/7. Tomorrow you have to shoot that scene, you don’t know if it’s going to work, you just do it, put it together.

And hope for the best?


You grew up in a film family. Your mother was an editor, and your father was a director. What was that like, did it set the path for what you were going to do?

That was great because my father came from Hungary in ‘56 when the Russian Revolution took over Hungary, and he escaped and came to Paris in the ‘60s. You could go to Café de Flore and there were jazz players and Jean Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir and the biggest intellectuals in the world. He came from a communist country and when he saw all that culture, he made documentaries and he became a director. Back in the 60s/70s these movies were hand held. He loved the craft and that’s what he taught me, he taught me that’s what movies are without any special effects, what you can do with a camera and what can you do with no money. I spent all my days in the cutting room with my mum or sometimes on the shoots with my father. I learned the craft, my father is a very good craftsman.

I interviewed Jake Scott, the son of Ridley Scott, and he compared growing up in the family to growing up in a butcher’s shop.

That’s what I always say. If my parents would have been butchers, I would have been a butcher. It’s not a romantic idea of film. I would have been a butcher if my father was a good butcher. He could have told me how to do it right if he could spend the time to transmit the passion with any craft, watch makers or shoe repairs or whatever, as long as your parents teach you the love of it then you’re golden, because all you need is passion. I could have been an astronaut.

If your dad was a good astronaut?


You obviously like to collaborate and you get much enjoyment out of different roles. As you co-edited Rebellion, was it hard to be objective about scenes you were in? Did your co-editor judge your best performance?

It wasn’t about best performance, it was about getting the message through. The character doesn’t act that much as such, the original character is a professional. They cannot let emotions take over. It’s more about, is the focus good? Is the timing good? that one is longer, so it’s better for editing. It’s not really about performance, so it wasn’t a problem. I don’t really see myself, you can’t.

Did you enjoy editing?

Oh I love editing, it’s the best part of making a movie.

As that’s when it all comes together?

It’s when you can really become proud of yourself, you can place all your ideas where you want them to be and see if they work. If it doesn’t, you need other solutions. Editing is where the movie is made, ask all the directors. I edited most of my movies, La Haine. If you are really invested in a project you have to do editing, it’s part of doing a movie.

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