Albert Serra is a Spanish filmmaker whose five feature films have explored themes of literary adaptation, formalism, history, and the combination of the artificial and the natural. His breakthrough film, Honour of the Knights (2006), played Cannes and won the FIPRESCI Prize at the Viennale, while his latest film, The Story of My Death, took the Golden Leopard at Locarno in 2013. His latest film is a look at the last fifteen days of Louis XIV’s life, starring Jean-Pierre Léaud and had originated as a possible installation before being adapted into a film.

The film had its North American premiere at TIFF 2016, where Albert discussed the production of the film, its philosophy, and Léaud’s acting style with Christopher Heron.

The Seventh Art: How did you initially come up with the idea for the performance for the Georges Pompidou Centre?

Albert Serra: I did some work [The Three Little Pigs] for the documenta Kassel about the German past, cultural and political, through three figures: Fassbinder, Goethe and Hitler. I was at that time at the Pompidou; there was a retrospective of all my work and they wanted to do something because sometimes they produce things to be done there. They said, “Why don’t you do something similar, but with the French culture, the French past?” I said, “Why not?” I started to think and I’m a big fan of Saint-Simon’s book of memoirs. I said why not Louis XIV because in the book of Saint-Simon, it’s through that what also Goethe says in the [Johann Peter] Eckermann conversation that I used in [Pigs]. A lot of readers that read this book, when Louis XIV is dead, because Saint-Simon was alive and lived longer than Louis XIV, the book is a little bit more boring, less interesting. You have the sensation that really with Louis XIV alive, there is some movement inside the court, even the personality of Louis XIV, who is not a kind human being, to put it simply. But still, it’s more interesting, the book. I thought why not focus on this last part of the life of Louis XIV that is still very interesting, regarding the content of the book. Then we started with how we will do it and we said why don’t we have Jean-Pierre Léaud dying live, these fifteen days in a real fifteen days with all that happened, but in a crystal cage, 8m x 8m, suspended in the hall of the museum. You know there is the hall there to go downstairs? In the middle of the hall suspended a little bit up from the floor level. Well, there was a lot of architecture appointments and conversations with the people from the museum, they started with all the security issues, blah blah blah. It was evident that with our budget, it was not possible to be done with $140,000, there started to be security issues. This was more a project for $500,000 or something like that. For a much more important artist in the level of finance, I think. At the end, it was transformed to not be suspended, because this was expensive and risky, but to be supported for less, but it was not so fascinating because the idea of dying live there with the bed and with slight action – that could come from the outside. The idea was that all the action that we see in the film, more or less, should be done at the floor level. It would be even more crazy, because we would see all these people dressed at the level of the spectators, but the king would be up inside the cage. It was a crazy idea, but it could work at the conceptual level. 

Then, okay, it was cancelled, we forego it a little bit, but we became close friends with Jean-Pierre. He is very sensitive. I love him as a person. For me it was very important. We met each other some times afterwards, but until some meals after the producer said, “Well, we still have this money… It’s still available, why don’t we focus on a film?” Being faithful to this idea of unity of space, time and action, we said why not. It would be a little bit like a performance and I wanted to do this. It was always, as I said earlier today, very interesting to me to keep this performance roots because the idea – also in my previous films – leaving in the present the past. Not just reproducing the past or our cliche of the past or knowledge of the past, no, living the past in present time – allowing to create a past from nothing. At the beginning there is ideas or some points that are historically accurate, but then we have to fulfill with what we don’t have. Mostly, you have lots of scenes from the memories or you imagine that there are scenes when the king is alone or just with his valet. We don’t know exactly what happened and we don’t know how the king was facing death with real intimacy because there are no records of that, no knowledge. Nobody wrote that because nobody was inside. With these two ideas in mind – that there was an empty space to fulfill with Jean-Pierre’s own way of acting, it’s always a little bit a mix of artificial (the past), but at the same time the innocent, because he’s a very innocent man in some sense. This could provoke this interesting mix of being very serious and grave, but at the same time light and ironic sometimes. It was quite natural, in fact. It was beautiful because the [live] performance would have been great, but we would have lost something that in the film is very moving, this ambiguity in the close-ups of Jean-Pierre. There with the face, you see something quite unique, also at the level of cinema, because we see a new Jean-Pierre in some sense. He still has some of the iconic things, but I think it’s going in another, different place in a subtle manner, so I was happy to have this chance. 

You said there’s an innocence about [Jean-Pierre], but you’ve also described him as competitive and still has that hunger for the camera…

Yeah, but this was useful for the film, as I explained. You have to take profit from all these things that appear in the level of the person or maybe the level of the actor, to introduce it to the character – even without knowing or realizing exactly what he was doing. And it’s the key point of a real actor, when the actor, the character really goes in a way that the actor cannot control. It happens quite rarely with professional actors because they base it on the methodology of the construction of a character. They are always conscious of this construction, but with non-professional actors, they lose consciousness of this process because they are not aware of the process or don’t care about the process. I was listening to a conversation with Isabelle Huppert and she said that. She was asked, “How do you work?” and said, “I don’t know, I arrive there and the character appears.” Just saying that, “It’s done in an intuitive way, there’s not a lot of thinking. There may be a little bit about the character a two or three days before, I read the script, but my approach,” she said, “is always indirect. Maybe I love the dialogues and I want to say them, this is a point of desire, or something, but never in this classical approach of really building up a character with elements and focusing objectively. It’s more intuitive.” With Jean-Pierre, also, it’s very intuitive. But we were especially lucky, because it’s so by chance appropriate, his face, the way he behaves – well, obviously it was corrected by me a little bit, I did my own job. But it was appropriate, beautifully natural, matched naturally with the superannuity of Louis XIV, his own way of working with the character. We were very lucky, in fact; it could have been… not good [laughs].

Editing is so important to your process, what did you find when you got all this footage to the editing room? Was there anything that you didn’t notice when you were shooting?

It’s always the same with my films: at the beginning you become scared because you think there is not so many good things when you finish or you see good things and they are always very short. You see some details that you love – really love indeed – but you are scared because they are short and you think you will not be able to create a whole film only with what you love. That you will be obliged to fill the final version with things that are not on the highest level. But fortunately – and this is one of the points I told you the other day – you are going deep with your own critical judgement of your image and then you discover that there is much more interesting things on the structural level than you thought. All the beautiful things that you see that are obviously beautiful, maybe now they can create something coherent, can create a real character for example, another character, almost a plot sometimes – maybe it was in the script, but not so much in the way I shoot, it’s not so clear if it’s in the script or the film. It’s also the opposite side of the coin: I can find some things that aren’t in the script, but if something is in the script, it’s not so sure that you will have shot it in the beautiful way of the script, you know? It’s always a very painful way of working, because what you thought it was – what should be there because it will help, maybe it’s not there, and the opposite. I said before, luckily I always find strange things and I always find a structure. I always find a coherence. In some films it’s in a very crazy way, like in The Story of My Death (2013) where there is so much input, so many ideas in the film, some of them go ahead and do not come back. Like in [the installation] Singularity (2015), it’s simply spreading mounds of ideas, mounds of cinematographic gestures that justify itself, sometimes they have no direct link with a perfect film, a totally coherent film. But still, they are very interesting. Here, we have unity of space, time and action, it gave more coherence and maybe it’s only for that reason, because the rhythm is slow and there is repetition, there is a radical approach. For us, that was very complicated to know because we didn’t have time to show the film to anybody else before the Cannes premiere. We didn’t know that the film would work at this level, because for us it was as radical as the previous ones with repetitions at the end. I don’t know, maybe it’s this point: unity of space, action and time gives something more coherent that the audience can really hold in a very natural way. Maybe, I don’t know exactly [laughs].

It doesn’t seem that different from Birdsong (2008) where it’s a trip, going from one place to another, here in time.

Yes, yes. I totally agree, but I don’t know why people say that Birdsong is abstract and avant-garde and whatever, not for an audience because it’s through the mix of humour and abstract or artistic approach was quite radical; these elements are so far from one another, so psychologically difficult to mix in our mind so that only if you are a very advanced spectator can you understand what the filmmaker is doing. If not, just for the film in itself – the idea of making you believe, I really love that, it makes you believe in something. It’s hard to make it hold at that level. I think it’s the same here. The irony, for example, is a little more integrated in the way the actors behave, the plot, this minimal space, but at the same time it’s full of some physical presence: the body, the bed, all that time there that and you get used to that and you feel inside, in the heart of something. A little bit like the landscape in Honour of the Knights (2006); the camera was always very close to the action, so you feel that you are in the heart of the action, part of it. Maybe this gave more of a feeling of being useful as a spectator, a feeling that you are participating as a viewer of something, but also giving something from you. Maybe here it’s the same sensation because the spectator feels useful, he’s understanding something, leaving something in the centre of what he is seeing. A lot of people said this was by chance, but no, not by chance, because this was my idea from the beginning: this way of dying reminds them a lot of times about what they’ve lived with, like grandparents. It’s quite rarely that death has been shown in this way, death is always is always, as we said the other day, a dramatic moment with the last cry of life… an indication of something. But no, when we experienced death with my grandparents, for example, it was like this – total banality. We didn’t live time in time in the intense way that they pretend to live time when we are facing in movies or in theatre. They really use time in a different way, it was a normal dramatic process. It was shocking, it’s a contrast to treat death in this completely banal way, banal also because of the surroundings of the doctors and the absurdity of the court, but the banality of death itself. It’s simply nothing. You are there and some moments after, some days after, you are not there. Even to know which is the moment you disappear, but there is only the body at the end and the autopsy. Doctors talking in a very rough way [laughs], “Next time we’ll do better.” That’s all.

The audience’s participation also includes when Louis looks at the camera. It seems like that’s something from the installation.

Yeah, there’s a direct challenge, no? Between you and the actor. This helps, because usually when you look at the camera in films, you are taken out of the film because it’s shocking, you’re in this make believe status and then suddenly it disappears. Like Persona, the Brechtian style that’s done on purpose. Here, I don’t know why, probably because you are in the centre of the action and all the time part of this, always in the room as a spectator and part of the plot, so paradoxically when Jean-Pierre looks at the camera in a very strange way this happens very quickly, you feel that you are more inside the film than normally when actors look at the camera. It’s because you really feel so close to him, it’s as if the film is a dialogue with you all the time as a spectator – it was done for you. This idea to keep it long, it was not disturbing. It’s mysterious, there’s some mystery and it’s magical maybe, but it’s not disturbing in an aggressive way. No, it’s the opposite, it’s embracing, it embraces you. Even if it is aggressive from a character point-of-view, he is very upset because of dying and aggressive against everybody, the way he looks at the camera shows that he’s in a violent mood. It works strangely.

I was told by Nacho Vigalondo that you are a big fan of Julio Iglesias.

We are great fans of him and there are a lot of beautiful stories about him. Even Andy Warhol has a beautiful, I don’t know if it’s in ’84 in the diaries of Andy Warhol, they go to a New Year’s Eve party. They said that Julio Iglesias is hosting a party, maybe they would go there, the Andy Warhol troupe. They have to get in and the entrance is $1000. They think it must be a non-profit or something like that, but they get in and they discover, in fact, that it’s not non-profit. It’s for Julio Iglesias! They give you a keychain and it said, “Julio Iglesias New Year’s Party 1984.” This was the present! That’s all. Then say that Julio Iglesias appears and says, “I cannot avoid it – I love you. We are like a family,” blah blah blah, “This is very special, I am very happy to have you here.” For people who paid $1000 to get in! It’s very crazy. He said in an interview, “The thing I love most in life is women, red wine, and the mix of races.” He said, “All Spaniards should have two or three houses.” In an interview! It’s a strange mix of a child and a very honest man, because he’s very honest always with what he says, he’s very natural and a good guy. But it’s… I don’t know. “Don Quixote, I read it every day, I know the book by memory.” That’s fucking crazy. The father was incredible, he was also… He had a son when he was in his eighties. But for real, not artificial or whatever. With his wife, in fact. He was dead before the kid was born. He was maybe even ninety, I can’t remember. It’s a family of crazy people. They were right-wing traditionally or conservative, but the father said, “Right-wing? Me? I was the first guy to perform an abortion in Spain.” He was a doctor. “In Franco times. I am right-wing? I am more left-wing then any of you…” Things like this, very crazy always. With Nacho we love to talk about him.  

You also mentioned the other day that you studied experimental literature, what was it that stood out to you about it?

It’s the same with cinema. When we were studying there in University with friends, looking at for example the nouveau roman or postmodern fiction in the U.S., we are really obsessed with the idea that this was the only possible heritage to do these kinds of things. These were the people that were trying to be the Proust, Joyce, Rimbaud, Kafka, trying to be serious in the ’60s. There was no other choice of dealing with literature if it was not trying to find new ways, new formalist ways – I would not put it as experimental, but for me it was the only possible way to deal with literature in a serious way. You cannot come back and be like Charles Dickens again after Proust, Joyce, Faulkner – how can we deal with classic narrative literature? You can deal with it, but the most radical, most experimental, this extreme formalist approach was the only valid expression. To be, at the same time, yourself with your own style, but to be part of a serious heritage. Then this evolved in different ways – even in the classical or apparently classical form, you can be very modern, Coetzee for example. Apparently the form is quite conventional, not so challenging, but okay there are more things that incite this apparent classical form are really new. For me it was very important to at least to know that I would never make a conventional or classical movie, I cannot go back. Life is the opposite, it’s not this path of being experimental and every time becoming more conservative. I come from the Surrealists, like Dali and all these people, they were all the time more crazy, you know? More risky, more challenging.