French artist and filmmaker Neil Beloufa discusses his feature film, Occidental (2017), a staging of socio-political anxieties in a out-of-time hotel. The film had its North American premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, where we met up with Neil to discuss his process.
The Seventh Art: How did you first approach making this film?
Neil Beloufa: I first wanted to do this film when I was twenty-two and I tried actually. It wasn’t a fiction film, it was more what I do usually in a normal hotel with normal people. Someone told me a story, bits of it, and I got obsessed. That person, who works in a hotel, told me about two people who tried to rob the hotel. I tried to make her tell me the story and then I was trying to make her learn a new script: to make her lie about her own story, because it’s a paranoid story that she had. I was modifying it slowly, saying that she had said something to me that she hadn’t, so she was getting crazy. That was how the script was built, so I don’t even remember what the story was. I had this project in mind and I decided that instead of trying to finance the project a normal way, I should work at my studio and make objects to sell for financing.
Did you shoot the film in your studio?
Yeah, oh yeah. We built the set for two years because it’s a small team with financing it bit by bit.
What lead to the decision to have professional actors, since as you say, you usually work with non-actors, communities.
I tried for a bit, but there was a script and I had the desire to mimic the [film] industry, but I wanted to make a popular object with a structure that is independent – mine. It’s the artsy way of DIY, but also making a popular object. In order to make it popular, actors and a script were a necessity, and our desire for fantasma. I started with trying to cast street people and it was super hard. I already didn’t have the budget to have the time I wanted to shoot and I wanted a beautiful image, so [casting that way] was too risky. Actually, the main character [Anna Ivacheff] is a non actor, but she’s a hell of an actor. I enjoyed working with the actor-actors, too.
Had you seen Nocturama (2016)?
Our film is super old, [Hamza Mediani] got old as the film was shot. He knew he was selected for Nocturama while were shooting.
Did he notice the similarities when he read the script for it?
That’s fucked up, it’s super funny. At one point he called me in the summer he was shooting Nocturama one year after mine, I was editing. He told me a bit about what it was, but he didn’t say anything about it being similar. Actually, we took out stuff in the movie that his character does, dressing up as a big guy. He was texting me about those scenes, “I’m playing that scene in Nocturama.” What the fuck?! [Laughs]
When you were editing, had you shot a lot of material? Was there a lot that got cut?
We shot super fast, but we cut a lot and changed the story a lot, the world changed. Two weeks or three weeks before preparing to shoot was the first terrorist attack in Paris. In the movie, before, they were playing terrorists for real and it was heavier as a game. That’s why there’s some incoherence in the scenario now, because we had to take out some of the blatant politics, since our goal was to not be blatant. The strikes Nuit debout happened after the shooting. The racist talk became normal in society, the world changed, and we had to modify it a bit.
Your work often tends to be overly didactic or obvious.
I hate it, I don’t think it’s my role in society.
You’ve mentioned your process in other works involves doing something to make the work get stuck, to complicate the communication. Was that something that happened in this film?
It’s complicated. I haven’t seen the film in a few years, but what I like is that it’s super simple and stupid, but also super complicated at the same time. At the end, I don’t think anyone can [summarize] the same story. For instance, here people seemed to take it with a pro-LGBTQ angle. There is that, but I think everywhere people relate to it through their own agenda, which I really like. In France or in Berlin, they take the Arabs as the main element, but here there was a synopsis of it that mentioned “two gay men” and that is true, but it’s not bigger than anything else. That’s the complexity of the movie and it’s simplicity – I don’t care if they’re Arabs, I don’t give a fuck about it, but then other people…
Given the different positions the spectator has in sculpture vs. film, how does your approach change in deciding what the viewer will see and how?
With an installation, my exhibitions, I control the viewers, too. Actually, I have more control than in cinema, because I even make the seat, I choose your neighbour.
Do you prepare your shots in advance or is there improvisation in the camera’s movement on the day?
There is work in advance and also the set being in my studio, I knew the set. I love to frame, that’s something I like. Every morning I was rehearsing the shots alone. It’s super constructed, then the editing is what breaks it (also, because the script didn’t work).
What were your thoughts on the score, sometimes it’s funny…
It’s too heavy. I work with musicians and I wanted the movie to produce everything, nothing comes from outside. At one point we wondered if we should buy music, famous music, but no, we will produce it. We just wanted to make. They asked me to bring music I thought was good, but I’m bad with music culture, what I brought them was super famous and important. I didn’t know, I thought I was clever. They made fun of me. I brought [The Beach Boys’] Pet Sounds, because it’s funny and not funny, good and bad. They said “That’s history, we can’t do that.” Each time they made the music good or cool, I was asking them to break or not work. For the placement in the movie, I wanted it to sometime illustrate the work and bring you with it, but then go too loud and separate from the movie – to display itself as an effect. You know when there is music, but there is still less than in any fucking Hollywood movie, and because of the strategy of displaying when it’s there, people believe there is more music in this.
Is interior design something you focus on generally? Your sculptures tend to include domestic spaces, play with the idea of the condo, and you started in graphic design. It’s hard to determine when the film is meant to be set based on the styles the hotel features.
I have no interest in it. I like film sets more than design. We did a lot of film sets, we did four or five before, so it’s something I really like. For this one, it’s funny that in Toronto, the hotels are new. In the rest of the world they’re still from the 1980s or 70s. People want to date the hotel, but most hotels I go to in my life are fucking odd, weird. You go to a Best Western in Spain and it’s from the 70s-80s, it’s super cheesy and ugly, the name is scary, I don’t know what it means. Best Western, Continental, Imperial… In Mexico, you’re like, “What do you mean?” They’re war names.
Some of the art on the walls in the film are very colonial, depicting war.
Because the movie plays a lot with occidental, but mostly French or European identity and how it defines itself, we wanted to have imagery of its history. We have Napoleon’s colonial wars, but we gave up, because it’s a bit heavy in the movie. We go to Warhol’s banana, but it’s a colonial banana, as a joke. That was the idea in the beginning, but we gave up.
Were there any film allusions you were making with this film’s style?
What did you think about?
I thought about Peter Greenaway based on the staging, sets and lights, but that could be because you have another work that riffs on the title of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989) [The analyst, the researcher, the screenwriter, the CGI tech, and the lawyer (2012)].
Ah, fuck, I hadn’t thought of that. That’s cool, usually people talk about [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder or [Jean-Luc] Godard. I tried – and it’s a bit of a failure in the film – to steal real scenes (and I had to cut them out) from [Nicholas Ray’s] Johnny Guitar (1954). That’s the main reference, I think, a real reference. The rest are references that are not on purpose, but because of cultural, involuntarily, but Johnny Guitar I really wanted the opening scene from the movie. It’s thirty-six minutes, it’s crazy, but I had to miss out. That and Trouble in Paradise (1932), because of the vision of society. He says that rich people and poor people are the same, they want luxury. That is crazy… Those two films, I thought about consciously.
Could you talk about the lighting effects you use, especially the exteriors at the end, the pink and blue. How did you choose the colour scheme you would use for this mood?
It’s funny because I’m very proud of this movie and I think that part we didn’t fuck up. My DP [Guillaume Le Grontec] worked well. We started to make fire tests with lights before shooting, to find the mood, because we didn’t know how to make a fire. We decided to make the fire pink, then the blue became purple, then the shirts became yellow – that’s how it all started. We had the colours of the sets already, which were weird. We slowly composed, but also, we didn’t want to do the blue and red style movie. Purple and pink felt more funny.
Yellow was an important colour for Nicholas Ray in Bigger Than Life (1956).
Yeah, we don’t see it in the movie, but the DP got crazy at one point because I sent him a lot of Douglas Sirk films. He was like, “No, we don’t do that.” I had the desire at one point to have more colours or Ozu games with the red box on the set. We played a lot. The stills are more sexy than the film itself, it’s the first time in my life that I have something that is sexy, seductive. A bit kitsch, but…
You said you wanted the glitter, the glamour of film that it has where other art forms do not.
I don’t know if it’s true, but our parents would say they’re proud of their son or daughter for being a doctor or lawyer, but now they will be proud if their kids are actors or filmmakers. The desire of society to shine, it goes with the image. I like that.
You don’t feel that other art forms have this quality?
Contemporary art starts to be a bit cool, actually, because it becomes an industry and fashion was a bit like that. Cinema keeps this very well, for a long time.
Do you find it harder because it costs more? Does it cost more?
This project was the most expensive of my life, but the rest is expensive, too. What is crazy is the amount of work and craft needed. If you’ve seen my other movies, they’re super easy and fluid, the same length and you can watch it as much as you can this one – you can laugh more. It’s super crazy to work so much to have something that looks like fiction, it took way more time. It’s a big struggle, I never worked so much on something and when I look at it… “Why?” It’s a fucking one hour [laughs]. I can put my camera on and make a film of one hour now.
Was the struggle for this similar to the [economic] one you had on your Palais de Tokyo piece?
No, that was one month, this was six years. It’s a way of talking, but it’s still not finished. The movie’s finished, but now we have to release it, we have to fight for that. When does it stop?
And you want to make more?
Of course. It’s a crazy mechanism. The beauty of it is that it’s used less, it’s not worth it. That’s when it becomes art, there is no point using so much energy, time, money, but it’s beautiful.
Have you noticed a difference in the audience for film and contemporary art?
The difference is that film people watch and contemporary art audiences just stop by. For the films, it’s different. I was surprised with the movie, critic-wise; people really tried to produce thinking out of it and in art it is less. Not everyone – and I have more press for art – but it’s rare that people are engaged. There is a bigger engagement with a film. Maybe I’m wrong.
Have you taken installations and shown them in a cinema?
I’ve shot eighteen objects and many have a second life in festivals and theatres, but some cannot have that life because they are too boring.
Have you found it easier over time to generate the money to be able to make these works, to have the autonomy?
That’s why I say that it’s crazy, because I have to pay people. Everyone was paid to make it and it’s so heavy, so expensive. I regenerate debt like it’s a monster [laughs].
Was there anything from this process you learned for the next one?
I won’t take as many risks. It took me two years to lift my head up again, I had a real financial and physical hit out of doing that effort. I was broke, like crazy, for the last years. Actually, I’ve lost my autonomy because of the movie, I’ve become dependent. I lost something it took years [to get], to be in control of what I do.
Your parents were both involved in film, has your experience been similar or different?
It’s super different. Basically, my father did one movie that is really good and he got censored. He stopped and didn’t do anything else. It broke him, the cinema world, but he was relying on the industry. It didn’t come out. People wanted to buy it and Algeria refused to sell. The way I work, the way I try to be autonomous, was to protect myself against being dependent – to be the only one to decide if I do something or not.
Did you feel autonomous on this film?
When you do that, it weakens the movie. I was trying to make the money at the same time as finding actors and writing. It was crazy, we were shooting without having the money to pay the people. If I had not played that game, the maverick, the autonomous, blah blah blah, the movie could have been better. It’s funny, because my head wasn’t on the movie, it was on production, dealing with the crew. But I’m super happy, I learned a lot.