Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Katell Quillévéré on Heal the Living and Always Challenging Herself as a Filmmaker

Katell Quillévéré is a rising star writer/director in French cinema. With only three feature films under her belt, she's gaining quite a bit of critical acclaim ever since her coming-of-age debut film Love Like Poison in 2010. Her second film Suzanne, a true masterpiece, starring two of the biggest names in French cinema now -- Sarah Forestier and Adele Haenel -- put her in the league of other great contemporary women directors such as Mia Hansen-Løve, Céline Sciamma and Alice Rohwacher.

Quillévéré's strength is in her ability to make all of her characters shine. Her new film Heal the Living (original title: Réparer les vivants) is a big leap in terms of cinematic filmmaking and the most mature one to date. I got a chance to talk with her during the Rendez-vous with French Cinema series here in New York. In person, she is so lovely and charming.

Heal the Living opens in New York on April 14 at the Quad Cinema.

Screen Anarchy: I’ve seen all your films. So I know a little about the preference of your subjects. I am more curious about your background. You were born in Ivory Coast. Did that influence you in any way as a filmmaker?

Katell Quillévéré: Well, I don’t know. (Laughs.) I have memories but, they are from early childhood… so it’s not really possible for me to make that link with anything. But I remember watching cartoons there. They were American cartoons. I was really fond of the Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn cartoons. It was my first time seeing images and fell in love with those two boys and their insolence…

I don’t think I was really programmed to be working in movies, because there were no artists in my family. Both of my parents are scientists. So my way to avoid school in a way, playing hooky, was cinema. Sorry, that’s not a specific African memory. (Laughs.)

That’s fine. Your previous two films are co-written by Mariette Désert. But HEAL THE LIVING is quite different. It’s an adaptation of a pretty well known, popular book. How did it come about that you decided to do an adaptation?

I started writing a new original script. So I was not looking for an adaptation for a movie project. It came almost by accident, to me. Its meaning was so strong for me in an emotional way. So I decided to put aside the script I was writing and meet the author, Maylis de Kerangal. So I just followed my instincts, actually.

After that, during the process of writing, I discovered that this movie would be as personal as my previous ones. For me it’s a continuation; the story of Heal the Living is the story I’m always telling, the story of the way you survive losing someone, by separation or death. The loss of someone you love and life goes on. It’s always about love, you know. Even though that person is no longer with us, the link between them are still alive. So for me I tell the same story but in a different way. It’s also a way to renew myself in a new environment, in a new narrative way also.

It was really interesting when I was making Suzanne, I had to compress someone’s 25 years of life into a two-hour film. Heal the Living takes place in the timespan of 19-24 hours. So it was an opposite challenge. I also had to deal with it emotionally in the opposite way, because with Suzanne, the main events in her life happens outside the screen -- the loss of her mother, the loss of her child, the day she runs away with this guy -- and here in Heal the Living, everything pretty much happens almost in real time in front of the camera: you have the death of the child, you have to say yes or no for organ donation, you have to accept the transplant, all that. So, that was really interesting for me to confront myself to a new way of dealing with emotions.

For me it did seem like a departure, even though you said the same theme courses through all your films. Cinematically speaking, I think it’s a lot more sophisticated, if you don’t mind me saying so. Even though SUZANNE had very distinctive storytelling style, it didn’t seem to me as cinematic as HEAL THE LIVING. It starts with the boy waking up and going to the beach on his bike. And it’s so gorgeously done. It reminded me of Gus Van Sant's films.

I love Gus Van Sant.

And the surfing scenes with waves. Really beautiful stuff. You used the same cinematographer, Tom Harari, as you did on your previous films. Did you talk about the look of the film with him extensively for this film?

Yeah, but we did it for every movie we made. We’ve known each other since we were at university when we were 20, he shot all my movies, even shorts. Before shooting we kind of make a book with every shot of the movie mapped out and described, even if we change things on location, you know. We prepare a lot because it takes a lot of money to make movies. Time is money. So if you are well prepared, you can save time, therefore save money.

As you say, it’s more sophisticated but we progressed together; he’s better and I am better than before too. We learn our jobs. Every movie we tried to do it better and challenge us. We did have more money for this. We could do more travels, camera movements. We could afford…


Yes, cranes and steadicam which I couldn’t afford it with Suzanne. The sophistication of mise-en-scene really depends on the money you have.


But if you want me to tell you about the image more?

Yes, of course.

We were really thinking about constructing the figure of a circle. Like a movement of the waves. Death is not the end. It is part of the living. So we built a movie with the heart in the center and it echoes throughout. The image of the waves is also important in de Kerangal’s book.

So if you pay attention, you can see the construction of those images. I played with symetricity too; in the beginning, those two young guys in the car, the two heads sleeping -- one leaning against the other before the accident, -- there were two young guys sleeping in the waiting room at the end of the movie waiting for their mother to come out of the surgery.

Ah, that’s right.

Two teenagers on the bed in the beginning and the two women in bed later, those are the ways to create the links between characters to create that organic feeling in the movie and to create these waves. Waves are also like the rhythm of the heart.

Moving and traveling were also like DNA of the movie or like the blood circulating inside the body. Them traveling the inside of the body of the movie. When movement stops, it’s always about death. The accident, diagnosis at the doctor's office, confrontation with the question of death, all have stillness. Everything stops. And then when the questions are resolved, the life goes on again. It’s a pretty simple idea but I thought it would go well with the theme of the movie.

Very interesting cast. I know you’ve worked with some of the top actresses in France before. Now you have Tahar Rahim, Emmanuelle Seigner, Kool Shen…

You know Kool Shen?

I know his music a little bit. And I’ve seen him in ABUSE OF WEAKNESS. You also have Anne Dorval, the French Canadian actress… You have all these different actors. How was it dealing with all these different actors?

Okay. First, I wanted to have strong personalities in my movie because it deals with a tough, strong subject. I really wanted to bring this movie to the audience. I wanted people to see it. But I knew the subject is kind of hard. It’s not typical to go see a movie about death and the death of a child.


So I need them [the actors] to help me to bring the movie to the audience. But I also wanted them to be really different from each other, kind of representing diversity of the society. People from different kind of movies, different countries, different everything. And some are really famous, some are not famous at all. Young actors: some are not professional; for Simon (Gavin Verdet), it’s his first movie, you know.

So that’s what was interesting to me, to choose these people and also, every actor I chose, they have never done the kind of role they play in this movie before. I always pay attention when proposing a role to an actor as kind of a challenge.

But they really look great together. Kool Shen and Emmanuelle. I never dreamed of them being a couple in anything but they are really great together!

Yeah. When I proposed it, “Kool Shen’s going to be the husband of Emmanuelle Seigner.” Everyone was like, "Are you sure?" (Laughs.) No one really believed it.

It really works!

I do like surprises. It’s one of my missions to have surprises like that. Bringing actors to another universe that they are not familiar with is also cool thing to do. And they both are singers.

That is true.

Maybe they will work on an album together. (Laughs.)

What I find interesting is that it has heart and brain connection. Obviously those two things makes us human. Which one, for you, makes us human? Heart or brains?

One can always replace the other. The science decided that the death occurs not when heart stops beating but the death of the brain. That’s what’s changed the definition of death. What the movie is saying is that death of the heart will have a symbolic importance for a human being, for the people left behind.

So that’s why the ritual seems so important, like when Thomas puts the headphones on the boy. Because technically the boy is dead, but in a spiritual way and for his parents who can’t say good bye, the ritual aspects of death will always have an importance, in spite of the question.

So you have to take care of the heart, that’s what I’m trying to say.

Great music always in your films.

Oh thank you. I love music. It’s really important for me.

Yeah so there was a Radiohead song in the end of LOVE LIKE POISON…

Yeah. It’s so cool to meet someone who’s seen all three of my movies.

Yes, of course! (We all laugh.)

But you didn’t think that Heal the Living is not really different than the previous ones.

I didn’t. But I was thinking about it when I was watching it.

Because for me, I really planned it carefully that there is a continuation.

I felt that you have something for each character to explore. That you care about each one of your characters. But I didn’t necessarily think that there were connections between the first two and the third one.

The thematic similiarities I talked about?

Yep. I get it.

You get it now?

Yes. After talking to you, yes definitely.

(She laughs.)

So Suzanne is the Leonard Cohen song, sung by…

Nina Simone.

Yes, the great Nina Simone. And this you have Alexandre Desplat. A beautiful score. Can you tell me a bit about your collaboration with him?

I don’t know if many directors do it this way. Not sure about how they do it in the States. But I have a music consultant who is a friend of mine, and he makes a compilation. So I listen to it before the shooting, during the writing and everything, and we discuss together, then I choose all the music for the movie -- the ones which are going to stay, and also the ones that will be replaced with the new musical composition. I play music on set, too. It can affect the camera movement and emotions of actors and many other things.

Then I work with it in editing. Sometimes it stays on its right place, sometimes it moves when it doesn’t need music or need more and everything. Then I do final edit. Then I give the film to a composer.

A composer knows exactly where the music is needed, from that frame to that frame. He is free to listen to what I used and decide if it works or not. He can do whatever he wants to do and we stop. That’s what Alexandre did. He wanted to listen to what influenced me. But then he forgot it and put it in the garbage and used his own music. And this is really important time for me because I discover that composer is like the first viewer of my movie really.


Because he sees it and he digests it. And he gives it back to me with normal music. And it’s really scary because you know the importance of the music in a movie. It’s also very exciting. We went back and forth a little to find some right melodies but Alexandre is very quick. I don’t know, I think it was two or three weeks. He works so fast. He’s so good at finding the right melody. I can’t really explain how he does it.

What impressed me was that he worked with so many incredible directors, but he is always completely dedicated to a director he is working with, even if the director's young and not famous like me. ‘What is important for me is the movie and intention of its director,’ not his own music. And I think that’s why he is so good. He is really in love with cinema and incredibly generous.

Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema and beyond can be found at

Interview: Terence Davies on A Quiet Passion and His Love of Poetry

© A Quiet Passion/Hurricane Films/Courtesy of Music Box Films.
With A Quiet Passion, coming out in theaters this weekend, Terence Davies, one of the greatest living filmmakers finds himself prolific all of sudden, having two films back to back (with last year's Sunset Song). The film is about Emily Dickinson, a 19th century American Poet. It's an exceptionally well written and acted film even in Davies' standards. I got a chance once again to talk to him about the poet and his love of poetry.

Was A QUIET PASSION your passion project? How did it come about?

It was sort of four and a half years in the making really. But I discovered her (Emily Dickinson) when I was 18. About 12 years ago, I started rereading her. Then I wanted to know a little more about her. And I read 6 biographies. (chuckles) And it was…I felt that things in her life I could really respond to. Oh she didn’t go anywhere but her life was very rich. These were very intelligent people and in her life, she was I think, a little afraid of the world.

But someone said, 'but why make a movie about someone who didn’t go anywhere?' I thought, but that’s sets power if you think of it in terms of string quartet, it’s a chamber piece: simple things become very very powerful. Even little trivial things become very powerful because you got this enclosed world. And all the things that go on in that very close family. and an idea of how to behave morally and ethically and if you fall below that there is huge rouse. So it wasn’t, it didn’t seem like a dull life to me because she had this rich inner life. But she also, you know, was an ordinary person. She baked, she gardened, played piano. She wrote three volumes of letters and over seventeen thousand poems as well and she was ill. I mean, my god if that wasn’t rich, I don’t know what is.

In our previous conversation that you said making SUNSET SONG was very difficult but process of A QUIET PASSION was a really pleasure from beginning to end. What was the difference?

Money. (laughs)

We didn’t have enough money to shoot Sunset Song. We really didn’t. It was the most difficult thing I think I;ve ever done. Every time when the phone rang, I though, O god what’s gone wrong now? Even going out to New Zealand, hoping to have some hot weather and they give you good tax break.


And we get there and have the worst weather there in 50 years. I thought, I could stayed home and got this weather for free! Anyway the weather broke and we got those scenes. But there wasn’t just enough money. The post production dragged on for a long time and we had to keep on raising money to finish it. And by the time that happened, A Quiet Passion was already shot and ready to go. (chuckles)

My god.

Sheer accident. And it was a joy. I love working with actors and my crew on Sunset Song but it was hard for all of us. And it was physically unpleasant. Being on a scottish farm and it's pouring with rain and there was mud everywhere and it stank. Where is the glamour, where is the glamour in this? I asked. But this was a complete joy from beginning to end. Nothing went wrong.

I’m very glad to hear everything went smoothly. How long was the shoot?

Actually I can’t even remember. I think it was 8 weeks.

Only 8 weeks?

8 or 9 weeks. What I always say is 'can we have a 5 day working week?' The crew got to have two days off, they got to. Otherwise they will be exhausted. So we got a longer period but it was probably the same amount as the shooting for every independent film. But they got to have two days off.

That’s very nice of you.

Well their hours are so long.

The thing is…I mean there are always showstoppers in your films, like visually striking moments, but this showstopper came in early in this movie for me. It was the portraitures of Dickinson family morphing from younger selves to older, in the beginning of the film. I thought it was very beautifully done in a pure Terence Davies fashion. I thought, oh my god, there is another one!

(Davis laughs)

It’s the same Director of photography you always work with, no? the German cinematographer, Florian…

Florian Hoffmeister. It’s either Florian or Michael McDonough who shot Sunset Song.


It's because I think they are really really gifted. But I was gifted with a wonderful crew anyway. They do work so hard. Most of the crew in Sunset Song were in Luxembourg and A Quiet Passion in Belgium because we built the replica of the Dickenson house there, obviously we could't shoot in the original house where they lived in.

But no, I had wonderful wonderful people. They don’t do their job, they feel it. You know what I mean? Florian puts on the lens…I can never tell you what lens it is. I just it’s the right one. But Florian is a wonderful man and a great artist.

I know it was shot on digital but I really couldn’t tell. It’s beautifully done.

Isn’t it?

Yeah. Especially in the beginning where young Emily is standing against the window and all the light coming through the window. I really couldn’t tell. So I doesn’t make much difference to you.

I think digital is really fantastic now. Sunset Song was shot on 65mm because digital really wasn’t up to it. But that’s two three years ago. Coming of digital is like coming of sound. It would change everything cause the things that they can do. It’s breathtaking. Some of the scenes in Sunset Song the teams of horses needed to be led by a leader. Because the actors aren’t used to plowing. So I said 'what do we do?' And the manager of all the digital management says 'we will take them out'. I said 'how do you take someone out?' I was completely bewildered. As long as they can do it, I don’t even wanna know.

This film however, is beautifully written. How much of Emily Dickinson’s dialog is based on her actual writing?

I invented most of it. I used some of her dialog but not a lot. The reason I did it like this was because 19 century american english was very formal cause they were trying to imitate England. We were still the dominant power and now it’s the totally the other way around. But also things like The Heiress which has a wonderful dialog, you know. And I wanted it to be good. These were very intelligent people. So I wanted it to be good and funny and shocking and unpleasant. So I constructed it around the idea of American English back then. It was more formal. I used some of her dialog, the dialog of the looming man. It’s almost all hers. I added a sentence I think. But that is all hers. I read that on the footnote of Seawall’s biography of her.

Once you see the characters, you got to speak in their voices. Sometimes you think, 'no she wouldn’t say that. I think she’d say like this or like that'. I wanted it to be good in terms of dialog and I wanted it to be funny.

I think Cynthia Nixon really deserves and Oscar for this. You said something about Nixon becoming Emily Dickinson that she is Emily Dickinson in this film. How did decide on her to play the role?

Well I met her from the film that didn’t come off about four five years ago. And I never forgot her. When we found a little deguerrotype of Emily Dickinson taken when she was seventeen, one of my producers who used to be a still photographer, superimposed Cynthia’s face on her’s and she looks like an older version of Emily. I just knew she’d be right. And when we were talking, she said she had grown up with listening to the disc of Julie Harris reading her poetry. She knew her poetry and more importantly, she could read poetry as well. I just knew she was right. It’s as vague as that. And god bless her! She stayed there for four and a half years. I don’t know what I would have done if she said no. I’d have no idea who to cast.

You cast always perfectly though, especially female characters in your films.

It’s nip and tuck though, I mean we haven’t cast Miss Boffam, five days away from shooting.


We were really worried, I couldn’t tell you. The casting company in Britain told me, we will send you another three. But when Catherine Baily came on, I said we found her at last. That was it.

Baily is wonderful, she’s so funny in this.

But it was nip and tuck, I tell you.

How did Keith Carradine come on board?

We were in Los Angeles, auditioning. One of my producers said, 'listen, Keith Carradine isn’t coming in. He won’t read'. I said, 'fine, I don’t understand why but fine'. Then he comes in. So I asked, 'but Mister Carradine, we were told by your agent that you don't read'. 'No i don’t because I’m a terrible reader. All the jobs I’ve gotten, if I read at the auditions, I wouldn't have gotten the job'. I said, 'would you mind?' he said, 'no'. And he read. And I said 'would you do it?' And he said, 'again?' I said, 'no, the movie'. His agent was very grand. My client doesn’t read. Such nonsense.

Carradine is a lovely lovely man. He has the most beautiful voice. He’s a singer as well. But the thing that always touches me even when I think it in my head, after he has told Austin that he can’t go to the war- that close up he does it at the end of that scene, what a wonderful piece of playing. It leaves me speechless.

Unlike many fathers in your films who are portrayed as brutish, abusive men, Edward Dickinson is gentle, supportive man. A little bit of a discinplanarian but nevertheless, very warm father. I haven’t seen that kind of father figure in your films.

Yes, he is the traditional head of the family and so he words are to be obeyed. But I wanted him to be tender as well. He does answer beautifully to Emilly when she goes, 'but it is your house father'. And he says, 'but it is your home emily'. I mean you hear such love in his voice. and I wanted that. But he can be very determined. He says, 'no you are not going'.


Emily dickinson deals with death and immortality a lot. Do you deal with death and immortality as an artist?

I’m afraid I do. When I was between five and six, my father who was very violent, died. He died at home and his body was in the house for ten days. I was awful. I’ve seen very early on what really horrible deaths are like. I must’ve put in me that nothing is stable. That’s why in primary school I wanted my family to stay together forever. They were the most wonderful family. They were just like the one in Meet Me in St. Louis. I never wanted to change. But then as you grow older, you realize that’s a myth. They get married, have children and die.

When I was eighteen or nineteen, I discovered The Four Quartets (by T.S. Eliot) read by Alec Guiness. He read it from memory. I was absolutely knocked out by it. I had no idea what they meant. I read them and they are my template now. I read them at least once a month. It’s some of the most fabulous poetry written in English. He writes in this rather melancholic way about the nature of being and the nature of time. In Prufrock, he’s much more terrified. He is really frightened of just being.

In the room the women come and go

Talking of Michelangelo.

And when it’s repeated, it’s just terror.

In the room the women come and go

Talking of Michelangelo.

Yes, you may not know but Michelangelo, you usually feel inferior and his terrror of coming down the stairs… that is also true. I could respond to that. Because… I live alone and I do things alone and sometimes having to go to places where people I don’t know, it’s so terrifying. I’ve just got no small talk. I just haven’t. I find that very very hard.

But the nature of time in film anyway is always in the eternal present. Where you cut from and to, it’s the next thing which happens but what’s more interesting is cutting to the next emotional thing that matter and leaving out the middle because that’s not really interesting.


I’ve always been obsessed about that and I always will be. Perhaps I will reconcile with The Four Quartets as much as I love. I still find very difficult,

And all shall be well and

All manner of things shall be well

When the tongues of flame are in-folded

Into the crowned knot of fire

And the fire and the rose are one.

Beautiful. I think that about wraps it up.