EIFF 2011 Blog w/ The Divide director Xavier Gens

Submitted by Al Innes on Tue, 28 Jun '11 10.01pm

The other stand-out piece for me at this year’s festival was the grim post-apocalyptic movie by French director Xavier Gens, The Divide. It was bleak, depressing and it left a lot of the over-arching apocalypse story unexplained at the close – good work if you ask me in a genre that is sorely in need of some bravery.

I was familiar with Gens from his production work on French Zombie masterpiece, The Horde, and I knew he had directed the troubled Hitman movie, so I wasn't sure what to expect. I caught up with the director while he was in Edinburgh and had a very warm chat about starving actors, John Carpenter and Braveheart…

Me: How’s Edinburgh been so far?

Xavier: “I arrived yesterday and it’s my first time in Scotland. I’m like ‘yeah it’s good’ it’s the country of William Wallace, really happy to be here for that and I am really happy to be here because I am a big fan of Braveheart.”

Is that your favourite Scottish film?

“Honestly? I don’t really know Scottish cinema really well. That is a film I know really well, I saw it when I was teenage and it was so violent and full of, in French we say furor, it is very intense and very romantic. In that movie everybody looks at William Wallace as a very great hero and in that movie he has an adventure with a French woman and I liked that we help the Scottish to fight an evil king.”

(I leave it at that, for now - explaining history to a perfectly content film director seems like a waste of time.)

So, The Divide, what first inspired you about the movie?

“I chose to do The Divide because it was an indy production, it was something where I can go into myself and really make it like I want without anybody telling me, you know, to put a happy ending in it or something.”

“Hitman was a complicated experience because it was a studio movie. Because you really cannot have your hand on the film because there is an executive behind you and so you cannot really control the project and finally at the end you lose the editing and that kind of thing. So it is really good when you come back with an independent movie because you have total freedom.”

“I think it’s important when you think about Braveheart, it’s the same thing when William Wallace screams freedom I think it’s the same thing.”

Now I see the connection. So how was it that you came to The Divide?

“We have a very cool experience working on it together with the writers because we had eight months working on the relationships between the characters and we decided not to have a very obvious movie where there is everybody exposing themselves in the beginning.”

“We said ‘okay, let’s try to have the characters expose themselves during the film’. The first reaction then is even before people know who people are, even before they know each others names, there first reaction is to run and hide somewhere.”

And hide they do, from the opening shots of New York being reduced to ashes.

“So that was just the feeling we tried to implement in the film.”

Gens and I share a passion, not just for French women it seems, but also for the work of action-movie legend and long-time James Cameron vessel, Michael Beihn.

So what was it like working with him?

“It was dream working with Michael.”

He’s a bit of a legend isn’t he?

“That was a very cool experience to work with him. As a child I was watching Terminator and Aliens and when he arrived for the first time on the set I was really like a big teenager watching him like he was Hicks (the supporting act to Sigourney Weaver in Cameron’s ‘Aliens’). For the camera test I had him smoke a cigar and play with the gun in front of the camera and he knew I was enjoying it and he played with that. He’s very cool. He’s the best good guy in the world, when he is on screen he is so bad ass…”, he adds earnestly, “…he is naturally bad ass.”

He plays a slightly murky character in this, he’s not your average straight up good guy, was that deliberate to play on the audiences expectations?

“That was the intention at the beginning – we take Michael and he is the supposed bad guy at the beginning of the film so everyone thinks maybe he’s not so cool, he’s a bit f****ed up, he’s crazy – but finally in his craziness there is something right about human nature and finally he became the real hero of the story. He can have a bad side, but he has a good heart in the film.”

Apart from shattering myths about my child-hood heroes, the movie doesn’t hold back in it’s exploration – it’s unrelentingly bleak…

“From the start we thought ‘okay let’s try to make the bleakest movies as possible’. One of our goals was to be like John Carpenter in the 1980’s when he was doing really nihilistic films like The Thing or The Prince of Darkness where it is really dark and there is a strange ending. When we lost our funding initially, the intern’s God parents replaced the money, then he became the producer and he was like ‘guys do what you want’.”

So he was a fan of John Carpenter?

“Yeah, he wanted to make it really dark and we wanted to go the darkest place we could go. It’s about the breakdown of humanity in this basement. We focus on the different aspects of the population, we have the little girl who is abducted and Rosanna (Arquette) is the typical kind of American woman, American mother.”

She gets a pretty rough deal in the movie, how did she get to grips with that?

“Actually she is fifty years old but she have the nature of a twenty year old, She I much more brave, I have worked with many young actresses and Rosanna is just the best. She was always arriving on set with enthusiasm, and even when we were doing pretty hardcore things she was always full of ideas. During the rape scenes she was always asking questions about how it should be done, she was able to make it fun I guess…”

How much were the actors involved in what happens up on screen then?

“I asked the actors to participate in the re-writing so we did some rehearsal before the shooting and we shot the film in sequence so we could add the evolution of the character during the shooting sequence. This made it so that they could feel the anger and stuff – I asked them to not eat and not drink for a month – we had a nutritionist on the set who checked everyday if everything is good and to give them the minimum to live and they lost… Michael Eklund who plays bobby in the film, he lost seventeen pounds in that month.”

“We worked a lot on the feeling that they are rotting from inside so we didn’t want to use make-up, we worked a little bit on it but it was much more in the performance. I don’t want to play with makeup so I told them to just feel it inside themselves, so when they get angry, or when you play starving – you know it is difficult to act starved so you have to be naturally starved – and that was the idea in the film, some of them didn’t wash. It was very smelly…”

So the shoot must have been tough?

“It was very tense and we had some conflict between the group of actors so the conflict in the film, that happened in real life – some of the actors felt a little unsafe because the situation on set was kind of unsafe – I gave a lot of freedom to Michael (Beihn) and Rosanna and I deliberately isolated [Iván González] on the one side. I was playing with them, and then in real life it became the same, which was very weird to see. So when you see the film and there is strong tension that really helped the film – it made for some strong performances, I think it’s really good.”

“In one scene, Lauren German, she is in the scene feeling insecure and during the torture scene, (of Michael Beihn – in the screening I saw a couple of folk had to leave during that, I thought it was moderate compared to some films where violence is far more pervasive than in The Divide) she really broke down, she was really brave that but that was too much.”

Did that strike you as a little unethical?

“They all wanted to get involved, as actors they feel that it is good in the end because the film lasts and they have that performance. It was very brave; I just gave them the freedom.”

Is that something that inspires your work?

“I think what is important in a movie is the characters in the story and the pacing, what happens to the human beings. It is important to play with the humans, it is a post-apocalyptic movie but who cares about some bad guy who drops a bomb somewhere? Nobody will believe it, but what they will believe is the relationship between the characters, how they can deal with it and this is the lesson I really tried to apply on the movie. Afterward there are some people I know who really hate the film, but that’s cool it means they feel something – I prefer that than people who say they don’t care, that means your movie wasn’t very good.”

“If you watch ‘Irreversible’ or ‘Enter the Void’ (both from Gaspar Noé), there are people who think it is genius – I think it is genius – but you will have people who think it is very bad, but I think it is because they cannot accept and cannot deal with it.”

Are you a bleak person yourself?

“No, I am really cool. I think inside me I have bleak things and put them in the movie, and when I’m outside I feel good. Movies are my therapy.”

What’s next?

“I’m working on a few foreign language films and a French movie about demonic possession…”

What’s it like?

“It’s very bleak and depressive.

Unprompted, Gens announces for me:

“If you want: it’s like Serpico meets the Exorcist.”

That’s a by-line that publicists like…

“Maybe that’s what the producer wants me to say”, he says with a chuckle.

As evidenced with The Divide: if he can deliver on even half of that, it will likely be a movie worth watching.