Shooting 16mm, Loading in by Helicopter and Sex Scenes as Performance: Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani on Let the Corpses Tan
French directing duo Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani burst onto the genre scene with their mesmerizing, impeccably crafted 2009 giallo film Amer. The married couple followed it up with the even more daring spiritual sequel The Strange Colour of Your Bodies Tears. Now, Cattet and Forzani are back and bringing their talent for precision filmmaking into other genres. In Let the Corpses Tan, based on the book Laissez bronzer les cadavres by Jean-Patrick Manchette and Jean-Pierre Bastid, thieves steal a pile of gold and getaway to a coastal village, the home of Luce, an enigmatic artist involved in a seedy, sexual love triangle. Soon, the gang are pulled into a massive shootout with other robbers and the police.
Structured as a siege film, and shot on gorgeous 16mm to resemble classic spaghetti westerns, Let the Corpses Tan puts its audience through a loud, intense, often kaleidoscopic ordeal, complete with jumps back and forth through time and flashbacks that slowly reveal Luce’s the erotic backstory.
Cattet and Forzani specialize in the precision of their craft. Everything is thought through and considered, from the story, to the poetic shot choices, to the music and sound effects. The film is designed to look old, like a lost grindhouse feature from the early ‘70s. While dialogue exists in the film, it’s often beside the point. While Let the Corpses Tan wouldn’t work without its incredible sound effects, those work directly in concert with evocative visuals. Close-ups dominate, and the story is told more through pitch-perfect editing than traditional wide shots and camera movements.
I spoke to Cattet and Bruno at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival about their working method, their wide-ranging inspirations for the film, and how they went about crafting such an unrelenting experience for genre fans.
Filmmaker: I thought it was kind of amazing they way the movie almost has no normal plot structure, but the plot comes still through.
Forzani: It’s based on a book, and the story of the book is quite simple. It’s about people who do a robbery and thne hide in this ghost town. And it’s a siege when the cops arrive. What we liked in the book was that this simple action was told only through action. So for the character it was totally behavioral, which rare in French literature. There’s no psychologizing, and it reminded us of the way we write our stories, where all the story is driven by the action. What we liked in the book was the way they used the space and time, and it was very cinematographic, so it inspired us a lot. When you read the book it’s like you see the storyboard, and so it was—
Forzani: Easy. Very, very easy.
Filmmaker: So was the focus on the storyboards more than the script? Because everything is so visual.
Cattet: In fact, when we are writing the script, we imagine sounds. It’s directly in the script: we describe what we see and what we hear.
Forzani: We tell the story through all the cinematographic tools we have as directors, so through the shots, through the sounds, through the editing, through the clothing, the colors. We had that story from the book, and tried to tell it visually.
Filmmaker: It’s interesting that you mention the space in the book, because in the film you have this location and you really use every bit of it. Did you have the location before you started working on it?
Cattet: First we did the adaptation without the set, and then we were looking for the set for a year-and-a-half. It was quite difficult to find a good place because—
Forzani: It never fit with what was in the book.
Cattet: We loved this one that was in Corsica because it had the sea and the mountains. There was more variety.
Forzani: And in fact, when we saw this village we understood that the most important was not the inside of the village, but the outside. We are in one location for an hour-and-a-half, and we have to have a strong location visually because you can quickly get bored. We saw a lot of villages that were rocks on rocks, and it’s grey on grey with no color, and it’s very poor.
Cattet: So we rewrote the script when we found this set.
Filmmaker: So you got there and said, “We can put this here?”
Filmmaker: Did it change a lot?
Cattet: A little bit.
Forzani: In fact, this location, we couldn’t access by car. Just by foot. So we had a helicopter at the beginning of the shoot, and one helicopter at the end of the shoot. We had the helicopter to bring the cars and the materials, so we had to be very economic.
Cattet: Efficient. We had to know exactly what we wanted because we couldn’t have the helicopter [leave] and go, ahh I forgot something.
Filmmaker: How long did it take to shoot?
Cattet: Forty days.
Filmmaker: Oh wow, and it’s a lot of shots in the movie, too.
Cattet: Yes, a lot of shots.
Forzani: Twelve hundred, something like that. Forty shots a day.
Filmmaker: And it’s shot on film, of course. Was there any thought to do it digital?
Cattet: Til we can’t use film, we will be [shooting on it].
Filmmaker: Was it 16mm?
Cattet: 16mm, yeah.
Filmmaker: So very grainy. And that’s because you were trying to emulate an older style?
Forzani: It’s for the color. It’s perfect for the external shots. Film is perfect. We had Kodak 50D and we don’t use artificial lights, just sun. So we choose the colors of the clothes, of the rocks sometimes, and of all the elements. When we do the color grading we do like Technicolor, we push them very far. But it’s all natural colors.
Filmmaker: I thought it was interesting that as much as the shots are close-up and fast, you still, over the first 30 minutes or so, get a sense of the characters and the space. Was that something that came early, or did you find it later in the editing?
Forzani: It comes from the script. In fact, when we are writing the script and doing the storyboard it’s like each shot is a word to tell our story. So this language with close-ups — all of the thinking had been done upstream. We don’t improvise, because if we improvise, there’s no more language, there’s no more words, and it’s just decoration, it’s not organic storytelling through the image.
Cattet: To make sense [of it], we are thinking about, okay we put this image, and after that this one, and later in the movie it will evolve. It’s all thought through.
Forzani: And we don’t shoot with two cameras. We shoot each time with one camera, and there’s a continuity in the shots, and if one is missing, the whole jigsaw falls apart.
Cattet: If one is missing or is wrongly taken, everything loses sense.
Forzani: It’s like if you take one word out of a phrase, it doesn’t make sense. Like our English. [Laughter].
Filmmaker: What was the process of thinking how to fit the flashbacks into the movie?
Forzani: In the book, there are two sentences which evoke the past of the artist, of Luce. These two sentences inspired us a lot. We wanted to do flashbacks, not in black-and-white but in black-and-blue. It was a way for us to enter this universe which wasn’t our universe, it was the universe of the book.
Cattet: Because those flashbacks allowed us then to get distance from all the shooting.
Filmmaker: The flashbacks in a way are the most eccentric part of the movie. Was the sexuality of it in the book?
Forzani: In the first sentence that was in the book, Luce and the writer made love in front of people with gold on them. And the second sentence was that they made like an Olympic Games of sex with ropes.
Filmmaker: That scene is there, but you added more to it.
Forzani: As we wanted to do an Italian western universe for these flashbacks, each time we took a typical scene of the Italian western with the guy in the sun, just his head, the girl on the cross, the girl molested. It’s typical Italian western sequences, but we have transformed them into performances.
Filmmaker: It’s funny that you bring up the Italian western, because it definitely feels like that, even though it’s not a western. It’s really sort of a siege action movie. How much were you trying to trying to blend genres?
Forzani: It’s the feeling for us. When we read the book, we had the feeling of Italian western, but also “poliziottesco” hard-boiled Italian movies. And it reminded us of the New Realism, Niki de Saint Phalle, Yves Klein, the French artists of the ’60s. It was a mix of all that, and after, I don’t know, you try to balance everything, but just with your feelings. Hélène is my first reader, and I am her first reader, too, when we are writing the script, we play tennis.
Filmmaker: How does the directing work between the two of you?
Cattet: We are doing everything together because it’s important to be on the same wavelength.
Forzani: We don’t have time to waste, so we have to be efficient.
Cattet: But we are not efficient in a way, because we do everything together. It’s not, you work the camera, and I will work with the actors. It’s not that.
Forzani: But in fact, we make big preparations to be on the same wave so that when we are on the set we know exactly what we want and we agree.
Filmmaker: So it’s not like you write the script and then you come and figure out how to direct it on set. It’s all just one big project?
Cattet: Yes, in fact we built the basis for how we shoot films with our short movies. They were in still frames, slides, so we have done everything in that way. A lot of preparation.
Forzani: There wasn’t any direct sound because [our short films] was in slides. So each time we created it all in post-production.
Cattet: Till now, we are doing exactly the same things. So big, big preparation to be efficient in the shooting, and then big, big post-production with the sound.
Forzani: But for us there is no difference between the script and the directing. When we write we try to find the feelings we want to throw on the audience, we trying to do something overwhelming, and it’s in the writing and in the directing. It’s very linked. It’s all sensory stuff. There’s no distinction for us.
Filmmaker: It seems like it must take forever to perfect the sound. Each shot almost has multiple sounds and the music. Does that take a long time?
Cattet: For this one it was six months for the sound. We recreated every sound with the foley guy, and then we have editing for all the sounds.
Forzani: Because the edit was mute.
Cattet: Like an animation.
Filmmaker: Even dialogue? You dubbed it like an old Italian movie?
Cattet: Yeah, exactly.
Forzani: So when we work with the foley guy, it’s like a second shooting. Just sound shooting. It’s very exhausting.
Filmmaker: When you watch the movie, first of all the sound is very loud, but it just feels so specific. It sounds very old, too, really like an old film. Is there something that you’re doing in capturing the sounds that’s different modern movies?
Cattet: It’s because it’s not direct sound. And if you do that — [claps hand] — we will probably record eight sounds just for that, and we think, okay I will push this one and not this one.
Forzani: It raises the subconscious a lot, the sound. We try to have a physical impact on the audience. When you watch the movie it’s an hour-and-a-half, but you work six months on something like that, it’s very exhausting.
Filmmaker: The movie also plays a lot with time. It starts off going forward, and then at some point it starts playing, with the clock moving around and resetting.
Forzani: That aspect was in the book. We thought when we had written the script that it would be very complicated and very important to be precise, but in fact, it’s not so important. It gives breaks.
Filmmaker: So it’s just a natural part of the storytelling?
Filmmaker: And when you’re creating the look of the film, especially with the color and how it shifts at night, creating almost a symphony of color, was that also something you thought of on the page?
Forzani: Yeah, in fact, when the night comes, the film becomes a little more fantastical. And we wanted to approach all the light the way we did on our first feature Amer. On that film we used the “nuit américaine” technique, day-for-night. In the previous features the color was more metaphorical, and here we tried to explore it through the fireworks and different kinds of light play in the storytelling. So it was a real mix of all we have made before.
Filmmaker: Are you already working on your next project, and will you again be pushing out into another genre?
Cattet: Yes. We are working on an anime, an adult manga.
Forzani: Like a Japanese pink movie. So that’s our next project, and then we want to do the third part of Amer and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears. We’ve had it in mind for a lot of years, and we would like to achieve it.