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“My Zombi is Not Like Other Zombis… It is Someone Between Life and Death”: Bertrand Bonello Talks Haiti, Day for Night, and his New Zombi Child

Zombi Child

in Directors, Interviews, TIFF
on Sep 9, 2019

A clear standout in Director’s Fortnight at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Bertrand Bonello’s mystifying, euphonious headfuck Zombi Child finally drifts onto North American screens this week at TIFF. Among other pleasures and singularities, Bonello’s work has long employed a meticulously curated soundtrack to bridge internal gulfs in subject matter both historical and cultural. In his House of Tolerance, set in a brothel late in the Belle Époque, the (at the time, at least) scandalously anachronistic soundtrack featured rare soul and blues records that exemplified the spirit if not the letter of what was on-screen—namely, the pained, Henry Miller-like alternations between blissful post-coital catatonia, the tedious spare time of impoverished sex workers and flâneurs, and shocking, abrupt bursts of squalid violence. Without Bonello’s aural blending of past and present, the decisive shift in epoch that characterises that film’s famous final scene—and, as follows, the political implications therein—would fall flat on its face. 

In this respect, Zombi Child toes an even more perilous line: the divide Bonello is attempting to bridge with greater audacity is that between two countries, Haiti and France, that were once colonised and coloniser. The parallels he throws up between the two cultures—the rituals, the mysticism, the various forms of respect and reverence, the processing, intellectual or otherwise, of a national history by individual figures—are bound together by many, many musical forms. Zombi Child would surely be a problem-object in virtually anybody else’s hands. But with Bonello, intellectual links charted between disparate cultures, indeed disparate elements of the movie itself, are arrived at first through the deeper emotional channels forged by music. 

Filmmaker spoke with Bonello after the release of Zombi Child in France about this idiosyncratic use of music, how it links him to affective genre directors of the 1970s, about his interest in zombis, in Haiti, and—punning on the title of a famous Jacques Tourneur zombie movie—in “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” the anthem of Liverpool FC.

Filmmaker: I’m curious—when you introduced the film you quoted Coppola…

Bonello: Yes, about being a producer and a director at the same time. He said one side always wins, so you may as well be both. Two very different roles. One part of your brain wants to spend money; the other to save. It is both fascinating and very difficult at the same. There are difficult choices to make.

Filmmaker: Did you find one side winning out?

Bonello: The director, always.

Filmmaker: You never found you had to limit yourself considerably?

Bonello: No, it was OK. It’s like a shot/reverse shot—when you produce and direct it has to be like that. One working with the other, not against the other.

Filmmaker: You felt free producing your own movie?

Bonello: Well, I couldn’t have done it for my first film. I needed to make a few features with help first. The experience of co-producing those films helped here—when I started to think about Zombi Child, I knew I wanted to make it quickly. I started to think about it in the month of March. I wanted October as the shooting date. I said to myself: “OK, I think with my name I can raise 1.5 million euros.” Then I can shoot four weeks. I’ll write a schedule first and then the script. This demands experience; to know exactly what you are able to do in whatever amount of time. 

Filmmaker: How does the larger cast of young women play into this? Was it more difficult?

Bonello: Not difficult, no. It demands time. You cannot be fast. I started the casting at the same time as the writing. It took five or six months. It demands a lot of time in terms of the number of weeks but also a lot of time from yourself—you have to be very present in these moments. Though I like these periods of time, they’re great. I met about a hundred girls for the roles.

Filmmaker: The interactions between the girls are so naturalistic—there’s never any falseness where there really could be a whole lot of it.

Bonello: Well, I have a daughter who is the same age.

Filmmaker: She advised you?

Bonello: [laughs] Yeah, she helped me with the dialogue. It’s a kind of noise, a kind of “music” that I listen to everyday. I’m familiar with it. And after that the difficult thing is to find where to position myself—I cannot be a father to them, I cannot be a friend. You have to create, to invent something special in which they can work. You have to be very welcoming and have a kind of authority.

Filmmaker: This freedom all stems from your extensive preparation.

Bonello: Yes, absolutely. For me, I’m really obsessed with the prep. Obsessed.

Filmmaker: This also extends to shot lists, things like that?

Bonello: Every image besides four or five shots were planned ahead carefully. Everything is written, drawn, shot, then edited. In the past, with La Pornograph, say, I didn’t do this—I was too young, not experienced enough. For me, preparation is the only thing that allows you to be happy on-set, to enjoy shooting. Otherwise, you are too stressed. 

Filmmaker: Two things tie into that for me: firstly the music, which you prepared before the film was shot—

Bonello: Always, yeah.

Filmmaker: And then you play it on set?

Bonello: Not on the set. Sometimes maybe but mainly during the prep stage. I play the music to the actors. On set I play some music when we’re changing shots just to be in a good mood.

Filmmaker: The other aspect I suppose is this fine line you walk, making a film about Haitian voodoo as a white filmmaker.

Bonello: It has been very difficult to convince certain people to distribute this film for this reason—many problems with the fact that a white man is doing this kind of film.

Filmmaker: In my mind the music in this movie—and in all your movies—plays a role of integrating social situations. In your films, music brings things together, connects them.

Bonello: Yes, because I think of what I’ll use or create during the writing stage. It’s part of the writing—it’s not something that springs to mind in the editing room. “OK, what kind of music can we put on this section,” and so on. That applies to both the songs I use and the original score. It’s the same.

Filmmaker: In the film, the music works on the level of ideas as well. The reason that the Haitian section works with the French section, the way it doesn’t become a problem—it’s because of the music. In the French section they sing “Silent Night” and in Haiti they dance to the native music. There’s a bridge.

Bonello:There is, yeah. What can I say about this? In the film, there are many contrasts. France/Haiti. Today/the ’60s. A lot of dialogue, a lot of silence. There is resonance there—both sides work in harmony. The music, the singing, the voodoo ritual. We see some formal rituals in Haiti, we see some in the school. 

Filmmaker: How do you arrive at the point that you’re filming these rituals?

Bonello: I do as much research as I can. It’s never enough, of course. What we do is something so big, deep, and mysterious—the more you know, the less you know. I tried to write in Haiti with as much knowledge as I could. I found it mainly through books.

Filmmaker: And through cinema at all?

Bonello: Not too much. It was more books, photos—there has been a lot of fascinating things written about voodoo.

Filmmaker: Was there a specific moment when you can remember you became interested in zombis?

Bonello: Yeah, yeah—friend of mine that passed away three years ago made a film. He was obsessed with Haiti and he made a film 16 or 17 years ago there. My ex-girlfriend was the DP. They would always tell me these things about the country, so I started to get interested and read books. When you get interested in Haiti, you arrive quite quickly at the subject of voodoo. Then you arrive at zombis. That’s when I discovered the story of this guy, Clarius Narcisse, who inspired the story of the film. This is where it came from.

Filmmaker: How was it once you were in Haiti as a production?

Bonello: Tough. It’s a fascinating, powerful, but… tough country. For basically three reasons. The first job I had was to make them accept the project. Me: white, French, coming there, saying “I’m making a film about zombis and voodoo.” They were wary. You have to explain the film, explain your point of view, explain that the point of view is not from a Haitian perspective but a French one. That you have some knowledge of the subject. The second difficulty is that nothing works there—nothing, nothing, nothing works. If in the morning your car works, if you can give food to the crew—these simple things would be a miracle if they happened. The third difficulty is that in 2018 and 2019, there were some huge strikes across the country. The second trip we made there, we couldn’t get out of the hotel. There is always this risk with Haiti.

Filmmaker: I saw in the credits that there was Haitian lighting crew and—

Bonello: Yeah, yeah, we took some crew from there. Very few French people, in fact—only six people, I think.

Filmmaker: Was there always an atmosphere of suspicion around the project or did they accept your explanation of it?

Bonello: No, there wasn’t suspicion. We did things in a good order. We didn’t come first with the money and say, “OK, we’re going to shoot here.” We tried to be accepted and understood first. After that, I think we had a chance with them—we met good people. And then, they were very, very helpful.

Filmmaker: The day-for-night in the Haiti sections is so striking.

Bonello: Of course, given the story, there was a lot of night in the script. We knew it was going to be very difficult because of the problems with lighting there. I wanted always to have the landscapes, the mountains, so the DP said, “Let’s try day-for-night.” But only in a special way—we called it electronic night, in fact. What I like about this idea is that my zombi is therefore not like other zombis—dead people who come back from hell. No, here it is someone who finds himself between life and death. Between night and day. So day-for-night works for that idea in a major way.

Filmmaker: When the film is moving from France to Haiti near the end of the film, and these women are dancing—

Bonello: This is documentary. A real voodoo ceremony. They asked me what I wanted the ceremony for. I said that it would be in the memory of a man that died. They said to me that, in this case, we will do this and this and this and this—it’s going to start at 8:00 PM and end at 2:00 AM. In the end, it was a real documentary on our part. They did what they wanted to do, totally.

Filmmaker: And you were comfortable with this, given how planned everything else was?

Bonello: Yeah, well the job of my DP was to shoot the documentary part like if it was fiction. In the editing then it would fit quite well, and I wouldn’t worry. I didn’t want this part to be shot, you know, over the shoulder or something. It’s shot exactly the same way as everything else. You don’t feel a difference.

Filmmaker: There are so many moments in the film where the points of reference seem so… ’70s. The slow-motion shower sequence is like Carrie and so on. But also the music ties into that in a way. It’s used almost conceptually.

Bonello: Yeah, yeah, for the music I developed one type that is mainly in the Haitian parts. More electronic sounds and long stretches of silence. And the French side I really wanted to—it’s not an homage but all these things, these wailing voices and noises you hear could remind people of Ennio Morricone or Dario Argento, stuff like that.

Filmmaker: Carpenter?

Bonello: Yes, a little. Like those guys, I mainly wanted to put across an atmosphere through my score.

Filmmaker: Are you past the point of thinking in terms of these kind of references when planning the film? Or do you still find inspiration in those movies?

Bonello: Well, I find inspiration everywhere. [laughs] Sometimes I see the short movie of a very young director and an idea comes to me—I don’t steal their idea, I mean. It just leads me to something. Sometimes it can be from a silent film. Your mind is always running.

Filmmaker: You still go to the cinema a lot?

Bonello: No, not that much. I watch by period, mostly—I have a home cinema and I watch one film every day from specific periods but it’s not so much contemporary films, which I go and see maybe once a week. 

Filmmaker: The scenes in the school are great—with the professor giving a history of the French revolution and its legacy or the girls listening to music in a candlelight basement straight out of a James Whale movie.

Bonello: Yeah, I mean in the school I took everything as it was—the uniform, the way they do the curtsey. This is all reality. I didn’t need to touch it. The only thing that I didn’t write is that lesson you mentioned. I asked this guy. He’s a great historian, a big star in France. I said “OK, I’ll give you the world, the freedom to talk. The subject should be around the currents of freedom in the 19th century. After that, please do as you want.” And he made this class, which is shot like a documentary. I was so happy and so surprised to see how much what he says is the film: how to tell a story, what is experience, et cetera. I think this scene—and I say this because I didn’t write it—is incredible. His lesson is fantastic. As for the basement, well, these things happen in the school. The sorority stuff of course is more North American than French. The school is like a prison. The girls escape at night for these moments. I like to go through the sorority stories you read in classical literature and arrive at rap music.

Filmmaker: Which ties into this scene where she talks about Rihanna in her English class.

Bonello: Yeah, for black people Rihanna is a very important figure. Maybe more than some other black stars—I can feel it. She represents something very strong for Caribbean people. 

Filmmaker: And then you end with… Gerry and the Pacemakers.

Bonello:You’ll Never Walk Alone. [laughs] Liverpool!

Filmmaker: You’re a Liverpool football fan?

Bonello: Yes, but it’s not only this. My zombi is someone who walks alone for many years. The song says: “When you walk through the storm, hold your head up high. And don’t be afraid of the dark. At the end of the storm, there’s a golden sky.” It’s true that in England at least, yes, they’re my team. 

Filmmaker: My family are Liverpool supporters.

Bonello: Ah! I would seriously love to bring the film to Liverpool and show it to the people there, if only for this ending. [laughs]

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