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Director Dominic Allan on Calvet

The titular tattooed protagonist of Dominic Allan’s Calvet is Jean Marc Calvet (pictured), who went from being a hustling, drug-addicted street kid in the south of France to an NYC art world darling. But the path he took to get there is equal parts winding, fascinating and downright insane. After being discovered in a shooting competition by a guy who ran a security firm, Calvet joined the “world of bodyguards,” taking care of the likes of Mel Gibson, Forest Whitaker and Tim Robbins at Cannes. But he was soon enticed to leave his young family and “disappear” to America with a rich client – who, unfortunately, turned out to be a Miami mobster who never paid him. That’s when Calvet literally fled to South America – where the British documentary filmmaker Dominic Allan ultimately found him. Which itself is a story stranger than fiction. Luckily, I got the chance to speak with the director about this and more shortly before the U.K. theatrical release of his (nonfiction) suspense thriller. Calvet plays the Miami International Film Festival March 7th and 9th in conjunction with an exhibition of Jean Marc Calvet’s work.

Filmmaker: I was chatting with Marina of Monkdogz Urban Art Gallery at Jean Marc’s exhibit during DOC NYC, and she let me in on the odd story of how you decided to pursue this project. Can you recount this?

Dominic Allan: In 2004 I was living and traveling in Latin America, driving with some French friends from Costa Rica to Nicaragua. We were heading to Granada, a small colonial town on the banks of the Lake of Nicaragua. In the car they were talking about this guy who was running a cafe-restaurant there at the time and who had been a mercenary, robbed a bank or something… and he’d started painting like a madman. I was dozing on the backseat and remember thinking it sounded like a tall story. Then we arrived and walked into this place – and I stopped dead in my tracks, faced with this big painting on the wall. It was bright, very colorful, at the same time very tortured, and it was screaming off the wall at me. I later found out its name, “La Loca de la Casa” – “The Mad Woman of the House.”

So then I met the painter, Jean Marc Calvet, the Frenchman who they’d been talking about in the car. He took me to his tiny studio right on the street, and showed me all these other paintings. There were a lot of them and he was talking fast, about what was in them and so on. This guy was a character, he’d had quite a past it was obvious, but I had no idea what that was – yet.

One of the first things that emerged was his paranoia. As he locked up his studio with a big chain and padlock, I said that it’s a good thing you’ve got that because – not that I know much about art – I reckon your paintings might be worth something some day. He said, “Oh don’t worry, I’ve got him up there.” Up beside a church he had this 24-hour armed guard overlooking the property who cocked his hat at us.

A friend who’d stayed with Jean Marc told me he had a curfew at 11pm every night. Jean Marc confirmed all this later. (He doesn’t do this anymore, I stress, as this was in 2004.) Anyone staying with him then was either in or out at 11pm. If you were out, you stayed in a hotel. If you were in, you stayed in your room. You could go to the bathroom but that was it – because at 11pm, he locked and bolted the front door, with a bar and padlock. Then he had this ritual every night, which lasted an hour. Across the hall floor he set 50 traps from the front door to his bedroom door. He’d been a special forces soldier so he knew about all this – spoons balancing on glasses, broken glass on the floor, objects someone might trip over, all sorts of elaborate pyramids, etc. – anything that would make a racket if you tripped on it so it would wake him. He then stationed his Rottweiler outside his bedroom door, another dog inside, and slept with a gun under his pillow – loaded. Apparently one guest disobeyed the orders, thinking he’d see all the traps. He went to the kitchen in the middle of the night and nearly got shot.

Actually, it was two years later that I went back to see him and interviewed him for 10 days. His name had been haunting me – Calvet. And what I heard. I’d never heard a story like his.

Filmmaker: I can imagine! And the first half of Calvet does unfold like a gangster flick – only to become a tale of a mature man’s prizing fatherhood over the high life. Why was presenting this facet important to you?

Allan: The second part is Calvet’s search for redemption, to try to make some amends for his past. Actually, when I first decided to make a film about him, it was purely about the extraordinary path this man took in his life up to that point, this other persona he forced himself to become, and how he eventually shed that, came to paint and returned to his true nature. But then it was so obvious that he carried this big weight. We had talked a lot about his son because he appeared in all his paintings, often in code. And I asked him why he hadn’t looked for him. He said he looked every single day on the Internet, and that he’d found a boy (this is in the film), but he was both too fearful to face him and thought it was a lost cause. How on earth could he be forgiven, let alone face his son, having abandoned him 12 years previously when his son was six? And I think all this conversation brought him back to the edge, and two months later he told me he wanted to go and find him. I said fine, I’ll go with you – but I won’t help you, other than be there for moral support, of course, and be someone to talk to. So it became Act Three in a sense, his redemption. We didn’t know if we’d find him – and that played on me a lot in terms of the film, I can tell you! Also how I’d handle it if we did. We did, and it unraveled in a way only God can explain. So the redemption of this man took place in the film, as it did in his life in front of us. As for the stylistic shift of gears in the film, when the search for his son kicks in, it just felt good to me. I liked the move.

Filmmaker: Yet Calvet, as its title implies, focuses nearly exclusively on Jean Marc and his art. Did you ever consider trying to include other “players” from his past?

Allan: Yes, and in fact in terms on corroborating everything on film, I thought I ought to. (I had already done full research, and had all the events confirmed by all sorts of people.) And I did interview his ex-wife, his mother, his father, a few friends who’d known him at different key moments. But I think I always suspected I wouldn’t use them. I trusted and was excited by the character of Calvet to carry the story – and it just felt much more powerful and intense that way. Only him. A kind of confessional. There was never any room for anyone else. I looked at the other interviews in the edit, but we never touched them. I’m sure some documentary traditionalists question this. (And that’s O.K.!)

Filmmaker: So can you discuss your use of fiction techniques, especially why you chose to employ slow and fast motion, time-lapse cinematography, and the off-kilter sound design?

Allan: When I first heard his story, I saw it as a kind of documentary thriller, as something quite particular. I wanted to make it so your experience would be that you associate it with (fiction) movies, yet you’d know it’s documentary at every turn. So it hooks, grabs and rips you through, taking you on a ride as you might in a gripping movie – yet you know clearly at every turn that this is real. So maintain the documentary integrity, but deliver a compelling movie. I wanted to do it quite differently compared to a conventional documentary style, just because this is the way I saw it. His story is epic, the past and the present threads, the locations in Central America, Miami, New York and the South of France. His art and the shift from that darkness and violence to a place of hope and inspiration. I saw it as an intimate road movie, yet big and cinematic too. I think his story offered that, and I set about making it in that way.

There were lots of reasons for the various styles and techniques. The slow motion I only used at the point where his life changed, rather where one man died and the other was born, the idea of life ceasing to function any longer and grinding to a halt. The pace of the cut in some sequences along with the fast motion and so on, were either to reflect his energy, his personality at that point in the story, or to pace or create the kind of energy in the scene as we wanted. The time-lapse vistas do two things, I think. They lend scale and contrast, suggest time passing of course, but also in this case a life out of control, like a bad trip (or maybe a beautiful one, depending on your point of view!) The soundscape in the film was a crucial part of building atmosphere, often for the psychological nature of the film. The same for the music, I didn’t want anything culturally specific, rather music that reflects a more psychological aspect, and that goes deeper.

Filmmaker: I notice that your previous docs have dealt with the environment (The Pipeline), politics (Mandela: The Living Legend) and the military (Israel Undercover). Jean Marc’s story may be bigger than life, but it certainly isn’t issue-themed. Do you see yourself branching out with Calvet, or is it in fact an extension of your other work?

Allan: Calvet is a departure from other films I’ve made in that it’s my first independent feature, whereas the others were commissioned for TV. I think the criteria for me has always been a compelling emotional story, and now I’d choose to make a compelling emotional story that can make a difference, that contributes even in a small way. Calvet may not be an issue film in the way we tend to talk about issue films these days. Though I’d insist that the film is about as issue-driven as it gets, in that it’s about us. At the core it’s about human dysfunction and our ability to change. That’s about as big a social issue as it gets, arguably the issue that resides at the root of all others. Jean Marc’s story is extreme of course, but I think we identify strongly.

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