In Features, Issues

MR. ROBOTO

BY MIKE PLANTE

DAFT PUNK'S ELECTROMA. PHOTO BY: DAFT ARTS

Here's an extended version of the interview with Daft Punk in the summer issue.

The French duo known as Daft Punk do not pop out as filmmakers, but as house music legends. Friends since their early teens, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo went from rock bands to superstardom in the electronic music world in the mid-90s with the bedroom-produced album Homework. Their success has continued with more albums and massive tours.

After an accident in the studio, the two became robots. Few photos of their human past exist, and they rarely do interviews. Following a string of unique music videos directed by other directors and themselves, the duo worked with legendary anime director (and their childhood hero) Leiji Matsumoto on the animated feature Interstella 5555. An energetic mix of new Daft Punk songs and classic 1970s anime style, Interstella 5555 breached a new art form for the duo, who are always experimenting with various creative means.

Bangalter and de Homem-Christo directed their first feature Electroma in 2006 and premiered it at Cannes to audiences who loved or hated it. The film has since become a midnight cult movie screening around the world. A beautiful, seductive journey following the two Daft Punk robots through a sci-fi desert experience, Electroma is reminiscent of minimal yet powerful films from the 1970s explosion of studio funding meeting the artistic underground. Electroma comes out on DVD this July in a metal casing with a 40-page photo book.

Intelligent and soft-spoken, Daft Punk may do few interviews but have solid ideas to share.

DAFT PUNK'S ELECTROMA. PHOTO BY: DAFT ARTS

Is it an accident that you guys first became robots and now you've got an entire feature film about robots? Or is this some 10-year-plan?

Bangalter: The whole way we generally look at art is try to capture our spontaneity and let accidents happen. At the same time meddle in creative cultures. The rendition of spontaneity can take a few years or more. For [Interstella 5555] we built the storyline in a few hours and spent three years on it. It all comes to try and capture the simplicity of something and sometimes it takes years to do so, but there are no plans whatsoever. We work on a daily position to create and broaden forms of expression. That's pretty much the only plan. The rest is purely accidental.

Was Electroma supposed to be a music video when you started it?

Bangalter: Initially, some kind of short film or music video. I think it rapidly evolved to something different because we saw that there was a possibility to capture visually something we wanted to do and play with just the format of theatrical experience. It became more obvious to us that we should push it into more of an experimental direction. Less of something big we could market and more of a creative project.

Was there a group of financiers you had to make happy?

Bangalter: No. Most of what we've done, we've always been able to be in charge. It's good because you cannot give it to somebody else or it can be a harder thing because you're the only judge of what you do and how you do it. We're very fortunate to be in charge of our own position.

The film feels very natural, each scene flows to the next.

de Homem-Christo: When we were editing, I tried to make sure that the movie will not be funny, but funny enough to carry an ambition or feelings of the robots' intuition that are ready to come out. Maybe it's because we knew the robots and the uniforms. When we are directing we are approaching our vision in a way that is unconventional I think. We were trying different things at the last minute, things like that.

But its very different than shooting it, especially being in such a beautiful place. Being there when the sun rises up at four in the morning, and living the strange journey of the robots. Doing all that traveling was great, with a really nice crew and everyone on the same trip. It was a lot of work, not the usual stress, but positive stress. It's the first movie we did but just by the fun we had on set we want to do that again.

How was viewing it with a crowd?

de Homem-Christo: The funniest ones were when people leave. I think sometimes they thought the movie was too long or boring for them. The critics were leaving the theater. They had a bad reaction, which was no reaction. It's a challenge to show a film with all these movies at the festivals. Sitting in the theater with the people was very cool. We tried to get their reaction from getting them in a situation where they would project his or her own ideas of the film. But the stopping and the feeding at the private screenings with cake available, we don't do that, we didn't want that to be the motive [of being at a film festival].

You are fans of midnight movies, did you have those types of screenings in mind?

Bangalter: We didn't really think about an audience. We were trying to mix different styles and different universes. Combining minimal science fiction pinnacle universe with something much more small with warm natural landscapes. Mixing nature with strange technology as well. It's playing with codes, but at the same time we're just trying to combine different elements to come up with a different experience. I think filmmaking is usually very coded with a pre-formatted alphabet in certain ways and we're trying to get our limits outside of that, through maybe using some old language that you currently don't feel in theaters right now.

de Homem-Christo: We don't do stuff for others, as opposed to doing it the best we can for ourselves. When the work goes outside the bedroom, for example, and people like it, its even better. We are not looking desperately for success or to make people like what we do. We want to make it the most honest and best way for us, which I think makes people like it even more.

We are really happy with Electroma - with the [recent] major live show there were thousands of people there, Electroma was at the other end. Very low key, more underground, rather than a blockbuster. It's a movie that plays theaters at midnight on Saturday nights. I think in America and everywhere, it fits a niche of a cult movie. I wont say Electroma is - its too much of an honor, but its really cool that Electroma plays as a midnight movie like El Topo did in the '70s. That's the place for Electroma rather than a big premiere with red carpets and stuff. We would be happy if it plays once a week for the right people. It's a deep, deep surprise for us and the people we worked with.

Many writers have described Electroma as a silent movie just because there is no dialogue. But there is a lot of scenes with no music, and you didn't make your own score. You worked hard on the sound design.

Bangalter: It's the same approach we do in music. When you work with minimalism, what's not there is really important. In fact it's so void and so sparse. The only element that appears becomes really noticed. It's the same thing if you have a scene with 1,000 extras. It's different than having just one guy sitting on a train even if he doesn't speak. Everything that appears on the screen is in the soundtrack and that becomes empty. You are not dealing with filling the space, you are subtracting.

We like the idea of a piece that you could not time update in the way that you don't know if the film is from the '70s, the '80s or the '90s or it pretty much could have happened last year. There's no cue toward the time you usually have today. You can tell either way by the way the film looks. You can still look at something that happened during the 16th century and you would think about it by some technical standards, such as a rotting building.

de Homem-Christo: Working with bizarre silence, it was important to get the right timing and amount of texture. Like when we make music we are working with textures, sensual feeling of music, the grain of it and the texture, while working with both sound and the image, we are capable of getting the latex of them.

DAFT PUNK'S ELECTROMA. PHOTO BY: DAFT ARTS

I thought the scene where the two robots stare at each other was very sad. I can't really point to any reason why - there's no facial expressions.

de Homem-Christo: That's exactly what we wanted in the movie was that challenge. How can you get any emotion out of robots with no eyes or voice-over? Without eyes, without noses, without mouths, with nothing.

It works with the timing. They're walking through the desert but at some point they have to do certain things and that's what seems to work, to give emotion, right?

de Homem-Christo: Yes, because you expect something coming. Most movies you can expect what's going to happen. For the people who followed the robots, like the robots, they don't know what they are doing or where they are going. If the people who watch the movie who started at the beginning and [went on the same] journey, that's what we want.

There's a lot of texture in the images. Obviously you've already got the leather costumes and the well-designed helmets, but then you've got that Ferrari and the white room.

Bangalter: We usually work a lot in music with textures and designing sounds to really get the effect. Whether it's grain or hiss, focusing on the physical sensation or the physical feeling of how you can experience something. We were really trying to shoot the film with that experience and the feeling in your gut. We almost wanted some images that looked like the '80s hair-brushed painting. Or some shots that looked like CG, but they were real. This idea of hyper-reality where you don't know whether it's reality or if it's not.

I got the idea that you guys didn't use any sort of effects.

Bangalter: There are some. I think the key in what we think about using effects is that they're not necessary. Or they must integrate much more friendly. That's the problem with today is that there is much more integration of graphics and effects. The problem is that in the action of things moving, you like what you are looking at, but it doesn't work because you know what you are seeing is computer graphics. Maybe you'll have some old props and old effects or some old sets at the time, but I feel that it becomes a whole thing of shopping because you were marketed and fooled by what you were looking at because you were believing in what you were seeing.

A midnight movie has such a lucid event about it - playing once, late, in one theater in town. With Electroma coming out on DVD, is that going to have a different effect watching it?

Bangalter: We're looking forward to the Blue Ray DVD release as well. We're always trying to experiment with DVDs. When our DVD [D.A.F.T.] was released in the '90s, we shot a live music show with nine camera angles, where on the DVD you could do your own editing. Sometimes you're watching a better print on DVD than you would in the theater even though you lack the better experience. But the merging of the qualities of the visual side as well as the audio side is getting better.

With you operating the camera and you both being directors, did you figure out along the way how you guys were going to split duties?

Bangalter: It was a bit of a challenge because I needed to work on the exposure as well as some very particular changes on the film. Usually I like to go into the film and into the music as well and Guy will be an editor or will step back and he'll have a better view of the results and of the shot. Our visions are what we go through. I might now see the whole picture when I'm very close to the talent. He'll be away from it, he has a different take and we'll take those together and make the right choices. We've been creating things and knowing each other for 20 years now so it's a pretty natural process.

Is there another format you want to try?

de Homem-Christo: We keep on experimenting, we keep on trying to reach ground we haven't before, or do things that we had the impression that we could not do. We keep doing things that make us happy or amused, you know? We try to stay like children playing. If we get bored we go on with something else.

Are you planning another film?

de Homem-Christo: I hope we do. The same with music - the more we work the more we want to do it. The format isn't important. [Not] more than the envy to do something.



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