By Tom Ue.
Marc Lahore grew up between a mountain of VHS and a heap of comics. He became a voluntary projectionist, then a TV editor, pursuing at the same time a university course in English language and culture. He directed a series of quite different, often strange, short films (the last one of which, DO , is currently being screened all around the world), deliberately choosing disconcerting forms. He likes to explore, or rediscover, varied worlds and concepts. The Open is his first feature film.
Marc recently won the CNC’s “Aide à la réécriture” (a state grant for the development of feature films), and is today putting the finishing touches to Joe Louis’ Left Hand, a rural Pyrenean drama, alongside Nicolas Peufaillit (Un Prophète, Les Revenants), at the same time he is working on a political series for France 4 (B-82, directed by Marc Fouchard).
The Open follows André and Stéphane as they prepare for the French Open — but in a post-apocalyptic world following global warfare. Without a ball and strings in their rackets, their commitment nonetheless moves Ralph, a guerrilla, to join their game. In what follows, Marc Lahore discusses the process of making The Open, including shooting the film in the Scottish Highlands and producing a visionary film with a small team and over a short shoot. The Open premiered at the Leeds International Film Festival.
Congratulations on this inventive post-apocalyptic film! It is so nice to see the film celebrated at Leeds. This is your first full-length feature after a number of shorts. What has the transition been like?
Hell, you need to pay your crew on a feature film — otherwise you won’t be able to make it to a proper French cinema release — whereas you don’t when you’re shooting a short movie. Which means I went from a usual crew of around 30 people to a skeleton crew of nine — nine stakhanovist and polyvalent pilgrims hell-bent on shooting the movie.
The production process of this film is well documented in your blog, tweets, and Facebook messages. To what extent is it important to communicate with your viewers? What has the response to the film been like?
Indeed, documenting the production and shooting of this movie is particularly important in the sense that many people, sponsors and potential supporters refused to help us during its preproduction phase, arguing that shooting a movie that way — with nine crew members and virtually no money — was altogether impossible. So not only do we want to prove that it was indeed perfectly credible (although incredibly hard), but we also need to make it apparent that all was done “dans les rails,” as we say — by the book.
As for the response to the film, well… I’m just back from Leeds, and I’m more than happy to say that the experience was delightful: the audience loved the movie, came to meet us with dozens of interesting questions and remarks, professed being moved, and gave us amazing marks — to the festival’s crew’s amazement and ours, since we had no idea that such a singular, rather difficult, “what-the-f**ck,” movie could turn into a crowd-pleaser. Nous sommes ravis, quoi.
The film has now been compared with John Hillcoat’s The Road (2009). Did you have that work or Cormac McCarthy’s novel (2006) in mind as you were scripting and filming? What were some of your inspirations?
The Road is a masterpiece, and it is indeed an honor to have The Open compared to such a powerful work — whether we’re talking about the book or its movie adaptation. And yes, it was a major influence on the script, especially because of the way it deals with everyday routine and apparently minor details: you’ll have noticed that I have my characters washing their clothes on a regular basis, for instance….
Yet my main influence probably remains Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man — a beautifully shot, almost silent, poetic movie following the journey of, well, a dead man.
And then, of course, et bien évidemment, I’ve always loved Mad Max (as well as some of its offspring, such as the RPG Bitume MK5)!
How did you define yourself against these other post-apocalyptic films?
I was happy to pay a tribute to the Great Old Ones (to quote Lovecraft), indeed; however, The Open being at least as much a sport movie as it is a science-fiction one, I knew from the very start that the movie would have to find his very own pace and forms — you cannot compete with Mad Max in terms of action, nor with The Road in terms of darkness, with so little money — and so little time.
Significantly few scenes of the world prior to the apocalypse appear in the film. How far in the future do you envision this film being set?
That is a good question, although I left temporal indications unclear on purpose — the movie being a fable before anything else.
Yet I did allow myself to give the audience a (blurry) hint as to the timeframe of the movie, by having Ralph ask Steffi if she ever played against Sharapova — ”Was she still good?,” he asks, as if he were talking about an old, worn out player….
So much of the film relies on its three central actors: James Northcote, Maia Levasseur-Costil, and Pierre Benoist. Tell us about the casting.
Maia had played in virtually all of my movies, from the very first one onward, and I knew of no other actress possessing such a Valkyrie-like intensity on screen: she was therefore the obvious — and only — choice. James came to me thanks to a friend’s suggestion (my friend having heard of this great young actor and sent him the script), and he proved nothing short of amazing: not only is he extremely talented, but he is a great human being as well—humble, generous, brave. Finally, I had been working with Pierre on my previous short movie — a black, mean, sick satire overflowing with aggressive political undertones, DO, and I knew he’d prove the perfect André.
The film involves many tennis games with no balls and no strings in the rackets. Why tennis?
One: I’ve learnt to love the game, its looks, its rhythm, its rules; as well as the dedication, focus and strategy, plus the extraordinary physical abilities it requires from its players.
Two: the game my characters play had to seem absurd at first — so much so that Ralph would have to dismiss it entirely before even trying to think about why Stéphanie and André are so keen on playing it. And what could seem more absurd than a tennis game without an actual ball?
Three: tennis strikes me as an incredibly cinematic, Western game. Its history is packed with mythic rivalries and duels, and its very form, atmosphere and purely, let’s say, “graphic dimension” all remind me of typical Leonesque standoffs. It is an absolute shame that no filmmaker — none that I know of, anyway — ever actually gave this sport the cinematic credit it deserves. (Well, there was the rather cute Wimbledon, I guess; but the film, nice as it was, lacked a proper vision of the game.)
And four: tennis depends on, before anything else, a mere rectangle laid on the ground — a frame within which the action takes place. Just as cinema depends on a mere rectangle of cloth laid on a wall — yet another frame within which the action takes place… And the fact is that The Open is, in the end, not so much a movie about tennis as it is a movie about cinema (and fiction), and the need we all share to believe in something — to quote French poet Paul Valéry, we would be non-entities “but for the help of what doesn’t exist,” whether this may refer to the rules of a rather strange game or to the power of fiction.
How important was it to keep the fiction alive both within the film and beyond?
As I’ve just said, I’m absolutely, intimately convinced that we do need to resort to fiction on an everyday basis, and keep telling ourselves — and the people around us — stories, which help us in finding the will and strength to go on, no matter what may be happening in our lives, be it a new World War…
How good in tennis were the actors? Did they have to go through physical training for this role?
James and Maia were not regular tennis players, so that they had to train a lot to make it look as if they actually knew what they were doing. They had a tennis coach in Paris, Micka, who trained them for a few days and helped them acquire some specific moves and mannerisms. But in the end they had to train a lot on their own — James got into the habit of waking up in London to go and play imaginary tennis next to his flat. And yeah, he did get some odd looks, he says…
Who is better at tennis?
I had a very talented tennis player come to my house as the editing was coming to an end, so as to make sure our tennis sequences would not appear ridiculous. The guy loved what he saw, although he did notice a handful of minor flaws in my actors’ game (“but,” he said, “no one except very good players will notice; and those who do will have to acknowledge the amount of work your actors went through, so everything’s fine”). I can therefore safely say that Maia’s backhand is almost perfect, while James’ serve and forehand are both slick and powerful.
The Open is immaculately shot in the Scottish Highlands. What was the location scouting like?
I fell in love with Scotland as a child, and had a pretty good idea of the look the Highlands would offer my movie; yet the location scouting — which I carried out six months before we started shooting — proved rather difficult, since most of the locations were quite hard to reach (especially during the winter); all the more since the Scottish Highlands are always, always wet. And cold. And muddy.
What were some of the challenges of making a film there? Did the climate affect what you could do?
An advice to my fellow filmmakers: do not go and shoot in the Highlands. Especially if you have no money. The conditions over there are those of a liquid hell on Earth. The light keeps changing, the rain never truly stops, the wind can prevent you from shooting (or “merely” from recording the sounds), the sand attacks both your equipment and skin, the midges are an actual plague. Hell, I even fell — twice! — into quicksands!? Everything that can go bad will, as a general — and typically Scottish — rule. None of us had ever suffered that much on a set — and we never will again, I’m quite positive about that. Which is another reason for writing the blog, so as to keep a vivid memory of all the abominations we had to endure in order to complete our shooting.
It may seem funny from a distance, but we truly, truly suffered — crying crew members soon became an usual sight. Fortunately, and I’ll never stress it enough, our team proved heroic. Tous pour un, et un pour tous, for real. We fought as a family, found solutions together to whatever problems could arise, and kept on motivating and inspiring one another.
My actors proved especially brave, since they did suffer even more than the rest of us did — being dressed as tennis players, for hours and hours on end, out there in the cold. The COLD, even. With their feet in the water and thin T-shirts glued to their shivering bodies… Ha bordel. And yet they went on, for the sake of the movie, trusting me no matter what. I’ll never thank them — my actors as well as the crew members, by the way — enough. Maia, James, Pierre; Romain, Sarah, Claire, Jean-Fred, Cyril, Ben, thanks again. I love you all.
Et bien sûr, I’ll advise you to read the blog if you want to get more details on this dreadful shooting.
What were some of the benefits of shooting outdoors?
The Highlands, their green moss, peaty grounds, black rocks and raging sea provide the most romantic and wild scenery that a director can dream of. Shooting there is incredibly difficult, but hell, the settings do look nice. And, well, the idea was to avoid making a movie with three people sitting and talking in the middle of a Parisian flat from the very start… Mission accomplie, I guess.
The composition and the film’s editing are immaculate. Tell us about the film’s postproduction process.
First of all, thank you. Ça me va droit au cœur.
Since I started my career as a movie and TV editor, I know exactly what I have to shoot in order to make sure that a sequence works in the end, and since we had a very limited amount of time to shoot our movie — three six-day weeks, no more — I shot everything trying to be as synthetic and effective as I could, knowing that I would be the one editing my pictures later on.
I’ll note here that just as I was “the picture team” all by myself; my friend Romain was “the sound team” on his own. And he did an absolutely tremendous job, editing thousands of sounds he took on location and reshaping the entire atmosphere of the movie to make it sound like the “depressive Western” I had in mind.
A quick word about the music, too: dDamage, a rather famous French electro music duo, composed a beautiful, atmospheric and haunting soundtrack for the movie; I’ll never thank them enough for their work, passion and dedication.
What is next for you as a filmmaker?
I am now working on three different new features: a rural, social thriller brimming with comic undertones, quite reminiscent of a type of rather strange movies French directors shot in the 60’s and 70’s (you can never really tell whether you’re watching a drama or a comedy); a human drama I like to call “my very own Danish movie,” confronting three Basque misfits — an ex-soldier, a boxing champion and a young student coming back from Paris; as well as a partly autobiographical and incredibly dark film focusing on a social worker and her relation to a young, illegal Tamil immigrant.
Finally, how good are you at tennis?
Eeeeer. Le piège. Well, to be honest, I suck at tennis. But I’m rather good at the pelote basque, so I suppose it’s worth something?
Tom Ue writes for Film International. His bestselling edited collection World Film Locations: Toronto was published by Intellect in April 2014, and he is presently writing a book about the White Messiah in contemporary films. He has recently completed the Dictionary of Literary Biography 377: Twenty-First Century British Novelists (Gale, 2015). Ue gained his Ph.D. from the Department of English Language and Literature at University College London.