In a recent interview with Rolf De Heer, on the subject of influences and inspiration he told me, “I always think I am the son of all the influences I have ever had, which is all the films I have ever seen, and all of the life I have lived.” This strikes me as being true in regards to French writer-director-editor Robin Campillo, whose cinematic journey has been a patient one. It is one intertwined with cultural, social and personal experiences.
Talking with Campillo one can sense he is a willing student of the craft of storytelling and filmmaking, wherein he has discovered a rebellious tendency which sees him willing to hand himself over to both the process and the inherent collaboration of filmmaking in order to, in his words, “be surprised.”
The home invasion sub-genre is a well-established one, but Eastern Boys (2014) offers a twist on this tale – an home invasion by invitation, as well as a study of the metamorphosis of love through the triangular relationship between the film’s three lead characters.
In conversation with Film International Campillo reflected upon his long journey to the director’s chair, the influence of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965) in his formative years, as well as his belief in disregarding film as a stepped process, and his perspective of the creative process as one that is an education and one that requires the relinquishing of control.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there that one inspirational moment?
It’s very complicated. In fact I attended film school with Laurent Cantet, who directed The Class (2008, which Campillo co-wrote and edited), but that was thirty years ago now. For many years I was not sure of what kind of film I wanted to make, and so it took me time to find a project I was interested in. When Laurent started to make films, first he asked me to work for him as an editor and then as a scriptwriter, perhaps in order for me to return to the cinema to make my own projects.
My first film The Returned (2004), about the dead who were coming back to life, was inspired by the AIDS epidemic. I was interested in the fact that most of my friends were ill and were living like dead people, and this is what inspired it. But after making The Returned it took time to find another subject that I wanted to direct, and so the script for Eastern Boys took some time to write. But I wanted to talk about a weird relationship where love goes through a lot of metamorphoses, and so for me it was a crucial thing that I wanted to do, which is why I made Eastern Boys.
I’ve read that Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville was an inspirational film in your formative years. What was it about Alphaville that impacted you in such a way?
Alphaville was a very strong inspiration. The first time I saw it was in Madagascar in a military cinema. My father was in the Air Force and I remember how when the film was shown it was a scandal; people were screaming. I was amazed because back then in the sixties the atmosphere of the film was both mesmerising and frightening.
I was always thinking of this kind of cold atmosphere [in a film] through which you are moving without knowing what is going on between the characters and where you are a little lost in the middle of the film with no compass. I love this feeling of being free and lost in the film.
Talking about The Returned you touch upon the importance of everyday life and how your personal experiences influence your work. As a writer and director does film offer a means to explore your personal world and experiences in order to better understand them?
It is very strange because I have this feeling that the film is inspired a little bit by Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). In the end Olivier [Rabourdin] by going to choose his character in the station at the beginning of the film, who he then takes to his home to make him part of his life is a little bit like a director, and so he is representing me in the film. It was a little similar to the relationship between Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak in the second part of Vertigo.
I made my first film thinking that being a director is mostly about trying to control everything on the shoot, whereas for this film it was the opposite way of thinking – in order to make this film better I should allow myself to be invaded by the actors. The film is shot in my own apartment, and so for me it was rather honest to have this feeling that it’s the others who are coming to my home to explain to me what my film was about. So it’s a way of losing myself, but I also wanted to re-invent myself by trying to find a way of creating cinema that was not only about controlling the actors and directing everything. Rather I wanted to be surprised, and that’s what we were going on.
The two processes of writing and directing inherently inform one another, but how does the editing process inform the writing and directing of the film?
When you are doing a film I don’t like that you have these different stages whereby you have to do it in the right order. For instance if I’m working on a new script and I try to contact a Scottish actor because I think it could be good for my film, and yet I didn’t write anything about this character, when I am in contact the script needs to already be written. I don’t like that you have to respect all of the steps before going forward. So most of the time I try to write a script that is a little bit free, and afterwards for instance with Eastern Boys I tried to find Russian actors to quickly play it out. It took time and when I found them I asked them to come to my apartment where with Olivier I did a lot of improvisation. I filmed all of this with my own camera and afterwards I re-wrote the whole script. What was interesting was I could then show my cinematographer what I had shot so that he could see exactly what I wanted, whether it was landscapes through the windows or such.
I think it is better when you don’t respect the steps, and I even sometimes edited some of my improvised rushes on my own computer to look at because I found it helped. Most of the time you write a script and afterwards you meet the actor, when you then have to show that they will embody the character exactly as you wrote it one year before. I don’t like this idea. I like to always be on the move, and to able to always change things in order to make them stronger or more realistic.
Your work from The Returned, The Class to Eastern Boys suggests an interest in young people along with the interaction between young and old. Would this be a fair assessment?
I have this feeling that my three characters: Daniel [Olivier Rabourdin], Boss [Daniil Vorobyov] and Marek [Kirill Emelyanov] could be the same person at different ages. In a sense I have this impression that Daniel is going to get this young guy at the station because he is trying to re-connect with his own youth. It is a very strange and quite a narcissistic thing. I think Boss is a migrant because he doesn’t want to settle down; he wants to go through borders to escape time and to escape ageing. He’s trying to escape all of that and that’s why he’s so mean to Daniel at the beginning of the film when he says to him, “You are old because you don’t move, and you eat and you drink too much.” He’s afraid, and I told Daniil who plays Boss, “I don’t want you to play a hooligan or this kind of thing. I want you to be like someone who doesn’t want to get old, and who wants to be on the move all of the time.” You know Peter Pan is a cool figure himself, and I was really inspired by that.
At the same time I have this feeling that there is a jealousy between Boss and Marek during moments in the film, perhaps because Boss is a little bit jealous that Marek has been chosen by this older guy [Daniel]. He doesn’t understand why he is not the chosen one, and at the end of the film when he comes back to the apartment, perhaps out of vengeance, at the same time it is a way of coming back home.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.