French filmmaker Lucile Hadzihalilovic, won the Jury Prize for Best Cinematography at San Sebastian and Stockholm last year 2015 for her marine-based fantasy Horror outing EVOLUTION. Here she talks to Matthew Turner about how teenage appendicitis sparked the original idea for the feature.
Lucile Hadzihalilovic (LH): Well, at the very beginning it was just the boy and his mother and the hospital and this idea that the mother was taking her son, who is beginning to grow up, to kind of get another child. But I think when I think back to where it comes from, I think it’s a very autobiographical film. It really came from my own childhood, I would say, my fears, my expectations and especially, when I was ten or eleven, there was a moment – so I was going to become a teenager and I had appendicitis, so I had to go to the hospital. And it was just a normal experience, like many other children have. But it’s so strange this thing, that you are in this hospital with adults who are touching and opening your body and cutting something out of it and this strange pain in the belly etc. And at the same time, this idea that I was going to have my period very soon and become a teenager, so I think these were different elements that where linked at that time. So I think it’s based on that time and then my life and this fears about metamorphosis, about pregnancy. So this is where the idea comes from.
MJT: In the hospital waiting room, there wasn’t a big aquarium with lots of starfish in it?
LH: Maybe! Maybe there was and I didn’t remember at the time, but I remember through the film. But it’s funny, because the ocean came afterwards – at the beginning it was just the hospital and I thought, okay, it’s in the city. But suddenly I realised that it should be on the seaside. And of course the ocean brings the perfect setting for the story. And then it also gives room to explore deeper feelings, maybe more primitive feelings and of course linked to the mother, to the womb, so they are a kind of lost paradise but at the same time it’s an amazing place but it’s also kind of scary and really mysterious. And the mysterious aspect of it was really very much what I was looking for, for the film. It’s like a subject by itself, in a way, the mystery of the world and all the changing.
MJT: Where were the locations for the film?
LH: We shot the film in the Canary Islands, in one of the Canary Islands, which is called Lanzarote. And when I wrote the script I didn’t know these places, but one of the producers knew them and he thought that it would be a very good place to shoot the film, for budgetary reasons, but also for artistic reasons. And he was totally right because the great thing in this island is this volcanic seaside, very black and very dramatic and at the same time there is the strength of the sea with the wind and the waves. And this village, which is both familiar and a bit strange. I was looking for this ambiguity, this ambivalence and for me it was very important that the place was very attractive but at the same time gives a kind of anxiety, this feeling of isolation – I think it’s very much about also being isolate, about being separated from the world and still kind of being in the realms of motherhood. So i felt that really, in this landscape. we had really very little to do to have this feeling of being in another reality, very close to ours.
LH: I know that it really looks like there are many, many similarities, to the point where people ask me if it’s like a diptych. I really didn’t think about it like that, because it wasn’t like, ‘I’ve done the girls, now I’m going to do the boys’. It wasn’t like that. It was more again, the very beginning of this script was even before Innocence and it was, as I said, a more intimate story with the boy and his mother. And I thought that it was more interesting with a boy, more striking, more nightmarish, more abnormal. And I also felt that I could portray myself as a boy rather than as a girl, in this situation. If it had been a teenager, it wouldn’t have been the same, but as a child, I thought it worked. So it didn’t come from this idea of a group of boys, it was more like Nicolas and his mother and the boy’s fear, and then I developed the idea of this whole community around them and maybe it has been influenced by Innocence, even if I really tried to go somewhere else with more narrative and this one is more of a genre film. So I tried to do something else, but I really see the similarities and also this microcosm, which is both kind of paradise and prison. And also the weird biology elements. Of course, in Evolution, it’s dark, it’s much darker than Innocence, but there’s also a kind of moment of feeling of liberation and joy, like at the end with the nurse under the water that maybe is a bit similar to that moment with the fountain at the end of Innocence, and then also this water element. And again, it’s a coming of age story. That one is more like a disturbed one, but it was not really on purpose, it just came by itself.
MJT: I certainly think Innocence prepares you for EVOLUTION, in a way. So if you’ve seen Innocence, you’re already prepared for the rhythms and moods of EVOLUTION. So you haven’t considered a trilogy then?
LH: But what could it be now, if it’s a trilogy? I guess that with children, what is interesting for me with children is that I can create kind of a new, different universe, because they are still open, quite new in the world, so they don’t know very much, so they make their own links and they are kind of creative, So I guess what would interest me in other films would be maybe to work on some kind of madness that permits also to create a world by itself. I mean to mix dreams and reality. It’s a kind of artificial narration, I guess, to have a character that guide you to this kind of thing. So with children it’s easy for me to do it. Maybe someone else has to deal with madness or so, I don’t know. So in that way, there could be the third chapter.
LH: In fact, we did a lot. I know we don’t see much in the film, really, but with my co-writer, at some point we really developed much more of the script about this universe, who exactly these women are and what their relationship is with the starfish. And we imagined things like the starfish, at the very beginning because it’s a very familiar motif, like these images of children playing with starfish gives the impression of happiness. Then if you really look at the starfish it’s such a strange animal and very far away from the kind of being we are and it has a lot of interesting characteristics that we had a whole back story for, where they could resist radioactivity, they can regenerate themselves, and also it’s a very, very primitive animal that has been on the Earth since…for a very long time – I don’t remember exactly how long. So yeah, we did a lot of research and it was also very exciting to see how they reproduce and what about the larvae and many of these marine creatures are very fascinating because they are so kind of alien. So this is the kind of research we did to feed ourselves, to feed our imaginations, rather than really being very scientific about it. And then I had to cut a lot of things in the script for budget reasons, so many details disappeared. And a few of those things were about the starfish.
MJT: What kind of things did you have to cut out? Was there anything in particular that you were sorry to see go?
LH: At the end, maybe it’s because I really don’t want to be sorry about what I cut, because it’s how it was, but there is a whole other layer in the film that was including other people, other sets, other scenes, more special effects, also, but it was not like one scene which was too expensive, no, it was really a kind of other narrative layer – probably this layer would have brought more explanation, somehow, not really explanation in the way that – it’s not who are the people that are doing these things, it’s more like there are more links, who these women are. But maybe it’s also an element that we have developed through the years because it has been very difficult to finance the film, so many times we had some reaction from people saying, ‘Oh, we don’t understand, why this, why that?’ So at some point the producer wanted me to make it more explicit, etc. So we developed it a little bit more, but also we thought it was a very dangerous path to go down, because it could have just killed the film to explain it all, because at the end it’s so not logical, it’s more like a dream, like a nightmare, it’s more like elements from the unconscious rather than a sci-fi, very logical explanation, and so it was very difficult to do that. But nevertheless, we had many elements and one at the end we had to cut again because it was too expensive. Probably it was all these additional elements that were easier to cut, because then the heart of the project was not really in these things. So it went back more to something more like a nightmare, like a dream, more oneric, rather than a moral, sci-fi thing. So there was just a little hint of it.
MJT: How important is the colour scheme to the film, the use of colours? Are they symbolic in some way?
LH: No, it was more like feelings. For instance, I very much wanted the film to be very colourful, even if we had just black and white landscape outside of the water and not so much colour in the clothes etc. So I felt the sea should be very colourful because when you see these creatures on the water or in the weeds, they have a lot of colours, very strong colours sometimes, and this is what is so exciting about shooting under the water. So I knew that I could have some colours and some kind of exuberant moment in the film. And then there is this colour of the green of the sea, and then that. should help us in the hospital to get the sea back, in a way. So we had these green walls that bring the feeling of the sea from the colour. And then there was of course the red starfish, and red is always a dramatic colour and a very strong one, especially if you don’t have so many other colours, so we had the green and the red of the starfish and then we needed to continue this red a bit, and so we had this red bathing suit on the child and yeah, it’s a way to underline or to dramatise a few moments but it’s not like a symbol.
MJT: Were there any particular visual influences on the film, in terms of maybe other films, or paintings or anything like that?
LH. Yes. I think probably the main influences visually were more like from paintings, from the surrealism, like Chirico (an Italian painter from the ’20s and ’30s), for this village where the presence of the architecture is very strong, very dramatic, this idea of a sunny place with long, enigmatic shadows or things like that. So Chirico and also painters like Max Ernst, Tanguy or even Dali, because they have painted the seaside a lot as a very alien place, but also very organic and I was really trying to be as organic as possible in this film. So yes, I had these kind of visual references. As for films, I didn’t have many references, consciously, I mean – there was one – Who Can Kill A Child? Again, not for the story but for the mood, like this white village, with empty streets and only children, so it was a bit strange. That was maybe the main conscious influence of a film that I had. And then I think there is another one that was very, very different visually, but it was more about the mood, it was Eraserhead. For instance, I always felt that we really shouldn’t have a creature, but a puppet that looked like a baby. It’s really far from being as great as the one in Eraserhead, but this was the reference, not to have the same thing, but to have a very physical presence that looked real.
MJT: What was the most difficult thing to get right?
LH: Well, it was difficult to structure the story, because I really began with feelings, situations, emotions, visuals, sounds and elements, so at some point we really had to make a story out it, to have these images that happen, so there was a difficulty there and I was very lucky to be able to work with Alante Kavaite, my co-writer – she helped me a lot, in structuring all this material. But probably the main problem was the one I was telling you about, when people were saying, ‘We don’t understand this film, what kind of film is it, is it a genre film, is it something else?’ So we really tried to make them understand. For instance, the ending was also – not for me, because for me it was really like what it is in the film, always – we should arrive at a particular place, but it’s not back to reality or it’s not a happy ending. It’s, okay, he has escaped from the island, but maybe now it’s another cycle. But it was difficult because people thought they wanted a kind of explanation or a definitive ending, ‘So, is it that or is it that? Was it true or was it not true? Where are the facts?’ So it was difficult to deal with these things without destroying the film. So the difficulty was really to try in the script to make people understand what the film was about and give a feel for the nature of the film without giving too much explanation. Like, okay, it’s metaphorical but we can’t really explain it or show you what the metaphor is about. It’s not like someone’s dream and suddenly it’s a boy who is in hospital and he’s dreaming of this island, no. But at one point we were kind of being pushed to do things like that, to be more explicit, so that balance was difficult to achieve.
MJT: Do you have a particular favourite scene or moment in the film?
LH: I guess because it was a shot that I was not there for when it was done – it’s probably the underwater shots made by the diver who was like a second unit. So we said we would like these kinds of things with weeds and so on, but I’m not a diver and neither was the DP, so at some point we had to let him do it by himself and.he came back with these amazing images and this was like, ‘Oh, wow’. They were a great surprise and I was so happy about that – I thought it would really bring a lot to the film and it was really exactly what I was looking for. So yes, it’s the underwater scenes that you see right at the beginning.
MJT: The casting is interesting because you have a couple of well-known actors…
LH: In fact, Julie-Marie Parmentier is well known, because she has done many films now, and Roxane Duran is more at the beginning of her career, but she made The White Ribbon with Michael Haneke. I thought of Julie-Marie straught away, because I think she’s really special – I think she is a very good actress and she has different qualities – she can be very attractive, but also kind of ugly, also mysterious and I think you feel like she has a real inner life. I knew that she could be kind of scary, but in a very minimalistic way and I also think that she’s very charismatic and she doesn’t need to have to read dialogue to create something. And it’s a bit the same with Roxane, the great thing with her is that she’s really sweet and she brings a very kind of human element into this atmosphere that works very well. Before meeting her I had thought that the nurse should have been scarier, in a way but when I met her I thought that it was really interesting to have someone so sweet, even if she’s doing sometimes scary things. And she’s a bit like a child, she has something that’s still very child-like, and I was really happy with them. And I also wanted to have this mood, because it’s not about performance, it’s more about the mood they give and they fit very well to this landscape.
MJT: And was it difficult to find Max Brebant?
LH: It was not really easy, of course because there is this aspect of swimming, that was one thing. And then the story might have been difficult for some parents, rather than for the children. What was very good with Max is that, in fact, he was thirteen years old when we did the film, so I think he had this sometimes more mature expression, but also his very tiny body, so he’s kind of fragile. And I really liked him very much,I found him very charismatic and very sweet, in a way, with his big face and small body – he had a fragility and a sweetness that was very interesting. Before shooting I thought that I was going to maybe try to make him express more fear, but it was really difficult and we had so little time to shoot, so we couldn’t spend a lot of time on each scene, so I decided to play it more like a blank expression, as if he was sleeping with his eyes open or something and that, and I think it works at the end because he’s very charismatic, for me, at least. So we found him quite late in the process of casting but we couldn’t begin the casting too soon, because they change quickly at that age, so we just tried to find them six or seven months before shooting.
MJT: What’s your next project?
LH: My next project, I’m a bit scared now of not choosing the right one, or choosing the one that would be too difficult and would take me too many years to find the financing, so I don’t want to talk about it, really, because I don’t want to jinx it, but I’m working on different things.
EVOLUTION IS ON GENERAL RELEASE AT ARTHOUSE CINEMAS FROM 6 MAY 2016