By Paul Risker.
Neither is the final version of a film nor the path of the filmmaker a collection of exclusive deliberate creative choices. Writer/director Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s breakthrough came with Sarah’s Key (2010), a story that follows one woman’s journey into the past that has subsequently been echoed by Dark Places (2015). On reflection of this connection of searching through the past, Brenner explained: “It was a coincidence that I made these two movies and that the past is such a strong element in them both.” And it is one that perhaps can be mostly aptly described as a momentary or even coincidental chapter in his filmography, as his preceding films, amongst them Pretty Things (2001) and Walled In (2009) held less of a direct focus on the interplay between the past and the present.
As the film is an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel of the same name, there could equally be perceived an interest in the past with Flynn’s Dark Places (2009) and Gone Girl (2012), both of which concern the perception of the past versus the actuality of the events. That Brenner and Fincher’s adaptations of Flynn’s novels that were released in consecutive years could be seen to present a momentary thematic collaboration between film and literature on past truths.
In conversation with Film International, Brenner discussed the inherent evolution of a film from script to final cut, the emphasis on the “essence” in the adaptation process, his rendezvous with the past, a career working with strong female actresses and how there is the need for caution following Hollywood’s discovery of the sizeable female audience.
There is a perspective amongst filmmakers that there are three versions of the script – the script that is written, the script that is shot and the script that is edited. As a writer/director, the latter of which involves you in the editing process, is this a perspective you would share?
I am not editing my movies, but I do write and direct. And yes, definitely because when you write everything is possible – you have the money and all the pages you want [laughs]. Then when you go into production all the problems in the world begin – you don’t have the money or the time you wanted and you don’t find the perfect location, and so you have to shoot Kansas in Louisiana. So yes, all of this changes a film a lot and in our case for instance, we shot it with very little money and in twenty-four days, which was absurdly tight. Then of course in the editing room and especially on a film like Dark Places because of its very nature – the structure and the two periods of time have to co-exist – then you definitely change the order of things. You cut lines and those sequences that were separated end up being close to one another. So you definitely change a lot, but if you wrote it properly originally then it is still the same movie. There are probably examples where movies for whatever reason became very different in the editing room, but in this case it is pretty faithful to what I had in mind.
I have heard it said that an adaptation is required to live separately of the book in order to tell its own version of the story. The balancing act I suppose comes with creating an independent and yet complimentary extension of the source material.
Well, obviously literature and film are very different mediums, and you are going to read a book in a few days or a few hours if you are a really fast reader – certainly a few days. But a movie has to be around two hours and so I think the first thing you have to do is make choices. And once you have made those choices you have to see whether they have altered the nature of the book too much. If it does, you have to then adapt to find solutions to be faithful to it in essence. So I think the ‘essence’ is the key. You don’t have to be faithful to every event and every character or everything in the structure. It’s more in the ‘essence’ – it’s in the tone, in the DNA of the book that you have to be faithful. But then we are talking here about books that are quite cinematic, but sometimes books are more abstract where you are really in the head of a character, and then of course you have to do a bigger adaptation. But this was not the case with Dark Places.
Picking up on the phrase “essence” and from speaking with filmmakers, is the process of learning to make films structured around honing one’s instincts so that you are able to eventually function instinctively?
Yeah, it’s very interesting what you are saying because what happens with the experience is that of course at first you are very concerned with the characters, and all of the tangible and solid elements that you have – the tools for a movie. But then you realise what really makes a movie is something else – what the audience gets from it is something else. And it becomes a gut instinct of this sort of feeling that you want to give the audience about a film. Of course you need plot and you need characters, but then it is really about what people get from it on a very intimate level, and I think that’s what we call the ‘essence’. And yes, that’s not just something you put on paper because it either happens or not with the actors and all of the technicians. It is this magic that sometimes happens on a movie that makes it special.
Speaking with Carol Morley for The Falling (2015) she explained: “You take it 90% of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” Would you agree and do you perceive there to be a transfer of ownership?
Well I think a movie is never finished. Ask any director and they would just keep on working on it. I suppose you just have to stop because you are basically out of money or someone has to release it [laughs]. So yes I would agree with that, and then in the end the audience makes a movie. You take all the big pieces in cinema history and it’s not like the director said: “Oh, we are going to make this masterpiece now.” No, the audience made it a masterpiece or the critics of the time. There are very famous cases where movies were very badly reviewed or were complete flops, and then they end up on most of the ‘ten best films ever made’ lists. So yes, it is the audience, but it is also time because I think what really makes a movie special is when twenty, thirty or forty years later it is still here.
Sarah’s Key and now Dark Places could be seen to infer a possible personal interest in looking back to or searching through the past. How do you perceive both the relationship between these two films and the past as a narrative device within storytelling?
It was a coincidence that I made these two movies and that the past is such a strong element in them both. It’s not like I have ever had an obsession with the past; it was just that I loved the stories and it happened to be a part of them. Some people who knew Sarah’s Key pretty well when they first saw Dark Places said: “It’s weird because it’s almost the same story.” [laughs] It’s obviously not the same story per say, but there is an element of facing your past and the truth in order to move forward in the present. I don’t know, deep inside my sub-conscious I must be very interested with it and it is the only way I can put it. And then technically yes, it is interesting to work on this and to re-create all these worlds, and that is definitely something that is very interesting for a director to do, although in both cases I tried to do it pretty subtly. I never wanted to go the blue and yellow route with Dark Places and sometimes people are confused, but not too much because I think you pretty much know where you are at any point in the movie.
Looking through your filmography you have worked with a group of talented actresses that include: Marion Cotillard (Pretty Things), Kristin Scott Thomas (Sarah’s Key) and Charlize Theron (Dark Places). A constant criticism floating around in the industry is that it remains too male dominated with a lack of interesting roles for women. It is invariably an interesting time as European television series’ have begun to put the shows on the shoulders of their female leads. With your place in the industry and having worked with these three actresses, what are your feelings on the subject and do you think it is changing?
Firstly, I don’t know why I have always been attracted to strong material for women… Frankly I don’t. Maybe there is a shyness for me because you obviously always put a lot of yourself into the film, and into fiction in general. So maybe doing that through a female character creates a lot of distance for me, and allows me to actually say things that are closest to me that I wouldn’t if it maybe was a man. I don’t know… I’m not even sure of that. I have been lucky to work with very good actors and actresses, and yes, I do think it is changing right now for sure. It is as if Hollywood just discovered that there is a female audience out there that is as big as the male audience, and now you can see a lot of movies that are in your words, “On the shoulders of women.” I think is a good thing because for we the filmmakers it gives us more opportunities with different stories. Now what we should be careful of is to not just place a woman instead of a man, and to tell the same story, which is kind of what’s happening right now. It’s not because it’s Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games (2012-15) that it is so different from another of this type of film.
Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” How do you view the way in which Dark Places has shaped you both personally and professionally, and how do you think it has informed you moving forward from a directorial or storytelling point of view?
That is absolutely true for most of the movies, but sometimes you choose a movie that is kind of easy or is just a job. But in the case of Dark Places it took me five years in all, and obviously you change in the meantime. But also the whole process with Dark Places was incredibly challenging and most of the time very difficult. I learned a lot about Hollywood, the politics and all of that, and so yes, I am definitely a very different director now than I was three or four years ago when I started to work seriously on this.
And I guess your question was about dealing with all of these characters and whether it affects you? In my case not really because I think I can separate fiction from life. Plus all the characters in Dark Places, between those teenagers and this victim of a mass murder, they are pretty far from me. I am just a French guy in Paris right now [laughs].
Dark Places is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Entertainment One.
Paul Risker is an independent scholar and film critic who contributes regularly to Film International. He is an Editor for Mise-en-scène: The Journal of Film and Visual Narration, which will launch in Fall 2016.