"This is my biggest interview ever

Mathieu Kassovitz

« I do not lie.»
(Mathieu Kassovitz interviewed by Isabelle Giordano.
Canal+ Subscribers Magazine. June 1997)

If you've already read or even seen discussions with the 'kasso' man, you have more than a slight idea of what an ordeal it is to drag it out of him! Among various digressions ("What! You don't have a LD player? Wait, you can have one discounted for a mere 200 bucks!), perverse destabilization of the interviewer ("Hey you! Reading a paper now?") and trampled courtesy ("If you won't treat me on a first name basis, then call me my lord") the guy who gave us the flowing sequence shots in Hate tops himself when it comes to messing up the fine-tuned setup of an interview. Well gawd! It was so fantastic that each time we hang up, we'd start jumping about, just realizing how much the folk had delivered for us. We even gave ourselves up to the sense of well-being for shooting the bull with the guy playing Max in Assassin(s), then the interview slipped towards a true discussion or an impassioned debate (the one about the nationality of Crying Freeman was truly passionate).
Well… we hope you'll have this kind of gratification reading "My biggest interview ever" (quoting Kassovitz, abashed at the end this 5-hour feature interview).

J.D.

I. Before the features (film buff, trainee, three shorts).


When did you start going to the movies?

I was very young indeed, I was about 6...

Did your father push you to discover cinema?

He had me discover Spielberg, but I used to go at rue des Ecoles, near the Sorbonne where there are quite a few art houses theatres. They showed many 50s classics.

Scorsese's Mean Streets seems to be your favorite movie... Did it trigger something in you?

No, the trigger movie, the one that got me bitten by the bug of filmmaking, was Luc Besson's The Last Battle. There's also George Lucas' American Graffiti, which I would go and see every Saturday for one year in a cinema near the Luxembourg Gardens. Once out I used to go to what was the only McDonald's in Paris by then. Mean Streets is my favorite movie in terms of cinematography, in terms of how much energy a movie can transmit. The Last Battle is the film which really made me realize that one was not compelled to make old-looking films, that one could make a science fiction movie with little money.

What about Spielberg, you were quite young when you discovered him?

I was about 10. I saw Duel at the Cinémathèque like many others. It was my father who learned me how to read a movie. He said: "Look how it is done, you don't see the guy, all the more he's here; it's not a fantastic movie and yet it is..."

You knew about the fanzines?

I was in several fanzines with buddies when I was 15-16 years old. One had a title inspired by a line in Coppola's Outsiders. But I did not get along with them because they wanted to speak only about French cinema. I wrote some pieces of criticism, one on Gremlins for instance. I read them lately, they are really full of shit! When I was 12-13 I also made horror movies. Five of them: it was gore, heavily inspired by Romero and Argento. We found arms of mannequins, we packed them with blood and then cut it all with an axe. It was the great period of the fantastic cinema: late 70s - early 80s.

Romero, Argento... these are moviemakers you were never quoted talking about, let alone decrypting their influences in your movies... Did they influence you ?

All Wes Craven's, Romero's, all the movies of the 80s... At the time in Paris there was the Fantastic Film Festival and I was there every year. I saw Evil Dead, Argento's, some Romero's. It was the great period, even the big movies from the American studios: Fridays the 13th, Halloween... The best Carpenter period too. It was also the time of René Château Home Video.

And Bruce Lee?

I like Bruce Lee but I prefer more crazy Kung fu movies like those of the Shaw Brothers, the Five Fingers of Death to name one. The films of Bruce Lee were a little more sophisticated. But I did prefer horror movies.

Evil Dead...

Yep. Evil Dead when we saw it at the Paris Festival, that was a real blow. Sam Raimi dared to do what we never dared to, and on a professional level! It was the same time the Last Battle was released, they all belonged to a dash of guys making movies on a shoe-string.

You knew Mad Movies when it was still a fanzine ?

Yes, I remember when it shifted from fanzine to a pro magazine, I knew it just before that. There was L'Ecran Fantastique too. Then came Starfix.

Starfix: right from the first issue ?

I did not believe too much in Starfix at the beginning. I was very deeply into Mad Movies. Starfix organized projections on Sunday mornings. You needed a ticket which you could get as a subscriber. The problem was I had no dough to subscribe. Thus I drew my own tickets (laughter).

They know it now ?

Yes, Nicolas Boukhrief even said to me: "You idiot, you should have asked us". I went over there and I looked which color was the ticket, then I went to a stationer's to buy the same paper and I drew it back home. It would take me two hours! Each Sunday morning I was feeling down. Anyway we got up every Sunday morning at 8 and we saw grand flicks.

Do you regard yourself as a movie-addict, like Christophe Gans?

No, never. But Gans is a freak, he goes way down in its delirium. I can't stand up against him more than ten seconds. He knows everything, he has seen everything, he has an opinion on everything! As for me I'm not so much of a movie enthusiast. I've seen many movies, but I forgot the great majority of the titles and every other director's name.

During the promotion of Hate, your reference was Spielberg... You asserted some kind of cinema...

Since the very first interview I gave, the two people I speak about are Spielberg and Besson. It was at a time when everyone would spit on them. I saw the Last Battle with my father and once out he said to me: "the guy who did that is 23". Me, I was 17 and I thought: "This is it, that's the thing. I can drop out of school". There's also the French cinema of the years 30 through 50. It takes a stop with Melville. Afterwards, it's a big vacuum.
Except for the movies of Yves Robert: The Tall Blond Man, An Elephant Can Be Extremely Deceptive, We Will All Meet in Paradise which are all masterpieces to me. Afterwards, nothing occurred for years… until Beneix, Besson.

Which is your favorite Spielberg movie?

I can't like Duel more that Close Encounter of the Third Kind and I can't like Jaws more that 1941... They are too many.

What do you think of his evolution? The Lost World for example?

You should not worry. Spielberg did not really helm Jurassic Park 2, he took no risks so as to sit his career and to be quiet. The first JP was brilliant and astonishing and Lost World is much less interesting because it bumps in the limits of the franchise. Yet, Man lose... When you take a look at the directors you like, their 3-4 first features are the best. It is where they gave more energy. Scorsese, for example, made New York, New York because he had no idea what to do. Taxi Driver and Mean Streets are much more interesting than Godfellas for me. It demands so much energy to make a film that actually, generally speaking, the first are the most powerful. That's why I prefer Mean Streets over Taxi Driver because Mean Streets is more typically free cinema.

Isn't Hate a French some kind of a remake of Mean Streets?

We all stole so many things from so many people that we find it again elsewhere. Lately I've watched Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing for the second time and I found a great deal of stuff in it.

You had the opportunity to meet these people? Spielberg for example?

Not, I went to his Amblin offices because they asked me to come and see them and bring some projects. I didn't know the rules, I came empty-handed. They asked me: "You have a project for us to have a look?", I had no project for them so I answered: "There's something like an adaptation the animated series Dragon Ball Z with Jackie Chan and Jet Lee". They stared at me... Voilà. It is my only meeting with Spielberg, in fact he was in the office next door. But one day I will run into the guy and ask him: "WHY? HOW DOES IT WORK?"

May we speak about Luc Besson ?

Yes...

We like the Last Battle very much and, for some of us, his first movies; but we can't begin to understand how Jan Kounen and you can advocate for a movie like The Fifth Element ?

Why ?

We think it sucks big time: it recycles all the Métal Hurlant (Howling Metal, seminal SF magazine) heritage with no follow up in the directing.

I admire Luc for what he manages to do with respect to the public. The Fifth, he did it ! Now, you can criticize the directing, the set decoration, the references, whatever, the guy did succeed. Moreover, he has fun and you can't reproach him that. He makes movies without pretence and I find it great. I saw him working on the set and I find that he is a very honest director.

You never studied cinema...

No, never.

And studies in general?

No, I am hopeless at studies. I found it better to stop at 17. Just after my first year in High School, I found a training course.

Is it really your father who had the bug bit you?

Ever since I was very young I went on location. My father was not a renowned director, he did mostly television. In the 30 year span of his career he only made two feature films which did not do well. He has just finished his third with Robin Williams...

And with you too...

Yeah, with me... mostly with Robin Williams (laughs)... As I was on location, I gained interest in cameras very soon. At 17 I worked as a trainee during summer and then get back to school. Then came the winter and the production contacted me for a new training period. I told my parents I would accept, I would take care of myself. I became a second assistant on a feature by Paul Boujenah with Michel Boujenah and Zabou called Moitié moitié. Great movie! (laughs). Then a first assistant for industrial movies, but I was so useless I decided to move on.

Your first short: Fierrot le Pou...

Yes, with the little money I had put aside, that is 20,000 francs (~$2,500). My father told me to make do with what I had, that is: no mike, a camera lend by the neighbor who became my DP afterwards. The camera was a Bolex, spring driven so the shots could last no longer than 30 sec. My goal was to shoot it. Make a rough cut to find a real editing station…

Then came Lazennec...

I had a rough cut on video: I shot the screen of my Stenbeck with a camcorder and I went from place to place to show it to people. All the sound had to be worked out, all the editing reworked. Since I was working on video clips quite a lot, people told me : "We'll add music on it and make it a clip". Of course I refused. Then one day I ended up at Lazennec. I already knew them because at 17 I had writ Cauchemar Blanc (Blank Nightmare) and show it to them. But by then Christophe Rossignon was not there and they only did shorts. So we couldn't make it that time. Not until they produced Love Without Pity did I came back. It was the first time I met Christophe Rossignon. He had just started a week before and he was mending the Xerox machine. I was one of his first "clients", he backed me to finish Fierrot le Pou and we get along together.

Fierrot le Pou was quite a technical achievement yet...

I'm quite proud of Fierrot le Pou because it's technically straight. The breakdown of the scenes is rather fluid. It's the short I'm the most satisfied with.

Was it story-boarded?

Yes, of course. Everything was planned. There's a shot just before I smash the ball and transform myself. It's a contra-zoom shot with a change of frame speed to end on a slow motion. On the Bolex we were three of us clutching buttons no bigger than cufflinks... While filming you discover tricks. I, for one, I didn't know you could change the frame speed halfway through a shot.

What was the rest of the equipment besides the Bolex?

There was a Dolly western (a platform with big wheels), which cost us 300 francs ($40) for the week, and one head. That's it.

Nobody was paid?

No. We just paid the Paris municipality to rent the gym.

What was the point with Fierrot le Pou ?

Do a short with very little money... In a short you can't have a first act, a second act and a final act. You've got a beginning and an end.. Usually it's OK when there are gags or very simple things. By the time I was playing basket a lot and a lot of my black friends played much better. It was annoying.

What did Fierrot le Pou change for you ? Did it make Cauchemar Blanc easier to set up ?

Fierrot le Pou was not much appraised. It is not the kind of short that goes to festivals. Actually I had sent about ten projects to the C.N.C. [Centre National de la Cinématographie] and they refused to grant any of them. There was a spoof of The Last Battle called The Last Base Toll.

For Cauchemar Blanc, did you buy the rights from Moebius?

No, he gave them. He's very cool!

Adapting a comic: did it mean compulsory shots?

Actually I am not very pleased with the short. It was very difficult to shoot, with wind blowing at 60 mph. For instance we couldn't put the projectors on stand, they were all on the soil. The phone booth would always fell. Nothing went right. I also messed up with the breakdown of the scenes. But it was nice to adapt a comic because you see right away what mood you'll put on film.

What did Moebius think of the short?

He said it was super because he is nice. Now I don't know.

There was a hell of a cast...

Yeah...Daroussin, Attal, just out from Rochant's Love Without Pity... there were positive energies on this short.

There's also the nice sequence shot in the beginning...

I did achieve exactly what I wanted. It took me four hours and then I had no time to do the rest as I wanted. Well I learned a lot on this short.

After Cauchemar Blanc, you wanted to make Café au Lait (Métisse)?

Yes, but I wanted to play in Métisse so Christophe and I we thought it was better to do another short before. Thus we made Assassins which allowed us to test the crew I would use on Métisse and see how I could manage a more structured movie, taking place 'in camera', without a real story. A stylistic composition in fact.

This short already shocked a lot of people then?

Yes, he got a NC-17 rating. I received a letter from the Ministry of Culture saying it was a call for murder. The Minister Jack Lang signed it. When Hate became a sensation, I received a letter from the same guy: "I am Jack Lang, I find this very good..." It went to some festivals but it was not the mood of the time.

There's a kind of trademark with your work: mirrors...

True I used that a lot. I think that among the simplest effects those using mirrors are the most beautiful. It's true with The Marx Brothers [Duck Soup] or in the uncut version of Terminator, when Schwarzenegger mends himself his eye.

Jan Kounen told us he didn't like the shorts people, that they were a bunch of upstarts. Did you feel the same way ?

I did not really mix with these people, I went to 2 or 3 festivals where the movies were not well received. That said it feels the same with features. If the shorts people are upstarts, the feature people are hyper-upstarts. The real nuisance are the C.N.C. guys, those who will decide who has the grants. It's hyper-upstart and it's all stranded, one should always do the same kind of movie.