LOGIKEYE PROJECT: AN INTERVIEW WITH CS LEIGH

This entry was posted on February 12th, 2015

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by John A. Riley

CS Leigh’s 2004 film Process is an unflinching portrayal of an actress gradually driven to self-harm and ultimately suicide. Shorn of all superfluous distractions and mostly without dialogue, the film takes place in twenty-nine uncompromising, meticulously choreographed long takes. To mark the release of the film as part of Desistfilm’s Logikeye project, I talked to CS Leigh about his inspirations, his collaborators and his feelings about showing the film just over a decade since it was made.

JR: Was Process an observation drawn from your own experiences or did the impetus to explore these dark emotions come from somewhere else?

CSL: I initially just set out to make a film where a woman packs up the contents of her home and we would never know anything about her except from what we put together looking at her possessions. It changed a lot as it came to life and casting played a part in how it changed. I knew a woman who I based the main character on though actually I have known a lot of people like her. I have been her on occasion.

JR: Having seen Process several times the most striking thing to me is the contrast between the beautifully constructed and choreographed long takes and the harrowing subject matter. Do you think of the film in terms of contrasts? Would you advise viewers to think of the film in a certain way, or just to experience it?

CSL: I did everything I could to make the structure fascinating while the content is almost always hard to watch. That was definitely deliberate. I would not really give any suggestions to viewers about how to watch the film though on occasion that might have been helpful. Everybody experiences films in different ways and some people experience different kinds of films differently.  For example I experience a Godard film in a very different way to how I experience a William Wyler film. I experience the suicide scene in the Louis Malle film Le Fou Follet differently to how I experience the last scene of Wyler’s Funny Girl where Barbra Streisand sings live before Wyler abruptly and silently cuts to black. One is about internalising desperation and the other is about catharsis. I watch them with very different expectations.

JR: Speaking of the long takes – we see certain key events from this woman’s life in a non-linear order, without a sense of how much time has lapsed between scenes and with the knowledge that many other things may have happened in her life. How did you choose which events to focus your attention on?

CSL: The very first treatment I wrote and the film I eventually made are identical. Anything that I shot which was an extra I didn’t use and the order matches the treatment sequence to sequence. In certain instances I was looking for a film that could contain sequences I visualised in my head but never found space for in a film. The glass eating sequence was the first I conceptualised and in my own way I was looking for a film in which I could include it. I knew what this woman had lived through and I knew how she remembered it. I just had to find a way to convey that which matched the actual viewing experience.

JR: Katrin Cartlidge was your original choice for the lead role. How did you come to cast Beatrice Dalle and Guillaume Depardieu? What qualities did you want them to bring to the production?

CSL: Katrin Cartlidge died on the very day the finance for the film came through. From there I talked to several American and British actresses who didn’t really get it or who I felt couldn’t do it. As soon as Humbert Balsam became involved as the French producer my focus shifted to French actresses. I met several and Beatrice was probably the farthest from my initial idea. That is what made her so brilliant. The meetings I had with her were amazing and it happened very quickly. For the husband we had been talking to people like Willem Defoe and John Malkovich who Paolo Branco reached out to for us. When we started shooting the husband was not yet cast. During this period I kept asking to meet Guillaume but his agent didn’t want him to meet because she wanted him to have his leg surgery. Eventually she said I can’t keep this from happening. We met and again it was very exciting. Neither actor read the treatment when they agreed to make the film. That told me a lot about what working with them would be like meaning very risky.

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JR: You also worked with John Cale for this film, who supplied the beautiful piano score. As there’s so little dialogue in the film his music seems to do the talking. How did that collaboration come about and what do you feel his music added to the film?

CSL: Both John Cale and cinematographer Yorgos Arvanitis were essential in my view. They both said yes right away. John is the ultimate collaborator. He was easy and everything he did was brilliant. I always knew I wanted a piano score by John. In another way I always thought I would shoot the film in black and white and Yorgos asked me to let him shoot a black and white film in colour. They both give the film a lot. It would be a different film without them.

JR: The on-screen quotations from Don De Lillo and Elaine Scarry are an intriguing inclusion, as is the seemingly upbeat rock song by The Jam that plays over the end credits. Do these inclusions add a layer of distance to the film? Would the film be too raw even for its director without these distancing techniques?

CSL: Distance is very important to me. I don’t like autobiography in cinema unless it is done in a very detached way. The song at the end should be thought of as a smirk from me to the audience. It’s like saying everything will be alright and we are all just pretending. So many of the screenings I attended you could hear people crying and gasping during the long suicide scene. The song is like a glass of cold water thrown in your face.

JR: De Lillo has written some of my favourite books, while Scarry was someone I only discovered through your quotation of her. Were these two writers particular inspirations for your film?

CSL: Both writers deal with the way the mind processes emotion or feeling. DeLillo’s White Noise has always been a touchstone for me though the recent work has left me cold. Elaine Scarry I have known about from around 1987 when I was in the art world. Her work was very discussed and I met her on several occasions and her work stays with me. Her book The Body In Pain has been on my night table in various cities for about twenty five years.

JR: Other critics have classed your film as part of the “new French extremity.” Does this label have any value for you, and does it apply to your work?

CSL: Yes it does I suppose though you can say the same thing about Bresson or even René Allio who is one of my all time favourite filmmakers. They may not have sex in them but their films are harsh and extreme in every way.

JR: At one time Process was due to receive an official DVD from Tartan. Why did this release never come to fruition?

CSL: There have been several aborted releases and the reason was almost always the same. When Humbert Balsan died nobody knew where the masters were or we could not get to them or the chain of title was in limbo. The strange thing is no one ever asked me. I have everything to do the DVD.

JR: The version of Process available online is called “the ultimate youtube cut.” If I’m not mistaken, you pointed a Red digital camera at a VHS copy of the film. Were you trying to maintain an element of analogue texture in this age of slick digital reproduction? 

CSL: I pointed a Red camera at my mac and shot it off the screen. There were two reasons I did this. First I did it to create a new work where the copyright would belong to me. Second I wanted to create a version specifically for watching on a laptop or phone. There is no way to get the purity of watching Process in 35 mm except watching it projected from 35 mm. So I went for the opposite. Now I have the copyright to the film back so a DVD release is possible. I am talking about this now.

JR: It’s almost become a cliche to talk about how difficult it is to see your films (a cliche I’ve helped to perpetuate myself). How do you feel now Process and other work by you is available to view online? Are you feeling apprehensive, vindicated – or something else entirely?   

CSL: We have been working on putting this work online for almost a year. I took the whole process nice and slow. I’m not apprehensive at all and not vindicated because it’s my choice not to have my work online. I believe I made the right decisions about what to include here. For example my film See You At Regis Debray will never be available online. I would not let that happen. Not a week goes by where I don’t get multiple requests to make my work available. Resistance is great and so is holding back. An actor who worked with Raul Ruiz often once said to me that Raul had made films that he himself never saw. What is more frustrating are the distributors like Tartan or the former Gemini who don’t respond to requests to screen prints of my films by museums or who ask for very high screening charges. That is perverse because I have not been paid by the distributors. It’s a very odd experience.