CS Leigh and Guillaume Depardieu in the set of Process (2004)
By José Sarmiento Hinojosa
The enigma of CS Leigh, one of the most obscure filmmakers of the last twenty years, seems to be a legend constructed through the indifference of Leigh himself and a number of different people setting their energies on creating the myth he has become. After many years of silence, CS broke the silence in this interview with Desistfilm, in which he debunks the legend people has made of him. Welcome to the universe of one of the most talented filmmakers you probably haven’t heard of.
José Sarmiento Hinojosa: I wanted to start talking about this legend about you, the issue about your hidden identity, you being this kind of big enigma not only in the field of cinema, but in different art circuits: as an art curator, fashion designer… your identity seems to be somewhat hidden from the audience…
CS Leigh: … Well, at this stage in my life the truth is that the work that means the most to me is cinema; the rest I try to resist though sometimes I say yes and you know, I have a tendency to get bored. Whereas most filmmakers make a film and wait two years or so before they do something else. I tend not to do that and when I get an offer that’s interesting to me I say yes, which I shouldn’t necessarily do because anything done well takes a lot of time and energy. Sometimes it’s a wonderful experience for example the performance I did in 2013 at Tate Modern which was cinema related. The work that matters most to me is cinema. The rest of it are just things that happen while I’m waiting to shoot again.
J.S.: Did you start as a filmmaker? How was this transition of becoming one, coming from other art fields?
CS: Let’s put this in to context. From 1981 to 1984 when I was a teenager I worked briefly in fashion. To me that’s like a garage band to other teenagers though granted I was selling to stores like Bloomingdales and working with a lot of interesting people. After that I worked on several music videos when I was around twenty years old, in London. Then I briefly did some work in Los Angeles in film. I was looking at the various ways I might participate in filmmaking. What I said to myself at that time was that I wanted to make my first film when I was thirty five years old though I still wasn’t sure where or how I would do that. I didn’t feel the need to do it when I was in my twenties. In the meantime I became involved in contemporary art in New York which was never part of the plan. It just happened. So the fact is I made my first film when I was thirty four which tells you that I didn’t have the need to make films when I was younger, but that was something that I knew I would eventually do. Ultimately I decided to do it in a more “European” way, around 1993, and I basically made this decision for a couple of reasons. I thought what I could bring to what we call “cinema d’auteur” was to do something that no one could do exactly as I do even if there was little money to make out of it. It felt really personal and unique to me, and by that time I knew Europe was the place for me to do it. The logical city to start was Paris.
J.S.: You talking about Europe and America makes me realize that there is this talk around people (in the internet, basically) that see CS Leigh as kind of an obscure person, as someone that, from time to time comes out to the surface, with different identities, under different names, in different places: you’re like this strange character who is involved in different areas of art, it being contemporary art or cinema or fashion design…
CS: I don’t really accept that, although I understand that is the kind of legend that’s been built up over the years largely because I refused to discuss it. The truth is that since 1994, for twenty years, I’ve been doing exactly the same thing. I do different kinds of work, but I do not change anything about myself except geographically. I’ve been in Paris for a while, I was in Berlin, and I’m in London now. But nothing has changed about me except that in the early 90’s it was difficult to stay in touch when moving to Europe before the internet, and such. I understand that’s in part my fault, because I’ve let these rumours propagate without taking the time to correct them until recently. Maybe when I was eighteen or nineteen there was a little bit of truth to those speculations and even then I had the same name and identity, but for twenty five years now, it’s absolutely not true, I don’t really buy that, or accept it.
J.S.: I think it is fantastic that you address these issues, because you’re kind of debunking this myth that has being building up for about twenty years or so.
C.S.: Yes, I’ve decided for the last past two years to give very few interviews, but to be completely open about those issues, just to be able to correct the rumours or the fantastic things I’ve heard about myself from the internet: If I use my first initials and then I use my whole name with the same surname, I don’t see it as a big change, right? But for twenty years I didn’t bother to say that much about it and even now I don’t bother a lot. Often it would mean giving desperate people publicity which I refuse to participate in. It’s very boring. These are people who have nothing to show for themselves except a brief contact with me. I find it pathetic.
J.S.: Would you say then, there is a difference between this CS Leigh persona and you, CS Leigh?
C.S.: Not really. I would only say that in this way: There is some kind of story, this narrative about the character, and I’ve been thinking about for a while how to erase this character and put me in that position instead though I’ve become somewhat comfortable with the divide. So I’ll put it this way: I don’t work actively to cultivate that, but it does exist, though I find it, and I would use this word, a little bit disgusting the ways these stories and fabrications have built up. But I think, in some way it has benefited me, as there has been a group of people going out of their way to try to discredit me when they’ve actually inadvertently helped me. I didn’t cultivate the talk though, it just happened and I try to use it when I can.
I was Jack Goldstein
J.S.: Would you say that some of those things you address right now were properly reflected in your film “I was Jack Goldstein1”?
C.S.: Yes, for sure. It’s in there, because there are real parallels between Jack and myself the big difference of course is he committed suicide and I’m still here. I guess I knew I was fanning the flame a little bit when I did that, but I felt the timing was right. I’ve been thinking for the last five or six years to do a kind of memoir or an essay film about these issues and my life, it would surely address a lot more of the ground about the myth, but it’s just not very interesting to me compared to other stories so I just keep putting it off.
J.S.: Revisiting your work, I found that in Process (2004), you had managed to work with some of the best French actors at the time, Beatrice Dalle and Guillaume Depardieu. You also collaborated with John Cale, in the music. How these collaborations came to be?
C.S: Well, everything kind of happened organically, but some of those major elements like the music, I knew from the first day I sat down to write the treatment of the film that I wanted a piano score from John Cale, so we made it happen. It was the same with the cinematographer Yorgos Arvanitis. As far as actors go, I have a very good relationship with actors, it’s easy for me to meet them, and it’s pretty easy for me to get very great actors for a short period of time for little or no money. At that particular moment, it was a long shoot and we had a lot of money, it’s something that doesn’t happen often to me, and probably won’t happen very often in future but in this case we were able to pursue the people I wanted the ones who were at top of my list and pay them what they wanted to be paid, so they were available for a long stretch of time. For example with Guillaume Depardieu he was in a very bad health situation, so we were in a long period in which his agent didn’t want to contact him, so after three months of looking for other actors, finally she gave in and then it just happened. It’s always very natural, and it was particularly natural in this case. He said yes without ever reading the treatment. It helped a lot to have a respected producer Humbert Balsan on board. I was very lucky. I remember once I talked to Claude Chabrol and he said to me: “you must be insane if you think you can work with Beatrice and Guillaume at the same time on one film” and I said “I might be insane but I’m counting on it working”, and only one of them missed one day of shooting, disregarding of course how late they were for the shoots every day. But even that isn’t something that concerns me as long as the actors are able to do their best work.
J.S.: About Process, the first things I’m experienced was that non-linear narrative that was closely related to the state of mind of the characters: there is a way of disconnection, of dissolution, of breaking of the personal identity, in the characters themselves but also between them, in the couple.
CS: Yes, exactly, that’s what it’s like. You know people only in a certain way, only a part of them, and there are always boundaries that appear and everything just changes. That was kind of what was happening, there’s a version of the story that you see through the eyes of whichever character you choose to identify with but it’s still subjective and nonlinear and very incomplete. And for me that was essential, because one of the problems I have with a lot of films is that everything is there, you’re given so much that you have no space to enter. And that’s something that I’ve continuously been trying to avoid, to give all the pieces of the puzzle, because there’s nothing left for the audience to do once you do it all.
J.S.: In “See You at Regis Debray” what made you decide to tell the story of day in the life of Andreas Baader?
CS: It’s something that I wanted to do for years and years, I had the title in my head for seven years and one day it just happened and I decided to do it, because I ran out of patience or whatever else. For me what I found interesting about this moment in history in 1969 when Baader was hiding out in Regis Debray’s apartment in Paris, this historical overlap, is that we really know very little about it. The only thing we have as tangible information are those photographs that were taken by Astrid Proll in restaurants or cafes, but nobody knows what happened in that apartment during those days. And yet it’s all the more interesting because of where Regis was at the time and the year, all those things… it’s like a long list of footnotes that interested me, and it’s a big question mark –nobody even knows what the apartment looks like, although I was able to put some information together. Also, because it presents somebody who was known for taking action before the moment he was able to take action: he’s not doing anything in my film, he’s hiding, he is still. I find all of those things very interesting.
J.S.: You can also, in your work, draw a line connecting this character (Andreas Baader) and the character of L’Actrice (Beatrice Dalle). There is this emptiness…
CS: Yes, there is completely a relationship, because, in all of them, I’m subjecting the audience to a very intense moment or series of moments. And there is something that I think people miss completely, and that is that in a way; all of my films are suicide films. I didn’t plan it that way, but if you think about every one of them, even if you don’t see it as you do in Process there is an act of suicide, in Andreas, given that we believe that it probably to have involved suicide, there’s always a relationship to that from the very first work I ever did. So there’s that, also there’s the whole sense of people being watched when they’re doing nothing, or doing very little. I’ve always been interested in this idea of allowing the audience to be bored. I know this isn’t a new idea, but it has become to me a new idea again because there’s so much excitement kind of sold to people every moment of their lives so I became interested in doing the opposite. Instead of competing with noise I propose silence.
J.S.: What draws you to portray this kind of characters?
CS: I’m interested in people, and characters in life as well, who are not easily explained, not interested in explaining themselves, not interested in being part of, let’s say, anything normal, or in anything that’s, let’s say, the way that normal people think you’re supposed to live. I’m interested in that in characters as well, people who do not abide by the normal rules, people who are very hard to understand for most other people. In my life, I’ve always been surrounded by people who are that all the time. So for me it kind of comes naturally. I became interested in people who express themselves more with their actions that with their words, people so inarticulate that the only thing they could do is something incredibly shocking to most people. Even on a very personal level, for me the scene in which Beatrice is eating glass in Process is the most perfect thing that I could ever imagine. It’s exactly how I thought it would look and sound, everything about it is exactly right, and that is something that almost never happens in cinema or in life. And even if it is a shocking moment for many people to watch, for me it is just a perfect moment. I’m fascinated by that moment and other moments like that..
American Widow (2009)
J.S.: Changing the subject, what can you tell us about your “American Widow” project?
CS: Well, it’s been going on for some time, even if it’s been kind of in a static stage right now. You know that the producer of Process Humbert Balsan committed suicide?
CS: This was probably the most meaningful event of my adult life. We were supposed to be working together on that film on the Paris sequences and on other films, I was about to start shooting in one month, and he committed suicide. So I had the people, the crew, not much money, but I decided to continue anyway. I’m convinced I had post traumatic stress disorder for the whole first shoot. Luckily I had several great experiences doing that for example shooting with Katja Golubeva and Cat Power but I never had enough money to complete the film as I would have liked to, and I’m not willing to make a big mess just to finish it and do it badly, so I’ve been showing little pieces of it in different places, but I’ve been never able to finish the film. It’s not far from being finished but I haven’t been able to find the money. It’s been an evolving experience, meaning the actual story has changed because it’s been going on for so long… How I initially planned it was to tell a story about loss and 9/11 from the point of view of seven women. That part hasn’t really changed, I’ve shot scenes with men that I won’t use them. So, after doing the initial shoots, after a year, a year and a half it just became very difficult to maintain it, so it remains unfinished. But the sequences I shot are there, they remain, I’ve preserved them, they look great, and I’ve been keeping everything safe, and adding some nee things now and then. But it’s not something I’ve been thinking about showing a lot at the moment. I’m not sure I understand what the audience means to me anymore. It’s become abstract.
J.S.: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel there’s something very curious about the idea of death and suicide and death that is present in your films and this very bad set of coincidences in your actual life with the people you’ve worked with (the suicide of Yekaterina Goluveba, Humbert Balsan, the death of Guillame Depardieu)
CS: That’s right. I might say, the people I’ve known in my life, even before I started working, there’s been a lot of suicide in my life, so it isn’t a complete mystery to me why it turns up in my work again and again, but yes, what you’re saying it’s definitely true, but remember that the kind of intense people I work with are, let’s say, more prone to that. This may not be true; however, this feels true to me, even to the point that when I hear that it has happened again, I can’t say that I’m that surprised. Beatrice once told me something that I think she won’t mind me quoting that when she heard her brother has committed suicide, she never questioned whether or not he would, she just wondered when. And that’s something that stayed with me a lot. For a lot of people I think that’s true: with a lot of people I’ve known, and a lot of people I’ve worked with.
J.S.: So, as a busy man, do you have any developing projects as we speak?
CS: Yes, I actually just completed an abstract feature about the sound in a Bresson film. I’ve been meaning to do that for long time, and I’m thinking about how and where to screen it but it is completely ready. And I have two features I am working on, one is for a French actress, which I’m very excited about. It’s a bit like Process actually. The other film is more classical, in the UK, which is set in the world of banking, and we’ll see how that develops, that is a bit more difficult for me, in the way I have to approach it, there are producers looking for financing, and it seems it’s going to be much more classical, but still, I’m trying to make space in my mind for both kinds of work. Anyway, I’ve made this decision in the last two years, that when I feel like doing something new it will be because I want to not because someone is pressing me to do it. So yeah, I’ve got new work coming up. I’m always working on something. The hardest thing for me is not to work. I can’t do nothing and wait and that has certainly cost me bigger films, and a lot of my own money. That’s kind of the situation now, I’m working a lot right now but it’s for different reasons. I don’t feel the need to make work to justify myself or to show work unless the particulars are just right. I have to know why I am doing it and to feel that the context being presented is worthy of my participation. I’m high maintenance.
1 Jack Goldstein, in wikipedia.