In his new film, “Memoria”, on the bill, the Thai filmmaker, Palme d’Or in 2010 for “Uncle Boonmee…”, staged, for the first time, a professional actress: the Scottish star Tilda Swinton . He tells about this unforeseen osmosis.
In order to write a new page in his filmography, Apichatpong Weerasethakul chose to shoot outside Thailand – an unprecedented experience -, and he responded to a collaboration proposal formulated in the 2000s by Tilda Swinton. After years of remote exchange of ideas, the two found themselves in Colombia on the plateau of Memoria, the story of a woman foreign to herself, in search of her identity, and guided by a disturbing noise that she alone hears. The opportunity to question the filmmaker today about his relationship to actors and their unique place in his art.
Before Memoria, you’ve always filmed non-professional actors. Why ?
Since I have been working in cinema, choosing an actress or an actor was like choosing a friend. In Thailand, my team and I are so close and so few in number that we favor people with whom we spontaneously have affinities. From my first film, Mysterious Object at Noon, in 2000, i took absolute pleasure in filming people whose job was not to act. Better, I understood all the richness that their true stories could bring me. For twenty years, then, I looked for women and men who had been through unusual things, which I could report on screen. This is why I am not sure that one can qualify my films as fictions. In any case, it remains a mixture of reality and invention. I spend a lot of time with my actresses and actors and I take notes on their way of being and their actions, in addition to the story of their life.
The presence of Tilda Swinton in front of your camera is therefore a revolution. How did it happen?
Tilda Swinton saw Tropical Malady at the Cannes Film Festival, in 2004, where the film was in competition, because she was a member of the jury. She then told me that she wanted to work with me. Since then, we have kept in touch all the time. We wrote to each other, we met, and we started dreaming about the movie we could make together. So much so that it is linked to Memoria a bit like my actresses and actors were linked to my films before. It has nothing to do with a coup, an idea of a producer. Of course I thought, for a moment, that his status and professionalism might be an obstacle to my work as I had understood it until then. But, in fact, we worked out his character and the movie itself, step by step. That’s why we shot the scenes in chronological order. First its appearance on the screen, its static presence, then the first displacement, the first words, and so on …
You who used to film your actors as they are in real life, how did you come up with Tilda Swinton’s look for this film?
It took a while, as the condition I gave her was to let her hair grow, which she often wears close to the sides. She regularly sent me new photos of her so that I could follow the progress of this shoot. As we wanted to shoot in a country that is unknown to both of us, to better speak of the feeling of strangeness, we came to an agreement on Colombia. So she started to learn Spanish. And we carried out various tests of clothing remotely, with Photoshop. But when she arrived in Bogota, we abandoned all these assumptions of look and decided that she would be a pedestrian like any other, everyday, without any particular sign. For an actress like her, who changes her appearance completely from movie to movie, and often dramatically, this normalcy we were looking for was a challenge …
Without revealing too much, how do you define the particularity of this character that she embodies in Memoria ?
She is someone indeterminate, a woman as if cut off from herself. From the start, when she wakes up in this room, she is both there and not there. She discovers everything she sees and lives. In the end, it becomes, in a way, a body-cinema: it records and accumulates images, sounds, sensations. Tilda Swinton is all the more remarkable as her character is haunted by a detonation noise that only he hears. But on the set, there was no such special noise, only me saying: “Bang! “… Tilda’s way of walking, of inscribing herself in space, of inhabiting an in-between between presence and absence really impressed me. And it evolves discreetly, subtly, from one scene to the next.
“I don’t believe at all that you can direct actors like puppets. On the other hand, you have to know how to look at them. ”
Would you say that you directed it, according to the formula traditionally employed in the cinema?
I am very bad at communicating playing directions to my actors! After each take, I would instead ask Tilda Swinton: ” How do you feel ? What do you think about it ? ” I entrusted to him the evaluation of his game in the light of his feelings. I was a spectator, mostly enthusiastic. I don’t believe at all that you can direct actors like puppets. On the other hand, you have to know how to look at them.
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At the end of the film, a long scene rests on the single face of Tilda Swinton, whose character then seems to explode from within. How did you do it?
I received it as a unique performance from him, lasting about fifteen minutes, which we filmed from three angles. It was Tilda’s last scene on this shoot, and I know that she drew on the emotion of the departure that was coming, after weeks of living with the team in Colombia. She also told me that she thought of her own father, who died shortly before the shooting. Technicians were crying watching her, even after several takes.
Does this experience inspire you to turn professional actors in the future?
Not sure. Because I don’t think I can find with someone else the bond that I shared with Tilda Swinton. She usually says she’s not an actress, and I’ve come to understand what she means by that. On a shoot, she first thinks of the framing, of the light, a little as if she were a director of photography. His artistic sense allows him to adapt to all situations, even the most uncomfortable. I do not know if many actors of his notoriety could do the same.
In Memoria, there is also Jeanne Balibar, who spent several weeks on the set in Colombia. Why do we see her so little on the screen?
For me, it is unique, inimitable. While Tilda Swinton completely blends into the film and merges with it, Jeanne Balibar is always herself. At the beginning, I wanted absurdly to make an ordinary woman, but her sophistication is irreducible. And if we see it little in the end, it plays a decisive role as a catalyst. We had shot more scenes with her, but the editing and internal consistency of the film decided otherwise. On second thought, it was necessary to concentrate on the one character of Tilda Swinton. I had to make a heartbreaking sacrifice which is, in fact, recurring in my work. For Uncle boonmee [Palme d’or à Cannes en 2010] and Blissfully Yours, I thus cut scenes that I adored: it was necessary, imperative. This time, I gave up, death in my soul, to set up a dream sequence where Tilda and Jeanne woke up together, in the same bed. Because the film suddenly lost its course …
Y Memoria, by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2:16, in theaters.
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“Memoria”, by Apichatpong Weerasethakul: “I will not be able to find the complicity shared with Tilda Swinton”