EXCLUSIVE : interview with ‘Sheitan’ auteur Kim Chapiron

Transcript of an interview with Kim Chapiron, writer-director of the riotous French horror-comedy Sheitan.
NEIL YOUNG : Congratulation on Sheitan, which I saw in Amsterdam. It's now travelling around the world, I believe.
KIM CHAPIRON : I just got back from Moscow – it was the most incredible trip of my life : it was anarchy. Over there it's just crazy: we were with crazy guys, crazy producers. The premiere was incredible: 1500 people in three cinemas, all showing the film at the same time. It was crazy, I think I might become Russian myself sometime very soon!

What was the reaction of the 1,500 people in the Moscow audiences?
It was a very cool reaction, lots of laughing. You see, Sheitan is a comedy first of all. A comedy, but also scary and sexy. What I really want is reactions. When you see movies these days, often you've forgotten it immediately. With Sheitan my target is to achieve some kind of reaction. Now the movies are so 'nothing.'

Such as?
The last one I saw was Mission Impossible III: I forgot it straight away. For me, I just need to make some kind of a reaction: for people to come out and say "What the fuck?! What's wrong with you?!" That's OK with me.

But have some audiences taken it more seriously – highbrow critics like Cahiers du Cinema, perhaps…
There are some people who take the movie very seriously. That's good too, that means they can feel something extra in the film. But for me it's meant to be a funny movie. In France I had very good reviews from Liberation and Le Monde, serious newspapers like that, kind of intellectual. The more mainstream magazines, they were very bad. But that's OK, I don't care about those magazines. A funny thing happened with Cinelife which is the biggest selling magazine. They said a lot of bad, bad things. And so Vincent Cassel [producer and co-star of Sheitan] met them after the press show – he met the boss of the magazine and it was a very bizarre situation. The boss was thinking "Oh shit, Vincent Cassel is coming after me." But Vincent approached the situation in a different way. He said "You don't understand that movie, I'm sorry for you…" So the boss called him afterwards and asked him to write an article explaining why the Cinelife critic had been so stupid.

How did you get involved with Vincent Cassel?
Through Matthieu Kassowitz [director of La haine], who I have known since I was six years old. He was my neighbour upstairs. When I was 14 he was making La haine, so I saw Vincent Cassel every day. I was making some very short, crazy movies – my father is a painter and video-artist, so when I was young I had equipment to make movies. I showed Vincent the films, and he asked me to make a music video for a group he was working with. Then later on the project was cancelled – he said "I'm sorry, but some day if you want help making a film, call me." I was 16 at that stage, and I said "Let's make a movie now!" I called all my friends – about 50 people – and we got together one weekend, and I made my first film with Vincent, Wanted Brothers. I made four other short movies with Vincent.

And how old are you now?
I'm 25, so we've known each other for over ten years.

Vincent and Matthieu have both made films for Hollywood studios: Vincent was recently in Ocean's Twelve, and Matthieu directed Halle Berry in Gothika. Is that the kind of path you would like to follow or are you happy to stay in France?
Sure, I would like to follow the path to Hollywood. Sheitan is now one of the top three biggest-selling French movies for international distribution, we've sold to 34 countries. I'm going to Cannes to meet the international press on the 25th of May, so that might lead to more exposure in the States.

Has Sheitan screened in the US yet?
Yes, it was just shown in the TriBeCa film festival.

And would it be your intention to make big-budget films like Gothika or Christophe Gans' Silent Hill?
In fact I don't want to make big movies like that. I prefer to make little crazy films over there, independent movies. After Sheitan I was sent some incredible scripts from the USA – in fact, tonight I'm meeting with a producer about a project that might be made over there.

Are you keen to stay in the horror genre?
No – I've received four scripts for horror films, but I don't want to make another horror movie. I don't want to be known as a "French horror-movie director". To be honest I prefer comedy: I might make a romantic comedy.

Do you like the horror genre yourself as a viewer?
I prefer movies like Straw Dogs: I prefer emotions, character. For me the best thing to show in a movie is the character: I love working with actors. The project that I'm meeting this producer tonight, that's all about character. With Sheitan we had six months' rehearsal. We were together doing improvisations around the basic idea. For me it's the most interesting way of working: I can catch something accidental, it might start off as a mistake. I love that feeling, it makes for a very natural-feeling movie. The king of that, for me, is Kusturica. He works with these amateur actors, and you can catch something you can't catch anywhere else. It's very fresh.

How many of the actors in Sheitan were professional before they made your film?
Apart from Vincent, just two: Roxane Mesquida, and Julie-Marie Parmentier. They are both very good actresses in France: Julie-Marie is playing with Michel Piccoli in King Lear, and Roxane is appearing with Asia Argento in the next Catherine Breillat movie.

And Vincent…
He's the craziest…

He's going to be 'Master of Ceremonies' at Cannes later this month, I believe.
Yes – Canal Plus asked me to make a documentary about that. During the opening night he's going to talk about the recent urban problems in France, a very "peace-and-love" kind of speech, where he says he's very happy to live in France because Paris has 177 communities living together. To counteract the negative image of France that has been put about in the press this year and last year. My documentary is about that also, we are going to the places where they had the riots.

And will Vincent's role in Cannes mean that Sheitan will be screened? It already opened in French cinemas, of course.
It's going to be shown in the Market section, which is where I will be meeting the international press. It's very cool – I was there last year selling my movie through Wild Bunch [international sales agents], I love meeting distributors from all over the world – for a director the best thing is to show his movie as widely as possible.

Any British distribution deal yet?
We are hoping to make a deal at Toronto in September.

You were talking about working closely with the actors. What is the story with Olivier Barthelemy, who gives such an amazing performance as Bart?
It's like with Matthieu Kassowitz, I've known Olivier since I was six years old. I know him very very well. What you have to know is that this guy is really really crazy, but in real life he's not the same at all as his character in Sheitan. Crazy in a different way. He took some inspiration from our younger days when we were growing up together: he was a little bit "alcoholic" like his character.

And it's his first film?
It's his first full-length movie, but he made three short films with me before.

And he plays the same character in the shorts as he does in Sheitan?
Yes, sort of.

And is 'Bart' [his character name in Sheitan] his real nickname?
Yes – short for 'Barthelemy'.

Will he now become a professional actor and work in other films?
Yes – he's now playing the main character in another movie, about nuclear issues in Morocco. He can play a lot of different types of characters – he wants to make a film like The Graduate next, I think.

Is Olivier being helped in his career by Vincent?
Yes – we all have the same agent.

And would he also like to work in Hollywood type films?
I think so – for us, to make a Hollywood movie is very cool, if you can do it.

You mentioned Peckinpah's Straw Dogs earlier. What other American directors do you like?
I admire Todd Solondz, Larry Clark, Terry Gilliam.

And in 'world cinema'?
Zhang Yimou… Kusturica – he's incredible.

Any French directors?
Hmm… Let me think… … … Perhaps Joel Seria, who did a film called Les Galettes de Pont-Aven [1975]. I love that 'comedy-sexy' type of film.

What was it like for you yourself when you started making Sheitan, your first feature film?
At the beginning I have to say it was hard. You go onto the set and there are 100 people asking you questions about everything. But when you know that all the people are there to work for your 'crazy brain' it's just cool, so after that it was OK. My mother did the costumes, my sister was one of the singers on the soundtrack. I had all my best friends on set – my neighbour was the Assistant Director, I've known him since I was six.

You seem to have known a lot of people since you were six, and now you're all making these films together?
That's right!

Before Sheitan you did short films, and also music videos?
Yes, mainly in France for French groups. I did one in New York, a rap video for Widow Prism, an underground American rap group. In fact, I love doing music videos. I am going to do one soon for Oxmo Puccino, he's doing a kind of rap/jazz project for the Blue Note label. I will be working with him in September to do the 'mise-en-scene' of his show. The mix of jazz and rap is incredible… Then there's this band La Caution – you heard the music in Sheitan. The band 'Sheitan' in the film is fictional, their music is actually by La Caution. There's a funny story about them and Ocean's Twelve: what happened was that Vincent went over to make the movie and he took ten DVDs from my 'crew' Kourtrajme. He gave my DVDs to George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Steven Soderbergh. Soderbergh loved one of the songs so much he put it on the soundtrack of Ocean's Twelve, this very violent-sounding French rap group, and that's La Caution. So we get hundreds of e-mails to our website asking about the song, because it's not included on the soundtrack CD for the movie. The guy who did the 'real' music for the film was really angry about it. And my friend who did the music is working with a lot of people now thanks to this song being included on the soundtrack. And Vincent is really the 'godfather' of Kourtrajme: when he went to the USA he wore a Kourtrajme t-shirt with our logo on it, and then I saw Steven Soderbergh at a press conference and he was wearing the same t-shirt.

Ocean's Twelve is of course the sequel to Ocean's Eleven: would you consider doing Sheitan Part 2?
No, but if somebody else wanted to continue the story that would be OK. I love to 'switch universes' – so I want to do something very different next.

With the same actors? Do you intend to work with Olivier again?
Maybe – he's going to be in a film made by another member of my 'crew' – we have three directors, including the son of Costa-Gavras. Another one is Toumani Sangare, who is going to do a City of God type film but set in Mali. My other friends are writing the script.

What was it like working with Monica Bellucci, who plays 'La Belle Vampiresse' in an old black-and-white movie we glimpse on a TV set?
It was an hommage to old vampire movies. The DVD of Sheitan will feature two hours of bonuses, and it will feature the entire two-minute movie featuring Monica, about the vampire and Santa Claus. Monica… … I can't explain with words! I hope I'm going to work again with her. The DVD will also feature a documentary made by Toumany, he was with me all day long since the signature of the contract. The documentary is very sincere and intimate, very discreet, following me around all the time, like a 'fly on the wall' idea.

Did Monica speak about working with Terry Gilliam on The Brothers Grimm, where she again plays a vampire-like character?
Yes, she told me that he's very nice, that everything on the movie was very big, in contrast to Sheitan

What was your budget on the film?
It was 3 million euros. I was very happy with that budget. But next time if I don't need such a big budget I will make a movie for less money. That's not the main factor. If I have some good actors and I can work with them, that's the main thing. Vincent said it's a 'maladie' with me: I have to have a camera in my hand at all times, it's 'vital' for me! That's why I'm making this documentary for Canal Plus. The world thinks that France is like a war zone at the moment, all these images of riots in the banlieues. My friends come from Clichy and places like this where they had the trouble, and we want to show the positive side: Ladj Ly [plays 'Ladj' in Sheitan] is making a documentary about Clichy, showing the place from the 'inside'. That's also a Kourtrajme project – it will be the first free DVD we have issued, and we're going to show it to everybody. The story you see in the press and on TV is just fake – two weeks ago the mayor in Clichy brought in this crazy rule where four people can't walk around together. And that's because of all this "thuggery" and "delinquency" and "insecurity" – this is the response of the Mayor, and [French politician Nicolas] Sarkozy…

And Sarkozy might be France's next president.
Well… If Sarkozy is the next president of France, there's gonna be a war!

By this time you'll be a Russian, of course.
Yes, that might happen!

Interview and transcript by Neil Young, Saturday 13th May 2006