Interview with Pascal Laugier, director of Martyrs
25th Mar 09
“The first rule of horror must always be transgression.”
Even though he is responsible for one of the most divisive and shocking horror films of the last decade, Pascal Laugier is one of the sweetest directors I have ever met. Fiercely intelligent, honest and self-deprecating, he’s an interviewer’s dream. When we caught up with him in London to talk about Martyrs he was a bundle of energy, candidly discussing his personal take on the genre he loves, the nightmare of the Martyrs shoot and his exciting plans for the future. He was happy to run over our allotted time together, much to his publicist’s chagrin!
Pascal admitted that last years screening of the film at Fright Fest rendered him ‘terrified’ but he is delighted with the British reaction to the film and assured us that his upcoming Hellraiser will honour the spirit of the original while being a very different beast.
EMB: How did ‘Martyrs’ come about, what was your inspiration for the story?
Pascal: I started out with the revenge sequence, the girl knocking at the door and killing a very nice, very normal middle-class French family. Then I started thinking about why this would have happened, what is her past, why has she done this? From that point I started to imagine the consequences of her actions. The more I was writing, the more I was thinking about the reasons behind the violence, and violence against humanity. So violence gave birth to the ideas behind the film but violence is also the subject of the film itself.
EMB: That is such a shocking sequence, it’s kind of a sucker punch straight to the viewer, totally disorientating. Did you always intend to have it so early on in the film –was that the first image you had in your mind?
Pascal: Absolutely. I like the idea of opening with it, as this kind of sequence would normally happen at the end of a film. I also like the idea that what happens in the first ten minutes would sum up an entire other kind of film. I really wanted to play with the archetypes of the genre because I'm a huge horror fan, and I wanted to bring something new and fresh and unexpected. In a way I wanted the audience to have no idea where this film was going to take them, so they would be like ‘what the hell am I watching!’
EMB: You definitely succeeded! At Fright Fest there were a few audience members for whom it was all too much…
Pascal: I take that as a big compliment! (laughs)
EMB: A lot of people are talking up France as the home of a new brutal wave of horror, with films like Inside, High Tension and Frontiere(s). Do you feel part of this and did the success of those films inspire Martyrs in any way?
Pascal: Well, I wanted to make extreme genre films for a long time. As a teenage my dream was to be like my heroes, people like Dario Argento and John Carpenter. I always wanted to be part of the counter-culture and make extreme cinema.
EMB: A lot of the intensity of those films has been missing from American horror recently and it feels like there’s a real groundswell of genre filmmaking in your country right now.
Pascal: I agree, I agree about the US stuff. The reality in France is a little less miraculous than it sounds! The reality is that it is still a total hell to get these kinds of films together. The French industry and film press are still very condescending about horror. In fact when I was casting Martyrs I tried to meet with a lot of actresses and they wouldn’t even call me back. It was as if I was proposing them to do some kind of porno! We still have a lot of battles to fight to change mentalities about genre films in France. But the more the genre is despised the more I want to do it. And I like being in the ‘underground’ position.
EMB: The international response to 'Martyrs' must be very heartening though?
Pascal: Yeah absolutely, it’s great. For me horror has always been offensive and dividing – the first rule of horror must always be transgression. Before cinema, in literature, sculpture and painting, horror was there to investigate and talk about the kind of things that other art forms maybe ignored, to reveal things that society doesn’t want to reveal.
EMB: Was the extremity of ‘Martyrs’ and the subject matter a big issue when it came to funding?
Pascal: All the French major studios rejected the film. The younger executives wanted to take it, but the older executives didn’t want to touch it. Fortunately we found other ways of financing. In the end it didn’t take too much time to find the two million needed to make the film a reality.
EMB: How was the shoot itself? Was it as difficult to film as it is to watch?
Pascal: It was a nightmare – because of the low budget we had to go to Montréal to shoot the film. I was not allowed to bring my crew and technicians with me so essentially I had to cast a crew as well as the actors. That was really difficult. Also there were some cultural misunderstandings between me and the Canadian crew so in many ways it was not pleasant. Nobody said it should be easy to make films of course, but I am glad it’s over!
EMB: What are your thoughts, or plans, for ‘Hellraiser’?
Pascal: The film won’t be a remake in the traditional sense. I wouldn’t feel comfortable as the original is so good. However at the same time I do want to stay very faithful to Clive Barker and his vision. I’m still dealing with the studio and am still trying to propose something that could contain the inner themes of the original, which as you no doubt know is very transgressive material. I want to keep all the S&M elements in the US version. Will I be able to do it? Hmm I’m not sure! (laughs). I would rather leave it alone though, than betray Clive.
EMB: Can you tell us anything about ‘Dogs’?
Pascal: This is my favourite project that I’ve been proposed to direct. It’s an original script and I loved it at first reading. It’s a very classic, very basic story about a man surrounded by wild dogs in the desert. It’s kind of siege movie, a small house, man trapped– it’s a human drama, very much like a 70s movie.
EMB: Sounds fantastic – primitive horror…
Pacsal. Yes, very much. It’s written by a young screenwriter and the producers are looking for funds right now, so we could start very quickly. I’m very excited about being a director for hire.
EMB: Will it be shot in the US?
Pascal: Oh yes, it’s set in the Mojave Desert, so we could definitely shoot it on the States or Morocco. We need a desert landscape.
EMB: To return to ‘Martyrs’ again, were you ever worried that the extremity might be too much for some and perhaps obscure what you were trying to achieve?
Pascal: When we were shooting the long basement sequence, with the girl being beaten on a daily basis, I was telling my crew and my actors ‘right now we are losing twenty per cent of the audience’. But that’s a risk I really wanted to take because my goal was that I didn’t want these sequences to be entertaining or fun.
I really wanted to test the limits of each member of the audience – so maybe if they stay in the theatre to the end they would feel something else by the end of the film. Martyrs is about transcendence and I had to try and make the audience feel exactly what my main character felt. But I think it’s totally legitimate and I’m very comfortable that the film divides the audience, absolutely.
EMB: The only film that I can compare it to in terms of the physical sensation and personal reaction is Gasper Noe’s ‘Irreversible’, which is brilliant but also kind of a cinematic endurance test.
Pascal: I take that as a huge compliment – Gasper is a genius. I love the idea of pushing a film that is offensive – once horror becomes as weak or safe as other genres I don’t see the point. In American horror films I feel too much that the director is only doing a film to show off what other horror films they have seen or have in their DVD collection. The great directors, like Carpenter and Argento, share with you their vision of the world. Those were the films I fell in love with and those are the films I want to make.
EMB: I think most would agree you have certainly done that. ‘Martyrs’ is already one of the defining horror films of the decade. Congratulations.