Earlier this year we were lucky enough to catch Alexis Bruchon's debut feature film 'The Woman with Leopard Shoes'. We called it "a tight, very smart and exceedingly tense mystery that draws you in from the very first scene and through inscrutable yet simplistic storytelling, keeps you hanging. It's the kind of film that demands your full attention during every second of every scene."
Bruchon screened it at Fright Fest Glasgow and then GrimmFest and now he is back with his second feature film 'The Eyes Below', yet another quirky and very unique piece of filmmaking that fans who lean towards the visually artistic style should absolutely check out.
Ahead of its screening at Fright Fest 2022 in London later this month our writer Gavin Logan was able to ask Director Alexis Bruchon a few questions about his new film, his influences, his style and what he plans to do in the future.
GL: Alexis thank you so much for taking the time out to answer some questions today. Was being a filmmaker always your dream as a child and what films or filmmakers inspired you to chase that dream?
AB: Yes, it has always been my dream since I’m a child. I had a lot of chances because, at that time, video clubs were still everywhere. I come from a small town and we had the chance to have a very good one. The owner was absolutely fantastic! (apparently he was a former gangster, he had a walker and a laser to point at the films). He saw that I loved films so he gave me (most of the time for free) great films. There was always a Disney cover on the VHS but inside it was things not for my age like ‘The Exorcist’, ‘Rear Window’, ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’, Buster Keaton’s movies, ‘Les Diaboliques’, ‘Suspiria’, Sydney Lumet’s version of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, ‘A Clockwork Orange’ etc… So many directors inspired me, especially the era from the 30’s to the 70’s. I especially love the film Noir, people like Preminger, Dassin, Clouzot but most of all Robert SIiodmak with ‘Phantom Lady’ and ‘The Killers’. Jean-Pierre Melville with 'Le Cercle Rouge' and plenty of other great masters. That’s why I started to draw a lot because I wanted to make movies. Of course, it was physically impossible. I made comic books to avoid my frustration but one day, I decided to make a film for real, with a camera, actors and lights. I’m a total autodidact and I never made any short before my first film. ‘The Woman With Leopard Shoes’ only happened because I had such a strong desire to make it
GL: You have a very unique style to your work. Is that something that came naturally or did you have to work towards that style?
AB: Sorry in advance for the very pretentious answer but it’s something that came naturally for the very simple reason that it’s the way I see a story. The two films came from an image and a feeling I had and all the process was to reach this first image (which is impossible of course). I know that the idea of (having a) style sounds superficial now but for me it’s extremely important because it’s the only way to show a particular point of view on a story and make it unique. ‘The Eyes Below’ is a visual story. This one hasn’t any dialogue so I have to work only with images and sound. With these limitations, I had to be very careful with every cut, every angle and every sound in the film because it was my only tool to show what I wanted to tell to the audience. So, things built naturally and, I hope, reached the first image I had for the film.
GL: How do you conceive the story for a feature film? Do you write full screenplays or do you work from a basic treatment?
AB: I have a weird working process. I make a sort of battle plan with just the important information I need for the story. It’s the structure. After that I start to write the complete script and once it’s finished, I never read it again. Just after I make a very precise storyboard of each angle, each cut, I draw the lights with watercolor, the movements etc and once again I never look at it (even if it’s not totally true because it’s our working plan for the shooting but I never follow what I draw). It’s the same thing with the editing and the music (The score I made is totally different from the one I had in my mind at the beginning). At each step, I have only the souvenir of the story, so I have always a fresh look on what I want to show. The good thing with such a tiny space is that you concentrate on the information. What is the most efficient angle and cut to tell the story and give the information to the audience.
GL: France has produced some amazing films and filmmakers over the years. Who would you say is your favourite and why?
AB: Yes, French cinema, as European cinema in general, is fabulous. There were and are so many great directors. I love Alain Corneau, Claude Chabrol, Claude Sautet (maybe the most moving films I saw), Henri Verneuil, Clouzot of course. René Clement and for me Melville is maybe the master because his films are a sort of a big hidden autobiography. When he made ‘Le Samouraï’ or ‘Le Deuxième Souffle’, the characters were a part of him. More personally, I think it’s the best director we had. The heist at the Place Vendôme in ‘Le Cercle Rouge’ (which is in fact a remake of a scene from Jules Dassin’s ‘Rififi’) is a cinematic masterpiece. 20 minutes of silence and pure cinema. It was my big influence on ‘The Woman with Leopard Shoes’. More contemporary I love François Ozon, Yann Gozlan (I think he is the new master in thrillers) and I have a real passion for Pascal Laugier. I especially love ‘Ghostland’ which is, I think, his best work. I love his cinema because he is always with his characters and never judges them. Even in ‘Martyrs’, you are with these two women, you understand what they suffer. I would love to meet him one day, he is an encyclopedia in cinema and a true film lover. Most of all he has this incredible sense of image, like Melville, where each angle, cut and light has something to say. He speaks through images, it’s incredible.
GL: Your 1st feature film ‘The Woman with Leopard Shoes’ is a B&W noir picture using shadows and weird angles. ‘The Eyes Below’ leans towards horror but it’s filmed in a very similar style. It feels like a spiritual sequel. Are they connected?
AB: I’m very happy that you mentioned that. The two films are part of a trilogy about thrillers. They are connected but they're not episodes from the same story. It’s a thematic trilogy. ‘The Woman with Leopard Shoes’ was a film noir, this one is a horror/fantastic thriller and the third called ‘Cutting Point’ will be a paranoid thriller. It tells the story of an editor who will find something in a film she has to edit. As I said, I’m an autodidact and these three films are like a film school. I experiment a lot, I try different things but on the other hand I realize that I have a specific, personal way to tell these stories. I don’t like some ways to make it and I like others. The work with the light and shadows, the off-screen, the scope format and the first person shots, for example, size me perfectly to tell the stories I want. Technically it’s the same thing, we elaborate the grammar we like. For example I don’t like the steadicam. I know everyone likes it but I think it’s not an accurate way to represent space. On the contrary, I love the dolly and crane movements (we actually built different specific materials for the film like a rail on wheels and a crane. Most of all we created a head which allows the camera to go absolutely everywhere). I shot with one camera and I always limit the light to maximum three lamps without screens behind. I like the real cut shadows for example. But, at the end of the day, everything depends on the story you have. The style of the film has to match with the subject. In the case of this trilogy, the image, the absence of dialogue guides the result.
GL: So can we expect a third film in a similar style?
AB: Yes, I think the third film will be in the same visual language because it will deal with visual and cinematographic elements. The story will be about editing so once again, the same grammar will be used to tell the story: One character, most of the time present on screen, a small but expressive set and a big work on editing. But of course the idea is to experiment once again and make something totally different. In this one, there will be some dialogue, there will be different sets and the ambiance will be different because the genre is different but I can’t tell you more about it for the moment.
GL: ‘The Eyes Below’ has some intense scenes that lend itself towards the horror genre. Were there specific horror films that you looked at for inspiration?
AB: I think the films by Kaneto Shindo, especially ‘Kuroneko’ and ‘Onibaba’, were a big influence. Shindo told his stories by the images. He even made a no-dialogue masterpiece called ‘The Naked Island’. ‘Onibiba’ might seem a bit far from my film but in terms of suspense and horror, it’s very close. It’s a dreamy, nightmarish horror which plays more with images than actual horror things like gore or graphic violence. In ‘Kuroneko’, you don’t see anything but Shindo builds the fear from the story, the ambiance, the set and the characters. At the beginning, I hesitated to make a very bloody, violent and punk horror film because I also like directors like Lucio Fulci (‘The New York Strangler’ is maybe the most incredible gore film I have seen. I love this movie), but finally, I really prefered the dreamy evocative way. Another Japanese influence is ‘Kwaidan’ by Masaki Kobayashi, especially for the strong colors of the film. You can’t understand our film without the colors because it has an active role in the story. I can also quote Cocteau (even though it's not a horror director) because he can transform realistic situations into the most oneiric way you can find on a screen. Roger Corman is also a big influence for the colors and the ambiance. ‘Suspiria’ and ‘Inferno’ from Argento were something I had in mind for the script. But the film I have always in mind from the first film is Robert Wise’s ‘The Haunting’ because Wise can create a real suspenseful scene with only a door handle or a close up on Eleanor’s face. For me it’s the most powerful horror film ever made.
GL: You seem to like to work with shadows a lot in your work. Are you influenced by German Expressionism or are there any pieces of art that have had an influence on you?
AB: Yes German Expressionism and silent films in general are hugely important for me. It is said that the apparition of the sound was a tragedy for most of the directors because they had suddenly the impression to lose their freedom. Of course, it was false in a part because sound is so important in a movie but the expressionism of their images were gone. ‘Nosferatu’ by Murnau is one of my obsessions. I love every shot in this movie, particularly all the beginning. It’s the magic with German Expressionism they were able to create a whole universe in only three images. Look at ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ for example. Robert Wiene only played with painted screens and fake perspectives to create what are the most influential images for horror cinema. I also have always in mind a very strange film called ‘The Cat and the Canary’ by Paul Leni. It’s a whodunit, very classic in terms of story but weird and totally surreal in its images with a gothic castle, a storm and crazy characters. I love it.
GL: Was there any scenes in the film that were particularly difficult to complete?
AB: Yes, the corridor scenes were a nightmare to shoot. The corridor was supposed to be without end but in reality it was just seven meters long, 2 meters high and built in a real house corridor, so no space behind it. I had to make the illusion of an infinite corridor but in fact when Vinicius (who plays the main character) made three steps, we already saw the end of the set. Plus, all the sequence was made with the dolly. We only had the possibility to put two lights, just behind the camera so we had our shadows all the time on screen. The heat was horrible and, cherry on the cake, the wood parts of the structure had to be on the floor and of course everyone had smashed our feet on these bloody pieces of wood. All the scenes with the red grid were also the worst part.
GL: ‘The Eyes Below’ plays with the viewer sometimes in that it shows things that may or may not be real. Was that the plan all along? Is this a metaphor for something else?
AB: Good question. To be honest, I don’t know it myself and I’m very happy with that. I’m always happy when we don’t understand every aspect of a movie (for my first feature film which was a film noir, almost everything is explained but even with that, people told me why some very little details are not explained at the end). I think it's a problem now because the viewers want an explanation for everything. Sometimes it’s better to have this dark space where you can put your own interpretation. Stephen King has written a brilliant text about metaphor in a story: it appears after you made the narration, never before. It’s something that is not necessarily present at the beginning (I think he took the example of ‘Misery’ and says that he had first the excitement of the story and then, after he made some parallels with his life as a successful author). On the other hand, you have always a starting point idea. For ‘The Eyes Below’, it was very simple: how to transform such a basic and boring set like a bed into a surreal, nightmarish and exciting space. The basic concept of the film was to make a long chase with a character lying in his bed. The concept was graphic and narrative, not thematic or metaphoric. The film is based on a painting called ‘The Night’ by Ferdinand Hodler, so the idea came from a visual feeling. I was also very inspired by abstract painting like Rothko, De Kooning, Gottlieb or Matthieu. But to answer your question, in the story some things are real, some are not and I’m happy to see that people who have seen the movie have different explanations. For some people it’s a very mental psychological story of a man struggling with himself. For others, it’s a monster movie, or some think that it’s just the representation of the dream. It’s funny because the story is pretty clear, you have all the elements to understand the story, but the starting point idea allows us to expand the story to other territories. It’s maybe the thing I’m the most happy with
GL: In both your feature films you have almost zero dialogue at all. What made you want to make films like that?
AB: I’m also an illustrator so for me, images are very important. I like dialogue very much. Some of my favorite films are made of dialogue sequences but I have to admit that a lot of films, especially in contemporary French cinema, live more by their dialogue than their images. In a word, I always prefer characters defined by what they make than what they are. It’s the American way and, even though I totally love European cinema, this American philosophy is, for me, the best. All the challenge was to build characters and situations with very few but, I hope, accurate elements. The goal was clearly to make very fluid stories with no exposition scenes. In both films, we began the story with action and we finished it with action. The characters have no mouths so they have to express what they feel by their expressions, by their bodies and by the situations they are in. One of my favorite films is ‘Blow Up’ and if you see carefully, there is almost no dialogue in the film. In ‘The Woman with Leopard Shoes’ it’s the same thing, it’s a man walking around a desk for one hour and finding some tiny elements for his investigations. If there were dialogue, it would be very boring but, in this case something is missing.. So you have to tell the story in another way. It’s even more radical with ‘The Eyes Below’ because the character is lying under his bedsheets
GL: Not only do you write, direct and produce but you are responsible for the sound design and score too. Is music something that is very important to you?
AB: For me sound and most of all music are decisive for the film. In both films, sound replaces dialogue. In a way, it’s even more important than the images because sound is the only thing which will penetrate the spectator, physically, so it’s the only way to bring the audience into the image. That’s why I shot the film without direct sound (here is another link to the silent movies, I spoke to Vinicius during the shots). I recorded every sound you hear during the film in order to mix it and have the most immersive ambience possible. The sound of the sheets were particularly important (like the fireplace sound), because the sheets are like something alive, like a monster so we have to feel it organically. It’s the same thing with the score. I recorded a lot of sounds and made a lot of samples. I distorted and reworked it. After that, I composed the music directly on the editing table in order to have a fusion between image and sound. It’s maybe the most exciting part. I have no background in music, I don’t play any instrument but I made it with my sensations so it began to be logical for me. The music makes some waves during the story. It’s also a strong tool to tell the story. For example a lot of music elements appear about one second before the effect on the image because it’s part of the story. It’s not something you can clearly see but you feel that something is weird
GL: Being an independent filmmaker is really tough. What has your experience of the film festivals been like since you first started out?
AB: It’s very tough indeed but so good and fascinating. Making these two features were the happiest periods of my life. But I think you have to be passionate because when the film is finished, you start the most difficult and painful time of the project, especially if you are totally independent. I haven’t any background, I don’t live in Paris or in a big city, I have no connections and most of all nobody to promote the film. But I think all the independent filmmakers are in the same situation. After finishing the film, I know that I have to elaborate a strategy to build a sort of package: make the trailers, make the posters, the press kit etc… but this is almost nothing in fact because the situation is so weird. I went to the Cannes film market for the first time this year. During six days I presented my film to dozens of companies and not a single person I met told me something about the visual, the artistic, the narrative aspects of my films. They were just obsessed with the language (understand, any other language outside English is forbidden), if there were big names in the cast, if there is action at the beginning and the way they will sell it (and absolutely everyone doesn't give a shit about theaters. Walmart is now better than the theater apparently) On the contrary, festivals are for me a sort of paradise for cinema. Your films have the respect of people who love films, who love the big screen and want the best for their audience. People go to see what you have done, you meet people who share their experiences, in a word it’s like an oasis in this very tough process. But the selection period is very stressful. The six sometimes eight months before the mail from a festival is a real torture because you’ve worked a lot, you have put everything in the film and now people make the decision to select the film or not. So when you have an email from Fright Fest, it’s like Christmas. For me this festival is special because it represents what a big festival should be: search for new, unknown filmmakers and films. The problem is that a lot of festivals (especially in France) build their line up on the prestiges of the films they present so you have the impression to see a showroom for upcoming movies you will see sometimes a few days later. But in this case where is the risk and the thrill to discover something new?
GL: Are there any other up and coming filmmakers and/or actors you’d like to work with in the near future?
AB: Yes, a lot. There are a lot of incredible actors, filmmakers and technicians now. Speaking of that, Vinicius Coelho who plays Eugène, the main character has been wonderful. He remains calm, patient and in the right way all the time. He comes from theatre, dialogue is very important to him so playing just with his body and his face was very hard but he truly did a great job. I really like the mix of fragility and force in his interpretation. At the beginning, the role was made for a woman but we realized that it would be a bit cliché. The woman, frightened in her bed by the male villain so finally we decided to find a man. But Vinicius also brings a feminine dimension in his play and I think I couldn’t expect better. Pauline Morel has a huge role in the film. She plays the Enemy and she was very good, very gothic with all this ink on her. She was also the first assistant, she made the costumes and fabrics and she had some of the best ideas for the horror scenes. To answer your question, there are plenty of people who I’d love to work with. For example, I was at a Greek festival in June and I saw two wonderful films. A Venezuelan one called ‘Me and the Beasts’ by Nico Manzano. It’s a dreamy poem about how to create when you are alone. It’s a very powerful and sensitive film. Most of all, you are literally absorbed by Nico’s universe . The second one is an Irish film called ‘Foscadh’ by Sean Breathnach and I was totally hit in the face by the film. I spoke about Laugier earlier in the way that you don’t have to judge your character. Sean has total empathy for his characters (brilliantly casted) even though the story is very hard. The camera work is just perfect, it is a future classic for me. Speaking of that, some young directors are totally unknown but they have all the potential to be great directors. There is a guy named Skylar Lawson in the US for example, he made some incredible shorts and a beautiful feature with almost nothing, and all shot in films. The movies are gorgeous but not released, the films are impossible to catch
GL: What advice would you give an inspiring filmmaker trying to get into the business or trying to get a film made?
AB: I met Bertrand Tavernier, a year before he died, at the Festival Lumière in Lyon and I asked him the same question. He told me “to have a lot of patience and humor”. I think he was perfectly right. If I had any advice (but I’m a little too young as a filmmaker for advice), it is to make a film you are able to control. As I said earlier, the quality of a film is based on very simple things. A lot of people who want to make films are obsessed with the technique, the definition of the images, the type of camera and the realism of VFX but frankly, is it really important? I think writing a script you like, building an atmosphere you like and creating the right visual narration for that is much more important. Most of the best films of the 20th century were made with limitations. Look at the ‘Touch of Evil’ the film is shot basically in a street and a little motel but every shot is a masterpiece. The famous opening sequence was made with a crane on a car, not one of those awful drones (I really, really hate drones). I made the two films as a challenge: to make films with built sets, controlled movements and sophisticated lights, so a classical film, without money and crew. I don’t know if I succeeded (of course, I’m not the right person to answer that) but at least I tried to find a way to make it happen. The second advice I would give is to make the film you want, not the film they want. Making an independent film is the only way to make the film you desire. There is no commercial and ethical pressure, we are free.
Thank you so much Alexis for giving us your time and answering our questions. Best of luck with 'The Eyes Below' and any future projects. We can't wait to see what you do next.
Check out the official trailer for 'The Eyes Below' right now.
'The Eyes Below' will screen at Fright Fest on Friday August 26th
- Gavin Logan