Time to Spend: A Conversation with Bertrand Bonello

There was a nocturnal vibe to this early talk with Bertrand Bonello in a silent hotel room in Vienna. Outside it was foggy and quiet. After watching his latest feature Nocturama which had started at 11:30 pm the night before, I had around eight hours to prepare for a tired interview somewhere between feeling very awake and very much asleep. The same must have been true for Mr. Bonello who was talking to an attentive audience at 2am about his film which, how he rightfully claims, has “nocturnal“ qualities to it.

But I didn‘t recognize any tiredness in a filmmaker obsessed with something we can call “the contemporary“. Mr. Bonello, drinking Kombucha was talking like there was no sleep necessary to love and discuss cinema. 


Patrick Holzapfel: If I wasn‘t interviewing you right now, I would watch Le veilleur by Claire Denis about Jacques Rivette, a film I like very much. I thought I should just begin our conversation with that because I somehow feel that in Nocturama and in your cinema in general, there is a connection to Rivette. The labyrinths, the movements, the spaces. Your films, like his, are very hard to categorize. I just wanted to ask you if Rivette is an influence, if you like him?

Bertrand Bonello: I like Rivette, yes. I like his films. He has never been someone I am thinking of when making a film though. Probably as a French director the New Wave filmmakers, Rivette, Godard, are always there. The connections come by just being there. It allows us to live this idea of freedom in movies. So, even if he is not a direct influence, it is so much part of our French environment as directors that it has an influence, of course. Especially concerning freedom.

PH: But is it really only liberating for you or is it sometimes like: „Ah, well, again, Nouvelle Vague…“?

BB: No, for my generation it began to be liberating. Maybe for directors who were just a bit older than me, people that are now 55 or 60, it might have been heavy. They were just coming after…but for me it is very easy to be influenced by either Rivette or Dario Argento or Dreyer. It‘s all the same, you are allowed to take influences from anywhere. I think for younger filmmakers it is even easier.

PH: Yes, that might be true. Concerning Nocturama I want to avoid talking too much about the parallels between the film and terrorist attacks in Paris because, of course, we can not watch certain images in it without thinking about what we have seen during the last year, but the film stands for itself, I think. So, I want to start by asking you about the structure of the film. Obviously there are two parts, the day with the bomb attack and lots of movement through Paris, and the night in the department store. What was first?

BB: It came at the same time. For me there is not one without the other. I wrote down the idea for the film on one piece of paper, it was all there, it took me about two or three hours to figure it out. So the idea of a political action without any words, the idea of the two parts one being more direct, the other being more abstract, the idea of the mall…So, it was all on this piece of paper and I knew that I had the film. Of course, I had to write it and so on.

PH: The second part is much more like a genre film, right? As far as I remember genre was not much of a thing in your films so far.

BB: No, it wasn‘t.

PH: Was that something you always wanted to do?

BB: I have always liked genre movies a lot. It is very difficult to do it in France and in French without being ridiculous. But then, when I had this idea of making a political film, I really was thinking about some American films that are genre movies but at the same time they are political movies. Mostly in the cinema at the end of the 70s, beginning of the 80s. I was trying to go in this direction. I was telling myself that the first half will be like an action movie, the second half will be much more like a genre film. So, for example I said to myself the first half could be influenced by Alan Clarke‘s Elephant, the second part by John Carpenter‘s Assault on Precinct 13. You just think about those things very briefly and then you start to put your own stuff in it.


PH: For me, your film is very much about expectation. One is always wondering: What is happening next. There is something in the air, you cannot really grasp it but you feel something might come around the corner anytime. Then you really have something close to even a jump scare one or two times, for example with the boy and the golden mask. That surprised me in a film by Bertrand Bonello. Can you say something about it?

BB: Obviously, when the film starts you basically know what is going to happen. So, this is difficult when you write the script. It‘s like what Hitchcock said: If you know what is going to happen, the only question is “When?“ and “How?“. So you know when they are going to the metro, they are going to put some bombs somewhere. You have to be always surprising. Then in the mall, they have to wait for something. So how do you create some tension without anything? Just with the time they spend. Of course, the mall is a fantastic location. It has many floors, you can lose people inside the floors. First they are a little bit scared, then they try to have fun and during the fun you can have some scares. I was thinking about this film Rio Bravo. In this film they are waiting. You know that something is going to happen, an attack. But they have time to spend. So, how to create tension, some life, some time to spend with the characters without being boring? So, that is the work in writing for me. I have to be logical but also a little bit illogical to surprise, you know? It is the same for the ending. You know that they cannot get out of this place. So, how can you make the last thirty minutes with having some tension? It‘s just solutions that you find because of problems.

PH: Yes, that‘s good. You talk a lot about writing but I also feel there are some very interesting choices concerning the editing. For example, there are some moments in which you cut away very early or exactly in the moment we see something. I am thinking about something like the scene with the light balloons. And there are also moments where we go back to a scene we have seen before and so on. How did this approach develop?

BB: It‘s the same as with the writing: How to create tension with little things? It‘s like music in a way. How long has a note to be in order to sound nice and to keep you listening? And the next note has to be logical and surprising. I don‘t really edit films in a narrative way. It‘s more like a sensitive way. And I can do that because the story is very simple. No one tells me: I don‘t understand. So, we have two parts but also three acts and they are very, very simple. So, when things are very simple you can make them very complex in the inside in terms of editing.

PH: Also in terms of time, right? I think it is amazing how in all of your work or at least the last three features with L‘apollonide and Saint Laurent you move through time with flashbacks and little jumps to the future.

BB: For me it is like a damaged record player. So sometimes it goes TSCHUNG and back or TSCHUNG and forward, you know? But basically you have the whole song.

PH: Nocturama is also a step into the contemporary for you, isn‘t it? Your last two features are set in the past though I have to say they very much talk about our time.

BB: Yes, I hope so…but when you make a period film you are always scared that it doesn‘t ring the bell with the contemporary world. You can see the locations and costumes and it‘s very nice but it can be a little bit like a museum.


PH: It‘s not only contemporary though. I think in all of your latest work there is some spirit of youth, about living in today‘s world as a young person. Is this something you are interested in? I don‘t mean a cinema about young people but rather a cinema with young people, about the feelings, insecurities of our world today?

BB: On the first piece of paper I told you about, I put a note that said how I would like the film to be like a punk band in England 1977.  This is a very strong idea of youth for me. Maybe because I have been dreaming about it. I am a little bit too young to have lived it but I really dreamed about it. Of course, there is a strong idea of youth in these notions of revolution, resurrection and energy. And I wanted the film to talk to young people in a much more physical way than a father talking to a son, for example.

PH: But still, this political rage in the film…it‘s not the rage of the 1970s, I think. It seems to be more ambivalent, more insecure…

BB: Yes, because 40 years have passed. The world is very different, so the youth is very different. It was very easy in 1968 or 1972 to have strong ideological ideas. Today this is much more difficult because of those ambiguities, ambivalences you have been talking about. It‘s not only the youth, it‘s the world. In this sense the film, for me, is very contemporary. There are these two parts, also a bit clashing parts. I think, 40 years ago, I might have made only the first part.

PH: And then we can also see in your film a visual or lets say formalistic approach on I wouldn‘t say social media but maybe the way we perceive images today. I am talking about your use of split-screens, frames in frames or how you put short messages on the screen. There is also the line in the film where one character says: “We should have destroyed Facebook“. Do you try to put the language of this world into cinema?

BB: Yes, and I think when you spend time with young people aged 20 or 25…they are so quick. The way they put things together. All this stuff…series, internet, twitter, snapchat…they are so quick. In my opinion you have to think about this when you make a film.

PH: Connected with this and at the same time completely different is also your use of music. It‘s maybe a basic question for a musician/filmmaker but for me it is always astonishing not only how you compose your own score but also how who choose other songs. I wonder not only when you decide on the music but if in the editing the rhythm follows the music or the other way around?

BB: In fact I decide very, very early when I do the first draft of the script. I decide on the original music and the non-original music. Everything is written down in the script. So it goes like: He walks in the metro, we hear this or that music. Then I go to my little studio and I think about the color of music, what textures, you know? Usually when the first draft is finished I have all the music outlined. I also work a lot with this music during the preparation and the during the sooting because it‘s all there. I give the music to the actors or the set decorators or the DOP. So everyone has the feeling, the color, the tempo, the rhythm…and when you go to the editing room afterwards it is very easy because you have been working with this music for a long time by then.


PH: And it‘s not only the rhythm. I think the music also has a narrative, autonomous quality to it. It‘s not there to just accompany the images…

BB: Yes, a very difficult work is the dubbing, the mixing. It is very easy to put music over your frames, it‘s like a clip, it‘s very sexy but I think you kill your scene. So for example inside the mall it took us a long time to find a good mixing, to find out when it has to be loud, when it is not loud. There you could kill the scenes. We have this very loud music and we could have easily just had it run over our images. But this would destroy the scenes because nobody would see the film anymore, everyone would just be listening. So I spend a lot of time in the mixing to find the right balance.

PH: Also the whole idea of what‘s inside and outside…so if you cut outside we don‘t hear the music anymore, we hear police car sirens…

BB: Those are the little details that distinguish a film from a video clip for me.

PH: Let‘s switch to the actors and non-actors in the film. Did you have the feeling that those you casted had already the feelings, this insecurity, this rage we have been talking about or was this something you had to work on with them?

BB: I have to say I was pretty surprised because I wrote the script alone and I have my age which is not the same age as them. I also wrote it with my fantasies. I was meeting like a hundred young actors and they were all telling me, not in a violent way, that they lack the courage but they feel like they could do such a thing. It was very easy to bring them into the film politically. Yet, there was a lot of work to bring them in cinematographically. I made them talk a lot, not only about politics but just about anything. What kind of music they listen to, where they go out at night and stuff like that, what do they read and so on.

PH: What about the group dynamics we can feel in the picture? You can feel certain people are closer to each other and this is not only as part of the narrative, I think. You can also feel it in their bodies or when they talk, dance in the same room.

BB: When I found the ten actors we rent a big house in a suburb of Paris and during the shoot they were all living there. Someone was coming at night to cook pasta and stuff. It was important to me that they spend time together not only on the set but also outside of the film.

PH: Speaking of the outside of the film…I imagine this whole situation with what happened in Paris and the relationship your film has with it…that must have been or even be very frustrating?

BB: Well, I was very scared before the release of it because I knew I would have to give twice as many interviews, explain a lot. But then, this is not so much a problem for people who have seen the film. If you have seen the film you see the difference. It‘s more a problem for those who haven‘t seen it yet. Because on the net you see the words like attack, bombs, Paris, terrorists, so I knew I would have a lot of work to do and be very careful what to say, very precise and give long and dedicated explanations because people are very tense in France. Sometimes when I was doing Q&As and debates I was feeling a lot of tension in the air

PH: People are now talking about a trilogy in your work, something like a modernistic trilogy with L‘apollonide, Saint Laurent and now Nocturama. All three films about something that is about to end, to explode. But I would also call it a Dress-Up-Trilogy as all three films are concerned with people switching identities and literally dressing-up…is there are connection?

BB: When I started this film I really wanted to do something very, very different from what I had done before. I had made six features and after Saint Laurent I started to read some texts by critics finding the same stuff in all my movies and so on. Like retrospectively. But it is difficult to make completely different films because a lot of things come back. Obsessions…you try to destroy the house to build another and sometimes you destroy the house and build the same house again.

PH: It‘s like when Fassbinder said that he wants to build a house with his films. So maybe you cannot avoid building a house in the end. Let‘s talk quickly about the title. I think at first the film was called like the Hemingway novel Paris est une fête and then it was changed to Nocturama. Was it changed because of what happened in Paris?

BB: Yes, the film was always called Paris est une fête but after November 13th, like two or three days after this book by Hemingway became a huge symbol of people getting together after the attacks. So, everybody was buying the book to put it in a bar, to put it into the streets, to offer it just everywhere. Of course, it was impossible for me to keep the title. I didn‘t want to propose a strong relationship between the attacks and my film. It took me quite a while to find something. Nocturama is also the title of an album by Nick Cave. For me the title gives an impression of fiction, I like. I asked him for authorization and he told me that he didn‘t invent the word. It is the house you build for nocturnal animals in a zoo.

PH: So, you are building a house again because in your first feature Quelque chose d’organique a zoo plays an important role, doesn‘t it?

BB: Yes. (smiles in agreement)

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