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SXSW ’11 INTERVIEW: ‘The Divide’ Director Xavier Gens!

Frontier(s) director Xavier Gens’ The Divide (review) was acquired for a whopping seven figures (by Anchor Bay) after its SXSW world premiere late last week, and just before the big sale David Harley caught up with the French phenom to talk about the end of the world.

Starring Michael Biehn, Milo Ventimiglia, Rosanna Arquette, Courtney B. Vance, and Lauren German, the film begins when a cataclysmic explosion devastates New York forcing eight strangers to take refuge in the basement of their apartment building, a converted fallout shelter designed by their paranoid superintendent Mickey.
David Harley: Your last project was The Incredible Adventures of Fusion Man, a superhero short for French television, but the last feature-length film you worked on was Hitman, which you have been vocal about your experience on. When looking for your next project, how important was it to you to work outside of the studio system this time around and was there anything specifically that you learned from your experiences on Hitman that changes how you approached making The Divide?

Xavier Gens: I think suddenly you realize that it’s important to have creative freedom as a director, and I was really on a quest for that afterwards. I felt so bad for like a year after the film came out because the movie was not exactly what I wanted and I had no control on. I told myself that for my next feature, I needed control and wanted to do something smaller. I really wanted to work with the human condition and wanted to get into it without having someone tell me what to do. So my first thing was finding producers that would let me do that. I met Darryn Welch and Ross Dinerstein and we became friends. They are fantastic guys and they really trust me. When I explained my intentions, they said ok and they let me do what I want. I have my director’s cut, which is what you saw yesterday.

BD: Those are the best kind of producers! The screenplay was written by Karl Mueller and Eron Sheenan, but what influenced your vision of the future that we see in The Divide?

Gens: My own nightmares! (laughs) I had a nightmare about the end of the world a few years ago and that was such a terrible feeling that I decided to put it down a paper. And then it sat on the shelf for a while. When I saw this script about a nuclear holocaust, I thought that maybe I could translate my nightmare into the story. The opening scene is an exact translation of my nightmare and then after that, I wanted to explore human beings and the journey they’ve taken over the last century though fascism and all that stuff. So that was what I really wanted to explore, like I did in my first feature, Frontier(s). And The Divide is a sort of continuation of Frontier(s).

BD: Both of the genre films you’ve made so far have been extremely bleak and in this film particularly, there’s a Lord Of The Flies complex running throughout it. How did you balance out the internal horror and changes the characters are going through versus the nuclear holocaust going on outside of the shelter?

Gens: I think there was, for me, a lot of symbology in the film. We used the visual perspective of the film to translate the emotions of the characters and when you watch them, you can see their physical degradation during the film. They lose weight, their gums are bleeding, they’re losing hair… They became sick mentally and physically. There is a degradation and I would like to show how human beings can go back to something really primal. That’s why I shot the film in sequence. To have that feeling of going back to primal ways and every actor was really into that process. The look of the film makes you think about it. There are fluorescent lights in the beginning and by the end, it’s back to primal fire.

BD: By the end, they’ve become cavemen.

Gens: Exactly. That process goes through the entire film and we wanted to visually show this. That’s really the intention of film: to show how we can go back to our primal ways.

BD: Like you said, the film does tackle that journey of how humanity can revert back to what it once was through the experience of living through a horrible catastrophe, but the exploration of chaos vs. order comes through a lot as well. Michael’s character is the order at the beginning of the film; he’s a fascist super of the building. But, when his strict guidelines are broken, chaos erupts and so on and so forth.

Gens: One of my intentions was to show how we could twist each character. For example, when you take Michael’s character, he’s in charge of that place and knows everything about it. He knows how to run things; he has already lost his humanity. He already knows that kind of situation and is someone who is paranoid about what’s happened and is prepared for the event because he believes in conspiracy theories. When the catastrophe arrives, he was the one ready for it.

Before that, when we welcome his character, we know his character has already lost his humanity 10 years before. And now, when we enter in the story, he’s the kind of guy that wants to be alone without people around him and he is obliged to share things and analyze things. When he loses control of the basement to Milo and Michael Eklund, since he is someone very strong and hardened, things change. We understand with that character that he used to have a family, he used to be a fireman when we saw the picture in his room. There’s a moment when Lauren German is looking at a picture of 9/11 and sees him and his wife and child. He was a good guy before he was that kind of prick.

We sympathize with him in that moment but after that, it’s different. He is the antagonist in the beginning of the film and Milo is the hero – he goes to scavenge and save the girl. But after being exposed with radiation, he is contaminated by the outside world and his brain begins to rot and he decides to overthrow Michael and he becomes the antagonist. There’s a very interesting crossover between the characters.

BD: Whether it’s the opening scene with Lauren looking out the window as bombs rain down on the city or the fear of opening the door because it might cause radiation poisoning, the film tackles some very real, science-based fears. Was there a lot of research put into creating the look and feel of The Divide‘s scenario?

Gens: We went to the Hiroshima museum in New York to do some research, and I spoke with some Japanese scientists who know about Nagasaki and Hiroshima. I did a lot of internet research, I used books; anything that could show me what would happen if someone came in contact with radiation. Physically, you get sicker. Your gums bleed first, you lose your hair, you lose weight and finally, your cells get destroyed little by little and you get destroyed from the inside. It’s like a very quick cancer who burns you on the inside and we really wanted to show that in the film.

BD: Shooting it in sequence is an interesting and smart choice for the film, considering the fluidity of their physical and mental change over the course of the film.

Gens: The most complicated part of it fell on the actors. They had to let their beards grow out; they couldn’t shave for 31 days. They had to be really into it for 31 days. Every day, we had to continue shooting and stay in that spirit to be really inside the complexities of the character. Sometimes, we tried to create what’s happening in the movie outside in real life to get the actor into it. We wanted them to continue to feel what was going on in the film the entire time.

BD: Speaking of things that kind of speak for themselves and shape the film, the score feels very Carpenter-esque.

Gens: We spoke a lot with composer Jean-Pierre Taieb about the feel of the music. It was very important; the music is a character and it’s supposed to tell us a story. There are moments where the music will drive the action instead of the dialogue. If you watch the film, it’s a very silent movie. I would want to create a space where music and imagination drive the story. The sounds convey things I don’t need dialogue for. It was important to come back to something really essential.

BD: You got such great performances from everyone; they’re all very intense, especially Milo and both Michaels. Because you used the technique of shooting in sequence, how much directorial control did you have to exercise considering you mentioned that the actors had mentally begun to live their roles outside of the shoot?

Gens: I didn’t have to push them so much. When you open a door to an actor, it’s more how you initially lead them. I told them I was open to letting them do something they propose. I give them that proposition because when you speak with them, they prepare like they’re in a kitchen. They prepare for their roles and the characters are very deeply researched from their point of view. When you go to salvage that and bring it to the film, as a director or writer, you need to reach behind the actor’s brain and say `Give me that and let me put it in the script. Don’t keep it for yourself.’ I really invited them to give me that and share ideas, improvise and have that sort of organic feeling between each other.

One of the lessons I learned was watching Jacques Audiard work on A Prophet. He really invites the actors to create a workshop and work together. On The Divide, we do rehearsals before shooting and in the rehearsals, Lauren German and Ivan Gonzalez – who play boyfriend and girlfriend in the story – improvised how they met in life before the film began to create a backstory to their relationship. Then, because of how they act towards each other in the film, we created a scene in their apartment that took place right before the film started that feeds and informs their characters.

There are various moments in the film where he says they were drug addicts, and that’s because of scenes we created in preparation while trying to find out who the characters were. We created entire stories; we could make three movies about each character with what we have created for their backstory. We wanted strong foundations for the characters. So it was a very passionate and interesting process to do. It’s a role playing game, you know? That’s the kind of process we used.

There’s a lot of stuff we didn’t use in the movie and since you don’t have the backstory, you kind of see what’s in the moment and how they’re responding to each other and you use that to say, `I know that kind of character. He’s real.’ And when you watch Alien, for example, it’s exactly what he does with his actors for the dinner scene in the beginning. When you go watch that scene again, you will see that it is so organic because there is improvisation and it’s exactly what we did. We gave direction to everyone and then after, we improvise and let life go through on its own.

BD: Is that the sort of thing that also leads towards the actors creating their own cliques and groups outside of the shoot? They were into their characters, but were they also living the divide among the survivors?

Gens: It created a lot of conflict between the actors. It was like a pack of wolves. You throw the meat in the middle of the scene and everyone jumps on it. Everyone was free to do so and try to steal the scene. It created strong conflict between each other but, as they are in the story, Lauren German and Ashton Holmes’ characters are surrounded by wolves and that’s how it was in real life outside the set. (laughs) They got insecure and we create that insecurity around them and their performances.

BD: What’s next for you? Are you staying in the genre?

Gens: I would love to. I have a couple of things. I have a movie in South Africa I would really like to do called An Unfinished Country. So, we are searching for financing at the moment. Keep your fingers crossed! I’m really ready for a new project and keeping my freedom. If I need to keep making smaller films to keep my freedom, I’ll do it.



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