Exclusive Interview: Fabrice Du Welz, Director of Calvaire
7th Dec 05
First seen at FrightFest 2004 where it went down a storm with the horror festival crowd, Calvaire (The Ordeal) is the impressive debut feature from Belgian director Fabrice Du Welz.
Blending elements of Deliverance, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Calvaire is a great ‘survival’ horror tale about a travelling singer who breaks down in the woods at Christmas time, only to find himself at the mercy of a psychologically disturbed and isolated community.
Now about to get it’s UK theatrical release thanks to Tartan on December 9th, we managed to get an interview with Fabrice whilst he was recently in London filming interview segments for the upcoming DVD release.
Born in 1972, Fabrice began studying at the cinema training institute of Brussels in 1990. After his studies, he collaborated on comedy sketches for Canal+, “La Grande Famille”, “Nulle Part Ailleurs” and in 1999, his short film won the Grand Prize of the Gerardmer Festival. His debut feature, Calvaire premiered at the Critics’ Week at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival.
Surprisingly, considering the bleak and brutal nature of Calvaire, Fabrice Du Welz is tall, immensely likeable, and extremely enthusiastic about horror film, particularly non-Hollywood horror. Despite there being an interpreter present, Fabrice’s English was excellent, and we only had the need to use his interpreter twice, once to check if the term ‘DNA’ was correct, and once for ‘slow, slippery slide’.
EMB: Hi Fabrice. Calvaire is a very impressive debut. Tell us, where did you get the idea from, and how long did it take to get funding?
FBW: Oh, funding took about four years. I made a short before (Quand on est amoureux, c’est merveilleux) which is like a ‘sketch’ with the same idea as Calvaire. At the start we had a man who mistakes another man for his lost wife, and we wanted to write that tagline in our backwoods, genre, survival horror feature. But also we wanted to experiment with the cliché of horror. We didn’t want to make a remake of Misery, we didn’t want to provoke sympathy for the main character, and we didn’t want to provoke sympathy for the psychopath.
We wanted to make a horror film without any women with big breasts, just like a lot of the cliché horror films. Also, I really didn’t want to make a movie with music, because it’s too easy, you know. So I had so many constraints, and I tried to experiment with all the clichés. I grew up watching horror films, and for me there are two horror films, Psycho and Texas Chainsaw Massacre that are ‘key films’ for Calvaire. Between those two influences, I tried to find my own way, my own creativity, my own experiment, but, also, to reject all the pay-off, twists, you know, the fucking Hollywood conditioning. And yeah, of course, the pace is very slow, and the last 20 minutes is very, very brutal, but that’s really how I wanted to construct the film and put the audience in a very strange atmosphere - a very strange fairy tale.
EMB: You mentioned there was no music in the film, and there’s also little noticeable lighting. In that way it sometimes seems very similar to a Dogma film. Did you take any inspiration from that approach?
FBW: Having no music was the choice I made. I just wanted sound design of the elements, the opening song and the one piano scene and that’s all. For Calvaire it goes well, because of the wind, the pigs. When the print is screened at festivals, I’m always saying ‘louder, louder, louder’. And people at the end are ‘aarghh’ because of the very loud screaming.
For the lighting, I had a great DP, Benoit Debie (who also lensed Irreversible). Just like with the set designer (Emmanuel De Meulemeester), we are very close friends, and we have worked very closely for a long time now. Calvaire was very important for us, because it’s like a 'slow slippery slide' into a world of madness, and cows where at the end, nature gets right back and the human disappears. That’s very horror, you know.
And so, the way we shot the film, there’s not so many lights. At the beginning we shot it like a documentary and slowly, the images, the red, the dark, the black and the abstraction at the end is very bold. In the middle of the film it’s was just like a Western, just like in Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider or Honkytonk Man, we tried to have a lot of contrast.
Jackie Berroyer as Bartel
EMB: How did you find the cast?
FBW: First of all I had an idea for the main character, but it was not a good choice, and when I decided to not have any sympathy for the main character, I met Laurent, and Laurent is a very strange actor - he’s like an enigma, he’s very enigmatic as a character. I had a lot of respect for his job, the way he goes through the character because it was very hard for him. He was cold and sick. After I found Laurent, I easily found Jackie Berroyer (who plays Bartel) because Jackie is a personality. In France, he’s a comic you know, he’s a comic on TV and he’s a very popular personality. And when you see Jackie, you immediately feel sympathy for him.
So, I think it was obvious. And together, they are like two different types of music, but very harmonic. And the others, I make myself pleasure in Brigitte Lahaie, because Brigitte was my fantasy of a young boy. For me she is the best… She’s amazing. And now she’s 50 you know, and she’s still completely great.
And the actor who plays Boris, the man who is looking for Bella, is an old friend of mine, so it was very easy to find the actors. We had a good family.
The Crucifixion scene
EMB: You put Laurent (who plays Marc Singer) through a lot of punishment for this, shaving his head, stumbling through a lot of mud. How did he cope with all that?
FBW: It wasn’t easy, you know. The most problematic scene was the shaving. I remember, during the shooting, the script girl and another girl were feeling sick. Because it was long, there was a kind of insanity in the air, but the other scene, the crucifixion, it was fun to shoot. It was not a ‘gore’ scene, you know, because when you do gore, it is very funny, because there is blood everywhere, but Calvaire was different, because sometimes the violence is very visceral.
Also, the way I play with Laurent, we decided, when he shaves his head, to get the sense with him of somewhere between screaming or laughing so you don’t know if he’s completely insane, or if he has a sado-masochistic streak. We don’t know if he likes it to be tortured like that, or he’s suffering it. That’s the ambiguity of the character, and that’s the thing I love very much. We’re never sure. We are never sure, whether he’s suffering or whether he likes it. It’s very funny as a spectator.
Marc Singer looking out of Bartel’s window
EMB: There’s one scene which sticks out in a lot of people’s minds who have seen the film, and that’s the village dance sequence. How did that come about? Was that part of the script?
FBW: No, no it wasn’t in the script. I had a problem with my producer, because he was saying, “You have to write a line for the villagers. We have to understand what they want, why they also chase Marc Stevens, why they also recognise the character as Gloria,” and I refused to let the villagers talk, because for me, it is boring. It’s an entity, it’s a community.
And one day, watching films at home, I saw André Delvaux’s Un soir, un train (One Night, One Train). It’s an old film, a Belgian film, but it’s very particular, because it’s on the edge of fantasy. It’s brilliant. Brilliant, brilliant. And there is an accident on the train and it’s with Yves Montaud and Anouk Aimee, and Anouk Aimee has a problem. She can’t breath, and Yves Montaud says, “Stay there, I will go and look for some help.” They are between life and death. Then Yves Montaud, with another guy go across the country and arrive at a village, a very French village, just like in the North, with very elegant people. And there is a beautiful, beautiful waitress who represents, probably, Death.
Then Death invites Yves to dance, and he resists, he resists, he resists, but finally he dances with the beautiful lady, and everybody else starts dancing too, and when I saw that I thought ‘Oh my God, that’s the way I have to shoot that scene!’ It’s a dance scene. If you accept the dance scene, everything is complete and it’s the key to open the film and accept the rest.
Marc Singer lies unconscious in the snow
EMB: There was another scene, where we see the children in the woods dressed in red. What was that about, or was it just a Don’t Look Now reference?
FBW: No, a lot of people have talked to me about that. Don’t Look Now is one of my favourite films, but it’s not a reference to that. You know the joke Bartel tells about the table-footballers, well, he’s completely obsessed with that joke, He’s completely obsessed, and he tells Marc to ‘live our life again how we lived our life before’ – you sing and I tell the jokes – so he’s got completely obsessed with this joke. It’s like his big moment of fame. And at one point, he is drunk, and he goes to the village and has a vision.
That’s my interpretation, but I’m not sure if it’s a good one. I did my best with Calvaire to open doors, and the problem I have with a lot of horror films today, and a lot of fantasy film, is they close doors all the time. I try to open imagination to the audience.
EMB: There was another shot I liked. When we’re looking at the van, and the camera shot goes through the front windscreen, that works so well. How did you achieve that effect?
FBW: It was very difficult. Well, actually, the shoot was very easy, the problem was the Dream Catcher. We have so many problems with the Dream Catcher. Also, I really want to make that shot, and the production said to me “No, you can’t do that” and I’d say “Well, I want to.” And finally, I paid with my own salary to make that shot, because for me, if you go through the windscreen, you go through the mirror. The reality completely changes at that point. Most of the major audience don’t realise that shot. It’s the form being used for content for once.
The villagers give chase
EMB: Well it’s great to see Calvaire is finally coming out now (December 9th in the UK). Do you have any other projects on the go?
FBW: Yes, yes, I hope to shoot next year. It’s an English-speaking project. It’s a very independent film, very low budget, because I really want to be free. But it’s going to be a co-production with the UK and Germany and it’s a mix of The Brood by Cronenberg and Don’t Look Now.
It’s about a couple who lose their son in the Tsunami disaster and afterwards they analyse the 'DNA' in Bangkok. The analysis is a failure, so the mother denies the fact that her son is probably dead, and she becomes convinced that there is some tribe who have created some child-traffic in Burma. So they pay a Thai man in Bangkok to take them there. We don’t know if it’s fantasy or truth.
It’s about the confrontation of two worlds, the Western world and the Oriental world. We are very sick here, because we refuse to accept death. If you look, Tsunami or 9/11, we refuse it, and death is the ultimate taboo. In the film, it’s a very realistic point for the beginning, and the further we go through the movie, the more and more it becomes… well, you know, fantastic.
Bartel breaks into Marc Singer’s van
Calvaire receives it’s theatrical release on December 9th.