Friday, October 21, 2011

FANTASIA 2011 / TAD 2011: THE DIVIDEThe Evening Class Interview With Xavier Gens, Michael Biehn, Michael Eklund & Jennifer Blanc-Biehn

At its world premiere earlier this year at SXSW, Xavier Gens' apocalyptic morality tale The Divide met with divisive reviews.

At Quiet Earth, Rochefort ranked the film 9 out of 10 and enthused, "As much as I loved
Frontiere(s), The Divide tops it in every way; bleaker, more brutal and intense, and disconcertingly plausible." At The Criterion Cast, Joshua Brunstling fairly warned that The Divide would not be for everyone judging from the film's polarizing effect at SXSW but crowned Xavier Gens "the film's biggest star" for forcing a view "into the depths of human nature, through the guise of a neo-religious allegory."

At Twitch, Peter Martin wryly complained that "radiation poisoning will make you stupid, obnoxious, and repellent" and offset his appreciation of the film's sensational opening sequence with criticism of the film's characterizations, which "generally speaking, start off bad and simply get worse, descending into outright Comic Book Evil or its (arguably) lesser cousins, Passivity and Complicity." He suggested, "If the film had probed the characters to better effect, or if Gens had been able to modulate the performances to a greater degree, maybe the result would have been devastating and powerful."

At, Scott Weinberg shared Martin's complaint about the film's characterizations: "For all its effectively feral performances and bleakly compelling ideas,
The Divide quickly starts to feel like a very angry and self-important rendition of Gilligan's Island: the characters are duly disparate and confrontational, but nothing they do seems to matter all that much."

At Critic's Notebook, Tim Hayes considered the film's "inherent nihilism problem" as "a path that has been worn smooth. It's a closed loop of narrative from which all surprise has drained." Hayes concluded that
The Divide was "a visually strong slice of screen misanthropy and an unnecessary reminder that if a nuclear missile comes your way, the best bet is to stand under it."

And at indieWIRE, Christopher Campbell hammered the nails on the coffin: "
The Divide ... is entirely disrespectful to all men, women and maybe all living creatures, as well as canned beans, stuffed rabbits, basements and anything non-living that makes an appearance in the film."

The Divide is a film that some critics love to hate; but, I consider such a response to be a near sub-categorization of the term "genre."

I caught
The Divide at this summer's edition of Fantasia, where it boasted its Canadian premiere. Bookended by two sublimely horrific visages of destruction, The Divide immediately recalled me to the episode "The Shelter" in the third season of The Twilight Zone where, similarly, ordinary folks are reduced to animalistic behavior under extraordinary duress. The presiding image for both narratives becomes the door between the safety of the interior and the threat of the exterior, underscoring that—in such a scenario of nuclear destruction—a door is a false and somewhat flimsy delimitation whose value lies only as a metaphor. By comparison, "The Shelter" takes on a naïve charm in its depiction of the moral dilemma faced by formerly civilized individuals reduced by panic and fear to their worst nature. The Divide amplifies that scenario and shades it with all the hues of a brutal bruise. Unflinching, unrelenting, The Divide descends claustrophobically into a bleak study of hopelessness. Frustrating spectatorial expectation, I've no doubt that The Divide will polarize audiences at its upcoming screening at Toronto After Dark (TAD).

My thanks to Susan Curran of Anchor Bay Entertainment for arranging an interview with
The Divide's director Xavier Gens and its actors Michael Biehn, Michael Eklund and Jennifer Blanc-Biehn. Further thanks to Mitch Davis for his consummate moderation of the Q&A after Fantasia's Canadian premiere, some of whose questions I've incorporated into this transcript.

* * *

Michael Guillén: I want to thank all of you for taking the time to speak with me just before going into your screening. I know that's somewhat hectic. Unfortunately, I haven't had a chance to watch the movie yet, but didn't want to miss the opportunity to speak with you. So we'll negotiate our conversation in a somewhat anticipatory fashion more than a direct response to the film, if that's okay with you? That being the case, The Divide opened at SXSW and has been on the festival circuit. What is your general feeling about how audiences are receiving the film?

Xavier Gens: My first feeling is that there is a real divide in the audience because the film is very bleak; but, I wanted to feel free making the movie. There are some people who love the movie and are fascinated by it and some people whose immediate response is to take a shower after watching it. That makes me happy.

Guillén: You're used to this kind of spectatorial response, aren't you? You're used to your films generating this kind of reaction?

Gens: It's a human reaction. When you're making films, it's to create emotions. If the emotions are only soft, then there is no meaning to making movies. For me, it was really important to show what I have inside and what I love to say about humanity. I have a very dark point of view about it.

Guillén: I don't really consider myself a film critic, but I have noted that—when critics don't like a film—it seems to cause audiences to flock to the movie. There's no such thing as bad publicity, I guess. Case in point, you have a sold-out house tonight. That must make you feel good to know that audiences still want to see your film despite the divisive critical response from SXSW?

Michael Biehn: I firmly believe there are no "critics" anymore because everyone's a critic now. Rotten Tomatoes has, like, 300 different critics. Everybody's a critic now. All you have to do is start up a website and you're a critic. These days I don't think critics mean as much as they used to.

Guillén: So you feel no need to negotiate with critical response?

Biehn: No, not at all. This movie reminds me in a way of Darren Aronovsky's
Requiem For A Dream. I'm not directly comparing it to Requiem For A Dream, but—like that film—it doesn't make you feel good about humanity. You don't feel good when you leave the theater. It's a brutal, psychological movie—there's some tough physical stuff in there that goes on too—but, psychologically, it's one of the most brutal movies I've ever seen.

Jennifer Blanc-Biehn: It gets happier and happier as the film goes along. [Laughs.]

Biehn: But it's beautifully shot [by Laurent Barès] and the music [by Jean-Pierre Taieb] is beautiful and so there's this juxtaposition between the horror on camera and the way it's shot and scored. From an actor's standpoint, we were given the freedom to write and rewrite our own characters, to improv while we were shooting the movie, always improvising, always coming up with new things, so that the character that I play in the movie is completely different than the character in the script as he was originally written. Xavier let us play with the characters and allowed us to take them wherever we wanted to take them. So the movie would start to go off from the script to different places that we were all exploring as actors while improvising in rehearsals and on camera.

We shot
The Divide in sequence, which is the first time ever in my 35 years as an actor that I've shot a film in sequence. It got to be really really exciting because we didn't know where we were going or what we would be doing the next day. We were living it. We would go home at night, but Michael and Milo [Ventimiglia] and myself to a certain extent, were still committed to the film even when we were at the hotel, always talking about it, always involved in it. People always ask me, "Is it hard to shed your character? Isn't it hard to get out of character?" But I'm like, "Naw, man, it's easy. You just walk off the set and you're yourself. It's acting, y'know?" But in this particular situation it was a little different. We kind of carried it home. Definitely, Michael and Milo and Iván [González] and me, we'd all get together and—as soon as we'd leave the set—we'd be in front of the hotel smoking and talking about the movie, talking about our characters, talking about where we were going to go. It was the most exciting experience an actor could ever have. For me, in 35 years of making movies, this film was the most exciting, the most enjoyable, and I think I made the closest friends on set than on any other movie I've ever done.

Guillén: That's saying something! This strategy to shoot in sequence that Michael's describing, why did you decide to do that, Xavier?

Gens: Because for me it was very important. For example, Michael Eklund's character goes through a lot of physical change in the film. It was impossible to shoot scenes out of sequence. There's a scene where Michael gets trapped and from that moment on in the movie there is a strong physical transformation for each actor. If we were shooting in a non-chronological order, everyone would have to go to make-up all the time and it would be a very big mess. What we decided finally was to put the actors on strong diets. So we'd shoot the actor in sequence and evolve the script as the characters develop in the narrative to see what would happen.

Michael Eklund: Xavier gave us five weeks to lose as much weight as we could possibly lose. We ate a piece of chicken once a day. As actors, that kept us hungry and on edge. We weren't in a good mood most of the time.

Biehn: We lost 20 pounds in that small frame of time. You'll see it in the film when he takes his shirt off.

Guillén: Ouch! Did you have fun gaining it back?

Eklund: That was the best part! It took five weeks to lose it but only took a week to put it back on. The advantage of shooting it in continuity from day one to the last day—as Michael spoke of before—was that relationships would develop on screen that weren't in the script and that you couldn't plan if we were shooting all over the place. If we were starting at the end of the movie, then the beginning, then somewhere in the middle, we wouldn't have had the opportunity to develop these relationships that—as an actor—you didn't see coming. That's what happens when you work in a sequential way like that.

For example, my relationship with Rosanna Arquette on script was not what it became on screen. In the script my character Bobby abused Rosanna's character Marilyn from the beginning. When I got on set with Rosanna, we clicked. We liked each other and became friends so that—at the beginning of the film when she brings me a necklace—we have a moment together. That was something Rosanna and I just did because we liked each other as people off set and thought it would be kind of nice if Bobby and Marilyn found a connection at the beginning. By the end, it gets taken to a more brutal place. Not to give too much away, but in the film I end up wearing Marilyn's purple dress because after she dies I felt Bobby probably cared a lot about Marilyn. So one Wednesday morning at 6:00AM, I popped the dress on and came out on set and asked Xavier, "What do you think?" He said, "You look like Marilyn ... Manson." That's what it was like working with Xavier. Everyone was always bringing ideas. If Xavier didn't like it, he would say, "No, that's too much."

Guillén: Earlier, Michael said something I really liked, which is that—despite their horrific violence—your films are commensurately beautiful. I'm a relatively quiet, non-violent kind of guy and yet I find myself running to watch your films, which I guess speaks to the compensatory nature of film. Why do you treasure that beauty in horror? Why is that important for your vision as a filmmaker?

Gens: I think it's much more a European influence. When I was a child, I drew a lot and was well on my way to becoming a storyboard artist or a comic book illustrator; but, finally, I was very lazy and put my caricatures aside and decided to pick up a camera and shoot people. I love framing. My passion is really about framing and taking pictures and I love spending time in the forest taking pictures of things. For me it is a pleasure to beautifully shoot a movie because it brings poetry to a film. You can talk about the emotions of a dark story, but you get so much more when you add poetry inside such a narrative. In France, for example, I think of the poetry of Charles Baudelaire who wrote Les Fleurs du mal and—though it's sad and depressing—it's so beautiful. When you watch
The Divide tonight, you will see that it is very dark. The very first scene is bleak but by the end I think the film is beautiful. That's why the emotional quality of the movie is so important because it brings something to the audience. If it were only brutal, I would have no interest in telling this story. It would only be dark and dirty and it would be like I was saying to the audience, "Look, it's only shit that I'm giving you." I feel protective of my audience and I want to tell them, "Look, it is sad what these people are doing to each other." The Divide is dark and bleak, yes, but it is also beautiful.

Eklund: I agree that
The Divide is a beautiful film. Also, there are no good guys or bad guys, just ordinary people under extreme situations and what they have to go through to survive. That's how I see it anyway. There are no good guys or bad guys, just people pushed to the limit.

Biehn: I think people turn into who they turn into. My character Mickey ended up in a different place than where he started out because of this process. I was going to end up in a darker place but ended up in not quite-so-dark a place. Some of the other characters in the movie end up in a much darker place because they have to make choices in order to survive. Do they want to live or do they want to die? It gets bad when the food and the water start running out and the men become territorial about the women and people begin taking sides, form groups, and the men begin to compete over who's dominant, who's in charge. It gets fucking nasty really fast. But it's a beautiful movie to watch. It's like watching insanity painted by a great painter. Michael can say there aren't bad guys, but I would have to say there are some insane people, or people that have been driven insane.

Eklund: The insanity that's captured on film was happening on set and off set as well, with the starvation and the improvisational journey that everyone was on with their own characters and together. Seven people put into a room together as characters and actors have to, of course, deal with each other.

Biehn: There was some division among the actors and a lot of hostility and tension on the set. The producers had to be called down to straighten people out. It felt like there was violence in the air. We were imitating off set what was on camera. My character was a loner in the film so as an actor I stayed somewhat a loner on the set and there were times when I had to grab other actors and say, "Come with me. Sit down. Listen, we're making a movie here. You're the professional." There were times when I seriously felt that somebody was going to get hurt. There was a lot of fighting and bickering and bitching. There was some real hate going on in that set between the actors. It was a nasty environment. Coming onto that set was like living in Hell; you could feel the hatred. That's what Xavier wanted! [Gens is grinning ear to ear.] He set it up that way on purpose, I think.

Blanc-Biehn: He was schizophrenic! [Laughs.]

Biehn: I've worked with James Cameron three times, with Billy Friedkin twice, with Michael Bay, and none of those sets were as intense as this set.

Eklund: Friendships were made and enemies were made.

Biehn: But the three of us are still friends. At the same time, I had never had the experience of creating like that. Most directors would tell you, "Say these words and—even if they don't make sense—say them anyway." But Xavier was more like, "Say whatever you want. Do whatever you want." So we did. We went with it and we started playing off of each other. It got really thick in there. For example, when you first read the script you didn't hardly notice Michael Eklund's character Bobby at all. He had a couple of lines here and there. But Michael showed up and was so fucking talented that the performance you see on screen is what we ended up with.

Guillén: One of my thematic interests at this year's Fantasia Film Festival is how both genre and art house cinema(s) negotiate a national identity. Now, Xavier, you've made films both in France and in Hollywood and The Divide, I understand, was filmed in Winnepeg, so I have to ask: did you ever intend to represent France in your filmmaking? Or did you always intend to aim for an international audience with genre films?

Gens: The Divide is not really an art film; it's more a sci-fi psychological thriller. Finally, I consider it an auteur film. My nationality and identity in France has more to do with the freedom with which I've made this film. I didn't have any freedom when I was making The Hitman in Hollywood. It was impossible to change the script, which wasn't very good.

Guillén: Yes, I understand there were some issues with your involvement in that film.

Gens: Yes. It was like I was shooting a commercial. And so that film is truly an American film.
The Divide is just a film. It's not nationally specific. It's a film that doesn't need to be identified with a nationality. It needs more to be a reflection of the author who is behind it. The Divide is my big "fuck you" to Hollywood.

Guillén: [Laughs.] May I quote you on that? I don't necessarily agree that The Divide is dispossessed of art house elements, from what I've read. Without having seen it yet, it appears to fall within the realm of elevated genre in that it provides—again, in accounts I've read—all the visceral stuff expected out of a genre film, even as it also approaches psychological and philosophical concerns. Fundamentally, it seems to me that The Divide forces audiences to consider the true nature of an apocalypse. What is an apocalypse? Different filmmakers have approached the apocalyptic in various ways.

Gens: It's much more about emotions than the apocalypse.

Biehn: It's about people and where
you would go if you were there.

Blanc-Biehn: It's about the downfall of humanity.

The Divide definitely does make you feel.

Blanc-Biehn: It's intense.

Biehn: It's horrifying to try to put yourself in that situation and ask, "Where would
you go?" We all would like to think that we would be the good guys and the heroes and all die for the little girl that's in the movie. We all would like to think we would be the first to sacrifice ourselves for others; but, when it really gets down to it, we know that society is not like that. Just look around at any place in the world outside of Western civilization and you'll see people killing each other, torturing each other, jailing each other. You could name 30 places around the world right now where mass death is taking place. This kind of violence is going on around us all the time.

Guillén: Well, I doubt that "Western civilization" could claim to walk away with clean hands; but, I know what you mean. The atrocities people commit against each other seem hard-wired into the human psyche. That being arguably the case, do you think it is the responsibility of cinema to remind audiences of these hard-wired tendencies?

Gens: No. We can only offer the stories and allow audiences to come up with their own reasons for why these things happen. Everyone who watches the news needs to make the world better. We have a short time and we try to do the best that we can but some people use their time for destruction.

Eklund: I was mentioning in another interview yesterday how Vancouver—a town known for being peaceful—lost a hockey game and people nearly burned the city down. These were the same people who the day before never dreamed they would do something like that. They went to work, sent their children to school, thought of themselves as good people and—wham!—they lose a hockey game and start setting cars on fire and tipping over police cars. They lose their minds.

Biehn: We're really just that close to it. Because we live in a Western civilized country, I don't think we realize how close we are to being able to destroy somebody else, kill or be killed, live or die. We don't understand what they're living like in Libya right now or in Iran or China. The Divide asks you, "Who are you? Where do you stand? Would you stand in front of a tank? Or would you run away?"

Guillén: And is that question the basis for the title of The Divide? Where you stand on this side or that side?

Gens: You will see when you watch
The Divide that it is symbolic. We play a lot with the American flag, for example. Just as there is division within the group, the American flag divides the group from a hidden cache of food. The door that Michael Biehn's character closes at the beginning of the film divides that group of survivors off from those outside, who will probably die because of his choice; but, he has to make a choice. He can't save everybody. "The Divide" is everywhere. It's a symbol.

Interview photography courtesy of Jaffer Hasan.

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