'If You Have a Vision, Try to Keep It ’: Mastering 1970s Crime Cinema in ‘Let the Corpses Tan’
“We want to be sensational.”
Filmmakers Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani have a growing reputation as the biggest and boldest purveyors of pastiche. Their latest film, Let the Corpses Tan, does not disappoint. This time exploring the erotic violence of the Spaghetti Western and psychedelic experiments of the 1960s and 1970s, the filmmakers are nothing short of visual masterminds.
Adapted from a 1971 novel by Jean Patrick Manchette, the film follows a cadre of criminals who hole up in a crumbling Mediterranean village with a has-been writer and his exquisitely destructive muse, Luce. In this cascade of genre fetishism, no shot is wasted.
Cattet and Forzani sat down with No Film School on the eve of the film’s theatrical release to talk about storyboarding in the script, creating meaningful mise-en-scène, and never surrendering your vision.
No Film School: How did you adapt the novel into the script, knowing that the imagery would be absolutely everything in this film?
Bruno Forzani: In fact, the process of writing was very quick. It was three weeks of writing. Honestly, at the beginning, I wasn't very enthusiastic because it was very different from what we have made before. When we began to work on this adaptation, the great thing is that the book is very mathematic. It's very well written, very well constructed. We have found some little doors where we can put our own universe in the author’s universe. This universe came from [the character] Luce.
For the most part, we have kept exactly the same construction of the book. At one point in the script, we decided to break this time-per-chapter thing as we wanted to go more and more in chaos in something more ethereal, to just erase all of these chapters allowed us to go into something more abstract. The writer, Jean Patrick Manchette, is very famous in France, and he's known for his fetishism of weapons. Us? We are not...
Hélène Cattet: We don't do anything with weapons.
Forzani: We aren't fans of weapons. Some directors love gunfights and things like that. For us, it was something new. We tried to interpret, cinematically, his fetishism.
Cattet: But it was a challenge.
Forzani: We are not into cars or guns, so it was something new.
NFS: For your previous films, you pulled from classic 1960s and 1970s films, giallos and things of that nature. Here we’re looking at a different genre. Can you tell us a little bit about the films that you may have watched for inspiration for this film?
Forzani: In fact, we didn’t watch movies preparing for the film, because we don't want to do copy/paste. We had watched some from Sergio Leone, like For a few Dollars More and Once Upon a Time in the West, but we had a different take on the duel at the end of [Corpses]; we didn't want to do the duel like Sergio Leone, because it has already been done and they are the best.
It's more we have a memory, a fake memory, of Italian westerns. It's the mood we felt about this movie that we tried to re-envision. When we read the book, it reminded us of Italian westerns, because the characters were gray characters. There's no good or bad; everybody's a little bit bad. It also reminded us of the Italian western because of this Mediterranean landscape where the violence is sometimes a bit erotic, a bit sadistic. You have a lot of that in the Italian western. It's not a theoretical approach on the genre. It's just when we read this book, it reminded us of this universe.
After making the film, we are able to look at it and say, "Ah, that reminds us in fact of this movie."
Cattet: We can see the inspiration after it's completed.
[For a more complete look into the subconscious inspirations of 'Let the Corpses Tan', check out the Origins series running at the Quad Cinema, featuring selections from Forzani and Cattet including varied titles like 'Venus in Furs' and 'Point Blank.']
"In fact, we didn’t watch movies preparing for the film, because we don't want to do copy/paste."
NFS: After writing the script, did you storyboard? What is your process to decide and communicate this very stylized imagery?
Forzani: In the script, there is already a storyboard, because the script is a depiction of the shots. First will be this shot, and after that shot, et cetera, et cetera.
Cattet: We write very visually. We are really thinking only with images, sounds, editing, costumes, and the location.
Forzani: And colors.
Cattet: We tried not to be didactic with dialogue and things like that because we're not interested in it. We want to be sensational. We want to speak to the audience through the senses, physically. It's a way to think.
Forzani: The second part of the process is with the scouting. It has been a long process, maybe a year, to find this abandoned village in Corsica. We thought we would re-write the storyboard because the space was different from what we had in mind. We adapted it to the location.
Cattet: Everything was really, really planned before the shooting.
Forzani: Because we have two different universes, we have to be on the same wavelength. We can't improvise after on the set, because we have to agree, the two of us. The thing has to be 50% from Hélène and 50% from me.
Cattet: 100% me, 100% you.
NFS: Do you work together 100% on each aspect of the film?
Cattet: For the preparation, we were always together. In fact, for our previous features, we were sharing the work during the preparation. I did a part of the storyboard and Bruno another part. It wasn't a good way to work.
This time, we storyboarded together. The set, this village, was huge. We had to split for the first time. Sometimes I was with the actors and Bruno was with the camera. Sometimes it was the opposite. It was good to be well prepared because then we can be separated on set.
Forzani: As there are some characters in the first shot, where you have one character very far, and one was just in front of the camera. The two of us had to work with a walkie-talkie.
Cattet: Sometimes when we disagree, we can make conversion of a shot, but usually it's okay.
Forzani: At the end of shooting, I had an accident. Then Hélène had to be alone. If we weren't prepared, it would have been a lot more complicated.
NFS: How about your DP? How did you get on the same wavelength with him?
Cattet: In fact, we are always working with the same crew. It's really important to be with the same DP, Manuel Dacosse, because we are more efficient like this. He knows how we work. Whenever a new member joins the crew, that person is always totally lost from the beginning. We have a very deconstructed method to shooting with no chronology. Sometimes the crew can be lost, but that's why we're always working with the same crew.
Forzani: They know how we work.
Cattet: It's also really important to have the same crew during the shooting and during the editing, during the sound editing, the sound mixing....
Forzani: It's been 16 years that we have worked with him. In fact, with him, it’s very efficient because we can do 20-to-40 shots a day. All the light effects are in the script. He reads the scripts and we say to him, "We want this, this, this, this effect." After that, we trust him to make it.
"We tried not to be didactic with dialogue and things like this because we are not interested in it."
NFS: Did you guys shoot on film? That’s my assumption, of course!
Forzani: We shot on Super 16mm. In fact, in our first feature, Amer, there was a central part shot in this Kodak 50D in the Mediterranean landscape with just the light of the sun and mirrors. We wanted to find back that feeling, because we loved that moment where we shot Amer. It was a bit hard to find the stocks, but the production found it in the UK. What is funny is that now all of the crews are more used to working on digital and they have to relearn for the first few days on a film set.
For us, we have always worked on film for our features. You know you do a feature, and three years after you do another one. We don't have the opportunity to work on digital, so we are not used to that. it's a bit curious to have the rushes directly. Us? We have to wait to see the rushes. That's okay because we have always worked like this. We don't know the feeling to have the rushes directly.
NFS: In the film, many of the visuals take on a meaning based on cutting between other images. There’s a great scene early on where a group of people are eating at a table. You cut from pans of two members at the table, Luce and Rhino. Each time we cut back, they are closer in the frame, until their faces are just enormously looming towards us. The rhythm creates both humor and an understanding of these characters. How do you manage shooting this way, knowing that the rhythm doesn’t happen until the edit?
Cattet: We are always thinking about the mis-en-scene.
Forzani: We always think about mis-en-scene to tell something, not just to be illustrative or nice, but to keep it something about the story.
Cattet: We don't want to make a beautiful shot, but a meaningful shot, full of meanings about the characters and their relationship. For example, with the scene you mentioned, there’s a dialogue, but we are more concerned with the direction than what they say.
Forzani: It's really important, because you know you have six characters in that sequence, but the most important one is between the two characters Luce and Rhino. At one point, we wanted to forget the others and just be in the confrontation between the two of them.
In fact, when we do these shots, we're always thinking about the editing, because we know that the editing at that moment would be smooth and fast, and so we always think about, “What will be the other shot in the editing just after, and how you will put the transition between the two shots?” With Amer, our first feature, we learned a lot because we gave a lot of time to the shots and things like that. We thought that was the good rhythm, but in the editing, it turned out to be too slow. We learned a lot from that. It’s a lot about intuition.
NFS: You mentioned you don’t copy/paste, but used references to make new meaning, What would be your advice to other filmmakers, based on what you’ve learned on making Let the Corpses Tan?
Cattet: I don't know if I can speak for Bruno, but for me, it's always to try things and to learn things.
Forzani: it's true that with Let the Corpses Tan, we went in an area we didn't know and we came out having learned so much. It's great, because it opened my mind. After that, it's just work, work, work. Never surrender. Keep your ideas and what you think. Because in fact, Let the Corpses Tan has been adapted before us several times in scripts, but never has it become a film. Each time it was a completely different story.
If you have a vision about something, try to keep it and not be influenced by external people or producers or financiers or whoever it may be. The whole reason should be to create a special moment for the audience, not just a standard product.