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Categories: Interviews

The French director dishes the backstory of her suspenseful new film.

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A remarkable twelve years after the excellent Innocence was released, Lucile Hadžihalilović returns with a compelling and unnerving sci-fi feature that both feels familiar and yet at the same time represents a real step in a different direction.

Evolution is a real genre piece, which tells the sinister story of a group of children who find themselves at the mercy of a pack of mysterious adults who marshal their lives on a small island. It’s certainly a similar premise to Innocence, but it’s a suspenseful narrative that proves to be so well executed, this film deserves to find a wide audience. Hadžihalilović never loses sight of her art-house roots either, meaning this film should tick all the boxes for her pre-existing fans.

Filled with a sort of Jungian mysticism that sees Evolution’s characters turn into almost siren-like figures, and a very Freudian vibe that sees nature become skin-crawlingly uncanny, Hadžihalilović has clearly tapped into something very deep-rooted and personal in this film, and it’s as good as Batman vs. Superman was terrible. So Evolution comes highly recommended.

Do you think Evolution marks a real step up in your filmmaking compared to Innocence?

Well, I don’t know. I think every film you make is a kind of a challenge or a step. I mean, there are some familiar elements in this film compared to Innocence. I focus quite a bit on children again, for example, and nature as well. But the biggest challenge with this film was the fact that we had half of the time that we had when we were making Innocence.

This time it was really much more the material conditions which challenged us. Making the film was much more condensed and we really did have a lot less time. It was very strange for me too, because it had taken such a long time to reach this stage, and then when we finally got there it felt like we had to make the film in a minute, you know? So this was a very challenging aspect for me, a new one too, in a way. I guess dealing with that represented an important step in my filmmaking.

Was it also challenging having such young actors in your lead roles?

The difficulty there was also much more related to the fact that we didn’t have much time. I don’t think the cast had any issues dealing with the story, as such. I mean Max, who was in the lead role, he read the script, but I think for him the idea of making a film was much more important. Though maybe he was more drawn to swimming in the sea too. [Chuckles.]

I think the most challenging scene for him was really just the one with the kiss, because the only question he asked after reading the script was, “who is going to play the girl?” [Laughs.] I actually thought that was a very natural and sane reaction, so I told him. Then on the shoot, when it came to this scene – we didn’t call it a kiss, of course, but it’s obvious that that’s what it is – he didn’t show his nerves too much. After all, he’s not that young, he was 13-years-old at the time. So he did a pretty good job of dealing with the pressure.

But one of the main challenges in the whole process of shooting was to keep him from getting too relaxed and keeping him concentrated instead, so his acting would fit the tone of the film. That was very challenging, so we adopted this kind of more neutral style of acting, and I actually think that proved to be very interesting. It was also a way to get round his acting inexperience.

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Do you think you were tapping into experiences you had at his age a lot when you were making this film?

Yes, I suppose I was. That probably has a lot to do with the fact that this is a story about a child. Therefore I relate it to my own childhood, which for me, naturally, is linked to the 70s [Chuckles.] I guess that’s probably why the film looks the way it does.

But yeah, I think I do get this kind of paranoid feeling that you see in the film [Chuckles.] This kind of paranoid feeling about adults, for some reason. I mean nothing really dramatic happened to me as a child. I don’t know, I guess these fears must just be something very deep.

I think what made adults so scary for me as a child was the fact that I didn’t totally see or understand what adults were doing or thinking. They were like these enigmatic, moving figures to me.

Your film does seem to be built a lot around these kinds of dichotomies: of adults being somebody you need, but can’t trust; or of nature being beautiful, yet also horrifying. What do you think draws you to these kinds of dichotomies?

For sure I think it’s because – and now I’m talking more as an audience member – that this kind of mix of the strange and the beautiful is somehow more striking and more fascinating. I think having that tension produces more profound emotions. It’s like being seduced, and then suddenly realising there’s a monster there. Or even, it’s like the monster has a beautiful face and you’re horrified by your attraction to it.

I think it’s just because that experience is more complex, more enigmatic. If it was only scary, you wouldn’t be quite so drawn in, and if it was only beautiful it would maybe be less dramatic. It’s like that with life and death too. Quite often the two can mix.

But it’s interesting what you said, because I hadn’t thought about it like that. I guess it is quite a commercial combination, when I think about it. [Laughs.] I will say that next time, in the next interview.

Is this the kind of contrasts you were also trying to build into this film’s cinematography?

Yes, often you will get this combination of natural and artificial elements in my films. So for example, I might portray the colours a bit more intensely than they’re supposed to be. Or I might have a scope or frame which comes across as very artificial and gives a kind of very strong effect. But in this case we had so little time we often couldn’t change much about reality anyway.

So fortunately for us, Lanzarote – the island we filmed on – already had lots of this naturally. It has these kinds of black and white villages, because the sands on the coast were black, and that was a very interesting element: these dark volcanic sands and these little white villages.

However, in these villages there was often all these doors and windows painted all blue or green, and I thought this was a bit too pleasant for our film. So we decided to try to avoid these colours as much as possible.

Then the colours in the film would be more noticeable when you’re under the sea. In those scenes you can see lots of colours, and we would try to have light stream through the sea so then you could see the red weeds and lots of things like that.

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Yes, the colours in those scenes are genuinely mesmerising.

Exactly, I thought it would be really interesting to have colours under water like this, and create what seems like this kind of paradise. Or at most I wanted it to seem that when you are on the earth, it’s more menacing and dark in a way, or less rich.

Another bit that was very important was the colours inside the hospital, because again, that was supposed to be this kind of not natural element. So we had these green walls there, and I really wanted that green to be very present, and kind of reminiscent of the water in previous scenes. That was more or less the only artificial element we created in the otherwise fairly realistic hospital though.

Then also with my characters’ costumes, I thought the women should be a similar colour to the village, a sort of dull grey or brown or something like that, so then with the boys you could have these really bright colours like red, which in turn is the same as the starfish or whatever. So yeah, colours were definitely one thing we were playing with a lot.

I also think it’s interesting when at a certain point the colours come back into the hospital. That green, and the bed with the dark red cover, they all return. But yeah, I don’t know why the colours are so important to me. I think it’s really because it brings this kind of beauty into the film, I didn’t want the horror to just be horrible. I wanted it to in some way be picturesque and beautiful.

Were you ever worried about creating horrific female characters in your film? As if they’d almost fall into that old binary of women appearing either as angels, or?

Yeah, it’s true. For instance in Dario Argento’s films – films which I saw a lot of when I was a teenager, and which I was fascinated by [Laughs.] But no, I think I really was working more on the idea of children feeling threatened by adults, rather than by women.

As well, despite what you say, I think it would have been too obvious to have put a male figure as the threat. For me at least, I think it’s maybe more interesting that that comes from the figure of a woman…Really I had very nice parents and my relationship with my mum is really good and everything like that. But I still have this feeling that threats can come from very close, and I think this sense is even more frightening when it comes from your mother.

I thought this would make another interesting contrast, because mothers could be both frightening and reassuring. You might have this proximity with somebody who cares for you, but also at the same time could hurt you exactly because they are so close.

Plus, maybe a bad mother is one that can’t make the separation between herself and her child, and maybe you see that a lot in my film. Maybe that’s what hurts, and what’s so threatening: when the mother refuses to cut the umbilical cord. In the case of Evolution, I’d say it definitely deals a bit with that. This kind of proximity, this impossibility or difficulty of getting away.

Whereas with Innocence it’s more like women or adults repeat these kinds of codes of society, they integrate the kind of male impositions and adopt their rules, which is perhaps the most scary thing in that film: the fact they themselves would perpetuate these rules. But yeah, I think this time having men doing that would have been too obvious, and perhaps just less interesting for me.

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This project was also different from your last in that this time you co-wrote it with another very talented female filmmaker.

Yes. Well, I actually wrote it with the help of two others. One is Alanté Kavaïté, who really became like a co-writer on this piece. People might remember her name from The Summer of Sangaile, which she directed. But she’s also a great writer, and we worked really well together on this.

At first I actually did some drafts by myself, but then I really needed someone to help me organise all the material in the film, so that was when I first started to work with Alanté. She was such good help on the construction of the script.

Then all through the process of writing, I also had this good script advisor called Geoff Cox, who was able to really understand the project well and give me lots of feedback. So I would always be working alongside Alanté and Geoff, and the film is really based on a lot of my own “stuff,” so I really found it difficult to be alone with the project. I needed someone who could help me take this distance and organise it.

I was wondering if during this process of writing and filmmaking it ever occurred to you that it might be an issue that all of your cast was white? Thinking maybe of the recent controversy surrounding Ghost in the Shell, and the general pattern of whitewashing sci-fi.

Ooh, that’s a strange – or rather an interesting question. Well I knew that it needed to be like that, because I knew that the women needed to all be the same kind. And it would have been a similar thing to what we were talking about before if I had made an all non-white cast, because then they would have all been monsters.

Then with the children, the thinking was that they should be a bit different from the women, so you’d begin to get this inkling that maybe they aren’t their mothers. But if I had put in black or Asian kids, again, I think that question about the mothers would have been too obvious. It would have been too specific, in this case. It was always all very much about uniformity anyway, and trying to achieve that sameness.

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Posted on May 3, 2016

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