Outcast Pier Ulmann makes a sordid living doing odd jobs and petty robberies. When he’s told that his estranged father has died, he determines to take revenge against the wealthy relatives who dispossessed him and his father out of their proper place in the family business. A perfectly styled film noir in vibrant color, with riveting performances and a haunting sound track, Dark Inclusion gets under your skin in the way that only film noir can. •Availability: Rendez-Vous with French Cinema film festival, New York City, Berlin 2016, Paris Rendez-vous. •Thanks to Nina Baron, pmkbnc, for arranging this interview.•
DT: Lead actor Niels Schneider was almost unrecognizable as Pier Ullman. How did you come to cast him?
AH: It was difficult to find the right actor for the part, because you had to believe he’s from the lower classes, doing construction work and petty robberies, then, as the film progresses, you have to believe he comes from this rich family. There aren’t many young renowned French actors who convinced me of this evolution. The casting director and I saw Niels among a lot of actors. He was quite far from the part, but something struck us. After working with him a lot, we knew it had to be him, but with the idea of changing his looks. He’s a very handsome guy, very beautiful, with a very Greek profile, and his curly blond hair could not be our character’s. He was completely willing from the start to change his looks, because he’s so handsome that directors mostly film this about him. I wanted the opposite. We tried things with the hair, and it was quite successful.
DT: I have two questions about light, which is a crucial element in traditional black-and-white film noir. You shot in color, but you kept the focus on lighting, both in the cinematography and as a topic throughout the dialogue. I loved that. Did you say to yourself, Light is an issue, so let’s underline it? And how did you light the film?
AH: My brother, who’s three years older than me, was the cinematographer. We always work together, and we worked very closely in preparing Diamant Noir [the French title of Dark Inclusion]. We wanted to have a very strong image personality for this film. We didn’t think of light as a concept, but obviously it is, and given the fact that the diamond is all about light, and sculpting light was in the script, step by step we understood that it was also a complete metaphor for cinema, as well as a search for truth.
The fact that we searched for something very special in the light of the film went with that, but mostly we wanted to have fun making this. I mean this in the sense that to have fun is to feel free—not to look like films we’d already seen or the way cinematographers do their light in French movies, which is not so inventive. There are beautiful things [in French cinema], but we wanted to create something different, even from what my brother and I had done before, so it was very fun to search in this experimental way. We didn’t really know what the film was going to look like until we were at the end of postproduction, like searching for really bright colors, a very dense atmosphere, and this very strong lighting. Of course light cannot exist without shadow and without very deep, dark sides, which also is a theme of the film.
DT: The other question about light is color. Talk about your color palette.
AH: My brother and I had an obsession: We wanted very strong red in the entire film. We watched a lot of movies, classical melodramas from the golden age, like Vincente Minnelli or Nicholas Ray, Elia Kazan, things that we love very much. Splendor in the Grass was one of our most important references. There were also two films by John Cassavetes—which is not at first glance the same way of making movies—but Opening Night and Love Streams were two very, very precise examples of how we could work in reference with melodrama. In Opening Night, there’s not one shot without a red element in the frame. I was fascinated by this way of approaching colors.
We told our set director, a very talented Belgian girl, that we wanted red, blue—very strong colors—and we also wanted reflections. If you look around nowadays, everything is matte. In French movies especially, there’s not a lot of thought about the fact that if everything is matte, nothing is going to be reflected. Reflection is very, very important because it creates depth and complexity in the image. We wanted that especially in the house of Piers’s wealthy relatives, which had shiny surfaces on the doors and walls, and colors that would reflect the light and not only be a flat matte surface.
DT: The colors were great.
AH: It’s like they were vibrating.
DT: I read in Der Spiegel that the diamond trade in Antwerp, which has been in Jewish hands for about five hundred years, is now being taken over by Indians. Was that at the foundation of your screenplay, or did you have to work it in?
AH: I discovered this milieu while working on the script; before that, I didn’t know it at all. At the beginning, the film was not supposed to be set there. We wanted to make a film in the city in Switzerland where they make luxury watches. It’s a very interesting place because it’s in the snow, in the mountains, but at the beginning of the project, somebody read the first few pages and said, “There’s this incredible place in Antwerp that has never been the set for a whole film—the diamond district.” I had only images or fantasies about the place, with very Orthodox Jews, but it’s actually a much more mixed and complex place. Of course when we discovered that for the past twenty years Indians have been gaining more and more importance in Antwerp and in the world diamond market as a whole, it was very interesting for us because it was a way to completely break the cliches about this place and the theme of the diamond industry. In terms of my character—a foreigner who comes into this milieu, this family, this town—it was very exciting for me to be with the audience: We progress with Pier, the character, to be surprised as he is with all the things he couldn’t expect about this place. He’s progressively surprised about his family, the diamonds, the world, because when he goes to India it’s something he could never have imagined from where he started.
DT: Why film noir?
AH: There’s a very simple answer: My older brother and I discovered cinema through film noir. When I was nine or ten, there was a huge retrospective of Warner Brothers films in Paris, and I was completely fascinated by Humphrey Bogart and all that. It was like being in another world, and I wanted to be like those heroes. I developed a real passion for this genre; when I was ten or eleven, I had a little list in my wallet with all the titles of the films. When I would see one, I’d erase the title—OK, I’ve seen this one, now I must see that one. It was an obsession for me. I saw a lot of films. Of course later on, when I really decided to make pictures and to study cinema at university, I watched a lot of different movies, different nationalities, cinematography. I discovered French cinema, Nouvelle Vague, but film noir stayed like a first love.
Still, I never would have thought to make my first feature a film noir, because it’s not the way when you’re a young director in France. When you’ve made a few short and medium-length films that had a little bit of success in festivals in France, like I did, everything pushes you to tell your own story, your background, your teenage memories, coming-of-age stories. It’s not obvious to think about making a genre film, a film noir, so it was not my intention at the beginning. It was like a series of propositions, accidents, that brought me to do this. I’m very happy now to have done this, because I feel much more free, liberated from this torture of what am I going to say, how can I tell who I am in my first film, how can I really put myself in this movie? It was very natural, because we had this very exciting plot, and I could put a lot of me in the film, but like wearing a mask, which is what I love about film noir and all the genres. It’s like an elegance saying, No, I’m not talking about me, you see it’s a very stylized plot, but of course I’m talking about me, my relationship with my family, or family in general, with the theme of violence: this is me.
DT: It’s Hitchcock/Truffaut.
AH: Yes, it is.
DT: Four people are credited with writing the screenplay. What was that process like, and would you do it again?
AH: At the very beginning, I was working with Olivier Séror, a close friend of mine who is not a writer but a director. Someone proposed that we think about a heist movie, so Olivier and I came up with the basics of the screenplay, which is a young guy who wants to take revenge for his father from his rich Jewish family. He goes back to his relatives and progressively gets nearer to the moment he’s going to take his revenge, but the more he’s involved with the family, the more difficult it becomes for him to see it through to the end. This was the basics. Then I worked with Vincent Poymiro, the first cowriter, for a year and a half on the structure. We spent a lot of time on the complexities of the plot and all the characters. We went to Antwerp, where we met diamond dealers and went into their workshops. It was fascinating. We had a first script then, but it wasn’t perfect. It was very well constructed but a little too mechanical. It was hard for the characters to exist as full characters. So at a certain point Agnès Feuvre came in, because we needed a girl on this project, as it was very, very mannish. Vincent read all the versions we worked on. In this way we arrived at the final draft, which is the one we found the money with. It was interesting to work with all these people, because everybody was very committed to the script, very ambitious about what we could do, and each one brought something different. All three of us are really close friends now, and it was a wonderful experience writing this film.
DT: When using music, were you conscious that this was film noir, and did that guide your choices?
AH: Yes, of course, but again my idea was not to be in the cliche of what we could expect about this kind of score. Before I worked with the guy who made the music, Olivier Marguery, I had a first meeting with Raf Keunen, a Belgian composer who did the score for Bullhead. He’s a very talented guy, but he proposed big orchestration, a lot of violins. I felt that my film was going to be crushed by the music and in a way very clichéd. So I decided to work with Olivier, who is a pop singer and composer, a folk musician, and also has a great talent for classical composing. I had a musical theme in my head for two years while writing the script, which is the main theme—
DT: Was it … [sings it]?
AH: You still have it in mind?
DT: I went home and worked it out on the piano. It’s quite haunting.
AH: Great! I had this in my head, so I whistled this theme first to my brother, who is also a musician, and he recorded himself playing it on the guitar while whistling. I gave this to Olivier, and he worked on it, keeping the theme and bringing in two other themes, which created counterpoint. He ended up with what I think is really beautiful work, with a very unusual use of instruments like violin or flute or organ, but kind of strident, a little bit kinky, bizarre, but at the same time very classical, very lyrical. I was really amazed by the work he did with very little money…when they recorded in the studio, there were only four of them, and I think it’s very wide. I’m very pleased with his work.
DT: You’re at the beginning of what’s going to be a very big career. Where do you want it to go, and what do you want to avoid?
AH: These are very interesting questions, because of course they’re questions I ask myself every day nowadays. The fact is that when you say that my career is going to be big, it’s really not that easy for me to know, because it’s not easy for this film to convince in France. The film has not been released yet—it’s going to be released in June—and I think the press will be good. The first echoes we have are very good, but the film is different from what young directors in France do. It’s also very dark, violent, harsh, so I don’t know how it’s going to be received and how easy it’s going to be for me to make a second movie. This film cost quite a lot of money for a first feature in France. When you make a film with quite a lot of money, you have to have success, because if you want to make a second movie with the same kind of money, it’s difficult if the film has been a failure. So everything depends on what happens when the film is released and how people talk about the film.
What I want is to make ambitious and very different kind of movies, like genre. I’m very interested in film noir, but it can also be horror—I have a horror film project—but also political fiction. I’m writing a war film, but it’s about a Japanese soldier, completely out of France. There’s nothing European in this movie, so I don’t know how I’m going to find the money. I have very ambitious and crazy ideas—maybe too ambitious and crazy for the level I’m at now.
What do I want to avoid? I’d say that I want to avoid making films like everybody else is doing. There are beautiful films in France, but I have such a passion for cinema and for storytelling that for me what’s happening in France nowadays is not good enough. But not only in France. The cinema situation is quite complex today. There have never been so many films in the whole world, so many festivals, so many people writing on films, but there are a lot of fakes, a lot of false genius and deceiving propositions. I want to make honest and strong films that are a little more than what I see.
DT: You began with short films, then moved to medium-length films, and now this, your first feature. Each time you learned something new. Can you describe what you learned with each step?
AH: I think I could, but not immediately. There’s always a lot of time between the films that I make. More and more now, because the films are more expensive and they’re feature films. At the beginning, when I started working with my brother, I was a teenager, and our work was very amateur. As we progressed, it became more and more produced, more serious, more precise. But I have a very impatient temper, so I have to learn patience—and I am learning it—because the way I want to make films and the kind of films I want to make take time. Between the last medium-length film I made and this one, I had a very long gap of seven years without shooting anything besides one short film. So I was very frustrated, very angry, and when I started working on this film, the anger disappeared…or I put it in the film—
DT: That’s what I was going to suggest.
AH: I did, I guess. But all this time brings you to thinking about what you’ve done, what was not enough, what was “OK, that’s what I wanted to make but it’s not what I want to say or do now.” It’s like you’re growing up with all these experiences, but knowing what step you’ve made comes with a lot of time and a lot of thinking. What I learned on this film was how to make a feature film. Almost everything in this film was something I’d never done before: I’d never made a film in video, as I used to shoot in film; I’d never made a genre film; I’d never made an original score; I’d never worked so hard on a script. Everything was the first time, so to really know what experience it represents is going to take some time.
DT: Is there anything you want to add? I just want to mention that I loved the film.
AH: Thank you. That means a lot. I only want to say that I’m very pleased to be showing the film in the States for the obvious reason that Hollywood and the United States is one of the origins of my passion. It’s great to be here and to hear that the film can touch somebody here. Even if it’s only one person, that’s great.
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