Heal the Living/Katell Quillevere

When a young teenager is left brain-dead after a car accident, his parents agree to donate his powerful heart to a a sickly middle-aged mother. The story line deftly weaves together the lives of donor, recipient, and the doctors who bring them together, but beneath the story line lies a tender homage to the wonders of our earthly existence, pulsing with vibrant life.  Availability: Opens April 14, New York City, Quad Cinema. To see the trailer, click here. Thanks to Aimee Morris, Sophie Gluck & Associates, for arranging this interview.


DT: As you watch certain films, you slowly become aware that they’re about something else—something far beyond what’s happening on the screen. Heal the Living is such a film.  My question to you is this:  How do you accomplish something so ephemeral? Through working with the actors? Through intention? Through the editing process?

KQ: In this film, the big question for me behind the story of organ donation and the transfer of life is the question of the link between human beings; the larger idea of taking part in a family or a community, like the hospital. Hiding the link influenced me in every step of the process of the film, even in directing and choosing my actors. I chose them as a team, a collective, based on the diversity of their physical aspects, their appearance, the different movies they’d made, famous not famous, professional or not, because I wanted the casting to be an image of the diversity of society.

In my work with them, I helped them understand that the goal was not their own performance but the fact that they were participating in a story that was stronger than them, so they had to be generous and focused on more than what was crossing their own paths. And it was a good way also for them to forget themselves. In France, many of them are really famous, like Emmanuelle Seigner, Tahar Rahim, Anne Dorval, and you discover them as characters, not as actors. This was difficult, as there were no main actors and they don’t appear til later in the film, but that was the big challenge: to forget them as actors. One of my techniques was to bring them into the reality of the story. I asked all of them to work at the hospital. They were trained by real doctors, surgeons, nurses, and we really loved that. It was a great experience for them to discover their characters, in the medical way but also in the emotional way, and I think you can tell that in the movie.


DT: Absolutely. Can you talk about mise-en-scene, also from the same perspective.

KQ: How to build on the question of the link was trying to figure out what the movie looked like with my camera operator. We wanted to define the camera’s figure of the movie. The metaphoric figure of the movie was a circle, so we wanted to move this into life, to the center of life, not at the end of the line, like the caboose on a train. We wanted to put it inside to show how it even engenders life, so we built the aesthetic effect of the movie in echoes, from the center of the movie, which is when the heart recipient is in bed with the woman who is her lover.

From there, we worked it in echoes. For example, at the beginning of the film [when the boys are returning home after surfing but before the accident that renders Simon brain-dead], there’s a shot of   the two teenagers in the car falling asleep head to head.  You can find this image at the end of the movie, with the two young sons waiting to see if their mother, the heart recipient, has survived surgery. Another example: the movie starts with two faces, of two teenagers in bed. One is falling asleep, the other [the organ donor] is watching her, and it’s exactly the same image as the organ recipient and her girlfriend in bed, so there are a lot of examples like that, symmetrical to the center of the movie, to create this organic aspect, this feeling of human connection, finding the link, looking for a link to each other all the time.

We also found that the traveling movement of the camera was like the DNA of the film, the filmmaker always traveling, irrigating the movie like the blood in the veins of the body. When it comes time to fixate it, it’s a series of steps until the intensity arrives, and then when the decisions are made [to give the organ or to accept the donation], movement comes back into the movie.


DT: Can you talk about the editing process, addressing the same question?

KQ: For me the question of editing is a question of writing the movie. You always write a movie three times; the script, the shooting, and the editing, and it’s always the same question: Informing. The big question while editing this film was the balance between the major plot line and telling the story from one body to another, from death to life, and also the detours the movie had to make to bring humanity inside this story, which helped every character have his own singularity.

It also meant that everyone’s smallest gesture had an influence on the big picture, as it does in life, working with the way that we are constantly influenced by the gestures and the decisions of others and that we are linked together. That balance was really difficult to get; it was our big goal for the success of our movie, for making the movie function.

DT: What gestures in particular?

KQ: I paid attention to gestures during the whole movie. The way the surfers dressed, the way they put on their wet suits, the way they took care of their surfboards, how the doctors washed up in the hospital, how they took care of a body. In a way it’s really how these gestures, which are all part of what human capabilities are, are responsible for helping lives to continue.


DT: I love the way that you approached objects. Some critics called it very clinical, but I found the shot of the blood pumping during the surgery to be one of the most beautiful images I’ve ever seen.

KQ: All through the movie we tried to film objects in their metaphoric aspect. There are a lot of tubes and wires in this film. The tubes are things that link people to each other, but there are also tunnels, like when you see the teenager biking through a tunnel. All these tunnels and tubes are all linked from one to another, like the veins inside the body.


DT: There are a lot of dangers in making a film like this one, which is so sweeping and has such a wide perspective. Can you talk about your greatest fears in making this film and the dangers that you had to avoid?

KQ: You’re right—you have fears when you’re making a movie. One of our biggest fears concerned the emotions, the feelings. I really didn’t want the movie to be over the top in the sense that the viewer becomes hostage to the emotional situation that is portrayed. And the idea of how to view the subject of death without being morbid—going beyond that was something that really obsessed me.


DT: What difficulties did you encounter in adapting Maylis De Karangal’s novel?

KQ: The first was the whole issue of temporality and time in a film versus a book. In a book you can move forward and backward in time, you can be in the present, you can go back in the characters’ memories, and also to their future hopes. In cinema you can’t do that. You’re much more in the present moment in film, so that was really one of the challenges.

The other was the thoughts of the organ recipient. Her character is not really developed in the novel, but I felt that it was really important to develop her character to give balance and symmetry with the figure of the donor.

DT: How did you use the score?

KQ: One of the challenges with the score was to find music that would enable me to find the organic dimension of the film and to define it. It’s a choral film with many characters, and what was important was that the link between the characters be defined. One of the roles of the music was to help those links become more evident. I worked with Alexandre Desplat because he’s a melodic genius, and he was very, very good at finding the appropriate melody to bring these things out.


DT: When you watch the finished film, how do you feel?

KQ: Whenever I finish a film, I look at it and I’m really happy because I know that in the process of making it I’ve gone as far as I can and I’ve done as much as I can. At that moment when it’s all done I really feel a sense of happiness, but later on, when I have a chance to take a few steps back and I see how others react to it and what others’ impressions were, then doubts begin to arrive.

DT: You shouldn’t have any doubts about this one. Thank you for making this film.


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