Interview: Filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve on How to Tell Honest Stories
by Alex Billington
February 29, 2016
"Only in filmmaking do you have time limitation in certain stages of production, while you would never restrain a painter, or a musician, or a novelist from taking the time he needs…" At Berlinale in February, I had the honor of meeting and interviewing the very talented French filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve. I first became a big fan of Mia Hansen-Løve after catching her film Father of My Children at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009, and I've followed her career closely ever since. I most recently loved her film Eden, we featured it recently on our 19 Best Movies You Didn't See list. Her latest film, Things to Come (also called L'avenir), stars Isabelle Huppert as a woman dealing with major changes in her life. After following her for so long it was a major moment in my own career to sit down and talk with her about making great films.
Mia Hansen-Løve's fifth feature film just premiered at Berlinale 2016. From David Sexton's glowing review: "Above all, L'Avenir is a great performance by Huppert, on screen almost from start to finish, as a woman re-thinking her whole life so late, so assertive, but also so vulnerable and tender, totally holding your heart yet also convincing you as one of those strange creatures, a thorough-going academic, in a way rarely seen. Thoroughly, even densely, written though it is, a variant moreover on a not wholly unfamiliar story of break-up and survival, the film nonetheless flows like a river with true cinematic life. You can't mistake it."
The interview was conducted in person at a hotel in Berlin during the 2016 Berlinale Film Festival. Mia spoke in English and French, and had a translator who dictated answers to me in English; all of it will be presented together. It was an absolute delight to speak with Mia, and I'm very glad she agreed to sit down for this interview despite feeling a bit under the weather that day. She still gave me very honest, impressive answers - and I really mean it when I say we could've kept talking on and on. For now, here is our chat…
Where do you draw from for your stories - your own personal real-life experiences, other people you know; or do you come up with them completely on your own?
Mia Hansen-Løve: No… It's inspired by people I know. So would you call that stories drawn by my own experience or…? No. I would say the experience of people around me, but very close people. I mean when it's my brother or it's my mother, it's not me and it's me. It's my family. It's my world. It's people I love.
It's true that… the five films I've made, they were all more or less inspired by people I've known, sometimes people who are dead and who I loved, people who are still there, but people who – for some reason, mean a lot to me. And for me making films have been, so far, always a way to make portrait of these people in order to… it has to do with memory, even if people are still here. I don't mean like memory of people who are dead, but memory in terms of people who you find beautiful and you find they have something that you don't see in the films that is a singularity. And I wanted to keep a trace of that. I want to try to catch that singularity and give it a space in a way that it can stay forever. You know what I mean? Can sound very emphatic, but I mean if you don't have that faith you can't make film.
And there is a paradox about it because it was always… of course when you make a film you want to be universal, and I always had this faith in the universality of the things I was dealing with. At the same time, I always try to be very specific, and I always trusted the specificity of the people who inspired me to make films. Because very often in films, people, when they write scripts, they tend to delete all the different nuances because they want the thing to work for everybody and they think that will be easier.
And I do the opposite. I've always had faith in portraying the specificity and the peculiar traits of a place or of an individual, of something that I want to portray, because I tend to put my characters in a very precise and specific universe. Although you get the impression that it's a smaller world and it's less universal, that's the only way for me to obtain the truth. That form of truth that I'm aiming at then becomes more universal.
I agree. I think that comes through in your films, most certainly.
Mia: I hope so. Not for everybody, but…
Your films always seem to deal with getting over disaster, or some major occurrence, and they always show how to work through this. But I'm wondering - you've never shown what comes after, or what are the next steps for progressing once you are through it?
Mia: I think it's because I never work through it. [laughs] I mean it! No, but…
I think this is interesting because the issue, the question that I'm asking myself nowadays is… Well, I'm pondering on the fact that so far I've been into suffering to be able to get out of it. That's the process of filmmaking. So suffering and pain are somehow the subject matter of my inspiration, in a way. And this is how I felt when I started making films. It was a sort of a very cathartic process for me. But I would like to break that pattern and to start, you know. To make a film like that and find a new way of making that. But that's the process; so far that's the process. What about making a film about happiness…?
That's what I'm wondering! Like, okay, we've seen them go through this tough time. What's the next phase?
Mia: Yes. I would like to. The thing is - you don't really choose what you write about. It really imposes itself. It chooses you. I was never lucky enough that I could choose a subject that I thought would be cool to deal with. And every time I actually started writing a film… I mean, every time in my five films it started this way, like… I had this idea but it's really a bad idea and I don't want to do it. And it's always started like that, for me making films. It was never like I had this very cool idea and this film needs to be done. For some reasons there was always a film that I didn't want to do. That was always a sign that I really had to do this film.
When you are making your films, what is the one thing that you have to get right and make sure is perfect about them? Is it the performances or is it purely script?
Mia: I think it's performances. I mean… Back to French.
One of the things that producers find difficult with me is how I put my foot down on the idea of time, because I think this is very unjust. Only in filmmaking do you have time limitation in certain stages of production, while you would never restrain a painter, or a musician, or a novelist from taking the time he needs to go through different stages. In filmmaking, you have all the time you need in editing, or in post-production, or writing, while the shoot is normally very limited. You are never allowed the time that you need. I refuse to accept this rule because it makes me very angry and I don't want someone to prevent me from spending the time I need with actors on set. I want to be free to make as many takes as I want. Sometimes I make three or four. But I want to have the freedom to make 20 if I need to make 20.
Are you going to pull a Fincher and do 100 takes in a scene to get what you need? Will you go that length if you need to?
Mia: Yes. I truly would. That's why I know very well that Fincher makes so many takes. It's like - [there are] filmmakers who do a lot of takes; know that [David] Fincher and [Robert] Bresson do a lot of takes, too. Two good, different references.
Actually, I do much less takes now than I used to do in other films. With Isabelle [Huppert in Things to Come], I didn't do that many takes. But it's good to know that I have this freedom. I don't want to be terrorized by a producer. Sometimes you really have this feeling you make the film with the gun on your back. The rules are very strict in France right now in terms of the time that they give you in a day of shooting. And you really make the film with this constant fear. And I try to fight against that. I've always been grateful to myself when I'm in the editing room that I always have a lot of material. Footage that allows me to really choose the exact nuance that I want to have. And it's never exactly the same when you are in the editing [room]. There are some slight changes in terms of what kind of nuances you need; they are all different. It's huge, you know?
I always have a lot of material that allows me to really be like a painter, looking for the right light and tone and it's very precise. And because I know how grateful and how happy I am in the editing that I have all this material, I'm very protective. I'm always aware… Even sometimes I think I have enough and I do more because I know after that I'll look at the editing can be slightly different and maybe I will need something else and I will be happy to have it.
I love that some of the shots in your films just linger on someone. There will be a scene, or a line of dialogue, with a great performance, and then the camera will just linger on their face - it's beautiful to see, I think it adds so much depth to your films.
Mia: Thank you. In the case of this film, I feel like I almost never did that except once…I mean, okay. Back to French…
I think that this film has quite an intense rhythm. It's very lively. And I didn't allow myself to linger too much on takes and shots, with one exception that I thought was very important. The film has its own rhythm and it evolves almost at the same pace. But the only time when you have a shot that is not on Isabelle, well, she's not in the scene… You know, you don't see her. She's off screen at the moment. It does not end with the end of the dialogue or when she goes. After she leaves the cat the second time she goes to the mountains and it's winter, and there's no… he takes her back to the station and everything is calm. And then we stay with him. We stay with him in the car… The music…
I think that there is a perfect coincidence between the form and the essence in that case. It's not for granted. It's very meaningful for me because it tells us something about the sensuality that was there. It's very physical, in a way, this staying with him. What I mean, for me, it's like as if all the film was leading to this moment when we can have this lingering on him that I never allotted myself before. They were always in movement. We kept on moving on. And when he was there, it was always because she was there and it was always within the dialogue. He never existed independently from her. And it's really, the only time where she leaves, she's not there. And we stay with him and…
We are in tune with him. We let ourselves go and we stay with him. To me this is a very powerful moment. It is very dense, very full of meaning.
Your films, while I think they're great, don't necessarily have the most mainstream appeal to them… But that doesn't matter to you, does it? You just want to make films that are personal to you and hope people connect with them.
Mia: [laughs] Yes.
I think that I'm interested in the commercial side of filmmaking only in so far as the success of one of my films will allow me to continue making films. If I tend to be anxious for the result, for the [warm] welcome that a film of mine has in theater, it's that I'm always hoping that we'll get to that minimum box office percentage as to allow me to make the next film, to allow me to fulfill my vital need of making films. I'd also like to avoid what I see happening in filmmakers that are older than me, the fact of finding yourself in the same limited budget economy… Stuck, like, in a cage, in that sort of case of having a certain budget for a certain film that will restrain you also from an artistic point of view and you would not have the freedom to do as you wish for.
I hope to always have the budget enough to be able to make the film that I want to make, to be free to make the film that I want to make. I'm not necessarily against a commercial film with a big cast. But it's something that I potentially want to have the freedom to make if I want. Only the fact that I want to keep on shooting on film. That costs money.
What kind of career, ultimately, do you want? Do you want to have unlimited budgets? Do you want to make bigger movies or stick to smaller ones?
Mia: I'm imagining a filmmaker that I'm very fond of and that I admire – Éric Rohmer, he was someone that built his career making small budget films that were, however, very successful ones. And that was in line with his source of inspiration, that had a limited economy that I don't seem to be able to operate in, in a way. He felt free in that framework that he gave himself. My inspiration is very often novelistic. It relies on literary works and comes from there, which means that I'm more inclined to make a more expensive films, bigger budget films. The evolution, the arc, the storyline that evolves in time and has to do with a real time lapse in the film. Therefore, it means that it will need more expensive production means. I hope to be able to have the freedom to continue to have budgets for those films.
For instance, I dream of making a film one day… I probably will never do it because, again, a film you dream your whole life and you end up never making it. But I would love to make a film about this…
A very committed Swiss poet… Who's very self-destructive. And I'm kind of obsessed with this figure. Her name was Annemarie Schwarzenbach. She was a great writer, journalist as well. She was one of the first women who traveled to the Middle East with another woman in a car and she was a freedom fighter, against Nazi-ism in the very early stage in a very brave way. Anyway, very close to the family Mann, the children. And I'm obsessed with the lives of Annemarie Schwarzenbach & Klaus Mann. I dream of making a film one day about their story and their lives and their deaths. But this film would be extremely expensive and extremely noncommercial. [laughs] So that's the kind of film I'm attracted to. Maybe I'll do this film one day. But if I want to do it, I think I'll have to find a way to make films that are commercially feasible.
But I could never make a film for that purpose.
I understand. I appreciate that you stick to what you want to see and what you prefer in your films more than what the audience demands you make.
Mia: Thank you. It's still tough to preserve that. But, at the same time, I was very lucky to always work with producers who have been always very respectful of my work and protected me from these tough discussions that you can have with the channels and people like that when you look for money. They did that job for me and it allowed me to stay on the side and be able to focus on my own things.
A huge thank you to Mia Hansen-Løve for her time in Berlin, and to Ryan Werner/Magali Montet for arranging the interview.
Mia Hansen-Løve's Things to Come just premiered at the 2016 Berlin Film Festival, where she won a Silver Bear Award for Best Director. The film opens in France this April, but it doesn't have a US release date yet. In the meantime, please watch any of Mia Hansen-Løve's past films: All Is Forgiven (2007), Father of My Children (2009), Goodbye First Love (2011), Eden (2014). And we recommend seeing Things to Come, too.