Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Next Best Picture Podcast – Interview With “The Beast” Director/Writer Bertrand Bonello

The Beast” had its world premiere at the 80th annual Venice International Film Festival, where it received positive reviews and went on to screen at TIFF and NYFFF. A French, Canadian production with multiple time periods loosely based on Henry James’s 1903 novella “The Beast in the Jungle,” the deeply philosophical film stars Léa Seydoux, George MacKay, Guslagie Malanda & Dasha Nekrasova. Director and writer Bertrand Bonello was kind enough to spend some time talking with us about his experience making the film, which you can listen to or read below. Please be sure to check out the film, which is now playing in theaters from Sideshow and Janus Films in the U.S. Thank you, and enjoy!

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Welcome, everyone, to the Next Best Picture podcast, where we are talking with Bertrand Bonello, the writer-director of the new film, “The Beast.” Bertrand, thank you so much for joining us today! I’m very excited to talk to you about this film, which I was lucky enough to see at the New York Film Festival last year. It’s based on the Henry James novella, “The Beast in the Jungle,” and I’m wondering, when you first read the novella, what made you want to adapt it to film?

Well, I’ve read it quite a few times. Maybe I discovered it – I would say, 15 years ago, and I read it, I don’t know, three or four times. It’s 40 to 50 pages; it’s quite short, but most of all, it’s one of the most heartbreaking and beautiful things I’ve ever read. But I had never thought of making a film with that. Then, when I was thinking about my next film, one of the desires…oh, there were many desires, many things in the film…but one of them was to approach the idea of melodrama, and that brought me back really quickly to that novel because I couldn’t imagine that I would find a better argument and a better idea. And so, I took the argument of the book, which exploded after that, but I was at the same time very, very faithful and very unfaithful.  

You keep the same themes of the book and the same central question of the book, but in one of the more daring adaptations, you set it in three different years: 1910, 2014, and 2044. I’m curious because the first two, 1910 and 2014, are separated by a little over a century, but 2014 and 2044 are only separated by about 30 years. What made you select 2044 for the year in the future?

Because it’s very close [to] us. 2014 and 2044, I mean – it’s something we remember and something we can almost see, you know, and I wanted those two periods to be close [to] us, even the science fiction part. I wanted to ring many bells with us, not to be something like, we will be dead, you know? And I think it gives a different feeling to know that this part of the film is only in 20 years.

It makes it feel more present and, and real in a way than something that goes so far ahead.

Yeah. It’s more contemporary than I thought, because when I was writing about A.I. and stuff like that four or five years ago, I could not imagine that it would be such a huge discussion today. You know, last year it was in every paper. And there was a strike in Hollywood and stuff like that. So maybe I should have put it in 2029, not 2044.  

Well, that is one of the more strangely visionary aspects of this. When you were writing this, artificial intelligence was obviously sort of brewing in the background of everything. But. it wasn’t until recently that it really reached that fever pitch of people sort of realizing that it was here and what it was being used for. How has it felt watching the discussion play out so many years after you wrote this?  

Well, it was a weird feeling because I had been working with a scientist about A.I. And so, I was aware of all these things, you know? I just couldn’t imagine it’d be so quick. And so, when the film was shown in Venice and Toronto and New York, there were so many debates about that .So, yes, it’s very contemporary in a way. But, I was thinking the other day that even this novella of Henry James, the relationship between love and fear – because that’s really the subject, you know – I think this novella is even more contemporary now than it used to be when he wrote it, you know, at the end of the 19th century. 

Yeah. I had heard you speak about that in another interview, and I was wondering if we could talk more about that because it does seem like that kind of alienation and this fear that is always just around the corner really does seem to be making a bit of a comeback these days. It’s always there, isn’t it?

Yeah, I think it’s there more than ever, you know? One of the subjects of the film is, of course, the relationship between technology and humanity and how humanity can not be too twisted in these feelings, you know? And they’re very hurt, I think, these days, you know? I can feel that people are more connected than ever, but I almost can feel they’re more lonely than ever.  

Absolutely. And you had said that you started writing this…you had said four years ago. So, was that just before or during the COVID-era lockdowns?  

Time passes. I started to write this in, uh, 2017.

And when did you get to the point where you had your final script in place?

It took me a long time because I did 30 drafts of the script, which happened because, at one moment, I had another period. That was 1936. So then, I had four periods. Then I wanted to do a mini-series, four times each in an hour; then I came back to the feature. So, sometimes it’s a long way to find the good form. I stopped at one moment because I was lost, so I made another film, which is “Zombi Child,” and then I found the film you saw. But it took me a long time. 

Yeah. When you came back to it after making “Zombi Child,” did that experience change how you saw this story at all?  

The “Zombi Child” experience? No, not that much. So, “Zombi Child” is a film that takes place in Haiti. It’s such a huge, incredible trip that’s very specific and very unique. But, when I came back after, like, a year of thinking of something else, I reread everything. It was a mini-series at that moment. I had, like, 250 pages. So, I reread everything, and I said, “Okay, there is a film inside that I have to find,” and that is always the tricky part, right?

Yeah. So, this is your third film now with Léa Seydoux, who I think is one of the greatest French actresses working today. Did you always envision her in this role of Gabrielle?

Very quickly. Very quickly, because when I decided that it would be, like, three periods in the film, for me, she’s the only one that can be in the three periods for a French actress. Because I believe in her in 1910, I believe in her in the future. She has something very modern, but at the same time, ageless, you know? She can cross ages. That’s one of the reasons, and the other one is that she has a lot of mystery, which is not the case for all French actresses. It’s not being good or bad, you know, it’s just different. And you never know what’s inside her mind, even if you have a camera in front of her face for two hours and 25 minutes. And this is fantastic for a movie maker. 

Absolutely. There’s a fantastic set in the film in 1910, this doll factory, and whenever we’re in these scenes, you see in the background all these dolls made out of plastic, cloth, or whatever they’re made of, and their faces are frozen in this sort of emotionless visage. Then, in the 2044 future sequence, Gabrielle is told that she has to feel her feelings” more serenely” in order to remove all her emotional affect. And do you worry that our increasing reliance on technology is turning us into dolls of a sort? 

In a way, yes, but it’s very insidious, you know? Very insidious. But one of my favorites in the film is when Léa Seydoux is doing the doll in 1910 in a Salon de Thé, you know?

She’s fantastic in that scene.

For example, for a couple of seconds, you look at her and say, “Oh, she’s beautiful.” But after that, it becomes really freaky, you know? And the fact that you don’t know what she’s thinking is very, very freaky.

It is, very much so. The other thing that I wanted to talk about in 1910 is the recreation of the Great Flood of Paris. It’s incredible; there is so much going on in that sequence, and you’ve said that none of that was done with CGI. It was all in camera.

There’s no CGI in the sequence underwater. When you have a shot of Paris with the water, this is CGI.

Of course. So when they’re in the doll factory, that is all practical?

Right.

So how much planning did you have to do to ensure that everything worked the way you wanted? And then, after that, how much went wrong?  

Well, of course, you have to prepare so much [for] these kinds of scenes, you know, and for the first time [in] my life, I did a storyboard, which I never do. We did every shot exactly like the storyboard. It was very precise. Basically, we followed the storyboard. The underwater is very difficult because it’s tough for the actors, you know; it’s very tiring because you don’t go up after, like, a shot, you know. You stay underwater because it’s less tiring. So it’s difficult for me to talk to them. For me, it’s easy: I’m sitting with a kind of television, and I have a mic, you know, but for them, it’s really difficult here. I had a lot of admiration for James Cameron that day.  

I can imagine. Working with all the elements underwater and the fire, did everything because of the planning and luck, I guess, go according to plan during those shoots, or was there ever a moment when things looked like it was falling apart completely? 

Well, it’s very exciting, you know? It’s very scary because it’s expensive days and you cannot miss it, but it’s very exciting. But, it’s just very visual, you know, underwater and fire. Fire is probably one of the most visual things to shoot, I think.  

Absolutely. Moving on from 1910 to 2044, this is a sequence where you did use some CGI and visual effects work. You’ve said that in order to create this look of 2044, you took away from shots that were already in Paris. I was wondering what your guiding principle was for this look at the future.  

Very, very, very minimal. Something very empty, a kind of emptiness that becomes freaky in a way. Even if it says that there is no more catastrophe, that everything is solved, the price to pay is this emptiness and this loneliness. So, that’s how we worked, and thinking about what kind of light would be in the apartments and how the streets would be and stuff like that. It took us a long time to find this kind of weird bath in which she dives to go back in the past. We tried some machines, and nothing worked. I liked the idea of this liquid, you know; it’s more abstract, but in a way, for me, it tells more things.  

I know we’re coming up on the end of our time together, but I wanted to ask about something you included in the 2014 section for George McKay’s character, Louis. You basically recreate this incel video that you said you used the dialogue almost completely unchanged because you couldn’t have written it better than what you had seen. What was it about this video that made you want to use those words almost completely unedited?  

Well, I discovered these videos like a lot of people in 2014 when they appeared, you know? And, of course, I didn’t want to recreate the character; I didn’t want George McKay to go and kill girls and so on. But, the video itself, there is something so… gentle, something so soft, you know, in the tone. The words are… It’s not like Jack Nicholson in “The Shining,” and it’s even freakier, you know? So, I remember ten years ago, watching them like three or four times. And the calm of the guy, I was really impressed by that.

And did you show that video to George during the prep for the film?

Yeah, so he had that as a reference, exactly.

Yeah. And when you were sitting down just to shoot the film, did you want to keep it exactly the way that you had seen it or did you want to change the visuals of it at all?

No, we are very close [to] his videos. Very close. We really reproduced it. 

It’s really difficult to watch, but in a good way, if that makes sense. It feels real, I think, because you kept so much of the actual dialogue. 

And George is fantastic. I mean, he’s really fantastic. You know, he had the camera himself and was shooting himself in the city, and he was very impressive in these videos.

Yeah, it’s great. Lastly, before we have to stop, I wanted to ask because, as we said, artificial intelligence has just exploded since the film premiered. Because you wrote so much about it before this happened, what do you worry about with A.I. as regards art, specifically film, and what do you think is the ultimate message that you want to put out there to people working in A.I. and people working in art about working together or not? How do you think we move forward?

I will repeat something I said: At the place of art, it’s a tool. You have to be the master of the tool, not the contrary. And even in art, I’m a little scared that it becomes the contrary. I can see that happening. Hopefully, we won’t let technology become our masters. 

Bertrand Bonello, thank you so much for joining us today and for your work on the film. 

Thanks for the invite.

The Beast” is now playing in select theaters from Sideshow and Janus Films

You can follow Dan and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter @dancindanonfilm

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Dan Bayer
Dan Bayer
Performer since birth, tap dancer since the age of 10. Life-long book, film and theatre lover.

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