“I’m very hands-on, and I like to be on the ground and do my stuff”: Ghost Town Anthology director Denis Côté discusses his personal approach to filmmaking
The Upcoming last spoke to Quebecois director Denis Côté at the 2016 Berlinale, where he presented his film Boris sans Béatrice. Three years later, he’s back with Ghost Town Anthology, an involving and disconcerting account of the otherworldly anomalies that begin to affect a small French Canadian village after the death of a local youth. However, this beguiling piece of cinema cannot be simply classified as a ghost story. We spoke to Côté shortly after the world premiere of his latest work.
You’ve spoken about how you wanted to make a genre film. Were you actively looking for material when you read the book Ghost Town Anthology by Laurence Olivier? The IMDB page for your film makes a point of saying that your film is “loosely” based upon the book.
I guess there were three points of departure for the film. First of all, yeah, people keep saying “when are you going to make your horror film?” – especially when I did Vic and Flo (Côté’s 2013 film Vic and Flo Saw a Bear) – and a lot of people know that when I was young, I was an encyclopedia of horror cinema. I knew everything, and I watched everything, and usually stuff from Spain, from Italy, and I was not watching Hollywood horror films. Then I studied film and discovered people like Goddard and Pasolini, I was like, oh! But in my DNA, horror cinema always stayed. And I thought there’s no way I’m going to make a normal horror film, just for fun and entertainment – it doesn’t make sense. But it’s inside me. So it was there. And I wanted to make a film about ordinary xenophobia, because we have this new phenomenon of migration in Canada. It has nothing to do with Europe, but people are becoming afraid that we’re going to lose something from our nice Canadian comfort, just because there are three thousand people coming from Haiti, which doesn’t make sense. So then somebody said to read that book – it’s for you. And of course you never read a book to make a film out of it; this would not make sense.
So then I read it. You read it in about two hours – total crazy poetry. There was no film in the book. So the book stayed there, with these ideas, and I called the author and said, “can I keep like, five per cent of your book?” And in the end I kept the accident – the death of the kid – the New Year’s Eve party, maybe ten lines of dialogue, and the names of the characters, and I created the winter (the setting of the film), the supernatural, the mayor character, and I was so afraid when I showed them (Olivier) the script, and it was like “no – don’t worry, the spirit of the book is still there.”
The film is a true anthology in that it’s difficult to determine a central character – it’s very much an ensemble piece. Was it hard to structure such a narrative?
It’s not that it’s hard. It’s that you’re afraid, because I think more and more about the audience. I used to make films that, if I was happy, it was fine. I would say my first five films, they were weird, but I was happy so it was OK. I was happy that some festivals were screening them. Then, for about five or six years, I think a lot about the audience. So me and my editor were like, Madame Miller (a character in the film) is already out of the movie, so we should do something. So we think about the audience. With this film, writing and editing, yeah, you already know that nobody will be able to identify with anybody in the film – it’s practically impossible. No character is profound or deep enough for you to care that much. So the group has to become the main character. So I guess I was afraid. You don’t know if it’s going to work. So that’s why it’s called an anthology. It’s a bunch of micro-stories, and it has to become a whole. You’re afraid that it’s not going to work. And now, today and yesterday, reading the reviews… the reviews are positive. I think it works!
You’ve spoken about how you like to do your own casting (Côté is listed as the casting director for the film). Do you really source all your performers yourself?
You have a small budget for your film, you have maybe 25 people who will be appearing in front of your camera, and 20, 21 of them will have dialogue on screen, and it’s such a pleasure to find a face. I’m alone in my apartment, in my underwear, and I’m googling casting agencies, and I’m looking at all their faces, and I’m like, wow, this is an interesting face – I should meet that person. It’s so fun. Directors, they just sit in their offices and call a casting agent and they say, “oh, do you like this person? I think they would be good for your film.” For me it’s a little surreal. But on every film, I would say, OK, I need a random person to be at the coffee shop, and then they will find that person for me. And finding locations! How fun is that? You jump in the car, you’re totally free, and you’re looking for a church. You take your GPS, and you’re looking for a church, and oh, let’s go to this village. And so you go into the church, and you talk to the priest. I think it’s totally natural.
But no, most directors stay home, and they wait for pictures of a church. Maybe I’m very hands-on, and I like to be on the ground and do my stuff. Maybe it’s because I never made TV. I never did a commercial. Everything I ever did in my life is a film by Denis Côté. So everything has to be so personal, and I’m never detached from what I’m doing. I’m never doing a yoghurt commercial, and I don’t care if it’s just to pay my rent, so that’s why I’m considered a control freak. So the film you saw, every single thing is approved by me, and this is what a cinematic auteur is all about, I think. But maybe I’m a control freak as well.
Photo: Benjamin Guenault
Ghost Town Anthology (Répertoire des Villes Disparues) does not have a UK release date yet. Read our review here.
Read more reviews from our Berlin Film Festival 2019 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Berlin Film Festival website here.
Watch a clip from Ghost Town Anthology (Répertoire des Villes Disparues) here: