Elisabeth Vogler on Paris Is Us

Paris Is Us may be somewhat of a niche film, but it's also a project from a talented and headstrong director with a distinct vision. It's not the type of film that comes with a built-in audience, but the ones that it speaks to are almost sure to love it with a passion. I was lucky enough to be able to ask the director a couple of questions, so if you're wondering how Paris Is Us came to be, what hurdles had to be conquered and how Laurent Garnier got involved, do read on.

Elisabeth Vogler on Paris Is Us

Niels Matthijs: Paris Is Us is about the zeitgeist of a city. When you started shooting though, you couldn't have known the events that were going to unfold. How did you balance your narrative with the reality. Did they feed off each other or did you have a good idea of where it would lead you?

Elisabeth Vogler: Paris Is Us was a long process with a certain amount of improvisation. It started out as a short-film in 2014 and then evolved to a feature length when we felt we could continue shooting this way during an extended period of time. At first, we started with very little, only “two lovers in Paris”. Characters emerged from improvisation and constant discussions with the actors. After Charlie Hebdo’s killings we felt something had changed in Paris, from this very moment we knew public events would influence our narrative. So we tended to open ourselves to it in terms of structure and scenario. We had a few scenes in mind, but we waited for the right events to stage them. It was pretty much empiric. We were not sure how it would turn out, but we trusted the process and it led us to the film you can now watch. It certainly isn’t a common way to shoot film, but we were keen on experimenting.

A lot of tragic things happened in Paris over the course of those three years. How difficult (technically, but also maybe morally) was it work those tragedies, often as they happened, into your film?

We never shot during real tragic events. A Hollywood reporter (Jordan Mintzer) wrote that the film was amoral because we shot a scene while a building was on fire and people might have been hurt. That is bullshit to me. Besides that, this particular case was a warehouse fire without any casualties or wounded people. We documented events, not as a journalist would do, but more like a personal visual-diary. Cinema can do that, Rosselini did Rome, Open City. He wasn’t interested in the plain expression of what was going on, but he shot what he felt made sense. The result is one of cinema’s masterpieces.
Today Paris says very little about World War II. What we wanted to capture were impressions and feelings of an era that is difficult to understand for us, and for lots of other people as well. We didn’t want to have a chronological film introducing everything that happened between 2014 and 2017 in Paris, we preferred showing the feeling of confusion we felt. Protests happening that time were also part of that.

Right after posting my review, news broke that the Notre-Dame was on fire. Another dark page in Paris' recent history. It's a grim thought, but it would've fit Paris Is Us perfectly I think. How and when did you decide that you had enough material to finish your film?

We decided to stop filming at the end of the editing. We shot the last picture of the film the morning of the last day of editing. It was clear that the film was finished, we just felt it that way. The Notre-Dame fire and the Yellow Vests protests feel like another era in Paris’ history.

How did you coach Noémie Schmidt. Did you give her freedom to explore her character as it took form, or did you have a strong vision what her character was going to be like? It must've been a challenge for her, considering the organic nature of this film.

When I started this project I knew I didn’t want to write a script. I had never written any line of dialogue in my life and I wasn’t keen on doing it. I wanted the actors free of text. We started by improvising and discussing on the move about what we were aiming for and how the characters were evolving around that. Constant discussions brought the character of Anna to life. Another important thing was the very specific shooting rules we followed: 1) a tiny stabilized camera, 2) always outside or in the crowd, 3) always on the move. Those conditions are uncommon for actors, it took us some time to feel comfortable with it but in the end it was as if we had developed a choreography between Noémie and the camera, it was pretty much like a dance sometimes. Actors were totally free to go where they wanted; that is a clear opposition to the traditional set, we built a non-verbal connection to know what to do, when and how to let the others know.

Even though I feel electronic music is very cinematic in nature, you don't often see it used in films. You enlisted Laurent Garnier to help out with the soundtrack though. What made you pick him for the job?

The soundtrack was composed by Jean-Charles Bastion (for the orchestral part) and Laurent Garnier (for the electronic part).
We did a Kickstarter campaign for the film, and Laurent Garnier heard about the project. He was working on a film project at that time and was very receptive to the way we proceeded. He gave us money and offered his help for the music. Since the film has different scenes shot in a club and at a party, it made sense to have the help of an electronic musician, but it was real gold to have Laurent Garnier on the job. He quickly started working on the 3 electronic tracks you hear in the film. He was really open to discussion, so we talked about how these tracks could be diegetic and extradiegetic at the same time, and he did a perfect job for the film. It was so nice to work with him.

One of my pet peeves is the often terrible portrayal of dance/club scenes in films. You opened with one and it really was everything I felt it needed to be. My gut feeling tells me it's part of a broader problem, where not enough young directors are given the chance to make something personal, but I could be way off base. What's your take?

I think that the problem is maybe the desire of directors to control everything. If you want perfect sound for a dance scene, you ask the crowd to dance without music so you can have audible dialogue. But you lose a certain feeling, and the most important thing is the feeling of all the bodies dancing.
We decided to do it differently. We shot at a real party. We were 5 people (2 actors, and 3 technicians) with a real crowd around us, and we decided that we would redo all the sound in post-production. Losing the control was the only way to gain authenticity, and sometimes magical stuff happens and all you have to do is be open to it.

The cinematography in Paris Is Us feels like a natural extension of the music. Did you pay special attention to create this tight audio-visual connection or was it something that came about naturally?

I knew from the beginning I wanted a film with a strong aesthetic. As my first job is cinematographer, I wanted the film to be always on the move: a constant and permanent movement, as is the time in which we live. I didn’t want to make an “intellectual auteur film”, but rather a sensory film in which everybody could slip in if they agreed to open themselves to it. So the connection between sound and image was crucial to make it really work. I knew what kind of connection I was looking for, so we had to commit to let that magic happen.

I read quite a few reviews of Paris Is Us, most of them dedicated large portions to possible influences, ranging from Terrence Malick and David Lynch to Drake Doremus and Gaspar Noé. How does it make you feel when people are so keen to compare your work to other directors, even when they are some of the more famous names in (arthouse) cinema?

For century young painters have copied the masters to improve their skills. I’m a young director, I’ve never been to film school, and never studied cinema or art. I’ve learned cinema by watching films and reading books. And some of the films that influenced me the most were made by the directors you mentioned. So I’m happy to read that kind of review, even if I think it’s time to move away from the magnetic field of these masters for my next film.

What were your actual influences when making this film? Something tells me it could be less obvious ones?

I can think of Blue is the warmest Color by Abdelatif Kechiche, La Jetée by Chris Marker, Oslo 31 August by Joachim Trier, Cléo from 5 to 7 and Happiness by Agnès Varda.

Paris Is Us is a Netflix Original. It's amazing to see that Netflix is so eager to support young directors with a unique vision, but when it comes to getting these films to the right crowd they seem to be struggling a bit. Is that something that worried you when making the film, or were you purely focused on directing it?

We never thought of the distribution while we were shooting the film. The question appeared very late, during post-production. And since we never had any expectations for the film, we were very happy with Netflix distribution in 190 territories. It’s unusual for an arthouse film and especially a director’s first feature film to have such a wide release. We read amazing reviews from Brazil, Canada, USA, Germany, Spain.

With Paris Is Us you join a prestigious list of young, French, female directors, including the likes of Julia Ducournau and Coralie Fargeat, while following in the footsteps of Lucile Hadzihalilovic and Claire Denis. With all that's being written about it, do you feel things are looking up for female directors nowadays?

To be clear, Elisabeth Vogler is a pseudonym. I chose to use one because I don’t want to appear publicly as a director, and I think films should speak for themselves. But I have a lot of respect and admiration for directors you mentioned.

Any ideas what the immediate future will bring? Any new projects we might look forward to, or are you still contemplating what your next project could be?

 I need some time to think before shooting a new film.

If some insanely rich benefactor would approach you with a blanc cheque and the promise of complete artistic freedom, what's the film you'd love to make the most?

David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest adaptation.

Directors are also given the opportunity to ask a question they've been dying to see answered, which I'll try to answer to the best of my ability. Since there's so much one-way communication between creators and audience, I figured it would be interesting to see what would happen if the tables were turned.

Elisabeth Vogler: Since the film is very personal, I would like to know if you have thought of particular moments in your life by seeing it?

Niels Matthijs: As someone who went to quite a few of these raves/parties when I was younger, there was an immediate connection. I have very fond memories of those days, getting lost in the crowd and the music. Usually the execution of these parties in films tend to ruin it for me, but because they felt so natural here, they really transported me back to that time.

Less specific, there's that contradiction of being alone in a crowd that really connected me to Paris Is Us. Even though many of the scenes in Paris Is Us feature large crowds, Noémie's character is very much alone for most of the time. I get that many people think of this as a rather negative feeling (urban loneliness et al.), but personally I love to blend into a large crowd without being forced to directly interact with people, be it at a party, a cinema or just walking through some busy streets. So it wasn't really one moment in particular, more like a collection of moments.