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Martyrs - Pascal Laugier interview

Pascal Laugier directs Martyrs

Interview by Rob Carnevale

FRENCH director Pascal Laugier has made one of the most controversial and shocking horror movies of recent years with Martyrs.

He talks to us about the inner darkness that prompted him to write it, the censorship row that ensued, the extreme reactions he’s experienced to it and plans for both the US remake of Martyrs and his own update on Hellraiser.

Q. Where did the idea for Martyrs come from?
Pascal Laugier: I guess we never know where we get the ideas. If we did, we’d probably never do the film. What I can tell you is that I felt very, very dark when I wrote the film and I thought that the world was so brutal. I saw in the horror genre the opportunity to put my inner feelings directly into the screen. I certainly didn’t want to do an existential style, or a fans film for fans… I wanted to do something as unexpected as possible. So, the film is as dark and depressive as I was. For me, it’s a very melodramatic film. I wrote it on a very first-degree level. I felt very close to what my characters are living in a metaphorical way. I have no distance from this film. It’s very personal.

Q. How did you approach casting and, in particular, persuading young actresses [Mylène Jampanoï and Morjana Alaoui] to put themselves through what you had in store for them?
Pascal Laugier: Oh, I met a lot of Parisian actresses. Most of them never called me back when they read the script. I never took anyone by surprise. I always gave them the entire script whenever I saw anyone. It seems that horror is still considered in Paris as pornography because a lot of girls never called me back, including totally unknown actresses who had never shot a film before. Probably their entourage was advising them not to do this film. So, after a very long and tough casting I finally met Mylene [Jampanoi], who made a great videotape, and at the very last moment I met Morjana [Alaoui]. After five minutes of talking with her, I knew she was right for the part. I never asked her to do any kind of tests.

Q. You mentioned that the French turn their backs on horror quite often. Does that anger you?
Pascal Laugier: I’m glad that my country is starting to open up. The French system is a little bit more open-minded than before. But honestly, I don’t think there will be a new wave of French horror because all the French horror films that are being made are totally isolated… they’re like prototypes. I don’t think the genre really exists in a national industry if it’s done like that. The Italian industry has produced something like 600 Spaghetti westerns, so the Spaghetti western is a real genre. In France, it’s very different. Two or three horror films are made every year and it’s not enough to call it a new wave. That kind of film is still considered very condescendingly by a lot of people.

Q. They also awarded you an 18+ certificate initially…
Pascal Laugier: Oh yeah, we had some problems with the classification of the movie in Paris. They more or less tried to kill the film commercially because some of the members of the commission were totally scandalised by some of the scenes. It had nothing to do with the gore. It had more to do with the fact that the film is so serious and about themes that offended these very religious people.

Q. Was it gratifying that fellow filmmakers and even critics got behind you to get the rating overturned?
Pascal Laugier: Yes, it created a small scandal in the French media and after four months of fighting, we finally got the normal 16 rating that allowed us to be released more or less normally. But it was still only released in 60 prints for the entire country, which is not a lot. Doing that kind of film is still hell.

Q. But the film is about to be remade by Hollywood…
Pascal Laugier: Yes, but I have nothing to do with that. They asked me to write and direct it but I refused because two years on this story is more than enough for me. I’m very glad that it’s behind me and I’m going to do something else… probably something less depressing and less sad. So, I will watch the film as a regular member of the audience. To be honest, I’m very flattered that Hollywood has been buying the rights to the remake.

Q. You don’t feel protective towards it, for fear of what Hollywood might do?
Pascal Laugier: Not at all. [laughs].

Q. And are you intrigued to see who they might cast?
Pascal Laugier: Yes, but I’m sure they won’t write the film in the same way. I have the feeling that I know how they’re going to make the first part; the thriller part. But the second act, with the famous 25 minutes in the basement, I’m sure they won’t do it that way.

Q. They might give it a happy ending…
Pascal Laugier: [Laughs] Probably! She will escape.

Q. You’re also going to Hollywood, aren’t you?
Pascal Laugier: Yeah, I’ve been lucky enough to sign three or four different projects for different studios. So, I’m very flattered and very honoured and it allows me to keep on working a lot. So, we’ll see. It’s too early to know which of the projects will be my next film but I’m working on three or four different stories right now.

Q. Is one of them the Hellraiser remake?
Pascal Laugier: Yes, one of them is Hellraiser. I wish the Internet wouldn’t have said it because it’s much too early. But my idea is to be as faithful as I can to Clive Barker. I definitely don’t want to betray Clive Barker. And if I am the one who is going to make the next Hellraiser, I still want my film to be as transgressive and as real as the original one.

Q. What’s the most shocking reaction you’ve had to Martyrs?
Pascal Laugier: I was insulted. I was insulted by some members of the audience and by some famous French critics. I was called a misogynist and a woman hater, and a fascist.

Q. How did you take that sort of criticism?
Pascal Laugier: Oh well, when I see where it comes from I feel honoured because it’s coming from people that I don’t respect at all. But with this film, I’ve had really extreme experiences, including positive ones too. Some girls came to see me after the screening, crying a lot and telling me how good they felt after having watched the film. They found it both offensive and relieving. Some people have felt sick, some people have fainted during the screening. We have had some very surreal moments, which is really cool because horror is not a genre that’s designed to please everybody.

Q. Did you have that kind of notoriety in mind when making it?
Pascal Laugier: No and believe me when I say this I wrote and shot the film with a certain level of innocence within me. I had absolutely no distance from what I was shooting. I knew, of course, that I was dealing with very dangerous material. So, I was very, very careful when I wrote the script about what the film was saying. I certainly didn’t want the film to say things that I don’t believe in. So, I was careful. But as soon as the script was finished and OK with my own morals, I shot it without any kind of distance. And I didn’t do it distress the audience. I always had the desire and the hope that the audience would be moved by the film, come the end.

Q. So how far is too far for you? Is there a cap on screen violence?
Pascal Laugier: For me, a work of art becomes too far when it’s saying things that I disagree with. For me, my film is very clear about what it says about human pain and human suffering. I never justify the evil stuff in the film. I never say it’s OK. That’s why it’s a horror film. For me, I see Martyrs now as a film about the end of the times we’re living in right now. When you watch the film it’s very hard to say: “Where’s the goodness? Where’s the evil stuff?” That’s why it’s a horror film. I don’t judge. I don’t want to give a message. The film is only really about the nature and the meaning of human suffering. I mean, the pain we all feel on an everyday basis – in a symbolic way. The film doesn’t talk about torture… it talks about the pain.

Q. You wouldn’t classify it as torture porn?
Pascal Laugier: No. For me, it’s not a problem for me if it’s classified as torture porn. That name comes from the horror culture and that’s a culture I belong to. I’m the first one to read Fangoria, so I’m not scandalised at all by the torture porn label.

Q. Will you ever be making a romantic comedy?
Pascal Laugier: No, it’s not in my blood [laughs]. I love to watch some as a member of the audience but my mind is too twisted.

Read our review of Martyrs