with Paul Bird
Following the screening of Enter the Void, we were lucky enough to have a fairly brief chat with Gaspar Noé. The interview was slightly unusual in that myself and representatives of Pop Bitch and Den of Geek were all grouped together for the chat, and what follows is a combination of all our questions and the answers Gaspar gave. I should point out this hasn't been an easy interview to transcribe as the recording turned out to be filled with echo and was frequently quite hard to understand, so I apologise to Gaspar should I have misheard any of his words in the process.
Q: First of all, thank you for taking the time to speak to us. The film is astonishingly ambitious, both technically and philosophically. There can't be many directors willing to represent through the first person, in one interpretation, what it's like to die and transform through to reincarnation. What set you on the path to such a film?
Gaspar Noé: I read books about reincarnation; I read many books about out-of-body experiences. Actually, the movie is not so much about reincarnation but someone who gets shot and trips out about himself surviving, through his own death, and images where he's separated from his flesh because he wants to keep this promise to his sister that he would never leave her - even after death. I don't believe in life after life, I'm very atheist and close-to-the-ground but still enjoy the idea of making a movie that will portray that collective dream. It's a collective need, like flying saucers - for a while the collective people needed to believe in flying saucers. I don't need to believe in Martians or flying saucers to make a movie about them. It's everywhere, in literature, in books. People need to believe in something after death, because otherwise life is too short. But if it does you can tell people that they don't worry, life is short but you can have a second life. If they're bad, make them holy; rearrange things if you haven't arranged them in your lifetime. That's what all the religions rely upon, that literally you may be rewarded somewhere up there in the sky, or if you misbehave you will go to hell. Those are brainwashing tools to manipulate people and get their money and bring it to the church. Buddhists are not as hardcore as Catholics and other religions but I think that when they talk about reincarnation it's a huge evident lie, and I didn't want to promote that lie; and at the end when you see the baby coming out of its mother's belly, you don't see the face of his sister. He could be remembering his original birth and recreating a post-memory of that traumatic moment, or getting into a loop where the recreation of life is just his perception of time. It's all linked to how your brain is built and your connection to reality. It's not really clear in the movie if he dies and doesn't wake up in the morgue or if he'll wake up in the hospital or in prison. We don't know what happened after he got shot - the only part that is truly real is the beginning.
Technically, the movie is very complex. I had the idea for many years but it was delayed and delayed and delayed and delayed for many reasons; I was not financially bankable because I had not made a commercial success before Irreversible. So it could finally happen after that - it would never have happened before, and also because the effects in this movie are far, far, better than anything I could have dreamed of eight years ago. Now, the script was more "supernatural" and we could show that on screen more. Tokyo became like a scale model, not the real thing, so you already know something is going on and he is dreaming towards the end.
The weird trip turns into a bad trip, like sometimes mushroom trips or acid trips do, but a bad trip can be very rewarding because when you go through a dream where you get killed or kill someone then wake up, you see through the curtain of that reality that you went through in the dream or nightmare that you went through. When you come back to your reality you can maybe share it with people but you are rewarded because you can return to an everyday place where you are safe.
Kubrick said something like 2001 was an atheist religious movie. I did another atheist movie pretending to be religious or pretending to be Buddhist but at the end the assumption not to see that is not a good thing.
Q: You mentioned the trip, back at the beginning, and it was almost like it was a separate film - the really long sequence where Oscar first takes drugs. I was wondering how much input you had into that sequence or did someone help you with the psychedelics?
Noé: Actually, I drank, a few times, Ayahuasca which you have to go to the jungle to take in a ceremony. You have visions that are far superior with far more images than anything in Altered States. You forget for many minutes... I don't know how much time you spend there... You have this human form but you are living in planets and come back... it's really a hardcore experience! I absolutely do not regret it because when I went there I was already thinking of this project and I had to bring back images... it was almost like professional research, so I wasn't going there for just personal enjoyment but a professional need.
One day I was in the city and a guy told me about smokable DMT and it was like an Ayahuasca trip, but while Ayahuasca lasts for four or five hours, the smokable DMT was very intense but only for five minutes or so. I said instead of having the guy do acid at the beginning we could do this and have a five minute trip, like in real life, but then how do you portray those visions that are very graphic, very geometric - They look like the movie Tron with all the bright neon lights. They were the sort of thing that could only be done truly realistically through computer graphics, so I was working with this company, BUF, who not only did the visual effects for this but also other movies. We had to give the special effects designers all these references for visions that come from mushrooms and DMT - I would tell them I wanted the shapes to make underwater butterflies that are made of neon lights and the background to be black, and they came up with many different visuals that were amazing and merge to make this five minute trip. At the end, DMT smokers told us we got close, but on the trips there are these little creatures and visions that are almost too simple and silly or trivial to believe as spiritual images. It's surreal, like you go through a tunnel of publicity - you never know what the next image will be and when it will cut from a sweet dream to nightmare. I read that some scientists say the molecules that make you have dreams are from DMT that is natural in the brain, so if you smoke or drink it you have very long and powerful dreams that you maybe have every night but in a much smaller amount. Some say you would have the ultimate trip when you are dying or close to near-death experience, because of the sudden release of natural DMT.
Q: The visuals, with their constant use of colour, reminded me of Japanese video games and Anime. Is the colourful neon culture of Tokyo the reason you set it there?
Noé: I feel like Tokyo is this huge pinball machine. A lot of the time when you're there you don't quite know what's going on - you go ping, ping, ping everywhere, the lights are changing, and all the music. In Hong Kong it's similar but I had been to Tokyo many more times. I love their cinema, their nightclubs, I love being there and Tokyo is the very best place to shoot this movie. Also, if you are caught with any drugs there are strict penalties. Even a small amount you can be arrested, cocaine, marijuana, you can go to prison for a little bit of it and you're never allowed to go back there. So with Oscar, you have this young, cool, drug dealer being in danger - he's bringing twenty pills for a friend and even twenty pills can get yourself arrested and end up in jail so the tension is much higher for him. I don't think in other places... you get busted with twenty pills of ecstasy and nothing much will happen to you. I didn't want the guy to be a big drug dealer, just for a little money to survive on dealing to his friends. But then he fucks his friend's mother.... until that point people could say he's kind of like a DJ but after that he has problems...
Q: A lot has been talked about the visual side of the film, but the sound design is fascinating. I know you used Coil on the soundtrack, but it reminds me of the late Coil member Jhon (sic) Balance's Time Machines project in that there's this throbbing, pulsating audio simulation of the drug experience.
Noé: Really? I've not heard that one. We used a different Coil soundtrack from ANS, made with the Russian synthesiser. One of them came to Paris and he not only gave me the right to use that piece but also called his partner in Throbbing Gristle so we could put Hamburger Lady in the scene in the bar where Oscar gets shot. The music added an incredible amount - this music is all trippy; just that drone can put you in a trance or dream state and there are not many musicians who play with drones and frequencies that can do that.
Q: So how important do you think the audio is in achieving that, because it kind of links directly in with strobes and pulsating images that you have all the way through the movie?
Noé: Well, whatever could help to make the audience feel stoned! Actually, some people who are very open to the film, at the end of the screening, because there are no end credits and it's WHOOSH and finished... It's like you're on a rollercoaster and you're going down and suddenly stop... These people are actually shaking from the movie, like "what a trip", and it can take five, ten, minutes to even get up.
Q: Thank you
And with that, our time was up. There were so many questions we'd love to have asked about achieving physiological effects in the viewer, the holistic consilience of the film and even about how Noé feels when people concentrate on the extreme elements of his movies rather than what is often a quite tender emotional heart hidden behind all the shock. But these will have to wait for next time, and I'm sure Gaspar Noé has many more altered states to deliver to us.
ENTER THE VOID is playing selected cinemas with taste now.
Special thanks to Gaspar Noé, Josh at Trinity Films and the team at SWCP