My dear unknown friend,
To be a fan of horror films I feel is to stand apart from the maddening crowd. Not only in tastes and sensibilities but also in the experience we are seeking. Often I find when talking to other fans of the outré we are not seeking a perfect experience front to back with all the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed. We’re more than willing to overlook the lapses in logic that irritate like thorns the skin of those who count bullets in a John Woo film. Instead we are seeking glimpses into worlds as yet unseen, new vistas to fuel our own imaginations as we ask, “What if?” These films are not intended as locked-groove loops but rather launching pads for inquisitive explorations. A fan of horror cinema watches Clive Barker’s Nightbreed and ponders the life story of monsters half-seen in the darkness and thrills at Barker’s inclusion of the Breed’s mythology chronicled upon their tunnel walls. Barker understands the importance of including a monster’s mythology.
Contemporaneous with this the pleasure of watching a director develop and grow as visions coalesce, technical skills sharpen and budgets increase. We watch directors with one eye on the film in front of us and one eye on the films to come. Few other genres celebrate the short as does horror with ABC’s of Death 1 & 2, VHS 1, 2 & Viral and Southbound serving as recent examples that have all served as launching pads for a number of the directors involved.
With these two thoughts in mind I am very pleased to share with you this conversation with Julien Jauniaux. When I saw his short An Eldritch Place I knew immediately it would strike a resounding chord with the readers of Lovecraft eZine and those lucky enough to have seen it at Portland’s HPLFF.
Lovecraft eZine: I use this all the time yet I’m fascinated by each person’s response. What does the term “cosmic horror” mean to you?
Julien Jauniaux: From a storytelling point of view, for me at least, it’s the old fantastic literature principle literally pushed to its limits. In classic stories, creepy elements will disturb the protagonists life and he has to find a way to cope with it, by death or surviving through the experience. And that’s it. Ghosts, vampires, zombies, invincible serial killers, they all evolve on the same planet as you and are born from human culture. In cosmic horror however… once you open the Pandora’s box, you open new realms of terror and get to discover what’s under the iceberg or on the other side of the moon. At the end of the day, behind the monstrosities he’ll encounter, the protagonist learns his insignificance and will have to deal with that knowledge or just abandon his sanity. That concept fascinates me because it resonates so much with our own reality. Cosmic horror can be subtle or extremely baroque, which is an excellent spectrum for storytellers to experiment with.
Today, it’s getting more difficult to be afraid of supernatural in the world we live in but we still need imaginary monsters. More than ever. The older I get, the more rational I become. However, as soon as the thought of the vastness of space creeps in, I get a strange mix of vertigo, frustration, nostalgia and immense dread feelings. It’s very humbling and scary at the same time. Weirdly enough, I had the same feelings when I read Lovecraft for the first time. I think discovering the cosmic horror genre had the same impact on me as it did on some of his characters.
LE: Is An Eldritch Place your first film project? Did you attend film school or work on other people’s films prior to this? An Eldritch Place has such an assured feel to it feels as if an experienced hand is behind it.
JJ: I did some music videos before but this one is my first real short with more than three crew people and some kind of world building. I studied digital film editing at the INSAS in Brussels, but there we also got a short course on actual 16mm film. This exercise helped me understood the value of limited available footage. Digital film making tricked us into thinking we could get away with unlimited footage. It’s a trap. Then, I lived six months in London to learn visual effects. After that, well I wanted to make my own film to show what I was capable. To start somewhere.
I’m really glad you used that term, “assured” because making a film means teamwork. It also means people will offer you their time and energy to get your crazy idea done. That’s when you start to doubt yourself. What the hell am I doing? What was I thinking? Those questions were constantly on my mind, but as I was seeing the evolution of the FX before the shoot and the editing process, the lighting on set, listening to the music and sound design, talking with the actors, I noticed their motivation to be a part of this insanely small ship. That’s how I got my answers to my questions. I’m really proud of them. They all did amazing and experienced work.
LE: I know you are currently attending HPLFF in Portland where An Eldritch Place is being screened. How has your experience been so far?
JJ: This festival already held a particular place in my heart because they were the first to have selected me. It’s true what they say, “it’s the only festival that understands”. It was my first festival experience as a film maker guest and it’s been wonderful. The festival crew and audience are like a big family. I wish it was longer, though. I wish I could have seen more – got jet lagged on the second day – but I’m glad I had the chance to see my short film twice on the main screen in the majestic Hollywood Theatre. The screening of “From Beyond” was glorious too. The festival came to an end Sunday night but I’m so, so thrilled because An Eldritch Place was 1st Runner Up in the Short film category. When you know there were 37 amazing and diverse shorts in total, it’s truly an honour.
I felt very welcomed by Brian and Gwen -the current directors-, Andrew -the founder of the festival- and all the staff.
I can only hope that if my short is selected at other festivals I can attend, they will be as nice as them.
LE: Congratulations! That is great news. I don’t want to give anything away to those who have yet to see your short film yet visually is has a very distinctive feel. What films were influential to you going into this project?
JJ: Like many others, I grew up watching horror films from the 80’s. John Carpenter, mostly. Then, I discovered the Hammer era, Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations, got hypnotized by the giallo style perfected by Dario Argento and Mario Bava before him. Today, it seems that horror movies are so afraid of using color, in cinematography or art direction. There is definitely a comeback of the old school style, though. For instance, emphasis on practical effects is used as a big selling point now. For Eldritch, I wanted to use that style to help the story a little bit. Abdel, the main character, is a down to earth character put in an abnormal universe that slowly reveals itself to him, until the final reveal. To achieve this, the lighting starts as any basic modern film noir but slowly, the 80’s style and giallo colors start to surround Abdel (and the viewer). You might not have noticed it at first, but the color spectrum is a character too. At least, that’s what I was aiming for with Elodie, who had to work with extremely limited lighting resources and space. With limited budget you really have to play all your cards right, so I hope it did the trick.
LE: It worked very effectively. I was curious if you had seen the work of modern giallo aficionados Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani (The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, Amer) or Peter Strickland ( Berberian Sound Studio, The Duke of Burgundy)?
JJ: I live in Brussels so I’ve been following the works of Bruno Forzani and Hélène Cattet since Amer. I really want them to see my work too. I’ve been trying to get and stay in touch with them because genre movies are so rare in Belgium. Next time I’ll meet them I should bring up An Eldritch Place.
I’m a huge fan of Peter Strickland. Usually I need more payoff in slow burn art house flicks, but his stand out. They have their own look and feel. They are meant to be seen in a theatre where you can’t pause the film and have to let you submerge in the universe.
Baskin from Can Evrenol was a revelation for me too, even though I saw the feature film right after finishing the post-production of An Eldritch Place. I had a blast watching it. He was not afraid of lighting extreme and grotesque scenes with a colourful palette. I really appreciated that.
Last but not least I would like to mention Beyond The Black Rainbow.
LE: I found the acting in your short particularly compelling, especially the interactions between Habib Ben Tafous and Ludovic Philips in the beginning of the movie. Could you please tell us about the process of discovery/casting for An Eldritch Place?
JJ: The main criticism I got was actually the lack of scenes of them together. People wanted to see a bit more interactions between these two characters. I totally agree with that, after the facts of course. By the time I finished the script and the shoot, I didn’t realize it. Being my first short film and having to supervise way more than I should, I feel I was not confident enough with the actors. That’s why I had to put a lot of trust in them. I’m really glad how it turned out. Ludovic, who is a more experienced actor, helped me on set with Habib (for him, it was his first time in front of the camera). Next time, I should spend more time working with the actors but with the script they had to work with, Ludovic and Habib really pulled it of. Florence too, even though I met her three weeks before the shooting.
To answer your question, I wish I had a better story. It’s not very glamorous but I used Facebook to find and meet them separately. We had a drink in the city and I was very honest. I warned them : “Nobody knows me, it’s my first ambitious project with no budget so I can’t pay you, but I’ll do a 1500 euros crowdfunding only to afford a certain scene at the end”. They were cool with that and that’s how it started.
LE: I would not beat yourself up over that, you told a compelling story in just under 15 minutes so that is a telling accomplishment in and of itself. Besides I often say I have learned more from making mistakes than anything else I have done. That said, how did you find the crowdfunding experience to be as a first time director pitching a new project? Which platform did you settle upon and what advice would you give to others approaching a similar situation since I know there will be a number among our readership.
JJ: A crowdfunding campaign is a communication job and an advertising tool at the same time – or the other way around, I’m still a novice in the domain. No matter how small or big the budget is asked, you have to stay active. For instance, the reason I chose the website Ulule.com was the short name, easy to put on a picture to share on social medias. You have to think in a very practical sense. When you pitch it, don’t hesitate to reference movies genres and directors that people know and can easily associate your project with. Also, I see crowdfunding projects where the director just waits for money to arrive, that’s not how it works. At first, you have to be constantly on the look out, finding blogs or Facebook help just to spread the word. At some point, people will start to talk about your project even if they don’t donate, that’s when it becomes a good advertising tool… but you have to keep feeding the interest. Concept pictures, teasers, anything you can within your creative reach. Don’t be like me and forget to plan a campaign program and “events” ahead of time. I was shy at first. Then, you start getting into it. Even though I didn’t ask for huge budget, I gained some useful crowdfunding knowledge in the process.
LE: I quite enjoyed the soundtrack to An Eldritch Place which I felt not only reinforced the tone of your film with the lighting choices, choice of practical effects, camera placement, etc. but also fits into a larger current music wise we see with Survive’s work on Stranger Things, Zombi, and John Carpenter’s recent successful live tour. How was it that you two met and could you please talk a little about not only her wonderful soundtrack but the sound design work of Jeremy Bocquet, Benoit Charron, and sound recordist Lucas Lecomte?
JJ: Sarah composed the main theme in two days way before we even started filming. Thanks to her music, I could easily justify that 80’s look and slower rhythm of the camera works. As soon as the shooting was done, I gave some footage to Benoit and Jérémy so they could already experiment and start working on the sound design (while Océane edited). I was busy on fixing a very complicated scene, so I can’t be precise but I remember the whole process taking months. What’s great about their sound design is how subtle it is compared to the visual aesthetics. You wouldn’t notice it at the first vision but they installed a crescendo that brings whole thing together. From the recording on the set – thanks to Lucas – to the design in post-production, their role is crucial. We can easily digest, or forgive, any kind of picture quality because we’re so used to watching different media formats… with sound it’s a little different. You could film something on an iPhone but if it sounds bad, the immersion will be broken in an instant.
LE: I loved the use of practical effects in your film which of course fits in with the aesthetic as a whole. Why is it that we seem to see more film makers in representing Lovecraftian/cosmic horror tropes are turning towards the use of practical effects, especially in a time when programs enabling low-budget film makers easier access to high-end digital work are readily available?
In that same vein I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out how much I enjoyed the transition effect you employed that resembled either a forest seen from above or an algae bloom. It’s simplicity and its ambiguity intrigued me.
JJ: I’m going to be very vague here because I don’t want to reveal the SFX works now – I hope it will make sense. I’m not against CGI but in the small indie scene -my kind of projects- it seems more appropriate to go practical. Firstly, because it feels more tangible on the affordable cameras we got – I used a Black Magic Pocket. Second, when the effect is well planned or something already sculpted, you can do rehearsals until you get the best results on the set. Once it’s done, it’s done. You’ll have to manage with the editor but you have a at least a good choice of footage available. You might have to do some re-shoots but you make it work. With complex computer generated effects, you can work literally forever. It can always look better or just different because you have so many possibilities. You just need more time, more people with more talents (lighting, compositing, animation, etc.) It can escalate the budget even after it’s a wrap when you’d like to be cozy in the editing room. When I had to make artistic choices in some compositing shots, the giallo aesthetic guided me to lock a look. Otherwise, I would still be there, losing my mind behind my Macbook. To get back to Lovecraft, I’m sure there are many ways of using full CGI technology to tell Lovecraftian stories. On one hand, I’d hate to see Andy Serkis playing a giant motion-captured Cthulhu. On the other hand, at the end of the day, cheap CGI just looks cheap.
JJ: I’m still sending it to festivals until late 2017 and always hope for the best. I’m aware its slower pace and duration are not the perfect festival material. However, I’d like to build a little reputation before tackling my next project – which I’m currently writing. For now, the short film will be screened at the Nitehawk Shorts the 11th November in New York, then out of competition at the Razor Reel in Bruges the next day. In December, back in NYC at the Third Eye Film Festival. This one has a focus on female film makers and women in the horror movie community (After all, An Eldritch Place does have a very important female character as a big plot point. In our very small team, the editing, lighting and music were done by women.)
I like to meet other new film makers by shooting behind the scenes for them. This past summer, I’ve been on the set of “Saturdayman”, an upcoming web series from Samuel Buisseret. In Belgium, it’s great to see exciting or weirder things happening outside of the mainstream media. Even though I’d love to make a feature film some day, I’m also interested in exploring new mediums. Whatever you choose, at the end of the day, you need a story.
LE: Julien thank you so much for a fascinating interview and taking time to talk to us when I know you had a very heavy travel schedule. I look forward to seeing your next project. From all of us here at Lovecraft eZine, thank you very much.
JJ: You’re welcome and thank you, it was a very thorough interview. I hope I wasn’t too vague.
This interview conducted by Acep Hale.
All BTS photos copyright Vlad VDK.