How To Be Independent? A Conversation With Denis Cote
Updated: Apr 5, 2020
By: Amir Ganjavie
Denis Côté latest film, Ghost Town Anthology, premiered at Berlinale is a harsh critique of xenophobia's culture in Québec.
In recent years, Denis Côté has always been a favourite at different film festivals such as the Berlin Film Festival, Cannes and Locarno. At Berlinale, we examined different ways of being independent in cinema today; the interview is one of the finest accounts of what it is like to make an independent film today. Here, we focus on how we can use local resources, design the set, and work with actors and staff in a way that one can create a timeless work of art. We analyzed the role of Canadian organizations, government agencies, funds, and connections in making a film. By reading this interview, the reader can gain knowledge and information on how to be independent in the world nowadays, and how we can use personal opportunities and potentials, despite the fact that cinema is generally a result of teamwork. In this conversation, Denis Côté helps us realize that we should be a fighter. We need to be present in all scenes and be active, and we must fight to reach our goal which is, in this case, making a film with universal themes and qualities.
Amir Ganjavi, UniversalCinema Magazine (UM): Where did the idea for the film come from and how did you try to create a film based on it?
Denis Côté (DC): I didn’t have the same sense of emergency that I did for my first and second films so it was like “Okay, what could be my subject?” It’s like trying to catch something in the air, you know? My first impulse was to make a film about ordinary xenophobia in the place where I live in French Canada. We are only seven or eight million French-speaking people surrounded by an ocean of Anglophones so we have a hard time connecting with English Canada. We don’t recognize ourselves in the United States and every time we try to make connections with Europe, we can see we’re not really Europeans and we’re also not Latin people. We are British people but we speak French. So we are really, really closed in upon ourselves and we try to survive in the middle of this situation. Every time we see something that could invade us or could steal something from our comforts, we have what I call a little cute panic.
In Quebec for two years now, we have had a place where immigrants from the United States know exactly where to enter Canada. Two years ago we had maybe three or four thousand illegal immigrants over a period of three months, which is nothing but people started to be afraid and uncomfortable and that made me laugh. People were starting to be not what I would call racist but just showing ordinary xenophobia. So that was my first interest in the film and then everybody was telling me “Oh, you should make a horror film.” Then I read a poetic book and thought “I’m going to make a film out of it.” I called the author and said “Can I just use your book as a spark? I’m going to keep the people’s names, some events, and that’s it.” She said yes and asked me to just keep the spirit of the book. In the end, it was only five percent similar. So these three things became the weirdness of the final result. It’s something about ordinary xenophobia with its resistance to change, the fear that we have of everything that is different from us, and the different phases of both individual and collective grief. I guess that you can decide through which door to enter that film. Some people just take it as a ghost story and a horror film that is not scary but which has a lot of atmosphere and ambiance. It’s like a buffet of film since you can take from it what you want.
UM: Given the fact that this is a kind of ghost story, what is your working relationship with the actors? Was everything very scripted or did you let them improvise?
DC: I’m considered a control freak so when I make a film, I see my film. I see the editing. I see what I want to see. A lot of directors shoot and then see during editing what’s going to come out. I like to see what I’m doing so I’m usually very directive. They can propose stuff and I listen but I’m not the best listener. They’re not really allowed to improvise and since it’s a big film with a budget of two million dollars we have a tight, tight schedule so everything is prepared, sometimes over prepared. The film you saw is the film that was on paper so yeah, they were allowed to bring me something but they knew the film would veer into the supernatural. When you really look at it, it seems pretty social realistic but then there’s this contamination of the supernatural. The actors know that I talk a lot so they trust me most of the time. We’re not lost when we make a film like that. We know what we want.
UM: You mentioned that this is a two-million-dollar film but I remember that with your last film there was a rumor of making it with something like only fifty thousand dollars. How did you try to find funding for this film?
DC: I’ve made eleven films but it’s not like I have a system or a strategy. I was a film critic and then I had some frustrations around 2004 and thought “I want to react to the Quebec cinema that is too big budget, too nice looking, too perfect. Just give me a little grant and I’m going to make us something like the end of the world.” That was much more delinquent and I got forty thousand Canadian dollars and I made my first feature film called “Drifting States,” which was the one in Locarno. So I was like “Wow! Money is no problem.” Then I made a second film for ten thousand dollars in the Bulgarian language, which I don’t understand. And again, I was on the festival circuit so I was feeling a little invincible like “You can make films with no money blah, blah, blah.” With the local institutions, it’s a long answer to your question but you’re going to see the system. The local institutions started calling me saying “Hey, your friends are traveling. Why don’t you come to see us? We’ll give you money.” They offered me money instead of me begging so I made a film for one million dollars and then I felt like I could make those small films again so I switched to a small film called Carcasses for about twenty-five thousand dollars and we were in Cannes. We came to feel even more invincible and money was not a problem.
After Carcasses I got money for a bigger film called Curling, which we made for one million dollars. Then because I’m not an industry person and I’m not good with a big team, I wanted to make a small film, which led me to make Bestiaire, a film with on animals, for forty thousand dollars. Then I was like “Okay. I’m ready for a big one.” They gave me 2.2 million Canadian dollars to make Vic and Flo Saw a Bear. When that film was finished I felt exhausted by the industry so I switched to a very small film again working with a forty-thousand-dollar budget. Then I got ready for the film you saw, Boris Without Béatrice, which we made for 2.2 million dollars. Then again it was like okay, a bunch of friends led into something about bodybuilding, a film called A Skin So Soft. I got money from Germany, Switzerland, France, and a small grant from Quebec and the total budget was seventy thousand dollars. When you make those small films, if they travel around the world then my local institution and my government is like “Wow! We didn’t help him and he’s traveling around the world.” So they are much nicer to me when I come with a new project.
Now we come to this film Ghost Town Anthology. I put it on the desk and said “This is my new film.” They feel that they should finance it because they know I’m going to end up in Locarno or here or in Cannes and they want international representation. I don’t make much box office but I make them travel. So to your question, is it easy to finance my films? I’m not supposed to say yes. Nobody’s supposed to say yes but my system of both big and small films helps me to make the bigger ones. So now Ghost Town Anthology is here in Berlin. They love that and I have already done a new film called Wilcox for ten thousand dollars. I didn’t ask them for any money and just paid for everything myself. It it goes to a big festival then next time I will bring a big project and they will support it. So you see, it’s me being allergic to the big industry. It’s not really a system but you feel so free when you make those small films that I can’t stop.
UM: When you say that, for example, you make a film with ten thousand dollars, how do you do it? That’s impossible since you have to hire people like a director of photography and a sound editor.
DC: Those are very precise questions but I get it. First of all, if you really want numbers, when I finished with Ghost Town Anthology, I had a salary because it was made with public money. My salary for that was one hundred thousand dollars for writing the script and directing. When the film is over, if we sell it all around the world then it doesn’t matter. I don’t get any money. If the film has zero good reviews and we don’t sell it anywhere then it doesn’t matter. It’s still my money so this one hundred thousand is safe. Then it depends on what kind of life you have. I have a very simple life so taking six thousand dollars on one hundred is very easy. So that’s what I did. Then I came back to the local producer and said “Do you want to give six thousand more with me and then it’s going to be written back to the producers?” He said yes, so twelve, and with that, we shot the film with only three people and I made arrangements, saying to them “Look, it’s only going to be eight days. Can I give you fifteen hundred dollars?” and a lot of people would say yes, though it’s outside the unions.
UM: Can you use a famous actor when you’re working outside of the union?
DC: You can. For example, I had an actor who was in the Artist Union but we worked outside the union rules so the union could call him about it but nothing special would happen, you know? We made that film in an underground way but if they caught him then nothing could really happen. They were just like “Uh, okay, you made a film outside the system.” So it’s not really a problem. Then with the film that was shot for ten thousand dollars, because of my name I could usually go to a post-production company and say “Can I put your logo at the beginning of my film saying that you supported it and you give me everything for free?” and they said yes so I had colour correction and an editing suite.
UM: With regard to other staff, do yourself do things like makeup?
DC: We make sure that the films are very simple so there are no costumes or makeup. We do everything alone.
UM: What about the director of photography?
DC: The DOP is completely alone with the video camera so they have to be very simple films. Bestiaire ( 2012 ), Carcasses ( 2009 ), Joy of Man’s Desiring ( 2014 ), and A Skin So Soft (2016) were all filmed with natural light, documentary style. The people you film are not really paid because it’s a documentary. You just find ways to make it ridiculously simple. If you start thinking about makeup, costume, grips, electricians, and things like that then you’re done.
UM: You mentioned that for post-production you put their logo at the beginning of the film. You also need to rent cameras. Do you do the same?
DC: I have an answer to all of that. It’s a system that is extremely do-it-yourself and it’s fun to think that my new film is only sixty-six minutes long. There’s no real sound. The soundtrack was created by someone so it’s a bit like I’m a producer myself and I’m thinking about an original idea that would not be too expensive. With Bestiaire I went to the zoo and they said “Oh, we know you. You’re a famous filmmaker.” They said “Yeah, you want to film in the zoo? Well, if you want. Just come and do your thing.” It became a full film shoot in the zoo and I was totally free to do what I wanted with three guys, one car, and one camera.
UM: Some people tell me that, for example, if you work on a big multinational project then you have better chance of getting into festivals because of things like lobbying. When you compare your big project in which several companies and several countries were involved with this low budget film, do you see much of a difference?
DC: It’s a bit like everything that I just told you about these small films. It’s like if I ask you here, now, in the lobby “Do you want to make a film?” Nothing else matters. Companies, taxes, lawyers - nothing matters. It’s just you and me making this small film. And when you can manage to have a feature film with only friends and you go to a big festival, people don’t see the difference.
So it’s not a real co-production like A Skin So Soft, which has the same sales agent as Deity. They said “Oh, you have a new film. What is it?” and I said “It’s a bunch of bodybuilders. Do you like that?” They said “Oh, that could sell.” I warned them that it was going to be very low budget and asked what they could give me. They offered ten thousand Euros, which was about fifteen thousand Canadian dollars. Then, a Swiss producer said “Hey, are you working on something these days?” I said “Yeah, something about bodybuilders.” And she wanted to be involved. You see, it’s very normal talk. I asked if she could give me money and she offered two choices – either one hundred thousand dollars if we did an official co-production between Quebec and Canada, which would be very heavy on paperwork, or else ten thousand dollars very simply between her and me. I said that I would take the ten thousand and then I applied for a small grant in Quebec, which we got. Then I showed the first edit to a friend in France and she said, “Oh, I’m starting a production company. How much do you want?” I asked for eight thousand euros and she went to the bank and got it. The total that I raised was forty-five thousand euros from a bunch of friends in different countries. This way of producing a film is very rare so maybe I’m a pro at this or it's like when we talk about Paolo Blanco in Portugal. How does he produce stuff? You can go to the official channels for producing a film or you can make films with your friends and not think about makeup and the official rules of filmmaking. That’s what I do. Maybe it’s a little bit of a punk cowboy system but I’ve made five films like that.
UM: And when you make this kind of low-budget film, what’s your strategy with things like takes or shots? How many takes do you usually have in your films to control things like the days of shooting?
DC: There are zero-zero rules so we can do what we want but since I’m not paying my people too much I try not to be an asshole. So bodybuilders, of course, I’m not paying them. If I ask “Hey, can I go to your house today?” I know that the guy will not have a lot of patience. I know that my friends, it’s their car and they’re paying for the gas. It’s simple. It’s like a student film, really. “So okay, what’s your address? Okay, we’re going to be there maybe three hours max, okay? Hey guys, three hours, okay?” It’s buddy talk. It’s outside every rule. Then when you end up working on a big film like Ghost Town Anthology everything is tight. All of the actors are well paid and even overpaid. We’re working with 2.2 million dollars so I have to follow those rules. That’s why when it’s over I’m so happy to make small films. “Hey, you have your car? You have your camera still? Okay, let’s go.” Americans do it like that when they do very independent films but it’s very rare in other countries because people think they should be inside the industry. I love being outside of that industry.
UM: Was it very difficult to shoot in the snow?
DC: Yes, but I didn’t care. Even though Canadians live in winter, people are afraid to shoot then because of technical problems. The cameras can freeze. Yes, continuity is difficult because of the snow - you never know when something is melting. You never know when the next snowstorm is coming so it really depends on your story. But for a story like this one, I remember telling them “Hey, I don’t care about the weather. If there’s a snowstorm, we don’t cancel and if it’s suddenly ten degrees, we don’t cancel.” So they were looking at me talking about continuity. I don’t care. Let’s go all the way, you know? We didn’t have bad surprises.
I like the last shot when they’re leaving on the road and the camera is moving towards the father and you see a big white field of snow. It’s all fake. People don’t really know about those effects but you can do surprising stuff, though it costs money and you need a certain budget for that. In winter, it’s better to shoot on film because the cameras don’t freeze like video can. The way we dress is also hard. We need much more energy. The tracks can also cause accidents. However, you feel more proud when you make a film in Canada in the winter and it’s done. You’re like “Yeah, I had a winter film.” I had two like that, Curlingand the new one. So yeah, I could understand a lot of countries not wanting to shoot in winter but we are in Canada.
UM: What you said is very interesting because I had a conversation with Olivier Assayas and he once mentioned that sometimes we make mistakes in films but we shouldn’t try to correct them because this is part of your identity. You also mentioned that you don’t care about continuity or other problems.
DC: Well, I don’t want to sound like I don’t care and it’s probably not what he meant. It’s just that I think a lot of films are over produced, over directed, and over edited. People are sometimes obsessed with perfectionism and I was like that but when you get older you’re pretty sure that you can find a solution to everything. Now I know what I can do in post-production. I know that unless there’s a big, big problem it can be fixed somehow, so I like his answer and I would do the same. Like, sometimes on a set the technicians want to be supersized. They look at me and I’m like “I don’t care. Go away.” It’s their job so they try to be perfect, like the script girl who wants perfect continuity. But the older you get, the more assured you are and you don’t care about the technical aspect too much anymore.
UM: When you’re directing the actors, how do you know that a performance is good?
DC: It’s good when I hear my dialogue and I think that every director is like that. When you’re right, you hear at what speed that dialogue should be said. It’s stuck in your head. It’s like a database. And then the actors come and it’s too slow so you obviously ask them to say it faster. You’re been hearing that line in your head for six months so that’s one thing. You’re the only one to see what style of film you want to make and the actors will propose things because that’s what they are good at. So it’s been six months in your head and you see somebody say “Hey, how are you?” and then it’s action. They say “Hey, how are you?” but you’ve never seen those arms moving in your head before so you’re like a robot because it’s on the hard drive in your head That’s why your question is a killer one. When do you know that it’s good? When you hear it and see it exactly as you imagined it. But if you don't imagine your films in advance then everything is interesting and you go edit your film and your editor is like “Oh, this is good.” and you reply “Oh yeah, you think this is good? Okay.” So it's not very precise because you don't know what you want.
If I’m going to shoot a scene with you and me talking then six months in advance I’m asking “Okay, how am I going to shoot that discussion between A and B?” Maybe I see it as only a fixed camera there and we are in it. That’s it. That’s my choice six months in advance. So when it’s time to shoot, the camera goes there. There’s no discussion. It’s going to be there and that’s it. Other directors might just say “A and B will talk.” Then they have their shoot, first putting the camera on one of them and then the other. They do the dialogue. Okay, now we need a tool shot. Put the camera there and we talk. Okay, what could we do now? Could you put the camera there on him? Same dialogue. Okay, now him. Same dialogue. So I have this, this, this, this, this, and this. Then in editing they will try every combination for two or three days. They don’t know what they want. They only shot different angles and they don’t know. For me, it’s like “Okay, the camera is there.” That’s it. That’s my only choice. So when I’m editing it’s harder. It’s like working with handcuffs but I made a choice and cinema is about making choices.
UM: However, sometimes it might happen that you place the camera and the angles don’t play as you want but you might not realize it while you are filming. If you have other angles then when you’re editing you might be able to change it.
DC: That’s a good point but I don’t like that. I don’t want to shoot to give me editing resources. I want to make the real choice in real life and if I miss it then I miss it. I’m punished. I like to be under the rules and I like to punish myself.
UM: So do you discuss it with your DOP or is it always prepared?
DC: It’s always prepared. You have a script and you discuss it with the DOP before shooting. It’s all prepared, like today - the scene is you and me talking here. Last week, you were not here. I came with him. We decided that the camera will be on number one, two, three, four, and five. There! We took a picture. We took a picture, the camera will be there and we’re going to sit here. So the day that we come to work, we don’t talk. We don’t need to talk. There’s no improvisation. Everything is prepared, which is my style.
A lot of filmmakers just put the camera there and see what’s going on today. “Oh it’s raining? Okay, it’s changing. Okay. Oh, we have chairs. Okay, we can sit there.” I’m not very good at improvising but I do improvise with the small films because we’re free, free, free, free, free. But the big films, I don’t. There are a lot of contradictions in what I say but it’s based on the budget and the resources that we have and you need to be a chameleon, you know, depending on your budget and the team around you.
UM: But to do this kind of work you should be able to, for example, have a good connection with the owners of this buildings or properties.
DC: It’s like “Do you remember this hotel? Okay, let’s go. You want to go check? Yeah.” So we go alone to check and there’s no pressure. It’s going to be like “Oh, those two sources of light. Yeah, we’re going to ask them to close that.” The DOP takes a note and he’s like “Okay, the camera will be there.” We are only two people or he’s with a friend who’s going to work with him. You can prepare that stuff. Some directors don’t and some do. So you have to have an agreement with the hotel that they’re going to shut down the music when we come to film. That’s when you have budget. If you don’t have budget then it’s more like “Okay, today let’s shoot in a hotel.” “Can we shoot there?” “Yeah, but do it quickly.” I’m very good at depending on the budget to deal with those things.
UM: What about music? How do you decide that a certain piece of music is good?
DC: I don’t usually use much music in my films because I’m very suspicious about it. I think it’s Gaudard who once said that if you put music on any image, it works. Whatever you put on an image, it works! It has to work. It can be heavy metal and it works! I always feel that music is used when you’re not confident in your material so my films don’t have much music. In the film you saw it’s not even music. It’s a sound effect. It’s a door closing in the wind and there’s no music. As for the rest, well, it depends on your taste and how you want to put that music onto that emotion but I’m really bad with it when it’s too explicit. I like counterpoints so if a scene is sad then I’m going to put cute, fun music.