Dark Side Magazine at FrightFest 2022 – James Whittington interviews The Eyes Below writer and director Alexis Bruchon

The Dicovery Screens at FrightFest always contain some gems and a real highlight this year is The Eyes Below. We chatted to its writer and director Alexis Bruchon.

DS: This is your second movie and second movie at FrightFest, you must be very happy about that?

AB: Yes, I’m happy about that and very grateful to FrightFest. As a young and most of all independent filmmaker it’s very hard to get attention to our work, especially with big festivals. We have double pain because we have to make the film and try to catch the attention, which is very difficult when you are alone to do that… FrightFest has a very innovative and fresh eye! The programmers take risks to make their line-up with their love for genre and believe me, it’s very reassuring. When Ian Rattray told me that my second feature was selected for the London event, I was totally stunned and excited. For The Woman with Leopard Shoes the situation was a bit frustrating because of the Covid, so I’m even more thrilled to go to the festival and present the film to the public!

DS: Where did the idea for The Eyes Below come from and did it take long to write?

AB: The Idea came from two things. First, it’s a painting called The Night by the Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler. It represents a man lying with a sort of shadow on his belly, hidden by a sheet. I discovered it as a child. I was scared and fascinated by this image, I wanted to know what is under this sheet on the man! As a teenager, I discovered a Japanese legend called Kurobozu. It’s the exact same image as Hodler’s painting. The fact that we have this same creature in many different cultures interested me a lot. The other idea came from a concept I wanted to work on: how to make a realistic thriller with a character lying in his or her bed during the entire story. The problem is that this sort of high concepts is now not very original… Several films have already dealt brilliantly with this idea and each time we have a realistic explanation. So, I remembered my Hodler’s painting, and I had the solution: we don’t know why this man is trapped in in bed, there is no logical explanation, and we will discover why. It’s like this Bunuel movie, The Exterminating Angel, all the interest is in this space you don’t see, and you don’t understand. The writing was very fast, just one month and the storyboard, another month. The entire film was made in eleven months.

DS: Did you have much of a budget to play with?

AB: Well, when I said it’s an independent movie, it’s really a very independent movie! More seriously, I know it’s not a good thing a say the budget but, here, it’s part of the project I decided to make with this trilogy. So, I made the film for approximately 4000 Euros, like the first one. The problem is that most of the time we can’t make a movie because it’s too expensive… but, on the other hand, I didn’t wanted to wait several years to make it so thought of a way it was possible for me to make if I wanted to make it real. I’m an autodidact, I never been to film school, and I never did any short film before The Woman With Leopard Shoes. I just had this total desire to make films and this strong desire helps me a lot. More precisely, you can make choices and concentrate yourself on what is important in a film. If you look at it carefully, it can be things that are not so much expensive. It’s a way to put a camera or the right sound at a moment or the right cut to make an effect on the audience. That’s why I decide to make also the photography, the editing, the music, the art direction and the sound design. Even with this no budget situation, I decided to build a set for both films. We created a crane and a head for the camera which permit us to go absolutely everywhere and we invented a rail on wheels for some tricky travelling. At the end of the day, we have to remember that a film is a very simple and naive collage of light, colours and shadows. The most important is the cinematic language… not necessarily the realism of VFX…

DS: The movie has a minimalist, noir elegance harking back to the classic cinema of the 1940s, what is it about that period that inspires your film style?

AB: I think that this period was very important for visual experiments, just has the silent era was. Cinema was still a language to build and before the sound appeared, directors and producers, were very afraid to have less liberty with the images. In a sense it was the case, but several directors started to think about the power of images: how to tell a story through shadows, light and sometimes colours (look at Powell-Pressburger’s films!). The Noir films were the quintessence of these experimentations because they had to build a fantasy world, full of danger on realistic situations. But to be honest the inspiration for The Eyes Below comes more from Japanese and European movies. I think the films by Kaneto Shindo, especially Kuroneko and Onibaba, were a big influence. Shindo told his stories by the images, he even made a no-dialogue masterpiece called The Naked Island. Another Japanese influence is Kwaidan by Masaki Kobayashi, especially for the strong colours of the film. You can’t understand our film without the colours because it has an active role in the story! In terms of ambiance, Cocteau was also very important because he can transform very realist things and places in dreams. I’m also a huge fan of Roger Corman, especially his Poe’s adaptions, full of colours and weird experiments. The Exorcist, which is one of my favourite films was also always in my head.

DS: How hard was it shooting mainly on just one set?

AB: It was both complicated and easier than a regular shooting. The most obvious convenience is that you can correct your mistakes very easily because you are in the same place, and you win time because you don’t have to change the disposition of your material. So, it’s speeder and lighter. In the other hand, it’s much more difficult to make an interesting, visual film, especially when you have only one character in it. You have basically four angles, the four sides of the bed, to tell the story… but this very minimalist point of view is an incredible occasion to play with all the visual language of cinema. In fact, I have a weird working process. I start to write the complete script… and once it’s finished, I never read it again. Just after, I make a very precise storyboard of each angle, each cut and… once again I never look at it (even it’s not totally true because it’s our working plan for the shoot but I never follow what I’ve drawn). And it’s the same thing with the editing. At each step, I have only the souvenir of the story, so I have always a fresh look on what I want to show. The good thing with a such tiny space is that you are concentrate on the information. What is the most efficient angle and cut to tell the story and give the information to the audience.

DS: Vinicius Coelho really does go through a tough time in this movie, how did he cope with those really intense scenes?

AB: He was absolutely perfect because he remains calm, patient and in the right way all the time. He comes from the theatre; dialogue is very important to him so playing just with his body and his face was very hard but did made truly a great job! I really like the mix of fragility and force in his interpretation. At the start, the role was made for a woman, but we realized that it would be a bit cliché… the woman frightened in her bed by a male villain, so we decided to find a man. But Vinicius brings also a feminine dimension in his acting and I think I couldn’t expect more. Some scenes were very hard for him, like the scene where the enemy vomits some sort of liquid on his face. The liquid was very hot, and we had to put a lot under his pyjamas. Pauline Morel has a huge role on the film! she plays the Enemy, and she was very good, very gothic with all this ink on her. She was also the first assistant, she made the costumes and fabrics and she had some of the best ideas for the horrific scenes! It’s really a three person shoot!

DS: Which scene was the hardest one to complete?

AB: I’m very calm even if it’s busy because I’m the DOP and the cameraman on it… so I have to place all my lights then talk to Vinicius and Pauline, go behind the camera and then take the shot. But I have to say I almost lost my temper with the scenes in the sheet corridor… it was a nightmare because the set was very tiny (it’s just a six meters sheet hang by wood elements in a real house corridor!) so no space behind the sheets. So, we had to find the good angle (but the end of the set was always from 5 centimetres from the camera all the time!) The heat was horrible because of the lights and we had always the shadow of the camera in the frame… We had to film several days in this area

DS: You’re a person of many talents such as writer, director, composer etc, do you have a favourite role?

AB: Each step of the making of a movie is passion. The writing is a happy moment because you feel free, the shooting is exciting because things turn for real, editing brings life to the shooting and music and sounds create the ambiance and transform, literary, the impact of what you filmed. So, each part is magical but if I had to choose… maybe the editing is what I prefer because it’s the step where you really tell the story. I have to make the definitive choice and it’s like a recipe: if you lose an ingredient, you will not have your mayonnaise! Editing is not just cutting the movie, it’s the place you see which angle, which light and which expression is the best for the movie. I don’t know why but, for me, making a film is very close to making a dress. Before the editing, it’s the fabrics and after it’s the couture, the moment you choose what the dress will looks like. I also love sound but it’s very heavy because I don’t shoot with direct sound. I prefer to record every single sound to make the right mix and get the right impact on the hear. It’s the same with music. I’m not a composer so I made the music directly with the image, exactly if I edited my images in order to have the best fusion between them. It’s a real exciting step!
DS: Both this and your first movie The Woman with Leopard Shoes (La Femme aux Chaussures Leopard) are very compact and based around small areas or locations, would you like to make films that have a wider scope?

AB: Yes of course! I think that the scale of a film depends on its story. If it’s a big war film, it can be big scale, at the contrary if it’s the story of two people, spending a night in an appartement, you don’t really need a big set and big effects. I have a science-fiction project, for example, which requires a big set, with a big budget etc… but, once again, I think you can always make something bigger than it’s actual scale. It truly depends on how the story is told and the visual language you decide to use. But at the contrary, sometime, the story can be very tame and the scope much wilder. For example, I saw Ryan’s Daughter a few days ago and it strikes me: the story is very tiny, it’s just three characters but the film is a big blockbuster with hundreds of actors, 70mm cameras and huge sets!

DS: So, what are you working on at the moment?

AB: I’m working on the third (and so final) film of the trilogy. By the way, the three films are connected but it’s not three episodes from the same story. It’s a thematic trilogy about thriller. The Woman With Leopard Shoes was a film noir, this one is an horror/fantasy thriller and the third called Cutting Point will be a paranoid thriller. It tells the story of an editor who will find something in a film she has to editing… speaking of scale, I’m also working on a bigger project which is a dream project. I started the script ten years ago and it’s now finished with a storyboard and everything to shoot… but I need a “real” budget to make it so I hope the trilogy will help for that. It tells the story of two women who disappear during a night… but I can’t tell more!

DS: Alexis Bruchon, thank you very much.