French filmmaker Romain Gavras is best known to the screen-watching world thanks to his arresting and visually ambitious music videos, which have included Jamie xx’s “Gosh,” Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild” and M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls,” among various others. But that could change when his third feature film, Athena, releases on Netflix on Sept. 23 after its world premiere this week in Venice.
The film arrives as if the perfect vehicle for Gavras background and ambitions. The youngest son of Oscar-winning Greek director, Costa-Gavras, and French political journalist and film producer, Michèle Ray-Gavras, Romain Gavras grew up steeped in the Greek classics and politically informed art and activism. In 1995, he co-founded the film collective Kourtrajmé with his childhood friends Kim Chapiron and Ladj Ly (director of the Oscar-nominated Les Misérables), and his second feature, The World Is Yours, debuted to warm reviews in the Directors’ Fortnight section of the 2018 Cannes Film Festival.
Athena marks Gavras step up into the main competition of a top-tier festival. The story of four brothers at the heart of an explosive protest in a Paris housing estate after the apparent racially motivated murder of a young boy at the hands of police, the film marries the visual poetry of Gavras’ commercial and music video work with a kinetic and immersive mode of action filmmaking, echoing elements of classic Greek tragedy while delivering a scathing condemnation of our divisive moment.
The Hollywood Reporter connected with Gavras ahead of Venice to discuss how he achieved Athena‘s stunning 15-minute opening sequence and his intentions behind the film’s ending. (There is a spoiler in the final question and answer.)
What were the creative origins and inspiration for the film? Where did it begin?
So, Ladj Ly and I are childhood friends and we created a film collective called Kourtrajmé with Kim Chapiron about 20 years ago, and we’ve always been helping each other and collaborating since then. And a couple of years ago, we all started to bounce around ideas for the premise of what Athena became: The idea of being inside the sparkle of what could become the first blaze that would spread through a country like a donation. Because I’ve always been influenced from my origins by Greek tragedy — you know, Greek tragedy was like the bedtime stories in my family —we very quickly decided that we needed those formal qualities of storytelling, which is unity of time and unity of location, and lot of hints and symbolic power to the images. So it kind of came from the collision of both our worlds, I guess.
So, for viewers like myself who might not know Paris especially well, was Athena loosely based on a real place? Is that a community that you personally know well? And if not, how did you immerse yourself in it?
It’s not a real estate. We called it Athena just because we wanted to pull the thread of Greek tragedy, and of course, Athena is the goddess of war and wisdom. So it’s not a real neighborhood, and it’s not based on a real story. It was based on a lot of stories. This riot hasn’t happened yet, but it’s almost like it’s the riot that could happen. We wanted to imagine what could be the sparkle that could really ignite the whole country, and be in it almost like a pre-civil war first battle. Because there’s a lot of tension everywhere in the world, but also in Paris. And we feel like everyone’s kind of pushing towards that. And we know from history that civil wars are the worst thing that can happen to society. When you look at the Greek civil war, it’s something that men in my family have known — it’s like grandfather against grandfather; cousin against cousin. It’s the worst because it’s within the family. This is why we took the intimacy of a family getting torn apart, where their torment spills across the neighborhood and then across the country.
But to go back to your question, I could say the film, just because it has a lot of symbolism and a lot of what the Greek tragedy brings, it’s almost like a notch above reality. On our stage of the estate, we built turrets to make it look more like a castle, almost like if you were in Ran from Kurosawa. So everything is a little bit heightened, because we needed the symbolic power of timelessness to it. You know, like it’s something that could happen now, or that could have happened during the Trojan War. Every war almost has the same kind of template — it comes from intimacy, it comes from an original lie, and then it spreads through a country.
So I want to talk further about the incredible visual style of the film. It’s so kinetic and immediately immersive.
Yes, of course. So, the idea was to be in an immersive type of film grammar. And so in order to do that, really early on when we were writing the script, the idea was to do a lot of oners, when you follow one of the main four characters and you close with them in a single shot. What it does is that it’s going to create the immersiveness, like you said, but also a real-time energy where people don’t have time to think. The characters don’t have time to think, as the audience almost doesn’t have time to think — like you’re just being subject to what’s happening. And the rule we had was to be in those oners and then when the main characters meet each other, we can be in a shot/two-shot kind of simple grammar, but to keep the real-time energy without any ellipses. Obviously, when you write that down, it’s easy; but then you have to do it. So we had two months of rehearsals with the actors. We did kind of like the Dogville version, where we just had layouts and volumes and cartons and just the main actors, and a small camera just to block. Because it’s a big choreography with a lot of extras, so to put in choreography this portion, we did a lot of rehearsal, almost as if we were rehearsing an opera.
It’s also really visually poetic the way the protestors use fireworks as an impromptu weapon. Where did that idea come from?
It’s actually very true in France. The kids use that a lot. When there are riots, they actually use fireworks. And I always thought it was really interesting, because those kids are usually between 15 to 20. So there are still just teenage kids, and there is an element where it looks very violent, but actually it’s just fireworks. So it brings it back to the fact that these are just kids, and I thought that works thematically. And also, you know, I’ve seen these moments on the news, and sometimes, in extreme moments, there’s a weird kind of poetry that emerges. It’s a dark poetry, but it’s still poetry. And the fact that there are kids using fireworks to fight against some kind of establishment, whether they’re right or wrong, there’s something romantic about it.
I’d love to hear more about how writing this screenplay was different from a more conventionally staged film. Initially, as I was watching the film, I was so engrossed by the kinetic, immersive, pyrotechnic nature of the action, that I didn’t really even notice how much character development was accumulating along the way, and how much the story had already begun to unfold. It felt very deftly done.
Well, that was a very big topic with Ladj Ly and Elias Belkeddar, my co-writers. How were we going to unfold this story in the real-time moment, but still give a lot off-screen with the characters, because you can’t really have a huge amount of exposition. So what we did is drop a lot of hints, so that little by little you realize more and more. Like, okay, they are brothers. And you start to understand the dynamics between them without being too heavy or on the nose. This was a big focus during the writing. And then I was lucky to have amazing actors, where the incarnation that they did of their own characters was amazing. So you feel a lot through their acting. But that’s also a very strong sense from the Greek tragedy, because it has the unity of location and the beauty of time, and a lot of it spreads through the off-screen. The off-screen has a huge presence. Like the mother, even though it’s not the story of the mother of those four brothers, she comes to us a lot throughout the film, even though you see her face just once.
So let’s talk about the brothers. You talked about Greek tragedy as an inspiration and a template, but it also seems that they represent different perspectives or responses to the racial injustice of French society.
I think also the way we portrayed them is that there are a few ways you can react to a violent event, or an uprising, or the beginning of a fire. You can want to put it out, which is the reaction of Abdel, big brother who’s trying to calm everything down. Or you can want to burn everything, like Karim and the younger kids. Or you want to save your own interest, which is the merchant, which is Moktar. Or you want to escape this hell. So, all those aspects are developed through each character. And every family has its own structure and different roles.
Was there a brother that you personally felt most sympathetic towards?
Well, I think when you write, you kind of want to be every character. So, you know, part of me is Abdel who wants to calm everyone down and doesn’t want the world to burn. Part of me is the young brother who wants to torch everything, and part of me is more conservative and just wants to protect my own interests. I feel that if you’re honest, you have all those aspects in yourself.
So can you tell me about the music? You’ve worked with some of the great musical artists of various genres as a music video director. What went into your selection of the music for this film? It feels very kind of symphonic in the way that matches the swells of the action and momentum of the film.
It’s all original music. I work with [the music producer] Surkin. We have a project together called Generation. One of our best friends passed away 10 years ago; he was called DJ Mehdi. He always had something in his music that was really epic, but also quite melancholic. So we took some of his music and made them into a symphony. We wrote some Greek choirs, almost like in a Greek tragedy, where you have the chorus singing what’s happening to the story. So we have that but we purposely didn’t subtitle it; but they’re singing almost in an epic way, about how the story unfolds. So the idea was to have really symphonic music. Kind of timeless. Even though it’s symphonic, we have some electronic moments in it. When I was talking to the composer, I was saying, we need to feel the sentiment of it — especially when it’s the music that carries the younger brother Karem and his team — that we won the battle but we know we got to lose the war. Those two feelings together. It’s always difficult when you talk to a musician, because you almost need to speak in images. It’s not precise, like camera movements. So we wanted epic, but a deep down melancholy.
So can you tell me about the opening action sequence? It just grabs you right away and it’s so effective. It’s thrilling and then terrifying and then thrilling again. Can you talk about the development and execution of that prolonged scene?
I guess because it’s the first time I’ve filmed something for Netflix, or a platform, one rule that I gave myself was that you need to grab the audience from the very first 10 minutes. So the idea was to do something to get you straight into the film from the beginning. With a traditional film, it’s a hostage situation. Put someone in a screening room, they’re not gonna leave in the first 10 minutes. So you can have a slow page. Here it was the opposite. Obviously, technically it was very difficult, because it’s like a 15-minute shot. You start at point A, and then three kilometers away, you arrive at the estate. And so we rehearsed for weeks, because there was a lot of blocking, a lot of choreography, between the crowd and the vehicles and the pyros and everything. We shot almost the whole film with continuity for the actors. You know, we built the film, stone by stone, and every day we would do one shot, because that’s just the nature of this film. But we actually shot the opening sequence at the very end. Because by the end of the film, the whole crew, actors and extras were so experienced and educated with the oners by then. So it felt smart to do that sequence at the end because it was the most challenging. But we did rehearse it for a full week.
Okay, I see. That makes sense.
I should say we shot in IMAX. So the camera was fucking huge — like a fridge. So it makes it more epic, just because of the depth of field and the width of the capture of the sensor. But it makes every movement way more difficult. What it does, though, it gives some kind of classic-ness to it, where you don’t start to do some crazy movements. At the end of the day, it’s quite classical, because the camera is so heavy that all the gear you have to carry the camera are cranes and old steady cams that can carry a huge camera. So you get a form that’s quite classical, even though we are doing huge oners.
I got to see it on a big screen, but, wow, it would be cool to see it on Imax. Hopefully, a lot of people get to see it in a cinema.
Yeah, for sure. But it’s not only like a director’s big-screen fantasy. Even on Netflix on a normal TV screen, you do feel a difference, just because the relationship between the actor and the decorum is different than a normal camera because of the size of the sensor. So everything feels more epic, on any screen.
(Spoiler Alert – spoilers follow)
So, I want readers to be mindful of spoilers and not think about this until they have seen the film, but I really want to ask you about the ending. I guess you could kind of call it a twist. Why was it important to you to end on that note where the whole uprising was instigated by a sinister act of fraud.
It is true that it’s a difficult thing to talk about because I don’t want to spoil it. We didn’t want to present it as a true twist, because it’s almost more like a confirmation. The idea came from the observation that almost every war comes from an original lie — from the Trojan war to the Iraq War with Colin Powell. At some point, darker forces are required to push a society to war. And I feel that in France, that exists. Right now, extreme right-wing forces are the ones pushing toward that agenda. My feeling was that we live in a time when information is so confusing. Throughout the film, you hear the news saying something, and the kids are not believing it, because there is such a disbelief and suspicion of information in general. So it’s very easy these days for a group to pull off a false flag coup or operation. It’s such a magma of information and disinformation that no one trusts anyone. So, the end was important for me, because for a long time I wonder if I should leave it up in the air, as an ambiguous thing. But it was important to me because I thought it was more in tune with Greek tragedy. Greek tragedy is the movement towards chaos, basically. You always know it’s going to end badly. But this is almost sadder, because you see that everything was for nothing, and everyone fell into a trap. And that’s even more tragic.