In Episode 6 of the Drunk Projectionist film podcast, host Todd Melby interviewed Albert Serra about The Death of Louis XIV, a 2016 film starring Jean-Pierre Léaud. (English is not Serra’s native language so please forgive his imperfect grammar.) Here is an edited version of that conversation.
Todd Melby: Let’s talk about The Death of Louis XIV.
Albert Serra: It got started because it was a commission from the Centre Pompidou to do it as a performance there in the museum. There is a crystal gate suspended in the hall of the museum. Visitors were supposed to attend “Agony of the King” during the 50 days already with Jean-Pierre Léaud simply there and we were supposed to be shooting.
Todd Melby: And did that happen?
Albert Serra: No. There were several problems, mainly on the finance side, increasing the price in a crazy way because the gate should be suspended, okay, with a bed inside, security reasons, it was very, very complicated.
Three or four years after that we said, “Why don’t we shoot this as a feature film?” It’s a quite simple movie. It’s an accurate description of the last days of life of Louis XIV, so it’s a portrait of the agony of this powerful man that has to face illness and inevitable death at the end. t’s quite accurate, precise and intimate description.
Todd Melby: In the movie, there are lots of reds and deep, dark colors. It looks very much like a painting.
Albert Serra: Maybe it’s natural because all the visual information we have from that time comes from paintings, so it’s logical that these images will remind someone of a painting because it’s the only source we have. There are no other images apart from images from the present and cinema.
I have always one single idea and in this case, it was even more powerful that we should do it dark. It should be a little bit baroque, which was the style of the time, but it should be dark with candles and not a lot of light. Most parts of the film happen at night or when the king gets ill and he’s alone, there is a little light. These bad moments usually arrive at night for ill people because it’s when they are alone.
For me, the main idea was obviously to recreate the look of the room of Louis XIV that we all have in mind because we all have seen the Palace of Versailles nowadays. It was modified afterwards a little bit by Louis XV and Louis XVI, but in general, we can say that it’s closer to what it was in the past when Louis XIV died.
So the idea was to pick up this luxury baroque style of Louis XIV and then apply the light from the time; some shadows, some darkness, natural darkness, for me, that was enough. It was dark because it was so difficult for us to build up a décor that could really match and have the organic feeling we needed for the film. We were scared that you would see some faults. So I said, “Darker means less chances that the faults will be seen.” The idea to put it darker was also practical.
Todd Melby: Ah yes, because you said it cost less than $1 million to make.
Albert Serra: Yes, it was not big budget. Even if it’s only one room, because the whole thing happens in one single room. There are some shots in the corridors, but just a few. It was more complicated than it looked. You can see a U.K. film or a European film sometimes, a period film, and there are things that are not on the level of the artistic direction. They’re not strong on the aesthetic level and they don’t make you believe.
My idea was that because the film is so intimate; we are so close to the king during the whole film, that it should really be an organic approach. Everything should be perfect. The movement inside the room, the actors, the décor should really be an organic integration. It can’t be a scripted film. The magic of the film comes from this organic, present-time living. We are talking about the past, but in the present time.
To do that, you need a deep and physical interaction with the actors. For me, [that] was the most important. It’s not so easy to get to that point on a low budget, but it’s also in the attitude of the actors. The objects, the props, everything has to be perfect. If everything has to be perfect, with the attitudes of the actors, you can underline a little bit this total organicity of the thing.
Todd Melby: You’ve said that you are a chaotic director. What do you mean by that and how exactly did you do that on this film?
Albert Serra: Well, it means that my system is basically non-communication. It’s not a useful tool. I think for filmmaking and filmmakers in general, but I don’t know.
Todd Melby: You’re saying communication is not a useful tool?
Albert Serra: Non-communication is not a very useful tool. Communication should be more useful I imagine for filmmaking, but here, is always my obsession, my goal is to go against the cliché. If everybody knows what we are doing and which direction we are going and that we are all together in that direction, it gets boring. It’s very easy to fall down on the cliché because everybody knows what will happen. Everybody has in mind all the ideas, all the meanings, all the truths of the film and there is nothing to discover.
So, my attitude is a little bit like the attitude of an artist. Performance in the art world, everything is happening in present time and there is something mystical, some mystical belief and there was nothing before, there won’t be nothing after and that performance is unique. It cannot be reproduced again. It cannot happen again. There is a real feeling of real mystery, a deep mystery of what’s going on there, it cannot be worked in another way.
In the film industry, we have the recording devices. We have cameras and sound recorders, so it’s not exactly a pure performance, but the feeling or the attitude of believing that every single moment is unique and that it can never be repeated and there will not be another chance to pick up what is there. It will only be there at that moment, at that single second. This is very important.
To get this the easiest way I found was to break communication with the crew, also with actors. I never discuss the character before the shooting and even during the shooting. It’s to create this atmosphere of pure present fulfilled with presence of actors there in that space and nothing else.
Obviously, there is a work plan every day and some concrete things to do and a little bit we communicate, but I prefer always during the exact moment of the shooting, not focusing on anything else.
It’s not necessary for me to communicate with the crew. They all know what to do, more or less. It’s not a problem for me because I am quite self-confident that in the end, there will be some magic that you cannot achieve in any other way.
It’s a balance. It’s a tricky balance because maybe this magic is different from one time to the other … that at the end, you don’t have a feature film, you have just chaotic sketches of several moments. You have to trust that at the end, these will be magic.
My idea was always the same. For example, if you shoot for 15 or 20 days, five or six hours per day, real shooting of very long shots of 45 minutes or one hour with three cameras, you’re on time. I think it’s not so difficult to get really five magical minutes in four hours of shooting every day.
If you can’t get five really beautiful, magical, exceptional and extraordinary minutes of these three or four hours per day, if not you’re an idiot and you shouldn’t be a filmmaker.
I trust that there will always be five minutes there each day for 20 days and you have an extraordinary film of 100 minutes. Okay, a lot of self-confidence is required, but nothing else. Self-confidence is wedged in talent. That helps a lot. You can put it that way also.
Todd Melby: It’s simply math; if you shoot enough, you’re going to get great stuff.
Albert Serra: I don’t know why other people don’t do it this way. For me, it’s so easy.
Todd Melby: You said it takes the king of French cinema to play the King of France. What did you mean by that?
Albert Serra: Well, this is an idea. We think that [Jean-Pierre Léaud] is the best actor. He received awards, we were so happy, of the [honorary] Palme d'Or at Cannes. He said, “As a citizen, I received the highest decoration or honor you can have and now, as an artist or as an actor in this case, I also received the highest honor and that was to receive the Palme d'Or.” He was so happy with the idea that he is really the king of the actors playing the role of the King of France.
It was a joke, but at the same time, what I can say is that he is really the most serious and incorruptible actor in France, that’s for sure. He’s a very nice guy. He never made one single film for money, zero. He just follows his artistic goals and decisions. There was never, never one concession to the money or to commercial proposals. Nowadays, that’s quite uncommon. It was normal in the ‘60s, but now, it’s quite uncommon.
He was faithful to his own past. He is obsessed with it in fact. He’s paranoid and obsessed with the idea of betraying his own past and making a film that has not the quality of his previous films or has not the dignity. There are some films that are better on the aesthetic side, others that are not perfect, but all have to have at least the same dignity, the same artistic dignity in the sense that the honesty and the commitment is there. He’s obsessed with that.
He is also obsessed with one of his films failing. Sometimes we have all the dignity and all the best intentions in our minds and we do our best, but sometimes, for strange reasons, all the elements inside the film don’t match and it can be an artistic failure. It is another one of his obsessions, that a film is not an artistic failure. He’s never participated in a total failure. He’s very obsessed with that. He has a lot of pressure because he’s in maybe the last part of his career as an actor. This puts him in extreme tension. This is a little bit a part of that tension that we see in the film. This is an obsession for him, a paranoia almost.
Todd Melby: Do you add tension by having actors and non-actors work together?
Albert Serra: No, because I know how to deal with these people, no problem. I only have to respect a little bit the professional actor because in general, it’s not so easy.
In general, professional actors are quite stupid people. They’re very eccentric people that live in a part of the world and they are not very kind usually. They believe they are really important when, probably, they are not.
I recognize that there is some photogene in a wider sense that’s very important for the film and I admit that. Obviously, I know that because if not, I would be one myself. I would not pay people to do things I could do on my own, being myself an actor. So I recognize that there are some people who have certain power on the screen. I am not talking about professional abilities. I am talking about photogene in a wider, spiritual sense. That is true that there are people who, it doesn’t matter what they do, they are interesting. You will not stop looking at them in real life.
There are other people, even in films, that even if they are good actors, they are boring. It’s the truth; you can be a good actor, but boring. There are other people who are not as good as professional actors in the sense of dealing with the technique, the grammar. It’s more sophisticated work, but at the same time, you will never stop looking at them, staring at them because everything they do, they are fascinating.
For example, there was a beautiful quality that surrealists found in some silent film actors of Hollywood cinema like mostly Harry Langdon and Buster Keaton, but they found Chaplin boring as an actor and filmmaker for good reason because it was simply unprofessional. The professional approach was too important.
Okay, he was very talented or whatever, but it does not have the deep mystery of some people have with just their presence, their photogene in a wider, spiritual sense can achieve. Harry Langdon was an example of that; this unconsciousness or pure life living in front of the camera like a flower, like a tree with this unconsciousness of his own behavior. Harry Langdon is moving his arm. You never know it. He doesn’t know it. He will never know, but the arm is moving. It’s totally unconscious like a flower. He’s totally unconscious of his own body, totally unconscious of what he is projecting, but at the same time, it’s fascinating.
The point is that to deal with actors, even professional actors, I look for this. I don’t care about professional talent or the capacity to build up grammar. I will find that. That’s not a problem. I am the filmmaker. I am responsible for that, but there is something irrational, intangible, hard to define that they have or they don’t have, but if they have it, it’s precious.
Todd Melby: In this movie, you use non-actors for the people that were coming to try to sell to the king on the bridge.
Albert Serra: These were not professional actors and they looked like they were a little bit nervous and scared of the king because they are trying to sell him a dubious thing in the very last moments, a new construction of a port. The king is really ill and it looks like it has no sense to try to sell this. They are trying to pick up some more money for this last new crazy idea of construction, but they are nervous because of the presence of the king.
But in fact, during the shooting, it was not this way because there were not professional actors. In fact, they were nervous about being in front of the camera, of shooting for the first time in their lives. They didn’t know how to do it or how to behave. You feel that they are nervous. But okay, with my way of developing this while shooting, it looks like they are nervous because of the king. They want to sell this new construction on the port. So I always mix those things and you cannot recognize it because there was only one single reading.
Nowadays with digital technology and the editing, you can hide all these traces. This was very beautiful on films where the person, the actor and the character were mixed and there were traces of the fight between these three inside the film. All the traces were openly shown because there was no way to hide that because there was no digital technology, so you couldn’t be subtle. You couldn’t be subtle on the shooting, you couldn’t make long takes. Everything was more wild and more rough. You couldn’t achieve the subtlety that they can achieve with the same attitude, with the same goal, with the same proposal playing with these three elements; person, actor, character.
But then okay, I can hide the roughness of this fight or the traces of this rough fight on the final version and you have only one reading, the character reading the plot of the fictional film. Everything is there. I really take [inaudible] of that in a way. For the [inaudible] I think that they have a little bit more real soul. This idea of leaving the past and present, I think it’s achieved because of that.
Todd Melby: So the person, the character and the actor and the tension between the three.
Albert Serra: Of course, yes, yes. For me what would be the sense of talking about the characters with the actors if I use more of the person, the character or the actor? There is no sense. It’s my thing. I will solve that problem. I don’t need to talk with the actor. I will solve everything. My system, my methodology has enough elasticity to adapt to any situation. In fact, I am going to do that.
An actor is good doing funny things, but the script says he has to do certain things, I will move the whole, the crew, the plan, everything just to shoot him doing funny things because he is good at doing funny things. I will not change. I don’t trust his professional tools as an actor to change. If he is better and more seducing and more fascinating doing funny things, everything will move in that direction even if it’s the opposite of what the script says or in accordance with the other characters. I will solve this problem afterwards in the edit.
It will be the best image of that actor, that’s for sure, the best shape, the best build or shape of that actor because he is doing what he is really good at and I love to discover this during the shooting, not before because it’s more spontaneous and it’s more delicate. I have to react myself as a filmmaker, as a director to that and I have to do it also in present time if the sense of the film or the shooting is to convey the past but in present time. I am there in the present time and only allowing my reactions to be in present time.
Todd Melby: And you’re doing it without looking through a monitor or the camera?
Albert Serra: I never use the camera [for viewing shots] because it’s losing time. In the edit, you have hesitation for one image. You love it one week and the next week, the same scene or image you hate it but the next week you love it again. Well, critical judgement of images is complex. When you start putting the images together, it’s even more complex because they interfere with each other. The meanings are more complex, so it’s hard to make critical judgement of your own images during the shooting because of what you see in the monitor or camera. I don’t care about that. I don’t do critical judgement of my own images during the shooting. Only at the end, I apply.
Todd Melby: You mentioned Andy Warhol twice. What is the essential Andy Warhol film and why do you love him so much?
Albert Serra: Because of that; he introduces the idea of performance. Films are a live performance. They are shot, but what is important is the unique moment of something that will never be reproduced again. With this wild and this potential, it’s not only that, but it can be combined with other images and create fiction, with every image having this potential and this strong intensity, then you have the perfect film.
The problem is to create accordance with that at the end, everything has to match. Usually these kinds of moments appear but appear unexpectedly and maybe not in the direction you would love. It’s magic. You cannot control that in a professional way. We have seen it even in conventional films when two actors have the feeling. When they don’t have it, they don’t have it. Who cares how professional they are? It’s the atmosphere and it’s quite objective.
Todd Melby: It’s difficult to describe.
Albert Serra: Yes, difficult to describe when it happens. It’s our goal as filmmakers, the problem is that I sacrifice everything to that and usually, normal feature films or normal professional filmmakers or academic filmmakers do not sacrifice. They are scared to sacrifice things like the professional approach to that because that means that you have to cut, to renounce professional things.
Maybe the light cannot be prepared as perfectly as it should be in a professional way, the actor will wait for the light, but magic appears when it appears, so the light has to be ready. The magic will not wait for the cinematographer preparing the light. It will not wait for anything. Magic in actors, it’s in their mind and it’s very subtle. It appears when it appears. It’s not controllable. As I know that, I sacrifice everything to that.
Todd Melby: So a script and a storyboard just hems you in?
Albert Serra: Of course, because already you know everything. You know all the meanings, all the things. Obviously, I read the script and I have to do it because it’s the only way to get the funding for the film. There is no other way. More or less the working plan of every day follows the script.
I don’t have anything against the script except when the script makes the film worse. When the script cuts the possibilities, the potential of the film of the magic of the actors, of the magic of the atmosphere. When the script becomes so counterproductive, for me the script starts to be useless, but not before. There is no problem if you have bad ideas, good ideas for the film from the conceptual approach. If you know the details that you put in the script are amazing, it’s better.
But this has to be cut at the moment or this can kill the magic. I sacrifice everything for that magic. This or cinematography or whatever, personal problems of the people, quality of the sound recording, everything has to be sacrificed, totally. It’s an extreme absolute because if not, you will not have a film, you will be simply living your life, not recording it. There are constraints of recording life. We all understand what I mean.
Todd Melby: The shooting script and what is finally on film in this case, in The Death of Louis XIV, are different?
Albert Serra: I don’t know, maybe they are different. At the end, I don’t know why, and I don’t know how, but it’s more or less what we had at the beginning in the script, but not exactly the same. The transformation has not been direct, but indirect. It’s quite faithful to what we had at the beginning. It always happens. I don’t know why. Why? Because we are simply following the main idea, the main concept of the film that is there from the very beginning. It’s not so far from what the script was describing.
And who cares? Nobody reads the script. They have to watch the film. They will not know if the film was right in this way or not. Who cares? Only the script writer. They are like actors, they consider themselves too important.
Hopefully we had the revolution of the ‘60s to start to consider that the style in cinema was created by the director. This was the main point. He controls it. I respect everybody.
I try to get the best possibilities for everybody. It sounds a little bit aggressive or narrative because my system is based on narrative and going against, always. When I shoot, I go against the script. When I write the script, I go against my main idea, the conceptual idea in the beginning. When I do [inaudible] I go against the shooting. When I do the postproduction, I go against the edit. For me, it’s like purification. It’s trying to purify the material you have and the only way is to apply some fight, not a real fight, in the narrative sense, but some destruction.
Todd Melby: What is the most pivotal scene in this movie?
Albert Serra: It’s very difficult to say. I don’t know really. A film happens. In all of my films, it’s full of details. It’s not in the scene. I don’t know, maybe the death [scene].
Todd Melby: Why do you like the death scene?
Albert Serra: He’s not dying. He’s never dying and he’s not moving. They pretend to prepare extremely well-cooked food for him and he’s not drinking water or anything, so I think it’s funny.
Todd Melby: When I saw that last night I thought, there is no way he’s going to eat that food! He can’t even drink! That’s ridiculous! Why are you doing that?
Albert Serra: Again, this is a good comparison with actors or with professionalism in cinema; they are good professionals. They are simply not connected with reality! Then the finality of death itself involves [inaudible] to the rhetoric of the [inaudible] has been there for ages, but it’s totally important to solve problems when the simple finality of death arrives, you have to be a little bit respectful with the subject who, in this case is Louis XIV. It’s too difficult to go against the classical image we all have of Louis XIV.
My previous film was about Casanova and everything works with Casanova. You can make Casanova doing whatever and it will work, but not Louis XIV. It has to be a little bit respectful, not because of him, but because of our psychology, our perception of the past. I tried. In fact, we shot some scenes that were more crazy, but it didn’t work. Here, what you see in the film is the limit of wild and crazy ideas to be applied to the well-known.
Todd Melby: What was the crazy stuff that didn’t make it into the film?
Albert Serra: Ordering crazy things to his assistants, complaining about everything, but he looked like a clown. It was risky. It’s always like this in my films because when you deal with known subjects, known characters, you have to be respectful, but also being a little bit [inaudible]. If you are too respectful, you would be an academic filmmaker. If you are a [inaudible], you would be grotesque.
Todd Melby: You don’t use much music in this film except at the very beginning. Then, about three-quarters of the way through there is –
Albert Serra: There are some sounds, musical sounds in the middle, but just very, very low, but very original. I wanted to keep it silent because intimacy grows up with the silence. And to make silence present and to feel the presence of silence, I needed to put some small sounds, but not music; the sounds of the props. In a very subtle way the sounds from the outside coming through the windows, very subtle with the idea of making a silent film and showing the loneliness of the king alone at night and during a lot of hours. When you are ill, you are alone because time is going slow and it’s hard and it’s painful. When you have a lot of time to think and a lot of time to complain, but inside, it’s a very sultry, sad moment for ill people, especially ill people who know they will die, it’s even more.
Todd Melby: The music of Mozart while the king is looking at the camera almost, why that music and why have him do that?
Albert Serra: Because as with things that always happen in films because of chance, Jean Pierre asked if he wanted to listen to music, if he wanted to Monte Verde. For me, this music was cliché, so I proposed Mozart. I said, “We don’t have the internet here. We cannot find Monte Verde.” I said, “Why not Mozart?” He said, “Okay, let’s go with Mozart.”
There are interesting things that he is doing in that scene, looking at the camera and what he is thinking. There is a mystery. It’s the mystery of cinema. The camera is shooting the thinking of somebody. It’s the deepest mystery of cinema.
We are really there, inside his mind at that moment, so for me, it was very moving so I decided in the edit to keep the music that was played live during the shoot. I kept it. It was one of the most important moments of the film. First of all because it’s beautiful, but secondly because you realize that at that moment, he realized himself that it was the point of no return. He will die for sure very soon.
I was in a conversation with some old people of my country of my small village in the countryside and these two friends said to one another about a friend of theirs, “This guy is going to die.” One said, “We will all die.” The other guy said, “Yes, but some of us sooner and some of us later.” This is what counts, sooner or later.
At that moment he realized that this was the point of no return and that it would go fast.
Todd Melby: It’s very powerful.
Albert Serra: It’s violent. I like it because it’s violent. The way he looks, it’s almost a fight against us as a witness of his importance.
Todd Melby: It’s almost like at that moment he realizes that even though he’s king, he’s going to die.
Albert Serra: He doesn’t want to have witnesses of that, but we are the witnesses. It’s a little bit violent.
Todd Melby: I haven’t asked you about the wigs. These are bigger wigs than I have ever seen.
Albert Serra: I have to admit that this is a beautiful point. We tried to reproduce the wigs as we have seen them in paintings to be faithful to the wigs that Louis XIV was using.
Suddenly, my hairdresser changed a little bit the shape of the top of the wig. He changed it a little bit, a little bit more with a point. It changed a little bit the shape, but it improved it. He said, “It’s not so close to what we see in the painting, it’s a little bit different on the top.” I said, “But it’s better. It’s more beautiful. It’s more fascinating.”
When you deal with period films, it’s full of discussions because it’s not closer to the truth historically, but it’s more beautiful. I decided to go for the new idea of the shape. The hairdresser changed the shape and it was more fascinating.
We had this discussion also with Jean Pierre and he said a beautiful sentence, not the way you say this or this costume or whatever, if you’re having hesitation if it’s proper, historically closer to the information we have. “If it’s beautiful, it’s true.”
Todd Melby: It will film more true.
Albert Serra: It will film more true on the aesthetics. It will film more inside. This is the most important thing; aesthetics and art gives you some truth. Apart from the beauty, it gives you some truth and we can apply that to everything because usually it’s that. Maybe you cannot realize that at the moment, you only see the beauty, but art is always a sense for later.
It’s something that maybe we cannot understand at the moment, the sense and the truth, but it’s always sense for later, for the future. People will understand that this was more important than the simple story facts.