An Interview with Mia Hansen-Love
By Adam Nayman
It was both odd and gratifying to interview Mia Hansen-Love about her fine fourth feature Eden, a drama that spans twenty years in the life of a Parisian DJ named Paul (FĂ©lix de Givry), set against the emergence of electronic dance music as a culturally and commercially viable art form. (Full disclosure: Miaâ€™s decision to send me an early draft of one of Edenâ€™s scenesâ€”in which its characters screen Showgirls on home videoâ€”was very influential in the shaping of my book about that film, It Doesnâ€™t Suck, and Iâ€™d be lying if I said I hadnâ€™t spent the last few years looking forward to the movie.) I spoke with the writer-director about Eden in her last interview of last yearâ€™s Toronto International Film Festival, where the film divided critics. We discussed her work on Eden, especially its collaborative aspectsâ€”from her cowriting the screenplay with her brother, Sven, to the input of cinematographer Denis Lenoir. We also talked, more than just a little bit, about Inside Llewyn Davis, another film about pop-music narratives of success and failure.
Reverse Shot: What was it like to write a screenplay with your older brother?
MHL: I was surprised how well it went. When I started to write the movie, it was by myself. I only wanted him to read it, and to give me advice and maybe to be there when we were shooting the club scenes. After a few weeks on my own, I was asking him to write little bits of dialogue, because it was stuff that only he would know. He did it very well! I enjoyed it so much that I asked him to become more involved in the writing process, and by the end, we were writing together, half-and-half. With siblings itâ€™s not always easy, and we didnâ€™t know what was going to happen: we donâ€™t have the same style. It could have been tough, but he was very respectful of me. It was very moving for me.
RS: This is the first time youâ€™ve collaborated on a script; I imagine that has a big effect on your process regardless of whether itâ€™s a blood relative or not.
MHL: I didnâ€™t want to have co-writers on my other films. Eden was a unique situation. Iâ€™m very possessive with my scripts; itâ€™s something I donâ€™t want to share. When you make films, youâ€™re never alone, so writing is the only time you get to just be with yourself. That solitude is important to me.
RS: Did it ever feel like the scene youâ€™re describingâ€”the 90s EDM boomâ€”belonged more to him than it did to you?
MHL: It does belong to him more than it does to me, thereâ€™s no question. But on the other hand, he knows how much time I spent supporting him, and dancing at his parties, and how much I loved that music and how much it meant to me. He understood that the admiration I had for him when I was a teenager and the pleasure I took from his music. That was what I was trying to capture. I havenâ€™t ever been as close with my brother as when we made Eden. For three years now, weâ€™ve spent every day of our life together. We used to be close but not that close. We spent a year listening to music, choosing songs one by one. He helped FĂ©lix [de Givry] to get ready [to play Paul]. He showed him how to DJ. Iâ€™ve never had a proper production office, so I finally rented a place and somebody donated a record player for us. FĂ©lix and Sven would be there practicing [DJ technique] while I was writing in the next room. We were like a trio on this film. Iâ€™ve always had a strong relationship with actors on my films, but not like this. Felix even helped us find money for the film! He was involved in every step of the film.
RS: One of the things that struck me about Paulâ€™s character is that he never seems to age. A lot of time passes and he retains this very youthful face. You donâ€™t try to make him look older.
MHL: The tragedy for that character is that he isnâ€™t able to age. He doesnâ€™t get older. Heâ€™s beautiful, but itâ€™s also a bit tragic and sad. This comes from my brother, too. Heâ€™s seven years older than me but people think that heâ€™s actually younger. They really do! People always ask me how old my â€śyounger brotherâ€ť is. Heâ€™s forty and he looks like heâ€™s thirty, maybe thirty-two. And until he was thirty-five or thirty-six, people truly believed he was in his early twenties. I think about the way he was living for so many years, which was entirely at night. If you wanted to call my brother, you couldnâ€™t do it before six in the evening because he was sleeping. He wasnâ€™t living in a healthy way. And Iâ€™ve noticed, strangely, that people who live that way actually stay younger. Or sometimes they die. Iâ€™d always gotten upset when people said he looked younger than me but I realized that it upset him too. He was fed up with it. There was a scene in the script for Eden that I liked but ended up cutting out where Paul is on the beach with Louise and her two kids, and the little girl asks him how old he is, and he asks her how old she thinks he is, and she says â€śvery old,â€ť and it makes him happy. It was late in the film, and the later you get into a film the quicker you have to go.
RS: Near the end of the film, heâ€™s almost like a childâ€”curled up and whining to his mother.
MHL: Thatâ€™s true. Itâ€™s there in the very first shot of the sequence youâ€™re talking about. Usually when I do close-ups, thereâ€™s a little distance; here itâ€™s a bit further away. His eyes look very childish and innocent. Thereâ€™s a kind of fragility. I donâ€™t know how FĂ©lix did it. Itâ€™s a moment that I found to be very true.
RS: Eden has two parts, which is very similar to your other films, except that there isnâ€™t a big gap in the middle; the time passes more evenly, in increments. Itâ€™s paced very differently.
MHL: Yes, the difference is that in the second part, the gaps in between the dates start getting shorter. It reflects the idea that Sven had that his life was going too fast, leaving him off at the side a little bit.
RS: That idea of life leaving somebody on the side of the road made me think of Inside Llewyn Davis, and I know that a lot of critics have compared your movie to the Coensâ€™. Itâ€™s also a story about a musical scene, and about a character who never quite makes it to the top.
MHL: I think Inside Llewyn Davis is a masterpiece. Iâ€™m obsessed with that film. Itâ€™s almost embarrassing for me to talk about it, because on the one hand I feel so connected to that movie, but on the other I donâ€™t want to sound pretentious by trying to say my film is a masterpiece too. I like the Coensâ€™ films very much, but this one is the best for me. The first time I heard about it was from Greta Gerwig; she had just read my script and also Llewyn Davis, and she told me that she thought there were a lot of parallels between them. I was very intrigued by that. I canâ€™t say how much the film moved me when I finally saw it. It has the kind of melancholia that speaks to me, for one thing.
But what I was so grateful for was that the Coens made a movie about a character who fails. I found that very courageous. When I was starting to make Eden, people told me that my main character was too passive or too negative; when you write scripts and try to get financing, thatâ€™s the sort of thing that youâ€™re told not to do, or that people donâ€™t want to see that. People said that it should be a success story. People want characters with good qualities, who are determined, and who know what they want. And theyâ€™re very tough about wanting those things! But I like fragility. I like people who donâ€™t know what they want in life, or who hesitate. It doesnâ€™t mean that theyâ€™re shallow, or that theyâ€™re less interesting. So I was grateful to the Coens. I found the film very moving and beautiful, even though he isnâ€™t Bob Dylan, you know?
RS: Exactly. Heâ€™s not Bob Dylan, and Paul isnâ€™t Daft Punk. Itâ€™s a pretty good joke that at the end of your movie, Daft Punk canâ€™t even get inside the club, because theyâ€™ve managed to stay anonymous; itâ€™s like theyâ€™re the same outsiders they were when they were kids, even though theyâ€™re also world-famous.
MHL: They canâ€™t get in the club, but thatâ€™s sort of an expression of their success, no? Thatâ€™s what sort of cruel about Paul. He gets into those same clubs. He gets in easily. But itâ€™s not the same thing.
RS: Thereâ€™s that devastating shot at the club near the end where he sees heâ€™s basically been replaced by a girl just sort of pawing at her MacBook. The music is much more sedate and ambient, tooâ€”itâ€™s a totally subdued vibe compared to how the place was in his youth.
MHL: I love that girl. I love him, but I love her too. I think sheâ€™s connected to the music in a different way. Sheâ€™s as connected to the music as he was. In Inside Llewyn Davis, Llewyn Davis understands why Bob Dylan is so great. He feels it. Thatâ€™s the cruelest thing about it. He understands it. He feels it. Heâ€™s connected to the music. So itâ€™s not about rivalry or jealousy, about success or failure. Itâ€™s more cruel than that. Itâ€™s more like â€śhe succeeded, I failedâ€”and I love him anyway.â€ť Itâ€™s not about it being unfair. Itâ€™s the same with Paul and Daft Punk. He knows theyâ€™re great artists. Heâ€™s a DJ, and he has some talent, and he didnâ€™t quite succeed. He knows that. Heâ€™s generous about it. Heâ€™s not bitter. He loves their music. Heâ€™s like their biggest fan. And everybody loves them because the music is irresistible.
RS: Irresistible is a good word for Daft Punk: in the scene where they unveil â€śDa Funkâ€ť at the house party, itâ€™s like a sort of primal scene for the crossover of EDM into the mainstream. Anyone who hears that beat is going to fall in love with it.
MHL: I wasnâ€™t there, but my brother described the moment that everybody heard it for the first time at a house party, and thatâ€™s the scene in the film. I always knew how it would look: that the two guys would arrive, and theyâ€™d put on the record and everybody would start dancing, and [the camera] is off to the side at first. And then in the editing, I made sure that the next shot came in closer and looked at them from the front, and every time I see that shot, something changes about them. Itâ€™s like theyâ€™re just Paulâ€™s friends, and then all of a sudden, weâ€™re looking at them and theyâ€™re these giant stars. Something happens to them, inside that cut.
RS: Robert Creeleyâ€™s book of poems The End figures very prominently in the film. Was the idea of using The End at the ending an idea that was there from the beginning?
MHL: Yes, just as in Goodbye First Love, the image of the hat at the end of the film was there from the beginning as well. Theyâ€™re the sorts of images that I start withâ€”a few poetic ideas that stay through the whole process. That book of poetry means a lot to me. My brother is obsessed with American cultureâ€”the scene where they watch Showgirls is all about thatâ€”but he reads a lot in English: novels, short stories, and poetry. He offered me the book, and one day I found this poem, and I thought that it was exactly what I was trying to say in this filmâ€”that I couldnâ€™t have said it better myself.
RS: Paul borrows the book from a friend, but I noticed that when he gets home, itâ€™s already on his shelf.
MHL: Itâ€™s funny that you noticed that. We filmed that in my brotherâ€™s home, so we didnâ€™t have to put it there.
RS: To move from The End back to the beginning: how on Earth did Denis Lenoir light that early-morning scene at the beginning? Itâ€™s got this wild, lyrical, enchanted look even though the visibility is so low.
MHL: He put a very big light very far away! We were lucky, because there was this incredible fog where we were shooting. In the club scenes, we never used a single additional light. All the work was done before. We would meet up: Denis and me, and Sven and the technician at the club, and weâ€™d take two hours and try all the lights and define the environment. Once it was defined, it was over. That was it. It could take a long time, but it was always done before we started shooting. And we could shoot four hours in a row without doing any additional lighting.
RS: It must have been a big change for you to suddenly be filming big outdoor party scenes with hundreds of extrasâ€”thereâ€™s nothing like that in your other work.
MHL: Yes. It almost makes me feel sad when I speak about it, because the difficulty and excitement of doing that, of shooting with a crowd, of doing it documentary style without it looking like a documentaryâ€¦ I realize I will probably never do anything like that again. Thatâ€™s my bad side: itâ€™s typical for me, the happier I am, the more melancholy I get, because I think itâ€™s the only time in my life that Iâ€™ll ever be so happy. Thatâ€™s how I felt when I was shooting.
RS: Do you think Paul is also melancholy because heâ€™s happy? I donâ€™t. I think heâ€™s very unhappy.
MHL: Heâ€™s melancholic from the beginning to the end, but it changes. Itâ€™s not for the same reasons.
RS: This is your first film that sticks with a male protagonist all the way through.
MHL: Strangely, I feel like Iâ€™ve made more movies about men than women. Goodbye First Love was the first one with a young woman at the center. My first two films are more about men: Victor in All Is Forgiven disappears, but heâ€™s still the center. Itâ€™s still a portrait of a man. Or in Goodbye First Love, her boyfriend is an important characterâ€”itâ€™s another portrait of a man. I feel inspired by male characters.
RS: But as I just said, the men always disappear. Theyâ€™re gone. Paul is the only character who really sticks in Eden. Everyone else is seen in counterpoint to him.
MHL: Yes, the other people do sort of pass in and out. One film I thought about was La ronde. I saw it a long time ago, and I donâ€™t remember it that well, but I know you stay with one character and then another, it keeps changing. One thing I observed about my brother was that he stayed the same even though he was changing girlfriends all the time. One thing that just occurs to me though, and that I want to say, itâ€™s about Inside Llewyn Davis again, and that idea of being alone. I thought that it was one of the brothers saying to the other: â€śWhat if I died?â€ť
RS: The partnership in your movie doesnâ€™t seem to matter as much: Paul and Stan start as a duo, but Stan isnâ€™t a very big character. Even as a member of a duo, Paul is sort of a solo act.
MHL: Heâ€™s alone. Heâ€™s always surrounded by other people, so heâ€™s never actually alone, but heâ€™s alone. In the last scene, I realized when I was editing that itâ€™s the only time heâ€™s ever alone on the screen, totally by himself. It turned out to be very meaningful. It was like the whole thing was leading to that image.