André Schneider on the Haunting Secrets of »The Ghosts«
by Kilian Melloy, EDGE Media Network, 1 July 2018.
Les Fantômes (»The Ghosts«) is a tiny European movie — the sort of thing that once was called an art house film. But the movie’s small scale serves as a reflection of the limited space in which the entire universe of a person’s mind can exist. In the case of Nicolas (André Schneider), a successful novelist who has just taken up residence in the Paris apartment once inhabited by his recently deceased grandmother, it’s a world ablaze with anxieties, pressed upon from every direction by the past, and peopled with shady figures who might or might not be spectral in nature.
Nicolas’ one friend is an elderly woman named Natalie (played by French star Judith Magre), whose pragmatic words of advice are free of coddling. A sample: We might be tormented by the tinges we are driven to do, but we do them anyway because we love what we do. We love it, that is, until we don’t. Obviously, Natalie keeps in mind that she is talking to an artist. Disillusionment, she knows, is part of the price. After Nicolas has a tryst with a hot male escort, she tells him to find a wife; sex is less important than companionship. Her idea of respectability might be quaint and narrow, but it also fits into the claustrophobic confines of the flat, the walls of which are covered in the memorabilia of someone else’s life.
But The Ghosts isn’t completely metaphorical. There’s the matter of that threatening man who keeps appearing in the flat — a man Nicolas can sometimes see, and sometimes can’t, and sometimes perceives only in his nightmares. When he panics and phones for the cops, Nicolas finds himself caught in an even more surreal situation: Being Austrian, he’s a target for the wrath and contempt of the racist police officers, just as he’s a handy whipping boy for the rages of a continually dissatisfied neighbor. Is Nicolas truly being haunted — and if so, by what? Lingering and malevolent spirits? His own terrors? Or the driving, devouring forces to which artists are sensitive… and, in some sense, accountable?
André Schneider, photographed by Eugen Zymner.
Schneider, who also wrote The Ghosts, was also the co-writer and star of director Alexandre Vallès’ last work, Bd. Voltaire, which follows a group of gay men in the hours leading up to their fateful decision to go to the Bataclan nightclub on the night that it’s the scene of a terrorist mass shooting. The Ghosts is much more a story of one person, as opposed to Bd. Voltaire, with its ensemble nature. EDGE had a chance to chat with Schneider about The Ghosts, and hear why it just might be Scheider’s last movie.
EDGE: The film starts off with some interesting mood-setting imagery. A metronome keeps time; Nicolas meticulously, even ritualistically, lays out a tea service. Is this to create a sense of the everyday against which to play the film’s coming strangeness? Is it to underscore Nicolas’ isolation?
André Schneider: Both assumptions are right. This first sequence also gives us an insight into Nicolas’ psyche. In less than three minutes, the audience knows that there’s definitely something wrong with this man. He is obviously suffering from some sort of obsessive compulsive disorder.
EDGE: It’s interesting to see Judith Magre bring this character to life. She seems to be in it purely for the fun! How did she come to be part of this project?
André Schneider: Judith Magre is a close friend of Jean-Pierre Stora, our composer, who is a friend of Alexandre Vallès. She liked our script and the part, and she was very fond of Alexandre, so she said yes. It’s been an extraordinary experience working with her. What a formidable lady! You know, she turned 91 the week we started shooting. She’s the Queen of the Paris stage, hasn’t been out of work once in 72 years, and still performs regularly. She’s a true professional, a force of nature, and has a good sense of humour.
EDGE: There’s a strange and tension-filled encounter between Nicolas and a rent boy named Guillaume (Pierre Emö). Ostensibly, Guillaume was there as a last-minute substitute for Nicolas’ usual escort, but there was a sense that maybe they had planned this scenario all along.
André Schneider: I like your way of thinking. All is open to interpretation, and I think your approach is wonderful. Pierre Emö’s character was the ray of light in this piece. He oozes a unique sort of sexuality: quite raw, pure, and strong, but at the same time strangely innocent, naive, almost child-like. Pierre is a model and works mainly in porn, so he’s totally at ease with his body and his sexuality. He was the perfect choice for the part and did it better than any trained actor could have done it.
EDGE: I wondered whether the character Nicolas might be a little autobiographical when he talks about how “the dark” wakes him up. He’s got some sort of obsession going on with the passage of time, with the past, and with death. All very true and maybe necessary for an artist!
André Schneider: Some lines here and there may be autobiographical, but let me assure you, this is not an autobiographical movie. I did that once, with One Deep Breath, and I honestly don’t want to put my life on display again. I’m not that interesting. I simply wanted to make a good, old-fashioned thriller before I turned 40 — one that also has a profound meaning behind it and that leaves the audience with plenty of ideas or thoughts. Les Fantômes is, among other things, definitely about the fear of death, or maybe even more: the fear of not having lived before you die, and the fear of being alone… or not being alone.
EDGE: There are various intimations that the flat is haunted, and it seems like the place has been engineered to give that feeling.
André Schneider: We were damn lucky to be able to shoot in Jean-Pierre Stora’s large apartment in the 16th Arrondissement of Paris. The moment I walked through the door I thought, »This place is a character in itself.« Honestly, both the apartment and the basement seemed like living, breathing creatures. There was so much history and soul on and inside the walls, it was genuinely spooky. We didn’t need a set decorator or an architect, we simply had good luck in finding the perfect surrounding for Nicolas.
EGDE: There’s a creepy sense that maybe all these strange people who come intruding into Nicolas’ home are ghosts of some sort. They seem ordinary enough — a neighbor, a passer-by in need of a phone, a couple of cops — and yet they are also menacing and accusatory and hostile.
André Schneider: Each scene had to convey a certain level of hostility, coming either from Nicolas himself or from the people he’s meeting. It’s layer upon layer. That’s what life in a big city is like.
EDGE: Those menacing and hostile people from outside, though, also seem like a comment on tensions in today’s world — the cops especially are overtly xenophobic. Are we seeing not a haunting so much as the effects of alienation?
André Schneider: Both are correct. I wanted this movie to have a slight political undertone. With all the horror and inhumanity that’s haunting both Europe and North America these days, it was inevitable.
EDGE: Several of the actors in this film were in Bd. Voltaire, too, in which the ultimate event was the shooting at the Bataclan. I wondered if you were making a reference: The victims from that film are showing up as ghosts, maybe, in this one?
André Schneider: [Laughs] No, no. The casting of both Walter Billoni and Bastien Gabriel was purely coincidal. We’ve had such a good time doing Bd .Voltaire that we wanted to work together again, and they were both available at the time of shooting. But the character names were borrowed from other co-stars or movie characters of my past: Nicolas Wolf was named after Nikolaus Firmkranz and Dominique Wolf, who played the leads in my directorial debut; Natalie Delpit is named after Laurent Delpit from Le deuxième commencement; Xavier Blanchet is a combination of Xavier Théoleyre and Rudy Blanchet from Bd. Voltaire.
EDGE: The director you worked with here is Alexandre Vallès, with whom you have worked before. In this case it seems there is a tighter and more intense energy to the work. How did the two of you negotiate, and then generate, that creative energy?
André Schneider: Frankly, we never negotiated, or even conversed on-set. I never got a single direction from him. We did discuss the script beforehand, though, and I gave him and Vanessa, our DP, total artistic freedom to do whatever they wanted to do with it. While we were shooting I tried to remain in character as much as possible, so I chose to isolate myself from the rest of the cast and crew as much as I could. I didn’t go out at night and didn’t meet any friends until the shoot was over.
EDGE: At various times Nicolas really seems to have reverted to a childlike state. We even see him curled up and sucking his thumb at one point! We don’t really know a lot about his backstory, but it seems there must have been a real trauma. Did you have something in mind that you played to? Some tragic event from the character’s past?
André Schneider: Yes, of course. To understand Nicolas completely, I had to develop a backstory and made up a complete biography. I even wrote a couple of journal entries from his point of view to get the emotions right. Music is always important, so I put together a playlist of songs that Nicolas would listen to. His voice and way of talking was also crucial; it changes a lot, depending on who is with him. By the time our camera started rolling, I knew Nicolas’ character inside out.
EDGE: You mentioned to me that preparing for this role took the better part of a year. What did that preparation consist of?
André Schneider: Before I started writing the script, I did a lot of research on psychopathology and paranoia. Reading Robert D. Hare’s book »Without Conscience« was highly educational. I listened extensively to scientific lectures on the subject. One of the best was held by Suzanne Grieger-Langer, who has incredible knowledge on the subject matter. When it came to preparing for the role itself, I studied the behaviour and mannerisms of the pychopaths I’ve known personally. I can tell you this much: It can be awfully disturbing to play a disturbed person.
EDGE: At various times, Nicolas is tormented by spectral voices. But who is the narrator at the film’s beginning and near the end? Is it the grandmother, who is musing about the nature of her life now that it is complete?
André Schneider: [Smiles] Could be, yes.
EDGE: You told me that this might be your last movie. Could you say a little about why that would be the case?
André Schneider: Oh, there were many different reasons — financial, artistic, and personal ones — that have led to this decision, and I could go on for hours, maybe even days, telling you about them, but I don’t want to bore you, nor your readers. Let’s just say that in recent years, it has become increasingly more difficult to make movies; the obstacles are enormous. Agreed, one should never say never, but honestly: I’ve grown tired of the business side of filmmaking. I’m going back to school now and am looking forward to giving my ambitions a new direction.
EDGE: Okay, but for the sake of discussion let’s assume this will not, in fact, be your last movie. Are there films you haven’t made yet that you would still like to get to?
André Schneider: It’s really not on the map right now. I can’t really think of an idea that would make all the effort worthwhile. I will always express myself through my writing, and maybe one day I will even act again. I would love to be in another Antony Hickling movie, or work with Daniel Rhyder in California. But these might be just dreams. We’ll see.
Note: Kilian Melloy has interviewed André three times before. You can read the previous articles here, here and here.