The Swiss director tells Lijia Zhang about learning to lie, making a biopic about a hero and his fascination with China, which he now calls home
CREATIVE CONCEPTION When I was 12 or 13, a revelation came to me: I needed to leave a legacy behind. I told myself I would make love to and impregnate as many women as possible. Later, I realised that my films would be my babies. After they are conceived, I nurture them to their birth. Then I feel down – post-natal depression.
LIAR LIAR I was born into a creative family. My father was a painter and my mother a clairvoyant and an artist. As a child, I spent a few years in Iran, where my father taught at an art school he had co-founded. My father was rather strict. To avoid getting into trouble, I learned to tell lies – credible stories about things like where I went after school. Later in life, I had to make a conscious effort not to lie. Nevertheless, my storytelling skills have helped my filmmaking career.
My parents divorced and I returned to Switzerland with my mother and siblings. We lived in a small town called Rolle, on Lake Geneva. I had a tough time fitting into Swiss society. I found it suffocating. After secondary school, I ventured to London in search of a photography job. One day I came across the London Film School, in a rundown part of Covent Garden. It was a "light bulb" moment: it became crystal clear what I would do with my life. Without even an undergraduate degree, I persuaded the school to accept me onto its master’s degree course in directing. There, I felt a sense of belonging. After graduating in 1981, I had the good fortune to work as an assistant director for Karel Reisz when he directed The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
AFTER AFTER DARKNESS After I returned to Switzerland, I sold vacuum cleaners to finance starting a production company, through which I made After Darkness, a psychological thriller starring John Hurt. I co-wrote the screenplay and directed it. A breakthrough for me, it was nominated for a Silver Bear award at the 35th Berlin International Film Festival. I was 25.
The film market in Switzerland, sadly, is small. So I emigrated to Los Angeles with my new American wife, even though we didn’t know a single soul. As fate had it, our landlord was a screen writer – there were many of those around – with good contacts at a production company, with which I (went on to develop) horror film Night Angel. I later directed two more horror movies, Halloween 5 and Omen IV.
I honed my craft as a director during my 13 years in Hollywood. But I left to escape the horror film label and, more importantly, because I couldn’t finance the film (there that) I really wanted to make – Sandra, C’est La Vie, about the life of a young woman who suffers from Down’s Syndrome. It was inspired by my wife’s sister. Guiding an actor with a disability posed its challenges but the effort paid off. It became one of the highest rated films on TV5Monde, in France, and RTS, in Switzerland.
HOORAY FOR HENRY I was delighted to be invited to direct the film about the founder of the Red Cross (Henry Dunant). I had read about Dunant at school: he was our national hero. However, I didn’t like the original screenplay, as it over-emphasised his relationships with women. I felt the focus should be on his struggle to achieve his noble goal. I find it harder to portray a hero than a twisted villain. To make Dunant an interesting character, I depicted him as a determined man but also a romantic who cherished his freedom. The film is only loosely based on the historical figure. I think it is more important to stick to the probable truth than to the historical facts.
THE CHINA BUG Apart from Iran and the United States, I have also lived in France, Germany and Italy. I am curious about other cultures. But now I call China home. I first came in 1999, as a tourist. I fell in love with this extraordinary country, for its rich culture and its enterprising and friendly people. Once, I got lost on the streets of Datong (in Shanxi province) and three smiling grannies patiently showed me the way.
In 2007, I attended the Shanghai Film Festival as my film 1200° Der Todestunnel, which was inspired by the Mont Blanc Tunnel tragedy (in which 35 peopled died in 1999 in a blaze that turned the tunnel between France and Italy into a furnace), was nominated for an award. In 2012, I returned to direct (the Khloros Concert orchestral ensemble) at the Forbidden City Concert Hall, in Beijing.
Each visit deepened my fascination. In December 2013, I finally completed a four-hour-long historical docudrama I had been making called The Swiss – a homage to my motherland. I said goodbye to everyone and I moved to China to start a new life.
CATHAY SPECIFIC I have made 10 documentaries focusing on particular aspects of China, such as food, transport and insects. Chinese filmmakers could learn to tell their stories in a way that international audiences could more easily relate to. That’s where I feel I could make a contribution. One project in the pipeline is a feature film with the working title Made in Shanghai. It’s a coming-of-age story about a French teenager finding his way in China. I don’t imagine my future projects – all China related – will be easy. I am learning Chinese and feeling my way around. But the challenge is part of the fun. Like Henry Dunant, once I set my goal, I am determined to go for it.
Henry Dunant – Red on the Cross will open the official French Speaking Film Festival, in Shanghai, on Friday.