Writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve is one of the great young talents of French cinema, having made her name with a string of sensitively observed dramas that play fast and loose with conventions and expectations. Her fourth feature, Eden, is her most ambitious to date. Partly inspired by the life of her brother, Sven Love, Eden follows French house DJ Paul (Félix De Givry) across 20 years of failed relationships, addictions, and nightclub gigs. Meanwhile, in the background, two of his old buddies ascend to international stardom as Daft Punk.
Hansen-Løve sat down with the The A.V. Club last September, a few days after Eden’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
The A.V. Club: There’s music everywhere in the film, but it’s always supposed to be music the characters like or are listening to. Is it difficult having to let characters guide what’s basically a formal decision?
Mia Hansen-Løve: Except for All Is Forgiven, where I used a track of Sven’s, I had never used [house] music before. It was like virgin territory for me. This music has been extremely important in my life. I had been a big partygoer. I had danced to these tracks many, many times, from when I was 15 until I was maybe 20 or 21. But I never used them in my films. It was fresh.
The other thing is that there was a turning point where I was 23 and made my first film and I started a very serious way of life. I stopped going out. One of the reasons that made me want to make this film was to go back to a certain innocence and a certain aspect of my youth. To say it in a different way, I needed to dance again, to party again. There’s a paradox, because my brother wanted to turn the page. His motivation to make this film is impossible to disconnect from the fact that he actually wanted to move on. For him, turning the page meant writing a film about what he had been through for 20 years. But it’s also about me getting back into music.
AVC: What was the writing process like, working with your brother?
MHL: The structure, the characters, where the film was going, that was really my stuff, and he didn’t even know where I was going. He trusted me. That’s the thing that made it possible. For me it was extraordinary, because for the first time, I had somebody to talk to in the writing process, because I had written my first three films alone. I would write for hours on my own, work on structure and characters, write two scenes, and then I could just call him and say, “Listen, I need a scene where the characters talk about this, but I don’t know what they would say.” I would just order a scene and he would send it to me three hours later.
He would come to my office with the scene and then we would work on it and on the music. The choices of music were made parallel to writing. It’s not like we wrote the script and started figuring out what music we were going to put it in. It was really the same process. And it was one of the things that made the writing process very nice, because it created small moments of détente—vacation—inside the writing process, because we would work for hours and then go, “What would they be listening to?” “‘Solid Ground!’ It has to be ‘Solid Ground!’” And we would listen to it together. And I was almost crying, because there were songs I hadn’t listened to in 15 years. [Laughs.] And since I made the film, I’ve become addicted again.
AVC: When did the decision to split the story into two parts come around?
MHL: Well, it used to be two films. The first version of the [script] was going to be four hours. I know I shouldn’t say it, but I still regret not being able to shoot that version. I mean, I’m happy with the film. I’m kind of fatalistic with films. I think they are the way they should be. But, still, I took so many things out. The first version of the film, it was like Heaven’s Gate in the 1990s. I mean, I’m joking.
AVC: But I love Heaven’s Gate.
MHL: What I mean is that there was this idea to do a real epic in the house music scene of the ’90s and we were excited by the fact that nobody had done this kind of thing before. We felt like pioneers. That was very stimulating. And that’s why we also wrote it quite quickly. I didn’t know from the start that it would be two parts, with a rise and fall. I knew how it would end, but I didn’t know how we would go there. But the more I wrote the script, the more passionate I became about it and the more this feeling grew that I was depicting not only my brother’s life, but also a whole world that had never been depicted.
One of the things I really regret is that I had to cut scenes of them buying records from music shops in this [neighborhood] that was like the main quarter of the DJs. It really felt like we were depicting a whole world, and the more we went on, the broader it grew. At some point I realized that I had written like 120 pages, and I was just halfway through the story. And I called Sven and I said I knew it had to be two films. Now, I think I was too self-confident, and I lost too much trying to make [the long version] happen. In the economy in which my films exist, you can’t produce two films without stars and in such a personal way. I guess, in the end, the things you cut out help you indirectly, because it nourishes the other scenes.
We never had it at four hours. Otherwise, it would still be four hours. All the financing process was about making the script shorter. I have always been convinced that there was an audience for this film, but the problem is that the state commissions we went to didn’t care about it. I never felt such a big distance between the people for whom the film is meant, and the people to whom we had to go to. I went to people who didn’t know who Daft Punk were.
AVC: That’s hard to imagine.
MHL: Well, it’s because we wrote the script a year before the release of Random Access Memories. We had this discussion with people who were involved with the French touch and they said they weren’t surprised, because the French touch has always been more popular outside of France. Do you have this expression, “Nobody’s a prophet in their home country?”
AVC: Do you think of this as a film about this specific character, Paul, or a film about house music?
MHL: Both. It’s really both. For me, the big, true love of Paul’s life—and that’s the tragic aspect, maybe—is house music. I realized that maybe the difference between Goodbye First Love and Eden is that Goodbye First Love is really about [a character] whose love for this man is everything, and when he leaves her, she moves on and puts all of her ability to love into becoming an architect. Whereas in Eden—and this makes the fundamental difference to me—the love for music comes first.
AVC: The characters don’t visibly age very much, which is also true of Goodbye First Love. It seems like the subject of both movies is what endures over time.
MHL: In Goodbye First Love, she didn’t age, but the span was eight years. Here, it’s 20 years. I actually tried more than in Goodbye First Love to make him age—like, have him grow a beard and everything—but I didn’t try to do obvious things.
AVC: It’s not like they’re wearing makeup and then, bam, in the next scene they have gray hair.
MHL: One thing is that I don’t like that in film. For me, it never works. I’d prefer not do something that never works. The other reason is that my brother always looked young. He’s seven years older than me; I’m 33, he’s turning 41 soon, and people still believe that he’s younger than me. They still ask me about my younger brother. It always annoys me, of course, but it annoys him too, because he wants to look like an adult. When I started writing with him, he was trying to get out of this world and start a new life, and I remember him being not pleased at all with girls talking to him like he was 25. It was as though he was a prisoner of eternal youth.
Pauline Etienne, the girl in the film, changes [in appearance] more than he does. There is the flow of life, and people pass and leave and die and move, and he stays the same. And there was this parallel with Pauline. She is blonde, then she has long hair, short hair, brown hair, and he still looks exactly the same.
AVC: He just gets a little scruffier over time.
MHL: And a little fatter, which was actually quite hard to organize, in terms of scheduling. We had so many different sets, and there were some many necessities. We needed the summer, we needed the winter, we needed to shoot in Morocco. We started in the summer, then we stopped for two months, then we started again, stopped again.
AVC: You actually shot different seasons?
MHL: We did 13 days in August and September shooting in Paris and New York. Then we shot November, December, January, and March. We shot over a span of eight months.
AVC: Is this is the first thing you’ve shot digitally? It looks like the Alexa—
MHL: Yes. In ProRes. It was this big issue for me, because I really wanted to shoot on film. I wanted to shoot on film because I had always shot on film and I was very [ambivalent] when it came to the digital aesthetic. That was a big problem for me, not being able to choose the way I was shooting. But, at the end, when I look back and see how quickly we worked.
Because we shot digitally, we didn’t have to have extra lights in the nightclub scenes. We were using the lights of the nightclub. It’s incredible. More than half of the film is in nightclubs. I’m not interested in very artificial lighting, but I like it to be lively and beautiful. I don’t like lights that look like film lights, and I always had problems with night scenes, because, with film you have to light them [extensively] and it never gets the feeling of night.
I love film, so this is hard for me to say, but I must confess that digital was great for all the night scenes. I don’t think it’s always a good thing that you can shoot for so long without stopping. I don’t think it’s good for actors or for the atmosphere on the set. But it’s good when you have to shoot huge club scenes, because you want the people to get into the music and you want them dancing to the music for real.
AVC: You brought up that you don’t like aging makeup, because it looks artificial, and obviously you don’t like artificial-looking lighting. But your movies use all kinds of stylized devices. Even to most people, the non-aging would seem more stylized than naturalistic. The ending sequence, which is lovely, is very stylized.
MHL: It’s not like I don’t care about form; form is always at the center of my thinking. I’m obsessed with how I’m going to shoot and with framing. But I never went to film school, so I never internalized the stereotypes of screenwriting and what should be done and what’s natural and what’s not natural. I’m just trying to do what’s right to me, and then people tell me it’s weird. It’s just like the thing with the ellipses. The purpose of it isn’t to be unconventional. It’s the only way I can write. I think conventions have all the power, so if you can escape them, it’s a good thing. And some people want them, and sometimes they’re angry not to get them in a film. But there are others who are happy to escape them, too.