Herculanum begins with a man anxiously looking at his phone outside the apartment of man, who we learn, he is meeting for the first time. It may not be entirely obvious but it’s clear from conversations about online profiles that this is an encounter initiated through a modern dating app. Writer/Director/Actor/Editor Arthur Cahn explores, through a simple premise, the beginning of a romance. Herculanum is as much about the space between words as it is the words themselves. I spoke to Arthur Cahn about his multi-role production process whilst Herculanum was playing at this year’s BFI Flare film festival.
The premise for Herculanum is beautiful and simple, how did you come up with it?
My previous, and first, short film, Dinosaurs in the Distance (Au Loin les Dinosaures), had demanded a lot of money, a big crew, lots of different sets, and most of them outside. When my Producer Pierre-Yves Jourdain told me he wanted to do a new short film with me, I immediately thought of something that we could do more rapidly. I didn’t want to wait another year to gather the money we needed. So, the idea was a reaction to the previous film: I wanted only two sets, two actors, no exteriors. I wanted something minimalistic. But in the end both films have similarities. They are very intimate. I had already written the last part of Herculanum. It was first a short story, which had become an idea for a radio play. I thought it was a fun challenge to start with something as anti-cinematographic as a radio play: two voices and no image. And I always wanted to make a piece about sex dates. I find them so unique and particular, and paradoxical. Dating apps are like a machine for stories.
I enjoyed the optimistic nature of Herculanum it felt as though, at its core, it was a film about developing feelings for another person and not about the conflicts of a relationship. Can you talk about why you choose to concentrate on that and less on the conflicts?
I think this reflects my nature. I tend to avoid conflicts a lot. But it’s funny that you talk about the optimistic nature of the film. The main character is very naïve and optimistic, and the film takes its point of view from him, but I met some people during festivals who thought the film was very sad, because it also talks about urban solitude and about how fragile you can be when you tend to like someone. And in the end you don’t really know if their relationship will go on or if they’ll go back on the internet the next morning to find someone new.
Conflicts and drama is important for a feature film, but I think you can make a good short film with another dynamic, a more subtle one. There are conflicts here: one guy is already partnered for instance, but it’s true that is not what the main character focuses on.
Herculanum reminded me of a few films, most notably Andrew Haigh’s Weekend. Were there any specific films or filmmakers that influenced you when writing?
I think I was more influenced by Miranda July’s short stories, actually. I like how weird and simple the characters of her stories are, and how life in its most prosaic moments can feel almost dreamlike through her narrators. I feel very close to what she writes, and I think my characters in my films are close to hers in her short stories.
Dating apps are like a machine for stories.
I was also influenced by a radio play called The Silence by Margueritte Yourncenar, a play that emphasises on silence. It’s interesting cause the silence of the play becomes the silence in which the audience live. In my film there is a moment of full darkness with no image; so the darkness surrounding the characters becomes the darkness around the audience, almost like there is no screen anymore, no boundary anymore between the film and the audience. It’s just an idea, it’s very theoretical, but I wanted to experience that, and it influenced the mixing of the film: during this scene, the dialogue is mixed in surround, so the audience is like with them in the middle of the bed surrounded by their voices. It feels strange.
You assumed many roles in the production of Herculanum, how did you balance directing, performing and editing the short?
Writing and directing is the base, so I’ll skip that part. It was my first time acting in one of my films, and just acting in general. When I was in my film school, La Fémis, I would run behind my schoolmates to ask them to cast me in their film, but they didn’t! So after writing Herculanum, I felt like it was a good opportunity for me to try that. That’s one of the great things with short film: it’s like a lab, you’re allowed to try things.
I was worried, and stressed, it’s like skydiving, scary but fun at the same time. A lot of people thought it was a wrong idea. But I’m very stubborn. My producer was okay with the idea, he trusted my intuition. And it was a strong one. I was worried Jérémie Elkaïm, the other actor, wouldn’t be fine with it, but he was. On set, I used my own stress and clumsiness to build my character who is a bit impressed by the guy he meets, and who is a bit naïve. I had a great crew. I already had worked with most of them so it was easier to trust them. I had to work without seeing what was being filmed. I had written a very precise decoupage, and I would validate the cadre, but then I didn’t watch the playback. I had to rely on the script supervisor, Barbrab Chayoux, who I totally trust as for the quality of the acting. It was my 4th time working with her, we met in school. And I also trusted my own feelings, even though I had real surprises during the rushes: there were moments I thought were good that were bad and the other way around.
As for the editing, I was not supposed to do it. I wanted to work with the editor from my previous film, but she got hired for a feature film. I had found a way to have a free editing room in my former school, but by the time it was available I had no editor to work with me, so I started alone. But I really liked it. It was a bit lonely, but it really made sense to me that I was the one editing it, after writing the script and directing it. It was the end of a process and I feel like I’m going to edit my next short too.
The performances from yourself and Jérémie feel very genuine and authentic, could you talk about how you work with actors?
The work with actors is what I am most dedicated to during the shoot. A good film starts with good acting. That’s why things like decoupage, lights, decoration are discussed before we start shooting. I rehearse for a week before the first day of shooting so we already have an idea of the tone, the emotion, etc. I think 90% of directing actors is good casting. Very quickly I thought Jérémie could do the part. He has a dry personal melody when he speaks, a bit precious, I know he can say very well written sentences in a natural way and I also knew that he is a charmer. I knew he would be great in the part. But I never really thought he’d say yes because he is well known, and we didn’t have much to pay him. But he did. It was miraculous.
Our very first meeting I settled the things that exist between our characters in the film: I was impressed and stressed, and he was trying to seduce the young director I was. I remember the first thing he said was: “I’m sorry for my hair, it’s usually much better.” I thought it was funny he would care about it when he is already the way he is. We immediately got along on a professional and human level. There is something similar between sex dates, which is where the film starts, and casting: you meet someone you don’t know, that maybe could do the part, you try something, then you see another one, another one, and then you choose someone to commit with on a big project. Well here, I didn’t ask anyone else. It was obvious. I’d like to add that Jérémie is heterosexual, so there was never any ambivalence between us, which is something I really want to avoid.
That’s one of the great things with short film: it’s like a lab, you’re allowed to try things.
When I was acting with him, I was able to observe him as a director. I had a quite precise idea of the melody of the film, of its rhythm, I could tell when something was not okay. But actually it was great most of the time. He is a fantastic actor and I only had to respond to him. When he was off camera, I would use him to make me react, like I would ask him to wink or make faces to have me react in the proper way if, for instance, I started to get weary of saying the same sentence for the 3rd or 4th time.