Paris based Director Thomas Vernay has been making his presence welcomely felt on DN over the past year. Be that with the teenage metamorphosis of Flesh, friendships at the end of the world in Contrails or the fatal indoctrination of Ice Teens, Thomas has shown that he’s not a filmmaker to be easily pinned to a particular genre or style. Case in point is his new music video for Scratch Massive’s Fantome X (feat. Grindi Manberg) which wraps sci-fi elements within the chilling grasp of folklore horror – featuring a young woman, a forced marriage, a strange cult and a black monolith. Thomas and I spoke about his strong desire to tell stories which address women and gender themes, the appeal of open endings and why it’s okay to make the audience uncomfortable.
This feels like a film which could have come straight out of classic British folklore horror. How did the idea develop and what were the influences which informed the look and feel of Fantome X?
First of all, I love to work with artists who let me have a free hand. This is really important for me, and Scratch Massive really trust in the vision I have when I’m listening to their music. The idea of the music video was born from the last image. I was completely obsessed by this vision of a woman in the 1850s, lost in the plains and seeing a UFO spouting out in front of her. From there, the whole narrative process was built.
It’s funny that you talk about the Classic British horror movies because I didn’t have it in mind at all when I was writing, but indeed we can see similarities, I think in particular of Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man or Piers Haggard’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw. Moreover, this last film must have strongly inspired Robert Eggers’ The Witch, which was one of the main inspirations for the music video’s image. William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth was also a reference for the treatment of the period and the use of lights. The female character, her torment and her obsession with freedom were assumed points of connection.
Women and gender are themes that are dear to me, I always try to highlight women and their relationship to society (current or not). From a purely staged point of view, I forced myself to compose the plans in order to unconsciously find the Religious Cross. The music video also talks about religious worship and its dangerousness. There is something quite unhealthy about worship in my eyes and human rights are often violated simply because of a belief.
Women and gender are themes that are dear to me, I always try to highlight women and their relationship to society.
I like that the film ends when it does with questions outstanding. Was that something you intended to do from the beginning?
I’m a big fan of open ends. I don’t like people pointing fingers at things, explaining anything to me. I think that a music video or a film (even if the two are not very comparable) should make you think, and especially to provoke something. I have often been accused that the music video was not very pleasant, that it lacked emotion. But not everything must be about emotion, the ease of pleasant feeling. I wanted something cold and dry, something that made me uncomfortable. As for the end, I have my answers, but I won’t say anything. I can only mention the major themes of women, their relationship to society, their cultural and social emancipation, and the power of procreation.
A wordless narrative such as this relies heavily on casting actors with the ability to express emotion and intention through body language and facial expressions. Where did you find your cast and did you devise any particular methods for working with them?
I always work the same way for a music video. I study the applications by looking at the photos or films of the actors and actresses, and I trust myself as to the aura they can create. I have a drink with the actor or the actress and observe. I tell myself that if I perceive something while having a drink and talking, I will have what I need in front of the camera. The three actors (Eva Danino, Guillaume Duhesme & Félix Malinbaum) were fantastic, and it was a real pleasure to work with them. For a music video, I work with much more freedom than for a movie. Time is short and everything goes very fast, so generally I brief them at the beginning of the production, I explain to them in general the inside of the characters and then I ask them to take it over.
What informed the stylistic and cinematographic choices you made in Fantome X?
In terms of staging, I needed something fixed or slow. I wanted this static impression that accentuates the confinement to give power to the sets of the final scene, that opens the field of vision and gives the impression of a new found freedom. Kevin the director of photography chose an Alexa XT with a Zeiss master anamorphic series.
I wanted something cold and dry, something that made me uncomfortable.
From my director of photography: “Anamorphic lenses was a choice that came early after Thomas’ storyboarding. Many shots required fast aperture, some were low light, others needed minimal depth of field. Master Anamorphic lenses were perfect, along with the Alexa, being able to shoot wide open not worrying about sharpness or performance drop.”
Most of the time we had a Dolly, to accentuate the slowness and avoid at all costs the slowdowns, which must only intervene if it makes sense in the image. In this idea, all the actors’ movements are very slow, and there is a real impression of floating, something unreal and disturbing.
What’s up next for you?
My second short film Miss Chazellesis on the festival circuit. I have an animated music video made under the name Double Ninja (a duet I formed with Yann Wallaert) that will be released in mid-February. I am currently writing my third short film, still under the prism of female identity. It’s a little early for the moment but I also have a feature film that I would like to develop, it’s continuously being rewritten, but is being read in production companies. Some producers are beginning to show interest. I talk about the relationship of gender domination, using the codes of the horror film.