Gaspard Ulliel was prepared for anything on the set of “Saint Laurent,” which vividly recounts one of the legendary fashion designer’s most creatively fertile periods from 1967-1976 and the decadence, which would make Caligula blush, that informed it. Still, even on a day when he’d be asked to make out with one of his best friends in real life, Jérémie Renier (playing Saint Laurent’s lover Pierre Bergé), he couldn’t have possibly been ready for all that writer/director Bertrand Bonello had in mind when he returned from lunch after shooting on a different set to film one of the film’s most extravagant party scenes.
“I had lunch, I stepped on set, and we were already ready to shoot,” exclaims Ulliel, impressed by both the filmmaker’s work ethic and attention to detail. “Bertrand didn’t eat. He just spent the entire hour preparing for this next scene with all the extras, and I don’t even know where he found all them, but apparently, they were used to those kind of central parties — orgies — so I arrived on set, and there was this very weird music playing very loud on the set, and all those guys were already into character, snorting coke on the table and smoking … It was all fake, but still, I remember it was very striking when I arrived there, and you could feel the entire atmosphere already.”
For Bonello, who insists “God is in the details…” or “Is it the devil?” as he’ll ask his translator during a recent day in Los Angeles, there might not have been a more ideal fit as a subject than Yves Saint Laurent, who was as meticulous with his fabric as the director is with his movies. But like his last film “L’Apollonide (“House of Pleasures,” as it was known in the U.S.),” which oversaw the end of 19th century Paris through the story of a brothel in the city, “Saint Laurent” isn’t hardly just about the fashion designer, but the revolutionary times to which his clothes were a reaction, bringing the energy of the streets into haute couture and with it, rebellion.
Bonello would seem to be guided by a similar instinct in taking on one of film’s most staid genres in the historical biopic, pushing himself even further than he did in “L’Apollonide,” where the brothel sets were constructed in such a way that he could move the camera from room to room without ever making a cut. Here, a fractured sense of time, that flips back and forth slightly but contains snippets that effectively flutter through like pangs of memory, conveys both the go-go period that Saint Laurent found himself swept up in while exploring the longing and isolation of someone whose first passion is his work.
Just as “Saint Laurent” arrives in America following a celebrated festival run, Bonello and Ulliel spoke about playing with chronology, how Bonello’s musical background plays into his filmmaking and how to make a personal film about someone else’s life. (Note: These interviews were conducted separately, but edited together for your reading pleasure.)
Bertrand Bonello: The world of Saint Laurent very quickly appeared to me as a great opportunity in terms of cinema, much more than Yves Saint Laurent himself. The fact that I would have a character like one out of a novel, and the fact that I could make a film in the ‘70s were very interesting for me and the scope of this story I would have never dared to invent myself, so it’s fantastic to have a real character, [and for me] to be a vampire.
Gaspard Ulliel: It’s one of those characters that an actor meets just a few times in a career. It’s such a complex, iconic character to portray – all this complexity, this ambivalence. It’s a very paradoxical character, and what we tried to study with Bertrand was not just black and white, but all the shades of gray and colors that are in between.
Was Gaspard a natural for the role? He does seem to have a striking resemblance.
Gaspard Ulliel: When I look at myself in a mirror, I don’t really see the resemblance, but in the past, people said a few times, “Oh, you have something of Saint Laurent.” Ten years ago, I worked with Gus Van Sant on a project, and just after, he wanted us to work [together] again, so he came up with this idea of a film on Yves Saint Laurent, and he actually wanted to cast me as a young version of Saint Laurent, so he was the first one to actually see this resemblance. I personally don’t really see it – maybe in the smile. Obviously, we had those wigs and makeup that helped a lot, and the glasses make it work.
It seems like Gus Van Sant would’ve made a completely different film than this.
Gaspard Ulliel: Maybe. It’s the same vein of director, but it’s funny because I invited him to one of the screenings a few months ago in L.A., and he was curious to see it. In the end, he said, “Oh, my God. I wish we would’ve been able to make this film,” so I think that was his way to tell me that he liked the film.
Bertrand Bonello: [Gaspard and I] spent a lot of time together before I really said to him,”Okay, I would like you to do the part. Basically, I realized that we were searching for the same thing, the same way of looking at the character – of doing someone that has lived. So I felt ease with him, and he started to interest me more than more. We needed time for that.
Gaspard Ulliel: It’s more like a specific step in my preparation that changed everything because my first reflex was to gather as much information as I could. It’s a period in French history I didn’t know because I was born later, so [my instinct was to] read a lot of different biographies on Yves and this very important era. Also I tried to find a lot of footage [of Yves] and radio interviews, but that was not very easy because [while] you can find a lot of stuff on Yves Saint Laurent, it’s when he’s much older. At some point, I felt buried under all those details and facts. I was stuck, and that’s when I decided to just step back from reality and just clear some space within which I could fantasize about my character and reinvent him in my own personal way. When I realized that, my real work was to actually go dig into my own self, my own memories, my own emotions to make this character alive and real.
Bertrand has described this as a personal film, but how do you do that in telling the story of someone else’s life?
Bertrand Bonello: When the producer called me, there was nothing. There was no script, no books, so I had the opportunity to choose exactly what I wanted from his life. Biopics are becoming a genre in and of itself and it’s a little scary because it’s not a genre I really love. Because I was scared, I said very quickly to myself, “You have to make it as personal as possible.” Make it mine. So I tried to pick the moments in his life that were very personal and really touched me, not only telling the story.
It was a long journey. If you have [a lot of] material [like this], you have to take away all the things that interest you less, and what’s left is the heart of the film. You have to make it appear. It’s like a painting, a little red here, a little green there. You step back and something’s missing. It’s a long journey inside the film to learn how to watch it.
Gaspard Ulliel: We spent a lot of time talking prior to the shooting to be sure we were on the same wavelength about this, avoiding the typical biopic cliches. But for me, this film is not a biopic. When I read the script, it felt more like an odyssey into the mind of an artist. It celebrates all those artistic influences, and it shows that creative life only exists in a constant dialogue with other arts.
I’ve read Gaspard was cast early enough a year in advance – that you were able to audition with the other actors who would ultimately play opposite you. Did it help you in any way?
Gaspard Ulliel: I don’t know if it helped me, but I think it was important for Bertrand to actually see all those potential actors next to me on camera because this film is about Yves and then finding all the other characters surrounding him, so it made sense to actually go through all those screen tests with all the other actors. Actually, for Pierre Berge’s part, it made a lot of sense because the film starts at a point where Yves and Pierre have been a couple for more than 10 years, so we had to find someone with whom there will be an immediate intimacy. I don’t remember if it was Bertrand or my idea, but we decided to cast Jeremy because he is actually a very close friend of mine, so it helped a lot.
Bertrand Bonello: The idea of Jérémie Renier I was not crazy about [at first], but when I saw the two of them together, it became evidence of complicity – something was happening very quickly between the two, and that was important for the film. The most important thing was to find couples. I really needed [Gaspard] to be always next to me to see the images. Him and Pierre Bergé, him and Jacques de Bascher, him and Loulou. It was good because it was also a way for [Gaspard] to come into the film, slowly.
One of my favorite scenes in the film is how you mark the passage of time with only a presentation of his collections from those years and archival footage of what was going on in the world around him. How did that scene come about?
Bertrand Bonello: I knew that between ’68 and ’71, I couldn’t show everything. His life is rich and fashion goes very quickly, so you have to go fast. I decided that these three years I would show only one thing, the fact that he’s working night and day and at the same time the world is changing. In France, you have [in] 1968, Eastern Europe, the Black Panthers, and the Vietnam War. Everything is changing in the world, but Yves is cut off from the outside world. His studio is cut off from reality, from politics. It does not interest him in his drawings.
Gaspard Ulliel: Yeah, it does. As an actor, you have to use everything they give you, so the wig, the glasses, and the clothes maybe change the way you move, the way you occupy space, and perhaps how you maintain your body. What I realized is that clothes from this period were not tailored in the same way, so it actually feels very different from a modern jacket. When you wear a suit from that era, you actually can move your arm in a very different way because it comes very close to your armpit, so it allows a lot of movements.
Bertrand, was the concept of time and how you would show it something that excited you about this project?
Bertrand Bonello: Yes, that came quite quickly in the process — the idea that time explodes at one moment. I don’t know why but the sensation came very quickly, maybe because the life is long and I want it to be like memories. It’s something that Marcel Proust used in his novel, and [since] Yves was really obsessed with his book, maybe it influenced me in this work and chronology.
Gaspard Ulliel: There’s a rhythm that evolved in the film that is interesting [in how it] gets more and more languorous, like opium. As the film progresses, we go deeper within the character’s mind. It becomes like a mental image of what’s inside Yves’s head. For me, as an actor, I think I prefer to have long scenes, long shots, because it allows to reveal a lot of deeper things, rather than very short shots that can feel, sometimes, very artificial.
Bertrand actually comes from a classical music background, which has always made me what impact it’s had on your style of filmmaking since it’s so symphonic, especially in the editing.
Bertrand Bonello: I guess, yes. I’ve been doing music since I was very little, and I could read music before I could read words, so music is easy for me, much more than with images, which is something that I have to think about. In the editing room, for example, I use the shots like a note, and when I think we’ve heard this note enough, I change notes. It’s my way to do the editing.
In a literal sense for the music, Bertrand has said the two bedrock influences were soul music and opera. How did that shape the film?
Bertrand Bonello: When I write, I really think about the sound of the film – not only the music, but the general sound. I try to write a lot about the sounds, and very quickly, I decided that most of the music would come from inside the scene. It’s not score, it’s people listening to music. I like that because the audience and the character are on the same level of emotion with the music. What you hear is what the character hears. That was one of the basic ideas I wanted to work on. Soul music [was one focus] because it’s the nightlife of this period in these particular clubs, and the opera because it’s one of Yves’ passions. He was in love with Maria Callas. It’s the sound of his life, for me.
Like many things in the film, it’s a confluence of opposites. Was balancing all these contrasts in Yves’ life part of the appeal?
Gaspard Ulliel: Yves Saint Laurent is a perfect example of this mixture of self confidence and strength and fragility and shyness and I could identify to this shy side of him, because I’m an only child and as a kid, I could be very, very shy and isolated sometimes. I was in my dreams all the time. But there was so much to take into consideration [into playing this character] that [those contrasts] just help. You can rely on so many different aspects that it adds complexity to the character so, in the end, it helped me portray this man in an accurate way. I like to say that it’s someone that was actually in a constant limbo because he’s between light and darkness, between two collections, two eras, two men…
Bertrand Bonello: You used a very right and basic word: contrast. Yves is high, Yves is down, night and day, and you think you’re going there, then you have the opposite sequence after. It was very important for me to think of the film like that, not like a regular line. The more I advance, the more I think a film which has no contrast is not a good film.
Bertrand Bonello: Well, in front of the camera, you have the actor. You don’t have the character, you have the actor. So, of course [Gaspard’s] playing Yves Saint Laurent, but I’m not filming Yves Saint Laurent, I’m filming Gaspard. I’m not filming Jacques de Bascher, I’m filming Louis Garrel. So I have to have some desire for who they are, for what they give to me, for what they think, how they feel. Otherwise, you just have a puppet, and it could be nice, but it’s not very emotional.
Gaspard Ulliel: Every director is different, but what I like with Bertrand is that you can feel, even if he comes up on set with precise ideas and precise directions, you know that he’s open to anything else, and he’s ready to change all of his plans if suddenly something works better on day. Everything is linked to the actor’s performance. If suddenly, we can see that sometimes different is working between the two actors than he expected, he’s going to change his entire direction to celebrate this performance, so you feel very safe as an actor.
Was this also an interesting way for you to investigate creativity?
Bertrand Bonello: Yes, of course, because it speaks to me. Of course, I found some relationship between fashion and cinema, basically the relationship between money and art, which you do not find that much in other arts and of course the film is not only about fashion, it’s about everyone who wants to do something and burns itself for that.
Bertrand, is it true your next film is going to be something with non-actors set in the present day?
Bertrand Bonello: Ten young people and five of them are non-actors, yes. Five of them have a little experience. After two period films, I really needed a contemporary feeling, though I really loved period films because you’re recreating everything. You’re in your mind, you control everything. But now I feel a strong desire to go out in the street and see what’s happening today.
Both “House of Pleasures” and “Saint Laurent” seem to detail the end of a particular era. Is that something you’re interested in specifically?
Bertrand Bonello: It’s more touching than fascinating. The end of the nineteenth century and the end of the seventies, there are big changes in the world, and it’s something you don’t come back to. It’s the definition of decadence, the slow ending of something, and it’s something that really moves me.
“Saint Laurent” opens on May 8th in New York at the Angelika Film Center and the Walter Reade Theater and in Los Angeles at the Arclight Hollywood and Laemmle Royal.