I can remember the first moment I heard Daft Punk. As someone who wasn’t exactly attuned to French House music, “Around the World” entered my bloodstream as mysteriously as it crept into the rotation of the alternative rock station KROQ that it first played on in Los Angeles in the late ’90s, throbbing uneasily when situated between Smashing Pumpkins and Metallica. The beat rearranged brain cells as it caromed around in my skull, which I can only assume led to the involuntary nodding that commenced. It was a new sensation that took me aback, not unlike the one I had while experiencing Mia Hansen-Løve’s uncanny replication of that same moment happening for the aspiring French deejay Paul (Felix De Givry) in “Eden,” albeit he’s the one spinning the vinyl.
“You can’t imagine how many people with the film have been telling me that,” said Hansen-Løve, on a recent trip to Los Angeles, leading De Givry, who was in town with her, to exclaim, “We should make a short film about that!”
Even unrelated to Daft Punk, Hansen-Løve has likely grown accustomed to hearing such stories about the memories her films evoke – her patience with my reminiscing is inexplicable otherwise. But this may be her burden for the emotional clarity with which she tells stories centered on formative moments. Whether it was a woman finding life after her husband’s death in “The Father of My Children” or the promise and passage of a seminal romance in “Goodbye First Love,” the filmmaker, who first graced screens as an actress at 18 in Olivier Assayas’ “Late August, Early September” before moving behind the camera herself, has such a natural facility for the language of the medium and how it can express the profound in the most unexceptional of moments that you only realize the full impact of her work in the days and months after first seeing them.
“Eden” would seem to be an acknowledgment of this particular skill and the desire to push further, divided into two parts and covering nearly 20 years in the life of its main character Paul, from his days of seeking out flash raves in the middle of the woods and created beats in his Parisian apartment with his partner Stan to deejaying in front of thousands at MoMA PS1. Yet “Eden” isn’t about his rise and fall, but instead all that exists in between. Hansen-Løve doesn’t ignore the personal and professional highs and heartbreaks, but dares to question Paul’s complicity in them rather than suggesting he’s simply living out destiny. Inspired loosely by the experience of her brother Sven, a co-writer on the film who himself was a successful DJ during the ‘90s, “Eden” doesn’t only manage to vividly capture the life Paul makes for himself as he hopes around the globe, but the life he could’ve had as people he meets along the way flit in and out, evolving in their own different directions.
With “Eden” finally hitting theaters, Hansen-Løve and De Givry spoke about working with Sven on an interpretation of his story, shooting at New York’s wild PS 1 event and infusing the feeling of the music Paul plays into the fabric of the film.
Mia Hansen-Løve: Everything. I don’t even know why I couldn’t have the idea before. I guess I had it in my mind, from the start [of my directing career], but I didn’t feel ready to do it. It was a difficult thing to do. Technically, it was very complicated. It meant being able to film the scenes with a lot of extras, dialogue mixed with music, with groups of friends.
Also, I didn’t feel like it was the right time before, because my brother was really [still part] of the DJ scene, and he was still not sure about how the future was going to be. He was very fragile in the past, so I didn’t feel that was the right time to do it. But at some point, my brother decided he wanted to move on and completely start a new life, so from there, I think the possibility for me to make the film started. I had done three films and I felt strong in terms of how to film and deal with scenes, so I felt ready to [take on] a challenge. And I felt my brother was ready too — to look at this story, because he wanted to move on and had enough detachment, so that he could really look at it with me.
What was it like to have Sven as a resource for telling this story?
Felix De Givry: You say he was a resource, but for me, he was more like a guardian of the temple. He was never setting boundaries or saying “Do it this way, or that way.” He was just guarding the temple, in the sense that sometimes he would open the door and he would say, “Oh, you can pick this, if you want to” or “this happened… “It’s funny, [I’d never ask], “Oh, can you talk about this and this …?” You’d just be working with him and [he’d start saying], “One time I was in Australia and this happened…,” and he’d tell the story, and then, closes the door again. The more I knew him, the more, of course, he was opening the door into the memories that he was subconsciously feeding the character. Even though it’s not calculated, he knows exactly what he’s [imparting] That what’s my relationship with him was like.
Mia Hansen-Løve: For me, it was never something heavy, and it could have been really a lot of pressure to have him and say, “This is not how it was. It should be like this.” I’m kind of possessive with my films. I don’t like people to tell me how I should tell a story, or what kinds of artistic decisions I should make, but the great thing [about] Sven was it was always about advice, never about censorship, or even the fictitious parts of his own story. He was very detached about it and actually trusting, I think, of my perspective. He was just answering any question I had and giving his opinion, but never as if he wanted to influence to the film I was making. It was very cool, actually.
Felix De Givry: We spent so much time together before shooting, like a year-and-a-half or two years, that we had agreed on what was important and what was the purpose and the intention of all the different bullet points of the movie, so afterwards, it was quite impossible to disagree on something. Every time, like if we were off for the acting part, and if we were arguing over something, it was never about who’s right or wrong. It was about “I felt this way.”
Mia Hansen-Løve: [looking at Felix] You caught Sven’s attitude, not in the sense that you tried to imitate him, but at some point when you spend a lot of time with somebody, you “catch” something about his presence. Not necessarily about a precise thing, but something about the the way he acts and is behaving in life. At some point, Felix just “got” it, to the point that he would sometimes at the end of the shooting he would come to me and say, “I shouldn’t have done that. I know it.” And it was really true. I could feel like at the end that Felix really had [the character] inside him.
The film is set in the past, but still close enough that it almost feels like the present, and you’re accessing an age that you likely feel close to, even if you’ve moved on. It’s enhanced by the fact you famously use the cinematic equivalent of ellipses with fade outs at the end of scenes rather than harsher cuts. Is that an interesting place to tell a story from?
Mia Hansen-Løve: I have the feeling that most of the films either deal with the present or with the past, and what’s particular with this film, and even with my previous films in different ways, is I’d always deal with not the past, but like yesterday. Just as you say, something that’s very close and it’s particular because it’s both. It’s something that’s gone. It’s not here anymore, but at the same time, it’s so close you can still feel it. But it always leads to the present.
That’s the other difference in the relationship I have with the past is that I haven’t done a film yet that would really be just in the past and disconnected from today. In a way, it’s almost obsessive, and I can’t explain why…or maybe I can. It always has to finish in the present because ultimately, all of my films help me find a meaning in my everyday life. I can’t find this meaning if the film is stuck in a moment that’s gone.
With a shoot that takes place around the world, was there a particularly exciting or challenging day of shooting?
Felix De Givry: That’s easy, no? PS-1 [in New York].
Mia Hansen-Løve: Yeah. You can’t imagine.
What was it like to be in the middle of all that, with all those extras?
Felix De Givry: It’s not extras.
Mia Hansen-Løve: It’s sweet that people think it is, though, because we are not that rich! [laughs] For the whole film, we had, and it was a struggle to get to, 1500 extras. And it was my business – how do I best use these 1500 [people], but that’s what I got for the whole film and there were lots of scenes. All I had was like 50 people for New York. And in PS-1, you have, 3000 or 4000 people, so if I would have filmed with extras, it would have meant the whole budget of the film. So it was with [regular] people, and that made it so challenging and so crazy.
Felix De Givry: The PS-1 was funny, because it’s like there was a deal, but the deal was very blurry about what we were and weren’t allowed to do. At some point, there was this little apartment, with a view of the whole crowd and we were like, “Hello! It’s us!” right with the camera…
Mia Hansen-Løve: And people hated us. We’d be in front of them with the camera. It was really, really tough, but fun at the same time because there were just a couple of us and we had three hours that we were allowed to film really in the crowd. Then we had to come the next day when the place was empty to film Felix. But I’m always surprised people never ask me that — how could anybody think PS 1 would allow us to have anybody – with 3000 people – [up there DJing]? How can they believe that we were allowed to? Felix is not a DJ. Who paid for that? It’s impossible.
Felix De Givry: Are you saying that the rates that day were much higher because it was us playing? [laughs]
Mia Hansen-Løve: We had to do it two different days, and it made it even harder. What we did is the first day with the crowd, [we shot] some specific angles, with the camera, and we had a script supervisor who was noting every single [shot] — the distance, the frame and everything, and we came back and did exactly the same ones, but with Felix [there] instead.
Felix De Givry: For us, it was hard, but for the script supervisor, that day was her nightmare. And people had iPhones everywhere in a scene when we are [supposed to be] in 2001. And Mia is like, “Don’t worry, we’ll delete them.”
Mia Hansen-Løve: We deleted them almost. Not all of them. Some of them were impossible to delete because now people at any big event, have their hands up [and cell phones in hand]. Even if you delete it, you still have the hands up, so you’re wondering what these people are doing with their hands. Because we had so much footage [from] the three hours we got, we managed to find small moments.
That must’ve been frustrating considering how much care you take with shooting this. The club scenes, in particular, are amazing, especially the way the camera moves throughout fluidly. The choreography must’ve been so precise. But because you have always favored natural light, was being in these unnaturally lit places something to adjust to?
Mia Hansen-Løve: It was very different from what I had been doing before, but extremely exciting, both for my brother and I and also for the [cinematographer], because it was a challenge for us to recreate the atmosphere of the club as they were in this precise year, which meant using the lighting of the clubs that we found, but avoiding using the ones that were too modern, and really trying to base the whole artistic direction on what we got there. It was all about realism, but at the same time, we didn’t want to make a film that was about memories. We were looking for poetry through that. We had this opinion that there were no films yet about clubs where it was really interested about getting this kind of authenticity and truth we wanted to get.
That made it even more interesting for us because we found something nobody did before in the way we worked with the extras and the actors, the way we worked with the sound. You say, “Okay, I’m not going to use all the conventions people usually do in the way that they film [clubs], like [using] videotape or choosing extras who are over-the-top or in the way that they represent love, as if it was always something ecstatic, where people are dancing on the table.” We want to transmit the love of the music, we want people to hear the music, but at the same time, we want it to be true and to be real, which means it’s not only the beautiful people with big muscles and things like that. You have people who are getting bored. We had the feeling that every single choice that we made was singular, and didn’t reflect what has been done before.
Mia Hansen-Løve: One thing that’s kind of special and actually we do it twice, is that first, [the music] very realistic [and organic] when [the film] starts. They arrive from the elevator [at the party] and put on the vinyl and everybody starts dancing, but the song is treated in a very realistic, concrete way. You feel there is something happening, but you don’t really know what. There is something strong that’s going to happen. At the same time, they are very shy and ill at ease — they are not sure it’s going to work. Suddenly you feel it’s there, the energy, it’s working. Then we cut the sound of the ambiance and we change the texture of the sound to make it suddenly more pure and more distant. It gives this historical feeling, like you are really in the situation and these young boys were not really that impressive [in the moment], but the camera goes a little bit further, and when we are more in front, off on the side, the music [sounds like] it’s one of the [contemporary] CDs, whereas before it was on vinyl.
It is then you open your eyes and realize how important they’re going to be. This change of texture and of perspective really recreates this feeling that we actually had while we were discovering the song, that it was going to be something big. We do it again, with very disco, but not in the same way. After [someone in their group] dies and they’re at the cafe, one of the guys comes out of the bathroom and says, “Do you hear what’s being played on the radio?” And it’s them. The sound is mixed with the ambiance of the cafe, then suddenly the ambiance stops and you are really [alone] with the music. Instead of manipulating you from the outside, as many films do, using the music in the way [it’s] not supposed to be there, we draw all the attention to the music because through the characters in the scene, we say, “Listen to the music.” And speak about it. Coming from this realistic atmosphere and then going back to the pure sound without any [ambient] sound, makes you really feel more intimate connection to the music.
You mentioned poetry earlier and in a literal way, you use it to give the film a denouement. Was the Robert Creeley poem “The Rhythm” something that inspired you from the start or had you come across it later?
Mia Hansen-Løve: I think I had it from the start. It’s just like in “Goodbye First Love,” there’s this thing where [the main character] has a hat that she was given by her boyfriend, and at the very end, the wind takes away the hat. This was the image I had from the start, and that actually helped me to find the right meaning and the right direction [for that film]. It’s just a poetic image, but it really helps me to find the way, more than the plot or what happens at the end, as it might be for other people. For me, it’s more about really strong poetic imagery that deals more with spirituality or invisible things. I had read this poem [“The Rhythm”] one or two years ago, but it was still in my mind while I was writing the script. It really felt like it was telling me what my film was about.
The thing that wasn’t there from the start and came afterwards that had an equally important impact on the meaning of the film is “Within,” the Daft Punk song, which came months after the film, the album, and when I heard the song, it really felt just as “The Water” in “Goodbye First Love,” it felt like the song was really telling me about my own film, and about my own character. To me, now, there is the poem and the song and they are connected to each other.
Felix De Givry: It’s really interesting because Mia always makes movies don’t go from point A to point B like most, but there is this goal — an abstract goal — like the movie has to go here. The whole point of movies is to make it real enough so that the emotion becomes real too, and the meaning comes from reality, but there is this whole connection between doing something concrete [in] shooting and [the] words in order to go into a fictional world. But the fictional world is not the movie itself. It’s what you’re left with at the end of the movie. You come back to reality and you say, “Oh, reality instead of fiction made me feel like this.” The fact that it’s reversed is what is powerful because there is some intimacy in this real fiction of the movie.