When Robin Campillo was looking for a collaborator to help him write “Beats Per Minute,” an electrifying chronicle of ACT UP’s efforts during early 1990s to accelerate the progress towards a cure for the AIDS epidemic in France, he wasn’t looking for someone to make the process easier. He wanted someone to challenge him.
“In the film, you have a lot of contradictions between people. People are arguing a lot and that’s the most important thing. Before confronting the politicians, the laboratories, we were confronting each other a lot, and it’s very interesting to see that when I was writing alone, I needed someone to confront,” says Campillo, who recruited an old friend in fellow ACT UP activist Philippe Mangeo to bounce ideas off of. “I saw him one day every week [while] I was writing, I and he was telling me, that ‘No, we wouldn’t have done that. We wouldn’t have said that.’ I didn’t choose him because we would agree on everything. I chose him because I thought we could disagree on a few things and that would be interesting for me to be able to rethink things that could seem obvious to me.”
There are obvious ways in which those debates between Mangeo and Campillo manifest themselves on screen in “Beats Per Minute,” which draws some of its infectious energy from the contentious meetings between ACT UP members as they strategize the most effective public demonstrations they can muster. But the spirited debate is inherent in the overall design of Campillo’s third feature as a director to give a panoramic view of the crisis, full of frustrations and contradictions as activists identify bureaucratic targets holding up potential treatment when they know their real enemy is truly unknown, making it all the more galvanizing to see consensus forming when each meeting has a few less people in the auditorium who have succumbed to the disease. Eventually, “Beats Per Minute” coalesces around a Chilean-Frenchman named Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), who contracted the virus at 16, and Nathan (Arnaud Valois), who doesn’t have the disease but was drawn to ACT UP as he comes to see his community increasingly in peril, as they take comfort in each other’s arms, but do not necessarily see the same way forward in terms of ACT UP’s mission.
While Campillo effortlessly accommodates multiple perspectives and the reasoning behind such stances without ever putting too fine a point on it, a skill he no doubt cultivated in his collaborations with Laurent Cantet (“The Class”), what’s most impressive about “Beats Per Minute” is the almost supernatural way it moves, with a steady pulse of the heart pounding in the background like a metronome elucidating the action as one scene slips unconsciously into another, creating a sensation that as disparate as everything the ACT UP movement encompassed, it was ultimately all connected, collapsing time and space as people were driven by the universal primal urge to survive. Recently, Campillo was in Los Angeles to talk about being ready personally and professionally to create such a vital cinematic experience, finding ways to conjure the same energy he felt when he was an activist in ACT UP in making the film and being conscious of making history.
There’s no right moment. From the very beginning of the [AIDS epidemic], I was thinking of doing the film because I was so afraid when I was 20 in ’82 and I was a young gay guy. I thought [AIDS] was like a very bad science fiction curse, and there was a kind of contradiction with the importance of this event in my life and the cinema because I was in cinema school in ’83 and I was supposed to be a director, but for me, the cinema was useless in front of this event that changed my life, so it took me ages to understand what I could do. Of course, I became a militant of ACT UP in 1992, but I didn’t realize that could be a film. I did a few scripts about the subject, but you know, an [epidemic] is not an object of cinema. You don’t create a fiction like this.
Seven years ago, I realized I wanted to talk of this specific moment of ACT UP and these collective actions of this activist group. Because I was a member, I had a lot of memories and I thought it was time that I could go through all this because I have this feeling that AIDS and cinema were two important things of my life and at some point, I had to do something with the both of them. I did two films before and I think I tried to have the right fluidity in my directing to be able to do the film this way. But it’s true, my producer Marie-Ange Luciani told me because I had another project [in the works], “You have to do this film now because you are not going to do it in 10 years. Stop, you won’t do it anymore.” Because we had this election in France this year and you know, like in your country, the political [climate] is so bad that I thought it was important maybe to show what we were going through at this time.
You mention fluidity and you’ve described the film as a “river,” referring to the unique way how scenes can flow into one another with the action in one setting crossing over into another. Did that form immediately come to you in thinking about how to tell this story?
First, I’m a big fan of what we call in France “river films,” like “river novels,” where you have a lot of characters [at first] and it’s like a Russian novel [and the focus narrows]. I love that you have films like “The River” by Jean Renoir…and sometimes Cimino in the United States who does this [style of film]. It’s also because I realized there’s this question of the Seine River in the film, and the fact that it becomes red. I wanted the film to be big. I didn’t want the film to be very intimate [in scope] – I wanted it to be historical, to be large and I was talking about this river unconsciously because you have to imagine that the river in the middle of Paris, you have one part on the South and one part of the North and you have this broad river — it’s [literally and figuratively] mainstream — and why we wanted to put it in red in ACT UP was because it’s so central in Paris that it would be so obvious for everyone. We wanted the rest of the society to see what we were going through. So this idea of [dyeing] the river red is the same [reason] why I did this film this way — I wanted to be mainstream in a way. In order to do that, I didn’t try to make a script that would be [narrow]. [You see variety in how] they talk a lot about politics, they talk a lot about treatment, you have a long sex scene between men and when [someone] dies, you see the body for a long time – I wanted it to be very exposed and very big. I didn’t want it to be between two or three characters. I wanted it to be a collective movie like ACT UP was a collective action.
The ACT UP meetings become such a backbone sprinkled throughout the film, but since they’re in the same location — an amphitheater — and production schedules are what they are, did you have to shoot them all at once?
That’s interesting as a question because how you define a schedule for the shooting is a big part of the creative process, knowing exactly what time you are going to shoot that scene and that scene. In fact, when you see the film, the first part of the amphitheater that’s connected to the first action, we were shooting [all the meeting scenes] before because we couldn’t come back to the same location, but the second four weeks of the amphitheater was connected to the action we did after, so it was chronological because Nahuel Perez Biscayart, the actor [playing the HIV-positive Sean], was getting thinner and thinner and we had to cut his hair as well — we cut his hair in the middle of the amphitheater, so we could do all those actions after. That was very important [so we could do] the hospital [scenes] and the apartment in order because the rest of the [ACT UP] group wasn’t in these scenes [with Nahuel], so when they came back to the flat at the end, they didn’t see him for months and they were discovering he was thinner, [which] was very important, I think.
I understand you were casting professionals and non-professionals. Did that create a certain energy mixing them together?
First of all, you can imagine in ACT UP, we were a group, but you had a lot of people who shouldn’t have met each other if it wasn’t for the [epidemic]. It’s like people coming from very posh schools in France and someone who was close [to me], [who] was like kind of the heart of the group, he was doing pastries. So these people coming from very [different] sociological worlds were talking together and I wanted the same thing during shooting.
I also think it’s very important…you have two ways of doing films. I like [Alfred] Hitchcock so much, but Hitchcock was really embarrassed by the shooting [phase of production]. He told Francois Truffaut that he wanted to create a machine where you put a script on the side and at the end you have the 35mm going out, avoiding the moment of the shooting, which was a little bit boring for him because [he] wanted the film to be exactly what you imagined in the script. I don’t do films like this. I do films because I want people — and I mean the actors, but [also] the technicians — to put my project in crisis. They don’t do what I want. They do something which is a little bit different.
[This film is] very close to the script, but it goes through very strange things. Of course, it’s even better when you’re working with people which are different from you and very different from each other, so that’s why during shooting, I tried to find foreign actors – Nahuel Perez Biscayart speaks perfect French, but he’s Argentinian — and actors who are not actors at all, some people that I found on Facebook and I sent them messages saying, “Do you want to do a test?” You put all those people together, confronting each other as we were at the time [of ACT UP], and that creates something very specific, which is the film you are doing at the moment. For me, it’s very enchanting and I’m not afraid of people modifying my film. I think that’s a better way.
Between the soundtrack of house music and the sound mix, where there’s a pulse beating throughout, it’s such a part of the film’s fabric. Did you know what this would sound like from the start?
It was in the script. The pulse was in the script and I knew that when you are going through this action, your heart rate is going higher and when you’re in love, that’s the same thing, you’re heartbeat is getting [faster]. So that was important, but I realized during the film, I wanted a large sound [musically] because you have all these big arenas, locations like the amphitheater or the school and I wanted to feel that it was in different theaters. Like for instance, if you realize [during] the first action where they put blood on the face of the guy [representing a pharmaceutical company at a convention], you have this stage and the guy is talking on the stage and the ACT UP group arrives like bad actors who change the topic of the play. It’s the same thing in the [demonstration at the] cinema school and at the insurance reception at the end of the film, which is for me very theatrical. I wanted the [music] to be really like this, [and] you are [already] talking about house music, [where] it’s the style of the music [that was popular at the time] but also how it sounds because it was very important for me that you can feel what you feel when you are in a club. You have a lot of space and I wanted the [music] to be resonant in this large scale of space.
And a ton of digital effects as well. [laughs] We didn’t have the money to have so much, but when I [say I] wanted it a little bit broader, and to be large, it’s because when we were in ACT UP, we were thinking of ourselves historically. That’s a little bit arrogant. That’s a little bit pretentious. But we were that pretentious because we were thinking we were so legitimate in our struggle. France is very small and it’s not like France is like the United States [where power is dispersed among various states]. All the powers are in Paris, so institutions are very [present] in the streets and you can imagine that every place when you go to the street to do a demo, it’s connected to other historical demonstrations like in the 19th century. When we put a giant pink condom on the Obelisk Concorde, that’s always too much because it’s in a very historical and old democracy. [laughs] So we are always in history in Paris all the time.
Because we were a minority, we thought we were universal because minorities are always universal, so I wanted to give the space and a very important scale to this small moment. When the guys are doing cheerleading during the parade, that was a real thing and I love the fact that I took all these small moments to create a big history and say, especially to France, that’s our collective history. It’s not a story of this minority. It’s our historical history, all of us.
“Beats Per Minute” is now open in New York and opens in Los Angeles on November 3rd at the Laemmle Royal and the AMC Sunset 5.