TIFF 2021 Interview: Jean Luc Herbulot on Having an Eye for Mayhem in “Saloum”

When Jean Luc Herbulot was growing up in Africa, he never felt he could see himself on the big screen, so he looked to the cinema of other countries.

“I used to watch a lot of Asian movies — I’m a big fan of Korean movies and Hong Kong movies from the ‘90s, so I grew up with a lot of different influences in the genre,” says Herbulot. “I was watching ‘Aliens’ when I was seven and that was my father putting me in that movie, and I was like, “Wow, if I’m making a movie, I want to be doing something as heavy as that.”

Herbulot would work his way to that opportunity with a series of muscular films, first testing the limits of various genres in shorts and eventually making the 2014 thriller “Dealer.” However, his ambitions were always greater than making just one more film, finding a partner in Pamela Diop, who shared his dream of telling uniquely African stories on a scale that hadn’t been seen before in the vein of the mainstream action films he grew up loving from abroad.

“It’s always about will you pay yourself to go see this movie? That’s how it will work,” Herbulot said of LACME Studios, his new endeavor with Diop. “If I’m convinced that I’m going to pay for my own movie to go see it, then I can be [confident] about the fact that probably somebody will want to see that. I always wanted to inspire the seven-year-old that I was when I grew up in Africa because I grew up with different kind of heroes – but not the ones that looked like me and not the ones that were living in my conditions, so now it’s the time.”

It usually takes a studio several films to show their range, but Herbulot isn’t one to waste time, engineering a fearsome Frankenstein’s monster of a good time with “Saloum,” the company’s debut feature that gleefully jumps from genre to genre, subverting expectations at every turn. It concerns a trio of vigilantes known as the Hyenas, who take advantage of the announcement of a violent coup d’etat in Mauritania to sneak out a Mexican drug runner to safety as well as a hefty cache of gold bricks unnoticed. The plan is perfect, except when their prop plane runs into trouble during the getaway, leading Chaka (Yann Gael), Rafa (Roger Sallah), and Minuit (Mentor Ba) to hole up at a camp where they aren’t expected to pay for their stay in cash, but instead help with chores and the longer they stay, the more they arouse suspicion, particularly from Awa (Evelyne Ily Juhen), who can read lips after growing up deaf.

There’s some irony in the fact that “Saloum” mostly ends up taking place at a single location when it’s delightfully all over the map, with the Hyenas not only concerned about the police captain who has joined them to kick back at the retreat, but the suggestion of a nefarious curse on the island that could be stirred into effect and as their past comes to light in various ways, they find themselves running away from foes of all different forms, from the spiritual, the physical and the historical. Remarkably, Herbulot’s steady hand behind the camera keeps the wild thriller on track and while the action is bound to make audiences leap out of their seats, the expression of Sengalese culture with such depth and dynamism can be expected to take those from elsewhere aback just as Herbulot once had been as a kid in the Congo. With “Saloum” making its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival this week followed by its U.S. premiere at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, the filmmaker spoke about going against the grain to make the twisty thriller, living in the same close quarters with the cast and crew as they were shooting the film in and starting something special with LACME.

From what I’ve heard, this all started with a weekend in Saloum. How did it come about?

[Pamela Diop and I] just created the company and it was a creative weekend just to go there and try to talk about projects. It’s the birth region of Pamela, so she brought me there just to introduce me to Senegal and I just got the magic. I was in the environment and I was like, “Fuck, we need to make a movie here.” [laughs] So it just happened from seeing the place and saying let’s shoot here, [and] nobody had done that [before], by the way, and after that, writing the script, trying to ground it to the geopolitical reality of Africa in the 2000s because the movie is [set] in 2003, so we tried to make something serious and at the same time, bringing some fun with monsters and stuff like that.

It is interesting how the characters all have pasts that come back to haunt them from very real circumstances – did you know immediately who you’d want to see colliding at this resort?

Yeah, the movie is way longer than what you’re seeing on screen because there were a lot of backstories and building characters, but it became too much, so we had to just go to a straight version where it’s about Chaka. But all of them had backstories and you can feel in the movie sometimes that there is some tension between Chaka and Rafa, for example, and the why of how they met [is part of] the interesting thing we’re trying to do with “Saloum” because most of the time when you have a movie about heroes, most of the time [what you’re seeing is] a first act or a second act — a second act is quite rare, like “Unbreakable.” But “Saloum” is like the third act of something you haven’t seen before and I felt like, “Let’s do what nobody does, which is let’s start at the end. If the Hyenas are heroes in Africa, how does it end for them.” So that’s how it became interesting to focus on Chaka, the leader of the group, [so you’d have the question of] what happened to this guy and is it he normal or mystical? Because the franchise that we’re trying to build with “Saloum” and the Hyenas, we have the military side, but we also have the Black Magic African side in that, so [the question is] how do you mix that? And that’s where it became interesting.

One of the things that I love is how this jumps from genre to genre. Did that actually help you structure the film since every act it can feel like you’re in a different place tonally?

Yeah, that was the goal since the beginning because Pamela and I were both big fans of “From Dusk Till Dawn.” Part of our brainstorm was, “What is the movie that excites us the most?” and it was like, “Oh, we love that twist from ‘From Dusk Till Dawn,’ but now what are we going to do with that? I actually tried to evacuate all the influences I had to try to do something fresh and challenge myself not to look at [other] movies, for example, trying horror by day, even if of course Mr. Kubrick did that in “The Shining,” but it was interesting to say, “Okay, what’s going to happen in “Saloum” is, oh, okay, it’s going to turn night and then you’re going to have monsters by night, so I was like, “Let’s go full light. Let’s see those guys.” So I was always trying to not do the things that have been done [before] and at the same time try to find a balance between this [being] an African movie that we wanted to be very grounded in Africa and African culture — a way of talking, a way of moving — but also at the same time, it has to be understood by everybody in the world. That was the challenge.

Did you find this location in Saloum or was this a set that you built? It’s such a dynamic setting.

If you think that we built something, that’s a great compliment. [laughs] But we didn’t have the money for that. The camp that you see in the movie is the camp where we were all sleeping, so even the rooms that they were hiding in — the room where [at one point one of the characters Awa] is tied – that was my room where I was sleeping. There are a lot of vacation camps in Saloum, so we spent a lot of time going from one to [the next] to find the right one and after that, it was a constant fight every day for five weeks. It was very hot, so I can tell you at the end of the five weeks, we were very burnt. [laughs] You can see them sweating a lot in the movie, and all those things are quite real. Twenty-five people living in the same camp for five weeks, just imagine “Big Brother” and multiply that, and add to that the next village [over] was one hour away if you have a car, so it was quite an adventure, but a great one.

Sound is such a crucial element to the actual story when one of the characters is deaf and the Hyenas use headphones as protection from the spirits. How did that element become something you embraced so strongly?

Again, in the fashion of doing the things that other people don’t do, we just turned to other movies before writing “Saloum,” and said, “Okay, so there are movies where you can’t see them. There are movies where you can’t touch them or you shouldn’t make a sound, so what’s the next thing? Not hearing them? And after that, [we thought about] how do you not hear something and I was like, “Oh, that’s an interesting and iconic thing to have those red earphones on your head during an entire movie with monsters around you.” I didn’t see that yet or not that much, so let’s use that. Everything just came by contradiction, by saying “Okay, nobody did that? Let’s do that and let’s make it work,” trying to do something that will please fans of genre like us because when we’re seeing so many movies, we’re becoming very complicated in our tastes and it was very important for us to say the first movie our company LACME is doing, it needs to be unique. It can be bad, it can be good, but it needs to be unique and after that, let’s see if people like it, but at least we tried. That was the goal.

“Saloum” will screen at the Toronto Film Festival in person on September 16th at the TIFF Bell Lightbox at 11:59 pm and September 17th virtually at 6 pm via the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox.