An interview with director Eric Valette [Fantasia International Film Festival 2017]

Eric Valette is a French film director known for his fantastically creepy film Malefique (2002), his remake of One Missed Call (2008), The Prey (2011), etc.  This year, his French polar, or thriller, Le Serpent aux Milles Coupures (Thousand Cuts) had its North American Premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival.

First of all, thank you for giving us a bit of your time in what is most certainly a very busy schedule. Please tell us a bit about what made you, and still makes you, want to direct film. What is your inspiration?
As a child, I was always interested in telling stories. Sometimes playing with my toy soldiers (generally cowboys), sometimes drawing… As soon as my father brought me to the Cinema to see a re-release of The Magnificent Seven when I was six, I wasn’t interested anymore in Disney movies and I knew I wanted to tell stories with a camera.

So there’s this joy of storytelling at the heart of this passion and it hasn’t changed since my childhood. Topics are just more… mature. Well, some of them.

How do you select which project is right for you, which film to tackle and why?
It’s always a question of circumstances. Sometimes there’s a great book I read and then I decide to try to convince people to develop an adaptation, sometimes I work on a spec story I have with the help of a screenwriting friend, sometimes a writer comes up with his idea, sometimes a producer with some rights on a property (novel, comic book, play…)

It’s always been different every time so far. But as long as you don’t get bored working on a project, I assume it’s a good one. Sometimes, there are some projects that the industry doesn’t want and it’s useless to keep pushing, but they’re all like Loch Ness monsters, likely to show up when a better time comes…

Le Serpent aux mille coupures (1000 CUTS) just had its North American Premiere at Fantasia Internation Film Festival, it’s an adaptation of a DOA novel, how did this film and collaboration come about?
I knew DOA and his work for a couple of years before 1000 CUTS was written. There was a great book he wrote before called CITOYENS CLANDESTINS (CLANDESTINE CITIZENS) that I was interested in but I couldn’t get attached to the project at the time and it eventually never got made. The project was very ambitious, lot of intertwined storylines, lot of countries: it was probably more fit for an 8-hour mini-series than for a feature length. I was sent LE SERPENT AUX MILLE COUPURES / 1000 CUTS by my agent -who was also DOA’s rep at the time- as soon it was released.  It had all the “noir” qualities  I enjoyed in the previous book: tension, ambiguity, complex characters, but in a more contained environment. That context being southwestern France, the region where I was born and brought up, it was a plus, almost like fate!

How did you select Tomer Sisley and the rest of the cast?
We don’t have a lot of male action stars in France. Tomer is well known for his part as an action hero / playboy in the LARGO WINCH franchise. I wasn’t sure at first that he had enough edge to look dangerous enough, I realised I was wrong when I watched SLEEPLESS (NUIT BLANCHE), a tight thriller where Tomer plays the part of a crooked cop. We then met and got along very well. We’re both outsiders in our own way.

As I like blends and surprises, the rest of the cast is a big mix. You find old acquaintances in new types of parts: Gérald Laroche who was one the cell mates in MALEFIQUE is a small town bar owner, Stéphane Debac the serial killer from THE PREY / LA PROIE is a business guy wannabe big shot drug dealer. There’s some people I never worked with before like Pascal Greggory, belgian Erika Sainte or spanish Carlos Cabra.

The addition to spice up the mix is Terence Yin, a Hong-Kong actor I was a little familiar with through his work on Johnnie To and Takashi Miike films, but who has been in a lot of more mainstream Chinese cinema. He’s the iconic bad guy of 1000 CUTS and doesn’t pull back any punches here.

Was it important for you to have a story set in France, near Toulouse, as a native of the region?
Which young geeky kid hasn’t dreamt about movie heroes and villains fighting themselves to death in his grandma’s courtyard? That’s a fantasy coming to life. Also, the southwest of France hasn’t been used as a shoot location that much these last decades so it was a great pleasure and honor to attempt to give justice to these landscapes.

One of the ideas of the book and the script is how the whole world invites itself in a small region around a village and a few farms: Colombian and Italian drug dealers, an Asian killer for hire, an “Islamic terrorist” (though not confirmed) on the run. It was very interesting to bring all of this chaos to life in this seemingly quiet and picturesque location.

As the director of the film, what do you wish people would take out of it? Or out of any of your other films?
Well, it really depends on the project. All of my projects are for entertainment, but some of them have more shades of grey which I hope is the case with 1000 CUTS. If the audience is thrilled and disturbed, if they get some entertainment and the idea that things were a little more complicated than they seemed, I am happy. But there are many ways to read and interpret a movie and it has pretty much a life of its own. You can’t really control it and that’s pretty cool and humbling.

You have worked a lot in thriller, action and horror genres, is that a choice or simple happenstance? Do you prefer one genre over the other and if that is the case, why?
My choice is to not do comedies which have been the safe and routine genre in France. Though I have a couple of comedy projects that are quite out of the box and could be interesting but they haven’t gotten made yet. For the rest, I am plotting a bit but reacting a lot so the circumstances dictate what I can and cannot do. I don’t have a preference for thriller over fantasy or horror but I happen to read more interesting thriller scripts than horror. Once again, it has more to do more with luck than with planning and choices.

Which genre would you say attracts you the most as a viewer? What films have you made go “Whoa this is awesome” in the last few years?
I am not sure about “a genre” as I like different genres, from martial arts epics to intimate thrillers. I tend to like movies with complexity and shades of grey. SUPER DARK TIMES, LOGAN, THE FURY OF A PATIENT MAN, THE WALL, COLOSSAL, THE TOKYO NIGHT SKY IS ALWAYS THE DENSEST SHADE OF BLUE, HELL OR HIGH WATER… to name a few over the last few months. All very exciting and challenging in their own ways.

Which other filmmakers are on your radar? Who do you think cinema fans should keep an eye on?
There are a lot and my memory is flawed. As I was saying, Kevin Phillips blew me away with SUPER DARK TIMES. And when it comes to young North American directors, I don’t think I’ll surprise anyone mentioning J.C Chandor. He’s one of the very best: MARGIN CALL is a masterpiece. Also,well established filmmakers like William Friedkin, George Miller, Paul Verhoeven, Johnnie To, and John Woo are still delivering incredible stuff.

What do you have coming up, what are you working on that you can tell us a little about?
I am co-writing a TV series project that is a supernatural thriller reminiscent of Clive Barker’s works. It’s based on a series of french novels. I also have two features at pretty early writing stages at this time. An extremely dark intimate thriller set in Luxembourg and a pretty ambitious war/suspense/geopolitical movie with Luc Bossi, the producer of THE PREY. So let’s say I keep busy.

Thank you for your time Eric, we greatly appreciate this interview.

Please keep an eye on the release of Le Serpent aux mille coupures (Thousand Cuts) as well for Eric Valette’s other work including Malefique, The Prey, and a slew of others.

Fantasia International Film Festival ran from July 13th to August 2nd.