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Freedom of Discovery: Damien Manivel Discusses “Le parc”

Talking to the emerging French director about his second film, a mysterious, minimalist romance showing exclusively on MUBI.
MUBI is hosting the exclusive global online premiere of Damien Manivel's Le parc (2016). It is showing from February 10 - March 12, 2017 as a Special Discovery.Damien Manivel
Damien Manivel
"Do you make films?" was the first question that Damien Manivel asked me once I turned off the recording. It was then that I realized that my interview might have been a bit heavy on the technicalities about the production and other decisions made in the film. I was honest and I said, "I try to, but it’s hard." Trying to make your own little films makes me appreciate certain things above others, especially when the concept and story offered are, on the surface, so simple, like in Manivel’s Le parc. A little over an hour long, in Le parc we see two teenagers, a girl (Naomie Vogt-Roby) and a boy (Maxime Bachellerie), meeting for the first time and having an afternoon-long date where they have mudane conversations, until they part their ways. That’s when the film takes a turn for the strange, as we stay with Naomie as she reflects her choices, what she went through, and spends a night in the park.
Le parc is Manivel’s second film, it premiered at Cannes in ACID, and he is preparing a third film that will begin filming in Japan shortly. For me, someone with that kind of proficiency is certainly inspiring, especially if you wish for that kind of productivity. Following the accolades that he has received since the Locarno Film Festival where his debut, A Young Poet (2014), premiered, Manivel has become one of the most interesting new voices of French cinema. His mute direction of actors and his simple approach to narrative hide an impressive amount of work that must be distilled to result in what we see in the screen. That could be said about Le parc, which tells a basic story (falling in love, falling out of love, experiencing grief, finding acceptance), but at the same time has a complex structure that plays with the mindset of the young heroine (it certainly enters her mind space at times, both literally and figuratively), and also works around a central concept or idea (a film in one day, a film in a park).
This was my first interview with a director, and especially meaningful because of how close to Manivel I felt aesthetically. We met in the context of 2016 Valdivia Film Festival in Chile, where Le parc was playing in the Official International Competition. Manivel and I both exchanged looks, salutations and then we sat down. We had one thing in common before I started the recording: we had really thick accents, his clearly French; mine an amalgamation of heard phrases, British, American and Chilean. I only hoped that he could understand my thick phrasing, as I truly admired what he had done with this film, especially when it came down to how its story was constructed.

NOTEBOOK: What struck me about Le parc is that it has a story, its central idea, and its structure, which can be divided in two parts or four parts, depending how one sees it. What came first to you?
DAMIEN MANIVEL: I really wanted to make a film in such a place as a park. Only one location. I really love films that work on a very small scale, like one day and one night—or a few hours. I really love that feeling of present time, so that was the basic idea. After that, I came up with the idea of portraying a complete teenage relationship from the first shy approaches to the separation and the mourning. So it all starts with a young couple meeting in a park. I also knew I wanted to have this third character coming into this story who would be the guy who was taking care of the park. That's basically what I started with.
NOTEBOOK: And then you started adding to this idea of just one location and a story covering just a few hours?
MANIVEL: Yeah exactly, because these choices are artistic but it's economic at the same time. I'm the producer of the film, so I know I can't use many locations, I can't do complicated stuff. 
NOTEBOOK: So the ideas you work with must fit your own production capacities?
MANIVEL: Exactly. And it's not a problem for me, it creates freedom. I have these limits and I will try to make the film within that limits.
NOTEBOOK: Those limits allow you to go wherever you want, within those limits—and that's the freedom.
MANIVEL: As for the storytelling, the story is so simple that it gives a sense of a strong narrative structure. So, I can start the shooting with almost no script, just a few ideas, and on the shoot every day the story evolves within that structure.
NOTEBOOK: You say “structure” as if you are potentially making a new film every day. Are you constructing the film around the moment you shoot?
MANIVEL: Listening to what happened before is the most important. What is it telling us? Where to go from this moment? I would like to go that way but maybe these shots are telling us to go another way. It's an organic process. Every day we try to follow that feelings and sometimes we have to go back two days of shooting and start again because we took the wrong path.
NOTEBOOK: …it's like a stroll in the park. Like a walk in the park, there's a dead end sometimes.
MANIVEL: Exactly.
NOTEBOOK: In the second half of Le parc I felt that there were small clues here and there about where the film could go, but you didn't take those roads most of the time. You went your own way, and I commend that. For example, when Naomie started to walk backwards, I thought she was literally traveling in time. But then, no, she wasn't; and then it turned into a horror film—but it doesn't go there either. How hard was it for you to resist all these possible routes? Or do you have no interest in those kind of stories?
MANIVEL: The second part of the film is ambiguous. There is a subtle sense of humor but it's quite scary at the same time. Usually we don't mix these things together. I mean if you laugh you are not scared and if you are scared you don't want to laugh. So I was trying to make you know like something...
NOTEBOOK: Like a fairy tale forest? 
MANIVEL: Yes, like a fairy tale forest; in fact I tried to find my own way to film a night in the forest.
NOTEBOOK: Your own forest?
MANIVEL: Many directors have their forests. It's really like a cliché. And you have many different ways to do it, so I tried my own. I don't know if I succeeded in that...
NOTEBOOK: With such freedom, I imagine it may have been tempting to do something out of the blue. And I was kind of hoping that maybe the film would go this way, but at the same time I wasn’t.
MANIVEL: The film is like that, it's a simple story but there are surprises. The second part is connected to the first part in a strange way.
NOTEBOOK: It’s like a mirror of sorts.
MANIVEL: You can say that, yes.
NOTEBOOK: What's your personal interest in genre films, especially regarding the second half of the film? It feels touches the feeling of genre movies. Do you watch then, or plan on making one in the future?
MANIVEL: I really love them, especially horror films. When I was younger I started to really get into cinema by watching Asian horror ghost films. I've seen a lot of these.  
NOTEBOOK: How did you work with your main actress, Naomie Vogt-Roby, for her role as Naomie? How old was she? 
MANIVEL: She was fifteen.
NOTEBOOK: Her performance is tremendously emotionally charged. How did you direct her so it wasn't as harsh on her as it looked?
MANIVEL: She was really happy to make the film and it was a fantastic collaboration. She was really easy to work with and she trusted me even though she didn't know what would happen every day, she didn't read any script. She discovered the story each day and what her character is going through.  
NOTEBOOK: Your film uses text messages quite vividly. There's been some criticism about the abuse of showing texting communication in films. But I think that it’s different in yours. How did you make the choice to show the text messages on the screen and how important is that for you people to know what's being said on the couple’s phones?
MANIVEL: It's a suspenseful and emotional scene. We need to see what words they exchange. Their only link is still those words. So it's necessary to show it. We took a lot of time to work on how it would be shown. 
NOTEBOOK: How did you come up with the final choice?
MANIVEL: There are many ways to show texts on a screen. What I tried to do is an elegant and simple way of doing it. Basically, we came up with the idea of the words and just a little line on the side. And it works. 
NOTEBOOK: The break up scene: the sun goes down, it's just one shot.
MANIVEL: Yeah, it’s one shot, it’s ten minutes.
NOTEBOOK: Did you do it in one take?
MANIVEL: Yeah. First take and we kept it.
NOTEBOOK: How do you prepare for that scene? Because you knew that you only had one chance, and if it didn’t work, you’d have to wait for another day.
MANIVEL: I didn't prepare so much. I said "let's do some kind of rehearsal." It was very light. No pressure. Let's try something. Okay, and we did it. I was really thinking it was a rehearsal but when we started shooting I got involved in the shot and felt it had the perfect timing. It's really the moment when the sunlight goes down and Naomie is truly amazing.
NOTEBOOK: The couple’s scenes together in the first half are very natural. What did you draw from to write them?
MANIVEL: The scenes are natural because the actors are not stressed. They are shy but I don't put them in stressful situation. We are in the park and we are making a film together so let's try our best. I use improvisation, ideas that come from them, and also ideas that come up to me when I shoot. I mix all those ideas and propositions and little by little, I start to understand where the story goes. I don't have one method, I can do one very long take or I can do 15 takes to find precision. It depends on what I'm feeling, how the crew is feeling, the atmosphere of the day. It's a scary way to make films, you have many doubts when you are shooting but at the same time there is something beautiful about it. The process teaches you something.
NOTEBOOK: How did you fund the film?
MANIVEL: I made my own company, MLD Films. I produced my previous film A Young Poet, a few shorts and Le parc. We have good partners SHELLAC distribution and co-production, The Open Reel for international sales, CINE + and also the Poitou-Charentes region in France that gave a bit of money. So it's really a small budget. The crew was very few people, five or six people.
NOTEBOOK: It doesn't feel like a short shoot, though. How many days was it?
MANIVEL: It was four weeks so it was quite long. I am used to making films within short amounts of time. But there was lots of rain so it was not so easy to have these beautiful sunny moments. I think the two first weeks were day scenes and the two weeks after were the night scenes. 
NOTEBOOK: How did you get the people in charge of the park to allow you shoot there?
MANIVEL: Sometimes we had authorization, sometimes we didn't. 
NOTEBOOK: So it’s not in just one park.
MANIVEL: No, it's five parks. Before the shooting I do scouting location a lot and I structure the story around the places. It had to look like one park. I really like that kind of preparation work, I can spend hours trying to find the right combination of fragments. 
NOTEBOOK: Even at night it has a different feeling, but it doesn't feel like a different park.
MANIVEL: But it is.
NOTEBOOK: What’s your next project?
MANIVEL: I'm shooting in January in Japan.
NOTEBOOK: A ghost story?
MANIVEL: Not a ghost story, not at all. Very realistic story. It's a child's story, a winter film. The story of a very small runaway. He’s Japanese. Everyone is Japanese on the crew. 
NOTEBOOK: How you did you end up with this Japanese project?
MANIVEL: I've been wanting to shoot in Japan for a long time. Shooting in another country is a very interesting challenge. In the Locarno Film Festival in 2014 I met the director Kohei Igarashi, we became friends and decided to make a film together. So we have all the risks here: foreign country, winter, a child and two directors.
NOTEBOOK: How important is it for you to be honest? I mean, regarding reality and how people live in the film, how important is it for you to reflect that honesty? I do think that Le parc is honest.
MANIVEL: Well, thank you. I think the film is honest because we really work with what we have every day, it's really like we are building something with only a few tools. So it really reflects the moment of the shooting. At that precise time, these were my ideas on cinema; now I've changed and the next film will be slightly different.

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