A punk poet and musician, F.J. Ossang’s shorts and features produced since the early 1980s pull vividly from silent cinema, particularly German Expressionism, as well as American noir, to reinvent cinema's legacy for a new era. His latest movie, 9 Doigts (9 Fingers), which premiered in competition at the Locarno Festival and has now traveled to the International Film Festival Rotterdam, begins as a cryptic gangster film—shot in silken black and white 35mm—before the criminals make a break for a cargo ship, plunging the film in the kind of feverish maritime malaise found in Joseph Conrad’s The Shadow Line, Georges Franju’s 1973 TV adaptation of that novel, and pre-Code tropical hothouses like Safe in Hell (1931).
But as beautiful as the setting and photography is—and as delirious as some of the cynical, doom-saying criminals are, each prone to mythopoetic threats and extrapolations—the whole thing is consistently overtly ridiculous. Boys playing dress-up (sunglasses worn inside, at night), a start-stop rhythm thwarting base genre pleasures, and constant anarcho-charlatan pontificating give the voyage a scent of funhouse-fandom charade. Yet wrapped as it is in that oneiric slow pull common to the films of Chilean fabulist Raúl Ruiz, and punctuated with a zany, thrifty and near-crazed creative freedom that seems truly punk, these dual impulses of sinister gravity and the flippant play somehow magically live one inside the other.
We had a chance to sit and chat with the gregarious, energetic Ossang to discuss his movie, for which he won Best Director at Locarno.
NOTEBOOK: You're a writer and a musician—and you sometimes make movies. Your last feature, Dharma Guns, was in 2010. Do you feel like filmmaking is an art you sometimes pursue, or is it in your blood like your music is?
F.J. OSSANG: Oh yes, yes it is. I began with poetry and writing when I was 14. I was a punk—yeah!—this was in '77 and it was very important. When I was 23, I didn't know what to do, there really was no future between poetry and of rock and roll. In my mind, cinema was very important. To write alone is a bit dépassé. But you write poetry and you make films? We are in the 20th century now! It was very funny, because I was born in Auvergne, in Cantal, near the mountain in the south center, it's a volcano. But I was not from a social milieu involved in cinema, I couldn't imagine making films. But when I went to cinema school I discovered all you need is a camera and a box of film to make a movie. So my first film [La dernière énigme, 1982], it was made in one day. It's funny because it was a film tract. I made a tract! I was influenced by Guy Debord, William Burroughs, people like that. Much more by video. But when I touched film, black and white film, it was [swoons] the cancer of cinema in my mind. And then I made my first feature film, before that a short film, it was in Cannes in '83 [Zona Inquinata], and then the feature film in '84 [L’affaire des divisions Morituri, 1985], shot in a few weeks [makes growling, energetic, aggressive noise] in 16mm. It was restored this year in 35mm and digital. This was in Cannes in '85. But then it was a bit difficult. I spent time from '87 to '90 to make the second feature, which was Le trésor des îles chiennes , it was the first feature film with Darius Khondji as a cinematographer. It was Jean-Vincent Puzos’s his first film as a production designer and now he's very famous. And then, Darius and Puzos made the last film by James Gray [The Lost City of Z], funny! On my side, I always worked with a little budget, but not in video. Chiens was in cinemascope, black and white, though with a small budget. But after I had difficulties again, and I made my third feature film in '96 [Doctor Chance]. But I want to make films, it's not that I choose to make films sometimes. No, no. I write and make music so that I can get my foot in the door—and then a film comes, if there's a chance. Perhaps it's a chance, too, to not make too many films, because music and writing is interesting. I made Doctor Chance with Joe Strummer, the lead singer of The Clash, and Marisa Paredes, it was a Franco-Chilean production, and the film was distributed in '98, it was in competition in Locarno in '97. And then: difficulties. So I made, again, short films, shot in 16[mm] black and white. One, Silencio  won the Prix Jean Vigo. I made two short films in Vladivostok. And again, because I had the Jean Vigo, which has the chance to get funding from the CNC, I shot Dharma Guns in 2009. I then had some retrospectives around the world because I was now a fine French man of the cinema [laughs]. The actor Gaspard Ulliel said, "Oh, I didn't know such a cinema existed in France!" He couldn't play the main role in 9 Doigts, because he was occupied, so I had some more difficulties [laughs], but he came for a smaller role. But it's like this: You spend a life. Since my first feature film I've made five or six films—or at least I tried!
NOTEBOOK: Would you like to make more?
OSSANG: Of course, it would be great to make more films. But at the same time, I travel, I make books, I make music. For me, there is a circle between all three. It's very different than poetry and cinema, or rock and roll and cinema. There is a connection. It's like three different entries of the same heart.
NOTEBOOK: I see qualities of rock and poetry in 9 Doigts, definitely. Where did this film come from?
OSSANG: You know, it seems very strange but when you see the golden age of silent movies you have a super connection with the avant-garde. You have Roger Vitrac and Antonin Arnaud intersecting with the cinema. When you see a film by Jean Epstein or Murnau or Eisenstein [makes head exploding noise and gesture]. I was very influenced, too, by film noir américain, which have a very strong poetry, too—a poetry of light.
NOTEBOOK: That your film premiered in Locarno where there was a Jacques Tourneur retrospective is fortuitous. His noirs like Berlin Express could share the world with 9 Doigts.
OSSANG: Ah, I love Jacques Tourneur! I watched on video a film called Out of the Past and I suddenly—oh!—had a connection with Hitchcock. I love Notorious, with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. Suddenly I discover it's a terror film, it's wonderful.
NOTEBOOK: Notorious, like your film, features a story that centers around a radioactive substance.
OSSANG: Yes, yes! I also love Kiss Me Deadly, a sort of American New Wave. Absolutely brilliant in the form.
NOTEBOOK: Films like Out of the Past or Kiss Me Deadly retain what you were speaking of: the cinema touching the world of poetry. The box in Kiss Me Deadly that has the explosive material, it is not just a plot device but contains something beguiling and strange that goes beyond the practical side of the story.
OSSANG: So many film noirs have this quality. I was traumatized when I was 18 when I saw The Asphalt Jungle. It is in many ways a tragedy. It is very strong about Europe and deportation, because there is a German, a French and Italian. And it has that violent, wonderful Sterling Hayden—amazing. It really, for me, had the structure of tragedy. Ç'est beau.
NOTEBOOK: Do you watch films when writing or planning your own pictures?
OSSANG: No, no. You know, it was strange because it's difficult sometimes in France. This time, it wasn't so terrible. We had good critiques, and I learned that I could have a little support from the CNC, but I had one week to write 25 pages. In all my films, perhaps because I come from the mountains, I am fascinated by the sea. The sea and ghost ships and the Mary Celeste. The film's beginning is like a film noir and I'm a big fan of Jean-Pierre Melville, so it's a bit Jean-Pierre Melville, and then it's a film d'aventure maritime, but for this film I think that literature is quite important. It's quite a change to make a film on a boat. Even if you have a little money, the boat shifts, it could get stormy. I checked the weather every day before the shoot. By chance, they found an old boat we could use, it was very complicated. But yes, the second part is an aventure maritime, and the third is [makings growling noise], with the big ocean, a gothic. When I was young I was a fanatic of Lautreamont. At the end, we had very little budget, but I was lucky, there were good actors. We had the same lab, for the film. I wrote a book on this, on the crossing of poetry and cinema. When cinema is celluloid, it's terrific. When we finished the shoot, I didn't use so much film, but if I had digital I wouldn't shoot faster. The actors who've only shot on digital say, [grumbling] "Oh, do you know how much it costs, shooting on film?" But with film there's more concentration. But we are lucky—there's [Christopher] Nolan and [Quentin] Tarantino, powerful guys who fight for film—but even in France in the last five years there are much more films. A little comeback. It's incredible, people make films for four million who say, "oh no, we didn't have enough money to shoot on film." What? You are lucky, I had 800,000!
NOTEBOOK: Can you tell me about the long dialogues in the film? Especially in the film's middle, on the boat, there is a great deal of ranting and discussion between the members of the criminal gang. Are these pre-existing texts you wrote before, or are they penned specifically for the characters?
OSSANG: No, they are for the film. The first part is quite silent. And then, suddenly, there's a topia [growing], and anti-topia [growling]. By that, my idea was to have a vertigo of words. And like that, with enough [growing, arguing noise], I could make a film with this budget. I was interested in this film mode. I did this on some other films, but to film words, I always say that if you film words, you can cut them. Words inspire the production designer, the photography, et cetera. But when you have Josef von Sternberg, the problem of modern cinema is that you have a tautology: the script, the dialog is saying the same thing as the light, the playing of the actors, the music—it's crazy! You must have a compliment of different people.
NOTEBOOK: There's a line from the group leader I liked very much, who says "because we are harmless, we can cause harm."
OSSANG: [laughs] Yes. One of the gangsters also says, "Killing is sometimes necessary. It goes with the job, but it’s not our profession.” In my films, I think there is what I call black humor. Blacker than black. But I think here is a lot of comedies of this type, coming from politics because the world is turning crazy.
NOTEBOOK: Do you see this group of gangsters as a political entity? Do they have an ideology or mission?
OSSANG: No, no. There is one, that is Ferrante, who likes to rant. We don't know who is "9 Doigts," maybe it's the doctor, maybe it's Ferrante. We don't know. And at the end I like this pow—gunshot—because they speak, they speak, they speak, they speak...let's stop this! So: bang! Ferrante is interesting, coming from existentialism. It's difficult, because when you have politics, terrorism and politics, it's a mixed bag, the group. I'm always interesting in rebellion. To rebel is a spirit, but how you rebel is based on your material.
NOTEBOOK: Ferrante says in the film that he doesn't want to be outdated. Do you still find newness in old cinema and freshness in applying its techniques to new films?
OSSANG: I think that silent movies are completely crazy! When you see a Fritz Lang film from '22, it's just like something made today, rat-a-tat-tat-tat. It was really punk, this time of silent movies. When I first had the idea to make movies, it was '78. In '78 you had Eraserhead and Apocalypse Now. I said, "oh my god! The next part of history is beginning, we are going to make new silent movies!"
NOTEBOOK: What about now, is this a lost spirit?
OSSANG: No, but I was really depressed by the idea that I have constant difficulties to make films. But I traveled, I spent a lot of time in South America, in New Zealand—in Siberia! It was a pity for me, because they say between 40 and 50 you are most strong. And during this time, I couldn't shoot. Because I made Doctor Chance when I was 40—20 years ago! It was a pity. I was really depressed by this idea, that film is finished, now you shoot in digital or nothing. I like video, but I don't like digital filmmaking. Film, it's about film! But again there are people, in the United States, and a little bit in France. We make a demonstration, Kodak is trying to survive. We can make a little lab, we can shoot in Super 8, in 16, and make films! When I make films, I'm not depressed. This film was difficult, I had only 36 days to shoot, and I couldn't lose an afternoon. But we did it!
NOTEBOOK: How do you work with your cinematographer, Simon Roca?
OSSANG: It was the first time, here he made films in a very different style. I make films perhaps a bit like Tourneur, who wants to put light so you can see just shadows. Where light creates dramaturgy. I never shoot with the same cinematographer. It was Darius Khondji, then Rémy Chevrin, then a young guy [Denis Gaubert] for Silencio, then I made three films with Gleb Teleshov in Vladivostok, because French people all speak to much. It worked well, because I don't speak Russian [laughs]. We had the language of cinema: Kalatozov!
NOTEBOOK: Is that a challenge, working with a new cameraman on each film, always explaining the look you want?
OSSANG: No. In color, I think it's much more difficult.
NOTEBOOK: Are you helping define the lighting?
OSSANG: Yes, yes, of course, because I like the materials. I like water, fog, smoke. It's a very low budget film, there was no assistant. There could be only eight persons, with the actors. Two actors, I was alone, there was a Portuguese machinist, an assistant cameraman, and a sound engineer—alone, not with an assistant! There was a full moon, so I said we should watch the sea.
NOTEBOOK: Can you tell me about the pace of the film, its tempo? The first half moves quickly, with lots of fade outs and cuts to black, and the second part slows down, gets dreamy, kind of sick and sleepy.
OSSANG: Perhaps in the interest of not making movies [laughs], I studied a lot of films, very long films. I discovered, strangely, for instance in a film like Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, you discover you spent 45 minutes but it seemed 12. I'm very interested in the mystery of time in movies. I'm also absolutely fond of Orson Welles. I love his Hispano-Moroccan film, Mr. Arkadin. I have the three versions, three edits of the film, on DVD. For me, this film is the perfect film. It is myth. Le mythe, vraiment. You understand nothing, but you are fascinated. There is something to it.
NOTEBOOK: Since you are a musician, and your films often feature songs by your band MKB (Messagero Killer Boys), I'd like to know about your thinking when you want to put music in 9 Doigts.
OSSANG: In this film there is not a lot of music, no? In Doctor Chance, for instance, you have a lot, really a lot of music, some with my band for Chiens. For this one, I don't know why, but the film didn't ask for music. I think it's much more interesting for the passage of time. In 9 Doigts, there are only five or six little cues, minimalist, with Jack Belsen, my guitarist from MKB. With the machines of editing now, not digital, you can use sound. We make films like in the '20s—less good, but still! That was more sound [makes grinding noise], a mix of sound. I made personally a few and Jack made five or so little things, and at the end there is song by my friend Guy McKnight, he was the leader of a very good British rock and roll band called The Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster. And over the credits, an amazing [singing]: "All my fucking friends are fucking dead!"