By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Making its Canadian premiere tomorrow, Friday the 13th at 5:30 p.m. at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival, THE NIGHT EATS THE WORLD (LA NUIT A DÉVORÉ LE MONDE) is an unusual and effective variation on zombie/survival tropes. RUE MORGUE got an exclusive sit-down with its creators of the movie (which also hits U.S. theaters and VOD tomorrow from Blue Fox Entertainment) at one of its previous venues, New York’s Tribeca Film Festival.
Based on the popular novel by Pit Agarmen, THE NIGHT EATS THE WORLD was directed by French filmmaker Dominique Rocher and stars Norwegian actor Anders Danielsen Lie as Sam, who falls asleep in the back room of a Paris apartment and wakes up to a violently changed world. The ravenous reanimated dead have taken over the city and roam the streets, and Sam seems to be the last person left alive. Barricading himself inside the building, he has to figure out how to keep himself alive and maintain his humanity in the face of isolation, loneliness and the ghouls outside. Scripted by Rocher with Guillaume Lemans and Jérémie Guez, THE NIGHT EATS THE WORLD eschews gut-ripping action in favor of digging into the soul of the last man on Earth. Shown in French at festivals, it is being released Stateside in a simultaneously shot English-language version.
How did you discover the novel of THE NIGHT EATS THE WORLD?
DOMINIQUE ROCHER: I learned of it when it was nominated for a literary prize, and it was very weird for that to happen with a book about zombies. I liked the bridge it made between a personal story and genre ideas, and I think the film is in the same place. The book is actually a diary by a writer narrating his experience, so the main question when we were writing the script was, how could we tell the same story without the inner voice of the character, just with pictures and sound? That was my main objective: to give the same feeling as the book, which is about isolation and lack of connection with others, but in a cinematic way. The first thing was to change the job of the main character; we made him a musician instead of a writer.
The easy way would have been to have Sam narrate the film, and it was a bold choice to not have him do that, and tell the story through gesture and performance.
DR: Yeah, because this story told with the inner voice exists in the book, and I think it’s great, but I wanted to find a cinematic way to do the same thing. So at our first meeting, we said, “We don’t want a voiceover.”
When you were financing the film, did any potential backers say, “We like this, but it needs more zombies in it”?
DR: [Laughs] No, I had a lot of freedom from the financiers in France. They were more about, “We want you to make a personal film, and tell the story you want.” I never got those kinds of remarks; it was more the opposite, because we didn’t have a lot of money, so with the zombie scenes, which were very expensive, they would say, “Are you sure you want that?”
Anders, when you got the role, did you read the book to acquaint yourself with the character there, or just work with what was in the script?
ANDERS DANIELSEN LIE: No, I didn’t read the book. [To Rocher] I remember asking if you wanted me to read it, and you said no. Normally I would have, because I’m a research freak—not necessarily to put that information into the role or the scenes, but I get more confidence in my acting through learning things. When I read the script, I felt it was kind of open, and that it would be very much up to the director what to put into the film, thematically and story-wise, because not much “happens” in it.
DR: Actually, I remember I spent about a week with you, and after that I rewrote it and put in some personal things of yours.
ADL: That gave me a lot of energy. The idea that he was a percussionist was interesting, because suddenly he is alone in this apartment building; he’s a guy who doesn’t like to be around people very much, but now he’s forced into isolation, and it’s just him and all these objects he can use as instruments. That gave me a lot to work with.
DR: It wasn’t in the script at all, and it’s very much a part of the movie now. I believe the tapes were also something that came from you, because you told me that you recorded yourself when you were young, so I used that for the character. I think one of the tapes we used was one you actually made when you were a kid.
ADL: There’s this whole idea of being alone when you want to be; you know there will always be people around you, but you seek solitude in that situation. All of a sudden, now there is not anyone there; how do you cope with that, and how does that forced isolation feel like for someone like Sam? That interested me, and also the obvious existential question that is always raised by last-man-on-Earth films: What is the reason to live? Is there any meaning to existence when you know you’re alone? Who are you living for?
Was it difficult playing that isolation with a crew around you?
ADL: Yeah, that’s always distracting. I should be used to this by now; being on a film set is by definition distracting, so it’s hard to stay fully concentrated. I was also concerned that I’m in the film so much, people would be bored. There are all the scenes with no dialogue, and a lot of times it’s just me, so what could I do to avoid things getting tedious? At those points, I always thought of Isabelle Huppert; “What would Huppert do in that situation?” You’re aiming for something weird, something different, something that can surprise. It’s hard work, but you do your best and you never stop searching.
How did you develop the way Sam deals with the undead, which is very different from the usual conflict we see in zombie films?
ADL: What I had in mind was that as human beings, we naturally want to connect to something; we cannot be totally disconnected, it’s not possible. So especially for this guy, who has issues with being so introverted and misanthropic, in this specific situation, he starts reconsidering himself, and that’s why he eventually tries to connect with the zombies.
Especially the one trapped in the elevator, who becomes a kind of sounding board. How was it working with veteran actor Denis Lavant in that role, when he didn’t really communicate back to you?
ADL: Oh, he was communicating, because Denis Lavant is one of the greatest physical actors in cinema, ever. He was originally a circus performer, so his way of playing is extremely physical, which is the opposite of me; if I see my whole body in the frame, I get extremely self-aware. I find it a lot easier to be seated in a chair. He’s everything I admire in everything I’m not able to do, so he gave me a lot. It was a bit of a dream come true to act with this guy, because I admire him so much. When you play against an actor of that caliber, it’s motivation to do your best.
DR: There wasn’t much in the script about Denis’ role; he was just a zombie in an elevator, and Denis was very generous and looked for ways to express feelings without talking, without breathing, without anything. He’s very creative.
Did you and he work out a backstory for his character before he became a zombie?
DR: Yeah; in fact, there were a few scenes that are not in the film, where Sam explores Denis’ character’s apartment, and you find out he was a doctor who had lost connections with his family. But since Sam talks a little about it in the middle of the film, we thought it wasn’t necessary to have those scenes.
Who created your zombie makeup, which is terrific?
DR: A company called Atelier 69; Olivier Afonso was the main person I worked with there. It’s a big company in France that does pretty much every film with special effects there, and some U.S. films too. Our references were accidental deaths from the ER in hospitals. We wanted everything to be very realistic.
How did you find the right location, since it’s crucial to the story?
DR: With the screenwriters, we came up with a drawing of the perfect building. We said, “OK, this is the place he stays, the stairs, the elevator, the rooftop.” I gave that to the scouting team and said, “Find me the perfect building. You have two weeks.” [Laughs] There are a few empty buildings in Paris like that; of course, none of them were perfect for the film, but we found three different ones I could assemble in the editing to make the perfect building. It’s all real locations, because I didn’t want to make a studio film, I wanted everything to seem real, in Paris; you can feel the city. We managed to do some street scenes by blocking them off, to give that feeling of emptiness.
Were there any particular challenges involved in shooting the movie in two different languages?
DR: Not for me, because we had very little dialogue in the film. It was possible because Anders and Golshifteh [Farahani, as a woman Sam encounters midway through the film] were so flexible with language. We did three takes in French and three takes in English without waiting, and it was very easy. In editing, maybe it was, because I was so used to the French version that when I started editing the English one, everything felt weird. I was used to this look and that movement, so re-editing the same scenes was a very strange feeling.
ADL: For me, it was more difficult than I had expected, because when you shoot in two languages, you automatically prioritize one over the other. As we went along, I felt I had prioritized the French version, like, “This is the real universe, the French one, and we’re doing one in English.” I remember, Dominique, when you and the producer said you wanted to do two versions, I thought it was going to be an interesting learning experience.
I recently did a film with Paul Greengrass called NORWAY, which is based on true events there, and we discussed making a Norwegian version. We had to shoot it in English, because that’s what Netflix wanted, but up until a couple of weeks before filming, we were discussing making two versions. I’m glad we didn’t do it, as this was a movie with much more dialogue than THE NIGHT EATS THE WORLD, and even if we would be talking in our mother tongue and English, it would be kind of confusing character-wise. The way you use language is a part of your character, so it would be almost like making two films, playing two roles.
What would you say are the differences between the French and English versions of NIGHT?
DR: [To Lie] In the editing, we felt like you are slightly more confident speaking in English. For me, it works a little better in French, because your French is not perfect, so that isolates the character a little more, mostly in the beginning. But it’s a very small difference that most people won’t notice.