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English Translation by Basilio
Edited by Dean and Janine
When did you discover Maurice Dantec's novel, "Babylon Babies"?
It was in 2002. I always preferred the anticipation to science-fiction. Babylon Babies was known for being a great anticipation novel and this is why I read it. I finished it in two nights... And I told to myself that he would make an excellent six hour long movie! And with a 500 million euros' budget!
So why trying to adapt it for the screen, even if you thought it was inadaptable?
Precisely, the fact that everybody thought it was nonadaptable made the challenge more interesting! Each person that reads a book, reads it in his own way. We read the same words but our brain works differently. But when you watch a movie, everybody watches the same shots. My job was to impose on everybody my personal book's vision. And the challenge was to convert a 600 page book into an 1h30m movie. That's why changes became necessary almost at the beginning. The title was changed to Babylon A.D. and over the script's writing it became more and more a movie "inspired by" than a real book's adaptation. We invented scenes, a system and lots of other things. On the other hand we took the trip and the main story of Marie, this young woman that Toorop has to escort and which remains a mystery, but changed the character: she became a girl made by a computer with all the universe's knowledge and who is schizophrenic because she doesn't know the source of this knowledge that devours her brain. We also changed her name in Aurora: Marie was too evident. I also changed Toorop's background. In Dantec's book he is a 17 year old guy that joined the army to go in Kosovo. I made him a child soldier, a victim of all the last 30 years' wars. And then there are things in the book that can't be explained on the screen. Like when they arrive in Montreal and stay hidden for six months! This is illogical. But it's logical that when Toorop arrives at the destination, that in the movie is New York, he hands the girl over. We condensed 6 months in 3 minutes.
What does Babylon A.D. mean?
Babylon A.D. means Babylon's era, the city of all sins. And moreover this allowed us to make a great logo: B.A.D. (laughs)! On the other hand, for Americans, "babies" could mean babies but also cute girls. Then the word "babies" disturbed me: it was a revelation on what Aurora was holding.
What was Dantec's reaction when he saw all these changes?
He was very open-minded. He told me: "Take my work and do with it what you like. If I agreed giving to you the book's rights, it's because I like your vision and your movies. And I'll trust you 'till the end." He saw that I was respecting the book's philosophy, the subject, the story and was quite curious to see the transformations made by my co-writer Eric Besnard and me. I'm waiting for him to see if he tells me the same thing.
Your first three movies were based on original scripts. Two of your last three movies were adaptations: what does it change?
I never asked this to myself! My first film, METISSE, was inspired by my life at that time and by Spike Lee's SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT. My second film, LA HAINE, was inspired by Scorsese. Everything I made was inspired by things that I have seen. What matters in a movie isn't the script but the movie itself. When I read Stephen King, I want to adapt all his books! Jean-Christophe Grange;, the author of "Rivieres pourpres" is able to invent stories that I can't imagine for the screen. I don't mind to be inspired by a novel. When I adapt it, it becomes somehow mine. When I read more than 10 pages it generally becomes a book that I want to adapt (laughs)!
From the book's reading until the shooting, last 5 years: was it difficult to raise funds?
Yes, it was very difficult because Americans are very difficult in business. At the beginning, there was Christophe Rossignon, the producer of my first three movies. When we wrote the first script, Eric Besnard and I, thought it would be a movie with a 90 million dollars' budget. And Christophe told me: "Mathieu, I cant' be "enrolled" in this since I don't believe in this project". So we parted from each other and I went to the States to direct Gothika. I understood that to shoot Babylon A.D., I needed an American star and a movie that could generate box office in USA. Joel Silver, Matrix's producer, proposed to me Gothika with recent Academy Award winner Halle Berry, Penelope Cruz and Robert Downey Jr. It worked and this allowed me to work on Babylon A.D. without going to Hollywood to sell my script to a studio. And I absolutely needed also an European production so that Americans could just buy the movie. Our plan was to have a 60 million dollars' budget: 30 from Europe and 30 from the USA.
Did the subject scare Hollywood?
No, since it was hidden behind a solid story, numerous visual effects and also great action scenes. We soon had discussions about religion because we wanted to solve some aspects together. One of my references in this movie was Philip K. Dick's BLADE RUNNER and not for his shape but for his themes. If you think, Blade Runner is most of all a science-fiction and an action movie but then it talks about God, our life on this planet and creation... Spielberg did the same thing with E.T. which is a movie about racism. I told to myself: I want to make a movie for guys, full of action, hardcore!...that could represent the society in which we live". I didn't want to insist too much on religion so I remained on action. We made a religious sect. It's up to the critics and people to see what the different layers are.
How did you chose the actor for Toorop's role?
I immediately knew who I wanted: Vin Diesel. And it wasn't studios' choice. I wanted him. I saw him in many movies, found him a good actor, liked his personality and plus he has been revelled by Spielberg on SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. Then I saw him in BOILER ROOM in which he played a trader and then he is the last "big arm" in USA, there aren't other guys, not younger than sixty! And than I also wanted his "bourrin" (French slang to designate a heavy, slow, a bit ignorant and that use often massive strength person) side: I wanted the image of a guy that finds himself, at the end of the movie, the father of two children of the 22th century.
How did you come up with the idea of choosing Melanie Thierry?
I knew Melanie as top model. I met her when she played "Le vieux juif blonde", a theatre-work in which she played for an hour and a half two different characters. She was radiant. And I said to myself: "Here we are: she's Aurora!" I needed a girl that represented purity. We could think that Melanie was created by a computer: she has a perfect face, wonderful eyes; she is almost from another world. Moreover she is an excellent actress. I shot some test scenes with her with a hand-camera and I wept, it was full of emotion: she was Aurora. On the other hand it was important for me to have a French element in this movie. At the beginning the Americans refused. But when they understood we needed un unknown actress to play Aurora they said: "why not?" Her only problem was the French accent. So she had to work on her accent and so I asked her to keep and blend many accents in the same sentence so that we could not say from where she came from and to strengthen her character's universality. They accepted the idea and she was in.
To protect her you chose Michelle Yeoh...
I knew that next to Melanie's white purity, I needed an Asian beauty. And Michelle is the most beautiful woman in the world (laughs)! She is part of the movie's history. At the beginning I wrote the role of a real nun who was fat and unsure... but I really wanted to make an action movie with a nun fighting. So I needed a fighting actress. Among girls there are few; among real women, she is the one. Michelle worked with Jackie Chan and I was very pleased to have her on set. Her presence allowed me to make this trio more of a fighting group and to involve Melanie in the action. On the other hand, once Michelle agreed, it was easier to involve international French actors. The fact that Gerard Depardieu could play Gorsky delighted everybody and I wanted to get in touch with him. It was an unbelievable chance since I needed a great actor to play the fist villain of the movie. And Depardieu played him 'til the end in a great way. After that I thought about Matrix's villain, Lambert Wilson. Before Matrix, I was used to considering him as a playboy of the French cinema but after the movie made with Marc Caro, I knew it was him. We worked a lot on this character since we wanted him to have this super-hero side from the comics of the 80s without being ridiculous. He is really a character of "Metal hurlant"! Moreover this comic mag of the 80s is one of my references for this movie. For me Babylon A.D. is a concentrate of "Metal Hurlant".
There is also Charlotte Rampling in the cast...
There I also needed a charismatic villainess, a symbol, a woman that could feed the fantasies and hatred of each man and woman she met. I needed a woman with these eyes that would always leave you doubting whether you made the right choice to leave with her your sons or if she wears still like in "The night porter". It was Charlotte Rampling.
How was the shooting?
It was a very hard shooting that began in December 2006 and was completed in April 2007. There were problems on the set. You can't make a movie like that without difficulties. To make it without problems I would have needed a 150 million dollars' budget! Without that you had to fight and argue. And we fought! It was a guerrilla movie. It hasn't been simple. In any case I have never made a simple movie (laughs)! And when you have problems like when you need snow and it doesn't snow, I call it a big problem! This explains rumours about this problematic shooting that arrived in France.
Was it everything all right with Vin Diesel during the shooting?
There were adjustments between Vin and me about the story, the character, his and my way to work... But these are problems that you have with each actor. You can plan everything from the beginning but when you're on set, working 15/16 hours a day, it's very different! You live things in a different way. There are people with whom you start working and then after some weeks you say: "Shit, it doesn't work!" And you find someone else. On the other hand you can't fire actors from the set. And there starts this relationship made of love and hate that exists between actors and the director. There is obviously a side of love because Vin gave a lot in this movie in front on the camera and I think it's by far his best movie as actor. On the other side Vin is an American star used to be treated like an American star. While I treat people as human beings.
In Babylon A.D. there are many of your worries that you have as citizen and artist. Do you consider yourself a committed director?
Whatever I do, there will be a political background because it's the basis for every good movie. It's the importance that you give to a subject, that gives its strength to a movie. I try to touch people with strong stories.
This movie is dedicated to your daughters...
I started working on this movie six years ago and my eldest daughter is six. And I have a second daughter who was born recently: my wife was pregnant during the shooting, it's a movie made around children and so that talks about education. Like Toorop says at the end of the movie: "Let's save the planet one child at a time."
Is it easy to imagine visually what the future would be like?
The idea was to make an anticipation movie and not a science-fiction one. Drones, electromagnetic paper able to reproduce an existing image, even if in a prototype shape. You have to ask yourself how to represent the future without being a futurist and showing flying cars, but rather by imagining what an electric Smart (car) would be like in ten years.
The young short films director you were, would he have imagined he would direct one day a movie like this?
When I was a short film director, obviously no. My problem was to make first a feature-length movie and then, to make a second one. But I'm happy because I carried out something I started ten years ago successfully. Existing beyond borders allows me to touch different subjects and to be freer. I would suffocate working only in French cinema. But most of all I'm happy because I work!
Are you satisfied with Babylon A.D.?
I am pleased with it. It was another guerrilla movie. A fight movie. I found in the movie the same energy and strength I saw during the shooting. I will show it to Dantec. I am worried about his reaction, even if I know he liked the script. But I am also worried about the reaction of the fans of the book. They'll also have to understand that it isn't a true adaptation. On the other hand, I think that the movie will bring readers to the book. And there they will be able to discover the real version and what Dantec wanted to say. Babylon A.D. is my personal vision of his book. Two versions that have in common the same spirit.
(thanks to: Basilio, Janine, and Dean)