Perhaps more widely known as an actor in French and international movies (Amélie, The Fifth Element), Mathieu Kassovitz has also forged a side career as a director. In 1995 he made the instant-classic La Haine, his second feature, followed by a string of poorly received but occasional box office successes. In 2007, he met a creative disaster with Babylon A.D., a sci-fi actioner starring… Vin Diesel.
We sat down with Kassovitz to talk about his career to date, including his latest directorial effort, the well-received political thriller Rebellion.
GFW: Was it important for you to go back to a political root after years spent making more mainstream fare?
Kassovitz: Yeah, by the subject itself it becomes what it is. There is a link [to La Haine] but there’s more than links because if you analyse the two movies there’s very distinctive similarities that I made consciously. Where La Haine is a film about police brutality and analyses how you can wake up in the morning and die in the evening. The audience also discovers a community they don’t really know about. Rebellion is about government brutality.
Was Rebellion made to highlight how governments crush people then lie about it afterwards?
It’s not one of those movies where you watch it and say ‘they don’t do that’. Now we know. We didn’t have the Internet in 1995 and now we do. We know way too much and we know this [what happened to the Kanak people] is nothing special. They do that every day. What’s special about the story is the guy in the middle, Legorjus [GIGN negotiator, the guy Kassovitz portrays]. For me, it was easy to tell the story because we had a point of view.
What’s the reaction been like in France to your film?
I’ve had great reviews. Some people try and make it a controversial movie. When you’re trying to look for the truth, for them, it’s controversial. I really worked very hard to make a journalistic and balanced film. I didn’t want it to be controversial. I didn’t want La Haine to be controversial. It’s enlightening people about things they didn’t know about. I did a television show with ministers and the army general. They were like, ‘Your movie’s bullsh*t. It’s full of lies. You’re a partisan. You’re a Kanak lover’. I was like, ‘Can you be more specific?’ This was on television and they said, ‘I haven’t seen the movie but I heard it’s very bad’. Are they crazy? They don’t give a sh*t that much? They were at the centre of this catastrophe. ‘Can you go and see the movie and just out of respect for the dead – military and Kanak?’
They dismissed it without even seeing the film? Sounds like politicians, alright.
It’s terrible. The lack of respect is horrible. The lack of willingness to admit they fu**ed up and killed people.
Kassovitz in 'Rebellion'.
Clearly you’re very politically-minded but have chosen a career path that keeps us guessing, both in terms of acting and directing. Were you worried about being pegged as an overly political filmmaker?
I do things I’m inspired by and I’m not inspired all the time. Sometimes I have to get inspiration from somebody else’s work. Sometimes it’s good inspiration and sometimes it’s bad. You have to deliver the job [either way]. It’s not always the same mission. I do movies for different reasons. Sometimes it’s to scare people or because you want to pay your taxes, want to f**k the actress, lots of reasons together. Sometimes the journey of making a movie is more satisfying than the result. That’s why, when I look at Babylon A.D., it wasn’t a bad experience and I didn’t die from it. That’s what I told myself every morning when I woke up in that situation. I didn’t die from it: I learned from it. I was fascinated by what was going on. The movie was gone but I had to go to work and not get sued. I was looking at everything and thinking, ‘This is crazy’.
Obviously you had a bad experience making Babylon A.D., to an extent, I assume with Rebellion you had complete control?
Yeah, but the problem is I don’t like to have control. Movies like that, when you have control, you have to do everything. It becomes a responsibility towards the people on both sides; the Kanaks and the military. It’s a real responsibility. I can’t lay the blame on somebody if it’s not portrayed right. You cannot do that all the time. It’s too demanding and it took ten years to make. It’ll probably take another ten years to find something that excites me.
Do you think people will expect another political movie from you now?
People expect a lot of things, but I’m not here to fulfil their expectations. I’m here to do what I can.
You’ve had a mixed critical reception down the years.
I’m a fan of Crimson Rivers – it’s such a mad film. I’ll be honest, I don’t like Gothika or Babylon A.D.
Me neither. [On Crimson Rivers] It’s a cool movie. Stupid ending, but that’s a problem with the script.
Vin Diesel and Kassovitz on the set of 'Babylon A.D'.
Would you go back to Hollywood and make another film there or are you done with that?
Yes I would. I live in Hollywood now.
You’re not afraid to take it on again, then?
Hollywood was not the problem. There’s a lot of talent in Hollywood and the best movies are made there. It’s about finding the right people to work with. Everything was wrong on Babylon A.D.
Did you know from the start things weren’t right or was it a progressive nightmare?
No, because I believed in it. I woke up in the middle of production thinking, ‘Really?’ I was not in charge of the production side of it and I was just doing my job. Have you seen Fu**ing Kassovitz?
I have not.
Go on the Internet and YouTube F***king Kassovitz. You’ll have a blast. It’s an unofficial ‘Making-of’ and funny as hell. Check it out.
I shall. I’d like to ask you about working with Jacques Audiard, who you made two films for back in the ‘90s. He’s revered today, after films like The Beat That My Heart Skipped, A Prophet and Rust and Bone. Did you know back then he’d become huge?
No. He didn’t know either. He kept saying he didn’t like being a director. I was like, ‘Shit, man, you’re right. You’re pissing me off right now’. I was a more advanced director than he was. He was more a writer and really didn’t care about technique, more about dialogue. That was his background. I guess he got the hang of it because he really nailed it. Back in the day, I wasn’t that impressed. I could see he would try and strike some artistic figures but I wasn’t that impressed. I was impressed when I saw A Prophet.
Kassovitz circa 1993.
It’s such a masterful movie.
It’s pure genius.
When I saw A Prophet, I honestly didn’t connect it to his very early films, which you starred in. It’s like two different directors.
A Prophet was touched by grace. It’s not just Audiard, it was the script and Tahar [lead actor Tahar Rahim], and the whole situation. It becomes special. That’s how I feel about La Haine, it wasn’t just me; it was everybody. If I could do that again then I’d be a genius.
To be fair, La Haine is considered one of the best French films ever made.
Yeah, it’s crazy. It surprises me and people still come to me about it.
'Rebellion' is out in UK cinemas this Friday.