This week, Robin Campillo’s critically acclaimed BPM (Beats Per Minute) opened at the New York film festival giving us a beautiful and moving insight inside gay activism in Paris at the heart of the AIDS epidemic. Campillo answered a few questions for us at the end of screening…
I believe you were involved with some of your friends in the early days of the Act Up movement in France?
Robin Campillo: Act Up Paris was created two years after the Act Up New York, it was in 1989, and I joined Act Up in 1992. From the beginning of the epidemic I was thinking of doing a film about it but I was in a sort of crisis as a director because I though that cinema was useless compared to the events because in 1982, what we knew of aids was coming from this country (the United States) because it was in the news papers here, as I show in the film. So I was really frightened as a young gay man, I was 22 at the time and I though was going to die because the newspapers in France where very negative and terrifying about that. When I joined act up in 92 I think I finally started to breathe. Its strange because this movie came out from my memories. I didn’t go through many documents I just tried to put all these memories all together to create a perspective. For many many years I didn’t realise, because I was thinking of what I could do about this disease, I realised 6 years ago that I should do a film about these months, very specific in my life, when I got into this group. So, 6 years ago I started to write the screenplay, 25 years after the events, so I’m pretty slow.
Well you also made an other film in between.
Robin Campillo: Yes, but that was crap (laughs). But you know I was so afraid to disappoint people with this film. Myself first, but all my friends, the other militants. I was afraid of jumping, so once I had done my second film I decided that my way of directing was maybe a little bit more fluid and that it was time for me to confront this film.
I would like to talk about the cast. It’s a big ensemble cast; was it difficult for you to have so many people who interact in the film?
Robin Campillo: From my previous film I decided that the most important thing in making my film is just to be sure of my casting so I take a long time to do it. For this one I took nine months to find these guys. I want to be sure because I want to be confident because the end goal is for them to be a little bit free during the shooting. So I have to be sure. So we did some testing and when I do the casting I try to work at the same time on my dialogues and the screenplay so for these two main characters I had them do a lot of scenes before picking them. I would tell the we are going to do a sex scene but only topless and I want to see how it works between you two because I had to be sure. We had a lot of characters but we had a lot of combinations between them so it took a very long time to be sure of everything.
Nahuel Pèrez Biscayart: I think that was the right thing to do because the first day we started rehearsing with the other guys I was so struck by the grouping. I felt what we feel when we are young kids and we go to the theatre and we just believe everything that’s on the screen. And I saw the actors playing and I felt, woaw, it feels so real, the fiction is destroyed. So after that its so simple because you let yourself be inspired by the other guys and that of course is all because time was taken to find the right pieces will act those parts.
Arnaud Valois: For me it was a little different because I was not an actor anymore when the casting director called. I had stopped five years previous to that call because I was a bit frustrated of waiting for parts and good projects like this one. And … called me and asked are you still an actor? And I said ‘’No’’, he then said ‘do you want to try?’ I said, ‘’No’’. She then told me about the movie, about the subject and I said ok. It took a month every week, coming in for two hours and working and working and working and at one point I said ‘’stop, I can’t anymore this is to much for me’’ and he said ‘’ok, you have the part’’, this is my story.
Where you aware of Robins previous work?
Not at all.
Robin Campillo: I should have taken more time for the casting…
I also wanted to ask you about the importance of the music.
Robin Campillo: So the composer is called Arnaud Rebotini and its very interesting because he is doing a lot of electronic music and techno and film music. He had done the music for one of my movies before and he was very good at getting the time period right. For the time of the movie, 1992, he knows exactly what was playing then, he had all these cables and instruments from that period and he knew exactly what to do so it was very important for me to work with him again. And, because I have this paranoiac idea that composers are a bit lazy, I made him create the soundtrack like nine months before the shooting, because I wanted the actors, for the last scene where they are dancing, I wanted them to have the music while we filmed. That was really important and I think it worked because they had to dance alone, not looking at each other because it was all of a sudden transferred on an other level because the actors where able to discover the kind of emotion this kind of music could bring to the film. I talked a lot with Arnaud Rebotini and I told him that I wanted to capture the emotion of this music at the time because 120 BPM as the film is called in France it’s the pulse at which house music is played. And this music, house music, was for me the background of this epidemic because it was music for clubs but at the same time there was a kind of melancholy to it, a kind of insanity too. It’s not a peaceful music for me so it was important that it was part of the movie, just like the dancing because I had this feeling that if we were struggling and trying to survive. We wanted to live, to dance, to have sex, to take drugs and whatever because we were very young and it was unfair because we were so good at doing all that. And for me that was a crucial point of the film.
The cinematography is striking, can you tell me about that scene where the river in Paris, the Seine, is red?
Robin Campillo: Jeanne Lapoirie, my cinematographer, did an amazing job. Its not easy to work on this kind of film and to work with me but the film has multiple dimensions and one of these is that I wanted the film to represent this amphitheatre where they have these meetings. I didn’t want it to have windows because I wanted it to look like one giant brain where people are just creating things together. So we blocked out all the windows to make something that would look like a box. So its not easy to light this kind of setup but she did it very well because I wanted to contrast this very white scene with actions which are more colourful and dark. And I wanted these action do be the extensions of the speeches made in that amphitheatre. As if they where creating these images. We played a lot with that with Jeane Lapoirie. To me, it is very important with this kind of films to play with metamorphosis. To go from one form to another form, to change style. At the end of the film, when the disease is so strong I wanted to go a little bit further and that when the red river scene appears. This moment in the film is connected to Jimmy Sommerville’s song because of Bronski Beat. Jimmy Somerville did a concert in Paris for Act Up because he was a good friend of the creator of Act Up Paris. He did the concert in 1991, just one year before I joined the group and when he started to sing his song that was the song of just before the epidemic people started crying because it was so strong. I asked Jimmy Somerville to be part of the film because I wanted to recreate this concert. He refused for many reasons, all of which I understand, he just didn’t want to be filmed and gave us the multitrack recording of this song and I realised that it was possible to have just his voice. So I asked my composer to make a remix, like in the 90’s, to get the pure and dry voice without the instruments or the reverberations as if he was here physically. Then the song flows into the slow breathing of one of the characters at the hospital, and this breathing in turn brings us to the flowing blood river. In fact, it was a project of Act Up. We had two big projects. One was to put a condom on the Obelix, which we did, and the other was to colour the river but it was impossible to do so I decided to do it in my film.