Pascal Laugier: “When I was a child, film taught me a lot, it made me think, it made me wiser”

The 36th edition of the renowned BIFFF (Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival) kicked off earlier this week with Pascal Laugier’s latest horror feature “Ghostland.” The award-winner at the Gérardmer Film Festival two months ago (Grand Prize, Audience Award) is a psychological and female-powered horror thriller about a mother of two who inherits a home from her aunt, and is confronted with murderous intruders. Canadian-born Mylène Farmer, the Gallic equivalent of Madonna in the late 1980s and 1990s, and one of the most successful recording artists of all-time in France, is featured in one of her rare screen roles, opposite Crystal Reed and Anastasia Phillips.

Crystal Reed and Mylène Farmer in “Ghostland”

With his debut “Martyrs” [2008] filmmaker Pascal Laugier (b. 1971) established himself as a genre film director. Six years after his drama “The Tall Man” starring Jessica Biel, a film that looks like the type of movie made within the Hollywood production machine, he launched his latest screen effort successfully at the BIFFF where he introduced the film and gave interviews to promote the release.

Mr. Laugier, how did the screenplay of “Ghostland” come about?

I grew up with an older brother, and I always wanted to make a film about siblings – two brothers or two sisters – set in an imaginary world. That’s how the story gradually evolved, and as soon as I was able to structure the story, I started writing the screenplay and finished it in about three or four months. That’s fast, and I was fortunate to raise the budget of four million euros pretty easily. Earlier I had worked on another screenplay for two years. It was a thriller, much more expensive to make too, but the project didn’t materialize. That left me kind of frustrated, and since I also like to make a living, I worked very hard to get “Ghostland’ made.

What was the budget of “Ghostland”?

Four million euros, and we shot the film in thirty-eight days.

Suppose the budget would have been like ten million euros instead of four million, would that have made a difference? Would we actually see it on the screen?

No, not for this project, because I always had a very intimate vision for this movie, so it didn’t require any more money. The budget was right to tell this story.

The house in “Ghostland” where the whole story takes place, is almost a character on its own. It plays a very crucial role, doesn’t it?

That’s right. When I wrote the script, the house was like a mental box to me. So when we went on location hunting, we were looking for a typical American house, nothing special, and we found this nineteenth century farmhouse near Winnipeg, Canada, and it became our shell. We moved everything inside, took out some walls, put on our own wallpaper, and put in all our props like the dolls. We reshaped the house entirely, but the outside we didn’t touch at all. We also created another floor that doesn’t exist. If you watch the house closely, you’ll only see the first and the second floor, but in the movie there’s also a third floor that doesn’t really exist in the house. Those scenes were shot in the barn in front of the house, which we never show in the film, but this studio was used for shooting our scenes on the third ‘mental’ floor. It reinforces the mental nature of the house.

When you wrote your screenplay, or when you were shooting the film, when did you know exactly: ‘This is the level of violence or horror that I can show, and I can’t go any further than that.’

It’s a very intuitive process. To me, the horror genre is an offensive genre. It’s either offensive, or it’s nothing. As a member of the audience myself, I’m not a big fan of the way the American studios have cleaned up the genre to make it as safe as all the other films. That is very unnatural. However there is very little blood in “Ghostland,” but the way it is written and the way we shot it, makes it dangerous for the audience. On the set I always wait and see where the actors will take me and with all the ideas they come up with, I get a better idea what the scene will look like. On paper I knew it would be an uncomfortable film. But you have to remember that when “Frankenstein” [1931] was first released, there were people who thought it was going too far. Throughout film history, there have always been people who said this or that film was simply not done. But I feel that when you’re a filmmaker, you have to listen to yourself.

When I watch your films, I always think that Stephen King, as a writer, and Tobe Hooper, as a filmmaker, have influenced you tremendously. Is that correct?

Absolutely, they have been very important to me. Stephen King is not only an important writer, but also how he talks about the horror genre, how he feels about it, that helped me a lot to become who I am now as a film director. Since France has no history in the horror genre, I knew I would end up in a marginal area of the cinematic landscape. So people like Stephen King, Tobe Hooper, Dario Argento or John Carpenter, they have made a huge contribution and through their films, they showed me how they worked, how their brilliant minds functioned, what their fears were, and that’s why I take the horror genre very seriously. Whenever I drove to the set of “Ghostland” in the morning, if I was worried about something, not sure if the scene would play out right, I always thought of Tobe Hooper. He was like my own personal [horror fiction author H.P.] Lovecraft, and that convinced me to make the film the way I hoped to make it.

Would you consider yourself a cinephile?

Oh yes, before I became a filmmaker, I had been a film buff for a long time. There has been a film critic in France, who described himself as a ciné-fils. And that’s exactly how I feel as well. When I was a child of twelve or thirteen, film taught me a lot, it made me think, it made me wiser, it also warned me, so I definitely feel I am a ciné-fils too. That’s why Beth, the character in my film, has role models and she has a vertical relationship with the world. She works and wants to get on the same level as the people she admires. The filmmakers that we just talked about, I also admired them to such an extent that I also want to prove myself: I make films thanks to them. And a character like Beth is a perfect reflection of myself. She has no cell phone, no laptop – that’s me, in a way.

Pascal Laugier visiting the BIFFF at Brussels Bozar. Photograph: Leo Verswijver

Did you have total autonomy when you made “Ghostland”?

Yes, with all four films I did, I had carte blanche and final cut. I had total artistic freedom. I made them like a French filmmaker. As you know, in France, filmmakers make all the decisions, and my producers always gave me all the artistic freedom I could have hoped for. I also feel like a French filmmaker, not an American filmmaker: the French system protects me so I have total control over my work. The only important reason why my last two films were in English was because it’s easier to get them funded when you’re co-producing internationally. And it pays off: “Ghostland” will also be released in Asia and South America. That’s the advantage of shooting your film in English.

And the next step is going to Hollywood?

Maybe one day I will be ready to make a film there, but right now I don’t think I am. I still like to hold on to my artistic freedom.

Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival, Brussels (Belgium)
April 4, 2018

The theatrical trailer of “Ghostland” with Dutch and French subtitles

FILMS

SAINT ANGE, a.k.a. HOUSE OF VOICES (2004) DIR – SCR Pascal Laugier PROD Vlad Paunescu, Christophe Gans, Richard Grandpierre CAM Pablo Rosso ED Sébastien Prangère MUS Joseph LoDuca CAST Virginie Ledoyen, Lou Doillon, Catriona MacColl, Dorina Lazar, Virginie Darmon, Jérôme Soufflet

MARTYRS (2008) DIR – SCR Pascal Laugier PROD Richard Grandpierre CAM Stéphane Martin, Nathalie Moliavko-Visotzky, Bruno Philip ED Sébastien Prangère MUS Alex Cortés, Willie Cortés CAST Morjana Alaoui, Mylène Jampanoï, Catherine Bégin, Robert Toupin, Patricia Tulasne, Juliette Gosselin, Xavier Dolan

THE TALL MAN (2012) DIR – SCR Pascal Laugier PROD Scott Kennedy, Kevin DeWalt, Jean-Charles Levy, Clément Miserez CAM Kamal Derkaoui ED Sébastien Prangère MUS Todd Bryanton CAST Jessica Biel, Jodelle Ferland, Stephen McHattie, William B. Davis, Samantha Ferris, Colleen Wheeler, Eve Harlow

GHOSTLAND (2018) DIR – SCR Pascal Laugier PROD Ian Dimerman, Matthieu Warter, Scott Kennedy, Sami Tesfazghi, Jean-Charles Levy, Brendon Sawatzky, Nicolas Manuel, Clément Miserez CAM Danny Nowak ED Dev Singh CAST Crystal Reed, Anastasia Phillips, Emilia Jones, Taylor Hickson, Mylène Farmer, Rob Archer