FIFM interview: David Michôd

One of president Tilda Swinton’s jury of nine artists that will decide who wins the Golden Star for the best films in Competition at the Marrakech International Film Festival is Australian director and screenwriter David Michôd (Animal Kingdom, The Rover, The King). Cédric Succivalli managed to get him away from his jury duties for a brief interview about his experience at the festival so far, about finding a directorial voice, and about how being taken by surprise when watching movies surpasses analyzing film through a directorial lens.

CS: Can you give me your impression of ‘jury duty’. I’m not going to go into specifics or ask you what your favorite film is, but we are about halfway through, having seen 6 out of 14 films. What is your impression as a director of the line-up that you are being offered and given the chance to, not judge because I hate the word, but to…

DM: Scrutinize! It’s a very interesting experience. I love the fact that the competition, which is another word I don’t like, at this festival is for first and second films. Because it means for me that what I’m looking for is a voice, a directorial voice, that may not be fully formed yet but is still distinctive, and is a voice that I want to hear again. Films are such strange creatures, made by lots of different people, and sometimes they can feel very polished but still be lacking that voice, that substance that makes me want to go to the movies. So I’m actually very much enjoying watching movies in a search for that voice.

CS: Without getting into specifics, have you found one already?

DM: What’s interesting about all of the ones we have seen so far is that they all have a voice. The challenge for us will be finding that one voice that we want to support.

CS: Talking about directorial voice, when you watch a movie are you able to completely separate yourself from being a director and be a ‘normal’ viewer, or are you always dissecting what you are watching?

DM: I have no way of divorcing my experience from everything I know about and have learned about filmmaking. So I’m looking at everything. But what I have found over the years is that if a movie is truly emotionally engaging it can cut through all of that. Because I find that my favorite cinema experiences are the ones that take me by surprise. So when I’m looking at the way shots are composed, actors are directed, scenes are cut, if something feels very fresh it has a way of subverting all of that, collapsing it all and making me feel like a kid again, discovering cinema for the first time.

CS: Considering the kind of cinema that you have done so far, there is a spectacular range of genres that you have already tackled. Is the idea of theme central for you, or is it just an excuse to express yourself?

DM: For me, I have become aware of the fact that my films have recurring thematic threads, but I have never set out to impose those themes on the films. I found them retrospectively. Which is interesting to me, because it means my films are expressions of me in some way, even if I’m not wholly aware of it myself.

CS: Let’s talk for a bit about your new film, The King. It’s a film that starts in a direction that it then abandons. So when you say you like to be taken by surprise, that is exactly what happens with that film, because we expect it to be one of those costume dramas and war films, but in fact it’s a film about broken masculinity and broken pride. Of course it’s Shakespearean, but it’s also done in a way that has you completely subvert the genre. That is also due, I feel, to how your direction of actors is very modern, as remote as possible from regular costume dramas. Are you trying to push them to this modernity?

DM: Yeah, but… I think one of the main things that makes The King feel modern is how young it is, which I really liked exploiting. Because it felt historically authentic to have young characters. And I’m not just talking about Timothée Chalamet or Lily-Rose, but also Ben Mendelsohn or Joel Edgerton, playing characters that we would normally associate with old actors. These are people living in a time where you would normally be dead by the time you were 50. But I also didn’t set out to make specific political statements about today, yet it’s unavoidable. The only reason to even attempt to tackle a reworking of Shakespeare would be to filter it through what my political and emotional concerns are now. Which is actually what Shakespeare was doing, because he was writing about events that were a couple of hundred years old, filtering it through his Elizabethan lens.