YES WE CAN!
YES WE CAN!
Interview: French filmmaker Olivier Abbou and DOP Karim Hussain
Par Marybel Gervais
(Translated by Adam Abouaccar)
When you’re poor, life seems harder. Some are willing to do several things to elevate their bank accounts. They follow through with ideas that seem great at the time, but are ridiculously bad in hindsight. Olivier Abbou (Territories, 2010) has addressed this subject in a humorous way to refine the story of Yes We Can (co-written with Delphine Bertholon and Nicolas Jones-Gorlin), a work that consists of a variety of film styles, from comedy (of course) to the road movie, taking a small detour through the western. This stew will inevitably cause the corners of your lips to rise.
In a moment completely devoid of common sense (and money), Jordan (a former child star, played by Vincent Desagnat), convinces his best friend, Michael (Wolf-Denis Elion), to make a quick buck, supposedly something that can’t be done. He wants to go to Kogelo, a small African village, to kidnap Barack Obama’s grandmother and to demand a ransom of 10 million dollars for her return. Without any actual plan, the two friends fly to their financial freedom. Obviously, things go sour. How could they have gone otherwise with their mania to mess things up? You will take pleasure in watching them dig their own graves over the course of this film. I guarantee it.
To learn more about the background of this film, Spectacular Optical shifts into interview mode. Director Olivier Abbou and cinematographer Karim Hussain (DoP for Territories and Hobo with a Shotgun and c0-director of The Theatre Bizarrre) tell us about their adventures aboard the fantastic Yes We Can!
Yes We Can! incorporates a number of elements from current events. Do you think the public is likely to be more responsive to a work that fictionalizes their daily news?
In fact, I didn’t really look at it like that. The idea was mainly to piss off Obamaniacs, i.e. pretty much the whole world! Kidnapping his grandmother, abusing her, and fooling around with her seemed like a good way to have a little fun at the expense of the man who was supposed to change the world! After all, if there has indeed been a hero these past few years, it’s certainly Obama. We even awarded him the Noble peace prize (hahaha!). Well, I too appreciate the symbol (a black U.S. president). Symbols are important, but they don’t have a place in politics. Otherwise, yes, when you’re dealing with a topic that’s relevant to current events, the project is far easier to pitch and more likely to resonate with the public. But this is far from a fundamental rule… at the risk of turning into a reality TV director whose ultimate idea of a feel-good movie is The Intouchables! In terms of YWC’s ending, I had another one in mind, but the death of Bin Laden while we were editing ruined everything! So we had to regroup…
Your characters are constructed in such a way that they are very well developed and well rounded. This is what gives this story about so much credibility. Is there a little bit of you in either Jordan or Michael?
Yes, I must admit! But the idea was to make it such that everyone would see a bit of themselves in these guys. They are the Id and Superego inside all of us! Jordan is all instinct. He’s regressive, impulsive and informal. A real brute. Conversely, Michael is very repressive. He plays by the rules, he makes plans and tries to keep the peace. He’s more structured. The real problem is that there’s a character missing in this story: there’s no one playing the Ego!
You wrote this film with two co-writers. Where did you find the inspiration for the film’s crazy situations?
By not limiting ourselves! And were encouraged to pursue this direction by Arte and my producer, Gilles Galud. The idea was both to have fun and to try and bridge the gap between the traditional French buddy comedies and the raunchy, politically incorrect American films of recent years. All we had to do was put ourselves in the mindset of these two idiots! And it wasn’t difficult to do so! We didn’t want to make things easier for ourselves by having everything be possible for them. We did our best to ground the film in a certain realism (however unlikely) and, with each situation, we wondered how we would pull ourselves out in their place. The structure demanded a lot of work. It took several months to map out the story but only 2 weeks to write the script. At the same time, my co-writers and I are good friends so it didn’t hurt to just run with it (with the help of a joint and fine wine if need be!)
With regard to the brawl in the strip club where a woman’s breast is punched in slow-motion, were you not afraid to incur the wrath of certain feminists?
On the contrary! The strippers give those guys a real pounding. And at this point in the film, they are already so unbearable that they deserve absolutely everything they get!
The actors cast in the film really fit their parts. They’re excellent. Was casting the film difficult or, conversely, did you come across the right people straight away?
I immediately offered the role of Jordan to Vincent Desagnat who accepted. We already had the pleasure of meeting on another project and have wanted to work together since. Though, it was harder to find the right Michael. It has to be said that in France, we aren’t exactly spoiled when it comes to black comedians! (although this is starting to change). I’m very happy to have met Loup-Denis Elion. It became quickly clear during casting that he was a good fit and the duo immediately clicked. They were pretty unruly off-camera as well. They just fooled around all day! It’s safe to say that they did not hesitate to lose themselves in their roles!
Yes We Can! is very colourful from an audio-visual standpoint. The aesthetic choices you’ve made invite the audience to further engage with the work. From Jordan’s tighty whities to the chaotic atmosphere of the African Bar. What appeals to you aesthetically when you construct a film?
Each film brings with it its own aesthetic. You have to search for it, you have to track it down because it’s there in the story, like music to a certain extent. I often listen to music when I’m writing as it helps me to find the right tone. My influences for Yes We Can! range from Vladimir Cosma to the Mocha Beans, Italian music from the 60s and 70s as well as afrofunk. After Territories, my first feature, which was very dark, very rough, and very strict in terms of direction, I wanted to do a complete 180, to make a film that was colourful, a little crazy, and improvised at points. It was necessary that the aesthetic reflect our two slacker heroes! I worked with the same cinematographer, Karim Hussain.
There’s a good deal of social commentary that permeates the film’s images and dialog. An example of this would be the frequent exchange of sayings that are very stereotypical of people from certain parts of the world. Was it a way for you and your co-writers to denounce the false portraits that we tend to ascribe to certain groups? (As a matter of fact, your film is a French/German/African coproduction)
Yes, but also bear in mind that there is a certain degree of truth behind these stereotypes! I always find it quite enjoyable to toy with clichés and political correctness. It liberates us as viewers from the courteous nature we’re forced to uphold in everyday society. The two heroes of Yes We Can! say and do a lot of stupid shit, but I like to think that we often wouldn’t mind being the ones in their shoes!
What persuaded you to collaborate with Olivier Abbou on this project?
Olivier, of course! He’s a great filmmaker and friend, and seeing how we already collaborated on his first theatrical feature, Territories, it was a natural thing to continue on his next movie. Plus the script was completely hilarious, inventive and original. All good things. We were given a massive amount of freedom on this, surprising considering it’s originally a TV movie for ARTE in France and Germany.
It is a wonderful opportunity for a cinematographer to shoot in places as beautiful and as interesting as those of Yes We Can. I am thinking, among other things, of the African landscapes. What are your favourite locations that can be seen in the film?
Obviously, the African landscapes were insanely beautiful and impressive to shoot in. But I have to say probably the townships were the very best locations, namely Khayelitsha, outside of Cape Town. Townships are basically government allocated black ghettos where millions of people live in, and Khayelitsha is considered by some as one of the most dangerous places in South Africa, but it’s also an incredibly vibrant micro-universe with tons of life and great people. Sure, the presence of a large movie crew with the trucks and gear was a bit strange in the middle of such abject, incredible poverty, but people are people everywhere, especially children, who really got a kick out of us being there. But the reality is that with such poverty, comes violence, and they hid it from us pretty well, but I think the security for the crew was much more heavily armed than they made it appear to be. Just we had to only shoot there during the day, as the massive streetlights have been stripped long ago of their metal by looters, so at night it becomes real dark and not so safe. But they’re actually forming a kind of film commission there, so if you’ve got the right people on your side, you’ll be taken care of. Life’s definitely tough there, though, and in South Africa in general. The official apartheid’s been over for fifteen odd years, but the economic one is in full force. We also shot in a pretty hardcore strip club that had a kind of homeless squat behind it during the locations scouts, with some people fucked up on some pretty nasty drugs wandering about, but when it came time to shoot, when we arrived, it was all cleaned up. Where they went, nobody knows, but definitely during some of the location scouts we had to leave early because things were heating up outside and people weren’t so happy to see white people there mucking about with viewfinders and light meters.
Several scenes are shot in cramped quarters. This adds a bit of trouble during filming. What was your biggest challenge as DoP?
Cramped locations don’t necessarily need to be a huge problem if you plan your strategy out right. Basically, it was to be shot incredibly fast, so we adjusted the over-all look to make this work. Basically, we wanted it to look like a Budd Spencer and Terrence Hill comedy from the 70’s mixed with Curb Your Enthusiasm. So we used unusually thick amounts of diffusion on the lens to make the highlights bloom in that very 70’s way, also like what you would see in many erotic films of that era, in pictures from Just Jaekin, David Hamilton and the like. We intentionally blew out some of the windows and doorways to crazy extremes to give it a surreal, dreamy quality. It was all shot hand-held on two RED MYSTERIUM-X cameras, with instructions from Olivier to make it look like the camera operators were drunk, so that’s where the more modern-style of fake documentary comedy fit in as well. Plus we pushed the colour to crazy extremes, a bit like we did in HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN, but not as extreme. The challenge was to get the image looking rich, yet ugly and violently obnoxious at the same time. We wanted the look of the movie to piss some people off as well as the content. It doesn’t play by the rules and breaks some of them, visually as well, in a very aggressive manner. I think it takes some audience members a few minutes before they get into the movie because it’s so in your face and regressive. But if you allow yourself to get on board and leave your political correctness at the door and embrace the irony of everything, you can have a blast.
The main difference is working with the actors, where we didn’t stop laughing and always tried to one up each other with crazy stories, which was great. It’s tougher than a horror film in a sense, comedy is all timing and extremely challenging from a choreography perspective. There was tons of laughing, but horror sets tend to be pretty funny and filled with jokes as well. Actually, Yes We Can has lots of horror imagery in it and probably one of the bloodiest scenes I’ve ever shot, so it’s not so different in a strange way. The movie is so trashy and absurd that sometimes Olivier and I were right at home with the gross stuff and had that familiar feeling of what we were doing would really annoy some people.
Do you wish to further expand your professional horizons beyond work related to the horror genre?
I’ll happily work in any genre if the script is good and I like the director. With Olivier we have such a great collaboration and friendship, so if he wants me and I can do it, I’ll jump on board any time! But I’ll always go back to the horror genre in priority, as that’s my main passion.
YES WE CAN! has its international premiere July 27th at 23:55 at the J.A. De Sève theater. More information on the film HERE