013: Denis Côté
An interview with director Denis Côté, whose newest film 'Social Hygiene' won Best Director in the 71st Berlinale's Encounters section. He also directed a new concert film with Marie Davidson & L'Œil.
Welcome to Tune Glue, a newsletter that’s run in conjunction with Tone Glow. While the latter is dedicated to presenting interviews and reviews related to experimental music, Tune Glue is a space for interviews with artists of any kind. These interviews could be with filmmakers, video game designers, perfumers, or musicians who aren’t aligned with what Tone Glow typically covers. Thanks for reading.
Denis Côté is a Québécois filmmaker who has made 13 feature films in the last 15 years. His films include numerous award winners, including All That She Wants, Curling, and Vic + Flo Saw a Bear. His newest film Social Hygiene had its world premiere at the 71st Berlinale and won the Best Director award in the Encounters section. Côté also recently directed a live concert film by Marie Davidson & L’Œil Nu titled Renegade Breakdown Live, which features the band performing songs from their 2020 album of the same name. You can purchase tickets to view the live concert film here. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Denis Côté on March 9th, 2021 to discuss his career, his new concert film, feeling freedom with small budgets, his upcoming works, and more.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Hello, how are you?
Denis Côté: Good! I was just in a meeting and I ran here and I got here like one minute ago! It was far away and I decided to walk and I was watching my phone and I was like, I need to be home at 7:30 and (slams his hand down) bam! I made it! (laughter).
Thank you (laughs). You were born in New Brunswick, is that correct?
Yeah, but I grew up here in Quebec, which is the neighboring province. I was just born there.
What sort of memories come to mind when you think of growing up in Quebec? Like, what’s something that would paint a good picture of what that was like for you?
Wow… a childhood memory (laughter). When I was younger, politics was everywhere. You know, there was a situation with Quebec and I’m a native French speaker, so I just remember when I was young everyone used to talk about politics. There was a lot of confrontation between Canada and Quebec, and that ultimately died around the end of the 90s. And now people accept what Canada is… this fucked-up country with like five countries inside the same country. Where are you from?
Ah, so you’re American. Yeah, so I come from a very middle class family. It was very uneventful. I was into culture very early on because my family was not into culture at all. They were listening to bad music, or no music. There were no books at home. So from a very young age I discovered cinema—horror cinema. I became a horror cinema encyclopedia.
Very early in my teenage years I was totally into metal—extreme metal, death metal. I was like 16 or 17 in 1990 so that was the perfect time to be into that music. I grew up in metal music and then I worked in record stores and then I made short films and today, I’m just this old metalhead making films. And then I got approached by Marie Davidson!
I was surprised about that!
The manager is from Quebec and he lives in Berlin. And every year he comes to see my film at Berlinale and I think he had a good idea of how he could match myself with Marie. The thing is, I thought Marie was totally techno. It felt very Berlin techno to me.
Yeah, with her previous album Working Class Woman.
Right. I thought I would film her performing, and I had this idea of everything being white around her. And then [her manager] told me that she had changed and was making something different. He sent me the new album before it was released and I was like, “Oh, this is pop music with a band.” She was like a diva. I was surprised, to say the least. I worked on this as a filmmaker who’s proposing something original. When you work as a fan you behave differently and you really want to celebrate the band and you’re blinded by your fandom. I think, now, the final product is for everyone. It’s great. [Regardless of your music taste], you can still find something interesting in the performance.
I watched it earlier today and I loved how you start the film off with the grainy black-and-white footage. The people in the crew all have their masks on and it feels dystopian in a way. How’d you decide to start the film in that way?
I thought, okay, let’s do something where the band would be a mysterious entity and everyone around would be a scientist. I wanted the band to feel like aliens and all these people would come to observe them. No festivities, no applause, no cheering—it would just be people looking at a band and performing, with people taking notes.
I brought on different cameras—I think we have five different textures of cameras. I read somewhere on the internet, “Don’t do that!” So I decided to do it (laughter). Some stuff is very 2000 with the miniDV cameras. Then this black-and-white crappy stuff is a Fisher-Price camera. It’s very, very rare. It’s from this guy named Philippe Leonard who works with Godspeed You! Black Emperor and he’s doing the projections when they perform live. He has a collection of cameras, and he told me he had this Fisher-Price camera and he said I could use it. He had CCTV cameras too, so I asked him to bring everything and see what could happen.
I wanted to include some microfictions, like these small moments where you’re not watching the band anymore. So that’s when you have the guy filming a cigarette, the girl going to the bathroom, the couple kissing—small things. I thought it was pretty original. But the goal was not to steal the show from the band. I think I was putting a bit of my ego into the performance, but it still had to be 90% the band.
Yeah, that actually reminded me of how with Social Hygiene, most of the film is made up of these long static shots, but at times you have this footage done with a handheld camera of this woman walking around the forest.
I think I’m afraid to bore the audience. I made a film called Bestiaire that only had animals. And I’m not doing these films for provocation—I’m not trying to provoke the audience and be like, “If you’re not happy, leave the cinema.” I’m really thinking about the audience, making sure they’re not bored. For Marie, I wanted to do something to keep the attention of the viewer, like the dog or the kissing. Those are narrative ideas for people who don’t want to just watch 60 minutes of a straightforward concert. That’s where you can feel the filmmaker trying to tell a story.
I don’t know if you’ve watched a ton of concert films but if you film a concert, do something. It’s not only for the fans—you have to try stuff. I was thinking a bit of Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii where you see the whole crew. I was open to accidents. But I didn’t do the editing—that was one thing. I was not allowed to be with the editor because of COVID. Usually I’m really hands-on and a control freak over my stuff, but this time I had to trust a guy I didn’t know at all, but he sent me some rough cuts and it was okay and I could trust the guy. He sent me like five or six different edits and I knew it was going in the right direction.
I like what you were saying about trying to keep the audience in mind, and how you don’t want them to be bored. But at the same time, you want to respect the subjects you’re filming. In a lot of your films, you’re documenting a lot of interesting people, like in A Skin So Soft or Curling. Can you give an example of how you’ve tried to film your subjects in a manner that brings out the best of who they are? I was wondering if you could walk me through the mindset you have when filming.
I think what you’re saying now raises the question of how there’s sometimes exploitation. When I find this old man in Carcasses, or find these bodybuilders in A Skin So Soft, or have this band with Marie Davidson, all these people are originals—they are people living a little bit outside the world.
With bodybuilders, it’s so easy to laugh at the people. But why as a filmmaker would I make a film to laugh at my subjects? It’s always a game of finding the right distance. Social Hygiene is a film about distance, again. Finding the right distance to film a subject is something that’s very central to my work. When you watch A Skin So Soft, a film I really love, I don’t think you can tell me there’s any scene where I’m laughing at these guys.
If you invite me to your place, I’m gonna look at everything that is awkward in the place and I’m not gonna forget anything. But I’m still gonna try to keep my respect for you as a person. I’m gonna film it and think about how I can respect the person. It’s a zone. An old man collecting 4000 cars on his property [as in Carcasses] is probably dealing with mental issues. Filming bodybuilders who have this… diet that’s so healthy it’s not good, it brings up questions about their relationship with their body and, again, mental issues. As a filmmaker, I can’t laugh at those issues.
With Marie Davidson, is it the same as my [other] films? No, because we’re dealing with rock stars and they wanna be rock stars. But just to give an example, there’s this guy during the film in the corner playing the bodyguard and when the drummer is done drumming and is going to sit on this big chair, it’s just this little moment of awkwardness, a bit of homoerotica. We’re on the fence there, and I love being on the fence. He’s looking at the camera and he’s kind of sexy. I like to play with these details with these human beings, but as soon as I feel I’m laughing at my subjects, I need to stop because that’s not correct.
Is there something you do to not be in that space mentally?
It’s more during the editing process. We shoot silly stuff—of course we shoot silly stuff. We don’t have time to say, “Oh man, I’m laughing at the guy now, don’t film that.” We film everything, and then at the editing table we’re like, “Okay show this, don’t show that.” If you want a good example, when we did A Skin So Soft, one of the guys said, “You wanna see my basement?” We go in his basement and he’s so proud of showing it but the decorations were from out of this world. Everyone in the world would laugh at his basement, but he was so proud. So what do you do? We filmed his pride, but when it was time to edit the film, it was too much.
What was in his basement?
He had an inflatable bed, the lighting was only black lights, and he had the Bible. He said he was reading the Bible every night while listening to techno music. He had an electric cello. And he was showing off all these elements in a really proud way but it made zero sense. Some filmmakers would keep that stuff in the film to make people laugh but I can’t.
You need to find a good human contract with people. The performance, the band—same thing. I asked them permission and in the end, they had to give the OK for the concert. It’s something they’re gonna watch in 30 years and be proud of the image. It’s not like a film where I own all the rights.
I read an interview recently where you said you try to have constraints in your films, and that’s very clear with Social Hygiene given how it’s mostly static shots. I was wondering, of all your films, which one do you feel was the hardest to make given the constraints that you had?
A few days ago at Berlinale I did Talents, which is where you meet young filmmakers in real life, but this time it was virtual. My topic was on “Dreams vs. Reality” and I discovered that when a lot of people write a script, they write about their dreams. There are explosions, dinosaurs, other planets, car chases, people dying—they write about their dreams. And then they try to finance it but it’s impossible because you’re 30 years old and you need to make your first film and they only give you 1 million dollars. So your dreams don’t fit reality.
Very early in my career, I decided that every time I wrote, I would think about the budget. Fuck my dreams, you know? It was just, “What am I able to film for the money I have?” That was the first constraint, and I really thought about it. I knew I was about to make a film for $15,000 so it was gonna be three cars, three friends, no salaries. And we only had four days to film, no more. And I had to pay an editor. I only had $1000 so I could only ask for a week of work. I’m thinking about all these constraints and that’s how I make a film like Wilcox or A Skin So Soft.
To go back to your question, obviously the worst is when they give you 2.5 million dollars because you think you’re free to do what you want. You think you don’t have constraints. And then the producers tell you, “No, the rules of the industry are this and that” and then you start censoring yourself. I’m thinking about a film like Boris Without Beatrice. 35mm, some stars coming from Europe, perfect lighting, super DP. I was playing the big film. And it was not well-received, and it was the biggest one I did in my career!
You see: budget doesn’t mean anything. The lower the budget, the more free I feel I am by using constraints. It’s a bit weird. When you have zero budget, you have to behave like you’re a delinquent. You don’t ask permission—you go and you shoot. But as soon as you have money, you start asking for permission. There’s permits and contracts and rules. There’s actors unions and technicians unions.
Is there a film you’re most proud of having made?
Easily Carcasses. I can’t believe we made that film. When you’re making it, you don’t really think. It was made for five days for $30,000 and it was complete improvisation. There were kids with down syndrome and there was this old man who was very eccentric. We thought we had made a film for fun but then it went to Cannes. My DP could not speak French—he had just immigrated from Macedonia—and we made this documentary with fixed shots, which is rare. It was filmed in summer 2008 and I still can’t believe it’s a thing. It’s not my biggest film or my most successful, but when you make a film and you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s incredible. It’s like, “What are we doing?” There’s no script, you’re just filming. And then at the editing table there’s no [clear] story. It’s so exciting to work without any security.
When I make a big film like Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, I write the script, I shoot the script, we edit the script, the actors are good, and then you meet the audience, and then you win an award. But Carcasses, A Skin So Soft, Wilcox—these films have a small budget and there’s no script and you just do what reality is giving you. You’re not forcing anything on reality, you’re just like, “Okay this just happened, did we catch that? Yeah? Great.”
So I guess I prefer my smaller films, but my big ones are still good because I am—I tell a story, I direct actors, I think about what I wanna say. I really like Ghost Town Anthology, I really like Curling. I’m doing industry filmmaking—we have a schedule and we have rules. That’s when you feel like you’re a real filmmaker. And then you make Social Hygiene in five days during COVID and you’re just having fun. And then it’s at Berlinale and it wins an award and it’s so liberating.
Oh yeah, I wanted to say congrats on winning the award for Best Director! Earlier on, you mentioned how your parents weren’t into culture. And that’s very similar to my upbringing—they didn’t really read or listen to music or watch films, so I was always on my own. But I always think about how important that was; no one was telling me what was good or what I should engage with, so I just explored as much as possible.
You need to remember that [for me], this was the beginning of VHS tapes and video clubs. I would go to the video club to rent cassette tapes and it was all horror films. When you’re 14 years old and you see all this blood and all these skulls, it was all escapism. And then when I was 18 I discovered “real” cinema—Godard and Pasolini and Cassavetes—and I was like, okay there’s another type of cinema. And at the same time I was into real heavy music, so the two together was a good source of escapism and I’m probably more creative today because of all that.
Do you feel like you’ve taken elements from horror films and applied them to your own films? I feel like it’s sometimes there in how you capture the atmosphere of Quebec, of how harsh it can feel.
(laughs). It’s in my DNA of course. When you’re 9 years old and see The Shining, it has an impact. At 12 years old I was watching cannibal and zombie stuff. When you’re 14 years old an encyclopedia of all this horror shit—because, well, sometimes it was shit—it stays inside you. And now I’m in my 40s and I rewatch them and some of them are great. Something like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, when you’re 15 years old the atmosphere stays with you forever. And Italian cinema… Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, stuff like that.
So of course it’s inside me. In my films, it comes back in a way. I don’t want to make a real horror film or my zombie film, but obviously Ghost Town Anthology is my homage to my teenage years. It’s not a real horror film but I’m playing with the genre. When I filmed the forest in Vic + Flo, it’s not a nice forest—there’s a sense of menace all the time. So my horror influence comes back one way or another. It’s not in Social Hygiene but maybe one day I’ll make another horror film for good old times’ sake. The thing with horror cinema is that it’s never really good, so I feel weird about it (laughter).
Is there a sort of film that you’d love to make that you still haven’t had the chance to make?
I think my problem is that I made 13 films in 15 years. I live fast, I speak a lot, I’m always on a new project, so I never take the time to sit down and dream about my dream film. I never write my war film or my “big film.” I’m always on something new and it’s usually something small. Maybe it’d be nice to make something bigger, but at the same time I see filmmakers making one film every five years. They think they’re preparing their masterpiece and it never works out and the film isn’t playing anywhere while I’m having fun with Wilcox and it goes to Locarno, I’m having fun with Social Hygiene and it wins Best Director at Berlinale.
My body of work is like a wall made of small and big bricks. I like that I have a wall, and I’m totally fine with the small bricks. I’m not dreaming of making a perfect film, and I’m not dreaming of making a film I can’t afford. Actually, Joshua, I’m not dreaming. Take that as you want, but I live in real life. I don’t dream, I work. I make films and I have fun, but I don’t dream. I’m not unhappy with my situation where I want to make these bigger films. When you dream too much, you suffer because your dreams don’t come true. I was never like that. I was always DIY. When I was young I used to organize cheap metal concerts and used to do the flyers myself. I never dreamed of anything big. I’m 47 and I live in a small apartment. I don’t have a car, I don’t have kids. I don’t dream of a bigger life.
Some filmmakers told me, “Denis, why do you make films like Wilcox?” And I was like, “Why? Do you think I’m wasting my time?” And some people said yes. I asked why. “You take a year to make Wilcox and then you have your little premiere and then a few festivals and then it’s over. You don’t want to sit down and create powerful characters with a life story?” And I’m always like, “No, that’s not my relationship with work.” I live with cinema 24 hours a day, while other people are working on a project for six years and they have a house and kids and own a restaurant. For me, it’s just cinema, cinema, cinema. It’s a bit like a disease.
What would you say is the biggest thing you get out of being a filmmaker? What keeps driving you?
It was not like this in the beginning, but I think I’ve now reached a level of freedom that is so scary that it’s intoxicating. When I say “freedom” and “scary”... I make Wilcox, I make Social Hygiene, I make Ghost Town Anthology and I pay my rent. It’s amazing. I don’t do TV, I don’t do commercials. Marie Davidson was my first concert ever. I never have to do something just to earn a living. I’m supported by local institutions because Canada is not like, say, the US. So that level of freedom of being Denis Côté the filmmaker is so intoxicating. It doesn’t mean I have this huge ego but I feel so free. That doesn’t really answer your question but the level of freedom keeps me going. Just watch me! My next film will always surprise you. You think Wilcox 2 is coming? No, I’m giving you Social Hygiene. It’s that playful relationship with creation and cinema.
I get that. When you’re always doing something new, there’s a spontaneity and novelty to everything—it’s always exciting. And that’s not to say that this cheapens anything either.
Yeah, you said it. It doesn’t cheapen anything. It could look small, you know? Look, I live where Xavier Dolan lives. The guy is a total star and we don’t see him in the street because he’s such a star, and I’m the complete opposite. And I don’t want that. But I could, maybe, if I would just sit down and write the stuff he’s writing, but I can’t! It’s just like, “Let’s have fun! Let’s do Social Hygiene!”
I wanted to ask you a couple more questions about Social Hygiene. I know you were inspired by Robert Walser for the film. What do you feel like you took away from his works that you were able to weave into the film?
I have five or six books here. They’re all in French so I would struggle to translate the titles into English. But there’s one called [in English], Life of a Poet, one is Walking in the Snow. Basically this guy was a poet and everything is extremely simple. He’s just telling you what’s around him and in such an ironic way. It’s so simple that you end up telling yourself, “Wow, life is so great.” It’s just people shopping at the market, or he’s walking in the park, or he’s taking a stroll in the forest. It’s so intoxicating. It’s this personal journal but very dandy-like. He wrote a book called The Tanners and he’s talking about his death. He died in the snow.
I got a book from someone as a gift and I started reading him a lot. And then I went to Sarajevo for a small festival and I had his style in my head—I was talking like his books. I wrote my long dialogues in a small café in Sarajevo. I had no friends. I was probably in a weird state of alienation. I wrote monologues, dialogues. I didn’t know if it’d be a film or a novel, and then I came back home and left it in a drawer for five years. Then an actress said, “Hey, is there something we can do real quick?” I read it and I was like, “That’s not me!” It didn’t even feel like me on the paper. I thought it was funny, so I was like, “Okay let’s do this.” I have a hard time talking about the film because… it’s not me (laughter).
I gave like 20 interviews in the last week because of Berlinale and people are asking me tons of weird questions. People want me to intellectualize the material. What do you want me to say? People ask me, “Oh the lead character’s name is Antonin, is it like Antonin Artaud?” And I’m like, no. People are like, “Oh your film is like Manoel de Oliveira!” No. “Oh it’s like Jean-Marie Straub and Marguerite Duras!” No. (laughter). They’re completely obsessed with references. All I can say is I wrote these funny dialogues and the actors were very generous, and we just shot it. I don’t know what to tell you, dude.
People want to know more. People want to know where it comes from, they want to know the references and the layers and what’s going on in my head. A lot of critics and journalists think that filmmakers are geniuses and that we see certain things and that an interview will be enlightening. Well, no. [Social Hygiene] is 75 minutes of a guy telling rubbish to women around him and these women are waiting for him to grow up, because men are stupid and women are waiting for us to grow up. I don’t think it’s profound. It’s just liberating and it’s fun to watch.
There’s probably a bit of Hong Sang-soo in the film. I love him so much. When I watch his films, I’m like, “Cinema can be so simple!” Life can be complicated but you can just film it like that. 75 minutes, two films every year, the guy is just throwing up cinema and it’s so fun to watch. And maybe I was trying to make my own Hong Sang-soo 75-minute light film, you know? (laughter).
You’ve made a lot of films, as you’ve said. What sort of things do you feel like you’ve learned over the years? Is there any particular thing you can pinpoint in terms of how you feel you’ve grown?
I didn’t go to school too much and I didn’t come from an intellectual family. Everything I did was because I was being very stubborn. Right from the beginning, I was doing everything DIY, I was looking like a punk, I was organizing concerts, and I was against all authorities. I wasn’t into drugs and alcohol but it was always hard for me to follow rules—any kind of rules. So when I made Drifting States or my second film Our Private Lives, you can see that it’s made by someone who doesn’t follow any rules.
Then, I eventually had to deal with the industry. And that for me was so tough. There are 30 people around you, you don’t like them, it’s not their film it’s your film, and then having to follow those rules… I made a lot of fits, I was really impatient. But now, I think I understand a lot of the rules of the game, whether on sets or at film festivals, with sales and trends, in dealing with journalists and a good or bad review. I’m more zen now.
I’m preparing for my next shoot in August, it might be a two-million-dollar film. I can see that when I have a meeting with my collaborators, I’m much more calm now. I used to be this horrible control freak, and I still am, but I will not insult people or throw fits. I guess [the answer to your question] is patience. I used to be Antonin [from Social Hygiene] and now I’m less like Antonin (laughter).
Are you able to share anything about your plans for the next film?
Well, there’s two things. Four days ago, I got a message from China offering me $200,000 to make a documentary. Do you know Bilibili? It’s like the Chinese YouTube. Apparently it’s money from them. And they’re offering two hundred grand to filmmakers from around the world to make documentaries. So that’s brand new for me and I need to think of a subject. I will probably say yes because it’s a lot of money.
And then in August I’m making a film about female sexuality. It’s called A Summer Like That and it’s a story of three women who have sexual problems and they’re all meeting in a big house to talk about these problems. It’s a very intimate film. There’s not much nudity or any shocking scenes, but it talks a lot about female sexuality. All my collaborators now are only women and I’m making sure men are not reading the material because it would be stupid to get their point of view. I want to challenge myself on that topic because we live in a period where people say we should only film subjects we know about, but I also think I can film about things I don’t know anything about.
That’s once again a situation where people are saying “don’t do that!” and then you do it.
I just have one more question. Do you mind sharing one thing you love about yourself?
That’s a personal question so here’s a personal answer. I live with a chronic disease. I have kidney insufficiency. I’m at terminal levels now, and I’ve been at terminal levels for six years. My level of energy is very, very low and slowly but surely I’ll get on a list for a transplant. So thinking about how I’ve made 13 feature films in 15 years with a chronic disease like that… that’s the thing I’m most proud of. A lot of filmmakers would not do any film with the low level of energy that I have.
Wait, so you got diagnosed six years ago?
I was diagnosed 14 years ago. They told me it was degenerative. In 2007 they gave me 3 or 4 years for when I would need a transplant, and it’s been 14 years now. I swim every morning and I try to be careful—I have 16% of my kidney function left. You’re healthy so you’re probably at 90%, but I’ve been stuck at 16-18% for the last six years. It hurts everywhere and I’m always exhausted. I need to take naps and I can’t drink, but I made all those films! So that’s the answer to your question. I’m really proud of all these films—everything else, I don’t know, but those films are what I’m proud of.
Are you afraid of death?
No, because what helps is the achievements. Look, again, 13 films in 15 years. I won awards. I traveled the world. I have this disease but I know this is not the end of the world and that there are a lot of worse things. I don’t wanna say I achieved everything—of course I would like to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes or something like that—but all in all I’ve achieved enough for my age that growing old doesn’t scare me. Death doesn’t scare me. Maybe my answer could change, but I’m ok with who I am right now.
You can purchase tickets to view Marie Davidson & L’Œil Nu’s Renegade Breakdown Live, directed by Denis Côté, here.
I asked Denis Côté to send me a list of ten albums he likes. The below list is what he sent me.
All-time favorite has to be mostly metal. And there are waaaay too many. Things I still listen today. Obviously, they are connected with my younger years. In no particular order:
Morbid Angel - Altars of Madness
Suffocation - Effigy of the Forgotten
Paradise Lost - Gothic
Napalm Death - Harmony Corruption
Cryptopsy - None So Vile
Autopsy - Severed Survival
Sepultura - Beneath the Remains
High on Fire - Blessed Black Wings
Death - Leprosy
Pestilence - Consuming Impulse
Thank you for reading the thirteenth issue of Tune Glue. Let’s all try to be a bit more zen.
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