Q&A: Clément Cogitore on “NEITHER HEAVEN NOR EARTH”Movies/TV,News Tony Timpone
Written and directed by Clément Cogitore, the French/Belgian supernatural drama NEITHER HEAVEN NOR EARTH joins the rarefied ranks of THE OBJECTIVE and MONSTERS: DARK CONTINENT of horror films set during the ongoing Middle East conflicts. In this metaphysical thriller, a platoon of bored French troops stationed in Afghanistan goes from the Combat Zone to the Twilight Zone when the soldiers begin mysteriously disappearing one by one.
The haunting movie will play New York City’s New Directors/New Films series, opening today and running through March 27th at the Film Society at Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art. FANGO got the skinny on the enigmatic NEITHER HEAVEN NOR EARTH from its debuting director.
FANGORIA: Was it difficult getting your first film off the ground?
CLÉMENT COGITORE: Yes, it was quite difficult: the topic of the film, the cost, the fact that it was a first film and the mix of genres in the project made my producer and I have to work hard to convince financiers and French and Belgian film institutions.
Then, during the shooting, we had to deal with a lot of problems: storms, sandstorms, fire, scorpions, illness, corruption and racket were our everyday life. But, finally, there was—fortunately—a film.
FANGORIA: You have compared your film to the early work of M. Night Shyamalan. How so?
COGITORE: I’d never dare to compare my film to M. Night Shyamalan’s work. Actually, before the first screening at the Cannes Film Festival, a curator of Critic’s Week introduced the film on stage as a mix between a John Ford and Night Shyamalan film. And one American or English [trade] journalist in the audience thought this guy was me. Since this day, I’m afraid to be seen by American or English film critics as a megalomaniac.
FANGORIA: I thought the film had more of a Peter Weir influence, especially PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK and THE LAST WAVE. Was this intentional?
COGITORE: Many script consultants and co-producers, after reading the script, told me about PICNIC…, asking me if it was one of my influences. But I’ve still not seen this film yet.
FANGORIA: In terms of the supernatural, you show even less than Val Lewton. Why did you go for that approach?
COGITORE: In order to convince investors and financiers to participate in the project, I told them that the only special effect in the film was that there was, as the script moves forward, less and less actors in it. It is basically the cheapest special effect in the history of cinema.
More seriously, my aim was to create fear in the spectator’s mind and to make him/her believe in a supernatural presence without showing anything except reality and absence.
FANGORIA: Was there any reluctance from potential financiers or distributors because the film goes so much against the grain of genre films that show everything?
COGITORE: Yes, a few distributors and financiers asked me to rewrite the script with a twist, with a kind of “monster” at the end, to explain the unexplained, and to turn it into a real fantastic-war-genre film. That was for my producer and me the final point of discussions with them. Fortunately, we met the right distributor who really understood what my project was about and let me shoot the script I wanted to shoot.
FANGORIA: Were you trying to make any political statements with the film?
COGITORE: In a way, yes, because I think that the film shows, despite the war, men who have things in common. Little by little, those men start to talk instead of fighting. The more the characters of the film move forward, the less their weapons are useful for them. The kind of war or fight I’m talking about in this film doesn’t lead with weapons. That’s for me the political side of the film.
FANGORIA: Did you embed yourself with the real French troops to give you a feel for what life is like for these soldiers?
COGITORE: No, because the only thing I was proposed by the French army was to stay locked into a big NATO base in Kabul, which was really far from the situation I’m depicting in the film: a small and remote base lost in the mountains. But what was very useful for me was testimony of officers and soldiers back from Afghanistan and videos shot by officers during their missions.
FANGORIA: Did you put your actors through basic training or any such prep? The film feels very authentic.
COGITORE: Yes, they had a physical and military preparation, and were totally involved in the project. That helped a lot for creating a feeling of authenticity.
FANGORIA: What were the challenges of shooting in Morocco?
COGITORE: Shooting a war film in Morocco is on one hand quite simple because there is a film industry there; they are used to big film productions, there are some quite good technicians, etc. But on the other hand, it’s really difficult because the financial and political rules are never clear, so you are always facing problems you never imagined before. If your name is Kathryn Bigelow or Clint Eastwood, there is no problem because you can solve those problems with a lot of money. If your name is the one of a young European art-house filmmaker with a low budget—like me—you’re in big trouble.
FANGORIA: Your Middle Eastern actors are very convincing as well. Were they experienced?
COGITORE: The Taliban’s chief is a well-experienced Iranian actor. His name is Hamid Reza Javdan; he played in Atiq Rahmi’s films, for example. The other Iranians or Afghans in the film are not professional actors.
FANGORIA: What are your goals with the US launch at New Directors/New Films and later distribution through Film Movement?
COGITORE: I’m first of all really happy and proud that the film is selected in New Directors/New Films and that Film Movement distributes it. And for the future: “Inch’allah!” [“God willing!”]
FANGORIA: Will you continue in the genre?
COGITORE: Another genre film, I’m not sure. But another film, with genre elements in it, yes!