Director Xavier Gens made quite the splash with his first full length feature “Frontier(s)” in 2007. One of the first of the new wave of unrelenting horror films that came out of France (Along with “Inside”, “Haute Tension” & “Martyrs”), it was the sordid tale of a group of thieves on the run from the law who decide to pick the wrong place to lay low. It had some truly wince inducing scenes in it and made his name one to watch very carefully. He followed it up with his American debut film “Hitman” (Also 2007) which was based on the popular videogame series. Now after a short theatrical release his second American feature, “The Divide”, is available on DVD/BluRay and it is one hell of a nerve wracking film. Dealing with the aftermath of a nuclear attack on a much more personal scale, “The Divide” also divided audiences & critics alike. It is definitely one of those “Love it/Hate it” type of movies, there is no middle ground regarding it. Either way, you will be talking about it whether you liked it or not and isn’t that what it’s all about? Mr. Gens took some time out of his busy schedule to speak with HorrorNews about his latest film.
HN: I watched “The Divide” twice as I thought it demanded a repeat viewing. I was wondering what besides the source material made you want to make it?
XG: It was important for me to make this movie because of what the world was going through at the time. There was a worldwide economic crisis and from this crisis there was a rise in the crime rate & people were depressed worldwide. For me it was very symbolic about what was happening to our world and how it is running itself down. I wanted to make a movie that felt symbolic with society as I saw it at the time, it’s more of an allegory/metaphor of what could happen to our society if we don’t change or as we say in France “Lose our attitude”.
HN: You have an amazing cast in “The Divide”. Did you have any actors in mind when you were casting or did you get all of them through screen tests?
XG: I did have some particular actors in mind for some characters but we had to recast the film one week before we began filming because we didn’t have the money we expected. We brought Michael Biehn on board because of this and for me this was an amazing experience because I grew up watching him in some great movies. I also grew up watching Rosanna Arquette as well and it was great to work with her because she was always bringing in new ideas. She was also extremely generous & kind to all of the cast and crew as well. Our casting director, Lindsey Hayes Kroeger, was also instrumental in casting the best possible actors available for the film. I loved bringing in fresh new faces like Ivan Gonzalez and Michael Eklund as well, for me it was a great experience working with them because I feel they brought something amazing to the film.
HN: The dynamic between Arquette, Eklund & Milo Ventimiglia was extremely intense, especially during the last third of the film. I was wondering how they interacted off of the set? Did they hang out together at all when they weren’t in front of the camera?
XG: Rosanna concentrated a lot on her character actually. She was always very excited, creative and always bringing up new ideas about her character (Marilyn). She was very childlike in a sense, always with a new take on her character and doing crazy stuff with the role. When we were off set, she always spoke with me about her ideas and Michael & Milo were always up for whatever she proposed. They had new ideas everyday on what their characters should be doing with each other so they created a very intense dynamic between themselves. It was very interesting to see their relationship build throughout the shoot. Michael & Milo were together all of the time during the production, they were like brothers throughout the shoot. They even dieted together as both of their characters lose a significant amount of weight in the course of the film. So they always kept tabs on each other to make sure they weren’t cheating on their diets! They also exercised together everyday as well (Along with Ivan Gonzalez) to be in the best shape they could be in since it was a very grueling shoot for everyone involved.
HN: I was going to mention the extreme weight loss I saw in both Ecklund and Ventimiglia. I wanted to ask if that was real weight loss or just some sort of special effect?
XG: No special effects involved! They lost the weight on their own and some days it was very hard to watch them. Especially during lunch breaks when there was a craft table covered with meat, bread & potatoes and they couldn’t eat any of it. While we all feasted they stayed to the side and sipped coffee while nibbling on some salad with almonds but they remained very professional about the whole thing.
HN: The script is so intense and the cast really seemed to be going for it in terms of the dislike they had for each other. Were there any personality conflicts on set?
XG: Yes, there were some conflicts during production. I always tell my actors to do what they want during filming because I like that organic way of working, much like making a documentary. Say we had five lines in a certain scene, I would tell the “Bad Guys” to do whatever they wanted to within the parameters of the scene but I would tell the “Good Guys” that they had to stay on their mark. This grew frustrating for the actors who had to stay on their mark because the “Bad Guys” were doing crazy stuff that was totally off the cuff while the “Good Guys” had to remain true to the script. It became especially intense when there were weapons involved because it made the other actors feel insecure about what might happen in the scene. Lauren German had no idea what to expect during a lot of her scenes with both Ecklund & Ventimiglia but for me it was interesting to create that tension on the set because I could get interesting performances from her and all of the actors. I think she conveyed real fear with her character because she literally didn’t know what was going to happen from one take to the next and she could not react to it in any way except in the way the script said her character reacted. There were scenes between her and Michael and Milo in which they were acting like wild dogs and she had to remain in character throughout. You can see it on her face, the nervousness and tension that was really there because of the way the others were acting. In the end, I think she hated it but what was important was her performance and I think it worked very well.
HN: So you encouraged ad libbing throughout the film. Is this the way you prefer to work?
XG: A lot of the time, yes. There were a lot of scenes that were totally improvised that made the final cut of the film. The scene with the apricots and the fruit eating between Ecklund and Gonzalez were totally improvised. Every scene with Ecklund in the dress was improvised and a lot of Arquette’s scenes were improvised as well. Did you see the rated or unrated version of the film?
HN: I believe it was the rated version that I saw.
XG: Was there a scene where Ecklund & Arquette are smoking a joint and Eva (German) is coming to speak with Arquette about her daughter?
HN: Yes! That scene was in the version I saw…
XG: OK. In that scene Ecklund was supposed to leave once German arrived. It was supposed to continue with just Arquette & German speaking to each other but we decided to try a few takes with Ecklund remaining in the scene to try and create something new for that moment. Finally he pushed Lauren into a sense of insecurity just through his presence. He became something of a snake as he tried to pull Lauren’s character over to where Arquette’s character already was. That improvisation brought a lot to that scene in my opinion because if it remained the way it was written, which was very formal, it wasn’t too interesting. But keeping Bobby (Ecklund) in the scene created an internal conflict for German (Eva) who wanted to help Arquette’s character but ultimately failed because of the influence Bobby & Josh (Ventimiglia) exerted over her.
HN: Were there any injuries on set?
XG: There was just one. During the torture scene in which Josh is cutting off Mickey’s (Biehn) finger with a carpet knife there was a moment in which German attempts to intervene and Josh pushes her away, German’s finger got a nice cut on it because of the fast pace and intensity of the scene.
HN: Speaking about that scene for a minute, earlier you said that you allowed the bad guys to improvise a lot of their scenes while the good guys had to stay on point. When Josh spat at Mickey during that scene…was that part of the script or was that improvised?
XG: Totally improvised! It was not planned at all but it was so intense I had to keep it in the film. I really liked that moment…
HN: So did I! That’s why I asked about it, it was really nasty.
XG: Yes it was very nasty. And if it was scripted it wouldn’t feel organic. The tension in that scene was real because it came organically from the actors themselves, not from the script. In the scene Mickey would not give Josh the combination to the lock so I told Michael that normally Mickey would fight in a situation like this but since he was tied to a chair he couldn’t physically fight, so I told him to fight with words instead. And that is what he did, he fought them with words. He pushed and pulled them with the words he chose to use and he eventually ended up spitting at Milo. Now Milo was supposed to cut Biehn’s finger off there and then but he was so furious at being spat upon, you can see the spit on his face, he was so furious that you can feel it come off of the screen. And the scene ended with a “Spit Fight” which I loved because it created such tension between the actors even after the scene ended.
HN: I had recommended the film to a friend of mine after I had watched it and afterwards they told me they didn’t like it because they felt there was no resolution to the story in the end. I thought that was the best part of the film, that there was no resolution in the end. What is your response to those who feel that the film felt unfinished to them?
XG: I understand that and I get that there are some who didn’t like it but remember it is not an American movie where everything is clear. I am French & I made the movie the way I wanted to make it. For instance, it was important for me not to reveal who was wearing the Hazmat outfits that we see in the middle of the film. When you watched “The Shining” for the first time did you know anything about the hotel? Today we spend so much time explaining things in film that there is no space left for mystery. For me it was very important to leave aspects of the film open ended, to add a layer of mystery to the proceedings. If you analyze the movie carefully you will find the answers to all of your questions, perhaps the Hazmats were using the children to start the process of repopulating the globe, maybe it was something else altogether? For me the film is the story of a girl witnessing the end of humanity and we are seeing it through her eyes from the beginning to the end. For me it makes no sense to know what the Hazmats are actually doing because we aren’t seeing it from their point of view. It’s all seen from Eva’s point of view, hers & the other survivors. Eva represents the humanity of everyone watching the film and for me that is the resolution of the film. She stands witness to the end of the world and for me there is resolution there. There is no real resolution to the second story, the one with the Hazmats but in the end the movie is not about them.
“The Divide” is now available on DVD/BluRay from Anchor Bay.
Interview: Director Xavier Gens (The Divide)