YIDFF 2023 International Competition

The Island
Damien Manivel (Director)

Interviewer: Yuki Hidetake

An almost unrealized film resurrected from memory, and memories

Yuki Hidetake (YH): Can you first talk about how this film came to be?

Damien Manivel (DM): My previous two films, Isadora’s Children (2019) and Magdala (2022), were about death and feelings of loss, so I wanted this film to evoke a different type of feeling. I wanted to make a film with teenagers that conveyed a sense of youth. I wanted to make something different, not only artistically, but also in terms of style and in the process of making this film. So I organized a small crew and gathered seven teenagers who were non-professional actors. My concept was to go to a beachside in Brittany for two weeks to work on the dialogue and prepare for the film together. I already had the ideas and the story of the film in mind, but it was like we were carrying out a workshop to bring forth material, find other ideas and write the script together.

The plan was to take a break of a month and a half and then shoot the film, so I would have some time to prepare the scenario and think about the actual shooting. But during this break, we found out that we couldn’t secure the budget to shoot the film. I was very angry and sad, but I was forced to make the decision to stop the project. I had to call all the actors and crew members to tell them that this film wouldn’t be made, which was devastating for all of us. This was the first time that I had to stop a project like this in the middle, and it happened at a moment when I was scheduled to spend a month in Japan. Since I was in a place that was very far from France, I had a chance to refresh my mind, and I did my best not to think about this project.

On the last day of my stay in Japan, my associate producer called to ask how I was doing. I told him I was feeling better, and he said, “Well, if you’re feeling better, do you think you could do something with that material you have?” [laughs] We had received some money from Brittany, and he told me that they were asking me to do something with it, like make a 15- or 20-minute film. My first reaction was to say no, because it was too painful to even think about. But after I hung up the phone I started thinking, and some ideas came to me. I thought that if we used the material from the rehearsals, all the material that was not supposed to be in the film, maybe I could find a structure, maybe I could find a way to make the film I had wanted to make—but with this material. So when I came back to France, I opened the hard drive which contained all the rushes and footage. And then I realized how beautiful it all was.

YH: This film is composed of scenes from the rehearsals in the studio, as well as day and night scenes from the beach. How did you combine these different time frames to create this movie?

DM: During these two weeks, we worked every day from morning to night—in the rehearsal room and on the beach—so I ended up with a lot of material from these different places, from day and night. After the call from my associate producer, my first thought was, “How am I going to mix all these things?” The materials were from different times, different places, and didn’t have any special relationship to each other. But I decided that I wouldn’t worry about that. More importantly, there was a story I had to tell. That is why there is a voice-over from the main character, which makes the film very fluid, and it helps you feel that there is a storyline there. It didn’t bother me that I was going from day to night, or from place to place. The first day after coming back to France, I opened my hard drive and took a look at what I had—and I realized that it was working. I had worried that it might not be working, but it was. And what was very interesting was that not only was it working, but it was also telling me something. It was like a flow of memory, or an idea from a dream. And I realized that because we are following this story, we don’t need to worry about the other things.

Later, I thought about why the editing had worked—because, of course, it might not have worked. But this film worked because the actors were always intense, both in their acting and in their habitual state. Whether we were in the rehearsal room or on the beach, whether it was day or night, they always had this strong intensity. That’s why we don’t care about time or space, because we are following their intensity. And the film is about this intensity. In the film, these teenagers are at a party, and they don’t want the party to end, they don’t want the intensity to vanish. This is what brings everything together, and after I started editing, I very quickly understood what this film was about.

YH: This party at the end of summer will be Rosa’s last party in her hometown and, in a way, the end of her youth. Since this film goes back and forth in time, it makes you feel as if this final evening of the summer will never end, and that is what makes the film so beautiful and powerful.

What it means to “act”

YH: This film is not about an actual island, but rather a stretch of beach around a rock that Rosa and her friends call “the island.” Why did you choose “The Island” as the title of this film?

DM: About a year before the workshop, I was on a train, and I came up with the idea of gathering seven teenagers who would have a party on the beach, and making a film about this together. That was when the film title came to me. But while I knew that the film would be called The Island, I didn’t know anything else about it yet. However, when I made this film, I realized that “the island” is not only the place where Rosa and her friends gather, but it is also their teenage years, this moment in their lives. And it is also our way of making films, and our film crew, who briefly appear in this film. This film has many layers—in the fiction, there is the teenagers’ “island,” their party, their youth and where they are living, but at the same time there’s also us, the actors, the crew and myself, spending two weeks together trying to make cinema. There is something utopian in this idea, and just like the teenagers don’t want to leave the party, I found myself not wanting to leave the shooting. For me, it is very moving to talk about our way of making this film, and to discuss this process. It happened as an accident, but I still find it very moving.

YH: I may be mistaken, but in the rehearsal scene in the studio, I seem to remember hearing the sound of the ocean. Did you add this sound in the editing?

DM: Yes, the idea was to make the different spaces more “open” and to mix them with each other, and the voice-overs are everywhere in this film. Even in the raw documentary scenes, you have these voice-overs. It is very interesting cinematographically to try to change the way we see things. The idea was that in the rehearsal studio, these teenagers are thinking about the sea, it is like they are actually there, in fact.

I believe that this film is also about acting. What it means to act, concretely. And in this film, the answer would be to use your imagination and feelings, and to connect them. Even in the rehearsal room, it feels like the actors are able to see the sea, and hear the wind. We talked a lot about this sensation. When Rosa is dancing in the rehearsal room, it’s like she feels the sand on her skin and manages to hear the sound of the wind by using her imagination.

These were not professional actors, and this was the first time they had appeared in a film. Rosa, in particular, was very scared, and she was always telling me that she felt she couldn’t do it, that she didn’t know how to do it. So I had to be there for her, to make her confident enough to try things and be strong. Rosa is in every shot, and it was very physical—so this was a really hard job for her. But she overcame her fear, and she managed to do it. In this film, she is a real actress.

YH: You said this film is about “acting,” but when we think about filmmaking, we generally imagine actors rehearsing and going on location, and “improving” their acting in the process. But am I right in thinking that this is not what we see in this film?

DM: Yes, you’re right. It’s interesting, because hearing your question made me think about how I’ve never had rehearsals in any of my other films. This was because I’ve wanted to film the first moments the actors meet each other, or say a line, or touch each other. So my style was not to rehearse things, but to speak with my actors during the shots, as I do in this film. This was because I wanted them to feel that the shooting was like a rehearsal, and this is how I did things in all of my films. I told the actors to think of the shots as a rehearsal because I wanted them to feel relaxed. In my mind, I was very serious about everything because this was going to be the film, but I wanted the actors to feel that we were searching for something together, for the right movement or the right word.

Even though this is the way I’ve always done things in my films, this was actually the first film where I wanted to have rehearsals—but in the end, the rehearsals ended up becoming the film. It’s funny, if you think about it.

Blurring the lines between precision and freedom

YH: In this film, the way you capture subtle gestures with close-ups of hand movements or fingers pretending to hold a cigarette, for example, is very beautiful.

DM: This is the talent of Mathieu Gaudet, our cameraman. We had some very precise ideas about the shots that we wanted, but I also asked Mathieu to be free, and to sometimes capture other things. It was a mixture of improvisation and things that were firmly fixed. For example, I blurred the lines between what was fixed, such as the dialogue, and what was not fixed, giving freedom to the cameraman, and giving freedom to the actors to try new things. If they felt that something was okay in the moment, if it made sense, they could do it. This was also true for me, and now when I see the film, I don’t even remember what was fixed and what was not fixed because it’s all very connected.

There is a scene that we filmed at night. We started shooting at four in the morning, and we had to do everything in a single shot of an hour and thirty minutes so we could capture the dawn light. There was only an hour and a half for all the dialogue, all the gestures and all the choreography, and the actors had to give all the energy that they had. And during that shot, I wasn’t there.

Before the shot, I talked to them about how we’d spent the entire day rehearsing, and told them that now it was their moment. A moment for just them and the cameraman. I told them that it was their film, and that they would have to do everything themselves because I wouldn’t be there to help them. For them, as teenagers, having an adult like me saying that I trusted them was very special. I watched the shooting from very far away, and I returned to them on the beach after the hour and thirty minutes. They are all very intense in this scene, and I think that this is because they felt trusted and responsible for the film, and they did everything themselves.

YH: Did you record the voice-overs after you started editing? I am asking because there is something very interesting about the way the voice-overs feel connected to the scenes. For example, in the conversation between Olga and Rosa, we hear the narration, “She was beautiful,” which expresses exactly what the audience is feeling at that moment.

DM: I started writing the voice-overs during the workshop. That is why we see Rosa rehearsing the voice-over in the last shot of the film. This was the first step, when I had the basic idea for the voice-overs. But during the editing, I would see how a voice-over needed to be rewritten, and I would send the text to Rosa, who would record it using her iPhone and send it back to me, and I would go on with the editing. And then the next week, I would ask her to record another phrase, and I continued the rewriting and editing like this. What is funny is that here we have Rosa recording the voice-overs alone on her iPhone, and of course they are not perfect at all. Then after the editing was done, in the post-production phase, we went to a professional mixing studio where we spent a whole day recording the voice-overs maybe 30 times to be perfect. Then I put these perfect voice-overs into my editing and I watched the film – but I felt nothing. It wasn’t right, and it wasn’t good. So in the end, we used the iPhone recordings. The voice-overs Rosa recorded by herself were clumsy, but they were better. And that is like the story of this film. In this film, things shouldn’t be perfect. [laughs]

When we were filming the scene of Rosa rehearsing the voice-over, we still didn’t know how this film would begin. After hearing Rosa read the sentence, it struck us that this could be a good beginning for the film. And then I decided to use it as the last scene of the film. When I edited this, I found myself very moved by it. There is this feeling that Rosa is searching for something. Through the full cycle of this film, the entire crew had been searching for something, we had all been trying to make something.

In this final shot, there is a certain look in Rosa’s eyes that I really liked. I knew I wanted to end the film with this, because at this moment, I didn’t know if she was the Rosa character from the film, or Rosa from everyday life. It is like she is truly between these two worlds, and there is something very strange and special about this moment.

Compiled by Yuki Hidetake / Editorial assistance: Itai Jin
Translated by Lisa Somers

Photography: Kumagai Haru / Video: Oshita Yumi / 2023-10-08

Note: This interview was done for an online interview collection that was only to be in Japanese. Therefore, the text was prepared in Japanese based on a transcription of the words of the English-to-Japanese interpreter. When funds were found to create an English version, the Japanese text was then translated into English. Please thus be aware that the text above will not necessarily reflect the exact words spoken at the time of the interview.

Yuki Hidetake
Film critic and editor. Yuki co-edited Eiga kukan 400 sen (LIXIL Shuppan, 2011); co-authored Edward Yang saikou/saiken (Film Art, Inc., 2017); John Carpenter dokuhon (boid, 2018) and has contributed to film brochures.