Like the name their Open Talk session “They Walk Together” suggests, the film careers of French actress Juliette Binoche, Taiwanese director Hou Hsaio-Hen and Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami cannot be defined without each other.
Binoche worked with the critically acclaimed Hou first, through “The Flight of the Red Balloon” which opened the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival in May.
She then collaborated with multiple award winner Kiarostami in “Certified Copy” which won her the award for best actress at Cannes this year.
The three, all visiting Korea for the 15th Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF), sat down in front of moviegoers on the Haeundae Beach in Busan to talk about their experience of working together.
Q: You’re said to be a fan of Asian films. How did you come to discover the appeal to them?
Binoche: I’m privileged to meet with directors directly so sometimes I meet with them before I see their films. And when I choose to be in a movie with a director is mainly because I love them. I had seen Asian movies since I was a little girl because in my family, it was part our lives to see films from the other side and because there’s been a wonderful tradition in the east to have beautiful films. So with my mother there was a cinematic connection and even on television we had beautiful films coming from Japan and China… Iranian film came later because we didn’t see them at home. But as a teenager when I went to see movies I was interested in great directors so finally getting to meet with those amazing people was great and working with them has been about sharing a life experience.
Q: Abbas Kiarostami and Hou Hsaio-Hen, did you two meet Juliette Binoche for the first time at film festivals? Or did you see her films first.
Kiarostami: Of course the first time I saw her was on the screen and films but 13 years ago I met her in personal through a common friend in Paris.
Hou: I found out about her through “Three Colors: Blue.” Then while I was readying to make “The Flight of the Red Balloon,” a producer who was helping me in France introduced me to her at the lobby of a hotel where we met for 30 minutes. And we became close quickly because she told me about a scene in “Blue” where the director had asked her whether she’d use a candy or shoe to express a scene where she thinks about the child. She said she responded ‘shoe’ but the director immediately said ‘Then we should go with the candy.’
Q: You all come from different cultures so is there a particular way you prepare yourself or a certain type of determination you’re under when you have to work with one another?
Kiarostami: To be honest, I don’t go searching about the culture because if there’s something we’re forgetting, it means it’s not important. And the situations today’s human being are in and the worries we have is common everywhere. I wrote the script (for “Certified Copy”) and sent it to Juliette and after she read it, she called me and said, “I laughed and said to my friend ‘You don’t think Abbas wrote this because he knows about me at the present, do you?” I then sent the script to Martin Scorsese as well and he said the exact same thing and laughed. This shows no matter what culture, we’re all feeling the same thing. The race, difference of culture doesn’t make any difference. We all have the same inner feelings, the same pains and same happiness in life.
Hou: The first time I met Binoche, we didn’t talk much because of the language barrier. The second time, I just laughed all the time because I don’t speak English well. And the third time, I gave her my scenario, without saying anything in particular. Then the third time we ate together was when we started talking about the movie. That’s why I think what’s important is which actor or actress you meet, not the cultural differences. I usually go straight into shoot, without any tests or rehearsals which could be tough but Binoche adjusted very quickly so I think she’s a great actress in that sense.
Binoche: I think I chose to be an actress and work with directors and with the camera as well because I want to be close to the other one. I think movies are a wonderful medium to get close to the other person and it is magnified by the camera that suddenly interacts both within and outside me. So I think that’s why it’s important that I love them as a person. And don’t get jealous of each other, there’s no competition there. (laugh) Also, and the way they put the camera on me, their intention to catch light through me and the other actors is great. It allows us to interact in a more alive way. I think the way they shoot — it’s a common denominator between them — they let light be. They also very specifically choose the stories. They need to have the story belong to themselves first and then choose the right people who create this world. After that, Abbas chooses the specific frame and he is so vigorous and precise about the way he wants to choose the frame. Hou, he starts with the details and then expands out, finding that frame so magically. And that’s such a privilege for me, to be able to give the best I can because they allow me to. If I didn’t have the space to, I wouldn’t be the actress I am today.
Q: In “The Flight of the Red Balloon,” it seems the camera focuses more on Binoche’s bodily movement while in “Certified Copy,” it feels almost as if Binoche is just letting out her emotions while trapped inside the close-up of the camera. What are the takes you like to film most when it comes to Binoche?
Hou: When we were filming the movie, I didn’t tell Binoche what to do other than saying that I want to see her move naturally. I think it’s better to let the actor move naturally rather than force upon him or her what I want to deliver. I think the movie showed well how Binoche moves naturally in a certain setting. I like the scene where she fights with her neighbors in particular. It’s a very complex scene but I think she pulled it off well.
Kiarostami: The first thing that I emphasize is to choose the actor I want to make a film with and after I choose, I don’t touch the situation and the way of acting when I’m working with them, so like Hou said, I make them free and they move and talk freely. So the most important part is choosing the right person to act. But working with Juliette was different. I wrote this script for her so when I gave it to her, I was sort of also directing the acting at the same time. Then when shooting the film, I was just watching what she does and not interfering because she understood the material very well and she surprised me with her acting.
Binoche: And both films are about mothers. Women with a young child, trying to survive, feeling abandoned, and no man around. One film is about trying to catch the son because she feels completely out somehow and in the other, she is trying to get the relationship with a man. So what’s beautiful to see is two men trying to understand women, mothers, and loving them. Because whether its because they remember their mothers, partners or wives, I’m trying to understand that part of life. As a woman, I’m very touched by the way they allow the feminine part of themselves to emerge and how they try to understand the other side.
Q: Binoche, you published a book containing portraits you drew of directors. How did you draw the two directors and what was their response?
Binoche: I think I did Hou’s portrait before Abbas because I shot with him before and almost did the portrait in chronological order. I can’t say that I painted it, it painted through me like acting which goes through me while not being a willing accomplishment. [With Hous] I felt sort of an immensity I felt with him the immense feeling of experiencing life with him and the camera. That’s why in the portrait, you there’s not stopping between the outside and the inside, like a world with no boundaries. And there’s sort of a Buddhist kind of way he represents for me because I remember seeing how he would come on set and smile like a child being happy just being there. With Abbas, I hadn’t shot the film yet so it was expectation in wondering what would happen. The scar he has, I wasn’t sure which side it was but it just happened to turn out the right way. And I had also started making a little documentary by asking directors what acting is. what an actor is because I wanted their point of view. I remember interviewing Abbas at Cannes for it and I asked him if he wanted to be made up but he didn’t want any make-up then I asked him to take off his glasses and he said ‘No way.’ So then during the interview, I zoomed inside his glasses and I could see his eyes completely as well as see myself in the reflection of his glasses. So because I wanted to see his eyes, that’s what I started with for his portrait, the eyes. But now that I’ve shot with him, I think I’ll do another portrait.