Embracing his entrenched connection to those who fought and died during the AIDS epidemic in the ‘90s, director Robin Campillo channeled his firsthand accounts as a former militant of the Paris chapter of ACT UP—an advocacy group unafraid to carry out radical actions—and pour them into the making of his latest feature, BPM (Beats Per Minute).
The result is galvanizing, his lived-in memories are transformed into a colorful fiction that celebrates life in the face of impending death. BPM doesn’t reduce HIV-positive individuals to pitiful shells of people, but presents them as passionate, seductive, resilient, and fiery.
Group strength is at the core of the filmmaker’s motivations, yet, within that notion, the romance between Sean (rivetingly played by Argentine actor Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and starry-eyed Nathan (Arnaud Valois) is a singularly stirring inclusion. The former got infected his first time having intercourse at 16 and is now heading towards darker days, but remains a strong-willed ACT UP member. Valois’ character is a different case: a profoundly involved activist who is gay but doesn’t have the virus. Sean is a burning flame that’s brighter because it knows it won’t shine for long, and Nathan is there to prevent it from extinguishing for as long as possible.
Campillo won the Grand Prix at Cannes in May and his vibrant film is now representing France at the Oscars in the Best Foreign Language Film category. During a recent visit to Los Angeles, the director sat down with MovieMaker to discuss the process of sensorial film about something that’s political in nature and why this was the first time he’s ever cried while writing a screenplay.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): You were an active ACT UP militant when you were younger. Your insight is invaluable because you were there in the trenches. How difficult was it to bring to the screen a story that’s so ingrained in you as a person, in a way that not many of us could fully understand?
Robin Campillo (RC): It’s weird, because I tried to do other scripts about AIDS, about the AIDS epidemic. I wrote one for a year and a half, about 10 years ago, and I realized at the end that I didn’t want to shoot it, which was kind of a disappointment. I realized that it was not possible for me to do a film about that if it was not very incarnated, and something that I had lived. When I wrote the script that was the hardest part emotionally, because I was not emotional at the time. I was hiding all of that somewhere, but to write it down now, and because I’m older—I’m not young anymore—I was getting very emotional. I’ve never cried writing a script, this the first time.
I realized that it was something very important, because most of the time in the cinema, a lot of people oppose emotions and focus on the concept. All of that is bullshit, because it’s always connected, and this film is about incarnating or embodying a struggle, and I couldn’t have any distance from that. The disease puts you in a place where you cannot have distance with your body. You’re so connected. Sean’s tragedy happens when he realizes that you cannot have distance from this disease, and you can’t be a militant anymore and you have to go to the hospital. That was something that was very important to me. Even if I was describing a group who was very strong because it was a collective, but at some point, that didn’t help at all.
When I was writing this script, I was emotional, but I was really trying to put all of these moments that I’ve had in my mind for many years. I had to put it in perspective to try to understand why it could be a film, why it could be cinema, and I realized that the film is all about incarnation. It’s all about embodying a struggle, so that’s why it took me nine months to find the actors, because I wanted to find the right person for the right role, but at the same time, I wanted people to be connected to each other—that takes a lot of time. At the same time, that was a relief, because I felt so lonely writing the script. I was so emotional, and it was like, all of these people—and by these people I mean the actors and also the crew and technicians—they all took my emotions, and I was so relieved. It was like The Exorcist, they took the evil out of me, and that helped me a lot during the shoot.
MM: In that sense, how is a film such as BPM, that comes from such a personal place, different from one could make solely based on research, watching documentaries, and interviewing people, without that personal connection?
RC: My film is not at all a historical film, and it’s not a documentary. People are saying that it’s like a docudrama, and I don’t feel that at all. The first reason is because the film is very structured. It’s not a random film. The other thing is that I didn’t try to make the historical genealogy of this epidemic. I tried to do the sensorial history of this epidemic, the emotional history of this epidemic, the sensual history of this epidemic, and the erotic history of this epidemic, all of those things. I think it’s difficult to imagine that when you are going through documents, because it’s something that, even for us, I was talking to a former militant, once a week we were talking together, and we were re-thinking what we lived, and what was so important at the moment. For me, it’s more important to talk about the fact that we had so many contradictions in ourselves, and there was so much electricity among the people in this group, and there was desire. All of those things, I think it is very difficult to imagine if you were not part of it. That’s a problem to cinema. I was able to do this film, which is very minor, but when you think, for example, about the migrant crisis in France, who should do a film about this? It should be a migrant. Maybe there’s a director coming and he or she will be able to do it, but if I do a film about them, then it would always have some kind of patronization. It’s hard, to talk about history. That’s why, since I had the chance to be a director, I lived this story, and I’ve been able to raise the money to do it properly, this is a luxury.
MM: Nahuel Pérez Biscayart’s character, Sean, lives a very political life, and his death is also political. What does it mean to you to live a political life?
RC: To live a political life; that’s a very interesting question. I make a difference between causes and struggles. Causes are when you are working to defend rights that are very important for you, and you are thinking of other people. And the other one, the struggle, is when it’s your body, which is considered by society as a problem. Your body means the disease, but also your sexual orientation. For instance, I’m talking about France, the ACT UP struggle is very much connected to women fighting for abortion, because it’s about their bodies. It’s about incarnating, and even if you are in these situations, you have to find the right window where it’s possible to make a political difference. ACT UP was this kind of window, and I think that’s the problem with Sean. He embodies too much of the struggle, and he’s burying himself in the struggle. He loses his strength in the struggle, and that’s very difficult. When I was in ACT UP, we knew exactly which persons were going to die, because they were not saving themselves. They knew it was over.
MM: One of the film’s accomplishments is the emotional arch that we Sean going though. At the beginning of the film he represents the fearlessness of the movement, and then he becomes a much more fragile figure and he refuses to show weakness. Tell me about that transformation.
RC: He a very 19th century political figure. It’s more like Victor Hugo or these type of authors, the people who are struggling the most die very quickly. There’s a big difference between Sean and Thibault in the film. Thibault knows that he has the luxury of time, a little bit more than Sean, and that’s a problem between the two of them. I was also really inspired by the figures of Moses and Aaron from the Bible. It seems that Moses, when he received the message from God, he was so haunted by this message that he couldn’t transmit it to other people. He was barking, and no one understood him, and his brother Aaron, who was clever and a little bit distant from this, he could communicate for his brother. But at the same time, he spoiled the message from God. It changed. He made it dishonest. For me, Sean cannot accept representations of the disease if they are on his body. At the beginning of the film, they are having a debate about the first action, and some people think it’s too violent, and we have all of these images of this first action, where they are parodying the debate, and you see the guys who received the blood, and at the end of the debate, you have Sean, who has this rhetorical agility, and he convinces everyone that it was a big success. It’s because he has some distance still to the disease. He can play with it. He can be theatrical. But at the end, the last amphitheater scene, he becomes the image of the disease. He is getting very ill and he is going to the hospital. He is treated for Kaposi sarcoma on his foot and he can’t turn that into anything political. He can’t do anything with that. He is a victim of it. When Thibault is excited about the gay pride parade and wants to put people in wheelchairs in the front as a way to represent people with the disease, for Sean it’s not possible to have this distance. He is like Aaron, he can’t communicate something that is embodied by himself: the disease. That changes him.
MM: I don’t think I’ve ever said this about a film, but I loved the transitions between scenes. They’re ethereal and evocative. Sometimes transitions are just cut here, cut there, but in this film, they’re so beautiful and become a real addition to the storytelling language. From the dance floor you transition into a very intimate sequence seamless. How did these way stylistic choices come about?
RC: I’m so pleased that you say that, because I’m a little bit afraid of these people talking about it as a “docu-drama.” The film is constructed, and it’s kind of surreal to me people think that. It’s not the same thing. Of course, people are playing in a natural way, but the structure of the film is not natural at all. You have these people in a white room and they are talking and talking, and then you see actions, and the actions are kind of like hallucinations for me. I love this contrast between the both of them. For me, cinema is about metamorphosis. It’s about how you come from this thing to this other thing, how this character begins like this and ends like this. How it goes on.
It can change a lot during the film. You can have a lot of movement. The same thing goes for the form of the film. You don’t need to be in the same form, because that’s what we call “formalism” and formalism is something that I’m not very interested in. Of course there’s some formalism in the film, but it’s lively formalism. The shape of the film is moving a lot, and for me, that was a main point, because I love to think of the editing as something magical that you don’t understand. I love the idea that I’m losing the spectator. He has no time to think. He is absorbed by the images, and he doesn’t know how he comes from this scene to the other scene. That, for me, is the beauty of cinema.
Most of the time, when you’re in film school, people ask directors not to lose the spectators. They have to know exactly what’s going on between the characters and where they are, and that’s so stupid, because it’s the opposite. I like the fact that, for instance, you are in a club dancing, and it’s a dream, because often you’re so drunk, you wake up in bed, and you don’t know exactly the moment you took a taxi or you took the subway. I love this idea, because it’s desirable to feel things like these. It was in the script. I respected the naivety of my script, because I wrote things in a very loose poetry.
For instance, and it’s funny you mention it, I wrote that they are in the club, and beyond them you can see particles of dust, and if you look very closely at that dust, you can see things which can look like plasma and viruses, and at the end, it becomes just like a projection of drawings to explain the work on diseases. I put those things in the script because it makes you dream, but then you have to do it. I remember my cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie, after reading the script, she told me, “I don’t know how we are going to do this.” And I said, “Don’t worry, we’re going to do it.” And that’s so magical, to have dreamt these things, and to put them on screen, that’s magical.
I like to think that, for the spectator, they are hallucinating in certain moments in the film, which are so different from the debates in the amphitheater. They are not the same nature, and I love the fact that they are contradictory. Even in the scene where Martin is talking about his past, the scene starts like a normal scene. They’re having a nice conversation in the empty theater, but the more he’s talking about his past, the more you lose the sounds of everyone around them. It’s not natural at all, but I like this idea of focusing so much that everything else disappears, and you are in the mind of the character in that moment. That’s the main thing: metamorphosis.
MM: A film about AIDS could easily be one that aesthetically and dramatically focuses on the most harrowing aspects of the disease and the way patients were treated, but in your film that darkness, both visually and thematically, is replaced with sensual and lively characters.
RC: It’s because we were very lively. I think we have more emotions in this film because it’s lively, because we know what we lose when people die. It’s always a question of contrast. The character of Sean is very lively, so when he dies, there’s a kind of loss, and it’s much more important. You have to imagine that ACT UP was a very funny place. The first time I came to this group in 1992, I thought it was so funny. I thought, “Where is the disease?” ACT UP came after 10 years of the epidemic, which were so horrible. We were on our own, depressed, afraid, and sad because people were dying, so it was a very positive moment, this moment with ACT UP, so I had to be honest with that. That helped me, because we wanted to survive not only because we wanted to have a job, to have a life, but because we wanted to have fun. We were good at going to clubs, and having sex. We were so good at having pleasures that it was a shame that we were so touched by this epidemic. It was not sad, it was something else, and I wanted to recreate this feeling. MM