Julia Ducournau interview: directing Raw, cannibalism

Director Julia Ducournau chats to us about her new cannibal horror, Raw...

Raw is, when you serve it up ungarnished, a coming of age movie with lots of familiar tropes: college rites of hazing, sibling rivarly, sexual awakening. And then there are some less familiar tropes too – or at least less familiar to the coming of age genre – such as the consumption of human flesh.

It’s a very particular balance of genres managed by a very particular director. I spoke to Julia Ducournau about her work here, from here original concepts of taboo and transgression to the finer points of lighting and musical arrangement. Here’s how that conversation went down – with one spoiler that we try, pretty hard, to dance around.

Let’s start at the beginning. What was the first image you imagined for this film?

Sometimes it is an image, indeed, but not this time. This time it was more of a reflection I had when I was talking with my producer Jean des Forets – not my producer at the time, but we were friends. We were talking about cannibal movies and I told him it was interesting because cannibalism is one of the three taboos of humanity, alongside murder and incest. It’s the only one of those taboos that is, most of the time, portrayed as if it doesn’t exist.

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For example, when you have a movie about murders, you never doubt that the murderer exists, that he is a real person. The same with movies about incest, even if there is way fewer of them. Whenever you talk about such a subject you always put it at the human level. With cannibalism it is very different. Cannibals are very often depicted as a tribe, a group, of anonymous creatures, seen as a ‘they’. ‘They’ come and attack. Obviously, I would put Hannibal Lecter on the side here, but I’m more talking about the cannibal movies you would have in the 70s. Cannibals were treated as if they don’t exist, like aliens or zombies, coming from an outside world into our world. I thought this was very strange and why this particular taboo was kicked out of humanity, like we do not want it to belong to our planet, to the human race.

It was around that question that I started building Raw. I thought that if I would make a movie about cannibalism, maybe I would make it with an ‘I’ narration rather than a ‘they’ narration.

Do you think this previous experience of cannibalism in drama leads the audience to thinking of cannibalism as a metaphor? Maybe your audience is primed, and come in already thinking of cannibalism as a metaphor, thinking ‘it doesn’t really happen, it’s an allegory’.

I think you’re right but I do think there is something about this particular taboo that puts it too close to us, and that’s why we want to see it from far away. There is something in cannibalism that is to do with bodies. It’s something I’ve been interested in a lot, working around bodies, around bodies and the question of identity, around humanity.

Think of this image of a new parent who loves their newborn so much that they say “I want to eat you!” This says something about our animality. Also when we bite someone for fun; we used to do this a lot when we were kids, maybe it doesn’t happen so much anymore. When your teeth touch the skin, somehow your mind says no, because obviously you are going to hurt the person, you don’t want to do that, but your body says something different to your mind. There is something in us that constantly reminds us of our animality, and this is why we want to see cannibals from far away.

Maybe I’m an odd example but I don’t feel the compulsion to bite. I don’t eat meat, haven’t for maybe three quarters of my life, and cannibalism for me does feel very distant, something I can engage with only intellectually. But still, when I was watching your film, my reactions were incredibly visceral. What were you most interested in – how the film inspires us to think, or what it makes us feel?

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It’s interesting what you’re saying because there is, for me, a dynamic between the ‘feel’ and the ‘think’. When I make movies I do try to address myself directly to the bodies of the audience before I address myself tot heir mind. I like movies, personally, that make me feel things, and I can think afterwards ‘why did I feel that from that image when my neighbour felt something different?’ or, when we reacted the same way, with disgust perhaps, it was never for the same reason. When you react physically it is your body in the light of its own history. There is a memory in the body that you bring into the theatre which makes you, as an audience, incredibly active. You are not passive, you are inside of the experience. I really like that, and it’s why I engage with the grammar of body horror.

Two much-discussed ways in which films connect with their audiences viscerally, non-intellectually, are through their colour palette and through their music. I’d like to talk about each of those. Are there any organising principles you want to discuss in the palette of this movie?

I want to talk about light first then come back to colour. Working with my DoP, Ruben Impens, I told him that I really wanted the bodies in this film to be lit in an ordinary way. I didn’t want any kind of glamour or any kind of sexualisation, no sugar coating of what the body is. I wanted to show the pores, the dark skin, the hair, and all of this had to exist very vividly on screen. This also worked because the bodies never had any makeup on, I never put powder on legs or torso, the only makeup is the special effects makeup. That was the first way to determine the angle I wanted to tackle in this movie.

The next thing is that we had to find the coherence inside the crossover between comedy, drama and body horror, and it should not look like three movies in one. There had to be coherence, and for me it was found in a paradoxical strategy. I’ll explain myself: in the cannibal scenes, the genre scenes, I wanted them to be very realistic. I didn’t want any doubt that these are cannibals, not vampires. It was very important – vampires don’t exist, cannibals do. In my questioning of identity I couldn’t allow a supernatural creature that makes you reflect more than it makes you feel. I wanted to feel that we were in the skin of this piece of humanity we tend to repress, so it was very important that the light was very realistic.

However, for these scenes not to appear conspicuous, there had to be a coherence, we had to build an apprehension, an expectation, a tension before these scenes arrive. The more domestic scenes, even the comic scenes, those to do with life on campus and the hazing – which is domestic, in a way – I wanted to add some tension, build up a bridge with the up-and-coming more genre scenes. We did this by adding touches of colour – red, of course – that have nothing to do with the environment. For example, when they are in the courtyard waiting, doing their chants, before the blood starts showering on them, they all have a very deep magenta reflection on their faces. Magenta had nothing to do there, in this courtyard in the middle of the afternoon, but if builds up the tension in the scene, builds up a pre-emption of the blood that is coming up. It created the feel that something more belonging to genre realms – a shower of blood – is coming.

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I really like to use this kind of colour scheme in scenes that could have been incredibly naturalistic. The directors and DoPs I admire the most, what they do with colour is amazing.

To clarify for my readers, this particular effect was specifically created by bouncing light from a magenta reflector…

Yes, in this scene that was the case, and in other scenes as well. But what was also important was how we would break the continuity of the light. For example in Justine’s room, I decided that the light should move according to her internal state. Sometimes, the light is white on her, then on the next scene it would be orange. We’re breaking all continuity, for me, it’s the fact that you can’trely on continuity in the light, we are always in bumper cars, if you like, with the light.

It’s an amazingly effective break in continuity because it’s barely consciously visible but it certainly exerts some pressure on the viewers’ perspective.

That’s what I wanted.

At risk of a spoiler, so I will be careful in how I phrase this, I want to go back to something you said a few minutes ago. You say cannibals are real and vampires are not, yet in one moment, your film maybe has a light implication of something that maybe doesn’t have a foundation in science.

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I know what you mean. It’s very hard to talk about that and avoid spoilers, but for me there’s nothing fantastic about it. There are medical conditions that are translated through only one gender of the genealogy – for example, haemophilia, only through one gender, generation to generation. For me, there is a very medical explanation. It’s certainly not undermining what has gone before, saying ‘this does not exist’.

I would love to think about the music. If I listen to the soundtrack album, the two tracks Finger Scene and Lust, we hear three different arrangements of the same cue. I think they’re very interesting in contrast. Was this all Jim [Williams, the composer] or did you tell him what you wanted here?

The reason I wanted to work with Jim, despite the fact that I really love what he has done for other movies, is that I think he’s an amazing instrumentarian. It’s a big thing because I don’t like electronic music and I don’t like layers. Also, Jim is a great theme composer. From the beginning, I wanted big themes in my movie. It’s a great way to accompany the journey of a character through a movie because a theme can morph as the character morphs. We started with the idea that we would work with themes.

The one you are talking about, Justine’s theme, is the one that morphed the most. We started with something that was somehow dry – I said I wanted a western feel at the beginning of the movie, lighter scenes and darker scenes but all the discovery of a new world. Jim and I knew it was going to be guitar, with space left for electric guitar, so it could change by taking on electric guitar.

In the middle of the movie, I told Jim I really need to feel, from the theme’s arrangement, a sense that fate is falling over Justine’s shoulders, that she is being crushed by tradition and expectation. He had the brilliant idea of having the organ. This was smart because the organ, of course, is the instrument of church, it expresses what she’s feeling in that movie yet at the same time, the theme is the same.

Then later, the one called Lust, from during the soccer game, I instantly thought it was beautiful but I’m not sure if Jim realised how smart his move was. The harpsichord is in the same realm of baroque instrument as the organ, but the harpsichord is like the pagan version of the organ, full of desire.

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I’m very curious what filmmaking ambitions you have now, what you would like to explore and which ideas you’d like to pursue in future movies.

I’m looking for crossover movies, like this trinity of comedy, drama and body horror. I want a chance to crossover even more the next time. After that? Honestly, I have no idea. I’ve got tons of ideas but it would takes ages to talk about them now.

Then I hope we get to talk again when the next idea makes it to the screen. Thank you Julia Ducournau.

Raw is in UK cinemas from April 7th.