Be aware there are spoilers for High Life in the interview below.
If there’s one thing you can always count on from Claire Denis, it’s that you never know what you’re going to get from one of her movies. The filmmaker behind some of the most carnal, disturbing films of the 21st Century like Bastards and Trouble Every Day most recently turned toward romances with her gorgeous 2017 comedy Let the Sunshine In, and now, she’s taking one of the boldest swings of her brilliant career with High Life.
High Life is Denis’ first fully English-language film, her first film shot on soundstages, and her first dip into science fiction, and wouldn’t you know it, her approach to heady genre material is nothing like what you’d expect from a conventional sci-fi film. Robert Pattison — an esteemed artist in his own right, whose proven himself one of the boldest actors of his generation — stars as Monte, a death row inmate floating through space with his infant daughter toward a black hole. It only gets weirder from there.
For Pattinson, finally working with Denis is something of a dream come true. The actor fell in love with her work after seeing her essential 2009 film White Material and pursued a collaboration. At the time, Denis thought he was too young for the role of Monte, but factor in some production delays and some convincing from Pattinson, and ultimately, High Life came together. And thank goodness. The result is one of the most impressive and confounding films in either of their respective careers; a mind-bending trip through space that taps into grief, hope and the utter despair of isolation in a single, spectacular stroke.
With High Life now in theaters, I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Denis and Pattinson to talk about the enticing mysteries of their ineffable film. The duo discussed what they enjoyed most about working together after waiting all those years, why nonlinear storytelling was right for Monte’s arc, why the garden and the fuckbox were essential, and the “fucked up” relationship between Monte and his daughter. Denis even spoke briefly about what that yellow light at the end of the film means to her. Check out what they had to say in the interview below.
I know you guys have talked a lot about the long journey to you eventually working together, but once you finally ended up on set together what did you find that you enjoyed the most as creative partners?
ROBERT PATTINSON: I think it was something about something taking a long time to get to gestate, that by the time you actually get there… I mean, we knew each other pretty well. I mean years. So I think, actually really, really helped. Something that was, in a lot of ways, quite an organic shoot. Sometimes it can be incredibly nerve-wracking if you’re trying to film things quite naturally, on the day, especially when there’s a child involved. But I already knew it was going to be fun by the time I got there and I knew you could do something crazy and it wouldn’t be laughed at or anything. Or even if it was laughed at, I wouldn’t take it personally. [Laughs].
CLAIRE DENIS: For me, it was great to be able to have Robert two weeks before we start shooting in Cologne so we could do to this European Space Agency and actually say nothing about the film itself, but just being together with Juliette and seeing the real cosmonaut. I felt in better shape, the stress of the first day of shooting was a little bit on the side, you know? So when we started shooting, we started shooting with the baby and it was… normal. I can’t even describe… we had to wait for the baby, it’s crying or feeding or sleep. It was a normal life, you know? And I forgot a little bit, the stress of the first week of shooting with an actor I’ve never worked with before. For me in a studio almost experience, because the light was not finished, they were not done exactly, we were still finishing the garden.
All of these little things help me to concentrate on the most important, which was to be with Monte and the baby and nothing else. And the DP, because I think in a film like that, in such a small space with programmed light. If I didn’t have a VP like we had so gentle and cool, it would have been more stressing.
What was the appeal of non-linear storytelling as the right narrative device to approach this story, and Monte’s arc in particular?
DENIS: For me, it was very simple. The minute I was really starting to work up the script for that story, the only possible beginning was the garden, the baby calling her dad, and the father reburying that stuff in the void and talking to her, and she starts crying, and then suddenly you fill the void, that’s all. But for me, it stuck into my mind and therefore, I had to consider the crew; all those people who died to be the second part. I could not completely tell the chronological story of this adventure. I wanted this to be part of the memory of Monte and nothing else.
You kind of set me up for this perfectly, because I’m fascinated by how filmmakers settle on opening and closing frames, and you already answered the first, so how did you arrive at that yellow light as the right frame to bookend Monte’s journey?
DENIS: Well, I never saw there was another way. When I did pre-research I found the yellow light that Olufar [Eliasson] invented and this yellow light for me was the end of it. Like the instant of singularity, but there was no other ending for me. Never. For me, there is hope in that ending. It’s not a sad ending. “Shall we? Yes.” I don’t want to speak in your place. But beginning and ending, I mean if you don’t hold onto some things, physically, as your writing a script, like some themes. Like the fuckbox, for instance, it’s something I knew, and the garden, eating the strawberry, things like that but they’re not solid. You can make a film that way, you know? It has no value to film.
I know that you really just wanted to work with her anyway but when you finally got the script for this, you know, she talks about the garden and fuckbox, these things that really stood out in the story but what was it when you read the script, the imagery or the moments that you were most excited by?
PATTINSON: There’s something quite strange… People always talk about the taboo things and you’ve got a guy who’s basically been in some kind of prison or solitary confinement his whole life and then suddenly he’s alone with this girl. There was a quite strange sense of like an ominous foreboding thing and it felt like there was some weird threat there and you couldn’t really tell what it was. I always kind of like playing, there’s something about a characteristic or a situation that was kind of don’t know as the audience whether you’re seeing something kind of sweet or… you don’t know what world you’re in, and you don’t know if you’re complicit in liking a character who’s about to do something bad.
I mean, literally, somebody texted yesterday saying, “Yeah, I’m just gonna watch High Life tomorrow night.” They say, “Just please tell me nothing bad happens to the baby.” They literally said, “I don’t know if I’m gonna be able to watch it if something bad happens to the baby.” But I really don’t like saying that and I’m like [diabolical voice,] “I’m not gonna tell you. Maybe!” I don’t know, there’s something about that. I really like that idea. And also, there are so many different things that sci-fi movies, in general, they skew so far away from the organic. There’s something about having a movie where it’s so much about bodily fluids and stuff. And even the garden. There was just something so odd. There was a massive totem in the story that there was this garden very heavily featured, like growing cabbages in the spaceship, and it wasn’t particularly explained it just felt very right in the treatment.
DENIS: And I think everybody understands in the end. Why a garden is so important when you are so far from Earth and there is no return, you know? For me, the garden was always an inobligation. I don’t know why. Now I keep saying yes, it’s because of Andrei Tarkovsky. But in a way, I like gardening also, you know, also and I thought if there is a garden, then film will be okay.
I will never hurt a baby, never.
I like what you said about not quite knowing the tone of what you’re watching, because during a lot of it I was thinking, “This makes me feel weird and I’m not sure if that means I’m fucked up or that’s what the movie’s doing.”
DENIS: It’s fucked up. [Laughs.]
I felt justified by the end, but I like a film that challenges you to make up your own mind.
PATTINSON: I’m amazed by how few people say that it’s quite an odd relationship they have. Because I was trying to make it look strange [Laughs].
DENIS: You did. You did.
PATTINSON: It’s like, he’s losing control over what… As she gets older. It’s a different thing.
I certainly picked up on the weird.
DENIS: There was this scene in the script going on, maybe more heavily but not as good. The character, Mia Goth, and Monte, they were sort of attracted by each other, you know and it only takes place very briefly when she touches your hand, when you beat her up and the song. That was even a surprise for me because I knew something was missing and we find this beautiful song and I think it’s enough.
PATTINSON: I like that when you just kind of, you have people that… they live in a spaceship. They’re children who are in jail and they live in a space ship [laughs]. They’re not someone who you’re just gonna meet, randomly. Their behavior, I always find it quite interesting, they’re almost like animals how they deal with each other and it’s kind of very impulsive. Especially with Mia’s character, which is the whole tone.
Animals in captivity too. So, I’m just curious ’cause you’ve been working on this quite some time, right?
And then you saw the Contact art exhibit and made your short film, which was an influence on the ending of this film. Was that later, after you’d been developing this for a while?
DENIS: It’s because I knew. I went to visit Olafur in Berlin because I wanted that line. He was preparing an exhibition and he said, “Okay, but then do a little film for me.” And I went there and we shot that yellow light and we did that little film Contact for Olafur.
PATTINSON: Did that come out before the movie came out?
DENIS: The Contact? Yeah.
PATTINSON: Oh, I didn’t even know that was available to people.
DENIS: I gave it to Olafur and he used it as a little thing, you know?
PATTINSON: Oh, crazy. I had no idea.
How did you respond the other day when they put out that first picture of the black hole and it was kind of accurate to your film?
[They both point to each other.]
DENIS: We texted each other!
PATTINSON: It looked exactly the same. [Laughs]. It’s so weird. That is one of the strangest things.
DENIS: At that moment. At that moment. Really, you know? How cool.
PATTINSON: Exactly the same color.
It’s wild. Congratulations, I guess. Well done on predicting science.
DENIS: Things happen when making film. You don’t know why. I don’t know.
PATTINSON: I saw a really funny comment about that. It was a tweet saying, “This picture has enough data in it that it would be equivalent of a lifetime of selfies of 40 thousand people.” But that’s how we see things now.
How did you guys choose to operate on set in terms how rigidly you stuck to the script versus being a little freer, especially when there’s an infant involved?
PATTINSON: That was a lot. The good thing was that lot of the stuff with the baby was just like one sentence saying like, she just pees or something and you’re kind of you’re sort of-
DENIS: Eating the vegetables from the garden, you know?
PATTINSON: I was looking to see where she was gonna go. She’s always gonna come up with better stuff than I’m going to try to make her do. If you just left her alone for a second she would just start touching things. And such and she couldn’t walk, as well, so she would at least stay in the shop.
DENIS: She learned to walk on the set. But you know, the thing is, I made it in a way that I wanted to show their everyday ritual. He’s coming back from work. He’s going to the garden, making soup. I saw that little ritual of a father and a child and when she’s in bed and she’s sleeping and suddenly he’s alone, and then maybe there is more anxiety suddenly. But I think that the ritual was also helping in the film and helping us with the baby. We were doing normal things; pee, eating soup, sleeping.
PATTINSON: I just realized as well, there’s something very helpful about if you’re walking through a set with a baby and you’re trying to kind of make them notice things, you’re suddenly noticing things yourself.
DENIS: When she banged on the installation.
PATTINSON: And you kind of instinctively with a baby say like, “look at this, look at this.” And then saying that, you’re putting your focus out, like far out of yourself, as well. It’s kind of a good little avatar to have with you. It’s like a parrot.
DENIS: For us too, and for the crew too, it was also a way to enter the ship without the crew, without the “blah blah blah”. Just in a simple way.
Before I run out of time. Robert, you are working with Christopher Nolan soon and I know you can’t say anything about the movie itself, but as an actor who has chosen very different films from an action blockbuster for most of your career, how are you finding your prep is different from what you’ve been doing for the last decade?
PATTINSON: I was literally just thinking that yesterday. I kinda went to see some of the stuff in prepping for it, and I was also so worried about doing a big movie. I mean, definitely at this stage, it always seems quite similar ’cause you just sort of see… it’s just drawings and photographs and stuff. But I was amazed with Chris just being pretty open to stuff already. There’s definitely things that seem like they’re just very tightly choreographed already but he’s pretty loose with a lot of stuff.
That’s interesting, that’s not what you think of when you think of Nolan’s process.
PATTINSON: It’s not what people told me, at all. I did hear him talking to some people before I started managing with him and you should see people’s brains, he’s explaining things and they’re just like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” But I think it’s gonna be fun though.