The name Enki Bilal appeared for the first time in "Pilot" in the
early 70's, short stories influenced by Lovecraft. A meeting with Pierre
Christin, the Valérian scriptwriter, resulted in a series of "modern
legends", with a total of 5 episodes to date.
Refusing the concept of "hero" not, as he says himself, by
megalomania, but to avoid being associated with a character, Bilal moved
into full creative gear with "Fair of the Immortals", for which he is
preparing the sequel at present. More recently, Bilal has turned to the
cinema, and has contributed to the making of the fantastic "glass
paintings" from "Life is a Novel" by Alain Resnais. He has most recently
"dressed the skeleton" of the creature from "The Keep".
Bilal, what are your influences?
Lovecraft, for me, was the base of the slightly delapidated universe
which I still relate to. Philip K. Dick has also influenced me a lot, as
well as Roger Zelazny. He's someone who plays completely with the
universe that he has in his head, and that was in line with what I wanted
to do. He inspired me a lot. As far as the cinema is concerned, I'd
say, without a doubt, "2001, Space Odyssey" -- a film I've seen ten
times, and which has affected me deeply. It was a time when Science
Fiction was just beginning to find its feet at the cinema. The special
effects were very high quality, but at the same time there were some dead
moments for the viewer. "Star Wars" which I also like a lot, was a film
which was better directed than "2001", but which is very smooth,
super-fast, very throw-away. When the films finishes, you leave and it's
As a comic strip author, what do you think you can bring to the director
of a fantasy film?
From the director's point of view, I don't know. I could try to ask
myself that question if I was a director eventually, but I won't. From a
designer's point of view, to be asked for by a director, is first of all
Secondly, one could ask oneself if the workings of such an enterprise are
For "The Keep", Michael Mann is a man who I appreciated a lot. I
saw him at work and he made a very strong impression. But our meetings
were very quick, very brief. Even so, I'm afraid that for such a meeting
to be fruitful, all the terms of the collaboration have to be clear,
right from the start of a film project.
From the moment the director starts thinking about his film, he
should contact the graphic designer. Up to now, I've had the impression
that this was done at the last minute. The designer is called on for
help, and has to come up with the goods extremely quickly. That makes
for a very transient meeting, and there is no real contact. If the
designer, who is, after all, someone who has a similar function to the
director -- in the sense that he prepares his project and dreams about it
a long time in advance -- is called for at the last minute, I wonder if
he is not used in a rather contradictory way, especially when he has to
How did your collaboration on The Keep come about?
The Keep went well, because in the end, the subject was ready. I arrived
at a moment where I had to act quickly, but at the same time I had all
the elements I needed to do the job correctly. There was a creature in
the main role. The first two stages of its conception were more or less
finished. The skeleton was done, and from that I designed a body. I
"dressed" the skeleton in a manner of speaking. I gave it hair, a
superstructure etc. So I did the final stage of the creature and
everything went very well, but once again, it could easily have been
I had been summoned without warning and a week later I had to go to
London. I arrived with my pencil and my eraser and I had to work
quickly. Michael Mann was right in the middle of filming. He was going
from one studio to the other, coming to see me to discuss things, or I
went to see him.
So it was a job which I, the designer -- used to thinking well in
advance -- could have felt bad about, and it could have all gone horribly
wrong. And yet as it happened, the contact was good. Perhaps the way in
which Michael Mann posed me this problem was perfect. But perhaps it was
risky . . .
All the same, people at the cinema shouldn't believe that comic
strip authors are only designers. These are people with a universe, and
it takes time to create it. If the collaboration has been established
more in advance, it can give very good results, in my opinion.
How did Michael Mann get in touch with you?
I think he had seen my drawings in "Heavy Metal", and that's what
convinced him to meet me. I was contacted at the end of '82. At the
time, I was working on Alain Resnais' film, "Live is a Novel". It
wasn't an American production with "Star Wars"-type special effects, but
the work was very involved, which took me a long time.
Everything happened very quickly after that. My work on the Keep
lasted five or six months, but in the form of half a dozen trips to
London. Practically one day returns, apart from one occasion when
Michael Mann sent me to the darkest depths of Wales, in a mine where the
majority of the filming was done. He sent me there for my own pleasure.
I think he said to himself, "Here's a universe that will make him happy,
will stimulate him," even if, at that moment, there wasn't much left to
do as far as work was concerned. He asked me to solve a couple of small
problems with the decor, but I'd say that there was no pressing need to
send me over there.
Having worked simultaneously on "le Resnais" and "The Keep", what do you
think of the differences between French and American productions?
There's a very big difference! I went from Epinay Studios in Paris to
Shepperton Studios which aren't even Hollywood-based. I saw Renais, who
is a great French director (worldwide, even), having a lot of difficulty
getting funding for his films. Right from the word go, there is a clear
difference, which is irreversible for the moment.
It amused me to see that Michael Mann filmed on 3 or four film sets,
with several cameras and teams of technicians, and lots of decor. For
example, for the first time I saw several shots being taken at the same
time in different places. Michael Mann went from one set to the other,
whereas in Paris there was only ever one team, even if they were very
good and very competent.
You can see the difference in scale at my level too. For example,
they sometimes made me come to Shepperton without me really understanding
why, but I was very happy. I was the "father" of the monster, and I was
going to see my impressive offspring.
Was the fact that you only had to "dress a skeleton" as you put it, a
Of course it's always a bit frustrating to be at the service of someone
else's thoughts. I won't accept to be just the pencil to draw someone
else's thoughts -- for example, to create a storyboard. It's not a
matter of pretentiousness, but the way I function personally.
Here, however, the problem was different and very interesting. It
wasn't just a case of solidifying something, but to imagine, to visualize
the creature. It was almost an anthropologist's job -- very exciting.
Also, as it went very quickly, I left and I had done something very
Were you asked to make changes to your design?
There were some minor changes which came from the extremely abstract
nature of appearances -- vague even -- from the images which Michael Mann
had of the monster in his head. Actually, the monster in "The Keep"
isn't very spectacular, in the sense that he doesn't have tentacles, etc
. . . it's not Alien. It's a humanoid, but something which comes from
That was the main problem. Michael Mann gave me some very vague
impressions, which I tried to transcribe. But everything went very well.
It's fantastic to see a little pencil-drawn figure take shape, to exist
in three dimensions.
Were you involved in the making of the creature's costume?
I prepared several sketches on my first trip. Then I followed the
evolution of the creature, but in a rather supervisory role. I did a
drawing without asking myself about the technical application of my
concept. I started off with the idea that anything was possible. Noone
ever told me that there were any technical restrictions.
I didn't even draw with color crayons, because I hadn't brought my
materials with me, and I didn't have time to go back to Paris to get
them. Anyway, Michael Mann described the concept of the film very well
to me, which is of a disused mine where everything was based on soot and
dust, also matte grey. My colors are also cold, grey, etc. But all the
other details which I indicated were incorporated into the costume, on
the head, the shoulders, the highly-strung muscles on the neck, etc. I
tip my hat to the people who made the costume!
To conclude, what did you gain from your involvement in the film?
I was Bilal, but inside Michael Mann. I simply translated his fears, his
worries, his obsessions. Perhaps the fear of Naziism, which makes two of
us. It was a great pleasure to be a sort of shaper of his fears!