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Enki Bilal --
Artistic
Contributor

from Hors Serie
Starfix #2
(Dec. 1988)




From Hors Serie Starfix #2 (December 1988), pp. 80-81:
[Originally printed in Starfix No. 3 Hors Serie (April 1984), pp. 70-71]

Enki Bilal -- Artistic Contributor
Propos recueillis par François Cognard
scans and original French text courtesy of Vincent Thibert of Welcome to Vincent Thibert's Main Page
translated by Paul Fellows of Welcome to the Dream Gallery, July 2000

Enki Bilal -- Artistic Contributor

After Moebius for Alien and Tron, our American friends called another French cartoon artist to the rescue: Enki Bilal. The great author of Fair of the Immortals, and the golden magician of Life is a Novel, a roller-coaster of a film by Renais for which he conceived costumes and glass paintings of a legendary era. Bilal tells us about his adventure in The Keep by Michael Mann.

It all started with a message on my answering machine. Mann contacted me during the filming. It was very urgent. The first stage of the monster had been filmed: it was a brain with fluorescent eyes swamped in a thick veil of smoke. The second stage of the cut-away was ready, too. But for the final stage of the creature, Mann wasn't satisfied with the designers' work, their conceptions. Anyway, I was working on the Renais film, and I had to quickly find some free time.

I went directly to London to Shepperton Studios, and I met Michael Mann there. A very intelligent guy who greatly impressed me. He had seen my plates for Heavy Metal. This magazine is a fantastic outlet for French comic strip artists. It's also highly regarded by cinema people (e.g. Moebius/Jodorowsky of Dune, Chris Foss of Alien, William Stout of Conan). He showed me the plates for Fair of the Immortals. He liked the bodies of the Egyptian Gods a lot, their stature, their slabs of muscles and their well-padded shoulders. He gave me some photos of the monster, the rough sketches as well as some costumes, pieces already made. And I had to work from that.

German Helmets

The first drawings of the creature weren't very good. It didn't have a real allure, no substance. Only a vague foggy shape. For my part, I had to take into account the aesthetic evolution of the monster, of its first two stages. In particular, I couldn't detach myself from the cut-away second stage, which implied the existence of hypertrophied muscles around the neck. But I had to work fast. Mann was filming on the neighboring set. He explained a few details to me and I tried to understand in spite of my shaky English. I hadn't read the novel or the script, either. Mann wanted the monster to symbolize Fascism, with his skull resembling a German helmet and his body that of a proud and noble Arian statue, as on the paintings of the Third Reich. From then on, I constantly had a photo of Scott Glenn in front of me; the creature had to resemble him as well, since the creature was his double of sorts, his bad version. In short, it was all very vague.

So, I did lots of rough sketches in a corner of the studio, and from time to time, I wandered around the immense Shepperton stages. It was very impressive; the technicians were dealing with the massacre scenes of the Nazis in the main dungeon, with torn-apart dummies lying around here and there, in short, directing the scenes of the damage done by the monster. Also, Mann knew of my drawings of the Berlin Wall, with bodies going over the walls, seemingly glued to the cement. Both of us agreed on a lot of aesthetic aspects.

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Mann never ceased to propose things to me. He also wanted me to develop a special decor; the monster's den, the immense cavern under the fortress where he is imprisoned. He explained the camera movements he wanted when the two Nazis enter the cavern. A sort of very long back-pedalling which rendered the soldiers minuscule. So he wanted me to take care of the conception of this place. Again, not easy! I created some sketches for the rock faces, strange geometric designs, upright aligned columns. All of this came from a real decor; a Welsh coal mine where the team had already filmed certain shots (e.g. the final scene where Professor Cuza goes in search of the monster's talisman). Michael Mann came straight out with, "There's only one solution. You have to go and see the place!" He had reserved me a flight and a taxi the same evening! The next day, at 7 in the morning, we arrived at this abandoned mine, with the script and an assistant. I saw the grey rock, the enormous grottoes . . . where Polanski filmed the first shots of Macbeth, incidentally. It's true that it helped me a bit, but not much more than the photos I had seen at Shepperton! And then, because it was less than 5 degrees, when I took my hands out of my pockets, I couldn't manage to hold my pencil! All in all, it was an adventure. Michael said to me, "You won't regret going."

Overview

I enjoyed working on this film, even if I was a bit of a foreigner among the staff. But I didn't see its conception. Life is a Novel is a film which I acclaim absolutely. I recreated a personal universe from start to finish with Renais. It was too fleeting with The Keep. That said, the technicians who worked from my drawings did a sterling job, even if I found the monster to be a bit too muscled, a bit too close to the Incredible Hulk or the Marvel Comic heroes [!]. And also, although he has the allure of some of my characters, he has none of their character, of their philosophy. It's a bit paradoxical. It was a completely aesthetic contribution, in fact. I regret that the monster wasn't more active, that he wasn't more in keeping with the decor, his black and rocky environment. He's a bit too glossy, as well. He doesn't have this coal-like dusty feel, perhaps because of the red lasers.

But what really disappointed me was that certain filmed scenes were taken out of the final version. On one occasion, Mann explained to me that Scott Glenn had to fall into the monster's den -- a very long fall that should have been filmed by computer, as with the majority of optical effects -- but these scenes were taken out. Same for the exploding heads, which nevertheless required five takes. And also at the end, Cuza's daughter went down into the den. A lot of scenes gone. But, aesthetically, these passages are impressive all the same, especially thanks to Alex Thomson's photography.

Next Part and The End

Then Mann contacted me one more time after filming: it was for the American poster. I had to "rework the basic concept"! In this case, it was a sort of The Keep logo with stone black lettering and a red beam in the centre. One more time, I was given supposed freedom of expression, but I had to work on a less-than-motivating project. Anyway, I found the perspective again, added some extra features, trivial things.

Mann's approach was very ambitious; imagine, just like that, a film which mixes historical elements and magic effects. And then an American who was interested in darkest Rumania, impregnating himself with European culture. It's out of the ordinary. All the same, we have another project together. A science fiction film in the genre of Exterminator 17, a comic strip which I did from a scenario by Dionnet. But this time, it will be a much more concerted collaboration than for The Keep.

Comic Strip and Cinema

It's good that comic strip artists work with film directors, such as Giger for Alien, or Moebius for Tron. Jean-Claude Mézière is preparing an adaptation of Valerian with Jeremy Paul Kagan, the director of Heroes and The Big Fix with Richard Dreyfuss. But I'm staying out of the way a bit. The concepts of "utilization," of "contribution," bother me a bit. The Americans tend to rent your services, to squeeze you for your skills for a piece of decor or for costumes. We never put our own ideas on film. We stick to the director's storyboard. The only way is to try to adapt your universe yourself for the cinema. Resnais let me have this opportunity in Life is a Novel. And I fully intend to reciprocate. At the moment, I'm finishing off a sort of fictional report on Los Angeles with Pierre Christin. I'm reworking the photography, adding characters, deforming real decors, in short I'm illustrating Christin's scenario. I'm giving life to his fictional characters. That's real directing.

-- Propos recueillis par François Cognard



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