Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | February 18th, 2021
A few weeks ago, as the film Savage State (which I reviewed) came out, I had the opportunity to send its director, David Perrault, some written questions, to which he soon thereafter responded. His movie is a metaphysical western that follows a French family trying to extricate itself from the 1860s American Civil War. As they flee one conflict, they soon find themselves immersed in another. What starts out as one kind of story slowly morphs into a profoundly feminist tale of survival. Here is an edited digest of our email exchange.
Christopher Llewellyn Reed: Where does your love of the Western genre come from?
David Perrault: I have loved Westerns since I was a child. I had a Super 8 projector and one of the 3-minute reels was the Indian Attack in John Ford’s Stagecoach. Much later, I discovered Ford’s films and he remains the greatest American filmmaker for me. Still, in writing and filming Savage State, I tried to forget all of those classics and move towards something almost radically opposed.
CLR: You shot in Canada and Spain, if I read correctly, which gives to your film a kind of purposeful lack of geographic specificity. What motivated you to do that?
DP: I wanted there to be a richness in the sets, to make them reflect the state of the characters’ souls, rather than to follow a realistic course. We go through the desert, the mountains, the snow … I am an extremely visual person and I have the film in my head, but when I arrive on the set I adapt to the actors and to the weather. At one point in Savage State, we see the convoy going through the haze. It was not planned, but I jumped at the chance to make an iconic shot. Overall, I wanted it to have a Gothic feel, close to fantasy cinema. The film is constructed as a daydream, sometimes nightmarish. This was really the line I wanted to follow.
CLR: What about the script, itself? How did you come up with this story, set in the American Civil War, with such a profoundly feminist twist?
DP: The Western genre and the American Civil War came second. My first idea was to stage a group of women in an enclosed space and tear down these walls to propel them into the great outdoors. That’s when I thought about the Western and approaching it from a European angle, both in what it would tell (the story of these French settlers) and in terms of style. I love re-appropriating classic Hollywood genres into something that is both personal and modern. I also wanted to subvert the genre by adopting a female point of view. The more the film advances, the more the female characters take control of the film. In the end, men have completely disappeared from the story …
CLR: What was the process of casting your film like? For example, you give well-known actor Grégoire Colin (Camille) such a small role …
For me there are no small roles: all the characters are important and can be played by known or unknown actors. My main obsession was to create a very strong group of women on screen. So I chose actresses from very different horizons to create contrast. During casting, I am very sensitive to the voices and the way they go together. It’s a very musical way of working, very instinctive.