Producer Pierre-Olivier Bardet has become a hero to filmmakers who rock the boat – feature and documentary revolutionaries who work in ways that he says are “completely unique,” as he puts it: Albert Serra, Frederick Wiseman, Wang Bing and Alexandr Sokurov.
And it’s hard to imagine anyone else who would have agreed to produce an English version of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” directed by Kenneth Branagh (after Francis Ford Coppola and several luminaries declined the project), set in World War I.
But for Bardet, the fascination of working with those who reject the usual conventions of filmmaking is what drives him – which is a key reason he was honored at this year’s Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival for his contribution to cinema by the Czech producers association.
Bardet’s new film with Serra, focused on the rituals of bullfighting in Spain, is likely to push boundaries still further, he says. “I did two films with him, ‘Liberte’ and ‘Pacifiction’ and we are currently working on a third one together, which would be his sixth film, which is called ‘Tardes de Soledad.’”
“It’s a kind of documentary, a la Serra style,” he says with an ironic grin. “He’s inventing a certain way of cinema. For me it’s a kind of exception in the cinema world – the way he’s working is extremely interesting, nothing I’ve seen before in my career.”
Bardet became fascinated with Serra’s films, especially “The Death of Louis XIV,” he says, and was eager to work with him – but he had no idea about Serra’s unique method until he had the chance to observe it firsthand, he says. “The first and most important point is that there is no script. There is no dialogue.”
Nor are there rehearsals, Bardet says; each take is different.
His films are “exactly the opposite of what people do usually, which is transposing a written element into a movie, with a script, where the dialogue is written – you only have to redo it, in a way. He doesn’t work this way at all.”
Serra organizes “certain situations,” then films with three cameras, “which obviously is a problem for the actors because they don’t know how to play to one camera. They perform together, like in a theater play.”
The result is remarkable, says Bardet. “The camera can see elements that you cannot see with your own eyes. You can capture something you will discover only after the shooting is over when you go and dive into the rushes.”
Typically, with 20 hours of rushes to go through every day and short intensive shoots of 24 days or so, the mountain of material – it was 550 hours of rushes for “Pacifiction” – leads Serra to another signature technique: After reviewing it all, taking notes – in this case 240 pages of them – he distributes the directions to three editors.
He runs three editing bays simultaneously – one for himself, one for his cinematographer and one for his editor, each assigned to different parts of the film but they can use only the shots Serra’s noted.
“He’s made a lot of choices because of the light, the visual aspect of the shot, the dialogue…he’s like someone divining for gold. And with these elements, they will have to reconstruct the movie. So shooting is short; editing is long.”
Serra’s embrace of the possibilities of digital shooting fascinate Bardet, he says.
“I think he’s the only director I know who is using digital filming in a way that cannot be done with analog film. It would have been impossible for him to have done these films before digital shooting existed.”
The process results in discoveries few others would make, Bardet says. “What he’s looking for is something…there’s a nice word for it in Spanish and in French: fatal. Something that was not expected and which cannot be reproduced – the blue note, in a way.”
Bardet had a similar fascination for the long-form observational documentaries of Frederick Wiseman, he says, leading to a collaboration on the Cesar-nommed “National Gallery” in 2014.
Wiseman, who intensively documents organizations and institutions, never knows what he’s going to get so typically submits just a half-page proposal to funding organizations, Bardet says. This would never have flown with French film development programs, he says, so Bardet fleshed out the proposal for “National Gallery” until he had a proper ream of pages to offer up – successfully.
Bardet’s understanding of European resources and his ability to connect unique filmmakers to them has made him a champion to many who go their own way and struggle to find support.
Another filmmaker Bardet feels passionate about, Sokurov, has a new project in development, he says, but there’s little he can say about it for now except that it deals with the theme of “East and West.” The maverick Russian director, who lives in St. Petersburg, will likely be filming in Riga, Latvia, Bardet says.
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