Ivan Noel is known as a controversial writer/director whose work is finally gaining wider recognition, the rights to his film Limbo having recently been purchased by Sony Pictures.
Five years ago, in June 2011, we published an exclusive interview with Ivan Noel. Recently, British freelance writer and journalist Will Emslie contacted Ivan on behalf of TheSkyKid.com and we have the pleasure to publish yet another insightful and far ranging interview with a prominent filmmaker for the fans of the Coming-of-Age genre.
Intriguingly, he appears to have gone into limbo himself in recent months. So it was a great pleasure to catch up with him at his home in Argentina recently, when he spoke candidly about his background, his films, his frustration with the industry and his hopes for the future.
Use the tabs below to follow along with the audio interview. The following time points can be used as pointers: The Films (07:20), Becoming a Filmmaker (13:16), The Novels (17:24), Controversial? (20:03), The Future (25:00).
Will, my deepest condolences.
What? For the leaving of the European Union? Yes, that was absolutely terrible.
It’s lovely to speak to you anyway.
Thanks. I guess you’re surprised from the start as to how I’m speaking English.
Yes. How do you speak English?
I was brunged up in a boarding school in England. A place called Lancing College between Worthing and Brighton. So they kicked the accent out of me!
Do you define yourself as Spanish?
Well, that’s kind of a complicated thing. No, not really. My father, he’s dead now but he was Egyptian/French and a nationalized Italian and my mother is Australian. I lived in about twelve different countries and we travelled constantly. We don’t really have a specific nationality. I speak three and a half languages fluently…
Which is the half that you speak fluently?
I spent many years in India, so I learned one of the languages there called Tamil.
I read somewhere – I think it was on Wikipedia – that you were born in Beirut?
Well, yes, exactly…
So it’s one of the few correct “facts” on Wikipedia. That’s good!
My parents were mostly based in the middle east around that time. We just kept moving and moving, and I’ve seemed to continue the trend myself.
So you ended up in Spain?
From various places before, I ended up in Spain because I’m actually a musician, a guitarist. I was a professional guitarist to begin with, playing concerts from the age of 13. A classical guitarist but I’ve always wanted to deal with flamenco guitar, which was really my calling. So back in around 2000, just before the change to the Euro (sorry!), I moved to Spain to learn flamenco. I ended up with a recording studio there, and that’s where I started my film thing — really on a whim.
I was in Spain for about 15 years, so I guess that people started identifying me as Spanish. So if you ask me… I could have said I was pretty much European (oops, sorry again!) but I’ve been, for six or seven years now, in Argentina so that’s kind of taken the European out of me. So I really don’t know how to answer as far as my roots are or what nationality you might call me.
What are you doing in Argentina? Can you fill us in on what your present mission is?
Sure. It’s not much different from what I was doing in Spain. That was fine so long as I was living in the countryside and doing my own little thing, making the most of being, you know, in almost a third-world country within Europe. But when I started getting involved with films and getting involved with professionals and high-level artists, that’s when I realized that the Spanish have the cultural level of a dead fish. And I was hitting my head against a wall constantly.
A good example is that none of the films that I’ve made in Spain have ever been shown in Spain. Not a festival, not on television – nothing. A complete blockade of my films.
Why is that?
It’s the nepotistic system in place in Spain. The system is such that it shuts everyone out that isn’t part of that little cinema clique. There’s no independent cinema in Spain. It’s all run and funded by the government.
A good example would be the Malaga film festival where I presented what I consider my best film, Brecha, and it was immediately refused. And when I looked at the list of the films that were in competition, two of them had not even started shooting yet. But they were automatically in competition at the festival, because they were friends with the director. In Seville, where my film was shot, for five years in a row I presented my film and for five years in a row it was rejected – in the Seville section!
Oh, that’s ridiculous!
In Your Absence and Brecha (07:20)
I don’t want to dwell too much on your early work, but what got me into your films was being recommended to watch In Your Absence when it first came out. I’ve seen so many low-budget films by amateur directors that I was a bit cynical about it. But when I clicked on it (when you kindly put it on YouTube) I was completely bowled over. It’s an amazing film!
Well, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. But it was when the Director of the Vancouver Film Festival called me and said, “You have to come immediately, this is our greatest discovery,” that I started thinking that there must be something in it. But I honestly didn’t think… I didn’t even know… if it was going to show in my own village.
Well, what was in it for me was the courageous subject matter for a start: this weirdo who turns up in a small Andalusian village. But it’s also the way in which it was made, which is reminiscent of what Mike Leigh, the British writer/director, does: that it wasn’t scripted.
Well, I didn’t mind scripting it, but I realized that if I was going to have anything less than great actors, then there’s no point in asking them to read a text out. Only great actors can do that.
But on the other hand, Mike Leigh takes experienced actors – experienced adult actors – gets them to improvise, and develops the dialogue from there. You took a cast of largely amateurs, and two of those amateurs were young teenagers. And you managed to get them, as a director, to do some amazing stuff. The scenes between the two young people in that film are so moving. How did you do that? There aren’t many directors who could have managed it.
It’s funny you should ask me that because I often wonder the same about other directors – I think it’s so amazing and secret and I don’t understand how they could possibly do it. So it’s funny for me to feel that it’s such a natural thing to do and then you come along and tell me that you don’t understand how I did it!
I seriously don’t understand, Ivan! But then you went on to Brecha, your second film, which had very similar themes: single parents, boys who have guilt about having killed their parents…
IN: Well, to answer the first question about how I do it, obviously it’s not a secret, but I think there are a couple of things that are important. One is that you have to know the people. I make films with friends. I loathe working in a professional way in the sense that you call on people, they show up and you rehearse for a couple of weeks and then you shoot. I need to know these people absolutely. So all the people involved in the film were friends of mine. So there’s a basis of trust, everything’s easy-going, there’s no tension in the moment of the shoot.
The few times that I’ve not done that, I’ve lived to regret it. My last film, which hasn’t come out yet, Burned Knees (being re-titled to The Tutor) is a good example. It almost fell through because I didn’t know the people well, at least two of the actors, and it was disastrous!
As far as the improvisation is concerned, the thing is I’m talking constantly. All the time as they’re talking. And we take out my voice from the final sound. So I kind of play with them. So say the girl says something, I’ll answer for the boy. So I’m improvising and all the kid does is get into the scene and follow my lead.
The kids seem to react to it brilliantly. The children that you’ve had in your films have played immaculate parts.
I think especially in Brecha, yeah.
Becoming a Filmmaker (13:16)
Something I have to ask you about, Ivan, is that you say you’re not a film-maker. Not naturally.
No. What I did have was that I was a very hyperactive child. From the age of seven or eight I was already painting, sculpting, playing the piano, anything that was available… building things… and when I was about 10 or 11 I wanted to make a film. I wanted to make a cartoon, because I used to draw a lot. So I went off to buy my first 8mm camera when I was about 11. I was living in Brussels at the time. I just got the bus into town, bought the camera with my own money, came back and started making a cartoon. Unfortunately, it hasn’t survived, but it was relatively good. I did it with my best friend, a Finnish boy.
Then I made a short movie when I was 11, which was (maybe with Limbo), one of the biggest projects I’ve done so far. It had over 200 extras. It was a pretty strange story, dealing with social injustice and the gap between the rich and the poor. I used my best friend for the lead role, my brother for another role and the entire school for certain scenes. Again it hasn’t survived but thinking back it was all pretty insane.
And then you grew up a bit and went on to read music at York University?
Well, I wanted to study composition for films because above all I’m a musician. When I was 12, I started studying guitar and piano and very quickly I got a distinction at Grade 8 on guitar when I was 14. So I went on to York University, which was a natural continuation from Lancing [College], to study film music composition. In fact, I ended up making my own film as my main project. I couldn’t do it before because making films was very expensive.
One of the people who saw my film happened to be a teacher at the British Film Institute, thought it was absolutely brilliant, and offered me a place there in London. But I had no intention of staying in England, so I went off to Paris to study film school there but it was far too expensive and I ended up just working. I did nothing more with film until 15 years later.
Then you leaped off and made In Your Absence with your own funding?
Yes, ‘cos by then I’d done a lot of photography, I was winning photo prizes, I was writing music, playing music, I’d written about three novels by then, so I guess I was ready to leap into film, which is basically those things put together. But I had no idea of what I was doing, I’d never made a serious film before.
I needed the money for it. Seeing as I’d made a very good deal [on a house] before the entrance into Europe, then the prices went up so I sold it for much more. That’s when I bought all my equipment, most of which I still have today.
The Novels (17:24)
Could I ask you about your novels? I didn’t know about those.
They’re unpublished. They’re in my boxes I have here. I write a lot, I never stop writing. It’s pretty harsh stuff, much harsher than my films.
One is called Sermons of a Child Murderer which is taking the story of Jürgen Bartsch, the famous German serial killer who was locked up when he was 16. I’ve worked him into a kind of Hannibal Lecter figure who talks intelligently about what he does and about society. It’s extremely brutal but it’s a kind of slap in the face back where he says, “I’m the visible face of criminality in this world. Don’t think that pointing the finger at me lets you off the hook. I’m here to show you up.” I’ve sent it to publishers and the usual response is just… real shock!
I wrote a comedy novel called Subliminal about someone who spends his life using subliminal words to influence the people he’s speaking to, with kind of funny results. I wrote an autobiographical novel, but just wrote it because I had to write it and just put it in a box afterwards.
Well, it needn’t stay in that box. Not only has film-making come within the budget and grasp of many people, so has publishing. You could publish an e-book, have you thought of that?
Well, it was a pre-digital age when I wrote it, and I have hundreds and hundreds of sheets written by hand, and it’s such a monumental daunting task. But it’s here in my boxes, I took it back from my mother’s house in France, so at least there’s an idea of trying to do something with it.
Well, I hope you do, Ivan.
Can I move on to your films’ subject matter? Because it has been described as controversial…
Yeah. I don’t personally think it is. It’s become controversial because everyone’s become so socially and politically correct that you can’t be anything but controversial if you just talk a little bit of truth about youth.
Here in Argentina, where people are a little more honest about these things, they did a festival with a retrospective of all my films and one newspaper critic wrote, “Ivan Noel is by far the most controversial figure here, it’s a pity that his films aren’t at all.”
So I wouldn’t say controversial, I’d say against the moral grain of today. I find them quite soft, actually. I think they’re quite gentle.
Well, absolutely. If we go back to your early ones: the strange man who turns up in the Andalusian village, and the father who got drunk and ran over a kid, then we’re moving on to the primary school and what’s going on under the surface there… Adults’ reactions to young people and the relationships between the young people and the adults, and the way that you develop that…
There’s nothing sinister or nasty about it. But when you start doing that, people immediately go, “Oh my God! This is controversial!”
Well, they especially do in England. Funnily enough, more in England than they do in The States. I had a full walk-out when I showed In Your Absence in England. One of them called the police after we showed the film.
On what basis?
IN: Child abuse in a film.
And where was the child abuse?
Well, I’m not really sure…
But the guy who comes along proves himself to have far more personal integrity than any of the villagers…
But then he turns out to be a bit of a sad loser in the end who was leading the kid on in a way nobody expected. That’s the sad thing about it. But I can’t see that it’s in any way…
…Of course it isn’t. But the reason I wanted to make that story was to show up people’s perversion rather than anyone’s real perversion. So the story is perfectly innocent in itself and I wanted everyone to come to their own wicked conclusions, which they very much did.
I showed it in Spain just in a local hall to show it to my actors. There must have been about 100 people, nearly all Spanish, and there was one British woman there. And the British woman left in the middle saying she was feeling physically sick. So I think it’s more of a reflection of where British society is today. Not just British: Anglo-Saxon society. But I think it says far more about society than it does about my film.
But I am, to some degree provoking, because I do find the current situation so absurd. Only yesterday I came across this law in Australia: in film making, if you’re going to have a nude scene, be it in a porno film or a mainstream film, women need to have a minimum-size breast, in case someone confuses a woman with a slightly small-sized breast as being a 12-year-old girl.
You know, in this day and age, in 2016, when you’re being so Victorian, if not to say medieval, it really has taken off…
The Future (25:00)
Can we move on to the future, Ivan? I’ve been following you for a long time – being a bit of a stalker of yours, watching the progress in your creative work. You did sort of go on a moody a few years back. You said you were making no money out of your films, you were giving it up… Then you seem to have gone on to a bit of crowd-funding and you’ve now done Burned Knees, which I’m really looking forward to coming out…
…It’s weird that you should be looking forward to my version of A Turn of the Screw! It’s going to be very much my style!
So are you going to carry on doing this?
Oh God! Of course, it’s infuriating, the whole film business. I think if I’m still piddling about with my low-budget films and stuff like that it’s really only because of my subject matter because nobody wants to touch me, not with a barge-pole. It’s clear that I can make films for cheap and good quality but I never have a single call about any of my films, ever! So I guess there comes a time when you’re kind of tired of that and tired of repeating yourself. It’s infuriating that you can not get decent distribution, simply because of the subject matter, because nobody dares anymore.
Apart from that, I felt professionally at a dead end. There’s only so much you can do now without repeating yourself and doing exactly the same sort of thing. The same amount of money, not being able to benefit from a better budget. So I can’t progress, I can’t go one step further. It needs investment, it needs at least a big production company involved. It needs a story which is not mine for a change. It needs progress and progress was never coming.
But in many ways, Ivan, you have progressed. You’ve progressed from doing stories about childhood, adolescence and f****d-up families to doing what could vaguely be described as horror.
Genre films, yeah. That’s because I found a niche. I found a place where you can actually sell films. It’s really only a commercial decision. If you make a reasonably good-quality genre film, you know you’re going to find festivals, you know you’re going to sell at least to a few distributors. There’s a ready-made audience there for genre films. So I’ve dealt, in my last two or three films, with the genre niece. At least that way I get some money back.
On that subject, what is happening with Limbo or Children of the Night? I really wanted to make it to Piccadilly to see the première there but unfortunately couldn’t get there.
I’m glad you didn’t because it never ended up showing there. That was through the sheer incompetence of my sales agent, whom I have since sued and got my film back.
So it didn’t actually première in London?
No, it didn’t. It premièred in various locations in England which I was unaware of, in various festivals, but he would not even tell me. I mean, I was in Albuquerque in The States at exactly the same time as my film was showing at a big festival, and I didn’t know.
So what’s happening with it? Is it still being distributed by that company?
I don’t know. I sued them and I got my rights back, thankfully, because in no time Sony Pictures have now bought the rights for Limbo. We’ve been negotiating and we’re just waiting for the contract to sign. It’s going ahead, they’re doing a 10-episode series on my script. They’re in talks with Naomi Watts, I think, to do the lead. They’re putting $15M into it. Not that they’re paying me anything but a pathetic sum, $100,000…
You can’t expect them to! You’re a creative person. People expect you to do that for free!
And as for Burned Knees, which as I say, I’m dying to see, when’s that going to happen, Ivan?
It’s kind of already happened. I’ve been facing a lot of difficulties recently: a sick mother in France, I had to be there with her for three months so I was completely out of touch. My producer’s wife just got killed a week ago…
The thing is it’s there, it’s in front of me, it’s finished, it’s done. I just need that extra push to get it out there now.
And where does the push come from?
Me. My brain. That’s part of the problem, why I say I’m tired of making films. It’s just me, me and me. There’s nobody there helping me, ever.
I think the fact is, Ivan, you have a lot of people behind you. You have a lot of following. You have a lot of fans and we’re all rooting for you. So I’m very much hoping you’ll get your head together and do it.
I guess what I need is that but in the professional film sphere. I needed people to do the color correction for me. I needed people to do the subtitling for me. It’s so deeply, deeply exhausting. You sit down and you know you’re going to be in your seat for 14 hours a day for the next three months.
But the fact is, it’s finished. It just needs a little bit of a color-correction thing, it needs one or two shots re-edited there, it needs about five or six days work.
It’s a lot of emotional effort but it’s not an awful lot of practical effort.
No, it’s completely emotional. Yesterday, for the first time in weeks I opened the film up in my computer and I did work on it for about half an hour… Then I just switched it off and did something else. But I know I’m close to getting it done.
Whether it’s going to be any good or completely crap I have no idea. I don’t like my own films. The only film I like is Brecha.
You don’t like your own films? Why not?
I think they’re shit. Honestly. I don’t enjoy them at all. All I can see is just failure everywhere. I think they fail at the script level. Not my first and second one. But I think the others fail terribly at the script level. I’m never happy with it. I’m extremely demanding with myself and there’s nothing I do which I feel proud of.
Well, the first one wasn’t scripted. Brecha, was that scripted?
Well, we talked about it for three months, me and Paco, and I put a structure to it, but it wasn’t actually written out, no.
But my films just don’t do anything for me. I just don’t see it.
They do things for other people, Ivan!
Thankfully people like you are there to see it and to reflect. If it hadn’t been for people like you, I would never have gone past my first film. It was only because people at the festivals said that they were good that I felt I may as well make another one.
My films make me squirm. The most unpleasant part of the film-making process for me is when I’m sitting in a festival with an audience of 500 and I don’t understand why they’re not standing up and leaving. I was even more shocked in Brussels, which is a particularly boisterous audience and there were 600 of them and I was showing They Returned and nobody left. I couldn’t understand it, because they normally leave in droves all the time. I’m in a constant state of tension and horror at my errors and blatant mistakes – some technical, some artistic – but they don’t seem to notice it.
When people make films, Ivan, there are blatant mistakes. And people just love them and forgive the mistakes.
I guess, yeah, I tend to forgive films too, if I like a film, so it must be the same sort of thing.
We just seem to be missing one little bit about the future. I’m going to try to do casting now for a project which is going to be decided upon who I can find.
And who are you looking for?
I don’t know. I’m looking for anyone with talent.
Young? Old? Middle-aged or what?
Obviously, it usually tends to be young, but if I don’t find a kid, for instance, who’s got a clear talent, then I have four possible scripts, including a new one which is a meeting between a 37-year-old man and a 60-year-old man. The entire film is about that meeting. It’s called The Meeting. It’s a very, very edgy film when this man, who’s a world-famous composer, receives a visit from a man he doesn’t recognize, and the young one accuses him of having raped him when he was young. It’s very tense, it’s very intense and it goes in directions that we might not expect. I would just need two men for that, but they’d need to be very, very good.
But whatever talent I can find, I will go in that direction, as it were.
Exciting prospect. Look, Ivan, I hope you carry on doing it. So many people disagree with you!
I just wish I could do something at the level that I want to. I know what I want. I want it to be technically perfect. Now I’m getting money from Sony and I’m thinking of investing everything in a real decent camera and decent sound. And I have to have enough money for me to make the film over more than 20 days. I need to be able to take my time to do it over 30 or 40 days. The more time I have the less likely I’ll make mistakes.
What are you doing as a day job at the moment?
IN: I have two restaurants. Well, “restaurants” is a nice way of saying I have two burger joints.
Are you still teaching?
No. I’ve all but completely stopped teaching. My most recent thing was a rock school that I had. In fact, I built a studio on the land behind my house and about six months ago I stopped at the same time as the school year stopped and I haven’t taken it up again. So it’s kind of a lull.
It would be better if I could have professional support to find talent. But really I need somebody out there, a producer to say, OK, I’ve got a production company, we’re going to do the production side of things. Because it was fun in the beginning but it’s just not fun anymore for me to have to walk the street to find talent.