Interview with Michel Chion

Photo by Timothy Eberly via Unsplash

Q. You have created meticulous work on how sound complements and adds to the screen authenticity. Do you believe that good ‘sound work’ in a film is of greater importance rather than the visual component?

A: I don’t think that’s a good way to put the question; the term “audio-vision”, which I coined in 1990 means that the two, vision and sound are important when combined. This audio-vision term suppresses the question of which element is more important since they influence each other anyway. There is no “rather than” in this field, it’s just like other fields where several elements are combined.

Q. Can a bad production be ‘saved’ from good music supervision and good music selections? Which genres are more positively perceived by the audience?

A: Same answer as the above. A film is like a gastronomic plate and it is made of many ingredients, and under different conditions; we cannot say that what saves a dish is rather the texture, or rather the seasoning, because it is the final and overall result that counts. Everything counts such as the editing, the lighting, the actors, etc …, and it would be ‘fake’ for me to separate the music from the whole film, even if you can isolate it, or know it if it’s familiar.

Q. Do you believe that silent films were disadvantaged with the absence of sound? Would they have a greater impact on emotion back then if they included sound?

A: In my opinion, the question is once again abstract and entirely theoretical. If movies included sound from the start, they would have been made differently. It is a historical fact that the so-called silent films were capable of conveying emotion. Suffice to say, The Kid and City Lights were the two of Charles Spencer Chaplin’s silent masterpieces as well as The Crowd, by King Vidor, which still remains moving after all these years. In fact, I think it was a great opportunity for cinema to start in the so-called “mute” (or “deaf”) form. As I wrote in 1987, this gave cinema the time to work on the aesthetic and expressive form of the image, editing, etc …, and to create formulas and forms, which is kept when cinema became sonorous. Moreover, as I mention in Film; A Sound Art, sound cinema is an art-palimpsest: if you look, you will find a silent cinema below …

Q. Music has changed throughout the years, some believe for the better and some for the worse. Is today’s music good enough for feature films? Why are there no memorable songs/music today? Take for instance Bernard Hermann’s ‘psycho’ and James Horner’s ‘titanic’. Is technology destroying creativity?

A: I don’t think that music is worse than it used to be. Hans Zimmer’s music for Christopher Nolan’s 2014 film Interstellar was very popular and will be remembered forever, and in my opinion, it performs very well. It is not a question about the technology of course. To quote another popular film, Hildur Guðnadóttir’s music for Todd Philips’ film Joker, in 2019, performs extraordinarily well. I also really liked the way the Franco-Senegalese director Alain Gomis, in Félicité that was released in 2017, confronts the popular music of the Franco-Congolese group Kasai Allstars with the symphonic music of Arvo Pärt.

Q. You have lived and experienced several decades of film creation. Which era do you believe has been the most creative and influential and how did you adapt yourself to these changes in filmmaking approaches?

A: I have known several periods of history, and I have studied the periods prior to my youth and birth. I don’t have to adapt, I am comfortable with everything that is going on; those who have to adapt are people younger than me to whom we must explain the cinema of the past: what was an era, in what conditions we saw films, etc …which, by the way, is exciting. This is the work of history.

Q. Even though there are many award-winning European films, the United States remains the leading film market in the world followed by two non-English speaking countries: China and Japan. Do you believe that the limited popularity of European films is due to the fact that the audience finds it difficult to perceive them?

A: As a French person, I do not believe that there is a “European cinema” that we can define. I can tell the differences. Many British and French directors have made films produced in the USA (Duvivier, Renoir, Jeunet, Besson, for France, Frears, Nolan, for the UK). There are also French films, often comedies, which are very successful in other countries, etc. We never see in France certain Chinese films which are very successful in China, etc. Jeunet’s French film Amélie Poulain was a great success in several countries around the world, etc … Popularity is an imprecise notion: certain films have a rapid and fleeting success, others remain screened and loved for a very long time, etc.

Q. Your books and approaches are being taught worldwide. How does that make you feel when younger generations study your approaches?

A: I am of course very moved and touched by that, thanks to many translations, notably the excellent ones made by my friend Claudia Gorbman for the English editions at Columbia University Press, but also others in Chinese, Farsi, German, Slovenian, Japanese, Italian, etc …, different generations know my work around the world; at the same time, I know that there are often misunderstandings but It’s normal. Nevertheless, the international knowledge of some aspects of my work gives me great pleasure.

Q. Do you have high expectations from new generations? Which young filmmakers/theorists do you currently consider accomplished?

A: Until what age are we considered “young”? I don’t know; I don’t think about the age of the people, men, and women, who make films. I think more about the date of creation and release of the films: in 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019,2020, there were many interesting filmmakers.

Q. What advice would you give to upcoming filmmakers in terms of creating movies today? Will this be the most challenging decade to create films because of the pandemic?

A: Conditions vary a lot from country to country and from person to person in relation to the pandemic. But today, if you have time and good health it is possible to direct and edit yourself a film that can be seen around the world. Movies are much cheaper to make, thanks to the computer and digital cameras.

Q.What are your current and future plans and how are you coping with the pandemic?

A: I have a lot of music and cinema book projects to finish, and a new film to make. In relation to the pandemic, because of my age, I am very careful to protect myself.

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