We asked director Raphaël Neal 11 questions about his feature debut film, “Fever“, releasing on May 24:
1. Your movie, Fever, is partially based on the famous Leopold & Loeb murder case of the 1920’s which was also the subject of two other films: Compulsion and Rope. Have you seen those films and did they impact or effect your treatment of the subject matter?
As a Hitchcock fan, I knew about Rope for a long time. I discovered Compulsion while working on Fever and it showed me another possibility of dealing with the same story. But I realized that a lot of movies – and books too – actually deal with the idea of the perfect murder, the murder without a motive. For instance, I love Edward Dmytryk’s film-noir Crossfire, starring Robert Ryan as the murderer. There is that amazing scene in which the detective explains how, without any clue, he found out about the murderer’s identity: he questioned the roots of the motive, which is Ryan’s hatred for the victim. Hatred was the clue, the hidden motive. Although I absolutely admire all those movies, it was important for me to have a different take on the subject. I was dealing with the “banality of evil”, which meant that the hatred has to be hidden, suppressed, sort of diffused in every day’s life. In Hollywood movies, especially the older ones, the bad guys are obviously bad, or scary. I wanted my characters to be sort of less spectacular.
2. Your primary career is photography – why the leap?
I’ve always wanted to make movies – as a matter of fact, a lot of my photo series involve creating fake movie stills! “Fever” arrived at the right moment in my career – maybe I wasn’t ready before. I also like to try out new things and not repeat myself. Directing and producing a movie seemed like an exciting challenge!
3. How did this help in the making of the film?
Although I had a director of photography, I was extremely clear on what I wanted on the visual aspect of the movie. I showed Nicolaos Zafiriou (the D.O.P.) several movies and photos. I knew I wanted something very bright, I kept telling him to show the criminal’s faces without any shadow. I remember hearing people say that the fact that I was a photographer could handicap the film and make it too aesthetically pleasing. So it was important for me to remain objective, somehow. Again, nothing spectacular.
4. What made you decide to use that famous case as a jumping-off point?
The case inspired the book “Fever” which my movie is adapted from. I liked the author’s take on the case. In real life, Leopold & Loeb committed their crime before the Second World War, with an admiration for philosophers like Nietzsche. What is fascinating – but also scary – with Leslie Kaplan’s story is that the exact same sort of crime happens decades after the war, when everybody kind of thought we’d learnt the lesson.
5. Both Damien and Pierre alternate between sleeping and insomnia but at different times. Is this because guilt and remorse effect each differently or is there a grander statement?
Yes, they both react in different ways. It is something I loved in Kaplan’s book: not only that they react in different ways, but each character sort of changes a lot throughout the story. Even though they have committed a murder, they switch from fear and remorse to plain joy or making jokes. Again, that was something that seemed unusual for a movie, and yet very realistic I think. People can do terrible things and yet, life goes on.
6. Is it significant that Damien’s grandfather was a Nazi sympathizer, while Pierre’s grandma is a Jew. Why?
I think it is, yes. This was in Kaplan’s book – which is very daring. Although Damien’s grandfather is not a nazi but suspected of being a collaborator. It is interesting to see that decades after the Second World War, this sort of friendship exists and leads to such an awful crime. I think both Damien and Pierre want to break free from a heavy past, and yet sort of repeat history. To me, it says a lot about where we’re at right now in France.
7. The number 69 is mentioned twice in the film; accident or deliberate?
This story about that woman who was sent to a concentration camp because the list only had 69 people and some officers wanted a round number is true. It is dreadful and says a lot about the idea of a crime without real motive. The fact that this number comes back in the movie was a way to evoke Pierre and Damien’s sort of fascination about those awful stories, to a point that is almost like madness. Eventually, my cowriter, Alice Zeniter and I found it funny to use a number which evokes a sexual position, while Pierre and Damien seem so obviously to be virgins.
8. Why the drag routine? Is it a sublimation of their homosexual desires or of something else?
This scene was not in the book, it’s one of the scenes I totally invented. It’s a reference to my photo work (I do a lot of self-portraits) but also a way to show Damien’s madness. He’s desperately trying to make fun of the crime they committed… and yes, it may be a way to express something more mysterious to him. If homosexuality is there, I wanted it to be subtle, and open to any interpretation.
9. By equating the “unmotivated crime” with the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Nazis in WWII, are you saying that destiny, or GOD himself, is the criminal rather than man himself?
There is this terrible feeling that a lot of things just won’t ever change – despite the lessons that History teaches us. Wars just never stop. As an optimist, I like to think that people can change, if they express themselves – whether it’s love, anger, sadness or grief. I think that this idea is at the core of the movie. Damien and Pierre just want to express something but people around them won’t listen. Like their philosophy teacher. Of course they’re responsible… but society has its share of culpability too.
10. The Heydrich drinking and smoking sequence was a masterstroke of both comic relief and of communicating the idea that history is in the eye of the beholder. What were you trying to say with that?
Again, that was in the book. It’s one of the sentences that Damien and Pierre repeat to the point of driving themselves mad, like a mantra. I liked the idea of young people repeating a sentence, an idea – because it gave them an intellectual dimension. Damien and Pierre are fascinated with words, with ideas. What we’ve added here from the book is the scenes where Damien and Pierre are repeating this sentence to people in the streets and shops. I liked the fact that they were desperate to get any attention. They wanted to share with the world their discovery about the banality of evil, but nobody cared.
11. The scene with Pierre breaking down in class was very powerful and emotional, but was it motivated by remorse or fear?
It’s a good question and I like that it remains open to interpretations. Their motive, like their emotions remain mysterious, even to themselves. I’ve never wanted to make a movie about remorse. What was shocking in Leslie Kaplan’s book, is how these two guys didn’t really seem to feel any remorse. They didn’t really consider that woman like a human being – like in that “69” scene. I think, if we were to keep just one reason why he cried, one word, it would be sadness.