Mathieu Kassovitz - Subjects To Fight For

September 17, 2010

Carhartt sat down with the Frenchman for some face time in Paris, where he told us more about his work with directing legends like Steven Spielberg, his love for the cinema, and his long-time relationship with the Carhartt brand.

“Every morning you wake up and you have ten more reasons to be mad.”

Although punk and hip hop used to be the soundtracks of his youth, Mathieu Kassovitz could be found more often in a cinema than in a club. The French actor, director, and author already knew very early on that film would be a lifelong passion of his. He was born into a family of cineasts. His mother, Chantal Rémy, is a film editor and his father, Peter Kassovitz, is a popular French film director.

Kassovitz spent his childhood days in the cutting room and his youth on the film set. That is, unless he was not hanging out in front of the silver screen or roaming through his hometown Paris together with his hip hop friends. Kassovitz’s love for Carhartt goes back to the time when Carhartt clothes were the staple brand of the early hip hop movement. For more than twenty years, this now 43-year-old has been a proud owner of a Carhartt Traditional coat, which has served him well as a true companion and second skin throughout his international film adventures. Most notably, he wore it for the filming of his greatest movie success, “La Haine”.

A study of the troubled lives of teenagers in the suburbs of Paris, “La Haine” is at the root of Kassovitz’s international fame and won him Best Director at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival. Another box office hit was his directing work for the thriller “Les Rivières Pourpres” (international title: “The Crimson Rivers”) in 2000, with actors Jean Reno and Vincent Cassel, a close personal friend of his, in the lead. In 2003, Kassovitz came to Hollywood for the first time for the filming of the horror movie “Gothika”. His latest film was “Babylon AD”, starring Vin Diesel. Unfortunatly, the version which the studio released to the cinemas was heavily edited and did not follow his vision.

Apart from his work behind the camera the Parisian multi-talent advanced to stardom as an actor, too, in such films as “The Fifth Element”, “Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain” (international title: “Amelie from Montmartre”), “Amen” and “Munich”. For a while now, however, he has turned his back on acting for other directors in order to dedicate his attention exclusively to his own projects. Michael Leuffen met the belligerent Frenchman for some face time in Paris, where he told him more about his work with directing legends like Steven Spielberg, his love for the cinema, and his long-time relationship with the Carhartt brand.

Could you tell us a little bit about your personal history with Carhartt?
Well back in the day, when I was involved with hip hop culture, I was looking for clothes that I could wear all the time – clothes which were multifunctional. The Carhartt trousers, for instance, have a lot of pockets, which is good for graffiti guys and also for people who work in movies because you always carry lots of things around. Carhartt has always had very low-key clothes and, at that time, you had to hunt for them. There were no Carhartt stores and it was difficult to get them. The jacket I bought back then fit me like nothing else; that’s why I still have it. It is my second skin, in a way. I put my arms in it and I don’t feel it. You can sleep in it, you can get it muddy, use it for helping an old lady over the street. I have always used it for my dog. I travel with my dog and he always needs a place where I know he can feel secure. Whenever I go somewhere, I put my jacket on the ground so my dog can sleep on it. That’s his spot. There’s a strong bond between me, my dog, and that jacket because my dog can smell me on it and I can smell him too. He loves the jacket. The jacket is better then the real bed. That’s why I said yes when Carhartt called me for a shoot. But I said I would do it only when I could do the pictures in my jacket.

And do you still wear it?
Sure, always. At the moment I can’t wear it because it’s too hot. But I have it with me all the time. In the “La Haine” books you can see me wearing it; and for every other shoot around the world I wore it, too.

Nobody ever told you to buy yourself a new jacket?
No. Actually, I have some friends who say: “You still got that jacket?“ But they know what it means to me and nobody would come and tell me to buy a new one. They like it. It’s a little ruined. Five years ago, I was thinking of throwing it away but then I couldn’t do it. I didn’t wear it for a year, but when I did put it on, I thought: “Man, that’s your jacket. This is me.” I gave some weather jackets to homeless people in the streets. I was crazy; I gave a Canuck jacket away. Canuck is a weather brand from Canada that you can only find in one shop in Montreal. These jackets are amazing. You really can only wear a T-shirt under it in the middle of the winter and you don’t freeze at all. I gave it to a homeless guy and he couldn’t wear it because it was too hot. Crazy! But my Carhartt jacket I could never give away. If I do, I’ll give it to Carhartt for the Carhartt museum. People will come just to see this jacket.

‘La Haine’ is not just a title. It stands for me, my life, and my attitude toward all the thing’s happening in the world.

Could you talk about your involvement in hip hop culture?
That was my culture and it still is today. When I was twelve or 13 I was always listening to punk music and hardcore fight music. “No future for the queen” and all that. And then hip hop came up and they had the same state of mind and attitude. Even Malcolm McLaren, the man who started the Sex Pistols, did hip hop with the song “Double Dutch”. The funny thing is that all the guys I met through hip hop listened to funk and soul, but I came from punk music. That was quite a different approach, but the content was the same.

Did you ever meet Malcolm McLaren?
He just died in Paris some weeks ago. Did he? I didn’t know. But he had fucking good ideas – amazing. Crazy businessman! But, then, you could see the same things that he did with the Sex Pistols happening in hip hop. Like with N.W.A. – a guy took five guys from the ghetto and said: “Okay, we’re going to market this.” Niggaz Wit Attitudes was the same as Sex Pistols, well, almost. Their message was: “Fuck everybody! We are not role models and we are not pleasant people to be around.” I loved that.

It’s just that I like things with a fighting spirit, with a political background. And then, for sure, the fun of it! Hip hop was much more fun in the beginning.

In your opinion, has hip hop changed significantly since the beginning?
No. Even guys like Eminem, who sell millions of records, still go for it. He still has a couple of tracks on his album where he talks shit. It’s still there, even if it’s more mellow in the big business. But, if you go to the underground scene today, you’re going to hear the same things as 20 years ago. In France, hip hop is still really big.
Huge. It has the biggest hip hop culture after the USA. Then comes the UK and Germany, I think. The USA is more productive in hip hop than England. We in France started it in Europe. When it started in New York it came directly to France. We had a one-hour hip hop show called “H.I.P. H.O.P” already in 1984 on TF1, France’s main TV channel! One hour every week, and everybody was there, like Afrika Bambaataa and The Sugarhill Gang. Also the MTV show “Yo! MTV Raps” was originally invented by a French girl. In France, we still have ten major acts, like Suprême NTM, who fill stadiums. We have Diam’s, a female rapper who sells millions, also Booba, and other young kids, who still do it. It’s crazy how much is still made in France.

Moving on to your movie “La Haine”, I was wondering if you usually prefer not to talk about “La Haine”, as you have made many other films, and this one has become a classic?
No. I like the film and, I must say, it is my best, so I have no problem if somebody wants to talk about it. But I did another important movie, for me, “Assassin(s)”, which is a very very intense movie about the media. But it’s not as perfect as “La Haine”. “La Haine” was perfect. The timing, the actors, the script – it was all great. That doesn’t happen all the time. Usually, all artists, unless they’re geniuses, do their best work in the beginning. For a painter or a sculptor, it might be different because they move through periods. But, usually, the beginnings are the strongest. Then you start to make money, and then it becomes a job, and then it is corrupted. Only the geniuses can keep up the good work all the time.

So you would say you are not a genius?
Let’s say I try my best. It’s not about whether or not I succeed, but that anything I do, I try to do it the best I can. Maybe in ten years I will be better, but all I do now I do with all the power and skills I have. That doesn’t mean that you have to be perfect. But I always want to be able to say later: “In that moment, I could not do better.” I’m not Orson Welles. He is the perfect example. His first movies were amazing and he created what cinema is today. But, of course, he was so good at the beginning that it was hard to keep it up on that level. Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and all other big directors have the same story. Or you happen to be Steven Spielberg and can make one good movie after another. But, in his case, it’s because he stays young. He is a grown-up kid and he knows his business. He perfected his craft and he isn’t scared to do what he wants.

You acted in his movie, “Munich”. How was that?
Great. He has a great team and the guys have known him for the past 20 years. But
still, he did shoots I couldn’t have done because I don’t have the experience. If you
take a look at “Munich” and forget about the story, if you just look at how the camera works, you’ll go: “Wow!” When you watch a movie, you generally don’t watch how it’s made. But if you do, and you look at how he composes some of the shots in “Munich”, you’ll discover a mind-blowing technique. You can find that in any of his movies, but “Munich” is special, because none of it was shot in a studio. It’s all in the reflections. It’s hard to do reflections in the mirror of a car, in glasses, or in the eyes of an actor. In “Munich”, Spielberg did some really amazing things with reflections.

It sounds like you have a great deal of respect for his work. Was it an honour to work with him?
Absolutely. I have a big history with him. I’m an actor, also. Other directors started to ask me if I would play in their movies because they saw me in my movies and I often said yes. Then I realised that I could not do both, so I started to work only with directors I liked, so I could learn from them. I was lucky that I could act for great directors like Constantin Costa Gavras, Luc Besson, and Jacques Audiard. After that, I decided to focus on my own movies. But people continued to ask me to act in their movies. So I had to go to the media and officially announce that I was quitting my job as an actor: “I’m done! Unless Steven Spielberg calls me.” I meant that as a joke, but multiple magazines printed it. Some weeks later, I got a phone call and somebody told me: “You need to go to this place at this hour.” I thought they were kidding, but I went anyway, and there he was, Steven Spielberg. Of course, I said yes. Imagine you’re a painter and somebody asks you: “Hey, do you want to work with Renoir or Picasso and just mix colours for him for two months?” Well, of course you’d say yes, because you can sit there and watch him doing his art. So I could do that with Steven Spielberg. I always went to the set, even if I had nothing to do, just to watch. But you were only working with him as an actor, right? Of course. He was the director, I was his actor. I never went up to him and said: “Hey, Steven, you have to move the camera.” But he did often ask me for my opinion. And I would say (very shyly): “Steven, what do you want me to say? It’s beautiful…” I was lucky to work with him. I’d be so happy if I had worked with him on “War of the Worlds”, but “Munich” was great. The movie could be a little bit more radical, because sometimes it’s too much Hollywood, but it was one of his most ambitious projects. He had the whole Jewish community watching him. We had high-level security on the set, with guys in the back who didn’t talk and just watched to make sure everything was safe. The Jewish community was scared of what he would say about the Mossad. But he didn’t say too much. He makes his main point at the end of the movie, when you see the Twin Towers. The movie was shot after 9/11. That’s why he made the movie in the first place. Because, he said, all this hate between the two camps ended in the fall of the Twin Towers.

Did you get along with the cast of “Munich”?
Sure. Just before he got the role as James Bond, Daniel Craig asked me: “Shall I do it?” I said: “Come on, man. You will be James Bond! You’re going to get free watches, free Aston Martin cars, free suits. Anywhere you go it’s going to be in luxury. And you’ll always shoot at nice locations. Everybody will love you. You’ll be an icon! But you won’t be able to go to McDonald’s anymore.”

Can you still go to McDonald’s in Paris?
I can go, like, by myself. That was also one of the reasons why I wanted to stop being an actor. At some point you just get too famous and you can’t live a normal life anymore. Now, people recognise me only when I just have a movie out or when I was on the television the night before. Otherwise they just look at me and say: “What school did you go to?” But I didn’t go to school.

You dropped out early?
I stopped at 17 in order to start working on movies. The point is, I already knew what I wanted, even then, so it doesn’t matter. And I wasn’t good at school; so it was good that I left.

Did your father influence your decision to become a filmmaker?
Yes, sure. I got my passion from my father, but also from my mother. She’s an editor and I spent a lot of time in the editing room playing with reel film. So it’s no mystery why I became a director. I spent all my youth in movie theatres – that’s another reason why I didn’t go to school. Back in the day, there were no VCRs. If you wanted to see a movie you had to go to the theatre, there was no other way of seeing it. If you missed a movie, the only other chance was to catch it on TV
five years later. We had three channels back then. Some of them were mono, some black-and-white. If you were lucky, your parents had a colour TV. But if you really wanted to see movies, you had to go to cinema. And I spent days there. I watched films one after the other.

Why should I watch ‘Spiderman 12’, if there are no real actors in it and anything is possible anyway?

Would you say that growing up an avid moviegoer influenced your filmmaking? In “La Haine”, Vincent Cassel quotes directly from the famous “You talkin’ to me?” scene from “Taxi Driver”.
Yes, but this is more than just quoting “Taxi Driver”. Of course it’s a reference to the movie, but we all did this as kids, even those who never saw “Taxi Driver”. Who didn’t stand in front of a mirror saying: “Are you looking at me? You got a problem?” when they were twelve or 15? Even today, people still do it. So it’s more than a quote, it’s a reference to reality. But to answer your question, I learned a lot from watching movies all the time that I tried to imitate. I tried to be Bruce Willis all
the time!

In “La Haine” many of the characters only wear specific brands of clothing. Hubert, for instance, only wears Carhartt. Is there any symbolism in these choices?
The young people in the ghettos here in France wore very specific sportswear brands at that time. I remember when I came to the housing project where we shot “La Haine” for the first time. I wore a baseball cap, and I saw kids looking at me as if they wanted to hit me. They didn’t like the American look. They wanted European brands, so they wore Adidas or Sergio Tacchini. That’s why Saïd is wearing one. The golden Tacchini was made for him because the effect was better in black-and-white. The golden Tacchini was very nice!

But if there was hostility toward American clothing in Paris at the time, why would Hubert wear Carhartt? It is an American brand.
Well, you are right, but I didn’t look at it like that because wearing those brands was just part of the culture. The beanie was very specific. It’s often cold in France so you have to wear a hat. Apart from the coloured ski hats that were popular with the early hip hop scene, it was definitely the working hat from Carhartt and everybody wore it. You could buy them at the flea market. That’s where you could buy Carhartt for the first time. The hip hop guys got all their work clothes there.

So the outfits resemble those worn in the banlieue at that time?
Yes. Also, Hubert is more of a hip hop guy. That’s why he wears the big bomber jacket and the baggy pants, while Vinz wears a flight jacket and tight 501 Jeans, which is more like a pusher outfit. You didn’t want to look too flashy – more chic. That also applies to the Burberry they wear. The Tacchini dress was, then, more for the young guys from the ghetto who were more in your face. Vinz is more of a serious pusher who doesn’t like guys who wear hip hop clothes. Saïd is very chic in his Tacchini trainers; they were the Rolls-Royce of trainers at that time. Hubert is more the kind of guy who minds his own business, who is honest and doesn’t need much money. He’s an urban survivalist. That’s why he wears Carhartt. And it had to be Carhartt because the French brands that made work clothes were just making the “bleu de travail”, an overall suit in blue that isn’t very sexy. But Carhartt did make working clothes which were fucking awesome and sexy. And, if you were a hip hopper at the time and bought yourself a Naughty By Nature record, you saw that those guys wore the same clothes on the cover. Also, the price was low and the quality was good. They were strong clothes and multifunctional, and that’s what hip hop is. At the beginning, it wasn’t a fashion statement. Carhartt clothes were just very very useful. It only became a fashion statement later. Because when you put on a beanie and Carhartt trousers, you looked like a tank. It became something else. Even in hip hop. You had Public Enemy, who wore 501s, a bomber jacket, a baseball cap, and sneakers. Or you had Naughty by Nature or Das EFX, who wore work clothes and dressed in Carhartt. I never liked the bling-bling thing, so Carhartt was the right choice for me and for a character like Hubert.

It’s interesting how you describe clothing as having a tough cultural image, especially in the context of your work. You seem to be a fan of the “tough guy” attitude.

Go to my Facebook site and you know that I like that. I can’t stop being a fighter. Just a few days ago I talked to a friend and I said: “‘La Haine’ is not just a title. It stands for me, my life, and my attitude toward all the things happening in the world.”

So, does your father ever tell you to quit with the angry attitude?
Well, yes he does. But I always reply: “You just forgot.” It’s something that has stayed with me. When you are young, you meet people, you become part of a peer group and you have experiences that leave an emotional impact on you for the rest of your life. If we lived in a perfect world, and everything that annoyed me was gone, I wouldn’t hate anymore. But, actually, we are living in a world that’s far worse than that. Every morning you wake up and you have ten more reasons to be mad. Every fucking morning. There’s never any good news. Never. Never. Ever. Maybe the weather. That’s all. Or your sports team won. But beside that, have you ever experienced peace or something like that? No. You see ten wars and you never hear: “Today there is peace and these two countries managed to find a way to get along,” or things like that they found a way to get the oil out of the Gulf of Mexico. I would like to have fun and not care, but that’s not possible. The world doesn’t allow me to do it.

Do you try to show this anger in your work?
Depends on the movie. If I work on a movie like “Gothica” I’m just there to do somebody else’s film. But if I do a project like “Babylon AD” I’m concerned about the problems of the world. “Babylon AD” was a very strong project with a very strong script. That’s why I was so mad and fucked-up after what happened to it. Especially the American version is crap. I was mad because we had something to say. It was not just about explosions and Vin Diesel. But you can’t tell that anymore from the finished product. I usually put my anger in my movies. In my next one you’ll see what I mean. The one I’m doing now is called “Rebellion”. And the one after that is called “Dust Motion”; it’s a very ambitious, high-end science fiction movie. Very tricky. It’s a “Matrix”-like movie with virtual environments.

You once said in an interview that movies like “Les Rivières Pourpres” are not the movies you like to do. Why?
Because this movie passes up a strong subject. It’s just a thriller. There’s this little bit there with this dream of an Arian nation by the Nazi guys, but that’s it. I love to watch this kind of movie. Movies like “Gothica”, too. I also like to make them. But I really prefer to have a subject to fight for. It’s amazing to scare people. For a director it’s great to do scary scenes. But I need more than just thrills. I find it difficult if I can only do scary scenes. Making a movie is a very demanding process. So, as long as you’re going to lose weight and go insane while doing it, it should be for something that matters. I don’t do it just to make people laugh.

So, you think a director should craft his or her art to present a political message?
Yes, but I don’t think that directors are artists. I am just one guy, but there are 50 people on the set, plus the actors. I can’t do it alone.

But what do you think of the “auteur theory”? Moviemakers like Jean-Luc Godard or Louis Malle have an easily recognizable style.
Those guys made art. They consider themselves artists. They get messages through in their films, but they have different ways of making them. I’m very interested in the technical part of making movies and in the political. Also, storytelling is very important. But I’m not interested in the “movie experience,” if you know what I mean. I don’t want to do movies where you need an instruction manual. I have nothing against being intellectual, as long as you also do something that entertains people. As a moviegoer, I want to be entertained, but I also want to learn something, get something that stays. When I saw “Matrix” for the first time, I was amazed. Then I watched it again and thought: “Wow! This is smart.” Then I watched it again and said: “This is not just smart, it’s much more than that. These guys are right.” If you actually look at the politics in France, with all the affairs around our President Sarkozy, then you know that “Matrix” deals with true problems. We actually have a crisis with the government. Germany has too and England also. When things like this happen, I believe you must do movies that make people think. You can make them laugh, but best would be to do both, like Charlie Chaplin or Billy Wilder. But only very few blessed people can achieve this. I try, but I don’t get it all the time.

So, you believe moviemakers have a responsibility to address political issues?
For sure. And it’s not going to end well. I think people should buy Carhartt because all these political affairs here in France are not going to end well, so the people must survive and for this they need durable clothes (laughs).

Do you think people will take to the streets and protest in response to these political problems?
I don’t know. We’ll see how they react. We have demonstrations every week. The French people are very close to the blueprint of democracy, so we’ll make the politicians pay at the next elections. It’s not going to go to the streets. Back in the day, when I used to put on my Carhartt jacket to fight with the cops in Paris in 1986 or 1993, the police looked like regular guys. Today, they look like Robocops. They are very scary and they have powerful weapons. Back in the day, it was one against
one. Today, you must be crazy to fight with those guys. Also, today they put people into jails just because they demonstrate.

But do the same problems still exist in the Parisian ghettos as there were when you shot “La Haine”?
Sure. It’s still the same and the same problems still exist. And they will stay as long
as the people who cry for more cops remain in the government. When the people who cry for more teachers win, maybe something will change.

What are your favourite movies to watch?
I don’t know. I think the most interesting cinema is made in America because it covers a lot of ground; from special effects movies to underground movies with real social commentary. Also, there are a lot of conceptual and artistic movies. Asia is also very open minded and very creative, too. But I’m mostly interested in the American movie culture. And I’m very happy to be a European because then you can have a way out. When you work in Hollywood with a producer like Joel Silver, with whom I did the movie “Gothica”, you can get into trouble. We had a good relationship and I love him, but he’s a very strong-minded guy and a scary producer to work with. Everybody was like: “Wow, Joel Silver, the guy that they put in movies when they want to show a crazy producer.” Like an L.A. version of the Weinstein brothers all mixed in one guy. Very scary. When he started to yell at me: “If you don’t do it like that you will never work in this town again!” I would always look at him, laugh, and say: “I don’t care. I don’t work in this town and I don’t live here.” Then he started to like me because he realised that I could go away. But, if you’re from Hollywood, I think it is true: you will never find work again if he doesn’t want you to. He means it and he can do it.

So you think Hollywood cinema is the best?
If you like movies, and you grew up in the 1980s, they were the best movies you could find. There are the guys who learned from the French Nouvelle Vague and came up with the first blockbusters, like Steven Spielberg with “Jaws”, George Lucas with “Star Wars”, or William Friedkin with “The Exorcist”. The entire period was very creative. You went to the movies to see a horror movie and it was a masterpiece. So, when I was young, I also read all the books that inspired the movies. When I saw “Blade Runner” I read “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick which inspired the movie. After reading the books you thought: “Okay, that is science fiction.” But when you think about those books today, it seems that they were ahead of their time, because everything that happens in the book is happening today in our real world. “1984”, as a book, became real. George Orwell must be spinning in his grave. I think by now he is spinning so much that he must have drilled himself hundreds of meters deep into the earth from thinking:“What’s going on? I can’t be that right.”

Do you read contemporary science fiction literature?
Sure. Take Maurice Georges Dantec who wrote the book on which my movie “Babylon AD” is based. The original is a new kind of science fiction – very hardcore, very kinky stuff. It’s a book about – or at least I took it like this – how technology is becoming a new religion, how people need miracles, and how technology can be the ultimate propaganda for these miracles, that you feed the people with technology. That’s what Apple is doing! But they are good. I’m a nerd and I love technology.

And does this love of technology also play into your movies?
Sure. Especially now in the digital era with the digital cameras. Today you can do a movie with a dead actor and it looks like he’s still alive. Citroën recently had an advertising campaign with Marilyn Monroe and John Lennon. You can just do it and also change the way they talk. But, if it comes to that, I’d rather just play the movie on my Playstation. Why should I watch “Spiderman 12” if there are no real actors in it and anything is possible anyway? I’d rather be able to interact with it directly.

What do you mean?
Take fight scenes for instance. If I go to a movie, I like to see actors. If there are no actors anymore, or just copies of them, then I’d rather want to be part of it. If there’s a 20-minute fight scene that’s made digitally, I feel I should be able to play it, to be part of it. This is something I’m working on. Like the video game “Heavy Rain”, which is a story-based thriller, and you, as a player, need to find the right information to keep the story going. You have to fight enemies and find information. If you don’t win or don’t find the right information, the story changes. This game is based on a 2000-page script. A regular movie has 100 pages. The game offers you multiple endings and multiple ways to get there, and it also looks like a film.

Do you have any acting plans for the future?
Yes. I’m acting in a movie I’m directing as well, but I’m not planning to act for another director. I’m concentrating on my own work right now because the projects I’m currently working on are very ambitious and I’ve been working on them for years. But I don’t want to talk too much about it. Wait until you can see it in the cinemas and then you’ll know what I mean.

(Text: Michael Leuffen, Pictures: Alessandro Zuek Simonetti)

Be on the look out for our latest Carhartt Brand Book N°4 to read a feature about the award winning movie La Haine (intl. title “The Hate”) by Mathieu Kassovitz as part of our new “Carhartt In The Movies” series and to see more of the images Alessandro ‘Zuek’ Simonetti has shot of Mathieu.