Interview with Thomas in Malibu Magazine

21 avril 2010    

Malibu Magazine « Thomas Balmès is the filmmaker behind the new documentary Babies, which is opening Mother’s Day Weekend. »

1. What inspired you to work in the entertainment business?
I come from an intellectual, bookish family—my father was a philosophy professor and a psychoanalyst, and my mother a French teacher—so I tried from a very young age to make a place for myself and show my difference by using images and a more visual medium to express myself. As a child, I went to the movies as often as possible. Then as a teenager I spent my days taking photographs and my nights in a darkroom developing and printing the pictures. After I graduated from film school, I went on to work in photography, film and in documentaries, but concentrated very early on documentary films. It allowed me, like other media in the industry, to express myself with moving images. But in addition to that, and unlike feature films, for example, I could keep things “hand crafted” and human-sized. I also had a huge freedom and could control everything from start to finish while at the same time eventually enjoy worldwide distribution and reach large audiences either on small or big screens.

2. In one or two sentences, how would you describe the current state of the industry?
On the one hand, the industry is very corporate and mature: with organizations constantly merging with one an another and a few huge groups leading the show, producing industrially-made and very formatted ‘products’ On the other hand, with HD technology being affordable now to anyone, and
internet and Youtube allowing individuals to show their work, a real creativity and freedom is emerging. Aside from these two models, there are fewer and fewer other possibilities for having films made.

3. In your opinion what constitutes great storytelling?
As a documentary filmmaker, I have had to fight against one very widespread idea, which is that non-fiction cinema cannot tell stories that are as dramatic and entertaining as feature films… Keeping that in mind, and shooting “fly on the wall” direct cinema, you have to re-invent new rules for every film you make. Establishing a narrative arch, building to a climax, the plot twists and three acts of storytelling – the usual fiction scriptwriting tricks—can’t always apply to the randomness of real life.

4. What contemporary artists do you admire and why?
Elliott Erwitt, an American photographer who is a master in what I consider the highest achievement: to make people laugh and cry alternately.
Victor Kossakovsky, a Russian documentary filmmaker who is constantly inventing new ways of filmmaking and who succeeds in the most brilliant and poetic way.
Woody Allen, who has done 40 films in 40 years, including 20 masterpieces. I really envy and admire his capacity to be so productive.

5. Please list your top five films of the decade and why?
Waltz With Bashir (2008) by Ari Folman. By blurring the borders between fiction,documentary and animation, Ari Folman has achieved a pure masterpiece.
No Country For Old Men (2007) by Joel and Ethan Coen. I am a big fan of the Cohen Brothers. This film, just like Fargo, is an extraordinary drama, and an extraordinary comedy at the same time.
Our Daily Bread (2005) by Nikolaus Geyrhalter. A non-verbal documentary from which I can remember almost every single shot, which I consider one of the best ways to recognize a great film.
Grizzly Man (2005) by Werner Herzog. A perfect example of how reality can be stronger than fiction when directed by a genius like Werner Herzog. Amazing casting; location; drama; you could never write such a story.
Lost in Translation (2003) by Sofia Coppola. The most joyful film ever, a mix of Antonioni and Woody Allen. Having myself filmed and spent a lot of time in Tokyo these last years, I was very touched by how Sofia Coppola managed to turn the most simple script into the best film ever made on foreignness and the elusive sensations a foreigner can feel in Tokyo.

6. What do you consider your greatest career achievement?
Hearing Nick Frazer, who is the series editor of BBC’s Storyville, commenting about a scene of my film DAMAGES that he really loved, by saying: “This is so Balmès!”

7. What do you consider your greatest career failure?
Sometimes forgetting to remain compassionate, to remain human while filming…Losing the sense of what is really important in life.

8. What do you believe is the biggest problem currently facing the entertainment business?
Sodas and Ice-cream.

MOVIE INDUSTRY: Movie theaters don’t earn their money by selling tickets but by selling ice creams and soda.

TV INDUSTRY: “Our job consist in helping Coca-Cola to sell their product. And for their commercial to be efficient, the brain of the viewer must be available. The purpose of our programs is to allow these brains to be available : which means the programs have to be entertaining and relaxing to prepare the viewer’s brain in between two commercial breaks. So, what we sell to Coca-Cola, is human brain’s time availability.”
—Patrick Le Lay; former chairman and CEO of TF1, Europe’s largest Broadcaster.

9. What new technology currently having an impact on your industry are you most excited about and why? What technology are you most afraid of and why?
A. Excited about: New HD cameras and the Internet which, together allow anyone to become a cameraman, director, producer and his own broadcaster.
B. Afraid of: New HD cameras and the Internet which together allow anyone to become cameraman, director, producer and his own broadcaster.

10. What is the best career advice you’ve ever received, and who gave it to you?
My dear friend Victor Kossakovsky’s rules for documentary filmmaking:
– Don’t film if you want to say something – just say it or write it.
– Don’t film if you already know your message before filming – just become at eacher.
– Don’t try to save the world. Don’t try to change the world. Better if your film changes you. Discover both the world and yourself whilst filming.
– Don’t follow my rules. Find your own rules. There is always something that only you and nobody else can film.

By the way you can find the 10 rulesfor documentary filmmaking of Viktor Kossakovsky here.