Spotlight: An interview with Henri Bassil ("Love")
Henri Bassil is a Dubai based filmmaker who specializes in commercials. Henri graduated from French Film School ESRA with a film directing degree, after directing over 300 commercials, he went back to his original passion and directed his first short film "EXPIRE" in 2015. Four years later, he directed "LOVE" and is hoping to direct his first feature film called "Walls" in the upcoming months.
In April 2020, "Love" won Best Experimental Film at LAFA. Meet this talented artist.
How did you become interested in filmmaking, and particularly, in writing and directing?
I was born in Beirut during the civil war and like most kids at that time, I spent a lot of time confined at home while the city was being bombed outside. I loved watching movies as it was the only way to escape the room we were hiding in.
To me, writing is all about the challenge of making a very personal and intimate story accessible to other people.
Which filmmakers/films are you influenced by?
I’m in awe of Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg for having mastered so many different genres and setting benchmark films each time. I think this is true talent. Denis Villeneuve is one of the more recent directors whose work I admire as well.
Having worked on over 300 commercials, you certainly know your way around short-form storytelling! What are some of your biggest takeaways from working in the commercial world?
Working in the commercial world brings in just as many advantages as it brings flaws.
The obvious advantage is being able to go straight to the point in terms of storytelling. The main flaws are the risk of remaining emotionally shallow and the fact that we often disregard continuity, since there is almost none in advertising.
Last but not least, in advertising we rarely use camera movements to tell a story since the longest shot is 1.5 second.
Let's talk about LOVE. Why did you decide to make the film? What drove you to tell this story?
I don’t pick a story. It picks me. It’s something that starts boiling inside and that I end up writing on a paper. And if it’s good enough then I want to make a film out of it. LOVE is a questioning about this mysterious state that brings in so much happiness but so much drama as well. I started doing some research and came across that 5 stages theory. It made perfect sense. And since very few people around me had heard about it, I decided to turn it into a short film.
The dance approach came naturally after watching a Flamingo show in Madrid and seeing how emotions were so strongly transmitted through dance moves. A dance can be much stronger than words.
Can you talk about your collaboration with executive producer Ornella Jabra, how did you divide the production responsibilities between the two of you?
Ornella came on board after reading the script. Coming from an advertising background, she’s been wanting to do a short film so the match was perfect.
I was in Dubai and Ornella was in Beirut so we prepared that shoot remotely. Ornella was involved in all the artistic decisions but was also handling the Beirut logistics such as sponsors, equipment and crew.
Most importantly, Ornella brought her passion every step of the way.
For the music in the film, you worked with composer Firas Abou Fakher. What was the scoring process like? Were the pieces written in advance, for the Choreographer (Konstantin Koval) to work with?
Konstantin and I had picked together 5 tracks on which the dancers rehearsed for a month in Kiev. We used those tracks as well on the day of the shoot. But these tracks were not rights free so I approached a few music composers who were all reluctant when discovering the difficulty of the task: 5 different pieces that needed to transmit 5 different emotions yet follow the dance moves. Firas jumped in without any hesitation and did a soundtrack that was just perfect.
He composed all 5 tracks on his laptop and brought on board two very talented musicians: a cello and a french horn player that beautifully brought his scores to life.
Oleksii Busko and Anastasiia Kharchenko did a wonderful job, they have such great chemistry! How did you go about the casting process?
My experience in musical commercials taught me that it’s always best to work with dancers that the choreographer is already used to working with. So once Konstantin was on board, he started suggesting dancers. Konstantin had a very strong sensitivity that was very much needed during the casting process. The challenge was not easy because I was looking for dancers who could act. Ideally I wanted a real life couple but when I saw Oleksii and Anastasiia, their chemistry immediately showed so they became my first choice.
Were there any unforeseen challenges during the shoot?
A couple of days before the shoot, Konstantin was not given his visa to enter Lebanon. It was devastating to everyone.
He was looking forward to being on set and leading his dancers. I was looking forward to having him by my side and improving on set what we had agreed on during the remote rehearsals. Luckily, both Oleksii and Anastasia were very well prepared and had the maturity and skills to adapt this last minute change.
Our jury noticed the wonderful lighting in the film. It was very well shot! How did you meet your cinematographer, Pierre Mouarkech, and what was it like to work with him? How many days did you have for the shoot?
Pierre and I have been working together in advertising for years now. We’ve already had long discussions about relationships and their “strange” evolution in time. He read the script and related to it so it was only natural to have him onboard.
It’s always a pleasure working with him as we’ve reached a trust relationship where he finds the space he needs to express himself.
One of the main challenges was to shoot everything in one shooting day. We were lucky to have Cinequipped, the rental company onboard. They gave us two cameras and that allowed us to cover all shots and finish everything in one shooting day.
Was there anything you had to "fix in post"?
As I mentioned it earlier, continuity is one of the things people coming from advertising usually disregard. In the 5th act, no one noticed that the minutes hand on the wall clock was changing between takes. We only noticed that in the edit and the jumps were very obvious. Lucid, the post house handling the film, kindly took care of it and that was that!
Where do you see yourself in 10 years, and who is one actor or actress you wish to work with in the future, and why this person specifically?
I’d love to be able to live out of doing feature films. Telling stories, stirring up emotions and thoughts is definitely my main objective in the near future.
I’d love to work with Adrian Brody. I’ve come to admire his talent in The Pianist and I think his best role is yet to come.
Of course, it would be a dream come true to have him in Walls.
What were some of the reactions to LOVE so far, and how do you feel about the film's success?
I’m extremely surprised but very happy that LOVE talked to so many people from so many different parts of the world.
It’s a very rewarding feel to see that people in Melbourne are touched the same way as people in Moscow, in Prague, in Beirut or in LA. And that’s the beauty of cinema.
I realized LOVE’s story was interesting when I was pitching it to people around me and I could see in their eyes their interest in knowing more about it. Everyone related at least to one of the five stages and was curious to know what were the other ones.
You're currently in development for Walls, your debut feature. How is the project going, and are there any other projects you're working on?
Trying to make a feature film happen is a beautiful journey but it’s a long and bumpy one. Especially when it’s a first film. I’m guessing persistence and hard-work are the key but time will tell…
The most difficult task for a writer/director is finding that producer who believes in the script and helps carry it with him.
Do you have any tips for young directors that you can share with our readers?
Shoot as much as you can. Once you believe you have a story that could interest other people, shoot it. Even if the film is not perfect, every shoot is a new learning and will help improve the next one.
Where can our followers see more of your work?
Would you like to add anything/thank anyone?
I’d like to thank every person that believed in my projects and every person that watched Expire and LOVE and went through the trouble of sending me a feedback. It’s always enriching to know what people on the other side of the planet think of your work.
And thank you to the Los Angeles Film Awards team for awarding LOVE and for this interview!