6 Filmmaking Tips from Claire Denis

The celebrated filmmaker behind 'High Life,' 'Beau Travail,' and 'White Material' on location, leitmotifs, and why explaining things is overrated.
High Life Director's Headshot Rgb

Known for her daring films that defy conventions and simple categorization, Claire Denis has built a reputation as one of the most original and admired filmmakers working today with a fearless body of work that spans everything from serial killers to outer space. After spending her childhood in colonial Africa, Denis returned to France and attended the prestigious film school the Institut des hautes études cinématographiques (IDHEC). After working as an assistant director for years alongside such celebrated filmmakers as Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders for over a decade, she made her feature film debut in 1988 with ChocolatWith over 40 years of experience in the industry, Denis has collected an incredible amount of filmmaking knowledge. That said, much like her films are known for their poetic, sometimes even impressionistic quality, she speaks in interviews in a correspondingly oblique manner that hardly conforms to the usual pedagogical, how-to nature of this feature, so the following six quotes suit a somewhat loose definition of filmmaking “tips.” But then again, convention hardly suits Claire Denis, so at least it’s on brand.

Get Rid of Explanation

Back in 2000, Denis was interviewed by Jonathan Romney for The Guardian leading up to the release of Beau Travail, a daring drama loosely based on Herman Melville’s Billy Budd. With her avoidance of standard narrative conventions and love of more loose, poetic storytelling, Denis’ films require considerable effort on behalf of the audience to unpack. With that in mind, Romney asked her about her preference for leaving out all the explanatory information most other filmmakers put in, and Denis had the following to say:

“Cinema is not made to give a psychological explanation, for me cinema is montage, is editing. To make blocks of impressions or emotion meet with another block of impression or emotion and put in between pieces of explanation, to me it’s boring. Again, I am not trying to make it difficult but I think, as a spectator, when I see a movie one block leads me to another block of inner emotion, I think that’s cinema. That’s an encounter. I think cinema is linked to literature by a lot of social ways. Our brains are full of literature – my brain is. But I think we also have a dream world, the brain is also full of image and songs and I think that making films for me is to get rid of explanation. Because, [I] think, you get explanation by getting rid of explanation. I am sure of that.”

Use Leitmotifs as Anchors

In a 2013 Tribeca interview regarding her film Bastards, a nihilistic thriller loosely inspired by William Faulkner’s Sanctuary, interviewer Zachary Wigon brought up Denis’ use of repeated imagery throughout the film, comparing the technique to the use of clues in a mystery. Her response about her use of motifs doubles as great storytelling advice:

“It’s not like a tool, like something you use when you’re cooking – it’s something that shows when you’re writing the script. The effort of writing a script – it’s important to have a sort of inside reason, or leitmotif, something that will anchor any narration into something that will be deep inside, like a motif, you know? I think of course this shape is already there in the script.”

Cast with your Gut

At the 55th New York Film Festival in 2017, Denis participated in a filmmaking panel with Joachim Trier and Kevin Jerome Everson in which the three filmmakers discussed various aspects of their filmmaking processes. On the subject of casting, Denis addressed the importance of following one’s instinct in that decision-making process, an attitude she has maintained consistently in a number of different interviews:

“Casting […] it’s like in life. Somehow, you meet someone [and] you know. Maybe it’s a less experienced person, maybe everybody might tell you it’s a bad choice, and you know it will work—you will be happy to meet that person every day. It’s moving. It’s a sort of love, you know?”

You can watch the full panel below; the featured quote starts at 43:32:

Location is Everything

In April 2019, Indiewire edited two interviews with Denis into a single post of the filmmaker going through her creative process at some length, including coming up with ideas, writing, rehearsing, and filming, among others. Regarding location scouting, Denis gave the following advice:

“Location scouting is like a chase. You aren’t looking for location, you’re looking for the film itself. When I do choose a location it’s because I understand how I’m going to film it. If not, then I know it’s not a good location for me. If it doesn’t bring me a light, you know, it’s a connection, it’s working. A location somehow – it’s not, “I like it or I don’t like it” – somehow a location has to jump on me, catch me and that moment is important because then I know. I have to feel how is the film going to be in that specific space.”

Choreograph the Camera, Not the Actors

At the 2019 International Film Festival Rotterdam, Claire Denis held a masterclass in which she discussed her career and broke down several key scenes from her films with former festival director Simon Field. At one point, Field brought up the use of movement in her films—specifically, what he noted as a choreographed quality to the movement of the actors. In addressing his comment, Denis clarified that this choreography is far more about the camera than about the actors, a comment that also presents an intriguing way of thinking about movement in film:

“I’m not asking actors to move in a certain way. We speak about it and we find a mood. We find the reason. The choreography is the camera. To be able to caress and to be close and respectful, but to be together. The togetherness with the actors—it’s the only really moving thing. Even if I decide on a large shot and the character is far [away] in a long corridor, or whatever, then the momentum of staying there in a static shot is also some kind of choreography because the duration, the time staying there, looking statically at someone, means also to be together with them. I don’t think I use the camera to judge. Never. But to be a companion, always.”

You can watch the full masterclass below; the featured quote begins at 29:15:


Don’t Worry About the Amount of Dialogue

In an April 2019 Syfy Wire interview with Denis and High Life star Robert Pattinson, the subject of dialogue came up. Particularly, how Denis’ films tend to be relatively low on dialogue. In addressing this tendency of hers, the filmmaker made an important point not just about her use of dialogue, but a current industry attitude towards dialogue that might not necessarily be for the best:

“People keep telling me, ‘Oh, there is not much dialogue in your films.’ But what’s the difference if the film says a lot? Sometimes, dialogue is just noise — blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And it says nothing, you know? The dialogue seems to be now, the quantity is like a recipe. If you want to bake a cake, you have to put in 200 grams of this and that, sugar, etc. It’s like voiceover. Do we need a voiceover or no? That is a big question in a film, much more important than dialogue.”

What We Learned

Claire Denis, much like the films she makes, is a fascinating combination of iconic and enigmatic. For someone who describes herself as shy, as nervous and even insecure as a filmmaker, her work is uniquely daring, refreshingly bold, and wholly original. Perhaps, at the end of the day, that is exactly why her films are so unparalleled—not because she is fearless, but because she has these feelings and works through them, because of them and in spite of them. In a 2010 interview with The Guardian, Denis said, “When I make a film I have to be like a military commander, in charge of every strategy and tactic, but I never really know where we are going.” If there is one central lesson to be learned from Denis, maybe it is that such a willingness to boldly go places without knowing exactly what those places are might just be the way to get somewhere worth going to.

Ciara Wardlow: Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.