Robin Campillo, Nahuel Pérez Biscayart and Arnaud Valois are off to another screening and Q&A for their film BPM. The film is in contention as the French submission for Best Foreign Language Film and won the Grand Jury Prize earlier this year at Cannes.
Campillo dives into activism and deep into love in the film. Fiery debates at the Parisian ACT UP sessions are what ignite Campillo’s narrative. Its members arguing whether they should be peaceful protesters or extremists as they tackle government indifference to their health care conditions. They seek the release of info about a promising new anti-AIDS drug but the French pharma scientists are reluctant to share.
The film’s touchstone is the relationship that develops between Nathan (Valois) and Sean (Biscayart) and their exploration of love and pain as Sean’s health slowly deteriorates.
BPM is a searing and shattering experience and a moving film, brilliantly written and directed by Campillo. He says he had always wanted to write a story about the AIDS epidemic and ACT UP, but could never find the way in. The story was right in front of him the whole time, and he realized the story would come from his own experiences and his own fight as an ACT UP activist.
Our conversation with director and cast is brief but we discussed how BPM came about, the origins of the love story, and the casting process.
Robin, let’s start with you. The film is a metamorphosis where we go on this journey of love and drug treatments and from one thing to another.
The film began 25 years ago for me when I joined ACT UP. It was ten years after the beginning of the AIDS epidemic and I had always wanted to be a director, but the epidemic killed my will to be a director. I couldn’t project myself in film and I spent time with Act Up. I only returned because of Laurent Cantet who asked me to work on his film as a writer and editor.
I had always wanted to do a film on the subject, but could never find the right enough angle that would be powerful enough. I realized about seven years ago that the film I wanted to do was in front of my eyes. It was such a part of me that I hadn’t realized the film was right there. I wanted to talk about this collective moment of my life that was so important to me.
There’s a scene in the film where you show your characters reading the news and one says “I’ve never seen homosexuals in a magazine.” Talk about the period and the taboo that preceded the breakthrough in France.
In 1982 when we started talking about AIDS in the papers there was actually a tolerance in France towards gay people, but you had to be discreet. But, the papers were saying most gay men were going to die of this disease. At the same time, there was no information from the government helping gay men. We were shown as victims of the epidemic and prostitutes and gay men were dying in this indifference.
I was getting angry by this indifference and that’s why I actually joined ACT UP, to make that difference.
How did you find your cast Nauhel and Arnaud?
Robin: I’m going to say a few words. I didn’t want to recreate characters from that time. I wanted to recreate the chemistry and electricity of what was going on between people at the time. I wanted to show debates as colorful. Nauhel was the first person I found and I met him in a bar. We did a screen test and I realized very quickly that he was perfect for the past immediately.
Arnaud was someone I did a lot of tests with, I was certain he was a great actor and a beautiful character. It took me time to admit that Nathan could be so handsome.
Nauhel: The script was extraordinary. It’s so rare to read scripts with that level of detail and subtleness. Everything was so beautifully written. When we started auditioning for the part, I felt we were working on building those connections between the characters and that’s why it took time. The chemistry between actors is something that can not be forced, it’s something that has to come naturally.
Once I got the part, the preparation was about gaining weight at the beginning and then losing weight by the end to show the deterioration of the body of my character. The character dies of AIDS but he doesn’t let the disease kill him and who he is.
I felt the film was divided into two parts, the first half sees my character over-living. Everything is done over the top because he’s surrounded by this death that is flying around. I was able to be more theatrical because the character was trying to do that. The second half is where impossibility sets in and he starts losing his sense of reality so it was about me losing myself in getting lost with his character.
There was an honest approach to the love scenes in the film, shot beautifully, acted beautifully. Can we talk about that?
Arnaud: We had two rehearsals before we shot that. Robin didn’t say, “It was going to be a sex scene.” We had two cameras there and it was all choreographed so we were always in the frame.
Nauhel: The complexity of those scenes were showing the awkwardness of sex scenes because the film doesn’t look away during the little details such as dealing with the condom, it was very frank as you say. There was no cut, there’s no cut to the next day.
It was also about opening up. It’s the first moment the characters really open up and it was so delicate and you needed to be relaxed as an actor to play that moment.
Later in the hospital, it was his last moment to grab life before saying goodbye.
BPM is out in LA and NYC and is in contention for Best Foreign Language Film.