Claire Denis on How Stephen Hawking Inspired 'High Life'

HIGH LIFE with an inset of Claire Denis-Getty-H 2019
Courtesy of Pandora Productions; John Wolfsohn/Getty Images
The filmmaker describes the inspirations behind her unconventional slow-burn thriller in space, featuring incarcerated astronauts and a nefarious fertility doctor played by Juliette Binoche: “She's the Medea of space.”

That Claire Denis’ latest title predicted the look of a black hole was both lucky and the result of years’ worth of research. When a team of more than 200 astronomers unveiled the first-ever image of a black hole 55 million light years away on April 1, the slightly off-focus image showed a dark circle wreathed in brilliant orange light, the color astronomers chose to represent the hole’s bright gas emissions. Viewers of High Life, a space drama about a research-cum-suicide mission, could have hardly failed to notice that her film depicts the cosmic whorl with a similarly brilliant orange color, though the movie was released five days previous to the landmark image.

Denis isn’t surprised by the similarity between her black hole and the astronomers’: She spent a long time working with French physicist-philosopher Aurélien Barrau to ensure accuracy in preproduction and on set.“I called the astrophysicist [Barrau] this morning and I told him, ‘It's not a coincidence because you have been studying, we have been studying,’” she told The Hollywood Reporter in an interview. Still, the orange light ended up being a creative, rather than scientific, decision: She and her production designer Olafur Eliasson invented the orange light because “we saw it as this color that was destroying the other color” of the film’s red ship, she said.

Denis’ film is forward-thinking in other ways, most distinctly in how it riffs on science fiction. Though High Life’s premise — a space crew seeks an alternative energy source for Earth within a black hole — suggests a conventional, impossible journey-type narrative, Denis’ film populates its ship with idiosyncratic characters for such a story. The film opens with Monte (Robert Pattinson) as the sole survivor of a prison crew that volunteered for the space mission as an alternative to spending life in prison. Because the journey to the black hole is so long, the ship contains a fertility scientist (Juliette Binoche) who injects the sperm of the ship’s men into its women so children can carry on the experiment when the crew dies.

The resulting film is an unlikely study of sexual frustration, prison labor and existential loneliness. Just after the movie released in select cities, Denis spoke with THR about how Stephen Hawking inspired the project, her reunion with actress Binoche and why she doesn’t consider High Life to be science fiction.

How did High Life initially get started for you?

It started a long time ago. I had this idea in mind of a man alone in space in a ship far away from the solar system so there is no hope to return and the crew is dead. At that time I was reading Stephen Hawking and I was imagining procreation in space. Because of traveling time in space and [the fact that] human life is not very long, it will be necessary to reproduce ourselves if we wanted to travel far. I remember a drawing of an incubator protecting the baby from radiation. It was touching, you know? I felt something there. All these things, little by little, months after months, years after years, became a sort of idea. And then I was asked by a producer if I would like to do a film in English, and I said, "Only if I have a good reason for it, because otherwise it's not my own language." I thought maybe in space it would be reasonable, people speaking English or Russian. And my English is not good, but it's maybe better than my Russian.

Since this film took nearly a decade to get made —

Not to get made: It took time to write it, then to think about it, then to learn things about space, then to rewrite, then to translate it into English, it’s thing like that. Why 10 years? In that time, I was doing other things.

Did the idea or story change along the way?

Not so much. The faces were changing in my mind, of course. Not the cast, not the actors, but the fact that it became real with real actors that I could touch.

You visited the European Space Agency's Astronaut Centre in Cologne to research the film. What surprised you most about what you learned during your research process on this movie?

The research was necessary at the beginning when we were writing the script; I wanted to know [how] I could represent ... speed in space, and time — I had to really understand a little bit more. And I wanted to understand a little bit more about the possible reality of black holes. Now, three days ago, this picture of a black hole published on the internet, how strange.

It was a funny coincidence that it arrived just after this movie came out.

But I called the astrophysicist this morning and I told him, "It's not a coincidence because you have been studying, we have been studying." And in the end, if we chose this orange glow with Olafur Eliasson, it is because we saw it was this color that was destroying the other color [of the ship]. This orange glow kills the red. In a way, it's a color that is exclusive, so I'm not surprised. I'm not so intelligent — if I understood something, it's because I had a great astrophysicist with me: He came on the set with the actors and was a great help; he made us believe in things we have never conceived about space and time.

Since this was your first English-language film, what changes did you have to make — or did you have to make any changes — to the way you make movies?

This film was not easy to produce because I had to work in a studio. We had to build a set, so I had to change a lot of the organization: It's not on location. We had to raise a bigger budget than usual and I had to be ready to find a cast that inspired me [that were] not my usual people. I had to meet people like Robert, Mia, Andre, Lars; Juliette, I knew. It was a long process to create this little space crew. It has to be like a family for me.

What did you look for in choosing the actors that made up that main?

I am raw material, so when I do casting, I have to be moved and touched — nothing else. I have absolutely no philosophy or technique in casting. That's all. I am honest when I say that because I would be afraid not to have that, not to feel so much for the actor or the actress when you cast because I think it's the most important. There is nothing but those people on the set — even the baby — to inspire. Just to think I'm directing a movie is not inspiring enough, in a way. My attention has to be completely attracted, I have to be in a link, in a chain, with a cast. Otherwise, it's too difficult, I think.

Before High Life, you had collaborated with Juliette Binoche on a very different movie, Let the Sunshine In. What was it like to switch gears with her from the heroine of a romantic comedy to a sinister scientist?

For me, she's a pure victim; she's the Medea of space. She did what you would say no one would accept a woman to do, to kill her own children. Men are allowed to do a lot of things but women, they have to be a good mother, you know what I mean? The casting origin of it was [that the part first was offered to] Patricia Arquette, and I had met with her and we had spoken about the part, but then because the film was postponed, suddenly Patricia was not available anymore and she had another project to do. Juliette, when we were in Cannes together for Let the Sunshine In, she said, "Oh Claire, if you want, I will do it with pleasure."

Since this is your first science fiction movie, did any other sci-fi films inspire what you did in this film, or what you didn't want to do?

I’ve loved sci-fi since I was a kid. I loved comics and books, and everything that was sci-fi was extremely interesting for me. Most of the B-movies, or the sci-fi movies, of my childhood were great, you know. Then there was of course 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Kubrick movie. Many of them inspired me, but in a way, this film for me was not specifically science fiction. I think it was more a film about desire and loneliness and jail, things like that — frustration. I think it was like [I was less inspired than] I knew already a little bit [what it would be].

There have been several dystopian titles recently that have focused on fertility, like The Handmaid's Tale and Mad Max. Why do you think this has been such a popular theme for directors and writers these days?

For me, the question was raised over 10 years ago by one of Stephen Hawking’s books. So to tell you why it is important today, maybe it's for a different reason. Maybe it exists because now science is able to do it. But you know, before all this, artificial reproduction in antiquity, in the long, long time of history of human on earth, was rape.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.