Why Robert Pattinson Was the Perfect Actor for Claire Denis' Sci-Fi Movie

Claire Denis - Getty - H 2017
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The art house helmer tells THR of making 'High Life,' researching astrophysics and facing her fear of special effects.

Acclaimed French director Claire Denis went way outside her comfort zone for High Life. Not only is the feature — which Wild Bunch and CAA are selling at AFM — Denis’ English-language debut, the drama starring Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Mia Goth and musician-actor Andre Benjamin is the first attempt at science fiction from the director of such pivotal art house features as Chocolat and Beau Travail.

Denis, 71, spent years developing the story of a crew of convicts sent on a no-return mission to explore a black hole before finally greenlighting the film, which New York-based Andrew Lauren Productions is financing and producing with Alcatraz Films of France, Germany’s Pandora, Britain’s Apocalypse Films and Mandants of Poland.

Taking time out of the High Life shoot, Denis met with THR to discuss astrophysics, her fear of special effects and why Pattinson was the “exact opposite” of whom she originally had in mind to play the lead.

This film is your first attempt at science fiction. What was the appeal of this genre for you?

I’ve always been interested in science, in astrophysics. But I was never obsessed by science fiction, though I read a lot of it when I was an adolescent. But for me, this is less a science-fiction film than a drama, a Claire Denis film, set outside the solar system. The story of the film is about this crew, who are prisoners and are offered the chance to take part in this trip into space, knowing that there is no return. They accept because they think it is better than dying in jail. We meet them when they have already been traveling in space for five years.

And they realize that traveling like that is another kind of jail. It is a new kind of solitude. As they go further and further, the father and his daughter (Pattinson and Jessie Ross) are left more and more alone. For me, the idea was like traveling by boat around the Earth. Anything that makes you meet the unknown is interesting for me.

How do the themes of the film connect to your previous work?

The father-daughter relationship is something I keep coming back to. It is something in my own family. My mother was raised by her father, a widower, and I’ve done variations of this often in my films. Also, the connection to home — what is home? The characters in the film leave Earth knowing they can never go home again. And that’s a feeling I know well, because I grew up in Africa but was never sure where home was, growing up with French parents but a mother who was mostly Brazilian. I was in a space I knew was not my original space. I was not French, not African. But it was my life, I had no other.

What sort of research did you do in writing the script?

I knew nothing more than the average person who reads the newspaper. In the process of writing, a friend of mine said you should meet this astrophysicist who is also a philosopher, Aurelien Barrau. When I met him, I became more aware of the scientific progress in space research, which has been huge in the past 10 years. I studied in his class. I cannot say I really learned much, but I was touched by the beauty of astrophysics. I don’t know if the film will show that, because the beauty in astrophysics is so much in the mind and in the calculations.

What were the hardest scenes to shoot?

For me, it’s anything to do with special effects. I’m not used to that. We tried to do as much of the effects in the camera as we could, because I trust that. It’s hard for me to trust the digital effects when I was told, “You see nothing now, but there will be this and that.”

Did you have any particular actor in mind as you wrote the script?

I had the idea for the story for a long time. I had a few actors in mind, but most strongly Philip Seymour Hoffman. When he died, I had no one else in mind. And in the process of mourning him, I met a few actors, and the only person who touched me, who really was so much the opposite of Philip, was Robert. I was afraid even to meet him. I thought, “He is too far away from my cinema, why does this guy even want to work with me?” And then I met him a few times and realized he is just the sort of actor I love. Because he is like a man with another man inside himself, craving for something. I like actors like that, ones where you always want more but you know there is a secret inside them. ... Robert is like that. All the actors and actresses in the film, Juliette, Mia Goth, Andre Benjamin — they have their own secrets.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Nov. 4 daily issue at the American Film Market.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Mia Goth's character as Pattinson's daughter. Jessie Ross plays Pattinson's daughter in the film.