The Monk, His Madness, The Silent Film Effect And Influence Of Hitchcock

This weekend sees the UK release of The Monk, Dominik Moll’s stylised horror-melodrama about madness and obsession in a monastery at the time of the inquisition. It’s often creepy, occasionally lurid and, while you shouldn’t expect a flat-out pastiche like The Artist, The Monk is unexpectedly full of love and affection for the style and techniques of early cinema.

I had a chat with the film’s director Dominik Moll, about this film, his love of Hitchcock and his next project, co-written by one of my fellow Oxonians.

Here’s some of what Moll had to tell me.

On the Origins of the Project

I read the novel [by Matthew Lewis] and decided to try and adapt it. I still haven’t seen the two other adaptations. I read a script that Luis Bunuel and Jean Claude Carriere wrote, which is a very different approach, was much more satirical and farcical almost, than my film. But I think this book could be made into ten different films that were all made in their very different ways.

Initially, what attracted me was a formal pleasure. It was so visual and so many images came into my mind, and it was appealing to play with all of the gothic elements, devils and graveyards. As I started to work on the adaptation I felt that I was pulling into a direction that focused on the tragic love story between Ambrosio and Antonia. This almost “greek tragedy” aspect of the story was what I was really attracted to.

On The Cast

I cast Vincent Cassel and Deborah Francois separately, but had to hope that they would work together well. We did readings before the shoot and then I got the impression that they worked together well. It’s against type for Vincent and that’s what I found intriguing about choosing him. It was a challenge, especially because I wasn’t used to seeing him in parts like this. He’s better known for his physical energy, but if he agreed to work in the direction I wanted, which was to restrain all of this energy, so we could feel all of this energy was there, but under the surface, it would work well with the character. The character’s surface is the “religion,” but underneath there are all of these emotions and expulsions.

On The Old Fashioned Film Effects

The iris effects, the double exposures and the monochromatic effects are really traditional. I wanted to use these and not CGI because the story, and the film, is like a “tale” or a fairy tale almost. All of these elements are, for me, to do with the beginning of cinema, silent films, and the magic of those atmospheres. I wanted to go towards the magic of that kind of storytelling. The idea wasn’t to make a film that was entirely like a silent film so, of course, there are more contemporary choices too. The idea was to have a combination of things, with the more traditional effects there to show where this kind of film making came from.

On Staging And Shooting Scenes

There are some scenes where I know exactly where I want the camera, and I tell the actors what to do, where to stand and whatever, but even if I have certain ideas, I do prefer to rehearse first and see if the actors have a different idea and if that will lead to a different shot. I believe in preparing as much as possible but I don’t think it needs to be too rigid, and you need to be able to be flexible.

I usually don’t too much coverage. I know that with digital cameras, which I haven’t experienced yet, it’s become the habit to shoot with two or sometimes three cameras but except when I’m doing a stunt scene or something like the big procession scene, I shoot with one camera. I try to only shoot things that seem necessary and don’t feel the need to cover myself in an exagerated way.

On The Marketing

I was not involved in the marketing. The thing with trailers and promotional reels… they’re always a bit tricky. They have to attract an audience’s attention so they tend to be snappier or sexier or have a very different rhythm from the film. I think what I’m really concerned about is that they don’t give away the story. The trailer in England doesn’t use the music of the film… in France I talk to the distributor, but in other countries, I just trust that the distributor does what they think is best.

Next Year’s Film, And The Ongoing Influence of Hitchcock

I am working on a screenplay with a British screenwriter, Ben Hervey, and it’s a Hitchcockian psychological thriller. If it all goes well I should be able to shoot it next year. About three years ago Ben contacted me because he got some development money from the British film councilĀ  and because he was entitled to have a mentor for the development of his screenplay, and because he was very fond of my films, he contacted me, to find out if I wanted to tutor him.

Hitchcock is my favourite filmmaker, and probably my biggest influence, so I’m quite happy with the comparisons, it’s not a problem when people say these things to me. I think there’s a strong Hitchcock influence in The Monk. For instance, Vertigo was also the story of an obsession of a man for a woman, and it has that dreamlike and non-realistic quality to it.

Thanks again to Dominik for speaking to me. The Monk is in UK cinemas right now, and I’d expect that you too would have some fun with it.