Léo Bigiaoui’s interest in image making began just to ward off the boredom of rural life. Dabbling in photography from a young age, it wasn’t long before he was creating his own visual art projects. His first was a documentary about the impact of global warming in the Middle East, but he was truly discovered after broadcasting a self-produced short film about the city he’d recently made his home, Paris. The film highlighted the diversity and richness of the city shortly after it had been shaken by terror attacks. A positive, humanistic approach, that steers clear of clichés and has been embraced by the city.
Now represented by Frenzy Paris, Léo’s reel is full of humour as well as an inherent good sense of style.
LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Léo and was bowled over by his enthusiasm for directing, his penchant for collecting vintage cameras and his very, very eclectic taste in music.
LBB> What part of France did you grow up in and what was it like?
LB> I grew up in the countryside, south of Lyon. As a child, I was surrounded by apple trees, sheep and donkeys. It was a peaceful childhood but kinda boring too. So I started experimenting in photography with my stepfather’s film camera. Quite often we would watch his analogue slides that showcased his travels in India in the ‘70s. I still have strong memories of the vivid colours on the screen.
LBB> Do you feel living in Paris has shaped the kind of director you became?
LB> Since I was a teenager, I’ve been dreaming of Paris and its greatness. I’ve lived in Paris since 2015 - I am new to the city! Every day I discover new places, new streets. Paris is in a perpetual transformation, that’s what I love in this city compared to the countryside where everything changes so slowly. So yes, the city has shaped the kind of director I am becoming. I have really started to be a director in Paris. Before that, I was more a MacGyver videomaker, doing all the stuff by myself. Now, I work with teams of people that are much more experienced than me and I love it.
LBB> You were a photographer first and I read that you have an emotional relationship with your camera. What do you love most about it?
LB> Way before I started photography, I've always loved collecting things like old stamps and coins. I am passionate about craftsmanship, objects with a past and multiple owners. Even more so with cameras, because they always are great pieces of engineering but also a tool to write memories, capture people’s emotions. When I buy a used camera I like to imagine its past life, it’s a bit like when i watch an old person in a park. ‘What was his/her life?’
LBB> You have a degree in political science. Why was that an interest and how does that impact your filmmaking career?
LB> I studied political science because I didn’t know what to do after high school. So it was a default choice. First year of study was non-stop partying so I still didn’t know if I liked political science or not. Second year was quieter and I realised I couldn’t focus anymore on stuff I wasn't passionate about. And I was definitely not passionate about geopolitics or constitutional rights!
I finished my studies to please my parents. Even if I was super bored at school, this degree gave me two very interesting things: First, I had plenty of time to start experimenting in photography and then directing. I had my first clients while I was a student, and I started to build my network without any stress. Second, political science essays are an excellent testing ground to write good directors’ treatments! We learnt to have clear, organised and concise thinking.
LBB> I hear you're a great admirer of Maurice Sendak, author of 'Where the Wild Things Are'. What is it about his work that inspires you and who, or what, are your other big inspirations?
LB> Where the Wild Things are is my fetish book and I hardly can explain why. It’s a feeling. I have chills each time I open it. I think it’s the best book to put in a child’s hand to open his or her imagination. The story mixes dream and reality, for example when the child’s room is full of trees and plants.
My inspirations are a big mess of: Gothenburg’s melodic death metal scene, Joel Meyerowitz’s street photography, Marylin Monroe’s ‘Some Like it Hot’ magic, Park Chan-Wook’s poetry and madness.
LBB> How did you get involved with Frenzy and what's it like working with them?
LB> It’s been one year of collaboration with Frenzy! I met CEO Elsa Rakotoson after one of my videos - Paris, on t’aime aussi - was in a creative brief for an Uber campaign. I signed three months later, convinced by Elsa’s limitless energy and Frenzy’s quality of production.
That was a big change for me! Before that I was working with many producers from many different companies; now I have the chance to create strong relationships with my producers, and now they’re good friends of mine. On the very first project I did with Frenzy (a McCain campaign) I had the best technicians I could have wished for, cinematographer Ian Forbes and colorist Mathieu Caplanne. I felt very privileged and grateful.
LBB> You run a podcast, Caméflex. Can you describe it to our non-French-speaking readers?
LB> I started Caméflex in November 2017. I give a voice to the technicians of the cinema industry, authors and directors. Over the course of one hour we discuss their background, workflow, how they see their art. I ask very personal questions, and it’s a great opportunity for me to ask very talented guys about some concerns I have when I shoot my movies. I invited cinematographer Matias Boucard, editor Maxime Pozzi-Garcia (editor for Agnès Varda and JR), Marc Jouveneau (VFX supervisor for Luc Besson’s Valerian) and director Xavier Legrand (Custody).
LBB> What have been the best lessons you've learnt from that experience?
LB> There are so many. I listen to the episodes over and over.
Editor Maxime Pozzi Garcia insists on trusting the magic and coincidence: mixing behind-the-scenes footage with the rushes, breaking the 180° rule, putting random shots on the timeline.
Cinematographer Matias Boucard advised me to go on recce and shoot less pictures and memorize more with my brain to keep a feeling of the spot not technical information. Technical information is for the DOP, the director should preserve his ability to dream.
Make-up artist Agnès Tassel told me that a good make-up artist is a good artist and a good psychologist on set! They should have the ability to relax the actors and listen to them because make-up is the last antechamber before they are ready to shoot.
Director Emmanuelle Bercot advised me to direct the actors without looking at the screen, but looking at them directly. She thinks that the combo breaks the deep relationship between the director and the actors. Very interesting, I’m gonna try it next shoot.
LBB> Your short film 'Blessure' won the Grand Prix and Best Sound awards at the Nikon Film Festival. Can you explain where the idea for that film came from and how it developed into the final piece?
LB> Nikon Film Festival has two rules: the film must be two minutes and 20 seconds, the 2018 theme was ‘the gift’. We decided to do this competition with my best friend Antonin Archer. He had never worked on a movie but he hosts an excellent podcast and writes good stuff. He was interested in writing a scenario so we brainstormed together for some weeks. We were looking for a subversive way of treating the theme ‘the gift’.
One day he came to my flat and told me: ‘What if a man comes on a subway train with a big gift and people start freaking out because they think it’s a bomb?’ He sold me the idea in 10 seconds, it was such a good idea, we wrote the first version of the script in a few hours.
Then we met our stylist for the movie, we told her the story. And it appears that the story we thought we’d invented had happened to her few months ago. So we recorded her testimony and took notes. And we adapted the script depending on her feelings. For example she said: ‘the more I became scared, the more my field-of-view became shorter. I was obsessed by his look, I only saw his eyes.” That became my rule: the more she panics the more I use a long lens. 15 versions of the script later we were ready to shoot.
LBB> What other projects that you've worked on recently are you most proud of?
LB> I have special affection for my personal project ‘Gaspard’. https://www.movidiam.com/portfolio/43006/gaspard-le-petit-homme It’s about an eight-year-old kid who’s passionate about farming. He lives 15 minutes from my parent’s house. We shot the film in two hours. He was so involved in the process; I was very impressed by his professionalism. The editing was so smooth too. I still like watching it because the character is authentic and I tried my best to show his personality as close to reality as possible.
LBB> Do you have any other hobbies or interests outside of what you've mentioned?
LB> I am big music fan from technical death metal to French rap… my Spotify playlist scares most of my friends!
I still do a lot of photography. I recently bought a medium format Rolleiflex 2.8F, a true piece of art. Sometimes I just look at it like it’s a statue haha. I also like flea markets to dig out very old 6x9 negatives from the ‘20s to the ‘50s and scan them. I buy tons of it! Sometimes I find a pile of negatives that belonged to one family and I can see its evolution, children growing, the elders stumbling. It moves me.
LBB> What tips would you give to somebody hoping to break into the directing world?
LB> Two tips:
One: just do it! You have no excuses! Shoot with anything, shoot with an iPhone, do shit, have fun, do it again, play with it, edit it, re-edit it, make your friends laugh or cry with what you do. Love the process, not just the result.
Two: step-by-step, always do better than the last time. At the end, you will achieve good results. Friends will call you to shoot some stuff for them. Then friends of friends. Then people you don’t know. Then small business. Then production companies…