Professor Utonium has sugar, spice and everything nice; filmmaker Jean Luc Herbulot has music, culture and video games. In terms of ingredients for our Congolese creative to assemble his latest feature, Saloum, these three are the must-haves. They are how viewers can get in on the action, the adventure and the horror with mercenaries Chaka (Yann Gael), Rafa (Roger Sallah) and Minuit/Midnight (Mentor Ba) the moment they enter Senegal’s expansive Sine-Saloum Delta.

Saloum, one of the six titles in TIFF 2021’s Midnight Madness programme (get tickets to the Sept. 16 premiere here), marks Herbulot’s reunion with French-Cameroonian actor Gael after Sakho & Mangane. The series, currently streaming on Netflix in the US, is also a blend of genres — specifically procedural and fantasy.

JumpCut Online’s Nguyen Le got to chat with Herbulot about the making of the film, how this is also a cultural statement and – surprisingly – a shared love of the Vietnamese martial arts hit Furie.

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I have to ask right away: You mentioned in that your inspirations for the film are Red Dead Redemption II and Predator. How so?

Well, let’s just say that when I was writing the movie, I was playing too much Red Dead. That’s what happened. (laughs)

(laughs)

My wife told me something interesting. There is one scene, if you watch carefully in the movie, [the three main characters] are crawling… or not crawling, but walking around cadavers. And you have Midnight searching in the pockets of people and doing those things. My wife saw that and she was like, “You’re playing too much of the f***ing game! That’s what’s happening to you.” And I said, “Oh sh*t, it’s coming from Red Dead! Searching pockets and all these things!” (laughs)

And if you ask me for the cinematographical inspiration, part of the challenge for me on Saloum was to try to erase all the inspiration that I can add on these kind of movies. Because we want it to have — when I say “we” it’s me and Pamela Diop, my [producing] partner. We wanted to have a unique take or a unique movie. I said to Pamela, “Maybe it’s not gonna be a good movie, maybe it’s gonna be a bad movie, I don’t know, but what we have to be sure about is it has to stand out.” That’s it. That’s the only thing that we have to be sure about. And if the people like it, that’s good. If they don’t like it, at least they will see something different. That was our main goal.

So in talking about the influences, well, part of the game was to try to erase them. Which was way more difficult than what we can think, because the inverse is quite easy — watching movies and seeing things, it’s what we do as directors. We do that a lot, but I tried to I try to avoid that that time. Hope it’s working!

Thank you! And Red Dead Redemption II is splendid. And I lost, what, 80 hours in it and it seems like I’m not playing enough. Speaking of standing out, I noticed that much of the horror and action would happen in bright light or the daytime. How did you decide on that? Were there any challenges?

No! Again, in that game, [the developers were] trying to do things differently. The cliché will be we go into the camp, the night falls, and the night falls, and blah blah blah. Firstly, we don’t have the money for that; you need a lot of lighting, a lot of things. Secondly, [an event] would be so fun if it’s going to be in the bright light. We’re not the first one doing that, obviously, you have Shining and a lot of movies like that, but with the colour of the sand and how the light reflects on it, and all these particularities that you can find in Saloum, which is, in the sun, a desert as water — it became very interesting!

Right!

So we did our job, me with the DP [Gregory Corandi], we spent one week in Saloum, sleeping there, watching the light, the good hours. “OK, is it raining here? Never.” “Oh, a bit here?” “Oh, it’ll be a little sh*tty?” But, obviously, you can’t choose the weather how you want, but we’re studying it. It became pretty obvious that there was a lot of things to show in Saloum. And part of the challenge became, “OK, how do we concentrate that to the most necessary thing?” Because I can tell you what you’re seeing in Saloum is 1/10th of the Saloum. It’s very big! You will have a lot of background landscape. I can make like, 10 movies about the Saloum, if I want, just with the landscape, to be honest! So we chose a lot of places in the Saloum when we stuck to that place, otherwise you can go crazy when you just feel everything that you can.

I’m going to hold you to what you said, that means you have 9 more movies about Saloum to make!

Thank you.

What you said is really interesting, because being from Vietnam where I am, we don’t have a unique environment like Saloum: a desert but with a layer of water over it. It’s mystical, and caters to the story—

Let’s take a minute to talk about what’s happening in Asia! Let’s talk about the Vietnamese genre movies that are coming. I’m seeing more and more on Netflix. There was that movie called Furie. I don’t know if it’s the same title. You know this one, right?

My goodness. It was a hit in my country. It got a lot of love stateside.

So you know what I’m talking about when I’m talking about heroes that you’re not seeing that much? Heroes from your country? I’m not talking about the representation in Western countries, but even in our own countries, there are a lot of things that we don’t see. And I grew up with that, with not seeing not only heroes that look like you, but heroes that are living in the environment that you know.

That’s what I love, for example, in Furie, you can like the movie or not like the movie, *but* — when we see [Asian] culture and all that, it’s always like, “oh so beautiful, oh there are these hats, oh it’s all green,” blah blah blah. In here, it starts with her kicking people, the entire movie, and you’re like, “Yes! YES! Something different!” Saloum is about that, it’s about, “OK, now it’s time for Africa, for Asia, for South America, for your country, to — not to brag — but to inspire with what we have also.”

I think movies, the game about movies about us directors, the generation of directors that are coming it’s always about fueling that there’ll be something new, you know? Everybody has to come up with something new. If it’s just to do something that the others are doing — with less money, less talent, and less everything — there is no interest in doing that. So even if I fail, I prefer failing to do something that looks like me, then something that looks like somebody else, you know? That’s why I’m so glad to be alive in that period of time, and seeing what’s happening in the movies right now. Because in every country that we didn’t know what was happening, now we’re seeing that coming. I hope Saloum can be part of that wave, of new genre movies in the world.

I admire that, how you don’t know what the reception of the film might be, but you have put it and yourself out there. It’s out in the world already. Now, what was the process like blending the genres together?

Actually, it’s easy for me, I don’t know why, but I can just tell you I know exactly how to build rhythm. Maybe probably because I came from music, and there’s my big love of video games because I grew up with video games. And that’s a big part of my life. And I wanted to work in video games before movies! That’s always been my first dream. But I guess all those experiences in drawing and music and video games just brought me the sense of rhythm. So when it comes back to filmmaking, rhythm is everything, especially in comedies, but even in dramas and all that, there is a tempo. Once you know this tempo, once you know how to play with it, you can do whatever genre you want! And that’s where you can mix whatever genre you want that’s gonna work.

It’s like me dancing the tango. And if I’m in the right rhythm, I can go into the waltz. Movie is like that, there is a pulse. If you got the pulse, you can do everything with that — as long as your characters have their arcs, as long as you know what you’re talking about with your characters.

Right.

It’s one of the most difficult thing I found in movies. You can have a great movie, but having great characters? That’s something else, at least for me. The easiest thing for me doing this movie was… the rhythm, mixing the genres and all that, for me it was fun. It was not a difficulty or whatever. But then, to have 10 people at the dinner table and all having their own backgrounds, feelings and making them talk to each other? That, for me, is the difficult part. That’s when the challenge comes. How do you make that interesting? And especially when you start to mix dialogues with silences.

Finally, I thought that there’s a great contrast between the endlessness of the Saloum and the defined points of the story. You start out with narration that said “Revenge can be a river,” suggesting it could evolve, but then I see that the river can flow back to its origins.

I will tell you it’s about that [gesture, large size] and it’s about that [gesture, small size]. Does it make sense when I do that?

Yes!

And most of the time the [small size] is more important than [large size]. “Revenge can be a river” can be something that looks bigger, but at the end it makes us very little. Don’t get me wrong, I love Chaka. I have an immense love for the character, but at the same time, it’s about how sometimes a curse is a curse. And you can’t identify it until you drown.

Again, thank you so much for chatting, Jean Luc!

For more Senegalese cinema, check out this review of Mati Diop’s Atlantics