So you've reinvented dance music, packed out stadiums and won over hip hop royalty. What next for Daft Punk? Umm, an art-house flick about melting robots, finds Alex Rayner
Saturday July 14, 2007
You can only imagine the confused faces in the boardroom when the pitch came in. Two French disco producers want to make a film about robots driving through south-west America, on a mission to have their heads transformed into human ones with liquid latex. The proposed feature is 70 minutes long, has no talking and, although neither have any experience in cinematography, the disco producers want to shoot and direct it themselves. Transformers, this ain't. Add to this the fact that they're not employing many proper actors and plan to sneak in a close-up of a young lady's pudenda into the final cut. And that the soundtrack will feature none of their own, popular music, but, instead, suicidal folk, a baroque liturgy, as well as such radio-friendly hit makers as Franz Joseph Haydn. Oh, and they want a helicopter, some explosives, a black Ferrari and a pair of leather jumpsuits made by the world's most sought after clothes designer. Drafting the cheque already, fantasy film financiers? Well, it's a good thing that Daft Punk don't need your cash.
"We expected it to be less popular than Discovery, of course" concedes Thomas Bangalter, the more talkative one, comparing the pair's cinematic debut, Electroma, to their multi-million selling 2001 album; "the film is experimental and inaccessible; however, it's a movie that does not require your brain to function."
Bangalter and his production partner and co-director, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, are seated in a smart west London hotel suite, having recently returned from their soundcheck for the Wireless festival. Known for their wariness of the press, the duo are recording our interview on minidisc.
To avoid any misunderstanding Thomas is explaining their intentions in considered sentences. There follows much discussion of Magritte, dot-to-dot books, and the subjectivity of musical appreciation; all of which sounds like, not so much cinematic nonsense on stilts as Gallic bullshit on a quad-bike.
"It is a film without dialogue, almost without actors," Bangalter says, "does it fit into the blockbuster film industry or the pop charts?" before answering, haughtily: "it does not."
This would all be rather embarrassing were Electroma not a gem. Daft Punk's widescreen debut is a beautiful, sun-blushed nugget of cinema. From the clunk-click of the 1987 Ferrari 412's doors at the start to the burning figure at its end, Electroma urges viewers to hit the "off" switch on their higher faculties, and float down a sweet stretch of 20th century celluloid, recalling the science fiction of THX 1138, through the Cali rock mythology of Zabriskie Point, via Gus Van Sant's Death Trilogy, the androids of Westworld, the nudes of Edward Weston and Brian De Palma's camp rock horror excursions.
As a multiplex option, Electroma is unlikely to appeal to all the ravers who cheered along in Hyde Park this summer. Yet, rather than an embarrassing stab at vanity cinema, the film could seal Daft Punk's reputation as art-house playboys. Unlike the Sex Pistol's Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle, the Monkees' Head or U2's Rattle and Hum, Electroma may be their first film of many.
Hundreds of bands may tout cinematic references, yet few have them as hard-wired as Daft Punk. Guy-Man and Thomas met two decades ago this year, at the perfect cinema-going ages of 13 and 12. They spent much of those early days in the flea-pits of the Latin Quarter in Paris. Bangalter says the first movie they saw together was The Lost Boys.
"We went to the cinema on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, when there's no school in France," he explains, "We watched a lot of classic films, from Charlie Chaplin to Fellini."
The one movie which they saw together more than 20 times was Phantom Of The Paradise, Brian De Palma's 1974 rock musical, based loosely around Phantom of the Opera (both this and Electroma feature "a hero with a black leather outfit and a helmet").
A love of smart movies and movie-makers remained. Daft Punk began working with Spike Jonze on their first video, when they were barely in their 20s. Michel Gondry directed the second, while Roman Coppola (Sofia's brother, Francis' son) shot the final promo from their debut LP. To accompany the singles from their second CD, Thomas and Guy-Man commissioned their own cartoon sci-fi feature, in conjunction with Japanese anime legend, Leiji Matsumoto.
These contacts stayed in the robots' Rolodex. Bangalter lives in LA with his actress girlfriend, Elodie Bouchez, star of one of Roman's features, and perhaps the model for Electroma's brief nude shot, sneaked in among a sand dune sequence. It was Jonze who put Daft Punk in touch with Electroma's special effects maverick, Tony Gardiner.
"Tony worked on Michael Jackson's Thriller video, when he was 17," explains Bangalter, "he turned Gwyneth Paltrow into a very fat woman for Shallow Hal." Although the duo's Parisian friends, Alex and Martin, first made the robot outfits, Bangalter says that on Electroma, "Tony brought them to life."
The film's producer, Paul Hahn, was a close associate of Gondry's, before co-founding DP's production company, Daft Arts. Hahn was tasked with finding two Thomas and Guy-Man sized actors to fill the lead roles. After considering a number of hunky Hollywood types - much to Guy-Man and Thomas' amusement - Paul eventually cast Peter Hurteau and Michael Reich, two production assistants who had worked on other Daft Arts projects. Hahn describes the process as a "Cinderella story". "The leather outfits and robot masks were tailored to Guy-Man and Thomas's physiques," Paul explains, referring to the biker-style leathers, designed by Hedi Slimane, former chief-designer at Dior Homme, for the duo in 2004; "it was a case of finding someone to fit into their bodies."
A number of additional helmets were produced for the extras. How many, is hard to say. The net figure is somewhere around 40.
Beyond these, few props were made solely for Electroma. Even the high-tech facility, where the robots have their faces slapped on, has appeared in another film.
"There's a big prize for the person who can name that movie," Bangalter jokes.
Electroma contains no use of CGI, and Thomas shot the movie himself, on 35mm Kodak stock. As this was his first experience of lensing a motion picture, Bangalter prepared by buying and reading more than 200 old copies of American Cinematographer magazine. The resultant shots are surprisingly accomplished. Just as Daft Punk are meticulous in music production, so they are equally obsessive in their film work.
Thomas: "I don't know if it's obsessive."
Well, you are perfectionists...
Thomas: "Perfection is also something that doesn't exist."
Erm, do you work hard?
Guy-Manuel: "We work hard."
Thomas: "We pay attention to every detail."
Rather than being distributed nationally, the film now plays every Saturday night at the witching hour, in an old Parisian cinema in the same movie-going district as they used to frequent.
"You have people there every Saturday," says Bangalter, rather proudly.
Daft Punk may sell-out stadiums and kick it with Kanye, but they seem happier pleasing a few Parisian film geeks.
Bangalter: "It's unexpected, doing underground art next to a Kanye West single. It's funny to be able to stretch and still not feel like you're a sell out - to be able to express yourself with integrity."
Having already hit the big time, it seems that Daft Punk's hardest task now is to avoid success, and damn the cost.
· Electroma is on at selected cinemas across the UK (see electroma.org), DVD out Sep 3
Pop screen: five more cult rock flicks
200 Motels (1971)
Bonkers Frank Zappa-fronted hippy flick that resembles Tiswas for acid casualties. Plus, Keith Moon as a nun!
Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1981)
Take lower league brat packers, Diane Lane and Laura Dern, cast them in a fictitious punk band, then draft in half the Sex Pistols, Paul Simonon and Ray Winstone. Grindhouse gold.
Phantom Of The Paradise (1974)
Brian De Palma's glitzy rock musical reworked chunks of Faust and Phantom Of The Opera.
Pitched somewhere between Hard Days Night and 1984, Privilege predicts the corporate takeover of rock'n'roll and stars Paul Jones of Manfred Mann.
Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978)
The Bee Gees "interpret" Beatles classics for this rock opera. Badness.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007