Adapting Don DeLillo, about Looking at the Dead


How familiar were you with DeLillo’s work? Had you read other texts by him before Baader-Meinhof? If yes, which ones? What do you think about DeLillo’s writing?

I discovered Don DeLillo when I was intern in Beaubourg – Centre Georges Pompidou. Then Johan Grimonprez was commissioned to make a film by the museum, what will become Dial H.I.S.T.O.R.Y and that uses large excerpts of Mao 2.  And so, someone told me about the book and perhaps even offered me it. I don’t really remember. Anyway, I was stuck by this book and I found something I will like in the all works of Don DeLillo: the unique way he interlaces the present/factual situations of his characters and questionings about History/Memory, Politics and Arts. I really like the way he uses the dialogs or the inner voice of the protagonists, that are often jumping from one topic to another but rarely in a straight or clear way but like in echoes, with delay. When I did Looking at the dead, I have read all his books translated in French.


Your documentaries tackle historical issues and politics. As I understand, Looking at the Dead was your first fiction film and it was an adaptation. How was the experience? Did you find it very different from working with the archival material?

In fact, this film was my second fiction film. I already did one short film about a young man looking for a work, Between Dogs and Wolves. This film was later on important for Looking at the Dead. When we asked the rights and the authorization to adapt his short novel to Don DeLillo, he asked to see my previous films. Unfortunately, he first received a DVD including only my short archives documentaries. And then, he gave a negative answer. He didn’t understand with what he saw how I could adapt a narrative novel. But when I understood he didn’t see this first short fiction film, I sent it to him and then he agreed about the adaptation.

Regarding the differences between using archival material and filming, for sure there are differences but, even if I don’t really know how to explain it, it is for me almost the same work. For sure the narrative and filmmaking tools are different, but something in the way to conceive the films and to do them, in the process itself is quite similar. The exercise of looking into preexisting materials and the one of looking in the “real world” are quite similar. Or perhaps I do so in the same way.


Did this film give you the idea for A German Youth (2015) or were you interested in the topic of the Baader-Meinhof group before? Why? What was it that you wanted to explore further in your films?

I started the work on A German Youth far before I did Looking at the Dead, as it took ten years to do the first one. During those long years, i did some shorts films including this particular short. During the researches for A German Youth, I discovered the Richter’s series of paintings. I knew, and like, the work of Richter but not those particular paintings. I did some researches about them and then I found out the novel of Don DeLillo about the exhibition of those works at the MOMA. I was really structed by this novel. The dialogs and the inner voice of the main character were clearly expressing the questions I had myself when I was thinking of my project about the RAF and when I was spending so much time watching all the footages or pictures I get about the group. The main character of the novel spends three all days watching the paintings and trying to express for herself and for the other visitor why she needs to look so closely those paintings, into them. What those images figures and how there were done by Richter create echoes in her. The ways this character is looking and questioning were really closed to my own way to look and question the visual material of the Baader-Meinhof group story. As A German Youth was built without voice over, I could phrase myself into it, I could express what I was looking for by doing the film. But to do Looking at the Dead was a way to express myself, because of this fictional character created by Don DeLillo.


Could you explain a little the location and the filming of the exhibition?

In fact, everything was staged for the film. It was impossible to shoot in New York (and anyway, the MOMA will never have organized a particular exhibition of the real paintings for us). And it was impossible to “rent” the real paintings. So, Gerhard Richter sent us very high-resolution pictures of the painting and we made copies by printing those pictures on white canvas. There were obviously false, but when they were shoot, it was perfect. The place of the shooting itself was in a large stable in the country in France. We simply recreated some kind of museum exhibition room that could vaguely looks like the one of the MOMA.


When adapting the story, what was your main idea? Did you want to do a literal adaptation and be as close as possible to the original (as I think you are, except for some suppression)?

As you guess, I wanted to make the most literal adaptation. I had to do some changes obviously. I did some suppressions; I also included some sentences expressed by the main character in her inner voice into the dialogs she had with the other character.

There is one very important element that convinced me to adapt this novel. An element that I never found in other Don DeLillo’s writings (or perhaps that didn’t appear so clearly for me). Baader-Meinhof  is written almost like a film script. Not exactly a film script but it is mostly written as a succession of cinematographic shoots. For example, if we read the very beginning of the novel: 1) The woman simply tells us about the series of three paintings that is in front of her. Nothing else is described, including the character herself or about where she is; 2) She moved in the room and watch another series of two large paintings that are described; 3) She heard the sound of someone coming into the room and that sat on a bench, but she didn’t turn back and keep focusing on the painting ; 4) She is still looking the two paintings when the visitor started to talk and question her, she answered but don’t turn back from the paintings; 5) She then talked with a visitor about a painting that is on the opposite wall. As she had to turn back to watch this painting, she discovered, with us, the visitor, etc. The novel is written according to what this woman is seeing and hearing, as a film script written with subjective point of view. Moreover, the novel is built as a series of short moment separated with strong time and/or spatial cuts. We simply jump from one time to another, from one place to another, and we always need to read few lines to understand where and when we are and to discovers the changes that occurred in the two characters relationship. As a filmmaker, this very cinematographic construction of the novel really impressed me.


DeLillo’s texts are considered stylized, full of “intriguing, hypnotic” dialogues and confined settings. Such characteristics are generally considered anti-cinematic. What do you think about this idea?

The writings of Don DeLillo are for sure intriguing, hypnotic, abstract sometimes, but it’s for the best as they are always meaningful, and so unique. By chance, no writing could really be “anti-cinematic” as Cinema is composed by an infinity of different kind of filmmaking and genres. Some kind “literature” genre even exists, composed by films like Gertrud by Dryers, the ones by Godard, Duras and many others. This kind of cinema is not mainstream or commercial, but fortunaly what is expected for a commercial movie is not expected for other kind of films.


You thank DeLillo and Richter in the credits. Have they seen the film? Did you get any response from them?

As in the credits, we thank all the people that help to make the films, both of them where obviously thanked even if they didn’t see the film yet.

Don DeLillo wrote me after he saw the film. Here what he wrote: “I’ve looked at the film and I find a number of things to admire, such as the intervals between lines of dialogue, particularly in the opening scene; the contrast between the paintings and the general color tones of the gallery, although the woman’s lipstick seems too vivid a contrast and her wardrobe in general too elaborate for a museum-goer. The monochrome surfaces in the apartment are impressive, and the abrupt transitions between the scenes work well, as does the sparse dialogues.”

I didn’t received feedback from Gerhard Richter about the film itself. But he was really disturbed when I sent him the pictures we took of the destroyed copies of his paintings. Before sending us the pictures of the painting, he asked us to destroy the copy after the shooting and send him pictures of it, and so we did. But he found those pictures really difficult to watch as the copies sound like the originals… After that, I sent him the film but never received feedbacks from him.


Why do you think there are so few adaptations of DeLillo’s novels? Do you think he is a difficult writer to adapt?

For me it’s a mystery as many of his books could be adapt and could give great films. But even before talking about films, I don’t really catch how in one hand he could be considered as one of the most important contemporary writers (all his book are for example translated in French, in hard and paperback editions and findable in almost all the book shops and libraries; each publications are praised by newspapers, etc.) but in other hand, almost no one sounds to really know him or have read his books. If you want to adapt one of his books that will become complicate because commissioners or cinema players don’t really know him and when they know him, they mostly all consider his writing are “anti-cinematic”. I really believe the reason there are so few adaptions of his writings is because it is complicate in terms of production, money-wise, not in terms of filmmaking.


Cristina Garrigós
National University of Distance Education, UNED