From Metropolis to Jaws, Cinema through the poster
“An image that is not narrative does not tell anything.”
How did you become a film poster specialist?
I started drawing my first posters in 2005, which were not film posters. I inserted retrofuture elements, cities etc. I wanted to rediscover the idea of the year 2000 as seen by our grandparents, tinged with naivety and poetry. When I saw the reactions of those around me, I realized that I had put my finger on something, even if I didn’t know what to do with it yet. I then participated in a group exhibition where an artist I love, Ever Meulen, a light line giant, came to my house to congratulate me. This work was then discovered by a magazine in 2010/2011 and publishers ordered cinema posters from me.
Have you ever been tempted to work on longer stories?
In the 90s I had gone as far as the contract with a major publishing house to produce a comic book, but it didn’t materialize. Today if you want to do this job you have to be either 14 years old and still at home with your parents, a millionaire, or crazy. It’s very poorly paid, there are too many new things, and it’s very difficult to make a place for yourself. I find pleasure in telling a story in one image. Once the image is finished I move on to something else. If the form is different, many things come together. I have just finished colouring the next Blake and Mortimer. I am again director of photography, completing the story with colour.
Your work, by revisiting the masterpieces of American cinema, is part of an American cultural mythology.
The American mentality encourages the regeneration of old licenses rather than letting them die, unlike the European comic strip in which many heroes are disappearing with their last fans. I try to be fair with the films, while at the same time taking the decision to sometimes go in surprising directions, making my own staging. I think that the Americans were first disconcerted by this vision, which I took a little while to impose. However, I believe that it is the artist’s role not to make premature chewing, even if people ask him to. Indeed, we understand by listening to the comments that people most often refer to the original poster.
Understanding the poster
Do you think there is a difficulty in overcoming this original image in the public mind?
I don’t look at the original posters, or maybe after I finish to see if I haven’t approached them too close. Personally, finding the starting idea is the easiest part of my work, even if it is very difficult when the original poster is exceptional. Jaws‘ first poster (1975) is impassable, but it is not impossible to propose another vision, by choosing another angle and moving the gaze slightly. There are also many very large films that had bad posters, like the Hitchcocks except Vertigo (1958). The title is also very important, and sometimes people rush after certain names without ever having seen the film, as is the case for Metropolis (1927).
When you work on a film, its story is already known, and the poster is no longer there to promote it.
My goal is to make people want to see the film again. So I try not to deflate the intrigues by making the posters, and I think that several of my posters could have been the original ones, like the one in Apocalypse Now (1979), which is a new rereading that reveals nothing of the film. Being free, without marketing pressure, leads to better results.
Are you looking for the specific moment that will summarize it?
I am looking for an image that synthesizes the whole film, and I create it if it doesn’t exist. For Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) the image I draw does not exist, it is a map of the Tiffany shop that I took when I went to New York. The result is a montage of several moments that make you want to (re)discover the work. When I succeed in achieving this goal, as in Things to Come (1936), it is a success.
If you don’t look at the original posters, what research do you do beforehand?
I have a strong poster culture that has been at the heart of my business for 25 years. I have many idols but I never “shop” for one or the other. I try to be new and arrive at something that can sometimes be confusing, but that has nothing to do with what has been done before. The main part of the work then consists in documenting the small details of the visual that will be found in the composition. I am thinking, for example, of the work on Vito Corleone’s suitcases for The Godfather: Part II (1974) when he arrives in New York. How did the migrants arrive? What clothes were they wearing? How is a rope tied to a suitcase? It is these details that give an image its veracity.
What restrictions do you face?
Some clauses in contracts sometimes prevent the characters from being drawn. People don’t realize it, but if I often draw people from behind, or their silhouette, it’s because I can’t represent the actors. These are important challenges but they require us to be creative. They push to find ways to illustrate a film that is appreciated with the help of silhouettes and sometimes without any character. This was particularly the case for Die Hard (1988) for which I bypassed this difficulty by representing a broken crystal globe.
What is the right starting sketch?
Once the idea has been found, I quickly put the coloured sketch on the computer. I don’t want to multiply the sketches because it shows that we don’t know what we want and highlights the weakness of the project. This does not mean that I do not make others that I keep to myself, but I do not present them. I also try not to go into too much detail to leave room for the imagination of the person who placed the order. However, some films are so rich that they can be used to make several projects. But in general, we very quickly feel which project is the right one, the one that will suit my techniques and colours, even if sometimes the sketch did not excite anyone, as in Back to the Future (1985), which turned out to be better than the original sketch when I started building the image with neons.
I can’t go wrong with the concepts because knowing that I spend between two and three weeks on an image, you have to be sure from the beginning that it will be effective and fair. Graphic designer Etienne Robial once said: “When you go to the doctor, you don’t make a call for tenders.” I think that’s fair enough, and when I go to my publisher, it’s with a project that I’m ready to defend. In a poster you need a good idea, not several. And I don’t want to counterbalance a bad idea with technique.
Once the concept has been established, what are the next steps?
The colouring of the sketch is a great moment, because after having placed the typography we find ourselves with an embryonic poster that already plays its part. Then comes the documentation and drawing. A black and white line that will determine likeness, perspective, lights and shadows, as for any illustrator. I then work on the composition which is often not optimized on the sketch, but which is decisive for the tension of the image. Then I move on to colouring, already having in mind a vision of what the general atmosphere of the project will be, and use the graphic palette as a director of photography on a set. I imagine the rays and returns of light, and once I like everything, I transform the starting line by filling it with the background color.
I like two moments in this job: the one when I find the idea, and the last line. Between the two it’s a lot of suffering, even if I imagine it’s the same for many artists.
It can be difficult to report on a film while having your own visual signature. Do you distinguish your contribution more in the composition, the choice of the scene represented, or the atmosphere that emerges?
I think that all these elements come into play in the definition of a style, which is nothing more than restriction, things that we do not know how to do and that are counterbalanced by others. In the end there is a way, a technique, a touch of humour and a sensitivity of colours that are identifiable and allow people to say that it is Durieux. In film, this would correspond to the point of view of a good director who would be recognizable by the way he perceives the world.
Another central element is typography. Is it pre-imposed by the atmosphere of the film?
I think about the text from the beginning of the project, but I choose typography with my brother Jack who has a sharp eye on the subject. He makes me proposals, but we often agree on the same ones when we visit the fonts sites. When you look for a typography, you don’t always know what you want, but you know what you don’t want. Typography is very important in my posters and also plays a narrative role.
Many posters today have standard colour codes, each corresponding to a specific type of film.
Some little wonders still come out from time to time. Every time I see an interesting poster, I think of the person who made it possible. Succeeding with a poster is difficult, but succeeding in selling it is even harder. All the great poster designers were killed by this constant desire to level down. One day I attended a conference where it was clear that the young graphic designers present no longer supported these posters, which are all the same. But some distributors think that if a particular colour has proved its worth, it should be duplicated for all films of the same genre.
Your own chromatic range has become more refined over time.
I’m trying to find a range that’s right for the climate of the film. Colour is also a narrative element, and one must be able to explain why a colour corresponds to an atmosphere, or allows a break. Nevertheless, some colours speak to me more than others and I feel that they will work. Moreover, one colour alone does not mean anything, it is its relationship to one or two others that will make the difference.
I don’t play much with the symbolism of colours. For example, Jaws is more interested in breaking with these bright and joyful tones that evoke summer and seek to create a feeling of unease.
Is the choice of print run an integral part of the poster design process?
I design my work so that it is in adequacy with the type of printing, that it belongs to screen printing. I chose to work with wefts and claws because I needed subtleties in values while I was limited in colors. My style also stems from these technical limitations. It is indeed interesting to build an image with a determined number of colors. My favorite artists who use screen printing are those who have understood this medium, and have adapted their graphic vocabulary. Limiting the colors gives strength to the images. So, I consider my silkscreen prints as originals because a whole working method has been built around them.
Telling a story
While your posters are often very narrative, Jaws‘ poster is ultra-conceptual: only a piece of black umbrella recalls the presence of the shark.
I like to tell stories. It comes from my passion for comics. In my first year at La Cambre, my teacher criticized me for trying too hard to tell, explaining to me that a poster had to be read in a few seconds. But I like it when the eye wanders through the poster, and can discover small scenes. If Jaws’ poster does not seem narrative, the characters in the background have their own lives. A little boy builds a sand castle, another one will splash around in the water… Drawing a car with the wheel stuck in the sand is like proposing a story. And these stories are put together to make the image credible. An image that is not narrative does not tell anything. I am very sensitive to what Alfred Hitchcock said about one of the fundamentals of directing being to make the dialogues say one thing and the image say another.
This seems to almost counter the use of posters as an immediate advertising medium.
This is not an advertising poster, but an object that is supposed to be framed in a living room. You can read Jaws‘ poster any way you want, but it’s interesting to be able to look at it both on the surface and in depth. I then slip in easter eggs to offer other readings to those who would take the time to look at it in detail. I remain convinced that most people have not seen the fin, which is the central idea, and appreciate the poster because it recalls Hopper’s work.
Do you have any elements that you particularly like to integrate into your creations?
If there are any, it’s not conscious. I always try to put myself in the director’s shoes and find the element that summarizes the story. I don’t usually think I’ll come up with tics. Among my latest posters, two contain reflections. Noticing that I used the same process a few months apart, I will not repeat it.
Could you come back to your Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence poster?
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence‘s poster (1983) is one of my favorites. The atmosphere of the film is crazy and I think I managed to capture the duality between the two main characters. There is a desire between them, a hidden homosexuality. I also had constraints, not being allowed to represent David Bowie or Ryuichi Sakamoto. The sword allows me here to respect this constraint, while bringing a concept to the image.