Having made its world premiere at Fantasia Fest, Orchestrator of Storms: The Fantastique World of Jean Rollin is the latest documentary from Dima Ballin and Kat Ellinger. This time their subject is French director, Jean Rollin, and as someone who spent way too long debating whether or not to try one of Rollin’s films, do not make the same mistake I did. Rollin’s specialty was female-led genre movies, and if you love your vampire films a little absurd, very trippy, and incredibly oppoulent, Rollin will not disappoint. Ballin and Ellinger’s documentary won’t either (nor will this interview with Ballin and Ellinger that was carried out over email). [Full disclosure: I’m also a writer for Diabolique Magazine, where Ellinger is Editor-in-Chief and Ballin is Publisher]
Rachel Bellwoar: Having already created documentaries on director, Michael Reeves (Witchfinder General), and various Hammer Horror films, what made you want to tackle French director, Jean Rollin, as your next subject?
Dima Ballin: It was supposed to be a modest featurette. But Kat and Dima being Kat and Dima, it turned into a feature film. We both felt strongly about this. Rollin deserves recognition and deserves to have his story told. Luckily, our producer, Francesco Simeoni felt the same way.
Kat Ellinger: I’ve spent a lot of my career championing the work of Rollin and so when I heard Arrow were going to be streaming a large portion of his work for the Arrow Channel, I went to Francesco and pitched a film to him. Initially it was about contextualizing Rollin’s films because I believe they’ve been deeply misunderstood and unfairly criticized (and I think most fans would agree) but then after speaking to his son Serge, and some of his family and friends, both Dima and I felt we needed to try and get as much of Rollin the man in as we could.
RB: Rollin’s films are often best remembered for their images, more so than their plots. Is there an image from Rollin’s canon that you consider your personal favorite?
DB: Possibly the vampire emerging out of the grandfather clock in Frisson des Vampires, or Françoise Pascal dancing amid the misty gravestones in The Iron Rose.
KE: There are so many images that I love but if I had to pick one it would be when Caroline Cartier’s vampire is being followed through the dark streets by people in animal masks.
RB: On previous collaborations, Kat, you’ve been credited as writer, while, Dima, you’ve been credited as director. With this film, though, you share co-writing and co-directing credits. What made you want to step into these new roles, and did it change how you approached splitting the workload on this project?
DB: I’ll let Kat answer this.
KE: That’s a hard one to answer. I’ve never wanted a director credit in the past but I guess we are a bit of a Powell and Pressburger unit and always have been. We both have a hand in everything. But this time it felt a bit more. I don’t know. I hate credits anyway. They are so restricting to define yourself to a label. I guess I just felt like this would be the one.
RB: So you decide to make a documentary on Jean Rollin. What’s the first step in making that project a reality?
DB: Everything is always haphazard with us. But usually, it starts off with a conversation on what needs to be done. Then we both contact the people we think would be good for the film, then we plan the interview questions…..
KE: Making a pitch for funding, which is usually a brief treatment and argument as to why we need the film. Then when we get into production we usually split the work up 50/50. I will try and do an outline to start, speak to anyone I think might be a good fit to be interviewed, try and get a good idea of what the shape might look like. It always evolves way beyond that but I guess you need to start somewhere. There’s a hell of a lot of unglamorous admin and phone calls though at the start! Lots of word documents and spreadsheets.
RB: Jean Rollin would be plagued by funding issues throughout his career, which sometimes meant having to include more nudity and gore in his films than he might’ve done otherwise. Since many of Rollin’s films were improvised, is it possible to know how much of an impact funding had on his creative decisions?
DB: I believe the lack of funding was integral to his creative vision. When one plans a low-budget film, one is always aware of what’s possible and what’s not, and how to get around what’s not possible to achieve the effect anyway.
KE: I think he was always compromised in many ways when it came to money but he was still fairly savvy in keeping himself as independent as he could. I think most filmmakers struggle with this unless you are given a Heaven’s Gate situation but I guess that’s not a good idea really. That said, he was very in the moment and worked with what he had.
RB: While Rollin did speak English, were there any difficulties, in terms of the language barrier, in being able to access certain sources or reach out to interview subjects?
DB: Yes, that was a constant challenge. Fortunately, we had our “fixer” Jonathan Zaurin who did a lot of the translation work, and also acted as go-between for us with the French speakers.
RB: At Rollin’s grave site, I was sorry to see that his son, Carel Rollin, died so young. Do you know if his other son, Serge, is involved in the film business at all?
KE: No Serge isn’t, although he acts as caretaker for his father’s estate. I had conversations with him about this but he admitted he doesn’t have much interest, which is a shame.
RB: Some of the most moving moments in the documentary are the interviews with Rollin’s friend, Véronique D-Travers. How did you first get in touch with her, and was there any footage that had to be cut for time?
DB: Veronique was great. She runs a Rollin website dedicated to his work. She is an excellent storyteller, but of course, we had to cut for time, as she often went into great detail which would have slowed down the pace of the film. I would love to publish her entire interview somehow, as there is a lot more there.
RB: What do you think is the biggest misconception about Rollin and his films today?
DB: That he exploited women. This is especially true in this very conservative climate of social hysteria we are currently living in. He did not exploit women. It was always a collaboration.
KE: I agree with Dima, there’s a wider conception that fields like Eurocult or exploitation film were intrinsically exploiting when that simply wasn’t the case a lot of the time and it certainly wasn’t the case with Rollin. Women were front and centre of his genre films in ways that just weren’t seen in mainstream films, which is why I think he has many female fans, and also why there is a small but growing army of scholars which have set about asserting counter pro feminist readings of his films.
RB: While Rollin also dabbled in zombies, why do you think he kept returning to the subject of vampires?
DB: He once said that he liked vampires because they are not ugly, unlike other monsters. I imagine vampires lend themselves to mystery, and Rollin loved mystery and the uncanny.
KE: Vampires are romantic and Jean was a deeply romantic filmmaker. He also said he wasn’t very much interested in gore or that kind of horror. He called that type of horror nightmares, and said his films were more like dreams. Vampires are key to fantastique literature, writers like Jean Lorrain for example, who Rollin was heavily influenced by. They can also be mysterious (like Dima said), being not one thing or the other (fully alive or dead). Most importantly though they are erotic and that’s what Jean was most drawn to.
Orchestrator of Storms: The Fantastique World of Jean Rollin recently made its world premiere at Fantasia Film Festival. It will also be screening at Arrow Video FrightFest in August.