The world's first media interview, shot in Paris in August 1886, finally comes to life as a film. The great photographer Nadar interviews the famous scientist and sceptic Chevreul on his 100th birthday. In their own words – originally recorded in shorthand – they discuss photography, colour theory, Moliere and Pasteur, the scientific method, the crazy ideas of balloonists, and – of course – how to live for 100 years. Here is a lively and interesting conversation between two legends of the nineteenth century: one born before the French revolution; the other destined to see the marvels of the aeroplane and the movies. Narrated by Agnès Varda.
The First Interview opens with the original glass plate negatives from Nadar's studio, first showing Chevreul, then Nadar. This sets the scene for what is to follow in Agnès Varda's narration: an account of the lives of these great figures of the nineteenth century, using photographs taken by Nadar and his son Paul.
First we learn about the career of Nadar: once an artist and a radical, a former bohemian with a love of both balloons and photography. We fly with Nadar and his camera in a balloon over Paris, ending with his friend Daumier's drawing of Nadar 'raising photography to the level of art'. Nadar is most famous for his psychologically acute portraits of celebrities who were often his friends – amongst them Daumier, Delacroix, Rossini, Dumas, Sarah Bernhardt, Victor Hugo alive and on his death-bed ... and finally Chevreul.
Photography allows us to meet the gaze of a man born in 1786 – before the French revolution; a man who was famous in many fields of science, as well as for his scepticism. Nadar uses available technology – photography and stenography – to record the conversation with Chevreul. Both images and text were published in Le Journal illustré (Paris) a few days later.
Now the interview comes to life. At first it is out-of-focus and unsteady, but it soon stabilises into a sound film: an 'impossible movie' from the dawn of cinema. The sound is crackly and the photographic images are scratched and damaged ... The conversation between Nadar and Chevreul is lively and covers many topics, from photography to colour theory, Moliere and Pasteur, the scientific method, the crazy ideas of balloonists, and – of course – how to live for 100 years. The interview ends on a humorous note: Chevreul proposes that those pesky balloonists show their skills by flying him home from his laboratory; they will save him from having to walk up two flights of stairs!
After the 'movie', the account of the two men's lives resumes. Chevreul lived for several more years. He established gerontology (the study of human ageing) and saw the Eiffel Tower completed, just before he died in 1889. Nadar lived on into the twentieth century, and sent a telegram to congratulate Bleriot when the famous aviator crossed the English channel in 1909. Nadar died in 1910.
Making The First Interview
For such a short film, The First Interview is a complicated mix of digital and prosthetic/make-up effects, built around the re-staged interview. Immediately following The First Interview, the 'making of' shows, in chronological order, just how complicated a production it is.
First we go to Paris and some of the places Nadar and Chevreul once knew. At the archives at Fort de Saint-Cyr, we see the Nadar glass plate negatives as they emerge from their envelopes, and we meet the people who are responsible for them. This is only the first stage in a long process of selection and filming which will use the images in many different ways.
Because of the importance of authentic French language in The First Interview, Paris is also the location for our voice recording. At her office in the aptly-named 'rue Dageurre', we meet the Frenc