Sight and Sound
I have written several articles for the British Film Institute's magazine and the leading publication in the UK for the serious study and appreciation of film. These include an in-depth interview with one of our leading dramatists David Hare , an extensive article based on an interview I conducted in Paris with Oscar winning screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere and an on-set report from the Prague set of French film Paris 36.
The full article about Jean-Claude Carriere follows:
Interviewing the screenwriter of The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), Cyrano De Bergerac (1990) and most of Luis Buñuel’s French oeuvre requires me to find a discreet Parisian archway that leads into a charming tree-shaded courtyard. On one side stands a large white house with a spacious front terrace, in the middle of which stands Carrière, the man who describes film as “the first language successfully invented by man”.
In France Jean-Claude Carrière is known as a leading intellectual who happens to have one of the longest and most distinguished lists of screenwriting credits in the world. Mention him to a French person and they are likely to talk about his book Conversations Sur L’invisible, his exploration of the frontiers of science, or his theatrical partnership with Peter Brook. His TV film La Controverse de Valladolid (1992), a 16th Century courtroom drama, is often cited as an example of the occasional excellence of French television. Where another writer might have been typecast for life as a surrealist following “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (1972) Carrière has been mercurial in the extreme, working with directors as diverse as Jesus Franco and Louis Malle. Today he is as much in demand as ever. He has just returned from Spain where Milos Forman is filming his script for ‘Goya’s Ghost’.
Before I have even asked him a question he starts to talk about The Mahabharata. He adapted this ancient Indian epic for a 1985 stage production directed by Peter Brook and it later emerged as a five and a half hour film in 1989. He has recently been asked to take a stage production back to India and the project is clearly important to him. “An Indian friend said to me: ‘once you have entered the Mahabharata you never escape’ – but” he adds, “it’s a pleasure - a delight.”
As Carrière explains the startling parallels between the story and the war in Iraq I notice that the room we are in is furnished with ancient Indian carvings and I begin to wonder if it will be possible to shift the conversation to his early career – particularly events leading up to his meeting Luis Buñuel in 1963. Biographical information about Carrière is surprisingly scarce but when I ask him what made him a writer in the first place he answers willingly.
“I am a pure product of the system of public education in France”, he begins, adding that he was “born to be a peasant”. His parents could not have afforded to send him to college but at the age of nine and a half he was judged the brightest child in his département and this put him on a path that lead to France’s elite École Normale Supérieure in Saint-Cloud. Here he received the education which, he believes, forms the bedrock of his ability to tell stories well, but he places equal emphasis on the practical skills he acquired. “Some of the teachers really taught me how to work, how, for example to use a library. This saves you a lot of time later. Even now I work much more rapidly than young people”.
To Illustrate he tells me about the research he undertook for the script for Cyrano De Bergerac. Facing the tricky question of how Cyrano escapes each day through the besieging Spanish lines to post his letter to Roxanne, Carrière started looking at agricultural history. He discovered that in the 17th century the wheat was considerably taller than it is today. He contacted France’s Musée d’Histoire Naturelle and it emerged that strains of ancient cereal crops had been preserved. A field was sown in Hungary and several months later - voila! Not only can Cyrano run, unseen, through the towering wheat but also the director, Jean-Paul Rappeneau, had an image for the poster.
After university Carrière, like many Frenchmen of his generation, did his national service in Algeria, the subject of his only autobiographical film - C’était La Guerre (1993). He had, however, already published a novel and two novelizations of Jacques Tati films. Tati had invited writers to submit outlines for Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday and Carrière won the commission by proposing that the story be told from the point-of-view of a minor character in the film. He followed this up with a reverse-adaptation of ‘Mon Oncle”. The novelization may be a debased genre, but it seems an extraordinarily fitting way for a novelist to begin his metamorphosis into screenwriter.
Despite what Carrière describes as Tati’s “paranoia – his persecution mania” they became good friends and Tati instructed his assistant, Pierre Etaix, to let Carrière learn about the film making process. “I was already completely addicted to film. This was the early sixties and everybody wanted to make films, I was a member of the cineclub at university, I didn’t want to do anything else.”
But Carrière’s interest extended beyond mere film fandom and throughout his career he has directed his considerable intellectual powers towards understanding film’s continually evolving grammar. Where other film makers of his generation might have shown a tendency to become nostalgic about the old ways of doing things, Carrière has been far too busy observing the way this new language is constantly shaping and enriching itself. A typical passage in his 1994 book The Secret language of Film analyses the development of the filmed close-up of the human gaze, showing how the actors have been directed to look progressively closer to the camera. Both this analytical approach and his love of sharing his knowledge eventually lead to his directorship of FEMIS, France’s most prestigious film school, and nowadays he gives lectures and screenwriting seminars all over the world.
On his return from Algeria Carrière teamed up with Pierre Etaix and a producer gave them the opportunity to make two short films. The second, “Heureux Anniversaire” (1962), won the Oscar for best short. “When the producer told us we had won the Oscar we asked ‘What is an Oscar’?” A first feature “Le Soupirant” (also dated 1962), followed. It was a remake of a Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances (1925) and it won the attention of Luis Buñuel.
“The very first edition of La Révolution Surréaliste had included an article about Buster Keaton and American slapstick – which was very close to the surrealistic state of mind”. Buñuel had also admired a documentary that Carrière had written about the sexual life of animals but when they met in Cannes Carrière was far from being a shoe-in for the job of writing Buñuel’s next feature.“ Buñuel met four or five other writers, but I knew he was looking to adapt ‘The Diary of a Chambermaid’ so I had already done the preparation and we had a long talk about it. A week later the producer called me and said, ‘you are going to Spain tomorrow’. That was the beginning of my wandering around the world.”
From then on Buñuel employed Carrière to write all his French films in a partnership that lasted 19 years. Their final collaboration, on Buñuel’s book of memoirs (My Last Sigh, 1982), provides a telling anecdote that speaks volumes about Carrière’s quiet determination and adaptability.
“He (Buñuel) couldn’t work any more – he was seventy nine – eighty. I proposed to him that we write a book about him but he said ‘no’. So to convince him I wrote, by myself, one of the chapters as if I was Buñuel. And he read it and he said to me ‘I think I wrote it!’ And I said ‘well in a way you did’ because from talking with him so much I knew his character and his history. So then we sat down and started to work exactly as if it were a script. Working together in the morning, talking - with me alone in the afternoon; writing.”
Carrière is clearly proud of his achievements and he doesn’t clutter up his conversation with false modesty, but in his working life it is perhaps his ability to set aside his own ego and enter the mind-set of a highly idiosyncratic creative personality that has drawn so many of the worlds finest directors to him over the years. When I ask about his lack of professional egoism he describes it as being simply a matter of “personal character” but he admits to learning about the need for a writer to be flexible early on. “I was asked to adapt Robinson Crusoe for television and in one of the very first meetings the producer said to me; ‘don’t you think Crusoe is a little bit too much alone?’ So after that I was ready for anything!” The irony is that his openness has lead not to his being pushed around and forced to work on rubbish – but instead to producing a body of work that is consistently of the highest quality. Glancing through his credits a pattern emerges that cannot but speak in his favour; if a director you have heard of has teamed up with Carrière once – you can be sure he came back for more.
The success of the films themselves obviously plays a significant part in this but clearly the atmosphere of mutual respect and amicability is important. There is a sense also that Carrière enters each new project with the attitude that he is going to learn something and might even be changed by it – rather than with a set of fixed ideas. What is without doubt is that he always brings his remarkably robust imagination. Whether you are telling the story of a woman falling in love with a chimpanzee as in Max Mon Amour (1986), or a bunch of petty criminals on the make in post war France (Le Gang, 1977), Carrière will enter the situation with unbridled enthusiasm. “The imagination is a seamless capacity of the mind”” he says “but it is also a sort of muscle.”
It was Buñuel who introduced to him the idea of giving this muscle a workout. After their days work on a script they would both withdraw to their rooms to create a story. “Then we would meet at the cocktail hour to tell them to each other. After a long day I was often tired and would have preferred to watch TV!” Even now he makes an effort to stretch his imagination, seeking out the “vicious and the criminal” within himself.
Interestingly enough Carrière does not share that great obsession of all screenwriting gurus – story structure. “They are teachers, not writers” he says – then diplomatically adds; “I have lunch with Sid Field (the American screenwriting teacher) whenever he comes to Paris. I have absolutely no disdain for these teachers. I agree with Kant that you must know the laws if you want to break them, but I had a classical education. I learned storytelling from Shakespeare, Racine, Seneca.. also – when you are working with the kind of directors I work with, you know you are not going to respect conventional ways of storytelling”.
At this point in our conversation a beautiful dark-eyed little girl totters into the room and clambers onto Carrière’s lap. This is his two-and-a-half year old daughter, Kiara, by his Iranian-born wife. He has another daughter by a previous marriage and is also a grandfather. Carrière’s deep voice seems to hypnotise Kiara and she quickly falls asleep.
If he has a bugbear it is the unfairness of the American dominance of cinema distribution in Europe – what he calls, “the free fox in the free henhouse”. In his opinion European integration has made the situation worse because American distributors no longer have to deal with countries individually. But today, rather than focus on the adverse effects this has on Europe, he chooses to pity the Americans who, he says, only get to watch American films; “What I call the solitude of American culture”.
Carrière has worked, occasionally, for American studios but when I ask what kind of practical differences he encountered he replies, “Certainly I signed a different kind of contract but the American films I worked for were not really American. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) for instance, takes place in Europe, Phil Kauffman (the director) is a friend of mine.”
Mentioning this film triggers Carrière to talk about a year with which he is perhaps identified more than any other screenwriter. In 1968 he had just finished writing The Milky Way for Buñuel and was working on the script for Taking Off (1971), Milos Forman’s essay on the American hippy movement. They researched the script in New York then proceeded to Paris to do the writing - just as the May riots were coming to the boil. Still regularly meeting Buñuel, Carrière had a unique perspective on events. “Buñuel was coming from Fascist Spain and Milos from Communist Czechoslovakia, and they could not understand, at all, what the students wanted.” But Carrére supported the students and still does; “we gained so much. It was the beginning of women’s liberation, homosexual rights, the ecology movement – everything was being born”. Certainly the events of ’68 are a subject he is qualified to speak on. As well as living through them he has written a diverse trilogy of films specifically set in that year – The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Taking Off (1971), and Milou in May (1990), as well as a novel (The Years of Utopia).
Talking to Carrière I am aware that I am in the presence of a man for whom life has been a remarkably stimulating adventure. Driven by a consuming curiosity and a willingness to learn and change, he has become the epitome of the successful European screenwriter. He has been courteous and willing to talk about the past while his enthusiasm for the things he is working on now has proved to be irrepressible. He tells me that he hates to repeat himself and recently turned down an offer to adapt another Indian epic, the Ramayana. Instead he has chosen to enter the world of opera. “I noticed that in opera there are long scenes of dialogue which are not sung. They are always boring and very bad, and badly acted.” He had the idea of writing, instead, a short text that would be read out by a professional actor (Carole Bouquet recently performed this role at Paris’s Théâtre du Chatelet). “Maybe it’s a new form” he says “and that really interests me”.
Kiara is stirring awake and we have started to bite into time set aside for another meeting. It is time to bring the interview to a close. Finally he tells me a charming story with a winning mixture of irony and regret. He has retained what he calls his “native home” in the rural Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France, where he likes to keep in touch with his peasant roots. He recently invited over a neighbour of his own age who has never left the region, to show him a dry stone wall Carrière had built with his own hands (a craft he has taken to with characteristic vigour). The neighbour assessed his handiwork and finally announced: “You have not lost everything”. Even this idea – the idea that Jean-Claude Carrière should never have left the family farm – is one that he is open to.
Interview with Sir David Hare for Sight and Sound