The Storytellers — Interview with Jean-Claude Carriéré
Interviewed at his home in Paris October 26, 1999
Jean-Claude Carrière is probably the best known of the six writers in The Storytellers series. His working relationship with Luis Buñuel produced six film classics and he went on to write The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Valmont, Cyrano de Bergerac, The Tin Drum and many other films, over 75 in all.
Not content with merely writing, Carrière has been the rector of the French film school, written books on film and screenwriting and hosted a debate programme on French television.
He is the thinking man’s screenwriter, well known for his philosophising over not only the screenplay but film in general. His relationship with Buñuel figures prominently in his interview. Indeed, the collaboration between the two men, which began over a common love of wine, developed into one of the most prolific in European film history.
Well versed and well spoken, Carrière is an old hand at interviews and is the source of countless nuggets of wisdom and anecdotes.
MCA: It could interesting to hear from you how you got started in the film industry as a screenwriter.
JCC: Well, I started as a novelist, as so many did back then. I wrote a novel at 23 and my publisher had a contract with Jacques Tati, the French film director, to publish novels based on his films. I took part in a contest, with two or three other novelists, where we had to write a chapter, like an essay, as a trial. Tati chose my chapter. He was very famous at the time and when I visited him in his production office near the Champs d’ Elysee, I was very young — 24 and still a student — but we got on quite well. I wrote two short stories: one from Mr. Hulot’s Holiday and one from My Uncle.
Through my contact with Jacques Tati, I met many other people. One of them was Pierre Etaix, who was Tati’s assistant and Etaix and I started writing short films. But four or five years went by as I had to do my military service — there was a war in Algeria — and when I returned I was almost 30. By chance we met a producer who wanted to do some short films. We did two of them in ’61 with both of us co-writing and co-directing. So, I started as a novelist and as a director.
The second of these shorts, Heureux Anniversaire, won the Academy Award in Hollywood. We didn’t even know what it was. The producer told us we got the Oscar and we said, “what’s the Oscar?” After that he gave us the opportunity to write and direct a feature film. This film, called The Suitor won the Prix de Luc in France. It was very successful. However, I had already chosen not to be co-director and to be solely the screenwriter because I had some other possibilities to write books and perhaps work in the theatre. I didn’t want to commit myself totally to film direction. Once you have succeeded in becoming a film director you can’t do anything else. You are a sort of prisoner in a — hopefully — golden cage. Not always, you know.
When you are a screenwriter, you are just a screenwriter — even if you collaborate with the director — but you can keep publishing books; novels, essays and become a playwright. Which I did a few years later and have since been working with Peter Brook (the English theatre director) for 24 years as well as writing several other plays.
So that was a sort of crossroads, at the very beginning of my career. When people ask me why I’m not a film director, that is my answer. Also, I believe I am less gifted as a film director than as a screenwriter — which doesn’t mean I believe I’m gifted as a screenwriter — but to be a director you have to have what we call in French an “idée fixe”. A sort of obsession to think every day and every hour of every day about the film you are going to make. For two, three, four years. To get obsessed about what you are preparing.
I’m not that type. I’m very much disposed. I often go from one project to another and sometimes I work on two different things simultaneously. And that is absolutely bad for a director. I didn’t know that at the beginning. I am speaking in retrospect now that I know a bit about what my life has been like. When you’re 25 or 30 it is impossible to say what your life will be like. It is much easier to talk about it when you are 68. But I can see clearly now that I probably made the right decision.
MCA: Interesting that you came into film from a literary background. Where did you go from there?
JCC: Immediately after The Suitor, by Etaix, I met Luis Buñuel. That was in ’63. He was looking for a French co-writer as he was going to direct a film in French. That was Diary of a Chambermaid, based on the French novel and to be shot in France. He met with three or four “young” screenwriters and he, again, chose me like Jacques Tati had done.
Buñuel chose me only after eating lunch together and getting me to talk about the possible adaptation of the book. So, I went to Spain to work with one of the greatest directors of the era, a man whom I deeply admired. I was very impressed at the beginning. That started a collaboration which last for almost 20 years. We wrote nine scripts together, six of which became Buñuel’s films and we even wrote a book, My Last Breath or My Last Sigh, depending on whether you are American or English.
So that was about it. I went on to write for many other directors but the first two were Pierre Etaix and Buñuel. Buñuel was extremely faithful to me. I had no reason to refuse but he constantly came to me to work with him again.
MCA: Your relationship with Buñuel is well documented. While it is clear what the collaboration gave to you, what do you think you gave to Buñuel? How did your influence affect him and his filmmaking?
JCC: That I cannot answer — apart from on one point. Without me and without Serge Silberman, the producer, perhaps Buñuel would not have made so many films after he was 65. We really encouraged him to work. That’s for sure. Now about what we did together, the quality or no quality of our work, I don’t know. But it was a very close relationship. We were always alone in some remote place, often in Mexico or Spain, talking French and Spanish, without friends, without women, without wives. Absolutely no one around. Just the two of us. Eating together, working together, drinking together to get absolutely obsessed about the script we were working on. I calculated that we ate together, just the two of us, more than 2000 times. Which is much more than many couples can say.
So it was a very close relationship and nobody can say that one gave an idea to the other. There are only a few things I could mention. At the very beginning, and this goes for many screenwriters who work with a master, I was so thrilled, so happy, so impressed that I was ready to love any idea from Buñuel. Whenever he told me something I always said, “it’s wonderful, let’s do it!”. Always killing my own critical instinct and restraining from suggesting my own ideas about the adaptation.
After two or three weeks, Serge Silberman came down from Paris to Madrid where we were working. He invited me out to dinner, without Buñuel, which was rather unusual. We always ate together, the three of us. So, after a long dinner and talking about French politics or whatever, he told me something. He said, “Luis is very happy with you. You work a lot and are a hard worker. But… you must say ‘no’ to him from time to time”.
I found out later that Buñuel had asked Silberman to come down from Paris to tell me this one thing. That I had to oppose him. If not, my contribution was only 50% of what it could be. In that type of collaboration, when two people work so closely together on a common work, it is absolutely necessary that one is not the slave of the other — based on fame, age, power. No, you must try to be equal. Which is quite difficult.
So, from then on, I tried from time to time to say no. To oppose. To say, “Luis, I don’t like this idea”. At times, Buñuel was a bit irritated but generally he was happy about it. During the writing of the second film, Belle du Jour, we almost reached a real sense of collaboration.
There was another type of collaboration with Buñuel. Buñuel had a type of surreal, I would say, tendency, or inclination and I did as well. We were never rational. When he made An Andalusian Dog, his first film with Salvador Dali they had one rule. The rule was that when one of them proposed an idea the other had three seconds, no more, to say yes or no. They didn’t want the brain to intervene. They wanted an instinctive reaction coming, hopefully, from their subconscious.
We used this process often although it was not easy. When you propose something you always want to explain your reasons for why you proposed this or that. And that must be — you know — put aside. It is a very difficult way of working. It requires a very alert mind to constantly be creative and invent and find new things to propose — all without becoming exhausted. Gradually, step by step you discover, and I’m quoting Buñuel here, that the human imagination is a muscle that can be trained and developed like memory. It is one of the faculties of the brain that knows no limits. If I learned one thing from Buñuel, that would be it.
Working with Tati and Etaix I had learned how to observe the reality around us. Watching people, which really is a difficult task, and how to listen. In the streets, in the bars, in the cafés, on the metro. All my life, every day, I go to cafés and ride the metro — watching, listening and taking notes. I draw sketches of what reality gives me to nourish me. Of course that kind of reality has to be developed, transformed, elaborated on. I would say 60% of my work with Tati and Etaix was doing just that — sitting at cafés observing people, contemplating, trying to find a story for every passer-by and every couple. To listen to phrases and conversations, to take note of gestures, to record things that reveal something about the characters.
Buñuel was also a great observer but he taught me how to use the imagination within first. How to look deep down inside ourselves. In any given situation and to take it as far as possible.
The key word would be exploration. To explore all the different possibilities.
MCA: You wrote about the Vanishing Screenplay in your book, The Secret Language of Film. There is one thing I have been wondering about in doing these interviews. You are possibly the most well known screenwriter in this book but by and large the screenwriter, especially in Europe, is an invisible species. How do you feel about the anonymous role of the screenwriter in the film process?
JCC: There is a certain paradox about the role of the screenwriter. He has to work as hard as possible, to give everything he has, only to build up someone else’s work. He has to know that from the very beginning. He is a collaborater. He is not working on his own film but on a common work. The master, most of the time, is the director. Sometimes the actor — the star — but very rarely the screenwriter. He must know that. If he cannot accept that it is best that he chooses not to be a screenwriter. Except if he writes for television, which is often different.
Once I was in Venice with Peter Fleischmann, a German director, with a film. There were 300 people in the cinema to hear us speak. Peter asked them, “You are all involved in the film industry in one way or another. Who can name the director of Dallas?” Nobody could. So, in some cases, the name of the director is just as anonymous as the name of the screenwriter. The star is the series itself. Or the characters, or the actors. In television, the role of the screenwriter is the same as that of the director. We don’t know, at least in France, the stars among the TV directors.
The fame of the film director was really established in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. But since the 80’s, the great masters — Stanley Kubrick is the most recent one to have disappeared — have all gone. Now, if you consider the active film industries in France, England, Denmark or many European countries, the director has become much more anonymous than he used to be in the past. This is dangerous in a way because the film risks lacking a real personality.
My way, and I don’t recommend this to everybody, has been to work closely with the director. Even if the director tells me that he is not a writer, an author, I need him to be there in front of me when I tell him what I want to do or read some of the scenes for him. When I worked with Buñuel, Pierre Etaix, Milos Forman, Louis Malle, Volker Schlöndorff, the director was a co-writer. If the director is not a co-writer, I still need him to be around. I need to go to him, to talk with him, to look at research material with him, to talk about the film.
My opinion is that the work of the screenwriter is the beginning of the film adventure. It is not the end of a literary adventure. On the contrary. The screenwriter is a filmmaker. He doesn’t work on a written process. The written word is very temporary. It is going to vanish and disappear and been thrown away at the end of the shooting. He is working on a film so he had better work with the one who is making the film. In order to reach the point where they are working on the same film. That is the key phrase. Sometimes, after two or three weeks I have realised that we are working on two different films. That we see the film in two completely different ways. That is tragic. That will end in failure.
We must get as close as possible as soon as possible — and for as long as possible. There are many ways to do it. You can make drawings. For instance, you are sitting there in front of me right now. Imagine you are the director and I am the screenwriter. Your left side is my right side. And your right is my left. Already, we are not in the same film space. If I say to you, “the mother enters on the right side”, your right and mine are different. So together we have to reach a third space — the film’s space — and move constantly around, not in your space or in mine, but in the third space. We have to check it all the time that we see the same image all the time. That is absolutely vital.
In order to reach that invented third space you need to make drawings. I drew hundreds of scenes for Buñuel. It was really a necessity. At night, when I was alone, I would draw some quick sketches of the scenes we had been working on that day. The next day I would ask Buñuel, without showing him the sketches, for example, “in the scene with the paratroopers”, from the Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, “from which side do they enter?” If he said, “from the right”, I would look at my sketch and if we had both pictured the right side, I knew we were in the same space, the same film. The same applies for the sound and for the tone of the dialogue — which is easier because we are already beginning to act it out and improvise. It works sometimes with the rhythm of the film, which is also very important to establish. If one of the two is working on a fast-paced film and the other on a slow one — tragic. Failure. Disaster.
All these points are important in establishing the conditions for a good collaboration. The most difficult point is not to try to force your status on the other. To dictate your power. To win. To gain something. Not at all. However, it is difficult not to fall into that trap. It is human to say, “I want to be right”. And to be right I am willing to say absurd things. Idiotic things in order to impose my point of view.
In a long-term collaboration, like with Buñuel or Peter Brooke, the three-second rule is a very good exercise. Excellent. It reveals a lot of things about yourself.
MCA: You wrote in The Secret Language of Film that there has never been enough screenwriters. However, nowadays, more and more people are saying that they want to write for films as opposed to directing. What can these people do to become screenwriters. Where is the inspiration for writing for film?
JCC: Writing for films requires a know-how, a technical knowledge. You have to know how a film gets made. If you don’t, there is no point in writing. I have never, in my whole life, seen a script written by an amateur, regardless of their talent, become a film. Never. It’s never happened. You know, the unsolicited scripts you receive in the post. It’s never happened. I’ve never seen one example. The only way to become a professional screenwriter is to get onto a team. To get into contact with a group of people who make films, preferably of the same generation at the beginning. Like I did with Pierre Etaix and like all the people I have known have done. Become a part of a group and start from there. Not a writer who delivers a script to a bunch of technicians. That is fatal. That is a lethal literary attitude.
The best way to become a screenwriter is to participate humbly in the making of a film. To sit there and see how the camera is being used, how the lights are arranged. To sit there and see how a script, not your own script — somebody else’s, is being transformed during the magical process of shooting. The transfer from paper to film. That is absolutely essential. You have to know that what you write is not written to be published. It is written to be forgotten and to be transformed into something else. Into another kind of matter. Absolutely essential. That is the best way.
Then, of course, it is necessary to have ideas. The work of a screenwriter is not only to write a film and to know all about the technical side of things: the sound, the images, the editing. His work, his function, is to look for new ideas. That is very important. To be able to offer a bouquet of different ideas. Not only one. A novelist is very often a man or woman who has written one book. A very personal tale which they offer to a publisher. If the publisher says no, they take it to another publisher. That is not the case with the screenwriter. I’m speaking from my own experience and not trying to generalise. There may be exceptions.
But to me the role of the screenwriter is a double one. To look for ideas — by reading the papers, listening to things you hear in the street, having an idea form in your imagination — and to write it down in two or three pages, no more, so as not to forget it. That should be a part of your everyday life. That is your function in society; to look for stories for the cinema. Then when one of these stories is chosen by a producer and a director to become a film with your help, it is absolutely necessary to be able to go deeper into the story and remain on the same technical level as the director.
Many, many novelists fail when they try to become screenwriters because they really believe that writing for a film is writing. It’s not. Writing for a film is filming.
MCA: What do you think about all the screenwriting books that have appeared on the bookshelves. Most of them American and writing about Hollywood structure and abiding by the three act structure and plot points and what have you. Are these books any use to the screenwriter?
JCC: Well, I know Syd Fields very well. He’s been here many times and we’ve had long talks about this. I think these books are useful. I find them very boring to read but they are useful in one aspect. You must betray them. You mustn’t follow them too closely. You must know the rules before you can break them. If not, you will always repeat the same structure.
These books often talk about building up a story, building a structure and this is useful to know but only you are capable of not doing it and knowing when not to do it. To do something else. It’s a very ancient and philosophical attitude. Kant said the same thing, not about screenwriting, (laughs) but about any kind of law. If you want to break the laws, you have to know them first. And know them very, very well. So, these books are useful as long as you don’t obey.
One of the dangers of American cinema is to constantly make the same film while the world is changing. A Frankenstein remake, another Batman film and so on. All the classical themes.
Another point which I discussed with Bergman once is the fact that many films are now shown on television. The TV market has become very important over the past 25 years. It forces the writers and directors to “hook” the audience at the very beginning of the film. This was never the case in the classical cinema in the 30’s and 40’s and even the 50’s. The classical cinema back then inherited a great deal from classical theatre in the 19th century. It very often began with what we call in French scene d’exposition — an exposition scene without action. Now, if you start a film on television with 10 minutes of slow dialogue just to explain where we are and what’s going to happen and who is who, people have already switched to another channel.
So the rules are never forever. The rules are changing all the time depending on society, on the evolution of people, of nations, of the way of life. As well as the way of thinking. It also depends very much on the new ways of releasing films and novels and what have you. And the internet, that’s another thing. All the new possibilities for releasing films digitally will no doubt change, covertly, the way films are written.
MCA: In which way?
JCC: (smiles) We don’t know yet. We never know anything beforehand but we have to be prepared to know and to learn.