Exclusive: Avenue Montaigne ‘s Danièle Thompson

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Danièle Thompson is one of France’s more prolific screenwriters having co-written films with her father Gérard Oury in the late ’60s before co-writing the Oscar-nominated French film Cousin, Cousine in 1975. In 1999, she moved into directing with La Bûche, which was co-written with her own son Christopher, as was their follow-up Jet Lag, a romantic comedy starring Jean Reno and Juliette Binoche.

Now, Danièle has returned with her third film Avenue Montaigne, a comedic drama set amidst the luxurious central Paris area where the arts community converges at the Comédie des Champs-Élysées theatre. It stars Cecile de France (High Tension) as a young woman from the outskirts of town who gets a job as a waitress at a nearby café which allows her to intermingle with a variety of actors, musicians and artists, all of whom are going through their own personal crises. One is a famous pianist (Albert Dupontel) who wants to stop playing concerts, the other is a wealthy art collector (Claude Brasseur) who wants to sell his collection while trying to connect with his estranged son (played by Christopher Thompson). The third character is a popular TV soap actress (Valérie Lemercier) who wants to do a more serious film role for a Hollywood director, who’s played by Sydney Pollack.

ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk with this legendary screenwriter and filmmaker about how this new film came about.

ComingSoon.net: Which came first with this movie, the location or the characters?
Danièle Thompson: Definitely the location. The characters came very quickly, but the location really inspired the whole thing. The location is completely true. I don’t know if you know Paris, but there’s this beautiful big theatre that was built in the early 20th Century, that huge boat-like building has three theatre rooms and an auction room downstairs and a restaurant on the roof. It’s located on this gorgeous avenue near the river and it has this little café opposite it, which happens to be the only–what can I say?–normal café where you can buy a coffee or a glass of wine and fries for a normal price. It is the only place left in the area, because there used to be many others, but slowly it happens in all the big cities, these places are invaded by luxurious shops and you can’t afford the rent anymore. So this is the one place left, so I came out of a concert one night and I looked around and I saw the guy who was playing the violin with this black and white outfit coming out with a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt and going to have a hamburger tartare there. Some elegant people were coming out of the auction house where they had obviously bought millions of Euros works of art and they were going there, too. I thought this is very special and very unlike other places and let’s talk about it.

CS: Was all of this shot within that same theatre?
Thompson: We did everything on location, literally everything. It’s all the true story about that place, it’s exactly like that and we did it all there. As a matter of fact, Sydney Pollack was very surprised when he came, because he thought that if it had been an American film, we would have had to close down the area. We don’t work like this in France, we can’t afford it, so we just did it with a small crew and let people go by and shot the thing on the terrace of the café. It’s done in a much lighter way then you would think in America.

CS: I was surprised because I’d assume that location was so busy all the time, so did you have to shoot in different times to not get in the way of the businesses?
Thompson: Well, we are a lighter crew. We’re about 40 of us, not more, and compared to American films, they’re low budget. We do it rather quickly. We stop the people from walking by for like five minutes for a take then we let them go again. It’s normal for us to work like this, and in fact, Sydney when he was there was amazed by the fact it was so simple, and everybody would stop for an hour and a half for lunch. (laughs) But we work very hard, but this is the way it’s done in France.

CS: How long did it actually take to shoot the movie?
Thompson: I had a little less than ten weeks. We basically did Monday through Friday, but we had some special moments because you know, all that area of the theatre is very busy and as the pianist points out, it’s booked five years ahead. We had to shoot for instance in the theatre during the afternoon and we had to get out by 5 or 5:30 because they had to get ready for the evening performance, things like that. Sometimes we’d start very early in the morning. But basically we had a normal shooting schedule.

CS: You wrote the movie with your son and he appears as one of the main characters as well. Can you talk about your collaborative relationship with him? Is it safe to assume he came up with his own character?
Thompson: No, he doesn’t write his own character. It’s not the way it works. It works like a big puzzle that we start working on together for months and months and months. Once we overcame the fact that he was my son, which was for my first film La Bûche, which was 7 years ago, this was really the test. Was it fun to work together? The only question which was different from working with any other writing partner was it going to be heavy for him to be working at his mother’s house in the office for months and was it going to work between us? But that second question is something that always occurs with any new working team. Once we realized that we liked it, it was fun and not heavy, then we just became a working team, and we forget the fact that we’re mother and son. We just go to work.

CS: Obviously, the main characters from three branches of the arts—you have the musician, the artist and the actress. I assume you knew the acting side well, but did you have to do a lot of research into the music or art side of the story?
Thompson: The art, I’ve always been involved with art and I know a little bit about it. I took art classes at Columbia University when I lived in America, and I’ve always been involved with art and I know a little bit about it. So the research really was about how we were going to recreate that big collection and what exactly would a man like this collect and what rights we could get on the work, ’cause we had to get everything copied of course. That was a lot of work to prepare, but the music, yes I did have to do some more research, because I’m not very big on classical music myself. I like going to a concert once in a while, but I’m not one of these crazy people who would go to La Scala for one night, I’m not a classical music buff like that. I did have to find out a little bit what it was like and choose of course the music with my technical advisor who was himself a pianist that had gone through a crisis similar to this one years ago. I had asked him to tell me all about what went on. It’s very difficult for these people to suddenly kick the system, and it’s hard for anybody to get out of the train when it runs. That took a little bit of research. Of course, the theatre and television, we all know these characters who are dying to have recognition, who seem to be in a prison of soap or a TV series. You have some miracles like George Clooney or people who have started in this kind of thing and suddenly go into this incredible career, but very few of them do.

CS: I thought it was interesting that the actress’ story was the most comedic one where the other ones were very serious, relationship dramas. How did you decide to make her story the most humorous?
Thompson: Well, she’s obviously a very funny character and of course, choosing Valérie Lemercier—you don’t know her here in America very much—but she’s a very, very big star in France because she has a routine and she’s a director on her own. She’s a real clown, she’s a real comedy figure in France. So this was the choice of pulling the part of Catherine into the comedy partition of the film. I’m very glad I did, because if this part had been played by a more serious actress, it could have drawn the film to something much more serious. She’s capable of doing things with her face, her body, which completely dragged that character into comedy, which is very much what I wanted, but it wasn’t so easy to do.

CS: I also though it was interesting that the other two stories were more from a male perspective even though they obviously had important women in their lives.
Thompson: Well, I guess they’re pretty equal, the men and the women in the story. It’s true, there’s the pianist and the collector. The big challenge we had was that we would most of the time be dealing with people who had been very lucky in life, whether men or women, so you have the older one who’s retiring and the younger one who’s starting, but in the middle, these people, when they were 20, if they had been given a choice of their future—you’re going to be a great pianist and everyone’s going to love you or you’re going to be an actress and make a fortune on television or you’re going to be a self-made man who’s going to end up with the most beautiful art collection ever—they would have right away said, “Yes!” Of course, all of them suddenly realize they want something else. This is very much about all of us. Men and women are mixed in this, but I love the fact that you think the men are important [to the story], because in France, they say, “Oh, but this is very much the story of women,” but I don’t think so.

CS: I really loved Cecile’s part in the movie, because Jessica really represents the viewer in tying the three stories together by being the person who really isn’t familiar with their worlds. Was she involved in with the project fairly early on?
Thompson: No, nobody was really involved early on. The only person that I did have in mind was the character of Dani, who plays the usher. I met her very early when we were starting to write the script and thought she’d be a great Claude and then I kept her in my mind for months. The others I really started approaching once we finished the screenplay. I was literally about to meet the 20 or 30 girls in Paris who could eventually be a good Jessica. I’d seen Cecile in a few things before like “L’Auberge Espagnole” in which she played a very hardcore lesbian. I was really asking her to do something completely different. We met, and the next day I thought that I’d give her the script and see what she feels, because she was a little older than most actresses that we were going to see, she was 28 at the time. If she’s excited by it, I think she’d be great. Very quickly I decided it was going to be her, then I cancelled all my other appointments and never saw any of the other girls.

CS: I assume you must have known Sydney Pollack for a while to get him to be in your movie.
Thompson: Yes, that was a very lucky thing. I did know him as a friend for a long time. He was the president of the jury in Cannes when I was on the jury, so it was easy to pick up the phone and call him, which is really something that’s not very easy for a French person.

CS: How many days was he in Paris shooting his parts?
Thompson: He was there for two weeks and he had six days shooting.

CS: That’s not bad, though I do have to say that his French is not that great. Did he have to be coached a bit?
Thompson: Well, Christopher my son is bilingual, so that helped, so we rewrote the scene in a way that it would be perfect for him, then Christopher and him met several times, since this is completely a bilingual scene. It was funny to work with him and see what he could say and not say. His French is not too bad. He doesn’t have much of a vocabulary, but as long as you give it to him, he’s okay.

CS: Well, it’s better than my French anyway. You went with a different title than the one that was used in France, which would translate into “Orchestra Seats.” Why did you decide to change it for American audiences?
Thompson: Well, it was a suggestion of my distributors, and I thought they were probably right, because in a way, it’s more of a first degree title because the other one is metaphoric. It’s not a betrayal of the film, and it gives an idea of something very Paris and very French, and then I hope people will sort of want to see further.

CS: I was wondering what you thought about America’s perception of French films. I thought your film started very much in a way that might be expected but it veered away into something very different.
Thompson: Well, you should really tell me about that. I guess there’s still something left from the French New Wave, which is basically the American audience that goes and sees French films, which is actually a very small audience, people who know French films and go automatically to go and see them. That crowd, they always know, I suppose, that they’re going to see movies that are about people and feelings and sometimes, very austere films. This is a little unusual, this is a little bit more like “Amelie” or something more like a fairy tale. I suppose what people really like in French film is what they don’t find in American films usually, which is something where you’re dealing with people, not with special effects and big incredible directing and huge crowds and violence and police. I guess the intimacy of French film is something I suppose that appeals to the American public.

CS: Are you excited about the Cesar Awards coming up next week? You and your son have been nominated once again for your screenplay and a couple of your actresses are nominated, right?
Thompson: Yes, that’s on the 24th, I think, but I’m more excited to find out how it’s going to work here when it comes out.

Avenue Montaigne opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, February 16.

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