Very few French filmmakers carry the weight among U.S. distributors to get all their films released in the States, but one filmmaker who has found consistent success Stateside is Patrice Leconte (right in photo). He’s been making films since the late ’60s but many of his films since the late ’80s have found commercial and critical success in France and an audience of devout French film fans in this country with 1999’s The Girl on the Bridge and 2002’s The Man on the Train being standouts.
His new movie My Best Friend is the type of comedy premise that you could easily see being translated into a major Hollywood film, starring chronic French straight man Daniel Auteuil as François, a middle-aged antiques dealers who has made so many enemies that his assistant claims he has no true friends and bets him that he can’t find one within ten days. As he starts to look for that one person he can call friend, François meets cab driver Bruno, played by French comedian Dany Boon, and hatches a scheme to get him to pretend to be his friend.
ComingSoon.net spoke to this prolific and prestigious French filmmaker during his second stopover in New York this year, having debuted the film at the Tribeca Film Festival a few months back.
ComingSoon.net: This movie is a bit lighter than your last few films. When you were making it, did it feel like a departure for you?
Patrice Leconte: I like that you use this adjective “light” because “light” is often considered to be a fault, whereas in fact I think it’s a quality, because a few years ago, I realized it was more gratifying to make films that uplift people instead of weighing them down. The reason I mentioned that is because I realized that there are more and more films, not only American, but also French, that keeps the spectator with his head under water. I don’t think that’s a really good thing. I mean, life is not all rosy all the time, but I think it’s not a good thing to always present or make a film that turns life into something that’s dark grey. I’m only mentioning pink to follow the lineage of Edith Piaf.
CS: Right, to connect it to the recent successful biopic. Gotcha.
Leconte: It’s a sort of trail, the path of success That was a joke.
CS: You should put some Edith Piaf songs in your movie to connect it more. This isn’t really a straight comedy, as much as a situational comedy. What was it about this idea when it was presented to you, made you want to expand it into a feature film?
Leconte: I was offered the beginning of the script, the point of departure if you will, and that point of departure was that a guy goes to a funeral attended by seven people and then he asks himself, “Who is going to attend my funeral?” and he’s told “Well, no one’s going to come because you have no friends.” That was the point of departure.
CS: Once you had that, how did you start developing that and did you feel like you needed to bring your own style into that idea or did you try to break away from your normal style?
Leconte: Even before beginning to write, I knew that the film would be very realistic, very naturalistic, that would be like our daily life in that everybody would be able to relate to it. In this case, we’re in a film that’s set in a real context that doesn’t call into mind fantasy or imagination. We’re in Paris with streets and cars like we’re in real life, and with Jérôme Tonnerre, the co-scriptwriter, we gave ourselves the rule that was that the film would be strictly realistic, because what’s interesting and amusing is to find in real life elements that are light and apparent to comedy, and that was a really interesting process.
CS: Is it as hard as it seems from the movie to find friends in Paris?
Leconte: It’s harder to find and make friends in big cities because you’re always caught up in the rat race, to get higher and higher and crush people, because I noticed that in big cities like New York or Paris, people are not living, they’re surviving and when you survive, you often leave corpses around you. But the same struggle for life I think is really tantamount to big cities, because people are surviving, and they’re driven and they leave behind and that’s something that scares me. I’m straying from the topic, but I’m always stricken when I come to New York. I think New York epitomizes the height of this sense of people are here, they’re only surviving and they’re barely keeping their head above water, and I was afraid they’re going to drown.
CS: You’ve worked with Daniel Auteuil a few times before but Danny Boon was a new person. Did you want the two of them to meet and bond before making this movie or was it important to keep them apart until they’re doing scenes together?
Leconte: Daniel and Dany had never met before the film. They know of each other but never met in person, so they met during the filming process, and I tried to shoot in chronological order as much as possible and by the end of the film, they were real true friends. It’s funny, because sometimes you shoot a love story between a man and a woman and then the actor and actress fall in love in real life and then go on together after the film. Some couples meet on the set and then live their life together and here the same thing happened in terms of friendship. They meet on the set and became true friends in real life.
CS: Did you work any differently with Daniel on this movie than you did in the previous times you worked together?
Leconte: This is the third film I made with Daniel and we like each other a lot. There’s a lot of trust between us, but it’s important not to repeat the same working procedures with an actor. The character was very different from the prior films he acted in, but the working method was the same. There’s a lot of friendship between the two of us, there’s a lot of trust, and as this factor develops and as we work together more and more, there’s less and less of a need to communicate. It sounds paradoxical, but that’s the way it is. Sometimes we just need to look at each other or express something and sometimes, we hardly need to communicate verbally to really understand each other. Something that’s unusual is that as a director, I’m also the one who does the cinematography on the film, so this fact that I’m behind the camera also creates this trust or this special relationship between the actor and I, which maybe doesn’t happen in other situations.
CS: I guess Dany’s background is as a comedian, right?
Leconte: Yeah, Danny Boon is actually very popular in France. He does a lot of one-man stageshows, he’s a comedian as you said. He’s done very few films but I’ve known him for a very long time. We had told ourselves that we had to work together one day, and it’s happened.
CS: Because he’s already a funny guy, did he have to tone it down a bit so that the humor is more even between him and Daniel?
Leconte: Actually, it’s practically always true that comic actors or comedians are actually really good when it comes to conveying true emotion, since they’re really in the moment, and Dany is of course very smart, and he really understood what the film was about and what I wanted out of him. There was never an issue. Sometimes he would joke around, but only in between takes. Thanks to him and the general atmosphere, we did end up laughing a lot between takes.
CS: The last few films of yours, at least the ones released here, have been about the relationship between two people, but in this one, you certainly seemed to expand their worlds a bit with supporting characters and it was a bit more complex. Was that something conscious that you wanted to do?
Leconte: I mean even if they are–we use the word “peripheral”–characters, secondary is the pejorative. In the end, it is about a relationship, a story between two people, about this tandem between them. It’s true that it’s a sort of pattern that I have a hard time getting out of. It’s also because that within the one and a half hour span of the film focusing on two people is already a lot if you want to really get something significant out of it.
CS: At one point did you decide that you wanted to feature “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” as a key plot device? Was that something you worked out while writing the script?
Leconte: When we were in the writing process and during that process, you go from day to day, you sometimes don’t even known where you want to go, but when we figured out that we want to have the “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” show in the film, it sort of lit up the whole process. But specifically, because in that game show, there is this lifeline of a call that you can give to a friend and that was a crucial aspect for the denouement of the script. This French scriptwriter friend of mine, he gave me this incredible compliment, he said, “You managed to do an incredible cinematic moment with a TV show.”
CS: Did you film those scenes yourself or did you use the crew and techniques that the show normally uses?
Leconte: Both actually. I set it up myself, but then I let them set up their own technical equipment, as they would in any case, so it was both ways, but we used their lights, their music, their camera moves and that’s what’s good because it’s authentic, and it’s also the actual French game show host.
CS: How has this movie been received in France compared to your previous films? When French films are released here, they’re always perceived as art films, but the premise of this one is something like you’d see in a Hollywood movie.
Leconte: This film had an interesting history in France because the film was well promoted with marketing and so forth, everything was looking good. When it actually was released, the audience that came was such that I wanted to throw myself in the Seine River, because there were so many projections in terms of audience and so forth and everything looked so good, and in the end, it didn’t happen. Something very rare happened is that the word-of-mouth started to begin, and then the attendance slowly started to go up and up and up and then it ended up doing really well. Usually when films are very well promoted and everything looks good, they have really good attendance at the beginning and then like an ice cream in the sun, they start melting away, whereas here it’s the other way around.
CS: That’s interesting, because most of your movies here do that. They open softly, then build word-of-mouth and then stay around for a long time.
Leconte: (With a smile) I’ll keep my fingers crossed.
Leconte’s latest My Best Friend opens in select cities on Friday, July 13. Thanks to Isabelle Dupuis for her help interpreting Mr. Leconte.