There are filmmakers who have spent their entire lives trying to be honored for their work, so when France’s Claude Lelouch received an Oscar for his screenplay for A Man and a Woman a mere five years into his career, it was obvious he was a filmmaker to reckon with. That was over forty years ago but that hasn’t stopped Lelouch from continuing his fruitful career as one of France’s most eclectic and prolific filmmakers.
Lelouch’s latest, Roman de Gare, is an enigmatic mix of genres that constantly leaves you guessing where things might go, starring Dominique Pinon (Amelie) as a mysterious stranger who picks up a beautiful young hitcher (newcomer Audrey Dana) and agrees to pose as her absent fiancé. That’s just one layer to a rich story that combines the two strangers’ lightly comic relationship with a murder mystery involving a bestselling crime novelist, played by Fanny Ardant.
ComingSoon.net had a rare chance to talk to this intriguing filmmaker who continues to avoid being put in a box with every film he does, and Lelouch shared a lot of unique philosophies about life and filmmaking with us.
ComingSoon.net: You seem to have a fascination with automobiles. What is it about cars and driving that you find so fascinating?
Claude Lelouch: Cars are the place I feel most comfortable because I can be alone and I can see others. I’ve written all of my films in cars–it’s my office. I leave my family, I leave my things, I leave everybody and I take off for five or six thousand kilometers all alone with my recorder and I write all my stories like that. I can’t write in an office; I can’t write in a calm place. In the car, I’m alone but with others at the same time and I see life I see landscapes and I’m in action and that’s what my temperament is all about. I’m a man of action I need to move. I can’t write just sitting still. The car is really the place I feel most comfortable and I drive better when I’m driving fast. When I drive slowly I can’t drive anymore. I think it’s a fantastic way of getting around. Since “A Man and a Woman,” I’ve always been fascinated by cars. It’s like a horse in western films. It’s a fantastic freeing tool. When I go write I just go somewhere. For instance when I wrote “Roman de Gare” I went from Paris to Rome and back. Once I was back in Paris the script was written. It helps me isolate myself from the rest of the world.
CS: Has the internet and its ability to take you anywhere had any effect on the sensibilities of how you write films? Lelouch: No, because I enjoy working based on my own memory. It’s too precise, too specific. I’m not a scientific person, I’m an artist. I prefer working based on my memory then on other people’s memories and it’s not my generation either. I like working based on my observations and I like my stories to be based on characters I’ve met. That’s why I travel a lot, because this way I can meet different characters and people. I prefer truly traveling then traveling via the internet because you can travel via the internet, but it’s not the same journey and it’s full of frustrations. I enjoying finding things I’m not looking for. I like meeting people like that. I love coincidences and happenstance. For instance, when I was doing “Roman de Gare” this woman who was abandoned on the side of the street, I actually saw her. I saw and witnessed this scene and that I don’t think I would have found in the internet. I love traveling and I love traveling alone with the recorder. If I’m traveling with somebody in my car, I can’t talk, I can’t just blurt out anything… but all of my assistants use the internet. (laughs)
CS: Can you talk about the casting of Dominique Pinon?
Lelouch: I was looking for someone with not an easy physical appearance. The film is about, what the French would call, having an ugly face. (laughs) It’s a film about appearances. Above all we had to make sure the audience would never figure out the ending of the story. If Dominique Pinon had a seductive appearance, the film would have not had the same taste or feel to it. Now if I cast Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt to make this film there would have not been a movie, because the audience would have figured out the story. An ideal film should always use brand new actors each time. Actors should only be used once. (laughs)
CS: Can you talk about the puzzle-like nature of the narrative and the appeal of working within multiple genres?
Lelouch: That’s what I like the most in cinema. I love films that combine genres, because life is a mixture, a combination of genres and I try to make films that resemble life. All my films are a combination of genres, maybe this one more so then others. I try to make films that look like what I see in life. If one morning someone steals my wallet in the street, it’s a thriller, and then if I walk into a restaurant and see a pretty woman, it becomes a love story. Then if that afternoon, I listen to some music in car it becomes a musical comedy. It’s this whole mixture which I think makes the charm of this movie. I think this combination of genres is a thing people love or hate in my movies. People have often criticized this combination of genres in my movies and it’s what I stand by. I’ve been fighting for fifty years the combination of genres.
CS: With the complex puzzle-structure of the film, how did you think through it and organize it?
Lelouch: It’s a really complicated question because it’s very natural for me. Life is a puzzle. My point of departure was true stories. There are several stories in this movie and each of them is true. For a long time, I wanted to criticize and denounce the posturing of literature because so many best-sellers are written by ghostwriters and that’s a true problem in the literary field. In cinema, this isn’t possible because there are a hundred people involved. Painting, it’s not possible, nor in music. Literature is the only art forms where the impostors are as old as the world. I’ve wanted to speak about this for a long time and also wanted to explore a human being’s Machiavellian qualities, because the hero Dominique Pinon is the most Machiavelli of all. He seems really nice, on first appearance, but he is the one who uses Judith Ralitzer to make sure his book is a success. It’s a film about paradoxes, it’s a film about lying, and everyone lies in the film. Lies are very important in life. A lie is more useful then truth. It’s a thankful thing that lies exist because truth is only meant for people who are beautiful, healthy and rich. Truth is a luxury no one can afford. Lies are what humanity uses most frequently to progress and so does the apology of the lie. All artists begin lying to reach truth. Lies are what bring us to truth. Lying is like taking a loan out at the bank; you do have to pay it back with interest. So that’s what’s interesting. “Roman de Gare” is a film about lies. Everyone lies and everyone needs to lie. The whole film is constructed on this. Human beings need to lie in order to embellish themselves. That’s why people put on make-up, dress up, do plastic surgery, these are all lies. Human beings are not like a bank note. A ten dollar bill does not try to pass itself off as a twenty dollar bill, whereas human beings do. We try to pretend we are worth much more then we actually are. These are all the themes included in “Roman de Gare.”
CS: Did all of the actors know everything that was going on in the movie or did you just let them know what they needed to know and nothing else?
Lelouch: Each actor only knew his or her part and didn’t know the other parts. If they had read the whole script they wouldn’t have performed in the same manner. They also had to be surprised. Dominique did know a lot of things, but he finds out she’s a prostitute when he actually found out in the filming, because you need that look on his face in that moment. It’s a real shock. (laughs) So the important bit of information, the actors found out about while the cameras were rolling.
CS: Would you say your films are about paradox or the unexpected?
Lelouch: Yes, indeed. In my films, there are no good guys or bad guy. The good guys become bad guys and the bad guys become good guys. Sort of like the weather: some days you’re nice and some days you’re bad. We are both heroes and Judahs. If you look at each of our lives, all of us have done things that are wonderful and things that were less so. We all thought once about killing someone, all thought about the perfect crime (laughs), God being the greatest serial killer of all time, since he kills everyone and he succeeds at committing the perfect crime each time.
CS: Do you enjoy tricking your audience, and if so, why?
Lelouch: Yes, of course, because when an audience goes to a cinema it’s to be entertained, so I play with it. It’s a game between myself and the audience. I try to transform the audience into an actor. I think it’s more fun for the audience to get into the film then to just watch it, but that’s my cinema. When I made “A Man and A Woman” the audience was either in love with Jean-Louis Trintignant or with Anouk Aimée. They weren’t just watching a love story, they were experiencing it. There’s a big difference between watching and experiencing a film. I love it when an audience really gets into a film and experiences it.
CS: Can you talk about your reasons for originally directing this film under an alias?
Lelouch: Well, first off all that was the story of this movie, so it was interesting to be both inside and outside of the film. You know when you made forty films, people write always the same thing, so I wanted to do a first film. I wanted to have fun and also the subject matter did lend itself to this. I wanted to give more power and strength to the movie and to show the movie was a true story.
CS: After directing for over forty years, what have you learned and has it gotten any easier?
Lelouch: I’m self-taught; I learned cinema on my own. Every time I make a film I’m going back to school. I’ve gone back to school 41 times (laughs) and I hope to go back to school a few more times. I learn many new things with each new film. Normally speaking, my last film should be my best. (laughs)
CS: Has your use of technology changed?
Lelouch: Yes, it has a lot, because cinema is a technological art form. I’m really in tune with technique. I’m a technique person by nature. I’m the one filming all of my films; I’m the one behind the camera. I do the editing; I take care of each step of the film. I make films like an amateur filmmaker would. I do everything.
CS: French movies seem to hit American theaters in waves. Do you pay any attention to these waves or do you just make the films you want to make and not pay attention to what other French filmmakers are doing?
Lelouch: I pay a lot of attention to other people’s films. Film is still my favorite type of entertainment. I almost see a film a day. It’s really important for me to see other people’s films. I love movies both as a filmmaker and as a spectator.
CS: What kind of movies do you prefer?
Lelouch: I like everything. Any method is a good one as long as it leads to a good film, but I have a preference for quality popular films. I prefer films by directors who also write the script. That’s the type of cinema I prefer. I like it when the film director is not the scriptwriter’s slave. Nowadays, directors have become the slaves of producers, stars, the scriptwriters. That’s why I like Woody Allen, Cassavetes, and I like all the directors who write their own stories. I like cinema were there is no intermediary, where the author is speaking directly to the audience. Nowadays in cinema, there are too many intermediaries. There are too many films that could be made by twenty different filmmakers and nothing would change in them. All the studio films could be made by just about anyone, so thankfully there is independent film.
CS: Do you see waves of French movies or is it just one big blur?
Lelouch: No, there’s a world trend right now. There’s American cinema on one hand and then there’s the rest of the world. In the rest of the world, film directors are still important and I think in America cinema, directors have become slaves… and we are going to free them. (laughs)
CS: Was making cinema inevitable for you?
Lelouch: Yes, I was doomed to do it. When I was born, my father bought a little camera to film my birth, so the first thing I saw when I came out of my mother’s womb was a camera. (laughs)
Claude Lelouch’s new film Roman de Gare opens in New York on April 25 at the Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and it will expand into other regions over the next few months.