Interview: Cedric Klapisch and Romain Duris Conclude a Trilogy with Chinese Puzzle


Back in 2002, Cedric Klapisch wrote and directed a movie called L’Auberge Espagnole (The Spanish Apartment), which brought together an exciting young French cast as roommates living in Spain, notably Romain Duris, who had appeared in Klepisch’s previous films, along with Audrey Tautou, fresh off Amelie, Cecile de France pre-High Tension, Kelly Reilly and more. The film became a huge hit in France, grossing $15 million, and did very well in North America as well. Its sequel, Russian Dolls, came out four years later and did even better in France even if it didn’t get much of a release here, but the series certainly had found a decent cult audience among Francophiles. By then, Tautou, Duris and De France were all huge stars in their homeland as well as becoming better known over here.

It’s now ten years later and fans of those movies will be thrilled to finally be able to revisit some of the characters in Chinese Puzzle, a third movie that takes a similar approach as Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight and the French-Canadian The Barbarian Invasions. In fact, spoke with Klapisch back in 2011 when his film My Piece of the Pie played at the Tribeca Film Festival and at the time, he was already thinking about doing more with the characters in a third movie.

“The movie is really the combination of a desire of shooting in the city and doing a third movie, following up the story of the characters and the desire of working with the same characters,” the filmmaker told us when we spoke to him more recently. “I really tried to combine the two things. At one point for me, Xavier is really like New York and there’s a mirror between his character and the identity of New York.”

“It really started when I was in Tribeca because I had this title in mind, ‘Chinese Puzzle,’ and I thought I would do something in China,” he elaborated. “When I was in Tribeca, I said to myself, ‘I went to NYU Film School, I’ve learned how to make films here and every time I go to New York I want to shoot something in this city because I love New York.’ I went to Chinatown and realized it was so much bigger than when I was a student almost thirty years ago and I realized that China is here. What I like about New York is that it’s kind of a metaphor of the rest of the world–there’s a neighborhood for every country of the world–so I realized that maybe China wasn’t the right place to shoot the movie and New York was the right place. I really got that when I was in Tribeca walking around.”

Not only did Klapisch film most of the movie in Chinatown, but he lived in that neighborhood for a year as he wrote the film, starting production right before Hurricane Sandy and the impending blackout that hit downtown New York City and actually resumed filming shortly afterwards without having lights or electricity. (No, we’re not sure how he pulled that one off either.)

Klapisch obviously couldn’t make the movie without the original actors, and as Duris explained as he joined the interview, the director wanted to make sure they were on board before he even started writing. “Two years before, Cedric called us and we met so he could see if we had the desire to start again, and I think he had the feel the enthusiasm from every actor to feel free to create a new story. It’s really different to do this exercise, to do a series and to play a character years after years.”

“It’s almost the opposite of a TV series where you try to have the architecture of the whole thing before you start to write the first episode,” Klapisch mused on whether he knew where he wanted Xavier’s story to go back when he was making the first two films. “I wrote the first (movie) and I had no idea there would be a sequel and then I wrote the second one four years later and then at the end of ‘Russian Dolls’ I said, ‘Maybe in ten years from now it’s going to be interesting to make a third one,” but even during the eight years between movies, almost all the notes I took I threw away when I started to write the script. I had to start with, ‘Okay, it takes place in New York. What’s the story, what’s the starting point?’ I don’t always know where to start with when I’m writing so I have to invent the whole story one after the other.”

Although it’s been such a long time since Russian Doll, the director explained how he needed that extra time to make sure he had the story where he wanted it to be. “It was very stimulating to have a lot of time. ‘L’auberge’ I wrote the script in two weeks, ‘Russian Dolls’ in four months and this one I wrote the script in eight months,” he said about the process. “I really needed the eight months. It was a lot more complex to write, I needed more time to think about it and I also needed to spend some time in New York to be able to write the story that wasn’t only a touristy way of showing New York. I really felt like I needed time for this movie. I also needed some time to think more about what they became as actors, all of them, and to think more about what they became as characters between ‘Russian Dolls’ and now. Some characters have changed and some stayed the same. It was interesting to work on their destiny but they don’t have the same rhythm, all the characters, so it’s not like everyone’s changed a lot. A very individualistic rhythm for every character.”

“I think we have to be close together because we’ve known each other for more than fifteen years and we just have to keep some sort of friendship throughout the years, so it’s just very fragile that this balance can work throughout time for fifteen years,” Duris said about his relationship with the filmmaker with whom he has worked with more than any other.

Duris also recently worked with Audrey Tautou (in Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo) but hadn’t seen the rest of the cast in some time, so he talked about getting back into the characters once again. “The characters are so strong—Wendy, Isabel and Martine—that you can forget who they are if you want and just listen to Wendy. We hadn’t seen each other for like nine years, which could have been a problem but not at all.”

“He has a very strong complicity with the three women,” Klapisch noted. “They know each other so well and I think that in the three films, what works well is that I work with them as actors, they like to work with me and they like to be together so it works well in every direction.”

Klapisch also chalks up the evolution of Xavier as a character to the years of experience Duris has had as an actor since making “L’Auberge.” “Just before he worked with Patrick Chereau in the theater and that was more about paying attention to the work in the text. Because of the theater, he was more spontaneous in ‘L’Auberge Espagnole’ and he was more into a working process in ‘Chinese Puzzle.'”

Both Klapisch and Duris had some thoughts to share about the mix of humor and drama in Chinese Puzzle, which seems so effortless you may find yourself laughing one moment and being moved by something the next. “What’s interesting for me–it’s true for the three movies, but probably more for this one–is to be able to talk about the trouble in life, the drama and important things and deep matters with a light style, so it’s how to be light with important things in life,” Klapisch explained. “I really want the audience when they leave the theater to be able to think about life, to be able to think about couples, love, being gay or straight, being separated or not as a couple. It’s really important matters and yet the important thing is to have fun while you’re watching a movie. That’s really hard to combine both, but it’s true that with these actors, it’s crazy because they can mix very emotional sequences where you really believe there’s something very painful happening to them and it’s truthful and real and something very comic-like and I really like scenes when can you can go from one to the other very quickly.”

“In each movie from Cedric, you have both. I remember the first one “Le Peril Jeune,” it was exactly the same. It was funny but with deep stuff,” Duris said about the subject. “I play in both styles so I was just focused on Xavier and how he was ten years later and how he could be more mature, so I was focused on the character. As far as the tone of the film, it’s not so important. It’s the same work when you do very light comedy than when you do drama. The starting point is exactly the same.”

“But not every actor can do both,” the filmmaker continued. “In America, De Niro can do very dramatic things or very light comedies or Meryl Streep can do that, too, but you have comedy actors or dramatic actors that can’t mix the two so it’s really a privilege for me to have actors who can really go on one side or another.” (Duris was amused by Klapisch comparing him to De Niro.)

Anyone who has visited Chinatown in New York knows how chaotic it can be to get around, so imagine what it must be like to shoot a movie there, something that Klapisch discovered first-hand. “It’s difficult when you shoot on East Broadway, all those streets, Ludlow, Orchard, that’s kind of easy because it’s quiet, but whenever I shot Xavier’s place on Eldridge and all the crazy streets of Chinatown because it’s hard to give rules to the crowds so that was difficult. It depends on what street you’re on. This was a big production for French standards but a small one for American ones, so it’s really in-between. Because it’s a union movie, a DGA movie, they were used to bigger scale and more money so we had to manage with less money in this movie.”

“I think I understood why Cedric chose this part of Manhattan, because of the authenticity and the people working in the street, the energy of this place,” Duris affirmed. “I love this place in Manhattan. I think there’s a lot going on and a lot of authenticity.”

“I was so in love with the apartment I didn’t want to go uptown. I wanted to stay during Sandy,” he added.

“The idea was really to show real life, something really banal in a sense, when you’re a father with two kids in Manhattan, what do you experience going to the park?” Klapisch said about creating that authenticity. “Shooting normal stuff I would say. It was interesting to put some interest in things that could be uninteresting, that’s really what I like about moviemaking. Going to the park with your kids, it’s either really boring but if you put some drama into it, then it can be really interesting.”

Klapisch is next preparing a French television series about actors and their agents, which he hopes will make it to these shores, while Duris can next be seen in Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo, out on July 18, plus he recently appeared in The First Girlfriend, his first film collaboration with French auteur Francois Ozon. In September, he starts an unnamed movie with a first-time director about someone coming back home after World War I and the difficulties of adjusting to life after being in the trenches.

Chinese Puzzle opens in select cities on Friday, May 16.