Internationally acclaimed filmmaker Francis Veber has helmed more than 10 films, including 1998's hit The Dinner Game. Le Jouet, his directorial debut, became the Richard Pryor vehicle The Toy. His most popular film La Cage Aux Folles has been a hit Broadway musical and became the Robin Williams-Nathan Lane hit The Birdcage (not to mention spawning two sequels at home). Williams also remade Les Comperes as Father's Day with Billy Crystal. Numerous other Veber films have also become fodder for big American stars, including The Man With One Red Shoe (Tom Hanks), Quick Change (Bill Murray), and Pure Luck (Danny Glover and Joe Pesci). He even directed an American remake of his own Les Fugitifs (Three Fugitives), with Nick Nolte and Martin Short. In 1980, Veber was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Screenplay category for La Cage Aux Folles. La Doublure (The Valet) is his latest effort.
After being thoroughly charmed and entertained by his Q&A presentation at the Dolby Lab Screening Room, I looked forward to conversing with Veber. We met over coffee at the Ritz Carlton and—after offering him a transcript of David Thomson's commentary on Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot—we settled into talking about comedy and film.
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Francis Veber: You know, I read [Billy Wilder's] memoirs and I read too [Cameron Crowe's biography]. The life of this man is amazing to read. He was so funny.
Michael Guillén: Billy Wilder is one of my favorites. I haven't read Cameron Crowe's biography but you inspire me to do so.
Veber: Wilder tells a story that is so funny about his nephew who was working in New York in a funeral parlor. The nephew, who was something like 18-19 years old, was in total admiration of the boss of the funeral parlor; he was a perfectly elegant gentleman. There was a man who died at the Plaza or the Pierre in New York and this gentleman said to [Wilder's nephew], "Come with me. I'll show you how we work." He had his cane and his hat, perfectly dressed. They arrived in the suite of the dead guy and the corpse was in the bed but there was a detail that was shocking; he had a huge erection! Billy Wilder's nephew [witnessed that] and [his boss]—to show how elegant he was—pinged the erection with the tip of his cane. The man lost his erection but woke up because they were in the wrong suite! Can you imagine this guy waking up to these two guys in his room?! [Laughs.]
Guillén: Sounds like there's potential for a movie there, albeit a blue one. Well, I'm at a slight disadvantage because I'm relatively new to film writing and I've only seen three of your films; but the up side of that and what made me so delighted last night when I realized this, was my sense of discovery and how much I look forward to exploring the rest of your films.
Veber: Thank you. That's very kind of you.
Guillén: Because of last night's presentation and the thoroughness of the press notes and various reviews I've researched online, I felt that I pretty much have The Valet covered and so what I was interested in today was to talk to you more generally about your body of work, if that's okay with you?
Guillén: As a writer myself, I'm fascinated with your being a writer-director, not unlike Billy Wilder. I find that approach to filmmaking unique. You even stated last night that you think of yourself as a writer who directs, not necessarily a director. As a writer-director, you have the luxury, the privilege, of indulging your own literary conceits, namely the recurrent use of your character François Pignon. I've seen Pignon twice now, first in The Closet and now in The Valet, with Daniel Auteuil portraying him in the former but then conceding duties to Gad Elmaleh for the latter. The switch was enjoyable. Could you talk a little bit about the various actors who have portrayed François Pignon? Is he a solid character with specific traits in your mind or does he change from film to film?
Veber: For the various actors, it started with Jacques Brel, the singer, in this film [L'Emmerdeur, 1973] that Billy Wilder remade, unfortunately. Then for a long time it was Pierre Richard, a famous French comedian, coupled with Gérard Depardieu. They did three films together that I wrote and directed which were La Chèvre , Les Compères , and Les Fugitifs . Pierre Richard was completely the character of François Pignon at that time, despite the fact that in the first one he was called François Perrin. He was not yet Pignon but he was exactly my character because he was a shy man, he was a man in the crowd, an antihero at the beginning of the story, and a bit ridiculous, y'know? At the end he was a hero, see? After that, I had Jacques Villeret in The Dinner Game , who was an amazing Pignon. Unfortunately he died because he was drinking so much. You [can't] imagine. I knew him well. The Dinner Game was first a stage play that I had written and it stayed in Paris three years; it was a very big hit. [While] it was three years on stage there were maybe 10 times that we couldn't open the show because [Villeret] was so drunk. I'm sad to say that because he is dead and he was my friend; but, his agent told me that [one time] when they were coming back to Paris from Acapulco where they were at the Acapulco Film Festival—I think 11 hours of flight—[Villeret drank] seven bottles of white wine. His agent has no [staked] interest in telling me that. I don't know how [someone] could drink seven bottles of water—I would be spending my time going to the restroom—but seven bottles of white wine. [Villeret] died when he was 53 years old. He was a magnificent actor and he was a great Pignon. Then I had Auteuil and now Gad Elmaleh.
Guillén: From what I understand, Gad Elmaleh's portrayal is the calmest and least farcical and not as much of a buffoon as previous François Pignons. Is that correct?
Veber: That's true because he was a stand-up comedian. He was used to chaining jokes to jokes. Here, he has to be counterpunching, which is not easy. Once Auteuil said in an interview that playing Pignon was exhausting. I understand why. People steal the show [from] Pignon all the time. It's obvious in The Valet when his friend [Richard] comes to visit him in his apartment just to check if the girl is living over there.
Guillén: Yes, Dany Boon does a marvelous stuttering sequence in that scene.
Veber: Yes, but it's exhausting to be Pignon in that case because you have in front of you a boxer who walks [all over you], punching, punching, punching, and you have to wait for him to be a bit off guard to punch back.
Guillén: Well, what interests me about your recurring character François Pignon is that I've been doing research into how directors employ the actor fetiche but Pignon is more a character fetiche.
Veber: That's true.
Guillén: As a writer I'm impressed with the chance you've had to express this character over a succession of films. Where did François Pignon come from? Does he represent you?
Veber: Yes. Unfortunately, yes. I would have preferred to be the other guy, y'know? The strong man. The kind of guy who enters a bar and everybody is silent suddenly. I would have preferred that but when I enter a bar, I slip on a banana peel or something like that. Being ridiculous is something that's genetic, I guess. When I was a soldier during the Algerian War, I had to make up my bed like all the other soldiers; but, I was so clumsy that my friends were saying, "Okay, let me do that." They were making up the bed and I didn't want to force them but I didn't know how to do it. Pignon is someone I understand very well.
Guillén: I think a lot of people do! That's his appeal. Again, in terms of the writing, you've written the stage plays that are then often adapted into film scripts so I'm curious about how the comic timing varies in the writing. When you do a comedy on stage and you deliver a funny line, you often account for the audience laughing; but, you can't do that in a film. Do you notice a lot of difference between stage and film with regard to comic timing?
Veber: Yes. I have a friend who was an actor first and then he directed a movie after that and he tried to keep pauses between lines to allow people to laugh. It's a huge mistake because—if you have an audience of three spectators and you are expecting them to fill up the emptiness of those pauses—it's stupid. A play can be one hour and 40 minutes and the day after two hours and 10 minutes because it's interactive with the audience. But a film has to be calibrated. Billy Wilder was a genius when he was working with Diamond. [The] scene where Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot comes back with the maracas….
Guillén: His ecstasy.
Veber: Yes. Every time he says something—[Veber simulates the sound of the maracas]—it was to allow the audience to laugh. It means that [Wilder and Diamond] thought of the problem too.
Guillén: I loved that you brought up Wilder last night because—having attended David Thomson's course on Some Like It Hot and listening to his anecdotes on Wilder—it was clear to me that Wilder was fierce about adhering to script. He was adamant about having the scenes written by the time you got to the set and following the script as written. In that way, he achieved a comic economy, which I likewise observe in your work.
Veber: Thank you. I asked an old producer in Los Angeles why are the comedies different than the great age of comedies—Wilder, Capra, Sturges—and he gave me an answer which is interesting. He said, "In the old times, the writers were coming from Broadway and they knew how to structure a situation. Now they're coming from t.v. and they know how to write punchlines." It's a very different thing. Structure in a film is the most important thing. It's a fascinating job, screenwriting, and a very difficult one, especially for comedy. You never know if you're funny or not. It's only when you see the film with an audience that is not understanding your movie. Because when you make a serious movie, it's easy. People cry or they don't cry but they don't hate you if they don't cry enough. Comedy is probably the most difficult genre. For this reason even in America—I don't want to criticize my colleagues—but when I see comedies like Anger Management or Bringing Down the House—I haven't seen Blades of Glory yet—but I prefer Some Like It Hot. I think it's very difficult to write a comedy, period. I had been a screenwriter for 18 films before I started directing and I did some serious films—at least three or four—it was a vacation. You don't have to make people laugh.
Guillén: James Van Maanen—dispatching to The Greencine Daily from the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series—reported that when Richard Pena of the Film Society of Lincoln Center introduced The Valet, he was reminded of how the late New York Times drama critic Walter Kerr once said certain kinds of French comedy were like funny timepieces. That is to say, the movement of the timepiece is so perfectly put together that, once wound, it sets you to laughing. Van Maanen himself carried that Pena/Kerr metaphor further by saying this watch—instead of having the usual metal plate covering its movement—has a transparent cover that allows you to observe quite clearly how the timepiece works. I was likewise aware of this last night watching The Valet. The writing was crisp and clean and somehow thrillingly apparent. Can you talk about your writing process?
Veber: The process is, unfortunately, to rewrite all the time. If I had [any] advice to give to young screenwriters, it would be to make a reading of what they do. When you read the first draft, for instance, it's a pain for everybody; for the people who are listening, and for yourself. You see when people are bored. You feel it inside your body, y'know? I have a dull voice. When I'm reading, it's flat. When you read, "Clara, I love you." John: "I love you too, Clara." Clara: "Let's go on the river." Then you see their eyes going like that [Veber drifts his gaze to the ceiling] or they're going back to their taxes or their wives and you feel it and you start reading faster, which means that the scene is bad. It's one of the tricks to shrink the thing, for it not to have fat on it, for it to be lean, see? But I use that a lot. For instance, I'm finishing a first draft now. I know that I will call my usual victims and ask them to listen to it. Otherwise, I'll be lost.
Guillén: You mention that in your press notes that you rely on family and friends to listen to your first drafts. That struck me because, again, Wilder had commented often that he had to work with someone like Diamond or Brackett because he needed the response.
Veber: But you don't find a lot of Diamonds or Bracketts. This is the problem. I tried when I was younger to work with friends or co-screenwriters. Very few are good and I'm not talking about quality—it's difficult to judge a writer—but being in sync with somebody. If he is faster than you are, you have the feeling that he is imposing his ideas upon you, so you have a block. If you are faster, then you have the feeling that you are doing all the work. It's not an easy thing to co-write something with someone. If you're lucky enough to find your twin writer—and it happens, you have people who are teaming together and you have the feeling that it's the same man that's writing the screenplay—but that's a huge piece of luck.
Guillén: Especially with comedy because of the need to gauge feedback, whether something is funny or not. I'm reminded of a t.v. series we used to have in the States called The Dick Van Dyke Show that, as a child, I remember it was the first time that I considered the collaborative process, that you achieved the funny skit by two or three people riffing ideas off of each other, and that the collaboration could be a lot of fun. You mentioned last night that writing comedy is harder than drama and yet you keep choosing to do comedy, why is that?
Veber: Because it is totally genetic. It's you, it's in your nature. I said once that, when I was born, the doctor said to my mother, "It's not a boy or a girl; it's a comic." [Laughs.] I was trapped in that all my life long. It's a way to protect yourself too. Because you know you have kids who are strong and big and you have kids who are small. I was very small until I was 13-14 years old. It was just after the war so you had a lot of kids who—because of the war—were too old for the classrooms they were in. Boys were 15, 16, and I was a midget. So I had to make them laugh not to be beaten. It was a protection all the time.
Guillén: I do understand that. Along with the economy of comic timing, you also exhibit an admirable restraint in what you choose to make comic. The scene I'm thinking of in particular is the one where François and Elena share a narrow bed. That could have been played for bawdy laughs but, instead, you elected for restraint which dignified your characters.
Veber: Thank you. But it was necessary. Otherwise, the film would be salacious. It was really the frontier and you couldn't pass over it. I was very conscious of that when I was filming the [scene]. The girl was really gorgeous. I remember once when she was entering the apartment, she [was wearing] that kind of mini-skirt and all the crew was waiting for her to get into the apartment. I said to myself, "Well, if I were living with a girl like that in an apartment that size, it's not easy." That's why I wanted him to be in love with another girl. When they are in bed together, there was something I loved to direct. He recognizes her [after dreaming he was with Émilie] and says, "Aw, it's you." He's with the most beautiful girl in the world, y'know?
Guillén: Another literary conceit you have in the film that amused me was when near the end of The Valet, François Pignon brings his father a corkscrew for his corkscrew collection as a birthday gift. Pignon's father then excitedly tells him that he has been invited to a dinner to talk about his corkscrew collection. It's my understanding that this is in reference to Le dîner de con (The Dinner Game), in which the François Pignon of that film is invited to a dinner on the pretext of talking about his matches constructions.
Veber: That's it, yes. It's a reference. I don't do that very often. Few people noticed it.
Guillén: Do you have some odd little collection that you keep hoping someone will invite you to dinner to talk about?
Veber: I hope not! But I'm never sure. Because if you ask me to talk about screenwriting, I can be very boring for hours. It's funny because I had a friend who was performing The Dinner Game and—at the same time—he was a racecar driver. He was invited to a dinner game, a dinner for idiots, and they made him talk about his race car driving and it was only afterwards that he discovered he had been invited as a jerk. And he was performing the play!
Guillén: So he didn't learn anything from being in the play. Returning again to the idea of economy, because that has just impressed me so much in your work, do you have an editor?
Veber: I have an editor but he's just there to do what is in the screenplay.
Guillén: I was going to say, does he have anything to do?
Veber: Not much.
Guillén: Nice work if you can get it, huh?
Veber: It is! He's a very nice old man. He must now be 82 or something like that.
Guillén: Let's talk about your peripheral characters who help flesh out your story lines. I got the sense that they're not—well, not unnecessary—but more adornment than necessary. They're like bright little jewels. François' mother and father. The doctor who's allergic to his patients. The cell phone salesman who likes to read palms. How do those characters come to you and how do you place them in your scripts?
Veber: I think it's the problem with my films. Probably the problem with my reviewers too. Sometimes I have been criticized in France because, first, the French don't like success and I've been here for a long time now so young reviewers….
Guillén: Take aim?
Veber: Yes! But I know what the problem is. I don't want to be boring by all means. Meaning that the people I have in the films have to be characters and not usual average people who say, "Hello. Have a seat. What do you want to drink? Sparkling or non-sparkling?" That kind of thing. I'm not interested. I'm more interested in the guy who is palm reading and selling cell phones. A perfect idiot, y'know? And I like him a lot because he reassures me. When I was writing his part, I loved him; he's so stupid.
Guillén: Speaking of cell phones, they come up a lot in The Valet. You had him selling the cell phones and a cell phone became a crucial plot element in the young model's awakening of awareness. Did you intend that motif?
Veber: You never know when you are doing things what was your first intention. I discovered that through the eyes of other people who tell you that. When you're writing, you're just fighting against the difficulty of writing. You start a screenplay and you cross your fingers that you will be able to put the word "end" one day. Because it's such a pain.
Guillén: I was impressed with your choice of music, beginning with the rockabilly in your animated opening credits and on through. Could you speak about the music in The Valet?
Veber: Except for the Chuck Berry piece at the beginning—which is so full of life—I liked this music very much with those cars passing by like that and, for me, it's convenient. Besides that, I had Alexandre Desplat, a musician who was nominated for the Golden Globes and the Oscars for The Queen. Usually I have Vladimir Cosma who is a very good Romanian musician. Cosma says something funny about being a Romanian. He says, "Being a Romanian is not a nationality; it's a job." By the way, I have something funny to tell you, nothing [about The Valet]. Someone recently told me the difference between a Frenchman and an Italian. He told me, "A Frenchman is an Italian in a bad mood." [Laughs.]
Guillén: Well, thank you so much. As I said, I'm really looking forward to discovering the rest of your films.
Veber: And I was happy to have you in the first row yesterday because you are someone who knows how to laugh and how to ask questions. It was good meeting you.
04/20/07 UPDATE: Michelle Devereaux—who I just met this evening at the Castro's White Dog screening—offers up her conversation with Veber for Greencine's main site.