Saturday, April 14, 2007

LA DOUBLURE / THE VALET—Dolby Lab Q&A With Director Francis Veber

Promoting his most recent venture La Doublure (The Valet), scheduled to open in the Bay Area later this month, Francis Veber appeared after the press screening of the film at the Dolby Lab Screening Room for an impromptu Q&A with an audience culled from Larsen Associates' "party list", among whom I felt deeply honored to be included. These were not the usual characters I run into at press screenings. I recognized SFFS programming consultant Roger Garcia, but also present were Karen Larsen's daughter Inga, author Herbert Gold, Frish Brandt (co-owner of the Frankel Gallery), Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine (filmmakers of Ballets Russes), longtime filmmakers William Farley and Lael Robertson, photographers Tom Erikson (whose photos of the Q&A are up on SF360) and Ted Pushinsky (father of Jake Pushinsky, editor to A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints), Dennis McNally (longtime Grateful Dead publicist and author), Tom Mazzolini (founder and head honcho of the SF Blues Festival), Larry Gonick (cartoonist and author of Cartoon History of the Universe), Johanna Goldshmidt (Special Collections, SF Main Library), Zahid Sardar (Architecture/Art Editor for the SF Chronicle Magazine), Monica Pasquale (the main singer and composer for Blame Sally) and Ron Merk (who has a bid in to buy the Castro Theater and who has established the new SFIFF Chris Holter Award for Humor in Film in memory of his late partner). To name just a few.

Veber seemed momentarily ill at ease finding himself alone on stage before his eclectic audience. He joked that first he would do a little dance and then a strip tease. Someone whistled encouragingly. "Normally I have a moderator with me," he explained, "and he is asking the first questions so that people warm-up. But here, I'm here like a clown."

Publicist Chris Wiggum rallied and asked, "How was it working with Daniel Auteuil? Have you worked with him before?"

"Yeah, sure, with The Closet," Veber responded. "He's a fantastic actor."

"Who was the most surprising of the cast to work with? What surprised you?" Chris followed.

"What surprised me," Veber admitted, "was to find a girl who was 6'2" in France! Our actresses are talented but short. They're midgets, y'know? I was trying to find a girl who could be a super model. I received in my office all the super models of Paris. It was a tough life. You had the Russian girls arriving, but my accent is a delight compared to them. Suddenly this girl [Alice Taglioni] arrived. She wasn't a professional actress, she was a pianist at first and then, well, I discovered that she was not only beautiful.

"Another story about this film: the restaurant that you see is not a real restaurant. It's a set. They built this terrace—which is so beautiful—in front of the Eiffel Tower, and it looks so real that all day long we had Japanese tourists making reservations for dinner! So we were selling the tables to finance the movie.

"It was a pleasure to shoot this movie with Daniel Auteuil; he's a professional actor and a very nice man too. But Gad Elmaleh—the guy who was playing Pignon—he's an [actor] coming from stand-up comedy. It's a very different job. Because when you are in front of an audience, you perform with the audience, and when you are on a set, it's more difficult. So it took him a few days to get used to the camera; but, he managed to do that well. What else can I tell you? You're my first audience in San Francisco. I'm coming from Los Angeles directly from the plane. The plane was delayed so I couldn't make it here [for the screening]. I'm happy to be here [now], but it was just like that!"

Asked how many days were spent on the shoot, Veber responded The Valet took 10-12 weeks. "Comedy is tough to shoot," he explained. "It's a question of pace. It's not easy." As for how many takes is required to achieve a scene, Veber said, "A lot. Because being a writer-director is different than being just a director in that—when you are writing—you have a kind of music in your mind with the lines. When you arrive on the set, you're trying to get from your actors the music like when you were writing. That means you are shooting a lot of takes. I remember I did something like 37 takes with Daniel Auteuil, who is a fantastic actor. I have discovered, being a director, how difficult it is to be an actor. Before, I was jealous of [them], thinking they don't work hard. They make more money than me. But then I discovered after those 37 takes, I took his hand to bring him to the video to show him how good was the last take, and his hand was ice cold and wet. It's spent-up energy. That's why I started to respect the actors when I started to direct."

Asked how he achieved such natural performances from both Taglioni and Elmaleh—neither of who have had much acting experience—Veber confirmed they were good and had natural styles of performing. He had been especially concerned about Taglioni because she was the lead part, and the first scene of her's they shot was when she's in the car with Daniel Auteuil and she tells him, "If you give me $20,000,000, I will give it back to you if you divorce." It was a tough scene for the two of them and Veber felt reassured when he watched how they performed together. The bottom line is he didn't have any bad actors on this film. Michel Aumont—who played the old doctor—is an amazing actor coming from the Comédie-Français. The same with Richard Berry who played the attorney. "All those actors are perfect technicians. They know their job."

One woman was surprised that Kristin Scott Thomas spoke such beautiful French. "She speaks fluent French," Veber concurred. "She married a French doctor, a gynecologist. Maybe it's why she speaks French so well? If you want to speak French, marry a doctor. But it was good to work with her because she's perfectly fluent and she's a great actress."

Asked if there were any scenes he left out because the film was getting too long, Veber asserted, "But my films are so short! No, there were no scenes that I left out." Had he left anything out, it would no longer have been a feature but a short. Admitting his distaste for long films, he criticized most films for being too long. "And comedy doesn't forgive," he reminded. With some of the American films he's watched, Veber has sometimes felt he needed a doggie bag to take a piece of the film home.

Asked about the inspiration for the story of The Valet, Veber recounted that he wanted to punish the character of the rich man Levasseur because he was contemptuous of people and felt he could buy anybody. Threatened by the paparazzi because his financial affairs were precariously tethered to his powerful wife, Veber envisioned a "little man" François Pignon that Levasseur would believe he could buy to help him straighten out his indiscretions; but, little as he may be, François Pignon's integrity is large and he cannot be bought by Levasseur, who invariably receives his comeuppance when the paparazzi photograph him with a drag queen. Incidentally, Veber relays it was tough to find the drag queen. At first he tried in the night clubs but the drag queens didn't look like the one he chose for The Valet, who he suspects was originally a Brazilian soccer player. "She" works the parks in Paris, France, and was discovered by his casting agent who went prowling through the bushes looking for someone exactly like "this creature", who ended up being very nice and worked perfect in the bit. Someone asked why Veber didn't go through the agencies? "Drag queens don't have agencies," he laughed, "they have pimps." What surprised him about the drag queen was that "she" was well-organized, collected welfare, had the foresight to have Veber sign papers, and even provided critiques during the rushes. "She was a nice person by the way," Veber quipped, "and we still live together." His audience roared. Veber continued, "We adopted a Vietnamese child…."

Asked how long it took him during the writing process to figure out what the relationship was going to be between François Pignon and the supermodel Elena, Veber admitted it was difficult because there were two "traps" in the film. "The first trap is—if you put a little hairy guy like that in front of this beautiful super model—normally he will spend his life trying to look at her when she's taking a shower, y'know? Or that kind of thing. So I had to imagine that he was in love with another girl who was in the same league as him, Virginie Ledoyen. When you are really in love, the other girls … you don't see them. Especially if they are six feet tall. They're so far away from your world, y'know? This was the first trap. The second trap was why would she accept to go into his apartment? It's really funny because I saw the difference between France and America. When I was telling the story in America to my assistant, the first question he asked was, 'Why is she doing that?' I had an American answer, 'Because they are giving her five million dollars.' Then my assistant said, 'Ah. Okay.' The dollar is important here, y'know? Then I went back to Paris and my French friends said to me, 'Why is she doing that?' I said, 'Because they are giving her five million dollars.' And they said, 'Ah, she's a whore. She's a slut.' I had to figure out another solution, which was her saying, 'I will give you the money back if you divorce.' [Levasseur] had been lying to her for years. It was interesting to try to structure all that."

The photographer sitting next to me expressed his admiration for the many layers of relationship in the film and especially of the super model character Elena and her awakening. He sympathized with the difficulty of a life centered on selling one's beauty and the intriguing turn of being with a man who was not interested in her for that and having the opportunity to relate to him by helping him. He wondered if that aspect of her characterization was there from the beginning of Veber's writing the script? "Yes," Veber confirmed. "I wanted a real human being. Usually people think that if someone is that beautiful, she is not really human. And that's not true." Handsome people are frequently discriminated against, Veber added. People think they are stupid or vapid because they have good looks. Sometimes that's true but not always.

One fellow asked about the meaning of the word schtroumpf which popped up in the film and Veber explained that these are smurfs, which originated as a Franco-Belgian comic strip. The things you learn at Q&As!

Veber was quite pleased with the performance of Dany Boon in The Valet. He played François Pignon's roommate Richard and Veber has already cast him as Pignon in his next film. François Pignon, Veber explained, is a recurring character who he has had several times in his films. Someone asked why the name "Pignon"? Did it have to do with its meaning as "a cog"? No, Veber countered. He first used the name in his film L'Emmerdeur (A Pain in the Ass, 1973) with Jacques Brel and Lino Ventura; Brel being the first official François Pignon. Then Veber simply became fond of the name. Interestingly, there are 11 real François Pignons in France who have formed an association protesting Veber's usage. They have attempted to sue him to cease and desist. He related one especially schizophrenic moment when he received correspondence from a François Pignon who complained that when Veber filmed L'Emmerdeur (A Pain in the Ass), his friends called him a pain in the ass. When Veber filmed Le Placard (The Closet, 2001), they said he was gay. When he filmed Le Dîner de cons (The Dinner Game aka Dinner For Idiots, 1998), they called him an idiot. The real François Pignon begged him to stop. Since the man's phone number was on his letterhead, Veber phoned him. "And for a writer it's so strange to call your hero, y'know?" Veber grinned. "I said, 'Hello. May I speak with François Pignon?' It was surrealistic for me! He said to me, 'It's me.' And I said, 'I am Francis Veber.' And he said, 'Bastard!' "

Intent, the fellow in the audience said he thought Pignon referred to "cog" because he perceived the character of François Pignon as a sort of everyman. Veber countered that actually "pignon" has three definitions. Not only is it a cog, as the man suggested, but an architectural roof detail, as well as a pine nut. "But you didn't choose the name Pignon with any of these meanings in mind?" the fellow persisted. "No, no, no," Veber reiterated, admitting he didn't know where the name came from. But it has since become a label in France, which had never been his intention.

The photographer next to me then paid Veber a compliment by saying he was a nut, in the sense that he had the funniest stand-up delivery he'd experienced in a while and that he would gladly pay to hear Veber do a stand-up act. Veber thanked him but said, no, he had never been a professional stand-up comic. But most creative people are nuts, he offered, which brought Gérard Depardieu to mind. Depardieu is probably totally insane, Veber laughed. He remembered a scene in Tais-toi! (Shut up!, 2003) that they were shooting in an insane asylum with real, insane people who were actually dangerous. They were in the area reserved for the criminally insane. "It was like Silence of the Lambs all around." Notwithstanding, Depardieu conversed with all the inmates. He was talking amiably to men who had killed their mothers. There was a part of the asylum that was for "nuts who were not that dangerous" and there was a big, tall inmate who, perhaps, could have been dangerous had he not been so disabled. When he passed by the set, he began screaming, "UHHHHHH!" So Veber called "cut" and they waited for him to pass and go away but then when Depardieu was emerging from his trailer, he bumped into this guy who immediately screamed, "UHHHHHH!" Depardieu didn't miss a beat and shouted back, "UHHHHHH!" The inmate was taken by surprise and responded, "Uhhhhh?" Depardieu shouted back, "UHHHHH!" and the inmate turned to one of the crew and said, "This man is nuts!"

After the laughter subsided, Veber stated, "By the way, you know that I say that actors are lazy. Actors are pigs because I'm promoting the film all by myself. But we have a piece of luck tonight." Veber then introduced Irina Ninova, the Russian actress whose impeccable French scored her the role of Émilie's assistant Marie. Now an American resident, Veber was pleased that Irina had attended the screening. "So all the actors are not pigs."

Veber was asked if it was difficult for him to get financing for his films in France? Pardoning his lack of modesty, Veber said it has not been a problem for him because he has had a lot of hits in France, nine hits in fact as a writer-director. Once he has a series of flops, then perhaps it will become difficult. He acknowledges that it might be difficult for young French filmmakers to achieve financing; but, he is old now and it is not a problem.

Veber was asked if the character of the doctor who was allergic to his patients came from anyone he knew in real life? "Happily not!" Veber exclaimed. "A doctor who comes and takes your bed and you have to pay for that? No, no, no."

Seven of Veber's films have been given the Hollywood remake treatment. La Doublure, in fact, has already been greenlit for a remake. Veber was asked how he felt about La Doublure actually screening for American audiences? First, Veber responded, most of the remakes of his films have been pieces of shit and, it's true, only three of his films in their original French were shown in the United States before the remakes came out: The Closet, The Dinner Game and this one but the others like The Toy (1982) and The Man With One Red Shoe (1985) were introduced to American audiences via the remakes.

"Even Billy Wilder remade one of my movies," Veber replied. "I think it killed him. It was his last movie." Veber also described Buddy, Buddy (1981)—with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau reprising the roles of Brel and Ventura in L'Emmerdeur—as terrible. "It was strange," Veber added, "because I met Billy Wilder. He was a legend. Can you imagine? I was a young director at the time and to meet that man. He was writing the screenplay with Diamond, the guy of Sunset Boulevard and Some Like It Hot. [Wilder] sent me the first draft and it wasn't good. It was very difficult for a Frenchman who was 30 years old to say to this legend, 'Y'know, maybe you should work more.' I told him, 'Billy, maybe on page 26 there is something that could be wrong….' He said, 'NOOOO!' [Veber intonates with a strong German accent.] Because we had a fight of accents, his German accent and my French accent. I understood I couldn't convince him. But I had lunch with him. It was very funny because he [took] me [to] lunch in a croissanterie. We're eating croissants with coffee, the two of us, and he started to tell me stories about [himself] and it was fascinating." Veber recounted one of those stories. Wilder had been invited to give a speech to a gathering of members of the Writers Guild and Directors Guild and prefaced his comments by saying, "Aging is terrible. I have a friend who is 94 years old and he went to his doctor and he told him, 'I have problems peeing.' The doctor said, 'You've peed enough.' "

Wilder told Veber that—when they did the musical version of Sunset Boulevard—the producers were anxious for Wilder to see it so they invited him to the theater to watch a performance. Afterwards they were eager to hear Wilder's feedback. Wilder told them, "It's good but it can't make a good movie."

As a characteristic American flourish to their lunch at the croissanterie, Veber said a little old lady who had been sitting at the next table got up and came over and thanked them for having such an interesting conversation that she'd able to listen in on for the last half hour. "It was very cute, y'know? Never in France."

Veber was then asked why he lived in Los Angeles. "Because I love Los Angeles," Veber answered. "I'm the only one I think." He reminded us of something Orson Welles once said about Los Angeles: "I arrived in Los Angeles. I sat down in an armchair. I woke up 60 years later." Veber extols the sedative quality of Los Angeles, which he claims is perfect for a writer. Contrary to what some might presume, he doesn't feel stressed at all in Los Angeles. Does he miss Paris? Not really, because he's always returning to Paris to shoot his movies so he lives half the time there and the other half in L.A. Paris, on the other hand, is a stressful city. First, people are always on strike so you have to take a car and—like in New York—there are always traffic jams. There's a lot of traffic of very small streets in Paris.

When one young woman commented that it didn't look like there was much traffic in the film, Veber reminded her that it was because they were not real streets or real traffic. It was extremely difficult to find a restaurant that would allow them, first, to rent the restaurant for filming and, secondly, when you have a big restaurant like that in Paris usually it's on a big avenue and it's impossible to shut traffic down in order to shoot a film. That's why they built the set of the terrace in front of the restaurant so that they could get around these practical complications. One fellow, familiar with Paris, who watched the film and marveled at how characters were finding parking, remembered it was a comedy.

At this point Veber complimented his audience and admitted he had been initially nervous about appearing without a moderator. He remembered an incident when he was touring with The Dinner Game where he had been invited to a screening where the moderator introduced him and advised there would be a Q&A after the film. Like The Valet, The Dinner Game is a short film, which the moderator did not take into account. Perhaps he had run off to catch a quick hamburger or whatever, but, when the lights came back up, he was nowhere to be found, Veber was alone and had to initiate the Q&A by himself. So confessing to his audience that he was used to have a moderator to start off the questioning, he asked himself, "Francis Veber, where did the idea come from for The Dinner Game?"

Elsewhere, Veber was being paid tribute at an international cinema exposition for European distributors and theater managers but there were only Americans there because, truthfully, American movies had invaded the rest of the world. There were only two French professionals there, himself and another man who ran a chain of French theaters. Along with Veber's tribute, James Cameron was also being paid tribute, which Veber took as a great compliment to be honored alongside a great director like Cameron. Just before Cameron took stage, they showed an impressive montage of film clips from his various movies—Alien, Titanic, The Terminator—and then Cameron came on stage and talked about he was going to make a revolutionary film. Then they showed a montage of Veber's French comedies but, for some reason, there was no sound. The tribute's organizer arrived on stage frantic and desperate and asked Veber if he wouldn't come on stage and speak a bit until they worked out the technical problems? Veber took stage in front of all those Americans with a big microphone in front of him and said, [Veber mimed speaking without any sound]. His Q&A audience applauded with laughter, perhaps as much as his tribute audience. A brilliant save.

"Well, I had a very pleasant evening," Veber concluded, "I didn't expect that when I came off of the plane. I didn't know I had a Q&A tonight. But you are a wonderful audience. Give me all your phone numbers! Thank you for coming."

Cross-published on Twitch.