Tuesday, January 19, 2010

THE MAGNIFICENT TATI—The SF360 Interview With Michael House

It seems that every 10-15 years Jacques Tati is reintroduced to the American moviegoing public. The last wave was in the late '90s when the recently-restored color print of Jour de Fête (1949)—Tati's first directorial feature—traveled the art house circuit. Now with the participation of the French ministry, spanking new prints have been struck of Tati's films and a new wave is hitting American shores. Riding the crest of this most recent wave is The Magnificent Tati, an outstanding documentary biography by Michael House, which will see its U.S. premiere in San Francisco at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on Sunday, January 24, 2010, 2:00PM, with House in the house.

Along with Dennis Harvey's helpful overview of Tati's career, SF360 has optioned my interview with Michael House, which is now up at their site. As synopsized at SF360, Michael House was born in San Diego and worked as a musical composer in Los Angeles, writing music for television commercials. He migrated to San Francisco with his wife Julie roughly a month after Loma Prieta. They wanted to live in Europe but couldn't negotiate work visas so they decided that living in San Francisco would be the closest they could get to Europe within the United States. They lived in San Francisco for 12 years before moving to Paris, where they have lived for the past 10 years. House still considers himself a San Franciscan, however, and returned to San Francisco to complete the final stages of The Magnificent Tati in collaboration with Kim Aubry's ZAP Zoetrope. Aubry used to be the Head of Post Production at Zoetrope Studios and a long-time collaborator with Francis Ford Coppola. House phoned me from Paris to converse on the upcoming premiere and—to complement my piece on SF360—here are a few additional questions I put to him.

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Michael Guillén: When you were talking to Macha Makeïeff of Les Films de Mon Oncle, she expressed the archive's commitment to incorporating contemporary responses to Tati's work. While conducting my research for our interview, I was astounded by the number of artists who claim to have been influenced by Jacques Tati, including those who served your documentary The Magnificent Tati, among many others. One noticeable absence, however—and I was wondering about his exclusion from your documentary in terms of helping you find financial backing—was Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean), who has capitalized on vague associations with Jacques Tati and who, I understand, was invited to introduce Mr. Hulot's Holiday at the UK French Film Festival?

Michael House: I talked to him, yeah. But may I be honest with you? I don't feel he's much like Tati at all. Isn't that terrible? Unlike Tati, he pulls all the comedy into himself. His character Mr. Bean is still a magnet for the viewer. Even though his character Mr. Bean doesn't talk, and there's been a film made Mr. Bean's Holiday (which mimics M. Hulot's Holiday), it's a bit of a stretch—in my humble opinion—to liken him to Tati. He might say he's like Tati, and maybe he is in some way, but I don't see it and I didn't really want to put him in my documentary. I guess that sounds horrible. Also—and this might sound like I'm milking the fact that I don't have any superstars in the film—but, I didn't really want to use anybody super famous, especially a performer. At the height of his career, Tati could have put anyone in his films—he could have put Sophia Loren in his films—but, he intentionally didn't put anyone famous in his films.

I had even approached Johnny Depp's sister, his agent, about possibly appearing in the documentary and everyone was like, "Oh! If you get him, the film will be great! You've got to get him in the film!" But Tati would have probably thought Depp was a jackass. Not that I think Johnny Depp is a jackass—I admire him greatly—but I'm just trying to say that what I would call "real" artists have careers that are not based on celebrity. Rowan Atkinson wasn't that into the project, to be honest with you. He might have been willing, but not really. So I didn't use him.

Guillén: Another sequence I much admired in your film was the foley sequence filmed at the Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, Chapman University where the instructor was teaching his class how Tati worked with sound to create comic effects. I'm aware that some of the students at Dodge College helped with your film. Could you speak to their involvement in your project?

House: I wouldn't say that they helped. They helped in that sequence. They helped do some of the filming, helped with the lighting, and I shot a few sequences with them; but, Dodge College became involved after Melvin Bragg backed out. I approached Dodge to see if they wanted to help finance the film. They said, sure, we'll put in some money if you involve our students and I said, "Okay. All right." They gave a little bit of money for the production—which was great at the time—and then they sent six students from L.A. to Paris for a week and I took them to the Tati archive. They got to see and touch and learn all about Tati from Macha, followed up by a tour of France to all the locations where Tati filmed. After that, Dodge dropped the ball in the production, like people do. They got what they wanted and—I'm not badmouthing Dodge—but, they were going to handle post-production of the film at their million dollar facility in L.A. That had been the idea: that the kids would get to see a little bit at the beginning when I was researching the film and then help out with the final editing and sound mix to see how the film went from inception to projection. But Dodge dropped the ball and I had to find other ways to finish the film.

Guillén: I've heard that when the time came to dismantle Tativille—which is an immensely sad story that comes across quite poignantly in your film: this loss of vision, let alone his personal resources—Tati threw the script for Playtime into the rubble. Is that true?

House: It's really hard to see him doing it but in my film there's the footage of the big buildings being pulled down with ropes and if you look down in the shadow there's a guy in a brown leather coat who you see flinging something, and that's Tati flinging the script. Marie-France Sielger, Tati's assistant, confirmed for me that it was indeed the script he was throwing into the rubble.

Guillén: Can you comment on the relationship between René Clément and Jacques Tati? I'm aware that Tati wrote and acted in René Clément's first short film Soigne ton gauche (1936) about a country boy turned boxing maestro. Then later Tati stepped in as director for Clément when he withdrew from Jour de Fête.

House: I think he did, yeah. There's a fair amount of contradiction in accounts of those early pre-WWII short films. I wouldn't swear by any of it. But it seemed that Tati and Clément worked together a lot. Clément was trying to advance himself so, of course, when something bigger came along, he took those chances. At that time Tati was a nobody and his productions were gambles.

For example, Jour de Fête—Tati's first feature—was supposed to have been directed by Clément but he got an offer to direct Au-delà des grilles [Beyond the Gates, 1949; in English distribution, The Walls of Malapaga]. He abandoned the Jour de Fête project to make this now classic French film. I don't know if he and Tati were close after that. Clément's career took off after Au-delà des grilles. They knew each other, they worked together, but they were both struggling and took the opportunities as they came. Back then, I think Clément and Tati both thought, "I'm going to take the best offer I can get."

There is so much backstory to that whole Jour de Fête project. I couldn't possibly have gone into it in my documentary; but, it's fascinating, all about the film industry within France during the Occupation. Jour de Fête, in many ways, was an attempt by the French film establishment to get into the running and into the big leagues; but, unfortunately, it didn't work out. They had the wrong film method for colorizing. A lot of people have talked about this incredible period in books, including Dave Bellos in his book, when France was struggling to reestablish itself, in more ways than just cinema.

Guillén: Roger Ebert has indicated that Clément's Forbidden Games (1952) was likewise a project encouraged by Tati, who had seen a short film of Clément's based on the same story and which Tati recommended Clément expand into a feature.

House: I don't know. I think they remained friends; but, his name faded after Jour de Fête in all my research. Tati had to put up with a lot of shit anyway with Jour de Fête. Fred Orain, the producer of Les enfants du paradis (1945), also produced Jour de Fête. He was trying to make the first French color movie. Jour de Fête was supposed to be a vehicle for that. Orain got Tati involved because he knew him from his earlier shorts. Orain was a huge and important technician in French cinema. He was feeling high from the success of Les enfants du paradis and conquering the world with that film. But then when they couldn't release Jour de Fête in color, I think there were a lot of people—Clément included—who said, "Oh fuck. Jesus Christ. All this waste. It's just black and white. It's like an old Chaplin film. Fuck it." They couldn't get Jour de Fête distributed in France. Tati took it very personally.

Almost a year after they wrapped the film, Tati took it upon himself to lie to a group of critics. He told them there was going to be a screening of a new film out in some remote venue and he lured a lot of critics there and screened Jour de Fête. They loved it! It got a Paris distribution from that bullshit session and then from there it got picked up nationally, then internationally.

Guillén: That's a wonderful story. Thanks for relaying that to me.

House: He did that a lot. He did other really crazy stuff like: he would make all the extras in his films come to the first week of the opening and he would say, "Okay. I want everyone to line up—all 50 of you—I want you to line up in front of the theater, go in, leave by the back door, and come back around to get back in line. I want people to think there's a perpetual line of people wanting to see this film." He paid them to do that. They couldn't actually go to see the film. He did that so that people driving by would think, "Oh, Tati's film is popular." I think he did that with Playtime.

Guillén: Can you speak at all to Tati's failed project with Federico Fellini: Don Quixote?

House: I've heard about that. I read a letter that Tati's secretary had written to someone, saying that Tati and Fellini were friends and that he was very interested in helping Tati with his Don Quixote project. I think it's true. I think Fellini wanted to make Don Quixote with Tati in the lead role. Tati would have been perfect visually, though they probably would have killed each other on the set; but, from what I've deduced, that rumor is fact. That was out there. They were talking about it. But by the time Tati had filmed Mon Oncle, he had lost interest in little European 16mm projects and, poor Fellini, he could only get the money to shoot his films in 16mm. It was a shame he couldn't get the money to film Don Quixote properly. Fellini, as far as I can tell, is one of the few directors that Tati ever paid attention to. He didn't go to the movies much.

Cross-published on