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'A Director in the City' Honoree: Claude Lelouch

Claude Lelouch - P 2012
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Before heading to Nimes for the “A Director in the City” festival in his honor, the Oscar-winning French filmmaker looks back on his prolific career.

He has seven children, has been working for more than 50 years and has made almost that many movies.  French director Claude Lelouch has Oscars, Cesars, a Palme d’Or and several other major prizes under his belt, but the 74 year-old director isn’t planning to put down his camera anytime soon. He’ll head to Nimes this week for the“A Director in the City” festival honoring his prolific career. Before he headed to the Southern French city, Lelouch spoke to The Hollywood Reporter’s France Correspondent Rebecca Leffler where his idea for A Man and a Woman really came from, why even Steve McQueen, Marlon Brando, John Travolta and Barbra Streisand couldn’t convince him to make a Hollywood movie and why he may be the only Frenchman who never takes a vacation.

The Hollywood Reporter: You’ve received so many honors and prizes throughout your long career, including the coveted Oscar. What does this honor in Nimes mean to you?

Claude Lelouch: I’m at the age of homages and masterclasses now! There are two kinds of movies: the ones we see once and the ones we go back to see again. It’s nice to see that some of my films have managed to last through the years and that people want to see them again.

THR: Why did you accept the festival’s offer to come to Nimes? Aren’t you on vacation like the rest of France at this time of year?

Lelouch: I never take vacation. For me, vacations are just more hassles… hassles in the sun! I never last there. I always need action. I need to keep thinking, writing, preparing a film, even several at a time.

THR: The Festival has chosen five of your films to present. What do you think of their selection? What films would you have chosen from your vast filmography to screen?

Lelouch: In a retrospective, I’d mix some of my successes with some of my biggest failures. We only learn from failure. Out of my failures, I’ve made some of my biggest successes.

THR: Do you have a favorite film out of all that you’ve made?

Lelouch: It’s as if you were asking me to choose between my children. It would be perfectly cruel. All of my films are important to me. They’ve all taught me something! I never stop going back to school and learning when I make a movie, like all self-teachers!

THR: The festival will screen A Man and a Woman, probably your best known film across French borders. What does this film mean to you?

Lelouch: A Man and a Woman fundamentally changed my life. Two Oscars, the Palme d’Or…After this film, I became a free man. It brought me success and fame. It’s a decisive step in any career.

THR: Where did the idea for the film come from?

Lelouch: The story of the script and of this race car driver was born one morning, just after a night of total depression. I’d come from a catastrophic screening of my previous film. I didn’t want to do anything. I went to Deauville. I didn’t even know why I went to Deauville. I fell asleep along the ocean in my car. When day broke, I saw a woman and her child walking along the water far away. I left my car to get some air. The more I walked towards this woman, the more I asked myself: What is she doing here so early with a child? Maybe she is trying to take advantage of her time with the child because she doesn’t see him very often? Little by little, I started to write the script of the film in my head. I sat down in a nearby café to write down some notes. And I finished the script just a few weeks later.  

THR: You made A Man and a Woman: 20 Years Later and now it’s been 46! If you made A Man and a Woman: 46 Years Later today, what would it be about?

Lelouch: I explain in my documentary From One Film to Another that I made several mistakes with this film. 20 Years Later is a sequel, a remake and film within a film all at the same time.
I was wrong to think that audiences needed entertainment because I’d just finished making some pretty polyphonic movies like Les Uns et les Autres and Edith and Marcel. But the menu became too sophisticated. I should have focused on just one scene. Only one scene in the restaurant where Anouk and Jean-Louis meet. That was my original idea. Just two cameras. If I had to redo it today, it would only be this face-to-face, a focus only on what was essential.

THR: What would be your dream opening or closing credits? With whom would you like to work (dead or alive) ?

Lelouch: I’ve dreamed of directing Jean Gabin or even Louis de Funes. They left us too early.

THR:  How did your collaboration with Jean-Paul Belmondo come about for Itinerary of a Spoiled Child  (he also produced the film with you) ?

Lelouch: At the time, my social and professional lives were weighing on me. I hadn’t totally recovered from the failure of …20 Years Later. For the first time in my life, I wanted to go on vacation, leave what I loved most – my family, my friends and Paris. I wanted to disappear. The title says it all: I was a spoiled child and I wanted to get rid of all of these great things in my life. I started thinking that it would be better for everyone if I disappeared. One morning, I left the house and said I wouldn’t go back that night. I left Paris, not really sure of where I was headed. I arrived in Fontainebleau and said to myself that I was the king of the jerks: I’d just found a great subjet for a movie and I had’t even noticed! Because I missed everyone I loved and I hadn’t even been away for one night. When I came back to Paris, I thought of Jean-Paul Belmondo right away. He was in a phase similar to mine. He wanted to follow me on this adventure! It’s also through Itinerary that I discovered that directing actors is only effective if we use several cameras. Filming with just one camera doesn’t allow you to get the most out of your actors. Itinerary of a Spoiled Child is, in my opinion, the film where I best direct actors. 

THR: You fooled everyone by making Crossed Tracks with a pseudonym. Why? Is it important for you today to succeed based on your work and not your name?

Lelouch: I wanted to perform the ultimate sleight of hand, like a magician. I asked myself if the problem with my films wasn’t simply “Claude Lelouch”! So I had this crazy idea to make a film with a pseudonym, like Romain Gary’s snub to the literary world when he wrote “The Life Before Us”under the pseudonym Emile Ajar. He too, at some point in his life, had felt bruised. I had the impression that my movies didn’t interest anybody anymore.  We all embarked on this massive deception and I asked my best friend to play the role of director.

THR: With the media today, how were you able to keep the secret up until the premiere?

Lelouch: No one tried to figure out who the director was until the first times the film was screened! I heard things about this director of a “first film” that I’d never heard about myself.

THR: What was the biggest challenge making Les Uns et les Autres – (or Bolero for American audiences) ?

Lelouch: With Les Uns et les Autres, I thought that two destinies were enough to tell a story. I felt a need to multiply the plots and the characters. And the real main character of the film is the music! The music that connects all of these characters!

THR: Music plays an important role in all of your films. Why is it so important to you and what does it mean to you?

Lelouch: It’s the most important actor! The one no one can see. Music speaks the most to people’s unconscious. I record the music for my films before I start shooting because I don’t want it to be a complement, something to fill a void, but instead a fundamental actor in the story!

THR: All That…For This?! : What inspired this film?

Lelouch: It’s true that when I saw how La Belle Histoire was received, I said “All that…for this?!” My life was like a storm, both professionally and personally. I desperately wanted to laugh. I reread the notes I’d written throughout the year: my observation of couples caught my attention. In these notes, I’d written about the difficulty of living with someone of the opposite sex. On one hand, the film focuses on people lucky enough to fall in love, to have several amorous experiences and who try to free themselves in order to love each other even more and, on the other hand, three characters who remain in the prehistorical times of love, who loved like people loved at the beginning of time.

THR: Why do you like to tell love stories? And how has your vision of love changed since you started your career?

Lelouch: Since the beginning of time, everything has evolved, except for love! So it interests me more and more.

THR: In Ces Amours-là (What War May Bring), many of the stories were inspired by your real life. Aside from that film, which of your films is the most “personal” ?

Lelouch: All of my films were inspired by real things. I’m a real concierge! I observe everything. I’m nourished by everything that I see. So everything is almost “personal.”

THR: Your career is still successful after all these years and you continue to reinvent yourself. What is your secret to success?

Lelouch: Curiosity that never ends…

THR: Is it box office success or critical acclaim that is more important for you when you release a film?

Lelouch: Reviews used to be my greatest source of grief, but I think that the time that passes is the biggest critic of all. People still want to see some of my films again so I feel like time has been kind to me.

THR: Before Ces Amours-la (What War May Bring) came out, you said it was a culmination of the past 50 years of your life, your work and your emotions. What’s next after that?

Lelouch: With Ces Amours-la, I wanted to do a real film synthesis about my obsessions, my way of seeing things. I also wanted a younger audience to discover my work with this film. But things don’t always work out like we imagine. Now I’m done with those obsessions.

THR: From One Film to Another is your documentary that looks back on your career and your life. Why did you make this film? 

Lelouch: This movie wasn’t meant to be released. We wanted to celebrate 50 years of my production company Les Films 13 through a montage movie that looked back on our years together. A film that could be shown to my colleagues, my friends and my family. I watched some of my films again and I commented on them without any complacency. And that’s what makes the film authentic. After a few screenings, people convinced me that I needed to release it.

THR: When you watched your films again for this documentary, did you see them from a different perspective? Do you have any regrets?

Lelouch: I’ve always tried to look forward. Sometimes even I don’t recognize my own movies when they air on TV. In fact, I usually don’t watch them after they’re finished.

THR: With all of your success, Hollywood must have called you over the years. Why have you resisted making studio films?

Lelouch: I’ve had several propositions. Steve McQueen, Marlon Brando, John Travolta, Barbra Streisand… But I’ve never wanted to have the pressure of the studios. A Man and a Woman made me free! I wanted to keep that freedom and always have final cut on my movies and make the films I wanted to make.

THR: What are your future projects as a director?

Lelouch: For the moment, I have two. One film about my favorite hassles: family and friends. It’s called Salaud, on t’aime (“Asshole, We love you”) and another film called Les Bandits Manchots (The one-armed bandits).

THR: What was your most difficult film to make ?

Lelouch: All of the scripts that stayed in my drawers…

THR: And the most fun to make?

Lelouch: Without a doubt La Bonne Année...

THR: Do you know Nimes well? What are you looking forward to most at the festival?

Lelouch: I filmed some scenes from La Belle Histoire there during the 90s. Meeting audiences is always a pleasure. It’s a festival that’s entirely dedicated to me – it’s an honor!

THR: You have seven children. Are any of them going to follow in your filmmaking footsteps?

Lelouch: Some of them have already fallen under the spell…

THR: You’re known for being an advocate for young and unknown directors and producing several first films. In Nimes, there will be a lot of fans and people hoping to become a “famous director” like you. Any advice for them to succeed?

Lelouch: They should take their cell phones and film as soon as tomorrow morning. With all of these little cameras today, we’re all filmmakers.