Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Not So Ordinary

Safe Conduct (Laisez-Passer)

Directed by Bertrand Tavernier

Koch Lorber DVD

For three decades, French director Bertrand Tavernier has made highly personal, extremely sophisticated films that defy easy categorization.

Tavernier usually favors fractured narratives that rarely provide the sort of closure most audiences expect, and - most important - an affection for his flawed, ordinary, all too human characters. Both of these characteristics are in abundance in Safe Conduct (2002), a breathless three-hour ride through the lives of two movie men who were part of the Resistance during the Nazi Occupation of France: assistant director Jean Devaivre and screenwriter Jean Aurenche, the latter of whom Tavernier collaborated with on the scripts of his first three extraordinary feature films (The Clockmaker, Let Joy Reign Supreme, The Judge and the Assassin).

Tavernier sat down for a conversation on a visit to New York City for the premiere of Safe Conduct at the New York Film Festival.

Kevin Filipski: In the very first sentence of the review of Safe Conduct in The New York Times, (critic Elvis Mitchell) says that your films are not known for their passion, which is totally inaccurate. All your films are passionate about their characters.
Bertrand Tavernier: I was very surprised. It was as if someone said, "Kurosawa is not Japanese." For example, 'Round Midnight needed a passionate director. Apart from producer Irwin Winkler, no one wanted to do it. So when Warner Brothers accepted the film, we fought for a year and I had to put my salary as a guarantee against going over budget, so I wasn't paid for two years. You have to be passionate to accept working in those conditions. I gambled two years of my life because I really believed in it, and that's happened a lot. When I make films, I do only what I want to do and I invest myself passionately. So it's bizarre, I don't know what he's talking about, "not passionate."

KF: Is Safe Conduct something you've thought about making for awhile?
BT: Yes. Back when I was working with Aurenche, I was starting to work on a screenplay. I wrote down his story. I should have asked him to write it himself, but I don't know if he would have done that. Everything in his life during that time was incredible. I always had the idea for Aurenche's story but never thought I'd use him as the main character. I felt I was missing something, and it wasn't until I met Devaivre, and he started telling me what happened to him, that I realized I had another story that would enable me to use Aurenche also. The problem with the film was showing the great French stars of the time, because you cannot find people who look like that. You can find people who can play the writers and directors because nobody knows their faces! When I had those two characters, the film had shape, and also had a link between them: the spirit of the Resistance. What fascinated me was that they never meet. It was a challenge: we tried to make them meet, but each attempt wasn't original, and we couldn't find anything for them to say to each other. There are scenes when they're together and you think they're going to talk, but they don't.

KF: You're a big film buff, but this is your first feature about filmmaking.
BT: I didn't want to make just any film about movies. Even if you don't know anybody in Safe Conduct, you'll understand the feeling, the emotions of the characters. Someone wrote that you must understand French film history to understand this movie, but that's not true. I've met many young people in France who know nothing about these characters, but they understand when a director's wife has been arrested - they understand the emotion when he is hurt by this horrible news and cannot go on making a film. The same way, when I made 'Round Midnight, I didn't make a jazz buff's film. I tried to be true - most films about shooting films get it wrong, it's only the director yelling "Action" and "Cut," you never see the amount of collective work and how much needs to be coordinated. I wanted to do a film not about cinema but about the emotion of making films at that time - what were the reasons, what was the danger, what would I have done if I was making films at that time? The more I was working on the film, the more admiring I became of those people, who did an extraordinary job under horrible conditions.

KF: Explain the film's title.
BT: I was never happy with the title, but I never found anything better. I wanted a title that included the two main characters. The French distributor loved Laissez-Passer, so I kept it. It works in English, too, because it has two meanings; Safe Conduct actually works better than the French title.

KF: How involved are you in the release of your films of DVD?
BT: I try to work on them. It's easier in France, where they've released two boxed sets of my films: I worked very hard on those, and the prints are incredible. I try to get involved as much as I can. I think it's good seeing some films again, and some commentaries and interviews are useful. Of course, some studios are incredibly lazy: they don't do any kind of work, and sometimes don't even bother to find out if the director is still alive! It doesn't cost a fortune to shoot an interview or have someone talk over the film. For 'Round Midnight, I supervised the transfer in France, because the first American laserdisc was terrible. I still have another hour and 25 minutes' worth of music from 'Round Midnight, and I asked (Warner Brothers) to put it on the DVD. We started re-mixing, then they decided they only wanted an audio commentary. So I said, 'Go to hell!'

originally posted on staticmultimedia.com

No comments: