Jean-Claude Carrière’s latest trip to the UK coincided both with a season of his work at the BFI, and Studio Canal’s Blu-ray release of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, one of his best loved pictures.
Fifty years into his career, Carrière is still one of the most accomplished and exciting writers working for the big screen, and his notable works go beyond his collaborations with Luis Bunuel to include contributions to films by Michael Haneke, Jonathan Glazer, Miloš Forman and very many more. But what unifies all of these pictures is Carrière’s skill for and knowledge of cinematic storytelling.
Here’s some of what Carrière told me about the language of film, and the role of a screenwriter… but first, his response to a very simple question…
How am I doing? Such a question. I could take a long time to answer. Not so bad for a man of my age. It’s fantastic to be still at work. Everybody wants to come and work with me.
I became aware, when I was 35 or 40, that I was living in a century that had invented new ways of writing, new languages. If this was the 19th century we could talk only about theatre and books. But I realised that cinema, radio, recording, television, even special effects – that every new technique needed a new language. I’ve been trying all my life, and I’m still trying, to explore these different languages.
The language of film has very little to do with a novel, or even with a playwright’s work.
The film language is the most elaborate, the most secret and the most invisible. A good script is a script that you don’t notice. It has vanished. It’s extremely interesting to write knowing that when you shoot it, what has written will go directly to the garbage. The script is the transmission between the ideas and the film, it’s the first form of the film, it’s not something final. Being a screenwriter is not the last step of a literary adventure but the first step of a film adventure.
But a screenwriter must know everything about the techniques of how to make a film. If you are a director and you start speaking to me about techniques, we need to be on the same team. A screenwriter is a filmmaker but very few people know that.
The first secret is to be interesting, to tell an interesting action. The secret is not in the idea, but the action that communicates that idea. Think about what the scene should be. You can say “the character shows us that he’s not in love” but, really, you need to be showing which character enters and what action does he do. Very often you have try different actions to get the solution. As Milos Forman says, sometimes, there are some actions that I believe and things that I do not. The difference between the two is very difficult to describe.
I always work with the director. I am very rarely alone. So, when I was working with, for example, Luis Bunuel, we were there, facing each other. We were acting the scenes. The fact that we acted it helped us know if it was interesting, too long, too short, too absurd. When you are writing you are trying to reach the first draft of a film without a camera, but it’s interesting, from time to time, to draw. Maybe not a frame, but if you think about a character, maybe their silhouette.
We have to visualise, and the give life, the energy and the rhythm.
When I was working with Bunuel we gave each other three seconds to say yes or no to any idea. Just three seconds. This system was not perfect. It obliged you to dig and dig into your own imagination. At the end of the day you were tired. But this prevented reasoning from getting in the way. Bunuel was looking for something spontaneous, something from deep down, from our darkness. When I proposed something that I liked and he said no, and this went on six hours a day, all week, it was exhausting. The rule was that we both had to agree on everything. The script took five different versions and at the end Bunuel said “What else? What more? We’ve been through so many possibilities, we have to admit it’s this or nothing.”
The moment you become a film director you can’t become anything else. Jean Renoir was a very good writer and he wrote some very good books, but he was never considered as anything but a film director. He was put in a little drawer. But the moment you are a screenwriter, you are a writer. So, when I publish books, I am criticised as a writer. When I write plays, it’s the same.
I made the decision to not be a director because I want to be a writer, a playwright. But the moment I’m working on a film I have to know after the script, comes the film. Sometimes when I’m writing alone, I visualise, I can’t do otherwise. We all have a little inside movie theatre, which we see, more or less. But I try not to write this down too precisely, and leave those steps for the director to take.
The very first day I entered a filmmaker’s office was when I was going to write a book about Tati’s Monsieur Hulot’s Holidays. They received me and asked “What do you know about cinema? What do you know about how to make a film?” I said “I know nothing” so I was sent directly to the editing bay and I spent ten days, shot by shot, studying Monsieur Hulot’s Holidays. I understood that I was learning a new language, though so far I was only a spectator.
When you’re only watching films you don’t realise that there is a secret.
If you shoot the scene in one shot, like in the first seven or eight years of cinema, where the camera doesn’t move and it’s like theatre, everybody understands. The moment that the camera becomes one of the characters, we are lost. If in the 30s, or even 40s I wrote a scene that said “Let’s meet at my office at four o’clock” then the next shot will show the office, then the next shot will show that it’s four o’clock. Now, we just go not only to the scene inside the office, but to the best moment of that scene.
A filmmaker from Algeria once told me, 40 or 50 years ago, that he was making an educational film about a very dangerous fly and he showed it to people who had never seen films before. At the end of the film they asked this audience at the end what they thought and they said “It’s a very dangerous fly, but we don’t have this here.Not a fly that size…” They were confused by the close-ups.
Bunuel told me that when he was even or eight years old going to the cinema in Spain there was a man standing by the screen with a bamboo stick saying “And then he goes up to the window…” An ‘explicador’ explaining the film.
The real language of film is editing. Sometimes there are funny stories. Jean Rouch, the French filmmaker who was working in ethnographical cinema, one day he made a film about the hunting of the hippopotamus. He shot everything and recorded the music of the village and edited it into the film as a soundtrack. A year later he returned and showed the film to the people, and they were very happy to see the film, and to see the images of themselves, even some people who had died, but at the end they said “There’s one thing. Why didn’t the hippopotamus run away when it heard the music?”
All of the great directors from the beginning, from Melies on, have developed and refined the language, and sometimes they have perverted the language.
I was unfortunately quite ill for some time after completing this interview, and I wish I could have brought it to you earlier, while there were more films yet to screen in the BFI series. Nonetheless, the Blu-ray of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is available now and comes fully recommended. Here’s the trailer for this reissue.
Doesn’t quite do it justice.
The only real distinction between full-tilt Bunuel and Monty Python is that Python had a sketch show and so we’re told they’re meant to be funny, almost dismissively; and Bunuel had an accent, so we’re told he was an artist. Really, they were gunning for the some goals, trying to amuse, disturb, and rattle some cages. They were both funny, and they were certainly both artists.
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