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Governors Award’s Jean-Claude Carriere Says Key to Success: ‘Enjoy Work. And Don’t Smoke’

Jean-Claude Carriere will receive an Honorary Oscar at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s Governors Awards Saturday, a feather in the cap of a nearly 60-year screenwriting career — but most certainly not an actual cap to it, he says. Known for his numerous collaborations with Luis Buñuel, including co-writing films such as “Belle Du Jour,” “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” and “The Milky Way,” the French screenwriter earned a reputation for crafting and adapting surreal, seemingly impossible projects. That reputation culminated in his work with English theatre and film director Peter Brook to create a nine-hour stage version in 1985 and five-hour film adaptation in 1989 of the epic Sanskrit poem “The Mahabharata.” Already an Oscar winner for his 1962 short “Heureux Anniversaire,” Carriere discussed his long career, working with Buñuel and not knowing what an Oscar was.

What does this award mean for you, at this point in your career?

It’s a good encouragement for the thirty years to come. I’m 83, it’s something that I’m very happy to receive and proud, anybody would be. But I hope it will not announce the end of my working life, you know what I mean? That I keep working and writing. What I’m just doing right now, I’m in a hotel room and I’m writing a script.

How have you managed to stay creatively fresh?

By not smoking. How could I answer? I just don’t know. I’ve been gratified with good health, and since I was a kid, an intense desire for working. I’m a hard worker. I’m very, very often alone in my room thinking, writing, correcting. I don’t know what it is. I love my job, maybe that’s the main reason. First of all, you need to have some success at one point. If not, you’ll be desperate and you’ll give up. From time to time, every three times you need a success, and then it gives you a real joy and you will enjoy working. Right now, what I’m doing alone a hotel room, far from my family, from my friends, I enjoy it very much. That’s all I can say. Enjoy working. And don’t smoke. You can drink a little bit, from time to time.

What for you is the role of the screenwriter?

To me, it’s French to say, but a screenwriter is not a writer. He’s already a filmmaker. Of course, he better know how to write. But he’s not going to write a literary novel or piece of literature. What he must know at every moment when he writes a script, what I’m doing now, he must know how it’s going to be shot, how it will last, and maybe how it will cost. He mustn’t be attached to his words. He knows the script is the first form of a film, the first approach. And here in a hotel room, I have no camera, no lighting, no sound recorder, nothing. I’m just alone with my computer. And I have to know precisely the techniques of the filmmaking. When I’m working with the director, if the director starts talking to me about technique and I cannot answer, he doesn’t need me. That’s why I’ve been an assistant, I’ve been working with the camera … and also I have done a lot of editing. That’s absolutely essential for a screenwriting. You mustn’t approach the film itself as a playwright or a novelist, but as a filmmaker. And I’m very happy about this Oscar, already almost five or six of my screenwriter colleagues, they called me to say how happy and proud that for once a screenwriter is awarded.

You said you’re not writing like a novelist, but you have worked on novels.

Yeah, I happened to write books and plays (before screenwriting). We were born in the first century in history which has invented new forms of writing. In the 19th century, we could talk, you and me, only about theater and literature. So think about the cinema, the radio, the recording of voice and sound, the television and all of the new techniques. All of these new techniques that the century has invented, every time, they need a new language. If you want to be a screenwriter you have to know the language of the film. … I have been always interested in experiencing all the different languages which have been put at my disposal during my life.

When you moved from novels to film, how people around you react?

I first published one or two novels, and then when I was already 29 I was taught of making short films with Pierre Étaix, a friend of mine. And we wrote and directed the films together, and one of them, called “Happy Anniversary,” won the Academy Award, won the Oscar. And I was so naive that when I arrived at the office, the producer was jumping out of joy. You know, shouting, “We got the Oscar! We got the Oscar!” And I asked him, “What’s the Oscar?” I didn’t know yet, at that time. I’ve learned since. But the moment came later, when I was about to make a feature film with Pierre Étaix, and then at the same moment, Luis Buñuel asked me to work as a screenwriter with him. That I could not refuse, in ’62. So I made really the decision not be a film director, because if you are a film director you can’t pretend to be a novelist. You can’t pretend to be a playwright. You are the boss, you are the director of the film, but that’s all. The only thing you can do in your life is films. And I was extremely attracted to all forms of writing. I had (worked) with Peter Brook for 34 years, which were splendid years. If I had decided to be a film director, I wouldn’t have been able to do that with Peter and some of the theater directors. That’s a choice of life, and at the time I was about 30.

What was it like working with Buñuel?

It was a hard work but of course so rewarding, because he was a fantastic man. He was not only a director, a filmmaker, but he was a very nice, warm and funny person. So it was a solitary work, just the two of us, to try to get as concentrated as possible. (We worked) without friends, without wives, alone in a remote hotel somewhere in Spain or in Mexico, always, and then to face each other three hours in the morning, three hours in the afternoon, to eat together three times a day, to get totally concentrated on what we were doing, and never to stop before we were satisfied. A film like “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” we wrote five different versions and it took two years.

Some of your screenplays are from texts that people call unfilmable; how do you approach a work or story like that?

When you shoot the film, you have absolutely no time to reflect, to go back, to think about it. When you write the script, you have time. When I was talking about “Belle Du Jour” for instance, we had different versions of course, at the beginning something was attracting Luis in the novel. The novel isn’t very good. Something was attracting Luis and (me). We didn’t know exactly what it was. It’s only by working, improvising, inventing, forgetting things that we have done  that finally we reach a form that we think could be a film. In the case of “Belle Du Jour,” it was the fact that little by little, step by step, we realized that the daily life of the main character sounds unreal, like a very cheap novel. But her dreams were all real. They have been all told to us by women. So it was reversing the reality and the fiction. The fiction was real, and the reality was fiction. That’s one of the secrets of the film. What she dreams of is real, but her daily life is banal, always cheap. And I tell you this in two minutes, but it needs months of working and every day going back, which is very difficult for somebody. It’s very difficult also to write a script alone, totally alone. Because you don’t know. When you work with the director you can already act some of the scenes. And even for instance in “Belle Du Jour,” Buñuel was acting Belle Du Jour and I was acting all the clients. I still remember him playing Belle Du Jour, acting the girl.

You also served for years as the president of the French state film school.

I founded the school in ’86 and I was the chairman for 10 years. I still go there from time to time to direct a workshop, to introduce a director to the students. Also I’m extremely interested in directing workshops all over the world. The last time it was last year in Germany, with young filmmakers both Jews and Arabs from Israel. That was extremely interesting, and it keeps me in contact with the new generations.

What’s the most important thing to convey to a young filmmaker?

The language. I tell you in one phrase very simply: You have to give them the how to do, and never to tell them what to do. The know-how, the techniques, what you have learned, you have to transmit it to get it, but what to do, the subject of their films, that’s their work. Never try to impose your ideas for the story itself, for what contains the film. How to do the film, instead of what to do.

Are there any career moments, so far, that are milestones or highlights?

There is one, only one. Of course, working with Buñuel was fantastic. But when we decided, with Peter Brook, to adapt the Mahabharata, the epic Indian poem, to the stage and to the screen, that was the highest mountain I had to climb in my life. Even now, tomorrow I will tell the Mahabharata on the stage of the Paramount Theater in Boston. To adapt that very long and very complex poem to the stage and to the screen, that was my best reward ever.

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