Patrice Leconte: ‘I’m Not a Reporter-style Filmmaker, I Bear Witness to My Emotions, Not to My Time’

French helmer delivered a masterclass during Paris Images Pro

Patrice Leconte: ‘I’m Not Reporter-style Filmmaker,
Copyright 2015 Patrice Leconte

With a 40-year career, spanning 30 films, Patrice Leconte is one of France’s most versatile and accomplished directors, with credits including cult pics “Monsieur Hire,” “Ridicule” and “The Hairdresser’s Husband.” He delights in shifting genres and filming styles from one project to the next. In 2012 he directed his first animation feature, “The Suicide Shop”, having previously dabbled in animation and cartoons during his teenage years and in his first job as a cartoonist for the Franco-Belgian comics magazine Pilote. His penultimate picture, the romantic drama “A Promise,” starring Alan Rickman and Rebecca Hall, was his first English-language production. His most recent film “Do Not Disturb,” with Christian Clavier and Carole Bouquet, which opened 2015’s UniFrance Rendez-vous with French Cinema on Jan. 15, was shot with a handheld camera.

On January 28, he delivered a masterclass in the Paris Images Pro event – his first masterclass on French soil, having previously participated in such events in Los Angeles and New York. Variety interviewed him prior to the event, and he generously provided a valuable insight into his approach to filmmaking:

I’d like to begin by talking about the Masterclass you’re going to give at the Paris Images Pro event this week, I know you like to experiment with several techniques in every film, so I was curious to know exactly what you were going to deal with in the Masterclass.

It’s very simple and I hope interesting. Here in France we have films schools, and I’ve often been contacted by students, at the FEMIS national film school, for example, who always ask: “Why don’t you ever come here to give a Masterclass?” And I’d say; “I’m free, when I’ve got time, I can easily come and do so.” And they’d always say: “Great, we’ll tell the directors of our school, and let’s see whether that can be done.” But there’d never be any follow-u. So I’ve never given a masterclass at the FEMIS…I’m not complaining, or trying to make an issue of it, but it is indeed strange that in my own country film schools have never asked me to come in. In your country, however, in the U.S., in Los Angeles, places like UCLA, and in New York, I’ve given Masterclasses, with an interpreter, of course, which I really liked. Five days in New York, and a week in LA. I was really thrilled. For a very simple reason: when I was a film student, I was quite sad at never having the opportunity to meet film professionals, to talk with them, etc.

You studied at the IDHEC film school, the predecessor to the FEMIS, right?

Yes, I was indeed at IDHEC, which preceded FEMIS, which has become a really good school, but IDHEC…well, there, one didn’t have any contact with people in the profession. It had become a bit antiquated. So, well, to get back to what I was saying; a guy contacted me, to give a Masterclass the day after tomorrow, in Paris – a three-hour encounter, on my films, and that interests me deeply because there’s a question I always ask myself. When I make films I always ask myself lots of questions: but the really very fundamental question is: Since I make very different films, the crucial question is ‘how am I going to go about the mise-en-scène for my next film in hand?’ And in terms of the principle of the mise-en-scène, the execution of the mechanisms, how does one translate the images one has in one’s head? One can’t do it in the same way with “The Hairdresser’s Husband,”, “Ridicule,” “Girl on the Bridge,” “A Promise,” etc…So there’s always a new challenge in direction and that always passionately drives me. What is this new film going to look like? How am I going to shoot it?

With regard to you changing your style of filming, is that driven by a simple desire to change, to the subject matter that is dealt with? Because as a director, one of the things that stands out about you is your very broad diversity…

Yes, but it’s often said that the great directors, great auteur filmmakers are people who really do the same thing throughout their careers.

Exactly, that’s what I was getting at…

Orson Welles, Bergman, etc., etc.,…

There is a signature, very clear hallmarks

And I’m really not in the slightest bit concerned about being a great auteur. What really interests me, what I really like is cinema, expressing different things. And when people tell me: ‘Oh, you do really different things.’ I just say: ‘Well, I’m not monochromatic, I’m not just blue, or orange or green; all the colors are there. I am quite somber at times, and want to have the freedom to express all those different things. And you know, people always talk about being under a given sign of the zodiac – Virgo, Capricorn, Scorpio, etc. Well, I’m Scorpio. But in fact I’m more like a chameleon. My previous-to-last film, with Rebecca Hall, I really adored. Then after that I made “Do Not Disturb”, which is a light fantasy. Well, those two films, if anyone enters a cinema and he’s not told that they’re both by the same director, it’s impossible, there’s no way he’d possibly know they’re by the same director. And I really like that.

But do you think that deep down….for example I was at a Martin Scorsese Master Class, where he also said that he liked making very different films, but there’s something at the heart and essence of what he does, which is the question of identity, a kind of spiritual search. Do you think there’s such a common element at the heart of all your cinema?

Journalists often asked me precisely that question: You make very different films, but what’s the common thread/essence in your films? Well, I don’t know. I’m not the person to answer that. That’s for you journalists to determine. But one day, two-or-three years ago, I met a young man who was studying cinema and who was doing a paper on my films. And he asked me that question: What’s the common point to all your films? And I said: “I don’t know”. And he said: “Well I do.” And I said I’d be very keen to hear. And he said: “I’ve seen all your films several times, I’ve worked a lot on the full body of your film oeuvre: The first thing – all your films are stories about encounters; the characters in your films don’t know each other before the opening credits begin to roll, and they meet, and unfolding before our eyes is the result of what happens thereafter. And I said, “Yeah, shit, that’s true.”  It’s true that in life I like encounters, I like meeting people, I like setting up encounters, etc.” He then went on to make a second reflection: he said “80% of your films take place in a world that’s set apart – the hairdressing saloon in ‘The Hairdresser’s Husband.’ the apartment in ‘Monsieur Hire,’ etc, etc., …you are always in a world that’s set apart. And his third reflection was: “Every time you step out of era, into something neither old nor contemporary, into something atemporal, you always go for that. That’s you”. And I said: “Well, thank you very much, young man.” And I think he was quite right. I do like encounters, I love stepping out of our era, and I love pandering to flights of imagination, to situate my films elsewhere. I’m not at all a filmmaker that can be called someone who bears witness to his time and era. I bear witness to my emotions. Not to my time. I’m not a reporter-style filmmaker; I’m not a committed filmmaker. This young man was right.

In the context of this Master Class, have you conceived any particular approach for the occasion?

Well, it’s scheduled for three hours. It could just as well be for six. We’ve chosen extracts from my films, not all, but those from which interesting things can be drawn, and the crux would revolve around what I did in LA – examining certain extracts. I discuss why I was obliged to shoot like that, why I had to do a retake, why such and such a sequence had not worked initially, etc. When one can show examples, that’s concrete: It’s not talking in a void as it were. And since I know that in this Masterclass I’ll be dealing with people who plan to make cinema their profession, that makes it all the more interesting. When one makes films, one very often meets journalists who go on about the theme of the film, the actors in the film, and one doesn’t often have the opportunity to meet people involved in the same professional endeavors as I am, film students etc, and one never talks about direction with journalists. And I absolutely love talking about that.

And I suppose the extracts chosen – I don’t know whether you can say what they are – but I suppose they are extracts that are illustrative of what you’d like to say about mise-en-scène, about film direction….

Of course. For example, there is s sequence from “The Girl on the Bridge,” which I’m going to show, which is I sequence that I reshot. The first time I shot that sequence, I got it wrong; what I did was really useless; it scared me. Really, to get it so wrong was frightening; awful. I mean, I’m no longer a young filmmaker, I’ve made lots of films. So when I said to the actors and producers: ‘Look, I’m going to reshoot this scene because I got it woefully wrong,’ of course, I didn’t show exactly how and why I got it wrong, because that really was shameful, I simply show the scene, and I explain…

Exactly what scene was it?

It’s the scene in which Daniel Auteuil throws knives at Vanessa Paradis, but there’s no audience, they just do it for themselves; it’s like a metaphor of love, of the act of love. And the first time I shot that scene – and this is what was really awful- no one wrapped me on the knuckles, no one told me: ‘Patrice, I think you’ve got it wrong here,’ so I shot the scene. Everyone was happy. When I got into my car, behind the wheel that night, I was happy. I thought that things had gone well. And the editor must have looked at it properly and said, when I got to the editing room, and saw the rushes I said: ‘Shit. This is crap!’ So I reshot the scene a week later. You know, filmmakers, or normal people in the street, when one’s mature enough to accept that one can get things wrong, when one can say: ’Yeah, I got it wrong, I’m sorry,’ which is very rare, because people today, deep down, even when they know they’ve got it wrong, they don’t dare say: “I got it wrong,” they don’t want to drop their guard. That’s really silly. And when, some time later, one does accept and owns up and says: ‘Yeah, guys, I got that wrong,” it’s wonderful. It really is.

What was the other example?

From a film called “Intimate Strangers”, with Fabrice Luccini and Sandrine Bonnaire. It was the sequence at the end of the film. End-of-film sequences always scare me shitless, because I’m always thinking, that’s the scene you can’t afford to get wrong. In the middle of the film, if you muck up, you can compensate, but the end, that’s what spectators leave with, so I’m always apprehensive about end-of-film sequences. And I’d adopted a quite silly mise-en-scène yardstick, which really wasn’t working, so I got that wrong and I reshot the scene, in its entirety. I like that…I’m not one to hide my mistakes. No one has a wise counselor standing over his shoulder whispering into one’s ear: ‘Do it this way, or that way, it’s the best way.” Even after making 30 films, one can get things wrong. And for me, after 40 years in the business and over 30 films under my belt, recognizing that I can get it wrong is a nice thing. Because allowing yourself the right to get things wrong is quite a comforting thing. Because imagine that at my age, after 40 years in the business and having directed 30 films, if I say: “I never get it wrong,” that’s really awful. That would mean I’m infallible. And I’m anything but. I get things wrong. It’s quite refreshing and comforting for the spirit to say: ‘Hey, I can get it wrong.’

Your film, “The Suicide Shop”, was an animated film, and I think you started your career as a cartoonist for Pilote. Have you made other animated films? What was that experience like?

No. When I was a teenager, my dream was to make films. I’m not a cartoonist who became a filmmaker. Cartoons represented a five-year period of parenthesis and I loved it, because I loved drawing. I’d always been interested in animated drawings, and when a producer proposed that to me, i.e., the adaptation of a novel to make an animated film, I thought that would be enlightening. I’d never have thought of that on my own accord. I’d never have woken up one morning and said to myself: ‘Hey, I’m going to make an animated film.’ But I thought it was coherent given my past as an illustrator, my taste and liking for animation, and when I worked on animation, it was ideal, straight up my street, because we were talking the same language, doing little drawings. It was perfect. I loved that. But it’s the only animation film I’ve made. As a teenager I made animated films because it was the only way to express myself – you know, you had a camera, you had drawings, it was something you could do on your own. So for me it was a nice outlet to make little films, nice shorts, three-minute, six-minute ventures.

And given your spirit of predisposition towards experimentation, did that experience with “The Suicide Shop” provide you with ideas for live action images subsequent to that? I take it that such an avenue for experimentation feeds and nurtures new ideas and I’d be keen to know whether it was the case with you…

I’d really like to be able to say: ‘Yes, you’re right,’ but it’s the opposite. i.e., one day, an important journalist-critic, from Paris saw that film and told me: “I adore this film because it’s a film that’s been put together by an out-an-out film director.’ I was really touched to hear that. In fact, my experience as a metteur-en-scene – a director – of feature films was extremely useful for the making of animated films, but not the other way round. Because the mise-en-scene of “The Suicide Shop,”, where is the camera? What’s the point of view? All of that is accumulated baggage from my work as a feature film director. But the experience on an animation film did not help for the making of subsequent films. No.

Your film was with Alan Rickman and Rebecca Hall… Is that an avenue you’re keen to pursue in the future, making films in English? I know it’s a big question, but could you quickly shed any light?

When I made that film, the English language imposed itself because there was no other solution. I couldn’t make the film in German, because I don’t speak a word of German. To make it in French, when it’s set in Germany, and it’s so very German, just didn’t was. So the ideal solution was English, being the wonderfully universal language it is. I’m not bi-lingual, that’s why this interview is in French, I do speak English, I understand it, and to direct a film, that didn’t pose any problems for me. I’d said to the actors : ‘Look, I’m not bi-lingual, so whenever you see there’s something I don’t fully understand, please speak more slowly’ and they were wonderful. I had a great time. Alan Rickman, Rebecca Hall and all the other actors: the English actors have a confidence, a quality to their work, a professionalism that really astounded me during those two months of shooting. So when I made that film it wasn’t at all with the ultimate idea of eventually opening doors towards the U.S., for career motives. I’m a French director, and very happy to be that. I’m no longer 22 years old, if I’d wanted to pursue a film career in the Anglo-Saxon world, in the U.S, I’d have said yes to that many years ago. The first film I .made that did have something of an impact in the U.S. was “Monsieur Hire”, and then after that we had “The Hairdresser’s Husband” and other films. And at that time many agents and producers kept telling me: ‘Come over, come and work here, in the U.S.’ So if I’d wanted to, it would have been easy for me, just a question of saying: “I’m coming”. But I think I’ve been happier here. With absolute freedom to do exactly what I had in my head. I’ve made films impregnated with the most absolute, unadulterated freedom. If I’d gone to the U.S. – and this isn’t anything against the U.S., far from it- would I have been able to make “Ridicule”? Would I have been able to make “The Girl on the Bridge”? I don’t know. I don’t think so.

Your most recent films are mainly adaptations. Is your choice for your films now veering towards adaptation?

It’s just that adaptations reassure producers, a lot. When you tell them: ‘I’m going to adapt Simenon, Zweig,’ everyone feels very assured; me included. We all sit down on a chair that’s already there, that exists. Now, however, with Jerome Tonnere, with whom I’ve written several films, we’re writing the screenplay for my next film, which is an original screenplay, and we’re not seated on any chair, we’re not writing standing up, but…it’s a wee bit frightening to depart from an original script; we’re very free. But when you go to a producer and say: ‘I’ve found a Simenon novel, which is magnificent, here it is,’ producers are delighted. It’s Simenon, it’s serious. But when one says: ‘It’s an original script,’ well, it’s not exactly the same thing. I like that very much. But it doesn’t exactly reassure producers.

But this time, the idea of departing from an original script was informed by the desire to arrive at something completely new, a new idea, or just to change style again?

I’ve often written films with specific actors in mind. And they were usually films that weren’t bad at all. In this specific case, it’s a film written for two actresses, whom I adore, and I wanted to get together to work with each other. They might say ‘no.’ I don’t know; but we’re writing with that in mind. You’re going to ask me who, right?

I think you’re not going to tell me…

I don’t know if I can say…but do you promise not to tell…

If you ask me not to tell, I won’t, I’m a professional.

I’m writing this film because I’m dreaming of bringing Vanessa Paradis and Nathalie Portman together in a film.

Ok. But we can’t say that publicly, right?

Of course you can. But they don’t know. They haven’t read anything of the script. I’m still writing, thinking about the two of them.

But why this idea for those two actresses…

For Vanessa, it’s not complicated. We’ve done two films together. And whenever we bump into each other, we embrace each other and she says “When are we going to work together again?” And I tell her: “I adore you, Vanessa, I’m dreaming of making a film with you again. I’ve just got to find a good idea, a good project.’ And as regards Nathalie Portman, whom I like as an actress, but I don’t know her, and she now lives in Paris. I have, for some time now, wanted to write a film for two women, two actresses, two girls… so there you go… that’s it…

Me too, I’d like to see that…

That’ll be done. If they like the script, it will be done. It’s an original idea. Something really singular….

The Masterclass is part of the Paris Images Trade Show. The French industry is a very strong pillar within Europe. How do you view this event, in terms of trends, tendencies…it’s a huge question… but how do you view this within the context of the technical industries?

In France, in the entire world, there’s much talk about new techniques, simpler techniques, digital, all that stuff. I think that’s great. Virtual editing, shooting with digital, HD cameras, all that stuff…I think that’s great. Now, people make films with cell-phones and I was even invited to be president of a jury on films made with iPhones. And I said ‘no.’ That doesn’t interest me. The result of all that is that all these modern technologies are great. But we will always need people to make up stories, people who know how to shoot films, people to act in films. What am I getting at? The following: When novels used to be written with pens, there weren’t many people who wrote novels. When novels were written with keyboards, and pages then came out of a printing press, many people fancied that they were writers, because it was easier for pages to be churned out. Today, Orson Welles would show his talent with an iPhone. Because he was Orson Welles. But today, it’s not because it’s easy to make images that it’s easy to be a film director. You get me? It’s not that I’m trying to protect my profession. The fact that things have been made so much easier has led many young people, even producers, to believe that everybody can make films. But deep down, I do not believe that any and everyone can make films. Everyone can’t be an architect, a painter, a dance choreographer. Reflection is necessary, perhaps a special gift, something that’s up there, a priori beyond us. So, all these modern technologies are wonderful, but it’s not thanks to them that cineastes are going to be outstanding cineastes.

Thanks a lot. That’s the perfect note on which to end your Master Class.