French director Bertrand Tavernier (“Round Midnight”) – who recently concluded a major TV documentary series, “My Journey Into French Cinema” – received a career tribute award Sunday at the Marrakech Film Festival, presented to him by U.S. actor Harvey Keitel, who starred in Tavernier’s 1980 science-fiction thriller “Death Watch.”
Keitel began the ceremony by comparing the “inspiring and beautiful evening musical call to Allah” to the call made by the film festival to the world. “There is an ancient wisdom that says ‘bring forth what is within you and it will save you. If you don’t bring forth what is within you it will destroy you’. This festival is its own reply to that wise phrase and filmmakers all around the world continue to respond in their own way.”
He continued: “The music of the cinema has its own call and we’re here tonight to honor one of its prophets. He started his career as a young film critic and a press agent. His last film as a press agent was ‘Mean Streets,’ my first film. Then he changed direction and honed his attention towards screenwriting and ultimately to directing. Guided by the influences set by the masters of the time, his work was immediately recognized by his peers and audiences worldwide. The French New Wave became newer. We are lured, enchanted and enticed to submit to Bertrand’s passions.”
A montage of clips from Tavernier’s films was then shown, after which Tavernier entered the stage to a standing ovation. He thanked Keitel for “giving such a full life to my dreams.” He then continued the metaphor of a beacon to the world by remembering the impact of the discovery of the cinematograph by the Lumiere brothers from his home town of Lyon. “They brought the world to the world. That’s what a festival like Marrakech does. It opens windows onto the world,” he said.
Finally he quoted Robert De Niro’s line in Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” when receiving a medal from Al Pacino’s character. “I don’t know if I merit this homage, but I also don’t merit my arthrosis.”
In an exclusive interview with Variety Tavernier talked about the influence of American and French cinema traditions on his own films.
How does it feel to receive this career tribute at Marrakech?
It’s great to be here and I’m particularly delighted to have the chance to spend some more time with Harvey Keitel. When I was casting “Death Watch” in 1979, Harvey was my first choice for the main character, a TV reporter who had cameras implanted in his eyes. I had loved his performances in several films, such as Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.” I thought he had the quality that had been rarely explored, a kind of childish innocence. He had recently played lot of characters who were violent, introverted, but I found it a little bit difficult to make him smile. But when he was smiling he had a kind of innocence and a warmth that I wanted to get out of him and not only violence, not only the toughness. For me he had the same kind of quality that John Garfield had, a great power to express guilt but at the same time a kind of warmth, or like Sinatra in his first film, or in his films like “From Here to Eternity.”
I had the chance to meet Harvey because he had seen my 1974 film “The Clockmaker” and told a mutual friend that he would love to work with the director, and my friend introduced us. In 1979 it was difficult to choose Harvey for the main role because he had been going through a rough patch. People told me they would only give me the money if I took Richard Gere instead. But I really wanted Harvey. We met several festivals later and he said that I was the first person in that period to trust him and to hire him. This was before he made Jane Campion’s “The Piano” or his collaboration with Tarantino. It’s strange how the very same people who had turned him down, later wanted him again after these films.
He was absolutely wonderful to work with. He is a very private person, but there are many great moments including long difficult monologues that I got on the first take. We had little money, but he was really dedicated to the film. We have stayed close ever since.
You have written a lot about Hollywood cinema, including your recently republished book of interviews, “Amis Americains,” and your new book “100 Years of American Cinema” which will be published in a few months’ time. What have you learned from these many years of interaction with American cinema?
Interviewing some of America’s greatest directors was a kind of film education for me. For example I did rare interviews with writers and directors who were blacklisted. I also did an interview with Henry Hathaway, which I’m very proud of. With John Ford there are many things that are unique because we spent 12 days together. I also learned a great deal from the directors who arrived by accident in America because of exile, people like Otto Preminger, Fritz Lang, or Jacques Tourneur. There was something very European in their attitude. You don’t find that in the American-born directors.
It’s very interesting to see that a lot of their films were based on doubts. Even in great American films where there is a kind of sarcastic criticism of the American way of life they are always affirmative. What you have seen in some of the films by directors such as [Ernst] Lubitsch or Preminger is doubt, a kind of skepticism, which is very important for someone like Preminger. At the same time he is maybe one of the directors who made some of the greatest films about the essence of democracy, like “Anatomy of a Murder” and so on.
What influences do you think American cinema has had on your own work?
I always had a major interest in American cinema and during the same time I was making my own films. Notwithstanding my growing admiration for people like John Huston or William Wyler, I really wanted my films to be French. This will be very clear in my new book. I didn’t want to follow some of the more clichéd rules of American cinema. Many great American directors also fought against that. I wanted my film to be rooted in French, European culture. But I wanted to achieve the universal dimension that you find in American cinema. Central characters with whom we can all identify. I learned from people like John Ford how to use space, how to use landscape.
I am maybe one of the French directors who made the biggest number of films outside Paris in places where nobody ever went. If you see “The Judge and the Assassin” or “Life and Nothing But” or “Captain Conan” that’s comes from my love for American cinema, the importance of nature, of space, of the environment or the visual importance of a set up, of how to explore the space of the decor, of an apartment, how you must understand the topology. But it must not be an explanation. It must be something visually interesting. That also came from film noir, the work of people like Joseph Losey, or [Abraham] Polonsky’s “Force of Evil.”
You also have a powerful visceral approach in your films. Was that influenced by American cinema?
Yes, I think that’s true. I’m absolutely visceral. I have a problem working on ideas which are only theoretical. Often people come to me and say you should do a film about the French Resistance, but I say this is not a subject, this is vague. Tell me about a character who was one of the first members of the Resistance and who did things that people later in 1945 say must be judged as crimes. Then I have a character and an emotion that I can deal with.
Do you agree with the idea that cinema is facing a crisis point at present?
The main difference now compared to the situation a few decades ago is that it’s more difficult to see all kinds of films in theaters. There is a frontier between mainstream and independent cinema. It seems bigger and there’s more concentration of power, which makes the situation difficult. You have still good films that are successful. “Parasite” by Bong Joon-Ho was a big success. That makes you optimistic. Polanski’s “J’accuse” [“An Officer and a Spy”] is a very important film about anti-semitism and Ladj Ly’s “Les Misérables,” is a great film, as is Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman.” And there are great TV series like “Unbelievable.”
What will be your next project?
I’m still fighting, together with Russell Banks, to get our English-language project “Snowbirds” off the ground, based on Russell’s short story. It’s about simple emotion. I hope it will be poignant and yet optimistic, because it’s about how you overcome a loss, how you start something new after you lose somebody who was very close. But it’s about little emotions which are very difficult to underline in a screenplay. I had cast Susan Sarandon and Jennifer Jason Leigh, but then Amazon dropped us, which was tough. But when I saw that they dropped Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story,” which is a very subtle piece of writing, to pick up expensive projects that then flopped, it makes you optimistic. Having concluded my books and the documentary on French cinema I am now freer. We will see what comes next.