Washington's harshest winter in many years was on the verge of melting away into the Potomac River when Jean-Paul Rappeneau arrived in town in advance of his latest film Bon Voyage, a World War II story of intertwined lives populated by farcical elements. In the course of a short 30-minute interview, the Spring blossoms surrounding Georgetown's Four Seasons Hotel would inch up a few millimeters in anticipation of the warmth both the director-writer and his new feature have brought to town, dropping down from New York City before moving on to San Francisco.
The beige turtleneck shirt, dark jacket, and khaki trousers frame a man of medium height and calm, unpretentious demeanor. A simple gold wedding ring adorns the fourth finger of his left hand. No gaudy chains. No spectacles either, as we chatted in a third floor corner suite with the assistance of a translator who was friendly but obviously not that keen on doing a word-for-word, or even cliché-for-cliché conversion. The few visits the director has made to this country promoting his films has not afforded him an opportunity to pick up English as easily as many of the French actors he has worked with over the years. My limited high school French caught some of what was missed. Only in moments like this do I regret that I detested my French teacher so much back in the 1960s, but I suspect the feeling was mutual. She convinced me that there was no literal translation for my name; she christened me Philippe. Zut, alors!
Jean-Paul's pate is balding, with whiffs of straight salt-and-pepper hair from each sideburn drawn across an arc stretching 135 degrees back from his eyes and drooping down with some strands dangling just over the back of his turtleneck. His oval face is complimented by a doorknocker beard and calm, blue eyes.
I sit in a chair opposite Jean-Paul on a love seat, with the translator on his right side. He's a perfect gentleman. And he doesn't smoke!
Elias Savada: Welcome back to America, and with a delightfully frantic film. (In advance of his birthday on April 8th, I offer him birthday wishes. Jean-Paul grimaces when I mentioned he's about to turn 72.) Can you provide us some background on your growing up and how did you become a filmmaker. I know you were not born in Paris, but in a town in Burgundy. Shouldn't you have gone into wine
Jean-Paul Rappeneau: (chuckling) No, no. I was born in the town of Auxerre. Thinking of my childhood, the memories of war immediately come to the fore. The occupation, the liberation, the arrival of the Americans. In the aftermath of the war, American films ("cinema American" is his term, making the films seem more exotic), banned by the Nazis, all of a sudden came to France. This is a vivid memory. As a kid I dreamed of being in theatre, because he didn't see any movies in my small village.
Elias Savada: So how did you get from that small town to being an assistant with Louis Malle on La vie privée or making short films?
Jean-Paul Rappeneau: I decided I wanted to be a film director after seeing Citizen Kane in Auxenne, presented at the cinema club. I was of college age, having gotten my high school diploma. As a gift, my father gave me a camera. I started making short 16mm films. My father said maybe you'll do some movies, but first get a real job. The old story. So, I studied law in Paris. I had brought my movies with me while attending the university, showed them around. One person involved in the movie business asked him "Why are you studying law? You seem to have understood everything there is to know about movie making!" Thus, I became an assistant, made more shorts, this time in 35mm, became a friend of Louis Malle, and we wrote Zazie dans le metro together. I worked writing scripts with Philippe de Broca, Alain Cavalier. Le Nouvelle vague (The New Wave, the creative burst of French cinematic talent in the late 1950s). Then, taking more time than most other people, while all the New Wave directors were putting out their first films, I was slower, because I was always writing scripts. It wasn't until 1966 with La vie de château (A Matter of Resistance).
It was unusual for New Wave films to be both a critical and commercial success. La vie de château was. It won the Prix Louis Delluc. (The highest award, inaugurated in 1936 in honor of the French film critic, bestowed by French cinema for filmmaking achievement.) It was a grand public success.
Elias Savada: There is a lengthy span between your projects. (Jea n-Paul nods in agreement.) It's obvious you have a longer creative process, or maybe you like taking long walks in the countryside. Before Bon Voyage (released in 2003 in France), your last film was in 1995 with Le Hussard sur le toit (The Horseman on the Roof). Was the 7-8 year gap (he gasps in mock horror) devoted to preparing Bon Voyage? Or was it 3-4 years with a break?
Jean-Paul Rappeneau: It was 3 or 4 years working on the script. Developing a film becomes my life. I can't be thinking about the next project when I'm making one. I am completely immersed in the film at hand. Like a shipwreck on a beach. I have no idea about what I am going to do next. So that is the time lapse between finishing one movie and then literally falling in love again with a new topic. For example, after having finished The Horseman on the Roof I starting thinking of many projects, but none of them (until Bon Voyage) worked out.
Elias Savada: So, there were other projects you were contemplating?
Jean-Paul Rappeneau: Yes, yes, yes. There was a certain film being prepared about Napoleon in exile in St. Helena. I worked on this for over a year as a screenwriter. I stopped believing in the project, which came from Daniel Auteil, the French actor, who wanted to play Napoleon. The only thing that interested me about the subject were his final years, in exile. Ultimately, Auteil thought my script a downer, although he did like the manner in which the character was portrayed. There was a lot of hesitation back and forth before I can commit to a project. That's my character.
Elias Savada: The films that you've directed, and I believe there are seven features, you've always co-written the screenplay.
Jean-Paul Rappeneau: Yes.
Elias Savada: You never do the script on your own. It's always a collaboration. Obviously, that is something you prefer. Do you like bouncing ideas off of the other writers?
Jean-Paul Rappeneau: When you write for the movies, you need a spectator in front of you to speak back. I work in interaction with my other writers, bouncing ideas back and forth. I write a first draft on my own, bring in my friend, another writer, who will read it and react to it. In the case of Bon Voyage, that included my son Julien. Thus, there are several successive drafts of the script.
Elias Savada: This process would drag out the creative process then
Jean-Paul Rappeneau: Yes. Generally two years.
Elias Savada: In America we have screenwriter credits. French films seem to differentiate this credit as scenario (scenariste), adaptation and/or dialogue. I assume the process must be universal, but can you elaborate on why the U.S. vs. French credits differ like this?
Jean-Paul Rappeneau: (Apparently not fully comprehending my question, Jean-Paul replies that the American writers' guilds determine who gets screen credit. I further clarify my question.) Okay, there is an old French movie tradition, that people speak a lot. Therefore, there are writing specialists who work in creating movie dialogue. There is a long tradition of using such people, and thus they receive dialogue credit. I worked with Daniel Boulanger, who did the dialogue for La vie de château and Les Mariés de 'an II (unreleased in the U.S.). Michel Audiard, Henri Jeanson, even Jacques Prevert write dialogue. Daniel Boulanger is great at writing dialogue, but he is totally unable to construct a story, a plot. In working with Daniel Boulanger, I would fashion a sketch of the dialogue. Boulanger would come into the project, refashion my words, and make up some other lines that would be really great. I could never come up with such material. He has a taste for word, for language. Maybe that's specifically a French concept.
Elias Savada: Probably. Americans don't always get the joke. That's the problem.
Your new film is rather frenzied, with a lot of action going on about the screen. The Horseman on the Roof also had a lot of scampering about. In that film it was throughout the French countryside in the 1830s sidestepping cholera and crazed citizens. In Bon Voyage people are dashing from Paris to Bordeaux sidestepping the German invasion and crazed citizens.
Jean-Paul Rappeneau: Yes, there's a clear parallel between the two films.
There is a hysterical farceness afoot, particularly in Bon Voyage—an epidemic actually that infects everyone in the cast. From where does this turmoil arise? Obvious Howard Hawks appears to be watching over you. Who else is?
Elias Savada: There is destructive hotel dining room sequence in Bon Voyage which appears to be an expansion of a similar scene in Horseman, in which Olivier Martinez's character chases a cat. Was that intentional?
Jean-Paul Rappeneau: No, that wasn't intentional. Horseman on the Roof is based on the post-war (1951) novel by the extraordinary writer Jean Giono. Cholera for Giono was a metaphor for war and the invasion of a country.
Elias Savada: In Bon Voyage you didn't use that metaphor. You had the war itself.
Jean-Paul Rappeneau: Someone said of the two heroes in Horseman that they were like the resistance. Resisting invasion.
Elias Savada: In Bon Voyage the aspiring writer Frédéric could pass as your metaphysical double. Grégori Derangère reminds me a great deal of Noah Wylie, the young doctor in the American television series E.R., don't you think?
Jean-Paul Rappeneau: I don't know the actor or the series, although I felt the character was played as an American. I feel he is more reminiscent of a young Jimmy Stewart.
Elias Savada: You don't do much television. You wrote some dialogue for the 1965 TV series Les Survivants.
Jean-Paul Rappeneau: Well that was nearly 40 years ago. Television does not appeal to me. I love the big screen.
Elias Savada: Have people asked you to direct for TV?
Jean-Paul Rappeneau: Yes, but now they don't ask because they know I'll say no.
Elias Savada: Obviously you want your films to be liked. And people have liked them. They've won awards. In America, your films have been fairly well received. Cyrano grosses an impressive $6 million, Horseman a respectable $1.5 million, considering that French films have a hard time translating into a commercial success over here. Your last film was released in America by Miramax. Can you comment on that experience?
Jean-Paul Rappeneau: Well, Harvey Weinstein is quite a figure. I was very impressed by him. I connected with Miramax through a French person who worked for the company in New York. Of course, I know his nickname, Harvey Scissorshands, very well. And yes, he cut my movie, but the edits were not bad suggestions.
Elias Savada: Are you happy working with Sony Pictures Classics on the new film?
Jean-Paul Rappeneau: Well, they handled Cyrano for me.
Elias Savada: That was actually Orion Classics.
Jean-Paul Rappeneau: Yes, but the people who worked at the (now defunct) Orion are today with Sony. Michael Barker, Tom Bernard, and Marcie Bloom. Nice people. I like them. I liked Miramax, too. In my opinion, the American poster artwork for Horseman was better than the original French one. And the trailer was formidable…wonderful.
Elias Savada: Foreign films in general tale an average of a year before they arrive on American shores. Bon Voyage opened last April in Europe, yet we had to wait 11 months to see it here. Cyrano was a Christmas 1989 Paris release that opened in New York City the following November. Horseman was September 1995 in France, May 1996 here. Is this to perfect a marketing strategy? Maybe get the English subtitles right? Why would it take a film as popular in France as Bon Voyage to get to its American audience?
Jean-Paul Rappeneau: Well, subtitles can be made quite quickly. Once the film is in the hands of the distributors, it is their strategy that decides when the film is released in America.
Elias Savada: "I seem to be changing, to be seeking more from life" is a quote from one of the characters in Horseman. We all like to change for the better. How do you see yourself evolving since your first film
Jean-Paul Rappeneau: Most profoundly, I have finally been able, in my new film, to combine the tone of gaiety and fantasy, even farce, that I have been pursuing from very early on. Also, I believe I have found the depth I have been searching for. I think it all comes together in Bon Voyage. In addition to this reflection thinking about France's history, I was anxious to provide a film of lovely detail. I am fanatic of the detail. On the set when I am being very finicky about details, there are also people (crew, cast) saying 'Who is going to paying attention to this?' I reply that the spectator sees everything
Elias Savada: Yes, we do. If you see a can of Coca-Cola on the night table, you know something's wrong. (Jean-Paul laughs. Score one joke for the American to end a pleasant afternoon.)
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