Thursday, October 14, 2010

François & Bert Part II

The following is a transcript of an interview with François Truffaut first aired in 1965. Conducted in French, the interview, along with an earlier interview I transcribed in its entirety in my last post, is included in the bonus features of the Criterion DVD of The 400 Blows. I have omitted statements from the interview made by Claude de Givray, Jean-Pierre Léaud, and Albert Rémy. Most of Truffaut's statements also appear, often verbatim, in "Truffaut's Last Interview" purportedly conducted by Bert Cardullo five months before Truffaut's death in 1984.

Cinéastes de notre temps

December 2, 1965
"François Truffaut ou l'esprit critique"
Produced by Janine Bazin, André Sylvain Labarthe
Directed by Jean-Pierre Chartier

"François Truffaut is 33. He's spent half his time since the age of ten watching and judging movies. He became a film critic at 20 and directed his first film at 25. Now a director, he is still an avid and critical spectator, even of his own films."

TRUFFAUT (standing on the balcony of his Montmartre apartment): I'd love to have the same apartment in Place Clichy. Unfortunately my place is here, but my consolation is that from here I can see Sacré Cœur and Montmartre.

INTERVIEWER: Is is because it holds personal childhood memories that you came back to it in at least two of your films, The 400 Blows and Love at Twenty?

TRUFFAUT: Yes, probably. It's easier to orient myself and to shoot in familiar streets. And because when you're writing, you think of people and places you know. so I think you come back to these people and places you know.

The first films I really admired were French films since I started going to the movies during the war. Films like The Raven and The Devil's Envoys. These are movies I soon wanted to see several times. At first it was by accident, because I would see them on the sly, and then my parents would sometimes say, "Let's go to the movies," so I'd see it again, because I couldn't say I'd already seen it. But it made me want to see films again, so that three years later, after the liberation, I'd seen the Raven maybe eight or ten times. I knew the dialogue by heart. but after I met my friends with whom I ended up working at Cahiers, like Jacques Rivette and others, I turned away from french film. Rivette thought it absurd that I'd seen Children of Paradise 14 times and knew The Raven by heart. He didn't care about that stuff. He only cared about the mise-en-scène. Probably under the influence of Rivette and others at Cahiers, I set all that aside for awhile, but it's coming back now.

I would try to make people want to see certain films. I was really trying to turn them away from other films. Now I prefer nuances. I'm much less dogmatic.

My mistakes in Les Mistons made me realize that in The 400 Blows I should stick close to childhood, and above all to a documentary style. Use as little fiction as possible. In the beginning of the New Wave, people opposed to the young filmmakers' new films said, "All in all, it's not very different from what was done before." I think that the plan - I don't know if there was actually a plan - but as far as I'm concerned, it never occurred to me, if I were to make films, to revolutionize cinema or express myself differently than previous filmmakers. I always thought that the cinema was fine. It just lacked sincerity. I'd do the same thing, but better. There's a famous quote by Malraux, "A masterpiece isn't better rubbish." But I thought that good films were just bad films made better. In other words, I don't see much difference between a film like Good-bye Again and my latest film, The Soft Skin. It's the same thing, same film, except that in The Soft Skin the actors suit the roles they play. We made things ring true, or a least we tried to. But in the other, nothing rang true because it wasn't the right film for Ingrid Bergman or Anthony Perkins or Yves Montand. So it was based on a lie right from the start. The idea isn't to create some new and different cinema, but to make the existing one more true. That's what I had in mind. There isn't a huge difference between Chiens perdus sans collier and The 400 Blows. They're the same, or at least very close. I just wanted to make mine because I didn't like the other. That's all.

In my first film, The 400 Blows, Vigo's influence is obvious. But an influence that went unnoticed was Germany Year Zero. It was the only film where a child was depicted documentary-style and was portrayed more seriously than the adults around him. It was the first time that children were portrayed as the center of gravity, and it's the atmosphere around them that's frivolous. It reinforced a trait already in Renoir, the desire to stay very close to life and to use a documentary style. Rossellini says you shouldn't write scripts, that only swine write scripts. That the conflict in a film simply emerges from the facts. A character from a given country at a given time confronted with another character from a different country - it's the natural conflict between them. You start from that. There's no need to invent anything.

When we started The 400 Blows, I started making script sheets. School: various gags at school. Home: various gags at home. Street: some gags in the street. I think everyone works that way, at least for a lot of films. You do it for comedies, and you can even do it for dramas. And this material, of course, was often based on memories. I realized you can really exercise your memory in this regard. I had found a class photo in the classic pose, with all the pupils lined up. The first time I looked at that picture, I could only remember the names of two friends. But by looking at it for an hour each morning, I remembered their names, their parents' jobs and where they lived. It was around that time that I met Moussy and started to ask him if he'd like to work with me on it. I played hooky quite a bit, so all these problems with notes, signatures, fake excuses, signed report cards, I knew them by heart, of course.

INTERVIEWER: Including hiding school bags behind doors?


INTERVIEWER: To go to the movies?

TRUFFAUT: Yes, because two or three of the theaters in Paris opened at 10 a.m. The clientele was made up almost exclusively of school children. You couldn't go with your school bag, it would look suspicious. There were two theaters facing each other, the Cinéac-Italiens and the New York. Each morning around 9:45, there'd be 50 or 70 children waiting. The first theater to open would get all the business, because we were anxious to hide. We felt awfully exposed out in the middle of all that.

If I needed a specific intonation, I'd say, "This is what you say, but you also think this in your head." For example, in The 400 Blows, there's the scene where the child goes to school without a note after a three-day absence, and he decides to say his mother died. We don't know he's decided to say that, only that he'll say something huge. He could use a number of ways to say his mother had died. He could be shifty or sad or whatever. I decided he should give the impression he doesn't want to say it. That he doesn't dare say it but that the teacher pushed him to say it. The teacher says, "Where's your note?" and the child says, "It's my mother, sir." The teacher says, "Your mother? What about her?" It's only because he teacher badgers him that he suddenly decides to fight back and say, "She's dead!" I told him to think in his head, "She's dead! What do you say to that?" He doesn't say it, but he thinks it, and that gives him the exact look and tone of voice I wanted, even the upturned head. That's a lie you can only use once.

I only think about specific filmmakers when I'm faced with a specific problem, and more during editing than filming. If I filmed the father coming to the classroom and slapping his son, after the son returned to school and said his mother was dead, then I'd have problems editing because I wanted fast action and I could only get that with a lot of cutting. The rest of the film was just capturing situations. I knew I'd have to create the drama, and I thought of Hitchcock. Otherwise I had no point of reference. I had no idea how to edit the scene. I knew how things seem so intense in Hitchcock's work. I knew I had to show the headmaster, then there's a noise at the door, the headmaster goes to the door, the boy's senses it's about him, then you see the mother. For example, I told Claire Maurier that when she got to the window, instead of scanning the classroom for her son, as might be natural since she's never been there before, I had her look right at the boy's desk. I knew that would create the dramatic effect, and not the reality of looking for her son. They were really in school, these kids. They're all doing something different, something realistic. It's fantastic. Without being told, they have an extraordinary sense of what's real.

The boy can't face going home because he told such a huge lie and it made trouble at school. This was a huge thing for me. I'm very realistic, and it went against my grain. I managed it be remembering Renoir and a specific scene in La bête humaine, where Jean Gabin, after killing Simone Simon, comes back to the locomotive the next morning and very simply says to Carette - and it was this simplicity that made it all work - "I'll never see her again. I killed her."

The idea was to do a scene [in Love at Twenty] that progressed as the music did. A musical fugue. Here's the Salle Pleyel full of young people. Of course, in a scene like this, you don't know when the audience will notice what you want it to notice. In this case, the young girl. I think it's about here. Yes, there it is. To achieve a certain intensity, the camera moves in closer. I don't know how long this scene is, but its rather long. What I look for is the counterpoint between the music and the action. This is connected to a memory of mine, because my ant used to be a violinist and I'd seen her play in a concert. This scene could come off as a bit suggestive, but it works because of Jean-Pierre's innocence and the characters' youth. So it's not suggestive at all. But film it with different actors and it becomes very suggestive. That interests me, and I did it again in The Soft Skin. I stretched moments that I find too short in other films. Moments when people meet. A director's struggle with timing is a very personal thing that goes on all his life. I find it heartening in a way that Hitchcock, after 52 films, still struggles with timing. I find that incredible. And I think it's really an important aspect of film.

[Just to give readers some idea of how many people don't look at their own products, a link to the Cardullo interview on The New Yorker website can be found on Criterion's page for their DVD of The 400 Blows.]

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