Jean-Claude Carrière: the screenwriter of choice for the world's finest directors.
April 17, 1988
By Joe Morgenstern
A pretty red barn on the outskirts of a Connecticut village. Inside, the decor is late 20th-century rustic: no trace of hay or horses, but plenty of hand-hewn beams, rough-hewn furniture and high-end electronics, whose video components tap into the global village via a satellite dish on the lawn.
We are in the home of Milos Forman, the Czechoslovak-born director of such widely acclaimed movies as "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Amadeus." During the last several weeks, he's been working long days and many nights on the screenplay for his next movie, "Valmont," a free adaptation of the 18th-century French novel of sexual intrigue, "Les Liaisons Dangereuses." Forman's collaborator in this enterprise is the screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, a gray-haired Frenchman of great charm, formidable accomplishment and persistently narrow acclaim. At the age of 56, Carrière is the unsung dramatist of our time.
In long shot, we see both men in the living room, and hear fragments of their heated conversation. It has to do with a naked lady. Rather, Carrière is arguing that the lady, Madame de Tourvel, be naked in the scene under discussion. Forman is against it. Both men are speaking English. Carrière's English is idiomatic and carries well; he has the rich voice of an actor. Forman's English is less idiomatic, but carries better; he has the thunderous voice of a moviemaker who's accustomed to getting his way.
To a casual observer, these two might not seem like collaborators at all, but sworn enemies who shout at each other, scowl at each other, strike theatrical poses, sulk, then spring into action once again. In fact, they are good friends who are devising a new script in the best way they know how: by talking it out, thrashing it out, but above all acting it out, scene by scene. It's the way Carrière prefers to work, and one reason so many of the world's leading directors of the stage and screen want to work with him.
They have been doing so for years. In 1963, the great Spanish film maker Luis Buñuel hired Carrière to co-write "Diary of a Chambermaid" (and cast him in the role of the priest). Their collaboration lasted 18 years, and produced five more films, including "Belle de Jour" and "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie," which won an Academy Award as the best foreign film of 1972. Directors Louis Malle in France, Volker Schlöndorff in West Germany and Andrzej Wajda in Poland have profited from Carrière's screenwriting services. In the theater, he collaborated with Peter Brook on the script of Brook's epic nine-hour production of "The Mahabharata," which had its New York premiere last fall.
Then last year the dramatist teamed up for the first time with an American director, Philip Kaufman, on the screen adaptation of Milan Kundera's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." This resulted in a rich, complex film that split the critics - Vincent Canby, writing in The New York Times, felt that Kaufman and Carrière had lost the novelist's voice without finding enough cinematic equivalents to replace it - but which is showing surprising strength at the box office because of its wit, lyrical style and deft eroticism. It has also resulted in Carriere's becoming unsung by a much wider public.
Such is the fate of an artist who's not merely willing but eager to collaborate; Carrière's working method is hardly a strategy for literary stardom. But movies aren't literature, and Carrière isn't a man who rails at the constraints of his trade. "Every writer has his own way," he says. "Mine is always to work with the director."
A hotel room in Spain. the time is long past. A writer and a director sit discussing a scene. The writer is French, and young. The director is Spanish, and getting old; he is already so deaf that the writer must shout to make himself heard. Suddenly the two men get up and start rearranging the furniture. A table becomes a lawn, a chair represents a tree, a bathroom door leads to a babbling brook. Now they can act their scene out, instead of merely talking about it.
Carrière was in his early 30's when he and Bunuel met. He'd gained critical success with a first novel, and written a couple of ingenious novelizations of Jacques Tati film comedies, "Mr. Hulot's Holiday" and "My Uncle." With Pierre Etaix, Tati's second assistant, he co-wrote, co-directed and also acted in "Happy Anniversary," which won an Academy Award as the best short film of 1962. So he was well on his way. Nevertheless, he was new to moviemaking, while the 62-year-old Buñuel - le vieux, Carrière called him; the old man - had a lifetime of achievement behind him, and a fixed notion of what writers did or didn't do.
"With Buñuel," Carrière says, "the writing always came last. Every day, we'd begin by acting out a given scene: What's happening in it? Who enters? What does he do, what does he say? I'd bring a few pieces of paper with me, but I'd have to hide them while we worked. Then he'd go to sleep at 8 or 9 o'clock, and I'd stay up alone, trying to write the scene we'd acted out. We'd spend weeks together doing this, though not more than four or five weeks at a time, because we were two men cooped up in a hotel room without women, after all." He pauses, shakes his head and smiles. "We ate together more than 2,000 times. Like an old married couple."
When Carrière speaks of Bunuel, who died in 1983, it's with a mixture of love, admiration and awe. "He taught me to search for morals, personal morals, as he did in his own work. And he taught me that the imagination is a muscle you can develop. Every day, after work, we'd spend an hour by ourselves. Then we'd meet in the bar at 7 for a drink, with an obligation to tell the other one a story we'd just invented. The only point was to train our imaginations."'
The screenwriter with Spanish director Luis Buñuel, who “taught me the imagination is a muscle you can develop."
A story Carrière didn't invent. It's an Arabian allegory that predates "The Arabian Nights," and something he falls back on, when he's had a flop or a script has been turned down, to remind himself of what he is doing with his life.
"A storyteller is standing on a rock, facing the ocean, and telling stories to the ocean, one after another. He only has time to drink a glass of water every now and then, while the ocean listens to his stories, fascinated. (Here Carrière plays the waves, rocking rhythmically back and forth.) And what the allegory says, very simply, is that if one day the storyteller stops telling stories and falls silent, or if somebody forces him to shut up, no one can be sure what the ocean will do."
Storytellers are necessary to any society, Carrière insists. "Just like bakers, workers, peasants - no more, but no less. There's a beautiful phrase in 'The Mahabharata' where Vyasa, the legendary author, says: 'You must listen to stories. It's pleasant, and sometimes it makes you feel better.'"
"The Mahabharata," which is the longest poem in world literature - more than 90,000 couplets in 18 volumes - was also the longest-running task in Carrière's life. The actual writing of the stage adaptation took no more than a year, but reading the raw material, organizing it and discussing it with the director, Peter Brook, took 12 years.
Just as Carrière looks upon Buñuel as the first giant in his life, he considers Brook the second. "If Buñuel was granite, Brook is a brook - clear water, jumping from one place to another, fertilizing the ground he goes through, so clear, so blue-eyed, so light he almost doesn't exist." His association with the British director goes back to the early 1970's, when Brook founded the International Center of Theater Research in Paris. As the permanent writer-in-residence, Carrière worked on a wide range of scripts, from an adaptation of Shakespeare's "Timon of Athens" to Brook's controversial production of "La Tragèdie de Carmen." Yet nothing prepared him for "The Mahabharata."
"I didn't even know where to start, it was so huge. What helped me a lot, though, was when Peter started auditioning actors and asked me to act with each of them."
Carrière soon realized that each audition had a double purpose. While actors were being tested,, so was the writer. "I was obliged to defend what I had written, to give life to it if I could. Because when you can't really act a scene, something is wrong with it and there's no way to argue, no possible defense."
Carrière makes no bones about how hard it can be to work with Brook. "I've never met someone so strict, so rigorous about work. The classic phrase by Peter is when you've done fantastically well with a scene... you sit down and he says: 'It's absolutely clear that there's enormous work to do.' But he is right. He teaches you never to be satisfied."
For his part, Brook speaks of Carrière as the ideal collaborator. "Like a great actor, or a great cameraman, he adapts himself to different people he works with. He's open to all shifts caused by the material changing, and yet he brings to it a very powerful and consistent point of view."
But what, exactly, does Carrière do? How much of "The Mahabharata," for example, was his?
"Every single word you see and hear was written by him," Brook explains, "but not by him alone. It went through many versions, with the actors and myself challenging almost every scene. That doesn't mean we rewrote it for him. He'd either defend and prove it, or go away and bring back something new.
"The first version he wrote was a play about two hours long. That was 12 years ago. Gradually, each scene grew or shrank, developed organically. He reached a point when he said he felt like his head was exploding with all the material. Then, and here's the great thing, he brought his play to the first day of rehearsals and said: 'This is only a draft.' Having worked as privately and passionately as any author could, it didn't occur to him that anything couldn't be changed."
Brook is at once an extremely cinematic stage director and dedicated to group effort, so it's no surprise that he sees Carrière's screenwriting background as a great virtue. But the director's praise goes further: "There's a strong connection between the quality of the work and the quality of the person. He's a very passionate person, a Renaissance man with a passion for life in all its forms. At the same time, he's very disciplined, highly organized, with an encyclopedic mind - he's working on a book about nuclear physics, and he just brought out a book of pornographic limericks. So you have a man who does an enormous amount, who travels a lot and lives a very vivid life."
A dining room in Switzerland, in the not too distant past. We are in the home of Jean-Luc Godard, the director who helped revolutionize the French cinema three decades ago with "Breathless," followed by "Pierrot le Fou." Since then, Godard's work has become polemic, erratic, often seemingly anarchic, as the director has turned his back on the last vestiges of discernible plot. Over an excellent lunch made by his wife, Godard turns to his guest, a French writer, and says: "I'd like to make a new film."
"What about?" the writer asks.
"It would be about a man who leaves Paris, or another city, to go to Switzerland, or somewhere else. He meets a woman, or maybe two, and then he goes back to Paris, or maybe not."
Many screenwriters would tell that story with malicious glee, and they might be right. Carrière sees the humor too, but he tells it approvingly, even admiringly. "When you think about it, a whole film was there. Open, unresolved, but very exciting. It was not nothing that Jean-Luc was talking about."
Carrière worked with Godard on a movie, "Every Man for Himself," that the director shot in Switzerland in 1979. With Buñuel, Carrière accommodated himself to a director who insisted the dialogue come last; Godard preferred it come never. "He let me know that when I was away from him, it was permissible to write him letters, and that phrases from those letters might turn up in certain characters' mouths in the film. But that was as far as he would go to accepting conventional writing." All the same, Carrière continues speak warmly of Godard as a friend, and as a fearless innovator.
What's remarkable here is how open Carrière seems to be, how accepting of professional relationships that many American writers would find threatening. To be sure, unlike most of his Hollywood counterparts who find themselves locked into one adversarial situation after another, he has earned the right to pick the directors and producers he wants to work with. Still, his chosen style of intimate, often unhurried collaboration - "I even work with the director in the editing room" is far from the Hollywood norm. It's also a style that resists easy definition.
A quick story to help define it. A restaurant in Manhattan, several years ago. A French writer, having had dinner, follows a fashionable New York couple out the door. As the couple climb into their stretch limo, the woman, who is wearing a fur coat and a chic hat, turns to the man she is with and says: "You are so good for my ego, Jack."
"Whatever else she may be," Carrière says with a grin, "that woman is not a screenwriter."
Not by his definition, anyway. For screenwriting, as Carrière practices it, involves checking your ego at the door. That's what he did when Buñuel took him under his wing, and from there the little world of Europe's moviemaking elite. He built a reputation as a man who could do fine, imaginative writing while subordinating his style to the needs of the project and a strong director.
Since most movies owe heavy debts of style and content to the director, you can't look at a Carrière movie and tell - without seeing the credits - that he wrote it. Nor can you point to specific scenes and say they're entirely Carrière's creations. When Phil Kaufman tried to think of one in "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," the closest he could come was a love scene on a train. "That was more Jean-Claude's scene than mine," Kaufman recalled. "It was generally shaped by us together, but he suggested the business of the voyeur in the compartment," the supposedly sleeping stranger who watches and smiles.
Nevertheless, there are strong common denominators in Carrière's work. One is intelligence: the keen, analytical intelligence of "The Return of Martin Guerre," on which he worked with the director Daniel Vigne; the calm, controlling intelligence of "The Tin Drum," a movie that he and the director Volker Schlöndorff adapted from the acclaimed Günter Grass novel.
Another characteristic is humor. Carrière loves to tell funny stories. That must have endeared him to Buñuel, whose own work had often as well as surreal and sometimes savage. It certainly played an important part in the movies he wrote with Buñuel toward the end of the director's life, films (such as "That Obscure Object of Desire") of singular playfulness, even gaiety.
According to an old Hollywood wheeze, there are screenwriters, who write movies, and real writers, who write books. Carrière is both, an intellectual who knows how to entertain.
Until recently, Carrière and Hollywood had no more than a nodding acquaintance. Though Carrière had worked on an American movie that came out in 1971 - the first one Milos Forman directed in this country, an uneven comedy, about parents and kids called "Taking Off" he'd avoided both the pitfalls and the rewards of a big American success. Then, in 1985, he got a call from Saul Zaentz, who'd co-produced Forman's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and produced "Amadeus." Zaentz wanted to know if he'd be interested in doing a screen adaptation of Milan Kundera's novel "The Unbearable Lightness of Being."
"I was really afraid," Carrière recalls. The book, with its cool, detached tone, was a literary tour de force that seemed to defy adaptation. More than that, he felt uncomfortably close to the author and his story, which was set against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Carrière had been in Prague then. He'd gone there with Forman in search of some peace and quiet in which to work on the script of "Taking Off," because both men felt, ironically enough, that they needed to get away from the political turmoil of France and the United States. It was during that time that Carrière first met Kundera, as well as some of the people the Czechoslovak author later wrote about.
"When Saul Zaentz called, all the memories came back: the sadness, the dramas, the despair, the tears. I was totally mixed up. I felt it was immodest, almost obscene, to use all this for a film, to make money. But I also knew I trusted Saul, who is a rock, a man who gets what he wants."
Zaentz did get what he wanted, a movie for which Pauline Kael put him and his director, Phil Kaufman, "at the top of the heap for courage." Carrière got what he wanted, a mysteriously beautiful movie that managed to work both as a love story and to honor Kundera's novel and its political context. And Kaufman, who'd already proved himself an abundantly gifted director with "The Right Stuff" and a witty remake of "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers," got the kind of collaboration that directors dream of.
"All too often in Hollywood," Kaufman says, "you have your meetings, the writer goes off for months, writes something, comes back, and then you say, 'That isn't what we talked about at all.' "
"In this case, Jean-Claude first came to California for six weeks. We worked in offices, apartments, walked around, lived the film from the first thing in the morning to the end of every day. Then he went back home to France to put together what we'd talked about - in French. After that he came back for another two months, and translated for me, what he'd written into English. That's when we really started shaping the script together. When you work with him, you're always looking for what works for the film."
What works for a film isn't necessarily what lends distinction to a book: that's the dilemma of the adapter, who's always looking for - or inventing, if need be - the essential narrative thrust and dramatic incidents. In adapting the Kundera novel, one problem was that Carrière and Kaufman couldn't use the subjective voice of the book's narrator, Tomas, a man in his mid-40's with a headful of intriguing but abstract philosophical reflections. Instead, they made the hero a decade or so younger, and they centered their story on those elements of the book dealing with his love for two singularly different women.
"There's a big difference between writing as a novelist," Carrière says, "and writing as a playwright or screenwriter. On the one hand, what you're looking for is intimate contact with one person at a time. On the other, when you write for the theater or film; you understand - even if you don't want to - that what you write is going to go through a complicated process to reach the audience, which will watch it as a group, a compact group. A novel is the end of something, a script is the beginning."
A foggy day in Paris, early this year. We see a car driving slowly on a bridge across the Seine. Behind the wheel is the noted French photographer Robert Doisneau, who is 72. Sitting next to him is his friend Jean-Claude Carriêre.
Carrière gazes through the windshield at the soft outlines of the fog-shrouded buildings. "J'aime bien ça," he says contentedly.
"That's because you're starting to get old," Doisneau replies. "When you're young you see only the details. When you grow up, you see both the details and the whole. That's the peak of everything, it's what you've lived for. When you get old, you forget about the details and see only the whole."
Doisneau might have a point. All the evidence suggests, though, that Carrière is at the peak of everything, after a long climb from Colombières, a tiny village in the Languedoc, in southern France. That's where he was born, the only child of poor farmers who made wine and tended orchards.
He has a house in Colombières again, but lives mostly in Paris, in Pigalle, in a lovely home, with a courtyard and welcoming gardens, that was once a famous brothel known to Proust. His wife, Nicole, is a painter and a decorator. Their daughter, Iris, who lives with them, is a producer and director of short films. And Carrière, who was the first in his family to go on to higher studies, is now the head of FEMIS, an ambitious school created in 1986 by the French Government that teaches young students the film arts and crafts.
"We don't tell them they're artists," Carrière says. "We only say, 'We'll try to make you the best possible technicians, and some of you, by secret necessity, will become artists.'"
Then he talks eagerly of the directing and writing workshops that he conducts in between working with Peter Brook and dashing off to foreign lands like Connecticut; of the emphasis on acting before scribbling; of the empty spaces so dear to Brook; of surrealistic games that would surely have delighted Buñuel.
" 'Let's sit in a circle,' I tell them. They do so. They're all very young. I'm the only old man there. I say, 'It starts, as it always does, with silence.' Very solemn. Very intimidating. I let it go. Two or three minutes of silence. (Here he laughs gleefully.) Still nobody says anything. It's so intimidating. But it's not an empty silence, I explain, 'It's a rich silence. It's not being asleep, it's being awake, letting doors open.' Now somebody says a word..."
We are back in Milos Forman's house, in the kitchen. It is early evening, and Forman is cooking an enormous hunk of marinated lamb, plus potatoes with onions, Czechoslovak-style. While he slices the last pieces of potato, he talks about writing "Valmont" with Carrière.
"We have one basic rule, which is that nothing will appear on paper which we don't both agree on. It's hard, but it works. Jean-Claude has an enormous ego, just like I do, but it doesn't get in the way. He has that wisdom of realizing how modest one must become in what other people call creation."
Soon Carrière comes in from the guest house, where he has been typing up scenes from the notes he has scribbled during the course of the day's work. He sits down at the kitchen table and says: "It smells good, Milos."
Forman laughs. "If only films could smell so well," he replies, and turns the heat up under the lamb.
It's been another long day for both men, and for their young American assistant, Anne Gyory, who's there to advise the two Europeans on contemporary English usage. After a three-week session, Forman and Carrière are still not quite finished with the third draft of a script that must be ready for shooting in France some time this summer. Now word has come that another movie version of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," this one based on the Christopher Hampton play that ran on Broadway last year, may be headed for production at nearly the same time.
That's not their concern, though; at least not yet. The most immediate reality lies in their imaginations, and in the process sometimes a duel, sometimes a duet - that gives voice and action to their imagined creatures. Today it's been mostly a duel, or so it has seemed to Anne.
"What Jean-Claude doesn't say," she says, grinning, "is that he works like a bullfighter. Within five minutes, he's been in every corner of the room with this idea and that idea, doing it this way, doing it that way, until the director is finally exhausted. And then finally he gets around to what he really wants by saying, 'Or ... we could do this.' And by that time, the director is so confused that he says O.K."
"But Anne," Carrière responds with disarming earnestness, "what you haven't said is that when I'm doing the bullfighting, I don't know what the best idea is. This morning, for instance, when I proposed the idea of Madame de Tourvel being naked, I was really looking for something else that I hadn't found. Or when I say what I said this afternoon - 'What if we start on this scene by cutting all the dialogue?' - I'm only trying to provoke the director's imagination. Because we must never forget that it's Milos who has to make the film."
After a few more days in Connecticut, Carrière will return to France. Then, shortly before production starts, he and Forman will meet again for a last, intensive session to refine their script. After that, it's the director's picture, and a time of mixed emotions for the writer.
"There's always some sadness," Carrière says, "at the beginning of every shooting, when the screenplay, the final draft, is declared finished. At that moment, there's a lot of activity - the actors coming onto the set, the lights going on, the director taking over - but you have to go. That's when the writer feels his basic condition, which is loneliness."
At this, Carrière lowers his voice, and his gaze. It's very touching, what he's just said, and he seems to know it. But then a small smile forms on his lips, a new light comes to his eye. The storyteller has started to tell another story.
"If the writer is lucky enough, though (here his pacing picks up, and his voice rises once again), if he's good enough, full of enough energy, he'll be off working on another film. And soon it will be the director's turn to be lonely, a moment when he may even feel despair.
"For three months, he's been an absolute god. He's been creating, making whole worlds out of pieces of paper. Everybody's been swarming around him, asking questions, needing advice. Should this be red? No. Should it be blue? Yes. Do you prefer this cup or another? What about these shoes for the lady? Then the lights go off, and everyone leaves. He's left alone with the editor, in a little dark room, to confront the work he has done, which is not always a masterpiece.
"At that moment, there's a knock at the door - and the writer appears! And the director is glad to see him! And then, with the writer, who's used to loneliness, they start again, going through all the takes to see what there is, and what can be done with it.
Joe Morgenstern is a journalist and former movie critic who often writes on the arts.