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Francis Veber—The Valet—04/11/07

Writer-director Francis Veber wrote the screenplay for La Cage Aux Folles, and directed such films as The Dinner Game and The Closet. His latest is The Valet—we discussed the film, and his august career, at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

Groucho:Well, people always talk about how your films are distinctively French, and I won't disagree. But why do you think your comedies, in particular, have appealed so much to American audiences?

Francis Veber: Well, I think that you have a notion here, which is "high concept" movies, you know? And when a story has a strong premise, it's more appealing to American people than when it's just daily things. And French cinema, very often, has stories that are "average life," you know?—people talking—intellectual things. So when there is something that looks like a story, I think Americans are more attracted to them.

G: This picture opens with a Chuck Berry tune, as well, which fits the film's subject and tone. How did you decide upon that song?

FV: But first—I think it is a very good song, you know? And, in France, and I think everywhere in the world now, we have your music—I mean the American music. And in our radio stations, you know? Two-thirds of the music is American. And Chuck Berry's so much full of life. And this story, being about parking attendants, you know? The fact that it's about cars—what he sings—

G: Cars and women.

FV: Well yes. Cars and women. It was convenient.

G: The Valet is very class conscious. But you point out the similarities as much as the differences, don't you?

FV: Mm-hm. Sure. You have a rich man and a poor man.

G: Yeah. Both have love crises. And both have money crises.

FV: Yes.

G: So it's a very fine line, I guess.

FV: It is. And it is a very common line, you know. You have facing each other a man who is a billionaire—it's a kind of Trump, you know—Donald Trump—with all the qualities and all the faults. Those guys are sometimes contemptuous. They think they can buy everything. And you cannot buy everything. And he's in front of this little man, Francois Pignon, who doesn't want to be bought, you know? And for this reason, they have this beautiful girl in between. The supermodel. And it's a kind of war between wealth and something that could be poverty, I don't know.

G: One of the first things that occurred to me in watching Pignon in this film is how much the actor brought to mind Buster Keaton. And I thought, I'm not going to mention that in the interview because—

FV: Yes. And you have to because it's true.

G: —it's just some fancy of mine. And then I read that you had made a very similar comment about him. Did you cast—did you write—the script with Gad in mind?

FV: No. What I was looking for was a young man. Because Pignon was—Daniel Auteuil was Pignon in the closet some years—a few years before. But I needed to be—the valet parking—I needed to have a young man. It's sad a guy would be sixty years old being in valet parking, you know? So I didn't have a lot of choice in France. I had two stand-up comedians. One is Jamel Debbouze—who was in Indigènes—this film that was nominated for the Oscars. And the other one is Gad. And Gad Elmaleh is very funny. He's a stand-up comedian in France. Very well known. And, well, he looks like Buster Keaton. You are right. Strange face.

G: Did he have to adapt his persona much to fit this role?

FV: No, because it was a very—it's a little man in the crowd, Pignon. You don't have a lot of actors who could perform that kind of part here in America. I see one—Steve Carell.

G: Oh, yes.

FV: Steve Carell was in Little Miss Sunshine. He has this quality of anti-hero. Because most of your actors have to be heroes. And this guy, Steve Carell, would be a perfect match for my films.

G: Hmm. Interesting. Pignon—Francois Pignon—is he literally the same character from film to film, in your mind? Or only in spirit, or only in name?

FV: Only in name. Yes. It's very different, you know? He presented he was gay, in The Closet. He was an idiot in The Dinner Game—you know, the dinner for idiots. And, in the very first that Billy Wilder made here, he was a guy who wanted to commit suicide. So it was not at all the same character.

G: But, you've also said that he has become a sort of alter-ego for you in some way. What of you is in him? Is there a common thread there in all of the Pignon—that's something of you?

FV: Yes, I think the most ridiculous part of Pignon is me, you know? And I'm saying that really sincerely. It means that in real life I'm very clumsy. I remember, when I was a soldier, you have to make up your bed. I tried hard, but it was so difficult. Then my friends said, "Okay, get out of here." And they were making up my bed. And it's not because I was lazy. Just because I couldn't do it, you know? Even to lace my shoes, it's big work, see? So Pignon is a big part of myself.

G: Daniel Auteuil plays here perhaps a more overtly wicked character than usual.

FV: Mm-hm.

G: Again, was this a conscious forethought of writing and casting?

FV: I think that Daniel Auteuil could be good in any film. He is probably our best actor in France now. So he goes from tragedy to comedy so easily. When he was in Jean de Florette, or Manon des sources, you know, he was perfectly dramatic. And when he's in that kind of film, he's funny. So, no—it's a dream to have this actor on the set.

G: Though not in morality, your own lifestyle is more like Pierre's than Francois', no? The good life?

FV: Uhh, yes. You mean that I'm living more the life of—

G: Well, a comfortable life.

FV: Yes, sure. But you know I worked hard for that. Because my parents were poor. And I didn't know what would happen to me in life. If I didn't have this little gift of God, you know—the possibility of writing, and writing comedies—I don't know what I would have become. It's a hard way to make money.

G: And your way in was sort of incremental. You wrote, as a journalist. And then, how did you make the break into screenwriting?

FV: Because I was fired. I was dreaming of writing since a long time. But my parents were writers. And writers were not successful. So my father told me, "Never write. Try to have a real job." And I understood why because they had very big problems, you know, at the end of the month. So, because they were nice parents, they asked me to go to med school, you know.

G: Ah, yes.

FV: And I studied four years to be a doctor. And I hated it. And I was writing—hiding myself—like a teenager smoking a cigarette in the toilet. I was writing and hiding like that. And then I became a journalist—but I was a very bad journalist because I was a radio reporter. And there is no reason to write. You interview people or, if you are giving the news, it is very simple—the style. So I was frustrated all the time. And I was fired. And I just—I was just married, you know? And I said to myself, "What will I do?" I had no money. I was living with my mother-in-law in this little apartment. And I started to write my first stage play. And everything happened at that time.

G: What gave you the courage to take that writing out of the shadows and present it to someone?

FV: Well, I was courageous because I was young. So I chose, you know, the name of a producer, and I called him. And I said to his secretary, "I'm a writer and I wrote a stage play." And she said, "Okay, how old are you?" And I said I'm twenty-three or twenty-four. She said, "Okay, he will meet you." And I met this man. And this man told me, "Why do want to write for the stage?" And I said, "Well, because if I write a screenplay, no one will read it. There are so many screenwriters, you know? If I write a novel, no one will read it. And there are very few young stage writers." So he was picking at it: "That's smart—that's smart—that's smart." And he kept my play. And it was at the top of a huge pile of plays. You know, I said to myself, "He will never read it." Came back home, and my wife told me he called. I called back, and he said, "I'm opening your play at le Théâtre Eduarsette," which is a very big theatre in Paris, "in September." Because he explained to me after that he was expecting a phone call, and he took this play that was at the top of the pile and started to read it.

G: Idly.

FV: Can you believe it? What a piece of luck, you know? And it was the beginning of everything, you see?

G: With your experience, does anything daunt you at this point? What challenged you about The Valet?

FV: Well, for me, the challenge was to have a woman in my film. Because most of the films I have written were buddy stories. And in La Cage Aux Folles, Birdcage—there is a woman, but she's a man. So I wanted to have a female character in a film. And this girl was a supermodel. It was a very interesting subject matter. Because very often, you think that when a girl is that beautiful, she won't be really human, you know? And it was interesting to show that she could be great-looking and have a heart. Which is the case in the film.

G: Yeah. That's one of the best aspects of the film, I think—is how humane she is with Pignon.

FV: Yes.

G: Now how did the Farrelly brothers win the gig of remaking The Valet?

FV: You know, Hollywood is the most mysterious place in the world. You never know if they will do it or not, you know? And they liked the film when they saw it. Because it's what happens to me—I won't say very often it happens. For instance, The Dinner Game, my film. I arrived in Los Angeles a few years ago and my producer, Lauren Shuler Donner, who was Richard Donner's wife, called me and said Woody Allen wants to perform in the remake of The Dinner Game. And I was so enthusiastic because in Europe we are very fond of Woody Allen. So I called Jeffrey Katzenberg at DreamWorks saying, "It's wonderful." He said, "No, we're not interested." He said, "It's yesterday's news." And so I was very sad, and I met Woody Allen. It was a film in Los Angeles. And he never goes to—he doesn't like Los Angeles. And, well, he was there this time. It was for this film with Sean Penn. It was a guitar player. Sweet Lowdown or something.

G: Yeah. Sweet and Lowdown.

FV: Okay. And he was there in the party. And I went to him, and I said, "Hello, I'm the writer-director of The Dinner Game. And he said, "You are the writer-director of The Dinner Game?" I said yes. "You are the writer-director of The Dinner Game?" I said, "Yes." "You are—" I said, "How many times will you say that?" And then he said, "I'm your best publicist in New York since three months." Can you imagine? For me, you know, when I was a journalist, he was already a star. And I did Cannes Film Festival as a journalist. And when I was seeing Woody Allen, how could I imagine that he would like to perform in one of my little movies, you know?

G: You should lure him back to France to star in one of your films.

FV: (Laughing) Yes, I would like that very much because I think he's a genius, you know?

G: Oh, me too.

FV: He's now getting, well—Match Point was a bit of a high for him. But it's more difficult for him now. But he's a genius.

G: Of the many American remakes of your scripts, only Quick Change had no involvement from you. How far did your involvement extend on the other films, and why did you have no involvement on that particular one?

FV: Well, I never had a real involvement in the films, you know—because the first experience I had in this area—Ray Stark was the producer of The Toy, my first film. It's a film that was remade with Jackie Gleason and Richard Pryor. And I arrived in Los Angeles for the first time and I called Ray Stark and I talked to his secretary, and I said, "I'm the original writer of The Toy. If you want me to work with you as screenwriter, I would be delighted." And he never called me back. So I understood then that, when they buy a film, they don't want to be disturbed by the people who did it, you know?

G: Why do you think so many of the American remakes failed to take off?

FV: Because I think the process of filmmaking is very complicated. I have a kind of explanation. When a producer, for instance, buys a French or Italian or Spanish film, he shows the film to a lot of people—writers, actors. And he starts to get used to the jokes, the situations, you know? And he asks his writers, "Make it richer." And this is the beginning of trouble.

G: This can happen on the stage as well.

FV: Yes, sure. And it is very dangerous because, when I met Elaine May, who adapted La Cage Aux Folles as Birdcage. I met her in New York. And she said to me, "I tried to stay as close—as truthful to the original as possible." And, for this reason, The Birdcage is a good remake. But when you have people trying to change things—

G: Trying to justify their paycheck, I think.

FV: Exactly! This is very dangerous. I say—it's a French image; I don't know if the American audience will get it—I say that it's exactly as if you were putting Chanti cream on goose liver. It's two styles that are bumping against one another. And for this reason remakes are difficult to make. If you understand the process, you can make a good remake. If you don't understand it—for instance, the are trying to remake The Dinner Game. The Dinner Game is a very claustrophobic situation. Because you have a man who has a bad back. And a jerk who is invited because he is a jerk. They are making dinner every Tuesday where they choose the biggest jerk they know and they make him talk to enjoy it. It's a very mean-spirited matter. And this guy has a bad back when he receives this jerk. And at the same time, his wife leaves him. So the only confidant he has is a man that he has chosen for his stupidity, you know, because he's an idiot. So, it's very difficult to open up the movie. And they are trying to open up the movie—this is stupid because it has to stay in the same room—the two guys, you know?

G: Well, I think American filmmakers or producers, particularly—the dirtiest word is theatrical.

FV: I know. I know, I know. But it's wrong. It is wrong, really.

G: Yeah, I think so too. Have you ever been tempted to turn the tables and remake an American film?

FV: To remake an American film is impossible. You know why?

G: Why?

FV: Too expensive. You know, if you ask a studio to sell you the rights of a film, we don't have money enough in France. It's why we don't have previews in France either. Because when you have a preview here, you can make retakes after it. When the audience says, "We don't like the ending." Eventually, you can redo it. We don't have the money for that in Europe, you see?

G: How do you satisfy yourself that your material is funny, without the benefit of a preview to test it out with an audience?

FV: Well, you are—you have a big question mark until the first meeting with the audience. Sometimes you have—it's not—you cannot consider that like previews because you don't have those notes and those kind of things. But you invite people to see if they laugh or not, you see?

G: And read-through, probably.

FV: Yes. But you know what I do, too? I read my first draft to friends. Which is a nightmare for them. Because, you know, I have a flat, dull voice. And I am reading everything, and you can see they are bored. It's physical. It's not what they are saying that is interesting, really. It's when you see you are losing their attention. They focus. They go away. And a bad sign for the scene you are reading is when you are starting to read faster. Because you can see they are going away. You want to catch them back, you know. It means that the scene is bad.

G: It gives you a deeper appreciation for your actors.

FV: Yes, and it's an advice I give to the young screenwriters. Read your stuff to your friends. Because it's so boring, you know?

G: It's the ultimate test.

FV: Ultimate. Yes.

G: Almost 30 years after La Cage Aux Folles, and your celebrated screenplay for that, what do you think was the enormous appeal of that film?

FV: I understand very well what was the enormous appeal. It's because you have two guys who are not offensive for the gays because they are so over the top—so clownish that it's okay. You can laugh with—and, what they are trying to do is out of love. Because they have a child. And for the happiness of this child, they have this amazing challenge to try to be straight for one night. Because they are receiving the parents of the young girl that will marry their son. And it's impossible for those two birds to be straight. So this inhuman challenge is so funny. Because they are betraying themselves. And it comes from the heart. And for this reason, it is so warmhearted. I don't know if it is the right word in English.

G: Sure. Yeah.

FV: It is so much of that that everyone loved it. Because, try to imagine. We are together, and I want to look straight. The John Wayne's type. And suddenly I say: (goofy high-pitched laugh)—like that, you know? It's so bizarre, and the audience was totally in it. I don't know. It's a fantastic concept.

G: It also spawned two sequels and, of course, the American remake. You wrote the script for the first sequel, but not the second. Why? Was that a matter of scheduling?

FV: No, actually, you know, La Cage Aux Folles was first a play. A stage play. And the original writer, to try to adapt it—he was unable to do it. Because it's very difficult to go from one medium to another. And the guy was an actor. He was not a real writer. He was a genius. He was so funny. So they called me. It was an Italian producer. And he called me and he said, "Can you write it?" And I wrote the adaptation for the first movie. And I had an award—I was nominated for an award in America. And thanks to that, I got my green card you know, in three weeks, because I was nominated for an Oscar, you see? But I always arrived in second, in that kind of thing. I was doctoring the second one. And I didn't touch the third one, which is not very good.

G: Your film The Closet that came out a few years ago sort of inverted the concept of La Cage Aux Folles. Was that a conscious starting point for you? Was that where the germ of it came from—thinking about the earlier film? Or did it arrive spontaneously to you?

FV: Maybe. You never know where it comes from. But, for sure, the fact that this man, Daniel Auteil, in this film The Closet, has to pretend he's gay, but without performing gay, was a very interesting matter, because it is exactly the contrary of La Cage Aux Folles, you are right. The opposite. Because it's the advice of his neighbor—the guy next door who is gay and who tells him, "Okay, you are working in a condom factory. They won't fire you if you say you are gay. But don't try to 'look' gay. You will be ridiculous and vulgar." So this man arrives, and he's perfectly straight. But people think he is gay. And what changes is their look at him. It's not him. The way they are looking at him. And that is a very interesting premise for me to try to structure.

G: What are your own personal rules for comedy—or what do you think are the keys to comedy, for you?

FV: Well, first I think that you have to ask your actors to be deadly serious when they are performing. Because, most of the time, when you hire a stand-up comedian or a comic actor, he wants to be funny by himself. And it is redundant, you know? It is what we call in French un pleinasma. It means that a man, performing funny in a funny situation, is not funny. And it's something that Kubrick understood in Dr. Strangelove. But even the Zuckers, when they had in Airplane, for instance, those serious actors like Leslie Nielsen, I think, perform very seriously. He was a doctor in the plane, you know, and it was far funnier than if he was trying to clown, you know?

G: Right. Well, there's a commitment that you just believe in if it's just played straight.

FV: Sure. And if the situation is absurd, that's pure masterpiece. I remember in Dr. Stangelove, all those situations were so absurd. And people were very, very serious, you know? Sterling Hayden, you know, was really insane, but scary, because serious.

G: Yeah. In terms of temperament and skills, what sort of actors appeal to you and what type of actors drive you crazy?

FV: Well, I think that all the talented actors appeal to me, and you have a lot here. The ones I don't like are the ones that are a pain in the ass. There is a "life is too short" list in Hollywood, when they tell directors, "Don't go with this guy. He can kill you."

G: (Laughs.)

FV: And I know some names, you know? And it's very—I don't want to suffer what they did to other directors, you know?

G: Did you get first-hand experience with some of those names?

FV: Well, I had one. I had a bad experience with one of those guys, yes. And really he can make your life miserable. You know, I know that there is a—Stephen Frears, who did The Queen recently—he was shooting a film, and he had an actor who was, at that time, difficult—because I think it changed since then. Because when you are getting older, you have less offers, you know. Maybe you are more human. And this actor was so terrible on the set, that the guy was starting to be sick—I mean Frears. And not only was he terrible when Frears was directing him, but when he was on vacation, he came back on the set—the actor—to direct the other actors. And Frears went to the hospital for three or four days because he had a kind of health problem. So this is very dangerous, you know, to meet those people. And, at the same time, I understand them, because it's such a strange job, to be an actor. Can you imagine, you get up in the morning and you think, okay, I receive $20 million to say three lines today, you know? And will I be good? Will I be worth that money? And you arrive on the set, and you are absolutely insecure. I heard that DeNiro, when he's not in a good shape, performs so low—the voice, almost a whisper. Because it's difficult to be bad when you don't project. But the sound engineer says, "A bit stronger, please" because they didn't hear him. And the microphones now are very precise. So I can understand the fear of the actor. And it explains why some of them are difficult.

G: Yeah. Well, there's certainly a vulnerability, I suppose, putting yourself out there.

FV: Yes. Yes, yes. And it's a tough job too.

G: You've been frank in the past about actors that you've worked with. Is there ever—have you ever regretted things that you've said or has it come back to haunt you at all?

FV: No, because, you know, I love the guys I was criticizing. For instance, Depardieu. He's really an old accomplice—I made five films with him. So I can tell stories about him—because he's bigger than life. Depardieu is, you know, I remember—he's a heavy drinker. Like Nick Nolte—people like that. But from time to time he stops. And he starts again. But when he's in it, you know, your life is more difficult on the set. And so, when I'm telling stories about that, he doesn't hate me for that—because I'm trying not to be mean, first, you know, and it's always funny what he does when he's drunk. Because he's so—so bigger than life, I tell you.

G: It's so bigger than life, it's worrying at times I imagine, for how he'll be able to sustain himself. He's a hard worker too.

FV: Well, he works too much, I think. He does everything too much. He eats too much, drinks too much, he—we say bulimique in French—you know, when you want to absorb everything—more, more, more, more, more. So, he's strong, because I couldn't do that.

G: You've lived in Hollywood for over 20 years now, is that right?

FV: Almost twenty years.

G: Almost twenty years?

FV: Yes.

G: What brought you here and what's kept you here?

FV: Well, it was at the Cannes Film Festival that I met Jeffrey Katzenberg. I was a juror there. And he liked my films. He had seen some of my films, you know, and he said to me, "We need someone like you in Hollywood." And I just had made three movies that were very big hits in France. La Chevre, which was remade here very badly by Pure Luck—it was Pure Luck. Les Comperes. Les Comperes was, I think, something like Father's Day. And Les Fugitifs, that I remade myself as Three Fugitives. But in France, those films were really huge hits. I say to myself, "Okay, I reached a peak. Now I don't know what to do." And I came to America because of that. And I stayed six years at Disney Studios—being a consultant, you know. Reading American screenplays. And it was very interesting. I was watching how screenwriters were writing here. And it helped me a lot for my writing. Because being European, I had a European style. And I understood the efficiency of the American screenwriters too. So it helped me, and I loved the American way of life, you know? So I'm going back to Paris very often, but I love living here.

G: Okay, I think we have to wrap up here. I think we're out of time, but thank you very much.

FV: Well, it was a very interesting interview.

G: Thank you.

FV: No, no. I mean it. Because, as I told you, I was a journalist, and I was fired!

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