In an industry where, the occasional Charlie Kaufman notwithstanding, the screenwriter gets about as much respect as Rodney Dangerfield, Jean-Claude Carrière has amassed an illustrious career from what he insists is humble support to directors. Yet, despite having written for such heavyweights as Jean-Luc Godard, Milos Forman, Louis Malle, Volker Schlöndorff, Nagisa Oshima and Peter Brook, not to mention his astounding six-film collaboration with Luis Buñuel, Carrière is very much his own auteur, suavely playful and elegantly subversive. The author of various distinguished books and plays, he is cherished among cinephiles for aiding Buñuel cake Catherine Deneuve with mud, leaving a bourgeois dinner forever suspended on the road, and making bad manners out of talking about food while sitting on the john. I met with Carrière, a man of Old World charm and wit, at the San Francisco International Film Festival, where he was to receive the Kanbar Award for screenwriting for his brilliant career.
Congratulations on your upcoming award, first of all.
Since there will be a screening of Belle de Jour this weekend, I’d like to start by asking about your collaboration with Luis Buñuel.
It was a close collaboration. At the very beginning, when we started working together [on Diary of a Chambermaid], I didn’t dare say “no” to Buñuel. It was absolutely necessary to him for me to do it, because he didn’t need a secretary, he needed a real collaborator. He taught me how to oppose him, how to disagree. And from the second film until the end, it was a close relationship. Full of friendship and family. Working with Buñuel was living with Buñuel.
Would you come up with ideas together?
Of course. We would stay at a remote place in Mexico or Spain, say, and talk. I owe him a lot, though he probably owes me the desire to make other films. To me and to Serge Silverman, the French producer. Without the two of us, he maybe would have stopped making films. Strangely enough, it was in his sixties that he wanted to stop, and he was thinking seriously, and we encouraged him to keep making them until he was 77. Even after that, we wrote a book together…
My Last Sigh?
Yes, his biography, you know. We were linked by our common Mediterranean origins, something Latin, the fact that we had almost the same roots, the same culture. We were from the country, born in villages. We shared tastes as well. The first question Buñuel asked me when we met at the Cannes Film Festival in 1963, it was a very deep question, not at all a superficial one. “Do you drink wine?” It was, you know, like an inquisition. When I answered that not only did I drink wine, but I came from a family of winemakers, his face lit up. At last, we had our first thing in common.
You were ready to work together.
Yes, but it was not easy to work with Buñuel. I mean, when you are 35 or 40 years old and it is just us writing together, it was like prison, no women at all, no wives or friends, often for five, six, seven weeks at a time. But the work needed the concentration, and now, when I think back of our time together, I’m filled with nostalgia. Of course, it’s the same with many other directors. I sort of find the same atmosphere working with Milos Forman, for instance; we close ourselves in his house in Connecticut and we improvise, act together, one trying to seduce the other with ideas.
Having worked with so many distinguished directors, like Forman, Volker Schlöndorff, Godard…
…Nagisa Oshima, absolutely. I still see a very distinctive voice throughout these works, a sense of humor, of irony. My question is: how does the screenwriter preserve his voice even while it is being filtered through other visions?
I’m not trying to do it purposely. At the beginning of the work, I never say to myself, “I’m trying to keep my sense of humor, or my special way.” It comes in a natural way, I think. If the director does accept it, so much the better. If he doesn’t, very often we couldn’t do a film together, but most of the time, we realize that I’m not trying to impose my own point of view, that I’m working for the film. You go past the interest of the director and of the writer and think only of the film. You aim at a third person, which is the work itself. I never, ever try to defend my ego. The screenwriter has to know that, whatever he has—talent, persistence, professional vision—he’s doing work for somebody else, the director. He needs humility, to learn to be invisible. He needs to realize the director is the auteur, and once that’s been established, the work flows much more easily.
What was Buñuel like?
With him it was more than working, it was sharing moments of life. For instance, every day we were reading newspapers, commenting on what we were reading, what was going on in the world, trying sometimes to find a detail to put into the script. Everything we made together had something from that period, from the times. During our works, he would knock on my door every day at exactly the same time, we would have exactly the same kind of coffee and cake—it was a ritual. After two or more weeks we would have the complete version of the script, then we would forget about it for two, three, four months, and go back to it for what Buñuel called the “invisible work.” To look at it through different eyes, almost unconsciously. Several things we had liked suddenly seemed dull and useless, while links that we had been looking for seemed clearer.
Like in which film?
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, we worked I think five different versions. It took two years.
Was the idea of the two different actresses portraying the same character in That Obscure Object of Desire developed on the writing level?
One day in Mexico, when we were working on a script, we had the idea—only for one day—to share the part between two different people. The character [Conchita] couldn’t be summed up through just one side. Then it was forgotten. Buñuel later started shooting the film with only one actress, and after three days he called the producer, saying “I made a mistake, I chose the wrong actress. I can’t work with her.” The idea came back to him, and the producer agreed. They recast and started shooting later, with Angela Molina and Carole Bouquet. Buñuel called this idea, I am not sure how to translate it exactly, the “whim of a rainy day.”
Do you often have people coming up to you with interpretations of the mysteries from your work? Like the ending of Belle de Jour, or what is in the box that makes Séverine gasp?
Always, always. Buñuel and I had a lot jokes about this, because he hated to analyze the films. There was a Mexican psychoanalyst who did a book called The Eye of Buñuel, explaining everything that he had made, you know, this shot means this and so on. Absolutely a stupid book. Luis took me aside and said, you know, this man has written a book, El Ojo de Buñuel, and apparently he wasn’t aware that “ojo” in Spanish means “asshole,” “ojo del culo.” [laughs] Luis said, “This guy wrote a book about my asshole,” which was not as bad to him as trying to break down the films.
[laughs] I agree.
He was very funny. Luis was an artist, and the true artist doesn’t want to give you a message. He wanted to show you, not tell you. He knew, and I completely agree, that the moment you try to pin the work down, to force an understanding onto the image, you reduce the power of that image. Few people understand that. There was a beautiful letter by Andre Breton, the poet, to critics: “What is important is not what the poet wanted to, but what he said.” That said everything about Buñuel.