With The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie out on home release next week, the legendary screenwriter sits down to reflect on his remarkable life in the movies.
Jean-Claude Carrière is one of Europe’s great screenwriters, best-known for a six-film collaboration with the iconic Spanish surrealist and provocateur Luis Buñuel, including Belle de Jour, and an extraordinary run of literary adaptations (The Tin Drum, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Cyrano de Bergerac).
Aged 80 he remains vital, scripting Jonathan Glazer’s Birth, Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, and assisting Michael Haneke on The White Ribbon. In London for the reissue of Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and a BFI season devoted to his work, Carriere is garrulously entertaining company, launching straight into memories of his old friend Buñuel.
Carrière: During a lifetime like mine – I’m 80 now – it’s fantastic to see that films I wrote 40, 50 years ago are still alive, and considered sometimes as new films. It makes me very happy. Buñuel, of course, never really wondered if his films would last. He hated to be considered as a master, as a great director. When asked, 'Why are you making films?' he would answer, 'To make money.' It wasn’t true, of course. But he never wanted to be considered as an artist. He hated the idea. He said many times, and I thought that somehow he was sincere, that he would burn his films. One of his films was burned, one of the copies of The Young One was burned in a fire in the Mexican cinemateque. He was very happy! [laughs] He had a small office in his house in Mexico with 92 statues for awards that he was hiding! I was one of the very few who was allowed to see them from time to time.
LWLies: Did it keep him more himself, to be in exile from Franco in Mexico all those years?
That’s a very interesting question, because if you look at the documentary he made in 1933, Las Hurdes, and the first Mexican film he made after the war, for 13 years he didn’t make anything. One of the greatest filmmakers in the middle of his life stopped making films. So sometimes I asked him later, 'In this time did you dream about making films?' and he said, 'Yes, of course.' 'And are there some of those films that later you were allowed to make?' He didn’t know how to answer. He said, 'Maybe some scenes I had kept in mind.' But as a matter of fact, when he was 45, at the end of the war, he had given up making films. And a friend of his, a woman he knew from Paris, met him in Los Angeles, cleaning an editing room. And she told him, 'Why don’t you go to Mexico? It’s a Spanish-speaking country, you can make films.'
I remember when I was 19, when I saw Los Olvidados – I was already going to the cine-club – one of my friends said to me, 'Buñuel is not dead.' Buñuel was back. And then, from age 50 to 60 in Mexico, he made all these pictures. And then in 1960, when he was already 60 years old, he came back to Spain and made Viridiana, and that was a bomb. In the Spanish history of cinema, Viridiana was a nuclear weapon, boom! All of a sudden a Spanish director shooting in Spain was showing what could be done with film. It was a fantastic film. I saw it 10 years ago in Cannes and I was sitting next to [Pedro] Almodóvar and he was jumping, he was so excited! And then Buñuel made The Exterminating Angel back in Mexico. And so when we met, he was already a monument in the history of cinema. I was so impressed, at the beginning.
Did the two of you collaborate by getting to know each other – by spending time with each other?
Yes. Working with Buñuel was living with Buñuel. You cannot separate the two things. We worked for 19 years on scripts, always in remote places far from the cities, always in Spain or Mexico, always just the two of us. No wives, no friends. I made a calculation once that we have eaten together, face to face, more than 2000 times. Which is more than many couples! This intimacy was to him absolutely necessary. Not only to exchange imagination and obscure ideas, but also to become friends, that was all. Even today, our families are friends. I’m a good friend of his grandson, and his sons of course. Something happened which never happened to me that deep. Maybe because he was like my father, he was 31 years older than I was, but also we had in common Latinity – Mediterranean taste for wine, for olive oil, for a certain number of tastes from childhood that we could share. I’m sure that played a part, the fact that you eat and drink together.
The first question he asked me when we met was, 'Do you drink wine?' And it meant a lot to him when I said, 'Not only do I drink wine, but I am from a family of wine-growers.' His face illuminated. But your question is interesting, because I’ve asked myself the same question. When we work closely together – and I’ve worked closely with other directors, of course – do we need not only to share the same work, but also the same life? For instance, with Buñuel, every morning we would read the papers – at the time there was no television, in the places we were – to share the news from the rest of the world, and to talk about it. To see if maybe there is an opportunity, the birth of a small idea in the news of the day, and it happened sometimes. I remember once when we read in a French paper that in the Sacre Coeur de Montmartre, the church, they had found a bomb. So the following day he went to buy the newspaper, and not one word. We never knew what happened to this bomb and why, and he was furious. That’s the information of today – one news eats the other, every day there’s something new, and even with disasters, you have no continuity.
How did knowing him so well change you?
At the beginning, in the first weeks we were together I was extremely impressed, you can imagine – I was trying to be as good a worker as possible. But that’s not what he needed. And he asked through the go-between of the producer that I had to say no from time to time. And it was not easy, when Buñuel says to you, 'We could do this and this,' to say that you don’t like it, that you find it too much or too vulgar. But you have to. If not, you are not a collaborator, you are a secretary.
That must have made it easier for you to say no to everyone else?
Exactly! The moment you have said no to Buñuel, you can say no to Shakespeare! [laughs] I’ve worked with Shakespeare four times, and we have long talks together…
When you think of Buñuel, is one of the first images that comes to mind him sitting having a dry Martini, in a dim bar at the end of the day?
That was a rule. After a long day’s work, 8 hours, we would spend half an hour each of us in our room alone, and every day we had to invent a story. And then go to the bar and tell our idea. That was to train our imagination – the imagination being considered as a muscle. We are athletes, and when you are working with Buñuel you are in the final of the Olympic Games, there is no higher level, so you’d better be at your best. Maybe thousands of stories have crossed the bars where we’ve been drinking together. He would always arrive first at the bar, and when he saw me coming, sometimes he would grimace, and say, 'My idea’s not worth much today.' Some other times he would be full of excitement: 'I have something interesting to tell you.' Some of these ideas have echoes and resonances in his films. Others crossed the air of the bars and vanished.
Did having that dry Martini at the end of the day give his brain a little nudge somewhere else?
Probably. He was not an alcoholic, but he was a drinker. He would drink only one drink a day, sometimes two – wine, perhaps. But he said that the gin – he was not so much a whiskey drinker, but the gin, and only Beefeater gin – would open something, he didn’t know exactly what it was, but it gave a certain excitation of the mind, that would lead him to new images. It was not the same for me. I’m a wine drinker, but wine almost puts you to sleep, it doesn’t excite the imagination the way gin does. And I don’t like gin so much, I prefer whiskey. But nevertheless, we also from time to time drank vodka, and even some Mexican alcohols, with the distain of the colonialist!
Another way you’ve said you train your mind to be ready to tell stories is that you’ve always sat in cafes or on the Metro, or looked out of your window, watching people…
That comes from Jacques Tati. The very first day I entered a production company building it was Jacques Tati’s. I was a student. He invited me to lunch, and I will never forget this. When we went out of his office to go to the restaurant it was raining, and I said to Tati, 'Isn’t this strange? When it’s raining, cars slow down, and passers-by speed up.' He said, 'Oh, you have noticed that?' That was the first contact, with taking something from the reality. But most of the work was to sit at the café, and to observe people in the streets, and to see if there were not some possibilities for the beginnings of scenes, of gags, of strange encounters. I’m still doing it today, I can’t prevent myself, I did it in the train this morning – that was my way to teach myself how to look. The first thing I teach my movie students is how to look at the reality, before trying to imagine or invent. Reality is full of secrets, things that most people don’t see, but they are there.
We have to learn how to look, and sometimes it takes years. And I’m still doing it, and taking sketches – I’m also a cartoonist – just to remember that I have seen this. That’s important, and Buñuel was a very good observer. He was also a very funny man. He made so many practical jokes to me. For instance we are sitting chatting as usual, and we see crossing the hall a very old man with a cane, walking very slowly. He looked at me and said, 'Did you see Buñuel? But last year he was still strong, and look at the way he walks now…' Sometimes he would enter my room, after a few weeks of work, with a closed face, and say, 'Jean-Claude, everything we have been doing so far is pure shit. So I’m leaving this afternoon, I have my ticket, you do whatever you want, bye-bye.' And he would go out, leaving me, and the first time I didn’t know what to do. Of course it was a joke, just to provoke me. But every day there was a practical joke to someone.
Did you see anything today that interested you?
The strangest thing that I’ve seen in London today is that I had to talk about Buñuel! No, nothing special. I just was looking at a newspaper, and there was an encounter between the Queen and an Irish guy, McGuinness? And apparently it’s a very important event here, but to us French it doesn’t mean anything. Sometimes the big news in a country is no news elsewhere. And I went to the BBC today. I must say, I was impressed, because I had never been there before to this huge building. They took me around, and somebody asked me, 'What do you think?' I said, 'I think that here, the war was won.' This was the centre for resistance to the Nazis. The BBC was extremely important in the war. And the BBC lady who was there apparently had never thought of that.
When you observe people now, after 60 years of doing so, do they seem to have changed in any important way?
Things change, and don’t. Our bodies and minds, our ways of living and working change. The worst thing is to stop, and to say that, 'Now I know the truth. I know how to write a script.' If you think like that you are certain to fail. We can’t escape the move – the move is absolutely part of our nature. As Samuel Beckett put it once, 'The most important thing is never to arrive anywhere.' The moment you say, 'Here I am,' you are lost. So I am still on the move. Every week I go somewhere. And what helps me a lot is to direct workshops with young students. The last one was a few months ago in Jerusalem. It was extremely interesting to spend time with young Israeli film directors and writers, to try things through fiction – not through the documentary, fiction says more, because you dare to go further. To me that’s essential. I am the founder of La Femis, the French Film School, and I still try to keep in touch with the young.
Ever since that first work with Jacques Tati, you’ve tried to keep on top of how films are made. It’s in the newspaper today that Martin Scorsese will be shooting digitally from now on. Does that make a difference?
The problem is that digital is not the end. Inside digital, there are many different ways of working. Digital is not one direction, the word covers different techniques. So there is absolutely no reason to refuse it, except that, so far, we don’t know the best way to preserve these films. When you are the director of a film school, the main problem is how to show films to the students – the cassette is out of it, the DVD will be soon. And all the cinemateques I know preserve their films on reels, like they did in the '30s and '40s. They say that, so far, this is the most secure way to keep films. It’s very strange. We are all threatened creatures. Always we are creatures in danger – we have to admit it! But films are too.
Thinking about The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, the bourgeoisie do tend to be polite and pleasant amongst each other – no matter what they do for a living. Is a lot of the film’s humour from their need to maintain this? No matter how many bullets and indignities are thrown at Fernando Rey’s ambassador, he has to maintain his insouciant smile, which becomes ridiculous…
You must know that we never talked about the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie while writing the film. The title came at the end. But as a matter of fact, the title fits the film. Buñuel once, after the film was made, told me, 'You know, the bourgeoisie, it has a charm.' It has a discreet charm that hides a lot of horrors, of course. It has become a known expression all round the world now. I was born as small peasant, the bourgeoisie was very far. But when I was working with bourgeois-born film directors like Bunuel and Louis Malle, Buñuel thought that my way was better than his – because at least I was without any cultural influence from my parents. I was the first one in my family to go to a certain level of knowledge. Luis told me that, 'When I was born I had already listened to all of the Beethoven symphonies, in the womb of my mother. I was born in the middle of a library, with certain music, with films.' But you have to get rid of this, you have to crack this jail. That’s a very important question in life, for anybody. I’m working now with the young French movie director who made Mesrine, Francois Richet, and his father was a worker in a factory, he himself was a worker and he was a paratrooper, and then he became a film director, and it’s fantastic, he has something real. His reactions are not at all the reactions of an intellectual. That’s priceless.
Were Buñuel’s reactions to the world still bourgeois? You wrote that he was anti-bourgeois, but bourgeois at the same time…
He was living with so many contradictions in himself – Spanish, and not only Spanish but Aragonese from his father; and he was surrealistic, and he had a very quiet and calm life with his wife. He was surrealistic in his ideas, but as Francois Truffaut said, he would end up with very built-up scripts, and very well-organised shoots – he knew everything about techniques. He was a total atheist, but at the same time linked to the mood of the Catholic religion. But all these contradictions were nourishing him, instead of destroying. Because he had a personal inner strength. Very steady.
A director you’ve worked with more recently is Jonathan Glazer, on Birth in 2004. Does he have some of that desire to disturb that Buñuel had?
Jonathan came up with an idea for a film, which I jumped at, and then we worked very closely together, he was living at my place in Paris. When the film was released, we were both fathers – he had a little boy, I had a little girl. And I really admire his talent. I don’t know why he hasn’t made another film since. He should. His first shot in Birth, in Central Park in New York, is a masterpiece. Even some good technicians cannot understand how it was made – the dogs crossing the path, it’s very strong. I like Jonathan very much, and we worked very well together.
How did you find being a soldier during the war of independence in Algeria?
I was a soldier for 29 months, a long time, half of it in Algeria during the war, I wrote a book about it later. And also we made a film with Algerians – a French writer and director and Algerian writer and director, and my co-director was one of the main chiefs of the Algerian rebellion, he became a close friend. It is the only film ever made about the war with the two antagonists, and shot entirely in Algeria. It won a lot of prizes, but it was a TV film so it disappeared. Nobody can see it any more. That’s a pity, you know, how films are killed sometimes, they just disappear.
During May –68 in Paris, what did you think was possible? And did you speak to Buñuel about it?
Only three films have been made about this period. One was Taking Off, by Milos Forman in America. May Fools, by Louis Malle in Paris, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Phil Kaufman, based on the novel by Milan Kundera, about Prague. I wrote the three of them – by chance, because they weren’t made at the same moment. Just Taking Off was made at the time. I found myself in Paris in May '68 with Milos Forman, who was coming from Communist Czechoslovakia, and Buñuel, who was coming from Franco’s Spain. They both could not understand what the French students were revolting against. Milos kept telling me, 'Why are you raising the Red Flag? We have taken such pain to put it down.' So that was extremely interesting. Then, when it was finished in Paris and order came back, Milos said, 'Let’s go to the quietest place in the world to work, let’s go to Prague', and the Soviet tanks arrived.
It was unbelievable, as if history was trying to prevent us writing our little story – History against Story! Milos was living in my place in Paris afterwards, he was totally separated from his family who he’d left behind. It was an incredible period, things changed a lot. Milos made a decision not to go back to Czechoslovakia, he only went back when he was an American citizen 10 years later, and he took me along. And I went to Poland last November – I worked with Wajda, you know, on Danton – and it is one of the very few countries I have been lately where nobody complains, about anything. The country is flourishing, the food is very good, everybody is at work. A very optimistic country. I was very happy, we had a meeting with Wajda for hours and hours, talking about a lot of things, it was wonderful. I love Wajda. Also, you know when they asked Wajda very early on, maybe in the late '50s, 'Which are your favourite directors?', he answered, 'Buñuel.' He’d never seen a Buñuel film, he only saw them later. But he knew Buñuel was his favourite.
You’ve talked about how screenplays are like a caterpillar’s skin, they disappear into the film finally.
They become invisible – they melt!
Do you design them to do that, or is it a natural process?
No, when you write a script, it’s part of the job that you must really know how what you write will be turned into a film, how the director is going to shoot, how long it will take, and even how much it’s going to cost, so you have no surprises. Sometimes with films you have a bad surprise – I thought what I had written was better than this, you know. Sometimes you have a good surprise. At the end of the first screening of Cyrano de Bergerac, the five or six of us there were very surprised at the quality of the film. All of us had done our best possible work, and the result was there. So much the better. The contrary also happens! And also, I have 20 or 30 scripts which are sleeping forever, they’ve never been a film. From time to time I hear voices – 'Here we are!' But I can’t find a solution.
Even with these few extraordinary films that the BFI are showing this month, if you’d directed them, you’d be widely considered one of the masters of cinema. Because you’ve written them, you’ll never be known in that way. Does that bother you at all?
No, I’m not a director. For instance, working with Buñuel, I knew more or less how the film would look. There were very few and small surprises. Sometimes it’s like in Cyrano, and sometimes I can be disappointed, it’s normal. But I’m not sure as a director I would have done better. Maybe it would have been worse. Because am I a good director? I will never know. And so much the better!
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is out on DVD/Blu-ray on July 16, and in cinemas now. It is part of July’s Jean-Claude Carrière season at BFI South Bank.