Jean-Claude Carrière

The interview below took place at the San Sebastian Film Festival in 2011 under delightfully casual circumstances. Publicists had asked me if I’d like to talk to Jean-Claude Carrière because he was the subject of a Mexican documentary being shown at the festival: Carrière 250 metros, directed by Juan Carlos Rulfo. I jumped at the chance because the screenwriter of Buñuel’s The Diary of a Chambermaid, Belle de Jour and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (not to mention such arthouse milestones as The Tin Drum, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Cyrano de Bergerac) had been a figure of some fascination to me for years.

I expected to have to restrict myself to the film in hand – a charming, discursive ramble around Carrière’s principal preoccupations that’s well worth catching. But as it turned out Carrière, who was celebrating his 80th birthday that very day, was in an expansive mood (and having met him, I can imagine he usually is), which meant that we left the film to range far and wide through the realms of his experience. Like all the best storytellers, the man himself is easy to listen to, with a soft, caressing voice that’s used to tugging at our interest in several languages.

Let’s begin with the documentary about you, Carrière 250 metros.

The film was not my idea. It was my friend from Mexico, Natalia Gil Torné, who decided to make a film about me. I found it quite strange to make a film about a screenwriter. It’s never happened before, so [the problem was] how could we do it?

Natalia asked Juan Carlos Rulfo, a very good documentary-maker, to make the film with her. Juan Carlos got the idea to go from one country to another, without insisting on the country itself. For instance, Iran – where we couldn’t shoot – is just a suggestion of Iran. It was quite important because my wife is from Iran and I go there often. I work in Iran, and have a lot of friends there, but we couldn’t film in complete freedom, so Iran is Eden in the film, taken from here and there. 

One thing I found interesting was the way the film talks about the rituals there have been in your life.

There are two different feelings in the film. One is the fact that when you put your foot on a foreign country, it’s not a foreign country any more. As soon as I arrive in India or Mexico or South Africa, I am in my country. That’s one of the secrets of my life.

The other feeling is about what it means to be a traveller. Many people say, “I’ve been to Taipei a month ago” – and it doesn’t mean a thing. So many people put the camera between the world and themselves, it’s like, “I paid for my camera to take a beautiful trip to India, but I wasn’t there.”

I’ve seen this so many times that I asked myself about what it means to travel, and one day San Juan de la Cruz, the Spanish mystic, gave me the answer. He wrote a beautiful phrase in a letter to Saint Teresa: “We do not travel to see but not to see.” We travel not to see things but to find ourselves in where we go. The traveller is always the traveller and what he finds, wherever he goes, is a mirror.

With Peter Brook a long time ago, we did a beautiful adaptation for the theatre of the Sufi poem The Conference of the Birds. In the poem all the birds in the world go for a trip to reach the Simorgh, their mythical king, and the trip is long and very difficult. Some of them die, some give up and go back. Finally they arrive exhausted and there is no king – there is only a lake that’s like a mirror. They see themselves and realise that they themselves are the king. It’s a beautiful thing.

My wife and I do The Conference of the Birds in French villages, with one or two musicians, just for 100 to 150 people, and after the show – which lasts for just an hour – we talk about it, and always that feeling of what it means to be a stranger, a foreigner, comes up.

There are two very famous directors in particular with whom you‘ve worked, Luis Buñuel and Peter Brook. Are there similarities between them?

As a matter of fact there are three. The first is a double person: Jacques Tati and Pierre Etaix [who directed Carrière’s first feature script, The Suitor/Le Soupirant in 1962]. Together they took me in and introduced me to another world that I didn’t know anything about. Therefore I owe them a lot.

The second was Buñuel who was, when I met him in 1963, a monument in the history of cinema. He had won many awards, but he worked with me as if he was a beginner. He asked me – through the producer – to oppose him from time to time, to say, “No, Mr Buñuel, this is not good.” I remember once he said in one phrase, “I have a good idea. Bad.” At that speed. We worked together for 20 years alone, the two of us. That sort of concentration is extremely useful.

That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

With Peter [Brook] it’s different. Peter is not an author, he is a brook – a small river that goes from one ground to another, fertilising everything. He’s not a scholar – he has no theory – but he has such an intuition, such an intelligence. What he taught me before anything was not to obey any rule, and to never stop working.

Working with Peter is my longest collaboration – 34 years. It took me into adventures, like The Mahabharata in India, that I would never have thought possible in my life. [Carrière worked on Brook’s nine-hour 1985 stage adaptation of the Sanskrit epic, and on the 1989 TV and film adaptations.] Peter is the kind of man who arrives – he did it once, at my place – with a little bag. He said, “Listen, I’m going to Delhi next Thursday. Are you coming?” How can you say no?

He’s still around, and every time we meet we have a lot to say to each other. When I came back from working with the Dalai Lama [with whom Carrière co-wrote the 1996 book The Power of Buddhism], the first person to call was Peter: “So how was it?” He’s extremely curious about everything. He sees a lot of films. When we were working on The Mahabharata we watched a lot of Hong Kong kung-fu films, and in one of these we saw a wonderful idea that we couldn’t do on stage: two old men are fighting with swords and they are both invincible and all of a sudden the two swords go into the air and they keep fighting.

Peter is an extraordinary character. He doesn’t care about his glory, his fame, his money. He’s not a rich man at all, and he’s still working.

The Mahabharata (1989)

The similarities [between these men] are in the quality of the work. They don’t forgive anything. When you work with Peter Brook or Buñuel, you are at the final of the Olympic Games. You are obliged to give everything without masking anything, because they know. When you have the eyes of Buñuel on you eight hours a day, how can you hide anything? So you have to be in a good shape, not work on anything else, be totally concentrated, forget about your family, wife and/or lovers.

We went to Mexico or to Spain – always to remote places, small hotels far from the cities, and the only link was the newspapers every day. We read the newspapers just to find ideas, and I remember in one of the French newspapers we found that a bomb had been planted in the Sacré Coeur in Montmartre in Paris. The following day we rushed to buy the newspaper, but there was not a word about what we wanted to know: who had planted the bomb and why – not a word. Buñuel said that information is like a big fish: every day it swallows the day before. That’s why in That Obscure Object of Desire [1977] we had a group of terrorists named after the baby Jesus.

One of my favourite ideas is the one where you and Buñuel told each other a new story every day.

That was one of the rules. Just to prove to ourselves what we said once in an interview: that the human imagination is a muscle that can be trained and developed. So every night, after the script work – three hours in the morning, three hours in the afternoon, and then half an hour in our rooms, alone – we have the obligation to find a story, brief or long, related to the script or not. It’s one thing to have an idea, but the other thing is to tell it as if it were a film, not a novel – it’s totally different. And then we’d meet in the bar – the sacred bar – to tell each other the story.

We did it for 20 years almost every day we worked together, and I don’t know how many stories crossed the paths where we were. I remember he would usually arrive at the bar before me, and he’d be in an armchair, and I’d arrive and he’d look in a way that meant, “My idea is not good at all.” Either “I have nothing” or “It’s nothing worth saying”. And from time to time he would go, “I have a good one.”

Luis Buñuel (left) and Jean-Claude Carrière

The key thing is what you said about telling the story in film language.

So now we enter a very unknown land. After more than 100 years of cinema, people don’t yet know that to make a film you have to know film language. It’s a very peculiar world that has little to do with literature and theatre. It’s very difficult to explain, even to young students, that to enter a film school they have to learn a new language as if they were learning Chinese.

How do you approach that problem?

The difficulty is that film language is made of many totally different elements. For instance, you have to know about the image, the frame, how to go from one frame to the other, the direction of the look, how there is a space that belongs to the film. There are a lot of technical, almost geometric laws you must know absolutely – the lens, everything.

Second, how to use sound. People do not realise that cinema has invented the whisper. It’s impossible in the theatre, but the fact that you can speak in a whisper in a film is something that really belongs to that language. Silence is also part of the language – and I don’t mean the silence of the silent era. Silence [in cinema] was born in the 1930s when the talkies appeared. It never happened in the theatre.

Another thing is, put it this way: a woman enters a room, you follow her, she combs her hair, then she opens the drawer and puts in the comb and closes the drawer. If I keep my camera like this [in mid-shot], it’s very banal, but if I have a close-up just when she opens the drawer and I see a gun inside, it changes everything. By showing the gun, you put the audience in your confidence.

Another part of the language is acting. Every time we write a scene where you want to express a certain relationship between two people – ambiguity, violence, anything – the first question to ask is: “Is it possible to act this without saying a word? If not, I’ll be obliged to add some lines to the dialogue.” So you must have an excellent relationship with the actors.

And it also depends on the actors. When you work with Depardieu, for instance, you can ask him things that you cannot ask any other actor.

Gerard Depardieu as Cyrano in Cyrano de Bergerac (1990)

For Cyrano de Bergerac [1990], before beginning the work of adaptation of the play, we asked Depardieu to record a cassette of the whole play alone in his house, playing all the parts, including the women. So we had his presence with us when we were working. From time to time we would check the cassette and ask, “How did he read that scene? How did he feel?” He was like a co-writer, almost, because Depardieu has a monumental body – more and more monumental – but a very fragile voice which was going in exactly the direction we wanted to go, almost fearing women, almost afraid of touching Roxane. So you have to know a lot about acting and the evolution of acting.

How do you start explaining all this to students?

Two or three times a year I direct workshops, but the students already know something about cinema. We gather in a circle and I ask one or two of them together to give us the very beginning of a story: a desire and an obstacle to that desire – an obstacle, if possible, as strong as the desire. Then we start working together. It’s very practical, no theory at all. When we come to do a scene with a gun, I stop and explain how to put such an object in the film – how to allow the possibility for death to enter a story through just an image.

I’ll give you an example: in Jean Renoir’s La Chienne [1931], a woman is lying on a bed reading a book. She has a paperknife made of steel and she’s cutting the pages – as we used to do. A man enters, seething with jealousy, and we know that she has been unfaithful to him. She puts the book on the bed and the scene between the two of them begins with the man becoming more and more angry.

Then Jean Renoir forgets about the two of them. There’s a close-up of the book with a small light on the steel cutter. That’s a masterpiece. It’s a question of putting the audience in your pocket, and of giving the audience your eyes – and then the death is there and finally he takes the knife and stabs her. That’s one very classical example, and there are many others like this.

La Chienne (1931)

Many different feelings can be introduced just through an object. It’s absolutely impossible to do that in a theatre, because you can’t have a close-up. That is why so many novelists fail when they make a film. To me it’s a surprise when I see a film by a novelist – a very famous and a good one who I admire as a novelist – and he makes a film using a language that he doesn’t know anything about. So he puts the camera anywhere, and you can feel this immediately. The only essential thing that is absolutely necessary for any beginner – or even for me at my age – is to work as an editor in the editing room. To see how you put a film together.

David Hare talks about a double process: a stripping down to the leanest elements and then an opening up of the script for the collaborators.

I call them waves. There is a wave of exploration: you open yourself up and let everything come in, and then there’s another wave where you go back and see what’s left on the sand by the ocean, and again and again.

Another way to work is that when you tell a story, you arrive at a certain point and you become a spectator. You ask, “What would I like to see now? What could surprise me?” The other way is to enter the film: “I am one of the characters, what would I do now? How would I react?” This coming and going from the outside to the inside of the story is always extremely interesting.

When you look back over your career, do you feel like a lucky man?

I’m extremely surprised that I’m 80 – as everybody knows because it’s in the papers, so it must be true. And young people want to work with me, which is unheard of – 30- or 35-year-old directors who are quite famous. [In 2004, for instance, Carrière scripted Birth for the British director Jonathan Glazer, 34 years his junior.] I can’t say no. I was very lucky to be working with Buñuel, who was 30 years older than me, and now with directors who are 30 years younger. That’s absolutely marvellous.

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