The Art of Extraction: An Interview with Jean-Claude Carrière

Acclaimed French screenwriter and novelist Jean-Claude Carrière has had a career spanning more than 50 years and 90 writing credits, including the adapted screenplay for 1979’s The Tin Drum, which ...

Acclaimed French screenwriter and novelist Jean-Claude Carrière has had a career spanning more than 50 years and 90 writing credits, including the adapted screenplay for 1979’s The Tin Drum, which won both the Palme d’Or and Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for that year, and many films directed by Luis Buñuel. One of his very first films, Heureux Anniversaire, directed by Pierre Étaix, won the 1963 Oscar for Best Short Subject and led to his work with Buñuel on Diary of a Chambermaid. He went on to collaborate with the filmmaker on many of his later works, including The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Belle de Jour, and That Obscure Object of Desire. We asked Carrière about his experiences from his first day in Jacques Tati’s editing room, the process of adapting a novel for the screen, his working relationship with Buñuel, and the often-overlooked role of the screenwriter.


Samuel Gibson and Tom Winterbottom (G&W): You have adapted numerous literary works for the cinema, amongst them The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which appears to be a very literary novel. Could you talk about how you extract the cinematic elements from a story?


Jean-Claude Carrière (JCC): I have been offered on various occasions, with Luis Buñuel, to adapt some novels that I liked very much but I couldn’t see a film. For instance, Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry, which is a very good novel that takes place in Mexico and would have been very convenient for Buñuel to shoot. Twice we were offered to adapt it and twice we read it and we couldn’t see a film. We liked the novel but it is action-less, it is something totally introspective. You have to have an action, even when the action is inside the character. It can be almost invisible but something has to develop. When Kundera published The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I read it in Paris like any other reader and about a year later I was offered to adapt it by Saul Zaentz, the producer, and I read it again.

There are two ways to read a book. One is to read a novel to enjoy it and one is looking for a film. It is a totally different reading. Everybody told me that I could not adapt this philosophical novel that is built upon a Beethoven symphony, that there was nothing there to make a film. I had a totally different feeling. I could see, first of all, an action that included within it the history of Czechoslovakia, as well as something inside the characters that was really interesting for me. For instance, and this is the key to the film, it is called The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a strange title for a film and even for a book. It is more like the title of a philosophical essay. What does it mean?

But, through working on the adaptation I found a meaning of the title—and of course I was talking with Kundera all the time. Tomas and Tereza are in Czechoslovakia and they leave for Switzerland when the Russians come. In Switzerland he is still a surgeon and makes a very good living and is still a womanizer, he flirts around. Tereza has nothing to do. She was a photographer and now she is bored. They love each other but he is unfaithful to her and she knows it. At one point, she comes back to Czechoslovakia, during the worst possible time for that society, and he remains alone and there is a beautiful moment in the book, very short, where he sits down on the terrace of a café on a sunny day and he is relieved. He loved her but she was a pain in the neck, she was always threatening him. And now he feels free, he can do anything he wants. But he cannot stand it for more than half an hour. That is one interpretation of the title.

So, he also comes back to Czechoslovakia and that is an action that has a lot of meanings. It means—without even saying it—that he loves his wife more than he thought. That he loves Czechoslovakia, his country, more than he thought. And that he loves obscurity, danger, decline and even death, more than he thought and that gives the whole meaning of the film. When I found this—that the most important action is when he comes back to Czechoslovakia—I had the idea for the whole film. It was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do because from the moment he comes back until the end of the film there are many things that happen to them but no more action. Everything goes from bad to worse, until the death of the dog. There are a series of events but no action. We know very well what is going to happen. There is no suspense anymore, no conflict, nothing. That was one of the most difficult parts of the script. It couldn’t be built as a usual action story, it had to be built by putting different feelings and moods one after the other. Not just any old feeling after any other. It was playing with feelings.


G&W: So you have to find the action early and then maintain the tension in the story? Because John Huston made a film of Under the Volcano


JCC: John Huston was a very good friend of ours. We saw the film and we didn’t like it, and he didn’t like it. He came to have dinner once with Buñuel and me, and he said, “My film is a piece of shit, you were right, I was obliged to feed my film with horrible Mexican folklore.” There are two or three beautiful moments in the story but the whole film doesn’t add up because there is no action. It is the story of a man who drinks and finally dies by falling down into an abyss. The book, however, is beautiful.


G&W: You have mentioned elsewhere the coincidence in The Unbearable Lightness of Being of the tanks arriving at the exact moment Tereza leaves the flat, and how Kundera would have said that would have been too much of a coincidence in a book. Can you get away with it in film because people cannot turn back the pages?


JCC: If it is well done no one will notice. In a book you can stop reading and go back to the page before and think about it. In a film you don’t do that in the same way. You can now easily stop a film on one image and think about it, as you might do in a book. But really you will never see a film by stopping every three minutes.

G&W: Given that we can now watch films in multiple media and over several viewings, do you think that this changed the way screenplays are written?


JCC:Fundamentally, no. I don’t think so. One thing that is different, and this happens to me very often, is that I see a film on my computer and I take a certain solitary pleasure in the film; it is almost like masturbating. You don’t have to take notice of the people around you, you are alone, you can stop, you can think, answer the phone, whatever. It creates intimacy between the film and you, which does not exist in a theater. You know the story about the man who goes to see a film and there are very few people in the theater? At the end of the film he sees a man with a dog in the row behind him and the dog is applauding the picture. And the guy says to the man, “Your dog is applauding the picture?” And the man says, “It surprises me because he didn’t like the book at all.”


G&W: You mentioned that as a screenwriter you have to be well versed in various aspects of cinematic production. With editing, for example, do you have formal training or was it something that you picked up?


JCC: I will tell you about my first day in the movie world. I was a student, I had written a novel and I was chosen by Jacques Tati to novelize two of his films. I was 24 or 25. Tati was already a monumental figure of French cinema and he was in his 50s at this point. When I finished the work, he said, “Sure, it would make a nice book, but then all of a sudden he asked me what I knew about cinema.” I said, “Well, Mr. Tati I love cinema, I go to the cinematheque three times a week, I have seen all your films four times” (which wasn’t true). He said that wasn’t what he meant. He asked, “What do you know about how to make a film?” That is the key question and I had to answer that I knew nothing. He went on, “You have never been in a studio?” And he had this mysterious feeling that in order to write a book about a film I had to know how that film was made. So he called out, “Suzanne, Suzanne,” and a beautiful lady in her early 30s entered the room. She was the editor. And Tati said to her, “Suzanne, take this young man and show him what cinema is.”

So she took me into her editing room. I was like Theseus following Ariadne. It was a very small room, with this strange machine called a Moviola, and she sat me down and showed me how to handle the machine. She put the first reel of Les Vacances de M. Hulot on the machine, and handed me the script. I had some paper to make notes. She said a phrase that is key for me, fundamental. In very simple words, she said that the main aim is to go from “this” to “this,” from the script to the film. To transform a certain way of writing into another. It’s like transforming one substance into another substance. I spent 10 days in that editing room as an apprentice. That is why I say that editing for a screenwriter, or at least knowing how to edit and spending a lot of time in editing rooms, is essential if you want one day to be a filmmaker.


G&W: So do you spend time in the editing room on all of your films? Is it part of your contract now?


JCC: Once I wrote a TV film that was supposed to become a play after that, The Controversy of Valladolid. I had written the script, which was shot by a very good director. And then we had the first screening of the film and it was OK but not perfect. I had noticed one or two things I didn’t like in my writing and in the work of the director. So I asked him if we could right find an editing room right after the screening because I wanted to re-do the editing. So, with the director, the editor, and the main actor, who was very curious about all this, we went into an editing room and worked for three or four hours. I was the only one who was able to cut because the director didn’t know exactly which were the very important lines. I was the only one able to say, “We can really get rid of this.” I cut eight minutes, which is a lot, and after that the film went perfectly well.

A screenwriter has to be able to do that. The director and the editor were watching what I was doing. I am not pretentious about this but technically it is necessary. If you are with a director and are working together, and all of a sudden he talks to you about techniques and you say that you aren’t needed because you will get lost, then you are not a real collaborator. I need to know everything about the movements of the camera, everything about the lighting.

Something else I do quite often was something I used to do with Buñuel all the time. We would sit in front of each other and check that we were in the same film. His right side would be my left, so we were not in the same space. If we want to work on the same film we have to reach a third space, which is the space of the film. So what we would do was work together for a whole day and then at night I would draw some rapid sketches of the scene we had been working on, let’s say The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. The following morning I would show him the drawings and say, “Luis, in the scene with the paratroopers, on which side is the entrance of the room?” And he would say, “To the left.” And if it was actually to the left in my drawing, then we are in the same space, we have the same vision of the film. If he says that the entrance is to the right, then we are not in the same film and we have to work it over again and again. You understand it is quite important to share the same vision, not only about the images and the editing but also about the sound, the dialogue, the acting.


G&W: When you made The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
with Buñuel, I read that you went through five different versions of the story. Does that mean five drafts or five fundamentally different stories?


JCC: The basic idea was the same, based on a group of friends trying to eat together. But in the first two versions we were not totally satisfied with what we had. In the third version, the idea of the dream appeared all of a sudden. The “invisible worker” brought us that idea. Then, using the dream—and somebody even says, “I dreamt that my friend was dreaming that …”—and playing with dreams opened another door. The last version was the easiest, only 10 days of work, just changing a few little things. But all the other versions took at least a month. In total it took two years, with some interruptions when I was doing something else.

I can tell you a nice story about The Discreet Charm. We had no title during those two years, only something basic like “The Guests.” At the end when the script was finished Buñuel told me that tomorrow we would find a title. The following day we both spent an hour alone thinking up titles. We both had the right to veto the other’s suggestions. We met at the end of the day at the bar as usual and Buñuel asked me to read him my titles. I started reading my ideas, which I have now forgotten, and he said “no” to all of them. He then suggested a very strange title about the French Revolution and I hesitated and then said, “no.” I vetoed two more suggestions before he said, “The Charm of the Bourgeoisie.”

I said that that was interesting because it introduced an element that we’d never talked about during the writing. Still, we needed an adjective to precede “charm.” But which adjective? Once we landed on “discreet” he didn’t even read the other titles that he had prepared. To complete the story, that evening we went to eat in Toledo, in Spain. It was November 17, gray and icy and cold. The waiter came up to our table and he said to Buñuel, “De Gaulle is dead. They have just announced it on the radio.” “Oh good, thank you,” Buñuel said. The waiter went away and Buñuel said to me, “It might be a good title.” It was another one of those coincidences that life brings to you, and that you have to accept.


G&W: You have said that when writing with Buñuel you thought about the audience you were writing for. How do you construct that audience?


JCC: Our imagined audience had to be interested in what we were doing and reacting to our ideas. They were a man and a woman, a couple, who were interested in watching a Buñuel film. We gave them the names Henri and Georgette, and we imagined them sitting there in the room with us. We interacted with them as though they were already in the movie theater watching our film. The question revolved around whether they were willing to follow us where we wanted to take them, or was what we were writing and imagining too much—too strange, too bizarre, too weird, too unexpected? Are they going to get fed up and tired and leave the theater? That was the main question, and from time to time Buñuel would stand up and he would pretend to leave, saying, Mr. Carrière, your ideas are so burlesque. He was always talking about me as someone who is a little bizarre.


G&W: In the documentary Carrière, 250 Metros that profiles you and your work, you talk about the trips to Toledo that you used to take from Madrid as a break from writing, just to see that one El Greco painting and have a meal. What are your working methods and how was the structure when working with Buñuel?

JCC: Our trips to Toledo were a pilgrimage. Long before we met, when Buñuel was a student in Madrid with Lorca and Dalí, they used to go to Toledo every two weeks. Then he went to Mexico, and when he came back he was a Mexican citizen and so could live and work under Franco as a Mexican, and he started redoing this pilgrimage with me. From Madrid we would go to Toledo once a week, just the two of us, and have a drink at the same café, going to see the same El Greco painting at the same place for 10 minutes, going to eat the same things at the same restaurant every time. Then we would go for a coffee on the main square before going back to Madrid.

Toledo is a sacred place and was unforgettable for Buñuel after the time he spent there in his youth. The city of Toledo has something very special, a history of Jews, Christians, Visigoths, Arabs, all mixed. That is probably why Buñuel chose the city, not for religious reasons at all. He used to take me all the time to the tomb of Cardinal [Juan Pardo de] Tavera, a great man of Toledo in the 16th century, as it was traditional to go and pay homage to him. I don’t know why.

When Buñuel died, I kept doing this pilgrimage with all his friends—people from Mexico, from France, and with his son, out of respect to his memory and that of Lorca and Dalí. It was something very personal. I do not recommend anybody doing exactly the same. It is something personal for all of us, and it is interesting for us all to have our own sacred place. Somewhere you feel attached to and that you feel is your place. I have a special relationship with the village where I was born, but I don’t intend to take everyone there.


G&W: When you and Buñuel were working together, were the hours strict or did you stop if things were not working out?


JCC: It was absolutely strict. Three hours in the morning, three hours in the afternoon, then the aperitif, and we always ate together too, every meal. I did a calculation once and worked out that the two of us had eaten together more than two thousand times, which is more than many couples have done. Just the two of us. It was so we did not lose any of our concentration. We have to be fully together. At the end of every day after a hard day of six or seven hours writing, we would spend half an hour each of us in our room with the obligation to invent a story every day. Short, long, with a script or not—whatever, we just always had to produce this story. After that, we would meet in the bar at seven or seven thirty for the aperitif, with the obligation to tell them to each other. We must have told thousands of these stories.


G&W: Did you ever experience any similar intensity working with other directors?


JCC: Yes, of course. Many of them. It really depends on the director. What the screenwriter has to understand or feel is what the director is expecting from him or her. That is important, and quite often the screenwriter has to guess what the film is that the director really wants to do and why he has chosen that subject matter. That happened with Buñuel. It reveals a lot about the director. Quite often, I refuse to work even with very good directors, as I don’t see any possibility for me to be able to add to their projects.


G&W: From your long career, what elements stand out as being important to the experiences you have had?


JCC: The first thing is talent and having a gift for your art. The second is work. Without hard work, you do not get anywhere. You cannot imagine how much I have worked in my life. It is frightening. You have to work a lot to deserve your gift and to do it service. The third is luck. Actually, I would not call it luck, but at one moment you need opportunity, a door that opens to you, and that happens very often by surprise. icon

Featured image: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). Directed by Luis Buñuel; written by Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière