INTERVIEW: Francis Veber Goes into "The Closet"
by Brandon Judell
(indieWIRE/ 06.27.01) — Director/writer Francis Veber, 63, who scripted “The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe” (1972), “The Toy” (1976), “Le cage aux folles” (1978), and “The Goat” (1981), plus wrote and directed last year’s hilarious “The Dinner Game,” (the American remake’s planned title is “Dinner for Shmucks“) has returned with what might turn out to be the funniest film of the year.
The hero of “The Closet” is an excessively humdrum accountant, Francois Pignon (Daniel Auteuil), who has worked many years for a company producing condoms, going largely unnoticed. But one day, he is noticed and not favorably. While seated in a bathroom stall, he overhears he’s to be fired. Oh, no! Distraught, he sluggishly returns home to dwell upon his uniformly faltering existence. His ex-wife doesn’t return his calls. His son ignores him. And now his only remaining purpose in life, his job, is about to ditch him, too. What’s left? Suicide!
But before he can achieve eternal peacefulness by jumping off his terrace, his new neighbor, a Monsieur Belone (Michel Aumont), barges into his life with a plan. Make believe you’re gay. No one can fire gay people any more without seeming politically incorrect. And a condom company? They wouldn’t dare. An unbelieving Pignon agrees hesitantly to the ruse, and before he knows it or can stop it, the ruse takes on a life of its own. The result is a politically astute, first-class farce that brilliantly displays how society’s perception of a man or woman can change drastically once the adjective “gay” is added to their resume.
To find out about the film and its creator, indieWIRE sat down with Veber at the Soho Grand to discuss the difference between French and American films, political correctness, “gay film,” and Zoloft.
indieWIRE: Do you find the French deal with the honesty of everyday life better than Americans?
Francis Veber: I think so, but it’s hard to make a value judgment about that, you know, because the French have a tendency sometimes to be boring in their films even if they’re very interesting. Why? Because they don’t mind about pace. They’re just thinking of their own pleasure in writing, and not too much of the audience. In America, you have the opposite problem. The films have to be fast-paced all the time. (He snaps his fingers a few times.) You are scared to be boring so you don’t give the actors the possibility of performing really because you’re going from those quick shots to those quick shots. This is strange because if we could mix the systems, having this intellectual approach that the French have and having this entertaining obligation that the Americans have, the result would be the perfect movie.
iW: Are you looking to be a big success in America? Is that important to you?
Veber: Well, I know because I’m not stupid that we have a limited audience here. If a French movie has sixty screens or a hundred screens, it’s a record. You see that “Pearl Harbor” has 3000 screens so we can’t compare to that. If I have a fair hit for a foreign movie, I’ll be delighted. Films like “Crouching Tiger” or “Life is Beautiful” are exceptions. Miracles.
iW: Why did you choose to write and direct a film about a man pretending to be gay?
Veber: I’m not using “gay” to try to be either funnier or to be more commercial. It’s not a choice. Sometimes you have a premise that arrives in your mind, and you say, “Oh, my God! This is interesting.” Actually in ‘The Closet,” I was thinking that being politically correct has started to change a little bit. But not as much as I say in the film. I discovered here that it’s a very serious issue. I didn’t know that in 38 states in America you can be fired if you are gay or lesbian.
iW: When I say a “gay movie,” I don’t mean a film for gay people. I mean a film dealing with gay subject matter. But you have to admit that your films are political.
Veber: Yes, I agree.
iW: Also, straight people who might be bigoted can be transformed by your work. Your films have the bigots laughing with the gays as opposed to at the gays.
Veber: I love to hear that. I’ll tell you something. “La cage aux folles” gave me a very big lesson. It was 20 years ago, and I discovered that the secret of the success of “La cage aux folles” was that it was a story coming from the heart. Okay, you have this old gay couple with a son. But the fact they decided to look “straight” for one evening just for their son’s girlfriend’s family was out of love. This was the lesson I learned: you can use gays or straights clowning if you want, but there has to be emotion somewhere, otherwise you don’t reach the audience. You’ll let people laugh, but they’ll laugh at your characters, not with you characters.
iW: In Vito Russo’s “Celluloid Closet,” he notes that homosexuals in films were always portrayed as committing suicide or they were villains or they were prissy people. And you’ve helped transform that prejudice.
Veber: That’s the best compliment you can make to me.
iW: Do you consider filmmaking in France similar to independent filmmaking in America?
Veber: I think that independent filmmaking here has a liberty of freedom that the studio system doesn’t give you. There are very interesting things coming from these independents that remind me of the European tradition. It’s a good thing.
iW: Now you’ve moved to West Hollywood.
Veber: I’m living there at least 7 or 8 months a year.
iW: In England, some folks get mad when Brit talent moves to Hollywood? Does anyone get mad at you in France for going Hollywood?
Veber: No, I’ll tell you something. They forget you if you make an American film. Juliet Binoche is a good example of that, because I think she was nominated twice for the Oscars. In France, dead silence about that. They don’t care. When she comes back, it’s okay. When she comes here, they forget her. I’ve noticed that. I came back to France with two films: “The Closet” and “The Dinner Game,” and so they recognized me again. If I was making a film here that was a huge hit and maybe award nominated, they wouldn’t care. The French are very arrogant. What is not French, they’re not interested in.
iW: Now you’re very fit for a director. Does keeping physically together help you direct?
iW: Because lots of directors are insane and flabby.
Veber: I’ll tell you a story about that. I was shooting a film in Brazil on the Amazon River, and because I knew it would be very tough shooting, I brought with me my rowing machine. I was rowing at 5 o’clock in the morning, every morning. And because there were no mosquitoes, I was afraid of malaria, I decided to go on the terrace. My terrace was just on the Amazon River. So there I was, rowing, and an Indian passed by, rowing in a canoe, and he watched this jerk rowing without moving. It was the meeting between two worlds you know. The eyes of this Indian looking at me, and me watching him. He was going to hunt — and I was perspiring, sweating on this stupid device. It’s funny you know. But I had to do that, otherwise you’re so tired at the end of the day.
iW: What film was that?
Veber: It was a film called “Le Jaguar” (1996). It didn’t open here. It was not very good.
iW: How come some of your films don’t open here?
Veber: When I try to make films that look like American films, they’re not interesting. I tried that. I tried to make an action movie, and we’re not gifted for that. You are better than us in that area.
iW: Now did you make most of your money from the Broadway adaptation of “La cage aux folles”?
Veber: No. It didn’t go to me. No. Because you know there was a stage writer of “La cage au folles,” and I adapted the stage play to make the movie. The stage writer was a genius. The man was named Jean Poiret, and he was the funniest guy I met. He was very funny but his play was not possible as a movie because he was an actor writing, and what he forgot in his play was the heart side of it. He was just making jokes. He couldn’t adapt the play himself. He had a nervous breakdown on the adaptation, and they called me and they asked, “Would you like to try to adapt that thing?” and I adapted it. I worked hard, and I worked with him, and it was delight to work with this guy.
iW: You seem too sane to have a nervous breakdown yourself, but then I’ve only been talking you for a half hour.
Veber: Ten minutes more and you will see that I have one.
iW: Do you have an insane side?
Veber: I am very depressed since I was born.
iW: I was interviewing Lars von Trier, and he told me he was on Prozac.
Veber: I’m not surprised. I tried Zoloft a few times. I think it’s normal. It’s very difficult to live, you know, and to write at the same time.
iW: Von Trier said he was so happy, he was having writer’s block. He noted that maybe if he continued to have the writer’s block, he’d stop the Prozac. Do you find being too happy bad for creativity?
Veber: Well, maybe. It’s a terrible debate. If you have to be unhappy to write, what is the best choice? To create or not?