Reworking Toback’s “Fingers,” Jacques Audiard On “The Beat”
by Liza Bear
For his latest film, “The Beat My Heart Skipped,” opening today, Jacques Audiard teams up again with Tonino Benaquista, co- screenwriter of Audiard’s well-received “Read My Lips.” The Audiard remake of James Toback‘s 1978 indie flick “Fingers” brilliantly transposes the mafia setting of the original to the world of Parisian real estate slumlords, every bit as rapacious and ruthless as New York’s, and considerably more elegant. The vibrant, nervy Romain Duris stars as Thomas Seyr in the former Harvey Keitel title role as a would-be concert pianist tethered to his father’s [Neils Arestrup] gangster lifestyle. First-rate production design [Francois Emmanuelli] that superbly portrays the contrasting worlds of concert music and real estate wheeling-and-dealing, fluid, character-centered cinemtography by Stephane Fontaine and an outstanding score by Alexandre Desplat [a Berlin award winner] make this one racy thriller. Liza Bear interviewed Jacques Audiard during the Tribeca Film Festival.
Liza Bear: What drew you to James Toback’ film “Fingers”?
Jacques Audiard: Euh… I first saw it when it came out in Paris in 1978. So it’s a longstanding attraction. Why did it strike me so much? I don’t think too many of us saw it in Paris initially, but it affected us very much. It was rarely rereleased — occasionally at the Cinematheque. Three or four years ago I couldn’t even find a VHS cassette of it.
iW: But why did it strike you at the time?
JA: Why? At the time I didn’t know. It was a bit like the comet’s tail of US independent cinema beginning in ’68.
iW: You must have been very young at the time, 25 or so?
JA: I’m 52 now. But then we saw US indies regularly in Paris. They came out just like other films, maybe in a limited release but with no delay.
iW: You felt it was so different from Hollywood films, is that it?
JA: No. It was the savagery and bitterness of “Fingers” which affected me most I think. All the actors in the film were also in Scorsese’s and Coppola’s films. These films gave us a particular take on the United States, specific information about a savage lifestyle.
iW: But what about Harvey Keitel’s performance in the lead role?
JA: Yes, of course. It had a big impact. Then there’s also the father- son relationship but I didn’t notice that until later, how to escape the father’s legacy. At the end of the day you’re whose son, your father’s, your mother’s? What will you become? An idea which I cherish is: can one change one’s life? How many chances does one get? Is there an existential determinism which means one is programmed to become the product of one’s father, or can one change’s one life and how often? Voila. I think I deal with those themes in all my movies. These are the nails I drive in since the beginning. But in this film the concerns were really in the foreground.
iW: I find it amusing that a French filmmaker would remake a US film, because usually it’s Hollywood that does remakes of French films.
JA: But if you examine these cinematographic exchanges in strictly commercial terms, it’s true Americans do more remakes than Europeans. But I think that cinema has always progressed through exchanges. French film criticism studied Raoul Walsh, John Ford and so on. Hollywood studio films from the thirties were made by Austrian Jews, for whatever [historical] reasons. French cineastes of the sixties saw Ford Walsh and went on to make Nouvelle Vague films. Then from 65 to 70 American filmmakers like Scorsese, Raphaelson, and Cassavetes had seen French New Wave films. The so-called “remake” is simply a commercial formulation of a much deeper exchange which accounts for the way cinema is what it is [has developed].
iW: An exchange between directors.
JA: That’s the power of cinema in relation to other art forms-the cinema is much more in the brassage [melting pot] of influences.
iW: Yes that’s a good point because the term “remake” can be over emphasized.
JA: Yes it’s just a commercial thing.
iW: Tell me how you decided to retain certain elements of the original script and discard others.
JA: First of all the mafia milieu in “Fingers” doesn’t exist in France, the New York Italian mafia. You couldn’t transpose that directly in French terms. These are gangster archetypes that you can only identify with in cinematic terms. I wanted to make a much more realist film so I transposed the gangsters to the world of real estate which I’m more familiar with.
iW: But this is a fairly recent subset of organized crime.
JA: Yes. As in major urban centers the price per square foot of real estate increases, people like [the real estate thugs in my film] will appear.
iW: In droves. Especially in the last twenty years.
JA: Yes, you can see how New York has changed into a city of rich people, a city that’s much too pricey. Food has gone up too. Ten to fifteen years ago New York rents weren’t so high.
iW: However the world of real estate thugs is rarely portrayed in cinema.
JA: It’s a form of white collar crime. But in “The Beat My Heart Skipped” I wanted the Romain Duris character, even if we don’t like him, to feel closer to us. An archetypal gangster is always at a remove. We can’t get into his mindset.
iW: In “Fingers” you know right away that Tom is a pianist, while in “The Beat” we discover that later.
JA: It’s a “coup de theatre.”
iW: But also in “Fingers” the father is proud and supportive of his son’s musical talent, while in your film he’s against it. He’s more of a philistine.
JA: Yes, because I wanted to accentuate the father-son conflict and for the conflict to be nourished, so to speak, by elements which brought out the differences between them. So Robert the father is really against his pianist ambitions.
iW: Yes, not only the father, but also his friends first mock him and then get mad at him for devoting time to the piano.
JA: They don’t understand.
iW: Did you intuitively take the pulse of modern society and hit on a vein, a social stratum that mocks or is afraid of art?
JA: Oh, I wouldn’t go that far. But for the milieu in which Tom operates, the prime value, the only thing that really counts is money.
iW: You also introduced a new character — Miao-Lin [Linh-Dan Pham] the Vietnamese piano teacher who doesn’t speak French. What was the rationale?
JA: To dramatize the story further… What I wanted to show in the film is that his new life goal, becoming a concert pianist, required a colossal amount of work.
iW: Constant practice…
JA: I wanted to show the incredible effort that it required and the accompanying pain.
iW: And what you have to sacrifice.
JA: Voila. I wanted to convey that at a certain moment in his life the only place where he felt good about himself, was with the Vietnamese piano teacher…
iW: …with his hands on the keyboard. Linh-dan Pham’s very well cast as the piano teacher.
JA: Yes, very good actress. [Looks up at 100 foot skylight]
iW: What are you looking at?
JA: Helicopter passing.
iW: Don’t worry. It’s not going anywhere. They already did that one… Those are wonderful scenes. Not only because we see him working at the piano but because they speak two different languages.
JA: Yes. It’s as though he understands everything with her — whatever language she speaks.