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Locarno Film Festival: Conversation with Jacqueline Bisset

Locarno Film Festival: Conversation with Jacqueline Bisset

On 11 August,
British actress Jacqueline Bisset received the Locarno Film Festival’s Lifetime
Achievement Award Parmigiani in the Piazza Grande, which was followed by a
screening of Rich and Famous.

The Conversation with
Jaqueline Bisset took place on 12 August. Carlo Chatrian, the Festival’s
Artistic Director, introduced Bisset and Chris Fujiwara, Artistic Director of the Edinburgh International Film
Festival. The talk covered a wide range of topics on Bisset’s distinguished
career. A delightful, humorous theme was food. 

Here are some highlights from the afternoon’s talk. 

Bisset: “I wanted to
go to acting school, and I did a few modeling jobs, to pay for acting school. I
never aspired to be a model. I met lots of photographers, and I learned a lot
about light — as a source of love and illumination, light as a gift of love. On
film, that’s a massive contribution. Light of a great cinematographer — to illuminate
truth and bring atmosphere to situations.”

On Roman Polanski and Cul-de-sac

“I met Roman Polanski
in London. (I was at school and I saw Catherine Denueve wandering around,
looking depressed. I thought, ‘Who was that woman? What is the matter with her?’
 It didn’t occur to me until I saw Repulsion, that she was shooting a
movie.  I did not see the camera; it was
hidden.) I was at a dinner with a group of people — Roman said to me, ‘You are
such an introvert you might make a good actress.’  I had a Latin teacher three years before, a
wonderful teacher, who said to me, ‘You are such an extrovert you might make a
good actress.’ It was impossible to entertain that. In England at that time,
being an actress or a model was thought of as being a prostitute.”

Fujiwara: “Did that experience working with Roman
increase your appetite for cinema?”

Bisset: “Absolutely.
I was fascinated because I got free food. I was absolutely broke.”

On Director Stanley Donen and Two for the Road

“Donen was seemingly
a suit and tie person. He was very kind and enthusiastic. He was much more well-known
than I realized.  At one point we went to
a party and he asked me to dance. I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ I thought, I don’t think he can dance at all. He was
kind but stuffy, and at some point up he was madly dancing; he was very light
on his feet. Never misjudge people. Then I found out he did direct dance and music
films; that was his world actually.”

Truffaut and Day for Night

“I was struggling
with my French and I was never fluent. 
And so everyone had to make sure I knew my lines. Truffaut said, ‘You don’t
have to worry, you can make mistakes, you’re not playing a French person.’ He
was in the film and directed. I was always thinking, ‘Who’s saying ‘cut’? Is it Truffaut the actor or Truffaut
the director?’”

Fujiwara: “Would you
say the character Truffaut plays — was this the way he was in real life?”

Bisset: “In real
life, yes, but he had more of a sense of humor. It struck me — he was not
interested in food at all. It interrupted him shooting movies. Got in the way
of his dates, and it was reflected in his films. He actually talked about this
French bourgeois way of living and interminable meals. He used to say that he
didn’t need people to know him, just watch his films.”

Claude Chabrol and La Cérémonie

Fujiwara: “About 20
years later you worked with Claude Chabrol, a great gastronomer.” 

Bisset: “That was his
reputation but that didn’t seem so.  My
character was the bourgeois lady who would get killed. Knowing that Claude
detested the bourgeoisie, the gross caviar, I felt a bit uneasy being this
woman because I felt he detested a certain mentality. Everything with Chabrol was
set before; he didn’t give any room for change or improvisation. He told us
where to stand, and go from where to where.

“I found Chabrol more
attentive to the two leading stars — I understand. We had a comfortable, a
polite relationship. I did feel embraced and welcomed. Like an outsider.”

Fujiwara: “An uncomfortable
relationship can produce good results.”

Rich and Famous

Fujiwara refers to
Cukor as a “master of tempo” and cites Rich
and Famous
as an example.

Bisset: “The speed in
which Cukor wanted us to do everything was always, ‘Faster! Faster!’ He had an
obsession about pausing. He despised actors who paused to take an actorly moment.
Many actors like to milk it, and pull those words out.”  

Fujiwara: “Pauline
Kael’s review of the film was a legendary piece of film criticism.  Kael intimated Cukor’s homosexuality that was
not yet publically released.”

Bisset: “Cukor moved
away during these scenes, and left it to us. I thought the sex scenes were
beautifully photographed. It was the best love scene I was ever in.”

Working with Directors

Fujiwara: “What makes
a director good for you to work with?”

Bisset: “I think the
grandfather of the set is the director. He needs to have authority, to do what
people want. A warm grandfather; he needs to know his job, to be open. The moments
that can creep in inadvertently that are not in the script when a take is
finished can steal wonderful truths. And the director needs to know how to put the
camera in the right place.  It matters
what’s on the film.

“I like it when
everyone eats together. To see strengths others have; you can see other actors’
qualities.  The rehearsal gives you a
chance to play. Playing is important so that you’re not going to do a bad choice.
Let’s just try stuff.  And get that
energy out there.  And the director — it’s
about giving you confidence.”

Working with Women Directors

“I’ve done five films
directed by women. I did like it. They had qualities, particularly in the
romantic tenderness of scenes. I felt sometimes they were a little bit soft,
but maybe they were clever to get the guys working the way they wanted them to.” 

On Welcome
to New York
– Directed by Abel Ferraro, currently in postproduction.

Gérard Depardieu plays Dominique Strauss-Kahn. The
situations are similar.  The director
says it’s loosely based on the true story. I haven’t seen the footage, so I
can’t talk about it. I found it to be an interesting experience. I had to learn
to renounce the form of the original script. ‘Just get rid of it. Improvise. Go,
make it real.’ There were very long, improvised takes with the theme of the
scene as a base. Many 15-minute scenes. Abel is an amazing guy; a poet, a very
loving man underneath the gruff.”

In a career that has
spanned forty-five years, Jacqueline Bisset still has an appetite for more. 

Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell teaches screenwriting and film at Tufts University and presents international seminars.  Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1990 where she works with over 1,000 writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide.

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