JAOUI AND BACRI INTERVIEW

 

Q: Did adapting UN AIR DE FAMILLE to the screen seem like a natural extension of the play?

Agnes Jaoui: It happened in the same way as for "Cuisine et dependences." When we wrote, then performed UN AIR DE FAMILLE, we had no idea we'd do a film. But when the project was suggested to us, we agreed without hesitation.

Jean-Pierre Bacri: The "problem" of filmed theatre doesn't seem to be a real problem to me; the important thing is to know whether or not you have a good story or not, whether you have things to say. If the audience would rather watch cars smashing each other to bits, there are always four or five American films [playing around town] doing that... There are, however, certain advantages to bringing a play to the screen: the cheapest seats in any theatre are always more expensive than a movie seat. And we didn't want our audience to be only those who are well-off.

AJ: We noticed that a younger audience came to see the play after "Cuisine et dependences" was shown on TV.

Q: How did you think of contacting Cedric Klapisch?

AJ: After seeing "Riens du tout." We were surprised by the quality of his directing of actors. And there were a lot of them! There was no mistake, it could only have come from the director. [The films] that came afterward only confirmed our intuition. JPB: We didn't know him; we only went to see "Riens du tout" because Jean-Pierre Darroussin was in it.

Q: How did the writing occur? What was required in practical terms to transform a dramatic text into a scenario?

JPB: It depends, it can be minimal... In this case, I had the feeling that we did a true adaptation: we added scenes which take place outside [the cafe] that aren't merely anecdotic, but which help to develop the characters.

AJ: We also made cuts in the text, the parts that are too didactic. On stage, the text is the sole vehicle, but it's different with film.

JPB: [In the film,] the fight between Betty and her mother seems more spontaneous, less "written." But elsewhere, we added things and clarified others.

Q: Is there any added dialogue, aside from the exterior scenes?

JPB: Certain scenes were changed, for example in the beginning, between Betty and Denis, when she tells him she wants to break off with him. The meaning is the same, but the way [it's handled] is different. And that is the version of the play we used when we went on tour.

AJ: We placed greater emphasis on Denis' indecision: he's not only a victim of Betty, who will make a fuss over his lateness; he also balks at committing himself...

JPB: There, we added an element of dishonesty and a certain casualness. That's just one example among many.

Q: But weren't you ever tempted to take advantage of the medium of film to make greater changes in the play's structure?

AJ: We asked ourselves lots of questions. But it turned out that our writing is very structured and difficult to modify. We realized early on that we had to be more or less faithful to the play. With the exception of the flash-backs and exterior scenes.

JPB: We thought it a good idea, for example, to have Henri go out to look for Arlette, it gave a frame of reference for their social milieu. There probably was a way we could have rearranged the structure, but we really wanted Cedric to make a film of the play [as it was], using his camera as a tool.

Q: The notion of time in theatre is not the same in film: on stage we have an easier time accepting the artificial use of time. When it comes to film we have other standards. All of a sudden we wonder why Betty didn't realize what Philippe's true nature was much earlier...

AJ: We had that problem in the play, too. On stage, there is no obligation to have a realistic use of time. It is perhaps easier indeed to accept [a relaxed time frame] on stage. But that's the trouble with Betty; she thinks she's living outside the family framework, when in fact she is controlled by it and is dependent upon it. That evening, she realizes how wrong she has been, and all at once her eyes are opened.

JPB: There was a point in the writing of the play when we considered portraying several dinners, all of them a few weeks apart, with a dinner per act. But we changed our minds for several reasons.

Q: How did the adaptation process work with Cedric? And, generally speaking, how do you resolve the problem of being at the same time author, screenwriter and actor when you are faced with a filmmaker who has his own [creative] agenda?

JPB: You have to rely on the notion of mutual respect. From the moment you decide to seek out a director that you admire, the least you can do is to give him a certain autonomy as soon as you begin working together. The adaptation was rather harmonious: we didn't discuss problems of direction, rather the psychology of the characters.

AJ: On the set, Cedric directed us very closely, and very gently guided us toward domains we hadn't yet explored.

JPB: Seeing him direct the other actors gave us encouragement; we were totally in agreement with him and the choices he'd made to the letter. It was clear that what he was telling us was true, too. From that point on, we forgot our egos, the fact that we were the authors and that we ourselves had created these characters.

Q: What did you discover about the characters that you didn't know yet?

AJ: Cedric found Betty too tough. In the beginning, I held on to the idea that she shouldn't be charming, that she should go against the grain in terms of what a woman "should" be, that the major preoccupation wasn't to make her "nice." It turned into a real debate quite interesting but in the end, I gave in to his judgement.

Q: Betty is a complex character; the revolt that she's been planning for a long time doesn't really take shape until the end...

AJ: Yes, in the beginning, she isn't very coherent, that's exactly what we found interesting.

JPB: It's very difficult to escape family ties. Betty's contradiction is that she thinks she has original thoughts, but in fact she's only reproducing her family's preestablished patterns. Her virtue is that she has preserved her rebellious spirit which, generally, disappears after adolescence. Thanks to her spirit, she is able to ask herself questions. What we wanted to tell people was: there is no such thing as fate; you can change if you want to.

AJ: Betty's ignorance is not unusual. I've often seen this type of [behavior]. A family is a real indoctrination unit.

Q: Did the character of Henri evolve as well?

JPB: Cedric's contribution was more in the domain of the nuance. Little clues on how to act during certain scenes. I thought I wasn't capable of portraying Henri differently, but Cedric led me in another direction that expressed the ideas just as well. It's hard to put into words, they are nuances, subtle acting strategies.

Q: Paradoxically, Henri is rather nice...

JPB: That's logical, he's the victim.

AJ: However, if you look at his lines, you find a huge amount of silly cliches that demonstrate his total incapacity to think independently and to ask himself questions.

JPB: It's the classic scheme: people who aren't shown consideration are unable to be considerate. It's like the rapist who was raped; the beater who was beaten.

Q: The universality of your characters is the great strength of the play and the film...

JPB: It seems that we've been able to discern certain "types." People recognize their neighbors and their family in our characters but don't see themselves. It's a classic response.

AJ: Many people say, "Oh, I'm going to bring my brother, or my sister, or my mother." They come back to us disappointed saying that the mother, brother or sister didn't recognize themselves [in the play].

Q: Is it hard to find yourself in an empty studio with a text that you've performed hundreds of times, and that you must perform again without an audience, in a completely fragmented way?

AJ: It's actually extremely pleasant. Especially when someone like Cedric is listening to keep you from falling into a rut or having it become routine.

JPB: We were able to free ourselves from the habits of theatrical performance; we didn't stick to our established methods, which made us rather accessible and open. We knew our lines and were relaxed and ready for anything. It's terrible, with the abundance of cliches, to add one and say "the shoot went marvelously," but it's true. We had a wonderful crew, very young; I was definitely the oldest of the bunch. They were very cooperative, jolly--and made a good-sized audience on the set.

Q: Why is it that the film is darker and more dramatic that the play?

JPB: Perhaps because the audience is able to see the characters better.

AJ: There is something very vital and gratifying about the theatre; seeing the actors take their bows...

JPB: During a play, each member of the audience makes their own choices about who to follow--it's the character that moves and talks the most. In a film, we look at characters who listen, too; we feel what they feel, we are more conscious of their humanity.

Q: Since the shoot, you wrote an original screenplay for a film by Alain Resnais that he is going to direct and in which you will appear. Isn't it a very different process writing for the stage and the screen?

JPB: Yes and no. There are different constraints, but in both cases, it is essential to have a story and characters that make sense.

AJ: Up until now, I found the incredible liberty allowed by the cinema to be, paradoxically, a bit inhibiting. While I find it rather stimulating to only be able to present a limited number of characters, using only a few scenery changes, on stage. We chose to respect the classical notions of time and of place. In addition, as everyone knows, film is an art that is more image-based than text-based; the imagination, therefore, must be used a bit differently.

JPB: In any case, we understood after our "Smoking/No Smoking" adventure that we had a hard time writing without acting. Rather than being writers, we are "actors who write." It's hard not to participate on a project that we've worked on from the beginning.

Q: Who does what when you write together?

AJ: It's more and more mixed. Let's say that I have a greater love of plot and that Jean-Pierre is more gifted for dialogue.

JPB: Three-fourths of the plays I had written alone were sorely lacking in narrative detail; they were merely demonstrative. Agnes is always thinking about plot, which makes us good writing partners we fill in each other's gaps. Now we would like to try writing an original screenplay and a play at the same time. Each of them would give us a vacation from the other or maybe that's just the way it seems.

[Director Statement and Jaoui/Bacri Interview translated by Deidre Mahoney]