A lush period drama drawing on director Diane Kurys’s childhood in post-Vichy France, For a Woman tells the story of a young Russian-Jewish couple whose lives are thrown into turmoil when the husband’s brother, long thought dead, appears out of the blue. •Thanks to Lisa Trifone, Film Movement, for arranging this interview.•
DT: For a Woman, like much of your other work, is largely autobiographical. What are the advantages and disadvantages of using autobiographical material, both in writing and in directing?
DK: It’s my best source of inspiration—myself, my family, my past, my memory. It’s what I find the most exciting to work with, exhilarating sometimes and painful sometimes, but the best source for me. I also have a tendency to like other people’s work when they take their own material. The films that influence me deal with personal, intimate subjects. It’s my tendency. I don’t find it more difficult or less difficult, I just find it more natural, in a way.
DT: You stick with your technicians rather than your actors when you direct. What’s the primary focus of your attention when you’re on set?
DK: There’s not one thing; it’s everything at the same time. You’ve got to have lateral thinking. You’ve got to think about the actors and everything that goes with it. Will they know their lines, will they have understood the situation? Is the costume all right? Is the DP in a good mood? Will we have enough time to break for lunch, or are we going to have to break a little later? Everything: Is my vision still clear? Is it really what I wanted? Am I going to be influenced by the fact that we don’t have what we want? It’s a million things at the same time. It’s not one thing that comes out first.
DT: You don’t do a lot of rehearsal beforehand, do you?
DK: No. I read with the actors, but separately, not together. And I also read with the main technicians. I work with my art director very closely. His name is Maxime Rebière, and he deals with every level of the profession. He works on the makeup, the hair, the costume, the set, the furniture. Together we prepare this sort of bible, with drawings showing the intention for the characters and sets. We give this to the crew and go through it so that we have the same vision before we start shooting. It’s very important, especially for a period movie.
DT: Do you give it to the actors as well?
DT: How many takes do you usually do?
DK: It depends. I have a tendency to do less and less, maybe because I’m older and less patient. One day Francis Ford Coppola came onto one of my sets in Rome. I was shooting A Man in Love. Dean Tavoularis was the art director, the set designer as well, and he invited Coppola to Cinecittà. I arrived and I said, “Oh my God, he looks like Coppola.” And they said, “It’s him, it’s him.” He came to the house for a party the next day, and he was like the Godfather—everybody was asking him for advice. At the time, we were only shooting in film, and film was expensive, not like digital, and Coppola said to me, “Do only one take, and print only one take if you can. You can do two or three or four if you must, but print only one, because when you watch it while it’s happening, you know which one is the good one. There’s no need to print others.”
DT: That’s really interesting.
DK: It was really interesting. It was a really good piece of advice. Because it’s true. You know, you feel it. If you look closely on the set, you know which one is good. Even when we have five actors at the same time, you know which one grabs you.
DT: Did you start to work differently when you moved to digital?
DK: For a Woman was shot on film.
DT: You can tell.
DK: It goes to digital when it goes to the screening rooms, but I shot in film. It was the last movie in France that is going to be shot in film.
DT: Speaking of A Man in Love, you said that diaries are the “best of a writer.” That goes back to your answer to the first question. What did you mean by diaries are the “best of the writer”?
DK: I’m attracted to people. I’m attracted to their souls, their lives, their past, their childhood, their problems, their way to be happy. I’m interested in human nature. Genuinely interested. I discovered very early on—when I started reading—that the only thing I was connecting to was the things that I liked. And the things I was connecting with most were personal letters, diaries, autobiography, correspondence, diaries. I have a feeling that I’m sharing, that I connect, I enter into the soul. A novel has to be a really, really, high level of writing for me to enjoy reading it.
DT: As a Jew growing up in post-Vichy France, did you feel like an outsider?
DK: I was raised in France, I went to French school, but my parents had to escape from the Nazis in France, and they told me bedtime stories. My bedtime stories were “How Your Father Escaped,” and “How Your Mother Did This and That.” I felt a little bit different because there were very few Jewish girls in my high school; I think we were three in my class. Anti-Semitism was still strong and heavy. There was a girl called Dreyfus, and this teacher would call her Levi on purpose all the time. She was the monster painting teacher that I depicted in Peppermint Soda. I also grew up differently because my parents separated and got a divorce when I was six. That was very rare at the time also, so being Jewish and being a child of divorced parents makes you feel different.
DT: Also you were first generation—your parents were Russian.
DK: My parents were Russian, and they spoke with an accent. There was all that—the shame of the accent and… Yeah, I felt the difference.
DT: Your films largely focus on the interior lives of girls and women, yet you don’t want to be known as a woman director. Why not?
DK: Because there are no “male directors.” Because you never say to a man, Why don’t you consider yourself a male director? I don’t have an anti-feminist problem. I am a feminist. I’m a woman, so how can I not be a feminist? It’s impossible. But to put ourselves in the ghetto with a label stamped on our backs, to minimize or reduce or categorize us, I find it not right. I find it nonproductive: Why not invent a section for short people films or blond people films? When there will be a festival of men’s films, then I will go to a festival of women’s films. I’m against labels. I think it doesn’t help.
DT: You participated in the student protests of ’68. Do you think they changed French society very much, and if so, in what way?
DK: I was twenty at the time, so it was impossible to avoid that movement. I was Parisian, I was a student, so I was in the middle of it. And I think it did change things. It was more a cultural change than a political change, and it was the same thing all over the world. It was a deep, cultural, sociological change. Radical. The relationship between parents and children changed drastically. Women’s liberation appeared at that time. That was major. It brought a new openness to human rapport. Human relationships. The political side of it was not the most interesting thing there.
DT: Do you think the changes were permanent?
DK: We still have the effects of it. Maybe you cannot understand because you live here and speak the English language, which doesn’t have the tu (familiar form of address) and the vous (formal form of address), but I lived the moment when people overnight—overnight!—started to say tu to everybody. In the streets, people wouldn’t say vous anymore. Old people, young people, together they would say tu, tu, tu. It completely changed society, because before that, society was really, really oppressive. Far more oppressive than here. France was really an old country with old traditions and the family was old and the rigidity of the society was very old. Women were really repressed. They didn’t have the right to vote until ’45. They didn’t have the right to write a check until ’65.
DT: You’ve been working in the French film industry for over 35 years. Has it changed much?
DK: It’s changed in terms of expansion outside. Our films are not shown all over the world as much as they used to be, and I think that’s a shame. I’m not talking only about America. I’m talking also about South America, for instance. Countries like England don’t get our films anymore—very, very few a year. I don’t think a film of mine has been released there in fifteen years.
DT: Why, do you think?
DK: I don’t know. Protectionism. Too many films. I frankly don’t know. I think the market reduces itself. There’s a need for our films in America and England. I’m sure that thousands of people would like to see a French movie once in a while. Maybe it’s the habit of not dubbing. That’s a fight I had twenty years ago. I remember saying we must dub our films, because there’s not only New York and L.A. There are other towns—the country is vast—and if we dub our films, people will watch them on TV. But it was a fight I couldn’t win, not alone. It’s protectionism. People don’t want our films to invade your television, so they won’t dub them. Subtitled films are a small market because people think they’re difficult to watch.
DT: So you wanted to dub rather than subtitle?
DK: I think we should do both. We should have films that are subtitled wherever you want to see them and then we could make dubbed versions. It’s a resistance that’s been here for decades. It’s not the case in Germany; in Germany everything is dubbed.
DT: They hate subtitles.
DK: Same thing in Spain, in Italy. In America they resist, and I think it’s protectionism.
DT: In terms of Latin America, I think they’re starting to watch their own films more.
DK: That’s great, they have a culture, they should develop it. It’s great in any case that cinema should be alive everywhere. I’m all for it. But it’s great also that cinema can travel and that you don’t get only five, ten films a year from Europe. You should get more because there are more films that are good. I would say fifty, but at least maybe twenty or thirty films a year would be great.
DT: As a producer of art, what is your responsibility to your audience?
DK: It’s very personal, but it’s my faith in truth. I need to not cheat and not lie although making a film is a complete cheat and a complete lie. You’ve got to be honest with the material, so the responsibility is just to not lie too much; just lie enough so the film is a page turner. You create, you pretend, you invent, but then you have to keep some kind of authenticity, some truth and honesty in there somewhere. And sometimes you just realize this in the end, because the process is so much an evolution, movement, it evolves all the time, from the moment you think, “Oh, I should go back to a period film.” I love to do period films. Although they are the most difficult to make, they are the ones that stay, the ones that are not out of date when they come out. It’s difficult to do a contemporary movie, because by the time it’s released, television has swept you away. You’re out of date already.
DT: What do you want to accomplish with your art?
DK: I don’t think about that because you can’t. You can’t see yourself and your work. The only thing you can feel is the response from the audience, the response from journalists when you talk to them. And your own perception of the body of work. It’s not that I’m too modest. It’s between an enormous pretension and an enormous modesty, and I’m in between. You just go: one film after another and you hope it will reach out somehow, some way. Again, when I’m looking, when I read a book, when I watch a movie, I’m looking for connection, for understanding or feeling the emotion that they’re going through on the screen. That’s what you want to communicate as a filmmaker, at least in my case. To connect.
DT: And in terms of truth, how do you draw truth from your actors?
DK: They better find it. It’s their job. I have an ear and an eye. I was an actress, but not only because I was an actress; I’m also a moviegoer, and you can tell when the actor is not there. On the screen you can tell. On the set you can tell. So from one take to the other, as Coppola said, you know. You feel it the same way the audience will feel it. I can bet you the editor, who does the first edit before I even arrive, will pick up the same take I picked up. Sometimes you can hesitate because the wind was a little strong and the sound is not so good or the other actor is not so good, but the truth comes out. It’s so evident when the actor is not in it, when the actor pretends. You just hope they’ll concentrate enough to forget about their lines so they come naturally, and focus enough to not bump into the furniture.
Copyright © Director Talk 2014