Paris, August 25, 1945. One room, two men—a German general sent by Hitler to blow up Paris, and a Swedish consul determined to dissuade him from carrying out his mission. Based on Cyril Gely’s eponymous play, Diplomacy stars André Dussollier (Consul Raoul Nordling) and Niels Arestrup (General Dietrich von Choltitz) brilliantly revising their stage roles for the screen. •Availability: US theatrical premiere October 15, Film Forum, New York City, with national rollout to follow. Click here for local theater listings. A Zeitgeist Films Release. •Thanks to Adam Walker, Film Forum, for arranging this interview.•
DT: Each of your films has a different gestalt, which seems to be determined by the characters. Diplomacy is very controlled, for instance, while Tin Drum is very chaotic.
VS: For me, filmmaking is working with actors nowadays. I don’t care that much about the rest anymore. Of course I take care with the cinematographer and art director to get things right, but my real work is on the screenplay: thinking about how the actor is going to do it, already prepping in view of a performance. And at the end, if a certain number of characters are…unforgettable may be a big word, but if they impress, that is my work nowadays. It’s about faces and characters, the relationship between people, the ambiguities. In Diplomacy, what I liked outright is that the general is a true villain, not an art lover, who saves Paris ultimately, and the diplomat, who is supposed to be a great humanist and caring person, doesn’t hesitate to lie and deceive. That’s what makes them human, and that’s interesting. To have the actors to go with it—it’s a sheer pleasure.
DT: Is your change in approach personal, or is it due to a change in the industry or technology?
VS: I think it’s more personal. There was a time when we were looking for great performances. When you could visibly see the effort; say, Actors Studio. It’s a performance. It’s an achievement. You have to overcome obstacles. And I think that because it’s become so common for everybody to record family, or make movies with a cell phone and whatnot, we become suspicious of anything that points toward a visible performance. So you have to take acting to another level; it has to become an invisible performance, it has to be beyond acting. For me, the quintessential actor was Philip Seymour Hoffman in that direction. And I think that Niels Arestrup [playing the German general in Diplomacy] belongs in that category, where you feel you can see our emotions and feelings expressed in a way that is not fabricated. A good part of that is also in Boyhood. That’s why I love that movie.
DT: Can you talk about the difference between adapting novels and stage plays?
VS: Billy Wilder always told me, “Why do you do novels? Take a play. The curtain comes up, you’re within a situation, and an hour and a half later the curtain comes down, and within that structure you told your story. You can change everything—the period, the characters, and so on—but your structure is there, whereas a novel is endless and it doesn’t get you anywhere.” I had the opposite feeling; I had the feeling that generally a novel is more like life. It’s like a river flowing along. Stendhal had this image: A novel is a mirror walking alongside a road, reflecting life. For me, that was always a movie. Meaning there has to be landscape, there has to be open air, there has to be a feeling of time passing by—long stretches of time—whereas a play is confined in a room and the time is ninety minutes or a hundred twenty max. It’s a totally different exercise.
Even though Diplomacy is based on a play, of course, I tried to open it up. But it was dangerous to open up too much, because the whole energy comes from the claustrophobic situation, and if you open it too much, it doesn’t work anymore. A play and a novel are really two different pairs of shoes. I think with a novel it’s harder to find a structure, but it’s easier to film. To film a play and make believe it’s real life is much harder. It takes a lot of concentration from the actors and everybody else to make us forget the artificial situation of two people in a room. I was very skeptical about Diplomacy. I told the producers, “I’m your guy. I’d love to work with these actors, but I cannot guarantee that this will be interesting in any way.” Because I was very skeptical, I was more demanding with each sequence and everything that held it together. How can you create suspense even though everybody knows what the outcome is? But what’s more, how can there be emotion? It was hard work.
DT: I watched Death of a Salesman last night right after seeing Diplomacy—
VS: You’re very much on the mark, then. It’s very connected.
DT: —but Death of a Salesman you did for TV. Did that account for the difference between the two?
VS: Salesman was released worldwide in cinemas except in this country. It was only because Dustin was scared of the box office that it went straight to television here. It played at major film festivals and at theaters, and it did very well everywhere in the world, so for me it’s a movie movie. WithSalesman, Arthur Miller wanted the film to have the entire play with all the dialogue. I said, Well, if that’s what you want, then we can’t go and shoot exteriors in Brooklyn and all that, because it would be redundant…in the play, the words create the world. I came up with this idea to build in studio a set that would somehow look like a theater set with open elements, but it would be artificial and you would always know that this is not real. This is a play.
When we were prepping Diplomacy, at first I had this idea that since Paris is the third character, we could have transparent walls in the room so that we feel the city outside all the time. I soon rejected the idea, because it was more about seeing through the windows, where we go out from time to time. This time we got to do the opposite of Salesman: make you forget it’s theater. And that goes for the performances. In Salesman, you had to have this kind of Actors Studio performances, this powerhouse of emotion where you cannot pretend this is a real family at home right now yelling at each other. It wouldn’t be like that. Diplomacy is a different world. With these two guys in the room, I wanted to have the feeling that there is an intimacy and this indeed is as they speak together—one would sit down on the windowsill, for example, and it would all be very untheatrical.
DT: I was struck by how untheatrical it was.
VS: Yes. It took awhile to get there.
DT: Music is obviously very important to you, not only in cinema but also as an artform. You’ve directed a number of operas, for instance.
VS: Normally I hate music in movies. I mean, it has to have a special function, not simply play all the way through.
DT: That was my question. How do you direct the interplay between music and the moving image?
VS: I felt that since Diplomacy is two men in a room debating the destiny of hundreds of thousands outside that room, it could not be an intimate score. It could not be just a piano or guitar. You would say, This is a chamber drama, so it has to be chamber music. I say no. Maybe this is a chamber drama, but it’s of epic dimension, so we need a huge orchestra. We used the Berlin Babelsberg Film Orchestra, 80 pieces, to give the feeling of the epic dimension of the debate. That was a very conscious choice. On the other hand, the music is not about the general or the consul; it’s about the people outside this room. It’s the city of Paris, as well as the idea of starting with the destruction of Warsaw and having Furtwängler conducting the Seventh Symphony at the same time the city of Warsaw is destroyed. That again enhanced this feeling that it is not about these two people, it’s about humanity as a whole, and the combination of Warsaw and Beethoven just joined the two sides of the German coin: capable of the worst and of the best.
DT: Was that an historic performance of Beethoven’s Seventh?
VS: Yes, it was, including the coughs and everything. It’s a 1943 performance in Berlin, so it’s the kind of stuff that they would certainly air on the radio in those days—at least I pretended it was.
DT: Sticking with the idea of music, in the press notes you say that you divided the script forDiplomacy into musical movements.
VS: That has nothing to do directly with the music; I meant about the rhythm of the film. I was afraid of monotony.
DT: It was gripping.
VS: There were two ways we accomplished this. The first was taking advantage of lighting. The film starts in the middle of the night. It’s pitch dark because there’s a blackout, and then slowly the first light of day, and then the sun, comes in, so from scene to scene it will change the atmosphere in the room. Plus the artificial light goes out when there’s a power break. At the same time, I wanted to do it in the rhythm of the scenes, so I broke them down with the actors during the rehearsal. We determined certain movements…. In the beginning, it’s like a [boxing] match. They test themselves out with a punch here and there to see how the other one reacts, so it’s kind of an andante, slow movement. Then comes the next movement. We found it within the play. Here it has to go really staccato, fast, then we go back to an adagio, the consul is desperate because he thinks that he’s not going to achieve it, and then another event happens. This is what I learned when I was directing operas—to fight monotony, the composers simply change the tempos. I thought this was very interesting for acting, so I always try to find that somehow. Of course, when you’re outdoors, it doesn’t apply as much as when you have two characters in a room.
DT: I feel like you also used silences in the same way. There was a moment when the general accuses the consul of working with the resistance and the consul replies, “If you think I’m in bed with the resistance, I could have murdered you a week ago.” You leave a long moment of silence on the general’s reaction.
VS: It’s all about rhythm. They can talk a lot, very fast, and then you need a long time when there’s no talk at all. This movie was like making a Swiss clock. You had so few elements, and all the cogs had to fit perfectly so that the audience would never lose interest.
DT: You’ve said that a film has to have a point of view, while a stage play does not. Why does a film have to have a point of view?
VS: I don’t say that a play doesn’t…I think any theater director would jump at my face if I said that. They’re just different, I think. As a filmmaker—and that goes for thirty movies now—I can only tell the story from one point of view. I need to know who my narrator is, not that he has a voiceover, but whose perspective it is. With Diplomacy, I felt it could only be the consul, who penetrates into the den of this German general with the idea that he has to make him change his mind. One could have done it otherwise; a German general arrives in Paris and has to blow up the city, and what’s going on in his mind and so on. But I didn’t feel that would have been interesting. We can never identify, we shouldn’t identify, with the general. We should identify with the outside person. In any story you tell in any movie—it doesn’t always need to be so obvious as in the Tin Drum, where obviously the child is our perspective—but in every Western you have that point of view. In some, you have the hero coming into town, but in others you tell it from the point of view of the town, the population, where the villain’s coming into town. Obviously you’re telling it from another perspective, but I think once you have that, it’s a rule that the audience follows you better when you make them identify with one of the characters and then stick with it to the end. I get very upset when I see movies where they change perspective all of a sudden. I say, Well, this is a major mistake now. You lose your audience. You cannot change the perspective in the editing room. You have to know it at the moment when you write your screenplay. What scenes can be in the movie and what can’t be. You can’t always cut to Meanwhile, back at the farm…. That’s another perspective. That’s God’s point of view. You can cut everywhere, but it’s very hard to identify with God.
DT: Dussollier and Arestrup have very different acting methods. Can you talk about working with the differences between them?
VS: Fortunately, they have a point in common. They are both very good when it gets very intimate. On stage, of course, there’s a lot of space. You put one on the left side, one on the right side, or one upstage and one close to the ramp. I especially told the consul, “Your way to make the general uneasy is don’t let him sit behind his desk. If he sits behind his desk, don’t sit in front of it. Go around and breathe down his neck. Don’t let him take refuge in this authority. Then of course the way to deliver your line is totally different. That forces him, and he cannot start bellowing at you, because you’re right under his nose.” Both actors are very, very good at that. They’re both cinema actors in that way even though they do a lot of stage work. On the other hand, they’re totally different. Dussollier is the kind of virtuoso who always knows what he is doing, he is very much in control. And Arestrup is a natural. He’s like in a trance when he’s acting. He doesn’t quite know what he’s doing. He can only do a couple of takes and then he’s exhausted, because at each given moment he’s giving so much to the part. In that they are totally different.
DT: As you said, they played the same characters on stage. In order to regain that “as if for the first time” feeling for the film, you rehearsed again and again and again. Isn’t that contradictory?
VS: Well, it’s contradictory, but we changed quite a bit of the dialogue. It’s less wordy than on stage. Niels Arestrup complained a lot. He said, “Memory is a terrible thing. Even if I concentrate hard on the new line, the moment I let go, the old one comes back.” That was exactly the purpose of it—that the old should not come back, that it should be reinvented. Actors love to rehearse. They feel [making a film] is different [from acting in a play]: We are not projecting to an audience. The whole relationship we have is much more intimate now and therefore has to be more personal. Therefore we have to find new ways of communicating with each other. They need rehearsal to achieve that.
DT: You shot with two mobile cameras and booms to catch their voices. How did that work in a confined space?
VS: The room was much larger than any hotel room would be, to start with. We had to build a room that was about twice the size of the real room at the Hotel Meurice so we could move with two cameras that were not handheld. They were kind of suspended, one on a crane. They would not shoot crisscross; we would not do the reverse shot at the same time—that doesn’t work—just to have more material. I wanted to be floating all the time so that it doesn’t feel stiff in the room, that you live it with the actors rather than seeing it from the outside. This meant we needed two boom men as well, with the mics, because I don’t trust these [lavoliers]. You get very squeezy voices, not the full voice. Diplomacy is like a radio play, where the voices are as important as the faces. So we had two boom men, and that’s always a problem, because they get in the way of each other, so that meant more rehearsal.
DT: How much did you rehearse?
VS: Way ahead, a month earlier. We rehearsed a day and a half per week, and we did four days of shooting week per week.
DT: Are you working on another project now?
VS: Fortunately yes, but we don’t have producers or financing yet. I wrote a screenplay with Colm Tóibín, an Irish writer, and I’m working on another project with my old pal Jean-Claude Carrière.
DT: Thank you. It’s been an honor.
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