June 8, 2016 by Jessica Palmer
Francis Veber and the Art of Comedy
Department of French and Francophone Studies
Francis Veber has written and directed many classic French comedies, including Le dîner de cons and Le placard. Veber has a home in Los Angeles, where he says it is easier for him to work than in Paris. We spoke by telephone a few days after his latest film, La doublure, premièred in Los Angeles at the COLCOA Festival last spring. T.M.
Is it hard to make people laugh?
Is it hard to make people laugh? It’s a nightmare. When you look at Woody Allen’s face, you understand.
If it’s a nightmare, how come you do it?
The doctor says it’s a boy or a girl—or he says, it’s a comedian. You have it in your blood. First I was punished for it in school, then in the army. Then I started to be paid for it.
What’s the hardest part of your trade?
Structuring a screenplay. You think that what you are writing might be funny but you don’t know for sure. You see, people have a tendency to fall in love with what they are writing. The only advice I would give to a young screen writer is that he should read his screenplay to some friends himself. It will be your first preview and it will probably be your cruelest one. An actor will try to sell it. But when you have a very flat voice like mine, you can’t sell it. [Veber pretends to be reading a script:]“Jardin extérieur. Pierre says to Claire “Ça va?” Claire says “Ça va”…” When you see that their eyes are starting to look toward the window or the ceiling, you start to read faster.
What is difficult about structure?
Structure is very abstract. It means that you are in front of a terra incognita. There are always two possibilities. The situation is very important. When you take a cat and a dog and put them together, you have a situation. But then you have to enrich the whole thing. It’s a tough job. It takes about a year to write a script. Someone in France once observed of my Pignon that he does not choose his situation, he is always chosen. In La Chèvre, Pignon (no his name is Perrin in that one!)—Perrin is chosen because of his bad luck, but he doesn’t know it. Then the arc of the film makes these characters into heroes. That is what I do again and again in my films.
Tell me about a scene that was hard to write.
A scene in Le fugitif was one of the most difficult to write. Depardieu has been shot by Pierre Richard, who is very clumsy, and he goes for help. First it was a doctor who showed up, but it wasn’t funny. So then I thought of making him a veterinarian, who is old and a bit senile. So Pierre Richard says, Do you recognize me? And the veterinarian says, No, he doesn’t recognize him. Then Richard says, Can you help this man? I am not a doctor, says the veterinarian. But surely you know how to “extraire une balle”. And the doctor thinks that, like a dog, Depardieu has swallowed a ball, so he begins to touch him on the nose…
And in La Doublure?
In La Doublure, there were two great problems: when I started to do the structure with my assistant, Sam, he asked me, why does the supermodel accept to go live with this guy in his apartment? And I said, the billionaire puts the money in her account. He is American, he understood that. But when I told my French friends, they said she is a whore—it took me three or four weeks of suffering to make up the idea that she is blackmailing him and she will take the money and then put it back when they get married. So she is clever. The second problem: how can you avoid having this little hairy guy living with a beautiful girl, and he’s not always looking at her, when she is in the bathroom, and trying to touch her? The only solution was to have a love story elsewhere…
There is a scene in Le dîner de cons in which one character is laughing at another one. It is contagious, and the audience cracks up too. Is this a technique you use consciously, having someone in the movie laughing to jumpstart the audience’s laughter?
No, I would say that it comes with the situation. You don’t think like that—now I’m going to have someone on stage laughing. I think it would be funny if LeBlanc sees that Brochant has just trapped himself so badly. The story gives you the idea—you do not use an a priori. If I had a method, I would be rich. I would sell it. The main thing is it’s a long trip, a screenplay. You don’t know if the story is rich enough. Several times, I’ve had an idea that I’ve had to give up. You just have to try.
Over your career, have you evolved?
I think I’ve evolved—but I don’t know if I’m better. Your creativity is equivalent to your technique at the beginning of your career. Then at the end you don’t have any more energy. It’s like your sexual life . . . . There is the moment when you have the power of creating things. [Later] you can’t do very much anymore! Even if you have a lot of technique. Technique is not the most important thing. I knew several writers in Paris, and I was surprised to see that their last plays were not good. They were just tired. And perhaps they had lost a few neurons. There is an Arab proverb. A horse has seven jumps. You never know if you are at the eighth jump.
Will your latest movie be remade in the US?
La Doublure was bought by Dreamworks, the Farrelly brothers. I have had seven films remade and three are in progress. I am proud and happy that they like it enough to buy it, but I am focused on directing my films and writing my films in French.
Of the American actors, who would be a good Pignon?
Steve Carrell would make a good Pignon. He’s a man of the crowd, not an acteur parodique like Adam Sandler or Ben Stiller. Comedy has to be played very seriously by sincere people.
Your stage plays have been performed in China, in Japan, in the Middle East, all over the world. Is comedy international?
I will say that action movies are international. When you have a bomb blowing up, that is understood everywhere. When you want to make people laugh, the situation has to be so clear that everyone will laugh. But even in one of my films that’s dubbed in Swedish, people were laughing at the same parts as in the original.
Which directors do you admire?
The director I admire now is Almodovar—he’s so unexpected. His stories are funny and he’s trying to tell them flat. He succeeds on this razor’s edge. American directors have changed so much. I was fascinated by American Beauty—but I haven’t seen The Da Vinci Code. So I’m not really interested in American directors that much anymore.
What about Woody Allen?
Match Point is a great film. This man seemed to be dead, everyone was against him because he was living with this little Chinese girl, he was obliged to go to London—then he rose up like the phoenix, il s’est reconverti—I had a fine contact with him. I received a note from a producer saying that Woody Allen would like to play the idiot in the remake of Le dîner de cons. A few weeks later I was watching TV, some awards show in Hollywood, and the hostess was saying we are so lucky to have Woody Allen in LA, he doesn’t like to come here. And there was going to be a party afterwards. And I said, I’m sure he won’t be at the party. But he was there! He was there, almost alone, with his agent, sitting in a corner. I went to him—I said, “Hello I am Francis Veber, I love your movies. I directed The Dinner Game.” “You directed The Dinner Game! I’ve been your best publicist in New York for three months.” I was very flattered. I couldn’t even leave, because my head was so big.
You said that comedy is in the blood. Are there writers in your family?
My parents were writers. They didn’t do well at all. My father was interrupted by the war. After the war, nobody wanted what he was doing. My mother had three children, and she wrote sentimental novels for women and she was very badly paid. So my father always said, “Never write!” I did four years of medical school and I hated it. Then came the war in Algeria. I did 28 months in the Army. And when I came back, my father was still telling me: “Don’t write!” So I spent three years as a journalist. And I was fired because I was a terrible journalist. And I started to write like a young boy smokes cigarettes in the bathroom, hiding it from my parents. I was not a movie fan. I was watching westerns and playing cowboys and indians with my friends. When I wrote my first stage play, I had been to the theater maybe three or four times to watch a play before. I think it’s genetic. I have a lot of writers in my family. My father used to say it’s like butchers or plumbers—the sons meet the daughters of other butchers or plumbers, and they get married. I once counted: 14 writers in my family. My great uncle was Tristan Bernard.
Are you working on anything now?
No, I just finished doing La Doublure. It’s exactly like asking a woman who just delivered a baby—would you like to make love? I’ll watch movies… I don’t have any hobbies. When I don’t work, I’m almost a dead man. Fortunately I don’t have any hobbies, because it means I can just write. I write everything here in LA. I loved this city when I came out here. Except for the quakes, it’s a quiet city. I’m watching the wall when I’m writing in my little house, because a beautiful landscape is distracting. When I am in Paris, I’m more famous, people invite me out, they call me. It’s easier here.
Would you be happy if people called you the Molière of the cinema?
Would you be happy if people compared you to Shakespeare? You don’t have to judge yourself—if you like yourself too much, that’s bad, if you hate yourself, you need to see your analyst, your therapist. That is also bad. I don’t know who I am.