les Thompsons chat with Jennifer Merin re �Avenue Montaigne�

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“Avenue Montaigne”, writer/director Daniele Thompson’s third feature, is a delightful ensemble comedrama with signature Thompson style. Like her previous films, it’s a product of her creative collaboration with Christopher Thompson, her son, who also stars in the movie.

“The writing process is the key to our work,” says Daniele. “We start by getting together and talking.”

“And writing lots of notes,” adds Christopher. “Whatever seems worth remembering, gets noted… and we begin the business of pulling it together.”

DT: That lasts for months and months…

CT: It’s very nine to five…

DT: Yes, otherwise it becomes to much.

JM: So at nine, you come in with coffee, and…

DT: A bottle of water…

CT: And we start throwing around ideas. The early days where we’re creating characters, there’re lots of notes taken, some dialogue jotted down. Vague ideas of scene situations are written down. When we know the characters well enough, we start pulling them into the bigger story.

JM: How do you know when you know them well enough?

DT: I don’t know. We just have a feeling…

CT: Then, sometimes we find we don’t know enough about them, so we go back to study them and discover who they are. And then we fit them into the structure.

DT: Then when we have a structure, we start going from scene to scene, and seeing how it works.

JM: When you’re working on a scene, do you write together, talking through dialogue? Or, do you each write separate scenes and put them together?

CT: When we have the skeleton structure, Daniele writes the dialogue for the scenes…at least that’s how we’ve worked up until now.

DT: Then I read it to Christopher, to check with him. It’s very interesting because I can see right away in his eyes if, oh my God, that line is terrible. I can tell right away just looking at him. It’s a very interesting exchange, this whole thing.

CT: I’m a horrible audience, very critical.

JM: How do you decide which scenes you’ll keep and where they belong in the structure?

DT: It’s interesting with an ensemble piece, because when we start the screenplay– which we’re doing now on a new project, so we can talk about it in a very involved way– we begin with a vague idea of what’s it’s going to be about.

JM: What’s the idea for the new project?

DT: It’s too new to talk about. But, “Avenue Montaigne” was to be a tale about an area in Paris, and its special mixture of people– because of the theatre and café that are there, exactly like in the movie. That was the idea for the film.

But after we have the idea, which is a tiny seed, we have to decide which thread we are going to pull, to work on. So quickly we go to the characters and decide who we’re going to talk about, what are the individual stories, and how does each individual story bring us to our story.

CT: They each have a story that sheds light on our story. They’re completely independent yet completely intertwined. That’s why it takes so much time. That, and because we’re slow.

JM: So, how and when does the overall structure become clear?

DT: It comes over time, though working. We don’t set the structure. We have characters, and figure out what happens to them. All the characters don’t meet. The almost all meet, but they don’t. For example, the pianist and the actress just say hello to each other in the café, but they don’t all meet. Really the one who meets them all is Jessica, a Tinkerbell type character who really changes their lives in some way.

CT: Cece la France’s character, Jessica, sets the tone. She’s a fairytale character who almost sprinkles something on the people she meets that makes them realize who they are and helps them through whatever they’re going through– and they’re very real, they’re going through real dramas that may be comedic, but matter to them. But we wanted it to keep that fairytale quality– and Jessica establishes that.

JM: She’s a marvelous character.

DT: She’s not naïve, not at all naïve. She’s…

JM: Wise beyond her years.

DT: Yes.

CT: Yes, she’s wise beyond her years. She’s mature, but she’s so open there’s an innocence about her.

DT: Yes. Innocence, but not naiveté.

CT: It’s a way of looking at the world that’s summed up by some people saying ‘who the hell is this?’ when their phone rings, and others saying ‘oh, who can this be?’

DT: It’s a different perspective for looking at things.

CT: Cece la France has this quality as an actress. She’s versatile, changes with each role. I guess you’d have to say she’s a character actress because she changes so entirely.

JM: And, as the Actress, Valerie Lemercier….

DT: It was important that we cast her because, in fact, she kept the comedy in the film. She can be a clown– she does things with her face and body that are just hilarious, amazing. She’s better known in France than here– well known for many things: she’s a director, and has a one-woman show that’s funny and ferocious. Christopher and I talked about it at length. We could have cast Isabel Hubert, or X-Y-or-Z– I mean we have a bunch of wonderful actresses in their 40s in France. But Valerie brought something we wanted for that part, that we knew she was capable of– she’s wild, you know– and she has this craziness and clown thing about her, because at the same time she’s also a pathetic and touching character– and she’s also a bitch. And it was wonderful working with her.

CT: It’s true, what you say about the comedy part, maybe even more so because there’s a lot of melancholy in the film, which is nice, but had Valerie’s character been a less funny person, it could have taken the film down to a more somber level. If it’s deep and touching, that’s wonderful, but we wanted to keep it light, too, and that’s the difficult part.

JM: How did you decide to cast Christopher?

DT: The funny thing is we had many more characters while we were working on the screenplay. Then one day you sit down– on one of those awful mornings– and you realize there’s too many. And you must decide– and this is why writing takes so much time, because you have to sit and sleep on it, and digest, maybe even go on holiday– and suddenly you know that one story is holding and another isn’t. It isn’t that we write a character for Christopher. Actually, the father and son relationship came up late in the construction of the story, and until that, there was no part for him. Oh, I’m just now thinking that maybe he pushed it in…I didn’t realize that…

CT: You’ll never know. But, really, there was something missing from the art collector (the father, played by Claude Brasseur), and the film was missing a family story– we had the pianist and his wife, but no family. And this strange relationship between father and son was a different approach to a father and son story, with the gold digger girl– who was actually kind of a good person. She loves the father– she knows there are several reasons why she loves him, and one of those is his money. So that story was important.

Why cast me? If the character seems appropriate to both of us, why not? It’s also for the pleasure of continuing to work together on a project.

DT: When we start, we don’t focus on whether Christopher will be in the film or not– this is done very honestly and suddenly this part came up and suddenly it was a very good idea for him to play it.

JM: How is it working with Daniele as director?

CT: She’s wonderful. All actors say so. She’s wonderful to be around, and the atmosphere on set is determined by the director. She brings people together, and she knows exactly what she wants. All the work on the script is done to communicate exactly what we want from that moment in a scene. It think that’s a lot of what directing is about– having actors meet that moment, and see what they offer.

DT: I love working with actors.

JM: Do they surprise you?

DT: They surprise me all the time. It’s very funny, the surprises are very interesting. I like to rehearse a bit before because we have to move fast on the set– time is money and we have very little time to shoot our films and very little money. And– I’ll answer you question in a minute– but it was very funny because Sidney (Pollack, who plays the American movie director, Brian Sobinski) was amazed by how lightly we work– I mean, if this had been an American film, he would have closed Avenue Montaigne for two months, with 200 people and trucks. We can’t afford that. We have less than ten weeks, less than 10-million dollars, less, less and less. So, this is of course surprising for an American director…

CT: But for the actors, the lighter the apparatus is, the more fun it is– or else you wait. Well, you wait already, but the heavier a film is, the longer you wait for everything to be set up– and that’s why trailers are so big.

DT: And that’s why we rehearse and increase the amount of preparatory work that’s done, so we don’t waste time on the set.

It’s surprising when you read with actors, how sometimes they get it and sometimes they don’t get it at all. And so when you read with them, you sometimes get not what you expect– sometimes it’s interesting because they give you something else that’s wonderful. Or it can be way out. But when you’ve worked with them a little bit– and I love this about great actors– they have a capacity to understand what you want from them. They’re very demanding, some say they don’t like being “directed,” but I think it’s great you can get them to give you what you want– and they still bring you a look, a sudden intensity you don’t expect and this is wonderful.

JM: Daniele, what did you, as director, find particularly surprising?

DT: That’s hard to say– but, working with Claude Brasseur is surprising because he works secretly, by himself, alone, without telling you. Then he arrives and does amazing things– like in the scene with Christopher in the café…

CT: When you’re acting opposite him, you have big surprises. You see suddenly, with the first take, he’s worked a lot on this and you have to be on your toes.

DT: When we’d rehearsed with him a month and a half before, he was just trying to get what it’s about and suddenly, he sits there in the café, and oh my God, did he get it!

JM: Daniele, did you come to filmmaking as an actress?

DT: No, never. My mother was an actress but she gave it up because she was unhappy with it. I have a photo of her performing in a Feydeau play, and I had my costume designer to copy the hat she wore for Valerie Lemercier in “”Avenue Montaigne.” My father– who died last summer– was an actor, then a very successful screenwriter and director, and is almost mythical as a comedy writer in France. He wrote big wonderful comedies that people love, and he got me into writing when I was very young. I learned the trade over years of working with him. But, funnily enough, a little bit like the characters in “Avenue Montaigne”– and I’m realizing as we speak how much of my family background is involved in this film– as I was writing successful comedies with my father, I thought I had to find something else, so I started working on more serious projects– “Queen Margot,” and things like that– which was a big challenge for me. It‘s so typical– there you are, successful at writing comedy and, no, you want to go somewhere else. write something else. Becoming a director, too, is the syndrome of always wanting something else.

JM: When did you choose to direct, and why?

DT: I don’t know why, I didn’t have a plan. It just happened.

CT: It’s a difficult moment when you ask yourself what’s next. It can be a negative thing– but it’s also very positive, because it’s a push to the next level, and another direction and excellence.

DT: If the first I film we wrote together and I directed (La Buche, 1999) hadn’t been a success, a positive experience and something I feel people like a lot, I would’ve gone back to writing. I wouldn’t have pushed to direct another film. I always think about what I’m going to write next, not what I’m going to direct next. Because basically I think of myself as a writer.

JM: Christopher, do you plan to direct?

CT: That’s the next question for me. And what will I direct, if decide to?

DT: Well, for me, it was quite late in my life. Many producers had asked me why don’t you direct a film. And my father also asked me why don’t you direct a film. I was very comfortable with my writing jobs, going from one director to another, from comedy to drama. I didn’t think of it as a step to becoming a director, but as ‘mon metier.’ But I’d had several experiences in previous years with directors where I thought I would have something differently– chosen different music or cut something. At a certain point, I became curious and thought I’m getting too old, if I don’t do it now, I’ll be too tired. Then I wondered what would it be– tragedy, comedy?– if I had the power to make the decisions– which you never have as a writer.

CT: That’s true. That’s why I choose directors very carefully….

DT: You have influence, no power. It’s not the same thing. And you have influence only if you’re lucky and have a good relationship with your director. So I thought what the Hell. Let’s find out. And La Buche is exactly the style and tone of our writing together– which is someplace between tragic things about life and death, and searching for things you think you want, and comedy. So I decided to to it, and it worked, so now we can continue with that for a while.

JM: Do you have an opinion about why there are differences in the level of opportunity for women directors in Europe vs. the US?

DT: I guess it’s the character of the films– the fact that we don’t make many big budget films is actually an advantage for women in Europe, because it puts us on the same level with men. In America, you have such big productions and it’s very much a man’s industry– because of the nature of the movies themselves. They have such huge budgets, and there’re so many action films.

CT: Which is no excuse, really. In France now, there’re many women directors. Such good ones. And at absolutely the same level as men. It’s nothing unusual in France, but the difference from what happens here is striking.

JM: When you’re talking about the concept for your next film, how much must you consider what implications you choice of subject might have for possible funding?

DT: In that regard, being a women doesn’t really make much difference. Funding is difficult, period. For everybody. It’s a matter of people trusting you, and….

CT: The choice of subject matter,? You worry about it, I would say. This film, with these actors as these characters– can we finance it today? We worry about it. I think, in the end, it’s inevitably the films that you think will be hard to finance are– at least in France. Because filmmaking is so unformulated. We try to formulate, but it’s impossible because what was hot six months ago is no longer hot. I’m thinking of André Techine, for example, a great director, who started financing a project about the same time we started financing “Avenue Montaigne”. His was about the outburst of AIDS in 1985, and his last films haven’t been so successful– and everybody said ‘who wants to see that?’ But he managed to get the film made, and it’s got a very interesting cast, and it’s gone to Berlin, and some people are surprised by it’s success. And we had the same thing with our script for “Avenue Montaigne”– we had a deal with a production company, but the head of that company, for various reasons, didn’t like the script at all.

DT: This is something that we had on our minds– up until the film premiered and did very well, thank god. “Avenue Montaigne” is about a lovely area, and lucky people who could also, if the film hadn’t turned out as it did, be considered spoiled brats. You know– you’re a great pianist, you’re a great actress, so what the hell do you have to complain about?

CT: But that’s the whole point…

JM: Yes, of course, and it’s absolutely charming.

DT: But this is something that might not interest big crowds. Because you’re speaking about the elite…

CT: Which is a very French thing. In America, success and money are not regarded in the same way as in France, where they‘re thought to be dirty. So there’s a very schizophrenic attitude towards being rich and famous.

JM: Which you see in both the pianist and actress in the film…

DT: Yes.

CT: And also there’s a reaction to the melancholy of the film, to that under layer…

DT: Yes. That production company said it’s about old people and dying…and is depressing. Well, yes, in a way. That’s life, too. The film’s about life.

CT: So, to answer your question, you have to be careful not to ask yourself that question too much, because it will get in your way. You have to go ahead and make the film you want to make because, in the end, that’s probably the film people will want to see. You have to hope so.

DT: But it’s true what Christopher says about our concern about the elite issue in France. In American films– with Woody Allen, for example– you’re always in Manhattan, always around Central Park, the museums and beautiful places of New York, and people who work in the arts, and nobody thinks this is a problem. In France, it’s something people withdraw from.

CT: Yes, if you’re talking about the elite, you can’t be talking about real people with real feelings, real problems. We wanted to show the elite as dissatisfied and see their human traits– universal human traits. Whatever you’re doing, you wonder, am I satisfied? Is there something right next door that might be better? Can I get out there and try something else and get out of where I am?

JM: And then there’s Jessica’s Grandmaman, who says she couldn’t afford luxury, so decided to work in in– and is delighted that she could do so.

DT: Yes. And, there was a scene I liked very much but had to cut, where Jessica stops at the hotel cloak room, and sees all the beautiful coats surrounding the attendant’s armchair, and says to the attendant, ’aren’t you happy here? And the cloakroom lady, who’s around 50, looks at her like she’s crazy– well, no, it’s just a nine to five job. I like this scene because it’s all about how you perceive things, which is so much what the film is about. But it broke the rhythm, so we had to cut it– but, thank God, it’s back in the DVD bonuses.

JM: In France, the film’s title is “Orchestra Seats.” Why change it to “”Avenue Montaigne”” for US release?

DT: It was our distributors’ suggestion, and we trust them. The title is different everywhere. In French, “Orchestra Seats’ has a sort of metaphorical quality that’s not quite the same in in English. “”Avenue Montaigne”” is a more direct title. You know it’s French, about Paris, and it has other connotations– some glamour.

CT: It could have been called “Avenue Montaigne” in French, actually, but it wouldn’t have had the same connotations. It’s a better title for America.

JM: Could it take place anywhere else in the world?

DT: Sure. Let’s do a remake at Lincoln Center.

CT: It could happen in London or New York. In Paris, there’s less of a theater district– but Avenue Montaigne has the concert hall, theater and gallery in the same building.

JM: And you have the three big events taking place…

DT: Yes, and that does happen. We didn’t cheat.

JM: Are you aware of being influenced by other filmmakers– any Americans? Altman, perhaps?

DT: I‘m sure there are influences, but it‘s hard to know what they are. We both love American comedies– Altman, Woody Allen, Capra, Wilder Lubitsch. They’re very much part of my culture and, therefore, Christopher’s culture. But it’s hard to know what influences us.

CT: And others, too. We’ve been talking about Wong Kar Wai and “2046,” for example– where there are lots of intertwined stories like in “Avenue Montaigne.”

JM: It’s a style that seem to be a la mode…

CT: It probably is, and it’s probably because we’re so used to getting so many images shot at us day and night, that we need to break the narrative. It’s become a natural thing to do.

DT: Woody Allen has done it forever, Altman’s done it forever. This is a tradition in movies. Obviously there’re influences– But you maybe discover them afterwards.

JM: Congratulations on “Avenue Montaigne” being France’s Oscars nominee. Was that exciting for you?

DT: Very. But then it’s very disappointing when you get to the final nine and, at the last minute, get knocked out.

JM: Well, I’m sure they’ll be considering your next film. We’ll all have that to look forward to.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).