“Avenue Montaigne”, writer/director Daniele Thompsons 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: Its 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 were creating characters, therere 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 dont know. We just have a feeling
CT: Then, sometimes we find we dont 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 youre 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 thats how weve worked up until now.
DT: Then I read it to Christopher, to check with him. Its 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. Its a very interesting exchange, this whole thing.
CT: Im a horrible audience, very critical.
JM: How do you decide which scenes youll keep and where they belong in the structure?
DT: Its interesting with an ensemble piece, because when we start the screenplay– which were doing now on a new project, so we can talk about it in a very involved way– we begin with a vague idea of whats its going to be about.
JM: Whats the idea for the new project?
DT: Its 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 were 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. Theyre completely independent yet completely intertwined. Thats why it takes so much time. That, and because were slow.
JM: So, how and when does the overall structure become clear?
DT: It comes over time, though working. We dont set the structure. We have characters, and figure out what happens to them. All the characters dont meet. The almost all meet, but they dont. For example, the pianist and the actress just say hello to each other in the café, but they dont 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 Frances character, Jessica, sets the tone. Shes a fairytale character who almost sprinkles something on the people she meets that makes them realize who they are and helps them through whatever theyre going through– and theyre very real, theyre 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: Shes a marvelous character.
DT: Shes not naïve, not at all naïve. Shes
JM: Wise beyond her years.
CT: Yes, shes wise beyond her years. Shes mature, but shes so open theres an innocence about her.
DT: Yes. Innocence, but not naiveté.
CT: Its a way of looking at the world thats summed up by some people saying who the hell is this? when their phone rings, and others saying oh, who can this be?
DT: Its a different perspective for looking at things.
CT: Cece la France has this quality as an actress. Shes versatile, changes with each role. I guess youd have to say shes 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. Shes better known in France than here– well known for many things: shes a director, and has a one-woman show thats 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– shes wild, you know– and she has this craziness and clown thing about her, because at the same time shes also a pathetic and touching character– and shes also a bitch. And it was wonderful working with her.
CT: Its true, what you say about the comedy part, maybe even more so because theres a lot of melancholy in the film, which is nice, but had Valeries character been a less funny person, it could have taken the film down to a more somber level. If its deep and touching, thats wonderful, but we wanted to keep it light, too, and thats 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 theres 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 isnt. It isnt 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, Im just now thinking that maybe he pushed it in I didnt realize that
CT: Youll 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? Its also for the pleasure of continuing to work together on a project.
DT: When we start, we dont 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: Shes wonderful. All actors say so. Shes 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 thats 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. Its 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– Ill 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 cant 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 thats why trailers are so big.
DT: And thats why we rehearse and increase the amount of preparatory work thats done, so we dont waste time on the set.
Its surprising when you read with actors, how sometimes they get it and sometimes they dont get it at all. And so when you read with them, you sometimes get not what you expect– sometimes its interesting because they give you something else thats wonderful. Or it can be way out. But when youve worked with them a little bit– and I love this about great actors– they have a capacity to understand what you want from them. Theyre very demanding, some say they dont like being directed, but I think its great you can get them to give you what you want– and they still bring you a look, a sudden intensity you dont expect and this is wonderful.
JM: Daniele, what did you, as director, find particularly surprising?
DT: Thats 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 youre acting opposite him, you have big surprises. You see suddenly, with the first take, hes worked a lot on this and you have to be on your toes.
DT: When wed rehearsed with him a month and a half before, he was just trying to get what its 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 Im 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. Its 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 dont know why, I didnt have a plan. It just happened.
CT: Its a difficult moment when you ask yourself whats next. It can be a negative thing– but its also very positive, because its 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) hadnt been a success, a positive experience and something I feel people like a lot, I wouldve gone back to writing. I wouldnt have pushed to direct another film. I always think about what Im going to write next, not what Im going to direct next. Because basically I think of myself as a writer.
JM: Christopher, do you plan to direct?
CT: Thats 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 dont you direct a film. And my father also asked me why dont you direct a film. I was very comfortable with my writing jobs, going from one director to another, from comedy to drama. I didnt think of it as a step to becoming a director, but as mon metier. But Id 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 Im getting too old, if I dont do it now, Ill 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: Thats true. Thats why I choose directors very carefully .
DT: You have influence, no power. Its not the same thing. And you have influence only if youre lucky and have a good relationship with your director. So I thought what the Hell. Lets 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 its the character of the films– the fact that we dont 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 its very much a mans industry– because of the nature of the movies themselves. They have such huge budgets, and therere so many action films.
CT: Which is no excuse, really. In France now, therere many women directors. Such good ones. And at absolutely the same level as men. Its nothing unusual in France, but the difference from what happens here is striking.
JM: When youre 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 doesnt really make much difference. Funding is difficult, period. For everybody. Its 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, its 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 its impossible because what was hot six months ago is no longer hot. Im 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 havent been so successful– and everybody said who wants to see that? But he managed to get the film made, and its got a very interesting cast, and its gone to Berlin, and some people are surprised by its 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, didnt 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 hadnt turned out as it did, be considered spoiled brats. You know– youre a great pianist, youre a great actress, so what the hell do you have to complain about?
CT: But thats the whole point
JM: Yes, of course, and its absolutely charming.
DT: But this is something that might not interest big crowds. Because youre 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 theyre thought to be dirty. So theres a very schizophrenic attitude towards being rich and famous.
JM: Which you see in both the pianist and actress in the film
CT: And also theres a reaction to the melancholy of the film, to that under layer
DT: Yes. That production company said its about old people and dying and is depressing. Well, yes, in a way. Thats life, too. The films 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, thats probably the film people will want to see. You have to hope so.
DT: But its true what Christopher says about our concern about the elite issue in France. In American films– with Woody Allen, for example– youre 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, its something people withdraw from.
CT: Yes, if youre talking about the elite, you cant 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 youre 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 theres Jessicas Grandmaman, who says she couldnt 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 attendants armchair, and says to the attendant, arent you happy here? And the cloakroom lady, whos around 50, looks at her like shes crazy– well, no, its just a nine to five job. I like this scene because its 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, its back in the DVD bonuses.
JM: In France, the films 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 thats not quite the same in in English. ”Avenue Montaigne” is a more direct title. You know its French, about Paris, and it has other connotations– some glamour.
CT: It could have been called “Avenue Montaigne” in French, actually, but it wouldnt have had the same connotations. Its a better title for America.
JM: Could it take place anywhere else in the world?
DT: Sure. Lets do a remake at Lincoln Center.
CT: It could happen in London or New York. In Paris, theres 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 didnt cheat.
JM: Are you aware of being influenced by other filmmakers– any Americans? Altman, perhaps?
DT: Im sure there are influences, but its hard to know what they are. We both love American comedies– Altman, Woody Allen, Capra, Wilder Lubitsch. Theyre very much part of my culture and, therefore, Christophers culture. But its hard to know what influences us.
CT: And others, too. Weve been talking about Wong Kar Wai and 2046, for example– where there are lots of intertwined stories like in “Avenue Montaigne.
JM: Its a style that seem to be a la mode
CT: It probably is, and its probably because were so used to getting so many images shot at us day and night, that we need to break the narrative. Its become a natural thing to do.
DT: Woody Allen has done it forever, Altmans done it forever. This is a tradition in movies. Obviously therere influences– But you maybe discover them afterwards.
JM: Congratulations on “Avenue Montaigne” being Frances Oscars nominee. Was that exciting for you?
DT: Very. But then its very disappointing when you get to the final nine and, at the last minute, get knocked out.
JM: Well, Im sure theyll be considering your next film. Well all have that to look forward to.