INTERVIEW: Cinematographer: Raoul Coutard

Interview courtesy of Optimum Releasing.

With Optimum set to release a 50th Anniversary DVD Edition of A Bout De Souffle (Breathless) alongside a specially packaged Blu-ray version on 13th September 2010, we have an insightful interview with cinematographer Raoul Coutard, who worked with director Jean-Luc Godard (see the duo working together in the above picture) on not only this timeless classic, but many more of the directors favourites, as well as with Jacques Demy on the recently reissued Lola…

How would you and Godard plan a film? How much did you discuss it in advance?
He’d say, “Let’s meet for a meal and I’ll tell you what we’re going to do.” Now, Jean-Luc is the sort of person who has no interest in food. He just eats to live. We’d fix a meeting in a restaurant, and he’d tell me we were going to start a film on such-and-such a date, and describe, very roughly, what he were going to do. For Breathless, for instance, he explained that we were to going to do a film reportage, under the normal conditions of the time - journalists then worked on location without extra lighting, with hand-held cameras and without synchronised sound because back then there was no hand-held camera which enabled you to shoot with sync sound, at least not a 35mm one. On Pierrot le Fou, he said, “It’s the story of a guy who wants to run away with a girl and they go down to the Cote d’Azur. We’ll shoot their journey down and then we’ll film a bit somewhere around Frejus.” I’d say, “Jean-Luc, I’ll always be available to shoot your films.” Then he wouldn’t say another word until the meal was over.

You started Breathless without a screenplay…

Yes, he wrote the script as we went along. Some days he hadn’t written any new scenes, and so we didn’t shoot anything. He’d ring me up and say, “I’m not feeling well - I haven’t got anything for today. Can you phone round everyone and tell them we aren’t shooting, and then go and see the producer?” So, I did that, and the producer (Georges de Beauregard) was furious. That happened four or five times. But Jean-Luc did finally deliver the film on schedule.

Wasn’t that a bit difficult for the actors? How did they learn their lines?
They didn’t learn them. Jean-Luc fed them their lines as we were shooting and they repeated them after him. That’s why their delivery is a little jerky – there’s a slight time-lapse all the way through the film. We rehearsed the actors’ moves without their knowing what they were going to say. He wanted everything to be very fresh, so he’d just tell them what movements they had to do. For example, he’d say, “Jean-Paul (Belmondo), at this point you light a cigarette or you go over to the phone and pick it up,” but they’d only be given their exact dialogue as we were actually shooting.
   Generally, we did only one take of each scene, unless something went wrong, in which case we’d do a second or a third take. We didn’t shoot much footage. On a normal film, you’d shoot 20,000 - 30,000 metres of footage, but on Breathless we only shot 8,000 metres.

Did he get on well with the actors?
Up to a point. There was no problem with Jean-Paul because back then he was completely unknown. But Jean (Seberg) had just made a film - Saint Joan - with Otto Preminger and a huge American crew. She was very anxious. She played the penultimate scene from the film, when she tells Jean-Paul that she’s phoned the police, in a very dramatic manner. Jean-Luc wanted her to be low-key, like a poker player. They argued, and he said “Well, do it the way you want.” If you watch that scene as it appears in the film, she seems very calm because of the way it’s been edited together and post-dubbed, but, if you look closely, you’ll see the veins standing out on her forehead and know she’s playing it completely differently. But I think when Jean saw the finished film, she realised he was right to do it that way.

Was she easy to photograph?
Very easy. When I first met her I thought it was going to be a catastrophe because I felt she had absolutely terrible, coarse-grained skin. Jean-Luc told her to do her own make-up – she didn’t use a make-up artist - and I was very surprised when we started shooting because she was magnificent and very, very beautiful. She was photogenic, like Marlon Brando, who’s very short in real life but on screen looks enormous.

How did Godard work with you and the rest of the crew?
It depended on the day. Sometimes he was in a very bad mood. On Breathless, he was always having problems with the continuity girl. She would tell him that the camera needed to be in a certain position, and he would put it in the opposite position. The poor girl would burst into tears and he had to send her flowers. But his main aim was to demonstrate that there could be a different way of making films - he attacked film grammar, as it had been perfected by DW Griffith, by crossing the eye line or breaking continuity with jump cuts. Each time we made a movie, he set out to do something other people didn’t do: it was a sort of provocation.
   There were times when it was best not to ask him questions, because he had a lot of problems in his head. You had to choose your moment. But after we’d made a few films together, it was easier for me to talk to him because I knew the right time to ask him something. We had a few arguments, but we always made it up!

How closely involved was Godard in creating the look of the film? Did he check each shot through the viewfinder, for example?
The process was a bit like when I was a photo-journalist. When I was moving the camera there were no instructions - Jean-Luc would just say, “You follow her,” or “You don’t follow her.” It wasn’t complicated. His approach was the opposite of the usual one. A director normally says, for example, “I want the top of the frame to start half-way down his hat and the bottom of the frame to end just under his breast pocket.” Jean-Luc would say, ‘I don’t want to see the top of his hat or anything below the pocket.” Instead of saying, “I want this in the frame,” he’d just explain what he didn’t want to appear. And he never looked through the viewfinder, although in the last films we made together, he did start doing that.

There are famous stories of you filming while sitting in a wheelchair, but how did you manage to shoot on the Champs Elysees without attracting a crowd of passers-by?
We’d walk along the street first, without the camera, while Jean-Luc explained to the actors what they had to do, At that time, postmen had little carts - they were covered to protect the mail from the rain. When we filmed, I was hidden inside one of those, where the packets would be, and Jean-Luc pushed the cart along. So, people couldn’t see me. Back then it was a bit easier because they weren’t used to seeing film crews in the streets, and he arranged things so as not to be too conspicuous, with the main crew out of sight down a side-street.

You’ve also made a number of films with Francois Truffaut. How do the two compare as directors?
They had nothing in common. I met Truffaut after his first film, The 400 Blows, had won a prize at Cannes. He came to watch Jean-Luc on the location of Breathless - the two men were still friends back then – and was astonished at the way we were working. Later he came to ask me if I would shoot his second film. He’d already written the screenplay, and we shot it out of chronological order, as you normally do on a film. We shot all the scenes in a certain location at the same time, and then moved on to the next location, whereas Breathless was shot in chronological order because of the way Jean-Luc wrote the script.
   The first two films I made with Francois were Shoot the Pianist and Jules et Jim. He worked in a rather conventional way, except that he shot on locations at a time when conventional directors were filming in the studio. He was a classical director with a personal sensibility and talent.

Do you have good memories of Breathless?
Yes, very good memories. We felt we were doing something revolutionary, even if we didn’t know where it was all leading to, and what the film would be like. And since I was personally totally unknown, I didn’t have the sense of risking anything. I know other cameramen were approached, but they thought it wasn’t the right way of doing things or that it would threaten their careers as cinematographers. Someone who had made twenty films would have a lot of contacts in the business and wouldn’t want to jeopardise them. But I had no career because it was only my fourth film. I’ve worked a lot since then because I had the reputation of being fast. Perhaps it’s thanks to Jean-Luc that I became so.

What are your impressions on watching Breathless fifty years later? What do you feel is its lasting influence?
It hasn’t dated. A lot of Jean-Luc’s films have that in common: often, when they first see them, people don’t like them at all, but then when they watch them a few years later they find them very good. They’re like fine wine: they get better with age.
   His influence has been both good and bad. He changed the face of cinema and got people using different tools, different methods, to make films. At the same time, it has been damaging because for a while everyone thought you make a film about anything, with anyone and in any old way, forgetting that Jean-Luc was not only talented but a genius. And I’ve made plenty of films with people who had neither talent nor genius.

Do you have any contact with Godard today?

We made about fifteen or sixteen films together, most of them before he discovered Marxist-Leninism - the last one was First Name: Carmen (1982). I saw him during the shoots, but otherwise we never met. But we got on well. I have a lot of admiration for Jean-Luc, a lot of affection, too: I was very fond of him.

He didn’t turn up in Cannes this year with his new film…

That’s just like him. He did something funny once: he was invited to the London Film Festival to talk about popular cinema. So he went to find a tramp at Hyde Park Corner and went on stage with him and said, “I’ve been asked to talk about the popular cinema but I don’t know what that is and I’m going to leave you with this gentleman.” Then he went off. OR


No comments:

Post a Comment