An eye for the story

Screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere talks about his long association with great surrealist director Luis Bunuel.

Jean-Claude Carriere 311 (photo credit: Courtesy of PR)
Jean-Claude Carriere 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of PR)
It’s rare, but sometimes the most talented and distinguished people are also the most modest. That’s certainly the case with Jean-Claude Carriere, the French screenwriter who is in Israel this week to teach at the Sam Spiegel Film School in Jerusalem as part of their Great Masters series.
Carriere, who has more than 130 films to his credit, is an Oscar-winning writer best known for several legendary films directed by Luis Bunuel, among them Belle de Jour (1967), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) and Diary of a Chambermaid (1964). But he has dozens of other acclaimed films to his credit as well, including The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), regarded by many as one of the best literary adaptations of all time; The Return of Martin Guerre (1982) and Cyrano De Bergerac (1990), both enormously popular films starring Gerard Depardieu; and, recently, Volker Schlondorff’s romantic drama, Ulzhan (2007).
But in spite of his many achievements, he deflects the question when asked if he teaches around the world regularly.
“I don’t call it teaching,” he says, in a phone interview from his Paris office. “That could create disappointment. I like the word workshop. I am coming to meet with young students and I speak about my own experiences. The idea of teaching how to write to a script, that doesn’t make sense. I don’t like theory, I like practice. I will speak, and then I will try to answer their questions.”
Later, the Master Class students will break up into smaller groups and he will sit down and discuss specific writing issues with them, “To show them how I work, without pretending it’s the right way to work.”
Nearly as unusual as his self-effacing stance is the fact that, at 80, he is just as eager to discuss what he is working on now as he is to talk about his past successes.
“I am writing a historical drama concerned with the relationship between Spain and Turkey at the end of the 15th century. People know that the Jews were expelled from Spain if they refused to convert, but people don’t know that 150,000 Jews were saved by the Turks and taken by boat to Turkey. The story focuses on a Jewish family from Granada. The Turks realized that Jews could be useful to them. It’s a story where Muslims have saved Jews and it’s based on new Turkish documents.”
Once he has described his new screenplay, he is happy to speak about his work with the famed Spanish director Luis Bunuel, considered to be one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.
“For 20 years we worked together [on and off]. It was 20 years of very exciting and very difficult work.”
ON ALL their projects, “It was just the two of us in a hotel in the mountains in Spain or Mexico. We were like monks, just the two of us, no women or anyone else with us. We would concentrate entirely on the script.”
As he reminisces about their work, he is asked whether their partnership would make for a good movie. He laughs, saying, “It would not be a good Bunuel movie. There were a lot of long silences. There were some very funny and good moments, of course.”
“The first time we wrote together I was just a beginner. He was looking for a young screenwriter to adapt Diary of a Chambermaid with him. He didn’t know me.
I had only written one film and one documentary.”
They worked together in a very simple way.
“We would sit together face to face and talk. I would take down notes. Then in the late afternoon I would take two hours to write what we had thought about during the day.”
At the beginning, it was “intimidating” for the novice screenwriter to collaborate with the master.
“I was trying to do my best, of course. At 63, he was already a monument. He had won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for Viridiana. To say no to him was very difficult, but he did encourage me to do it.”
Asked whether he realized these films would become classics, he says, “The idea of writing classics never came to our mind. When you work with somebody like Bunuel, you try to make an interesting film, and you try to make Bunuel’s film.”
About half his collaborations with Bunuel, and many of Carriere’s other films, are adaptations.
“The problem is to make a film. Forget the form of a novel and make a good film. Sometimes when you have an original idea it’s easier, because you don’t have to free yourself from the book. There’s always a temptation to stick to the book. Sometimes I feel I have failed. But other times... like with The Unbearable Lightness of Being [based upon a novel by Milan Kundera], everybody told me it was impossible to adapt, but I saw it again recently and it’s not so bad.... When you miss with an adaptation, it doesn’t harm the book. And if the adaptation is a success, it helps the sales of the book.”
Carriere, who started writing at 10 (“Cartoons and cowboy stories, I think I was born a writer”) comes from a very unusual background for a screenwriter.
“I come from a very poor family of farmers. There was not one book or image in my house when I was growing up. I grew up in a small village in the south of France. My father had a small piece of land, but in the Fifties, it was impossible to make a living, so they moved to Paris to work as waiters.”
His father died too young to see the success his son became, but “my mother was very happy. She thought I would be a professor, but when I was 25, she saw I could actually make a living at this.”