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NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH
Jason Guerrasio talks to four of the directors behind the Parisian omnibus opus, Paris, je t’aime.

SEYDOU BORO IN OLIVER SCHMITZ'S PLACE DES FÊTES. PHOTO BY FRÉDÉRIQUE BARRAJA

Seven years ago Tristan Carné, a young French TV director, came up with an ambitious idea: a feature film celebrating Paris’ 20 diverse arrondissements made by the most recognized directors from around the world. After enlisting the talents of producers Emmanuel Benbihy and Claudie Ossard (Amélie), Carné saw his idea become a reality in 2005 as directors such as Alexander Payne, Gus Van Sant, Walter Salles, Alfonso Cuarón, Tom Tykwer and the Coen brothers converged on the City of Lights to make Paris, je t’aime (Paris, I Love You).

All the directors were given up to three days to shoot a five-minute short in one particular arrondissement. Most directors used a Parisian crew and did their prep via e-mail, arriving in Paris only a few days before shooting began. The end result is a skillfully crafted suite of interlocking vignettes that highlights the beauty of Paris through the differing styles of the directors.

Tom Tykwer uses his non-linear approach and the street of Faubourg Saint-Denis to tell the story of an aspiring actress (Natalie Portman) and a blind man (Melchior Beslon) who grow apart once she makes it big. The Coen brothers’ off-kilter humor runs through their short about the encounter of an American tourist (Steve Buscemi) with two hot-tempered Parisian lovers in Tuileries’ Métro station. Alfonso Cuarón uses few edits and a single long tracking shot to tell the cleverly developed story of a father (Nick Nolte) and daughter (Ludivine Sagnier) relationship as they take a stroll in Parc Monceau. And Alexander Payne’s short is the perfect finale as an American woman (Margo Martindale) narrates her liberating vacation to Paris (specifically, the 14ème arrondissement) in French.

After the producers spent close to a year sequencing the shorts together, the film premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and is being released by First Look in the U.S. today.

Directors Frédéric Auburtin, Richard LaGravenese, Gus Van Sant and Oliver Schmitz discussed making their shorts (via e-mail and phone) to Filmmaker.

Frédéric Auburtin

GAZZARA AND ROWLANDS IN FRÉDÉRIC AUBURTIN AND GÉRARD DEPARDIEU̱S QUARTIER LATIN. PHOTO BY FRÉDÉRIQUE BARRAJA

Auburtin and Gérard Depardieu co-direct this short written by Gena Rowlands about a married American couple (Ben Gazzara and Rowlands) meeting in a café in the Quartier Latin on the eve of finalizing their divorce.

Why did you choose the Quartier Latin for your story? The Quartier Latin was perfect for the background of the story — a lot of American people stay there. But we had to find the right café. I wanted to feel the living night city behind Gena and Ben during their conversation. [The café] Le Rostand in front of the gardens of Luxembourg was ideal. It’s never easy to shoot in a busy café or a restaurant in Paris. The best and cheapest way to do it is to work on a closing day, but Le Rostand is open seven days a week. The fact that the story took place at night saved us. And having Rowlands, Gazzara and Depardieu definitely helped a great deal. We could start the preparation at 6pm and shoot until 4am without disturbing too much of the service.

How were you able to get two legends like Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands to act in your short? I was already working on the transitions between all the shorts [Auburtin was the editing supervisor and transition sequences co-director], but the producers were looking for somebody to do the short Gena wrote. Gena is very close to Gérard and I am close to Gérard as we co-directed The Bridge, so they thought it could be a good idea if we did it. I gave a call to Gérard, the producers called Gena, and that was it.

What would you say was the most difficult aspect of the shoot? I wanted to keep the energy and the charm of a six-minute meeting in a two-day shoot. The whole life of the two characters had to be felt in this face-to-face. During the preparation I felt the beats of Gena’s story. Maybe because I am a musician, I decided to build the film in three opuses like in a concerto or a sonata. And the jokes between them were similar to a tennis match, with three sets full of serves, volleys, heavy lifts and match point. So I shot one movement after the [previous] one instead of filming all the angles on Gena first and all the reverses on Ben after. I was a little bit afraid that the technical obligations and the late-night shoot would affect the spontaneity of the actors, but they were totally comfortable and happy.

What was the most important thing you wanted audiences to take from this bittersweet story? We definitely wanted the audience to have fun with this surprising divorce meeting. Gena’s first title was “Love’s a Bitch.” But the subtext is so clever that all these jokes and ribbing are hiding an overwhelming feeling of love. In the two close-ups of Gena and Ben before she leaves, the words say, “This is over now,” and the eyes tell, “I will love you forever.”

Did you and Depardieu have a sense of pride being involved in a film like this, which shows off your homeland through directors of different nationalities? It is better than pride; it is happiness. In such a collective experience as Paris, je t’aime, all the talented filmmakers brought their generous and sharp perception of what love, Paris and France are. Another aspect that was unique: the production schedule afforded us the possibility to share and meet most of the other directors of the film. What an honor to show my work to my admired colleagues in the editing room. And because of my editing supervision, I was a little bit anxious of their reaction, but at the end of the screening [in Cannes] I knew that they were happy and proud. Some compliments will remain in my mind forever.

Richard LaGravenese

FANNY ARDANT AND BOB HOSKINS IN RICHARD LAGRAVENESE’S PIGALLE. PHOTO BY FRÉDÉRIQUE BARRAJA

Famed screenwriter-turned-director Richard LaGravenese (A Decade Under the Influence) uses the red-light district of Pigalle to tell the story of a couple (Bob Hoskins and Fanny Ardant) attempting to rekindle their relationship.

How did you get involved in the project? My agent received a letter from Emmanuel Benbihy. I jumped at the opportunity to work in Paris with a Parisian crew, to write something fast and to get it done even faster — for me it sounded great. And I thought, What do I have to lose? It’s a five-minute movie, and I get to be in Paris.

How did you come up with the story? I walked around Pigalle and I saw this wonderful dichotomy — one side of the street was all these bars and prostitutes, and on the other side it was this gorgeous gated area with these beautiful townhouses and apartments. So it was beauty and decadence in line with each other. I went into one of the porno places and the guy said, “Soft or hard?” And I didn’t know what he meant, but I figured you can’t go wrong if you say “Hard,” so I said, “Hard,” and he brings me into this booth, this chintzy velvet area. This woman came in who had a tooth missing and was a little worse for the wear. I asked, “Would you mind if I talked to you? I’ll pay you for your time.” She said, “Okay,” and I asked, “What kind of things do you do, what kind of people come in here?” She mentioned to me that sometimes a couple comes in and asks her to watch. I said, “Oh, that’s kind of interesting.” So I thought of a couple which, at a certain stage in life, start to look at love and sex in completely different ways. What is romantic for a woman and sexually exciting for a man can start to divide itself a little bit. I wanted to show a couple at a crossroads — the man is starting to not feel like a man and doesn’t understand that there is no going back, while the woman is more embracing and courageous about that.

You’ve been involved, as a writer and as a director, with some big studio films that must have taken years of development. What was it like to shift gears like this? I’m a screenwriter by trade, and I’m also at the beginning of what I feel is my directing work. One of the things about directing is that there are often long periods between films, and the lessons you learned from one film you can’t apply directly to the next. So this to me was a great warm-up [to directing Freedom Writers]. The other thing was just throwing myself into it and seeing what happened. I chose an all-French crew, I did set design and location scouting through the e-mail, I did casting for one of the parts through e-mail, I got there only five days before we started shooting to look over things, and the crew could not have been greater. Then Monday we shot from sunset to sunup, same for Tuesday; then we edited for three weeks and then we were done. The last night I was there Alfonso Cuarón was coming in [to direct his short].

What happened after you handed it in? No one heard anything or saw anything until the finished film opened in Un Certain Regard at Cannes. Apparently they had reedited the film over 80 times in different orders. The person who did the [final] order did a wonderful job, because there’s something about Alexander Payne’s at the end that is so moving it just pulls the whole thing together.

Gus Van Sant

GASPARD ULLIEL (LEFT) AND ELIAS MCCONNELL IN GUS VAN SANT’S LE MARAIAS. PHOTO BY FRÉDÉRIQUE BARRAJA

In Gus Van Sant’s contribution, a young French man (Gaspard Ulliel) walks into a printer shop in Le Marais, meets a young American (Elias McConnell) and believes they were destined to meet. Unfortunately, the American doesn’t understand what he’s saying.

How did you get involved? I got an e-mail one day and I said, “Yeah, that would be interesting.” I wrote something up, and the preparation all sort of happened over the Internet and then we flew to Paris. I remember when I was there shooting mine Alexander Payne was writing his. I didn’t see him, but he was upstairs when I went in the office.

Was it all these different talents coming together that intrigued you, or was it the free trip to Paris? [laughs] Yeah, I think it was the free trip to Paris. I mean it’s always fun to have something to do when you go. I mean, as a tourist [Paris] is one thing, but it’s not usual that you have a job [there]. I learned how a French crew operated, which was a lot different from a U.S. crew — a lot more civilized. Also, I’m a fan of Gaspard Ulliel and I wanted to work with him.

Did you have to look at the location first before coming up with the story? I knew what I wanted to do, but it changed a little bit as we found the location because what I had originally written was about a furniture shop. It changed into a printmaking shop, which kind of changed the idea of the story a little bit.

What was behind choosing the song that’s played at the end of your short when Eli runs after Gaspard? Oh, you know that’s something that the producers put in. Even Eli running through the streets has nothing to do with my film. One of the producers had constructed a kind of connecting tissue through each of the vignettes and it was quite elaborate — each of the connecting-tissue films were actually whole films in themselves, and towards the end the producers had a big war and they ended up cutting all that stuff out. One of the only remaining connecting moments is Eli running through the street. My short really ends with Eli with this confused look like, “What was that guy even talking about?” I didn’t intend for him to burst out of the door and run down the street. Which I guess I don’t really mind, but it has nothing to do with my story idea.

So you were at the mercy of the producers who wanted to weave another story within all of your shorts? Yeah. But I think they made the right decision to cut out that connecting tissue. If you have different storytelling in between each story, I don’t think it would have made sense.

Oliver Schmitz

Set within the racially mixed 19th arrondissement, Schmitz (Hijack Stories) shows the chance encounter of two Africans (Aïssa Maïga, Seydou Boro) at the Place des Fêtes.

What interested you to make a short for Paris, je t’aime? I have a fascination with the great industrial-revolution cities of the world — Paris, New York, London, Berlin. They are constantly being reshaped by the immigrants who come with nothing and make a new life for themselves. Because, as a South African, I come from a country that is very layered in issues of identity and cultures clashing, this is the terrain I am interested in. I was also interested in how to tell a love story that was so specific that it could not happen in any other part of Paris.

What struck you about the arrondissement you were given? It is not the beautiful part of Paris, it is not the Paris where tourists go, but it is exactly the kind of place that you first arrive in as an immigrant. The 19th [arrondissement] has a rich history in Paris: Edith Piaf, the first cinemas in Paris, and it is where the grand architectural visions of the ’70s also happened. This all influenced me in the kind of story that I came up with. Visually it is bleak — I probably chose one of the bleaker locations in the area. The high-rises could just as easily be Berlin or Moscow. I walked all around the 19th for three days, then chose Place des Fêtes as a backdrop for my story. On the concrete square is a pyramid with exotic African landscapes and mythic animals etched on its sides. I found it fascinating, right in the middle of Paris. No one could ever give me an explanation as to the meaning of this pyramid or its drawings.

How did you come up with the story? I knew that I wanted it to be about an African immigrant and his encounter with a French-African woman. I also wanted the location to be important, in the sense that the first meeting was chance, and the second meeting was fate. I toyed with various scenarios. I looked at the immigrants on the streets, spoke to some street musicians, watched them on the trains, and so the story started to form. I also wanted to make a story in French even though I do not have a firm grasp of the language.

Your short is one of the few in the vignette that doesn’t have a happy ending. Were you given any flack from the producers? I did not set out to make a sad story. Quite honestly, the characters led me in that direction. I did not get flack. On the contrary, at the screening in Cannes many people came out saying that they had cried after my segment and many liked it, which was high praise considering some of the great directors involved in the project. Claudie Ossard also loved it and wants to do a movie with me. We are looking at material right now. One thing I know for sure: I want to shoot in Paris again.



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