Writer-director Laurent Tirard's second feature (after 2004's Mensonges et trahisons et plus si affinités...) takes on an icon of French literature: Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, a.k.a. Molière. We spoke at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
Groucho: What is your own experience of Molière's plays? How did they strike you, and can you describe your journey from there to the film?
Laurent Tirard: My first exposure to Molière was, like everyone in France, in school. I was probably 12, 13, something like that. Didn't care much for it. But it's always a problem—I think we were too young really to be exposed to that, and to really appreciate it.
G: Why do you think they start with Molière so young in the schools?
LT: It's a good question, I think they think it's accessible. Because part of it is farce. And they think anyone can appreciate farce, but really that's not what's very interesting in Molière. But it's true for a lot of things that we read and we're just too young to really appreciate. You know, we have philosophy classes when we're seventeen and (exhales) nobody cares for philosophy at 17. Nobody cares for philosophy before they're 30 really. So I don't remember which was the play that I read then. I read another one when I was 17; I read Le Misanthrope. Which I kind of liked. There were things in it that I liked. I couldn't really figure out why. But it's only three years ago that I decided to read it again. Kind of accidentally. And also because I've always had this desire to reread all the classics. Or, when I say reread, I'm being very pretentious because a lot of them I haven't read. But all the books that you're supposed to have read, that I hadn't. So I decided to start with Molière, and I read Le Misanthrope again. And when I read it three years ago, I was really amazed. I was amazed by how brilliant it was in terms of subject matter, in terms of writing, in terms of construction, in terms of theme. You know, and I realized why I hadn't appreciated it at the time, because it really was a play about—I think The Misanthrope is about depression, really. I think he's a deeply depressed character who is struggling between his own moral ethics and the moral ethics of the world that he lives in, which basically doesn't have any moral ethics. And he's trying to find a way to live with the others, but he has these moral ethics, and it doesn't work. He can't apply that to the world that he is living in. And that's making him very depressed. Of course if you're reading that at 17, it doesn't mean anything to you. You don't know what depression is; depression is for crazy people, you know. Arrahrr! They have to go to mental institute, and moral ethics: no clue. Life is just about having a good time when you're 17. So I loved The Misanthrope when I read it again. And it made me want to read the rest, so I read all the Molière plays. And what struck me really, when I read them, was that—because in the meantime I had become a writer myself, and I had become a writer of comedy—and what struck me was that the kind of comedy that I felt that I wanted to write today had been written already, 300 years ago, by Molière. And I actually asked myself if maybe—because I'd seen plays by Molière when I was younger; I read a couple of them. At the time I hadn't thought much of it. But when I read it again and it all appeared so clearly, I did wonder if maybe I hadn't been unconsciously influenced by those plays that I'd seen when I was younger. Even though I'd dismissed them at the time, maybe in my unconscious it had made its way. Because when I read the plays of Molière today, three years ago, it was so obvious that this was exactly the kind of comedy that I wanted to write today. You know, people wouldn't talk the same way. (Laughs.) But apart from that: same kind of themes, same vision of mankind, a little desperate, a little dark. Not too much hope really. Flawed characters. And very, very self-obsessed individuals. I don't know the English title, so I will just say: L'Avare [The Miser] is obsessed with his money. Le Malade Imaginaire [The Imaginary Invalid] is obsessed with his health. Monsieur Jourdan is obsessed with culture. That spoke to me very much. I don't know if it's—I think there's something very French about it. I don't know why. I wouldn't be able to really analyze that that much. But anyway, I discovered all this material, which was really like discovering a gold mine. It's like, "Aah! That's what I was looking for. That's what I wanted to talk about." And so I couldn't adapt all the plays. And besides—that was my first idea: I thought maybe I should adapt one play or another. But in each play there were things that I loved and problems, also, in terms of adaptation. I thought at the time that maybe I could do what Kenneth Branagh had done with Shakespeare, really. Which I thought was brilliant in the way of adapting it for the modern audience. But there were problems in each of the plays that I couldn't solve. So I figured, "Okay. I'll just take everything I like from each play, all the characters that I love, and then I'll build my own Molière play, in which I'll put these characters and these situations, and on top of that I'll use Molière himself as a central character. And it will be—
G: Now, were those two separate thoughts? Did you try at first doing a sort of Molière pastiche, and then consider, well, what if I put him in it?
LT: Yeah. At first I wanted to do something about the work of Molière. But I needed a link. Otherwise it was going to be a little arbitrary, you know? What was the engine that was going to drive all that? And then I thought, of course, the obvious link is Molière himself. I'm going to throw Molière inside this play, this Molière play, and from that it became a story about creation really. An imaginary encounter between the writer and his future fictional characters. I thought of, immediately of the Luigi Pirandello play Six Characters In Search Of An Author, which to me was a perfect metaphor on creation, you know? Characters coming into the real world asking the author to talk about them. So I said, okay, we're going to start in the real world, real Molière, and then one of his characters in going to come hire him under a pretext and bring him into the imaginary world and introduce him to all these fictional characters. So that gave me the structure of the story and then Molière will go back to real life after that. And then after only did I read the bios of Molière. And I read the bios because I didn't know which part of his life to set the film and when I discovered he had disappeared for six months when he was in his twenties I thought, that's perfect.
LT: How convenient. If no one knows what happened I can definitely imagine whatever I want. So that's how it all came about.
G: And how did the collaboration between yourself and Gregoire Vigneron develop?
LT: Gregoire and I have been working together for five years now. When I was writing my first film—I had written a lot of screenplays before, a lot for television, a few for cinema, and when it came time to do my first film I wanted to write it with someone. Writing is a very, very solitary experience, you know, it's like trying to cross the ocean. You can do it alone, but it's gonna be painful. It's better if there's two of you on the boat. At least you have someone to talk to, you know, in moments of despair. And so I wanted someone to write with. I think mostly because it was a very personal film, and when you're writing something that's very personal, you're confronted to things that you're uncomfortable with it's better to have someone there because you can easily dismiss them because they make you uncomfortable.
LT: When really you should put them in the film, you know? So I want to have someone to work with. And I happened by accident to see a short film that Gregoire had directed, he had written and directed. And I said, okay, that's the person. That's him, I have to work with him. I could sense. . .
G: Common sensibility.
LT: He had the same sense of humor. Yeah, common sensibility. And I called him up and said, I'm looking for a co-writer. And he said, "But I've never written a script." I said, that's okay, don't worry I'll handle all the technical aspects because I've written many scripts, but I need someone to talk to really. And so we wrote my first film together, we wrote three other films since, and we wrote Molière together. And we—
G: Do you write back and forth or together?
LT: We have an office that we go to everyday. We sit across from each other and the way we work on a script is first we talk about the film for two or three months. We talk. What is the film that we want? What is it about? Why do we want to write this film? Who are the characters? What are the themes? We take notes. We have these big conversations, theoretical conversations about, you know, the story and the kind of story. Blah blah blah. And then for another two or three months. . .you know for instance we'll say, what kind of scenes do we want to have in the film? What scenes come to mind? So we'll come up with scenes and then summarize them in one line. Then for two or three months we construct the film which means that—I'm still very much oral in terms of—we will write on index cards the idea of a scene, put it on the wall, and so we have a very visual notion of the film, you know? And we move scenes back and forth and we say, oh we're missing something here, so we'll put something. Or this is really not necessary cause that's the same as this. Two or three months, then we have a—once the film is there on the wall, all the ideas are there and you know sometimes, I mean this one line on the card. We talk about it and we talk about it and we sometimes even will act out the scene in the office, you know, really. I think we're both frustrated actors really. And that's when we start writing. After at least six months. So then we start writing and we start writing the dialogue, and the scenes and the dialogue. And it really does not make any difference whether he does the first draft or I do because we go so much back and forth. Like he writes scenes, sends them to me, I rewrite them, I send them back to him, he rewrites them. And it comes to that point sometimes where, you know, we're on the third draft of the film—script, or whatever, and I read something and I say, "Ah Gregoire, that's really a great line." And he said, "That's from you."
G: Right. (Chuckles.)
LT: We don't—we can't tell the difference after a while.
G: It's interesting you said that you're both frustrated actors. When you were talking of Molière's plays—in my experience of reading them, I think I've always thought of them as—partly because of the form, the sophisticated form and the sophisticated wit—as very intellectual experiences. The satire is what I really feel so strongly when I read his plays. And yet you talk of them in very much of an actor's perspective, I think, of the emotional value of the characters and where they're coming from on a deeper, personal level, which I think is interesting. I guess what I want to ask is in adapting the comic types for your film, that partly come from commedia and from his own development, was it—did you ever find it challenging to fill them out as believable, rounded characters or is that what you always saw?
LT: You mean the characters in the film?
LT: No I didn't find it difficult because really—first of all that's what was wonderful about the film. The characters were there already and they were really rich plus, really, when we looked at all the things that we wanted to put into the film, we had too much. We had enough, you know, to make a six-hour film. So even in terms of characters, there were characters that I wanted to put in the film—like there's a play, not very well known called George Dandin, which is—it's a comedy but it's a very, very dark comedy about a man who is being cheated on by his wife, and he absolutely wants to catch her in the act and he's going to be humiliated. Great character. I wanted him in the film. There was no room for him. So what happened was that the character that you see as Mr. Jourdain in the film is really in fact a mix between Mr. Jourdain and Georges Dandin and there's a little bit of Orgon and there's a little bit of Chrysale and there's a little bit of, you know? So that makes him even more complex and more—and richer, you know? Célimène is Célimène from Le Misanthrope, but really she's also Philaminte from Les Femmes Savantes, and she's also, what's her name, Madelon from Les Précieuses ridicules, you know? So that gives the characters even more depth. But the characters, I mean the characters from Molière's plays are already rich enough, I find, in themselves.
G: Speaking of Célimène, Molière was well known for his relationship with a much younger woman and here he's paired with an older woman. Was that a convenience of plot or of some special design?
LT: No. Well. Molière was known for his relationship to a younger woman in the second part of his life. The truth however was that the first woman he really fell in love with was Madeleine. She was older than him. She's the one who—you know everything started for Molière one day he was at the carnival, in France, and he entered the barn and they were playing—they were doing a play on stage and he just fell in love with this actress, Madeleine, who was older than him and she initiated him to the theatre, and for many years she was really his mentor, until he left her for a younger woman. But even then—and suffered from it tremendously. But so that's the reality that the first love of his life really was an older woman, but besides that, when we—I mean we wanted it—we wanted that this should be a love story in the film. It was important because love is an important part of the creative process, you know? And I would even say that, you know, if you're talking about creation there has to be a woman.
LT: And when we—so we knew there had to be a woman, a fictional woman, that would be the key to, you know, his creation. And when we looked at the characters in the plays, our favorite female character was Elmire from the Tartuffe. She was in the positive characters because in the negative characters Célimène is the absolute best, really, she's brilliant and smart and really dangerous. But in the positive characters, Elmire is the strongest, the—and the most classy, I would say. I don't know. She's really womanhood at her best. And she's a mature woman, but she's really feminine and she's really strong. And even though Tartuffe is in love with her and courts her and she could act really, like revolted, she's very wise about everything that goes on. So we wanted that character to be the central female character in the film. And she had to be older and she had to be wiser because, you know he suffers from—he's young and he's impetuous and he doesn't know what he wants. There had to be, I think, an older character, a wiser character to showing him the right direction. That's how we came to choose her and we liked the idea for her, that she would be a mature woman, married with children, grown up children, at that age where she could almost give up on the idea of love, really. And then comes this man and she falls in love and she becomes a little girl again. We like that. It's great for the character. Which, with a younger woman it would have been all too easy and not as rich and not as emotional, really—
G: What led you to the choice for the title sequence?
G: The billowing fabric—
LT: Umm. Chance. I asked someone to come up with suggestions for the title sequence, and we didn't like anything. Nothing worked, I don't know. And then eventually we said, "Okay, we'll just do, y'know, titles." And I said, "But not on a black backdrop. Let's find another backdrop, because—" And I don't know how it came about but I came about the idea of using the clothes from the film because I was a little frustrated that maybe we hadn't seen them well enough in the film. And they were really magnificent. And then the guy doing it said, "Well, maybe we could—let's not use them flat. We could blow some wind into them and see what happens." And we experimented with that, and then suddenly something made sense, when we saw that, the dailies from that—suddenly we're blowing life into these costumes, which is really what you're trying to accomplish in the film. But it all came by accident, just by a process of experimenting things, because we didn't know what to do.
G: When I saw the film, I thought, this draws you to the period and suggests the opulent costumes and whatnot, but I also thought, this morning, I wonder if it evokes upholstery, too! Since his father was an upholsterer.
LT: Right, right, right! People have told me that! "Oh, yes, because his father—" I said, "Um. Maybe—"
G: (Laughs.) Sounds good, right?
LT: It's amazing how many times you do things unconsciously, and then people point to them, and you say, "Of course." So I don't know how much, you know—maybe that's exactly what we were doing without knowing it.
G: I want to talk a little bit about Molière's character in the film. An aspect that I read you and Gregoire talking about is that Molière had an aspect of cowardice to him. He's become this icon, put on a pedestal, but he also had kind of a megalomania and various very human qualities to him. How did you see his cowardice in his career, and how did you incorporate those qualities into the script?
LT: (inhales) It was a very pragmatic cowardice. Because it's easy to, you know, today to—at the time when Molière lived, basically if you were an artist either you had protection, from the king, or you starved to death, really. Simple as that. He had a company, he had to feed them, he had been very close to bankrupt already—he had actually gone bankrupt, and rebounded—so, you know, if it meant crawling before the king, and licking the king's boots to have money to feed his company, he'd do it, no problem. One day one of the noblemen from the court saw a play, recognized himself from the play, was very insulted, and provoked Molière to a duel, and Molière ran away. I mean, at that time, nobody ran away from a duel. It was like "Shame on you." But he did and, if he hadn't, he would've gone to the duel, gotten killed, and not written his plays. So it's—of course we like to laugh at it, because he's such an icon in France that we can't imagine he would be such a coward, but he just knew what was best for him and for his—there was no value in saving his honor; there was value in staying alive. And then, even though he might appear cowardly, at times, which we like—Gregoire and I—you can't like a character that only has qualities. Because I don't have only qualities, and someone who does, it creates a distance between him and me. And if he has flaws, then it creates empathy: "Ahh, he has flaws like me! Oh, he's a coward!" Well, then it's okay for me to say that sometimes I am a coward too. But at the same time, sometimes it's courageous to the point of, you know—the king says, "This is the Queen Mother's birthday. Please write her a play." The Queen Mother is a very religious woman. And he performs Tartuffe. And she feels insulted and leaves. And he said, (mock surprise) "Oh, oh, I don't understand! Why would she feel insulted?" And he knew exactly what he was doing. He could have gone to jail for that and died.
G: There's obviously a tension there. He was walking a line: Shakespeare the same thing. And I guess in France as well as in England there was this ambivalence about actors and about theatre. People loved it, they loved being entertained, but at the same time they considered actors bums.
G: Or perhaps morally suspect as characters, right?
LT: Yes, yes, yes.
G: The same in France, yes?
LT: Yes, yes, yes. If you were an actor, you weren't allowed to be buried in a cemetery. You had to die in a ditch. Unless before you died you confessed all your sins and renounced to everything. And in fact, what happened when Molière died was that the church refused to bury him. But because the king liked him very much, he found a way. Because basically people had to be buried six feet under. You know? That was the religious, the holy part of the ground. And the king said, "Okay, well, bury him seven feet under." And they said, "Okay." (Laughs.) They found a way.
G: The marketing of the film, understandably, sometimes mentions Shakespeare in Love. And I wonder if you and Gregoire had seen that film and if it had been an inspiration at all.
LT: Sure, absolutely. I saw Shakespeare in Love when it came out. I loved it, personally. What I loved about it was that in that was really something I wanted to accomplish with this film, so it was immediately an example for us. I didn't know much about Shakespeare before I saw Shakespeare in Love. I'd seen a couple of plays, and yeah, I kind of enjoyed them, but then suddenly, because it was done in a playful manner, as a comedy, I understood what the essence of Shakespeare was. I mean, I knew this wasn't Shakespeare; I knew Shakespeare was something more than that. But the music of those rhymes became familiar, and I came out of the theatre wanting to talk like Shakespeare, and wanting to read Shakespeare all over again. And I remember I bought Romeo and Juliet and read it. And I think it's fantastic if you can achieve that in a playful and funny manner: make something serious accessible to people. You know, make them want to rediscover Shakespeare. I wanted people to rediscover Molière, through that film. And of course Shakespeare in Love was something that we immediately talked about. And the concept was very similar.
G: Thank you very much!
LT: You're welcome.