Written by: Letty Muse Tomlinson, Special to CC2K
Undaunted by the caprices of cellular phone technology, from her last interview, Letty dialed up the writer and director, as well as the leading lady of Paris 36 and peppered them with questions only an rough-hewn American would ask.
LMT: Hi, thanks for your time, this afternoon. So … how do you pronounce Faubourg?
CB: Faubourg is actually a Parisian name. It was the last area of Paris before entering into the suburb. What we call Faubourg were very popular and poor neighborhoods. So that’s why the action takes place in these poor neighborhoods and that’s why I call it Faubourg 36. But I think the American version, Paris 36 is also quite right.
I was inspired by some songs that I received from the composer and the lyricist who are very famous in France. They wrote some little songs about a popular neighborhood during the 30s. They were some kind of little sketches, little moments of daily life, and so they inspired me because I love history and am very fond of the 30s, which was a very rich period in France. In France, in 36, a Prime Minister was elected who was very popular, and promised a lot of new laws – very revolutionary for the workers. And so it was passion, but in France, we felt a very big wave of hope. Maybe it is parallel with what the United States knows in this moment, where the election of Barack Obama has been so wonderful, at least from outside. Americans are so full of hope. It’s actually the state of mind that French had in those times.
LMT: Okay. The music inspired you to write the movie. Since I’ve seen the film, I’ve had some of the songs stuck in my head. How did you come to know Reinhardt Wagner and Frank Thomas? What was your relationship with them? How did you work with them on this project?
CB: I knew them from years ago. They had written some songs, but didn’t know exactly what to do with them. They imagined first a musical on stage, but as I was much more a (movie) director than for stage, I said I thought there was the inspiration, the good material there to write a good script. And so we asked to use some of the songs, but also, while I was writing the script, I asked them to write other songs that could fit. When they sing, “we are off to the seaside,” that was written just for the movie and it was not in the first series of songs. At this time, singing was very big life in France. Everybody was singing in the street. Songs were very “middle-heart” in France, so of course, it was important to me to incorporate the songs and to give them the real importance.
LMT: The seaside song has been stuck in my head for the last five days.
CB: Yes! Da di da da da di da … yes! It’s a very nice song and I’m very happy, because they composed it very quickly; just maybe three months before shooting. I was inspired by the songs, but the script, when it was written, was an inspiration for them.
LMT: I really loved the initial continuous shot through the theater. You really captured the energy and excitement of walking through a theater right before the curtain goes up.
CB: For me, it had the importance of an opera overture. At the beginning of the opera, you have an overture. With that shot, I wanted to explain where we are: we are in Paris, on a little square, and the shot drives us from the first character who drives us to the second character and go with the second character through the lobby, through the audience into backstage and we end the shot with the close up of the third friend. So, for me, it was not only a technical challenge, but a sort of artistic challenge, to present, in the most efficient way, the style of the movie.
LMT: Speaking of the style of the movie, this movie really captures the American romantic ideal of what Paris is.
CB: Ah, really?
LMT: Yeah. From a very young age, we’re given this idea that Paris is a certain kind of beautiful and has a certain kind of image, and your movie definitely paid homage to the American romantic ideal of Paris.
CB: Yes, maybe, yes. It was written first, of course with my main motivation. But I wanted to give Paris not so much a realistic point of view, but more of a romantic and idealistic point of view. All the neighborhoods of the popular districts had been destroyed after the war, so it was impossible to find the right locations in Paris. That’s why I asked for this particular set designer, Jean Rabasse, who is very talented, to recreate a vision of the former scenes. I was sure that recreating the old Paris on set, and not on actual location, would be a good opportunity to give not a documentary vision of this period, but an idealistic vision of this period.
LMT: Was the theater a replica of a theater that you liked, or was it a composite of other theaters?
CB: We made huge documentation of the music halls of Paris. In those times, all those neighborhoods had their own music halls. We built the Chansonia based on models; we shot based on documentation. There is a very famous music hall by Josh Clouseau. I think we took inspiration from this music hall to build our own Chansonia.
LMT: In the musical number where the actors go by the sea, we start off watching the audience in the theater watching them. And then in the middle of the song, it’s clear that we are now the audience. Why that choice?
CB: It was a modest tribute, a humble tribute, to the Busby Berkley shows and the Warner musical movies of the 30s. For example, in a movie with James Cagney, we start the song on stage, and suddenly there is no more audience, and then in the last bars of the song, we come back with the audience. That’s what really inspired me. That was really inspired by Busby Berkley, you know, who was a genius, of course. This number is not as spectacular as Berkley was doing because he was really a huge choreographer. It was a tribute, a little reference to that kind of thing.
LMT: What would you like audiences to take away from this film? How would you like to affect people with this film?
CB: It’s not really a musical. It’s not really a comedy. It’s a lot of everything. You have drama, melodrama, musical, comedy and a bit of tragedy and also a little bit of background. My wish was to say this film could be like “once upon a time in Paris.” And with this “once upon a time in Paris,” I hope my guests will share love, that they will enjoy the musical part and then, maybe (get) out of their daily lives for two hours like a magical tour. My objective, as a director, is to share emotions so that they are happy when they go out of the theater.
At this point, relieved that I managed to get through one interview without falling to the temptation to use any of my exceedingly limited French, I am passed on to speak with Nora Arnezeder, the actress who plays the ingénue, Douce.
LMT: So, what attracted you to the script?
NA: First of all, I discovered the script and I fell in love with the songs. The characters had passions …
She struggles to find the words.
NA: Maahh. I’m not so good with English.
I cave to the temptation and like an 8th grader, decide to “impress” or make this easier for her, by using my one French phrase.
LMT: Listen je’n parl pas Francais, so you’re fine!
Awkward, but polite silence, followed by an even more polite chuckle on her end.
NA: Thank you. Well … the story. Everything, you know.
I scrape up the fragments of my self-injured dignity from the floor and move on.
LMT: Were you familiar with that period in French history, or did you have to do some research?
NA: I was familiar with what I had learned in school. My grandmother grew up in that period, but it’s not my history, so I asked my grandmother what she remembered. I read articles, books and watched movies from that period …
LMT: Your voice is absolutely beautiful.
NA: Thank you.
LMT: The ballad that you sing to Milou about “if I were to die before my lover” was probably one of my favorite parts of the movie. It was heartbreaking. Were there any songs that were your favorites?
NA: That one was one of my favorites, and also another one where all the men were dancing around me.
LMT: Douce was, for me, the most likeable character. Was it hard for you to part with her?
NA: Yeah. She starts as a shy character, with not a lot of confidence in herself, but by the end, she’s more of a woman who is very sure of herself. It was fun to have an upward evolution.
LMT: What would you like audiences to take away from the film?
NA: Good question! I just want people to see the movie and just enjoy it. Feel emotions and be happy.
LMT: Excellent. Well, it is a good escape. Thank you so much for your time!
We hang up, and I wonder if she could tell I have a talent crush on her. Crap.