The Rumpus Interview with Bertrand Tavernier

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tavernier-safariBertrand Tavernier is one of the great auteur directors of the French cinema, and certainly among its most prolific and eclectic. Writer and director of numerous award-winning films like Death Watch (1980), Coup de Torchon (1981), ‘Round Midnight (1985), and Safe Conduct (2002), Tavernier’s current film is In the Electric Mist. This adaptation of James Lee Burke‘s In the Electric Mist with the Confederate Dead (Orion), stars Tommy Lee Jones, John Goodman, Mary Steenburgen, Peter Saarsgard and Kelly Macdonald.

In the Electric Mist ran into post-production difficulties, which delayed its release. The producer’s cut of the film was released straight to DVD, and has received mixed reviews. Tavernier’s version, soon to be released internationally, is fifteen minutes longer, and was nominated for a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film festival. It’s an absorbing, if somewhat irresolute film, far from your average police procedural. Brooding, atmospheric — the picture summons the murky landscape of the Bayou, and then gets lost there. Along the way, it lavishes attention on the fine performances of its actors.

Mr. Tavernier is sitting in the bar at the Hotel Normandy near the Grand Palais in Paris, sharing a tea.   

The Rumpus: You’ve made a tremendous variety of films. You’ve done Simenon, you’ve done medieval drama, you’ve done science fiction, lots of noir. What do you think links all of these films together?

Bertrand Tavernier: One of my mentors, the great British director Michael Powell, said he made all his films because he wanted to learn. I think the link between all of my films is the desire to explore and understand a lot of different periods, places and milieus. I knew very little about the subjects of my films before I started. I think also, in many of my films, the main character is trying to do his best, to do his work in the best possible way. And just by doing this, he becomes a pain in the ass for the institution. Just by trying to do his work well, he reveals all the problems inside the institution. These are heroes fighting for what George Orwell called the common decency.

Rumpus: It’s interesting to look back on some your films in light of all that’s changed since they were made. I’m thinking of Death Watch, how many of the technologies and obsessions that are central to that film have become a real feature of popular culture today…

Tavernier: I think that Death Watch was, alas, ahead of its time. A strange thing happened: when I made the film it was a science fiction film; 10, 12 years after it’s become a realist film. And I found that very, very sad.

Rumpus: You believed it was more of a dystopic film than it turned out to be…

Tavernier: Yes. I thought it was going to happen in 30, 40 years, and it happened very, very quickly. But, I do not think a lot of my films are dated. All the things that I showed about the French police in L.627 — it would be possible to make exactly the same film today. There have been very, very few changes, especially under Sarkozy.

iem-posterRumpus: Maybe Death Watch seems more realistic today because it’s a science fiction film with very few of the props of science fiction. That sort of genre-bending approach, I think, characterizes a lot of your films. Even In the Electric Mist is like that, in the sense that it’s Southern Gothic meets noir. But, it’s also Gothic meets noir: it’s a ghost story buried in the midst of a detective film.

Tavernier: Yeah, absolutely.

Rumpus: What excites you the most about genre, and the possibilities of genre?

Tavernier: To find a way… [laughs] to get away from it. I think films should be like an exploration. So I have made very few genre films that feel like genre films. At the same time, in films like L.627 and Captain Conan, I have always stuck to the same principle, which is, never cross the line, never show the point of view of the people you are fighting. L.627 is told almost entirely from the POV of the cops, never the dealers. And in Conan, you’re always in the point of view of the French soldiers, never the Bulgarians or the Germans. I think if you cross this line you must have a really good reason. When Terrence Mallick did it in The Thin Red Line, it was to show that the Japanese were suffering in the same way as the Americans. However, if you cross the line just to add a different shot of machine guns shooting at the American soldiers landing on the beach, like in Saving Private Ryan — I find that very debatable. It’s a shot that reduces the Germans to killing instruments, as if they are not entitled to be treated like human beings. The Americans are treated like human beings, but the Germans are just machine guns. I prefer my principle, which is to stay with one camp and never to show the other camp. You only see them when they are dead or wounded. I think it’s more interesting, I think it’s more honest.

Rumpus: In your most recent film the characters played by Tommy Lee Jones and Peter Saarsgard are shown struggling with alcoholism. Self-destructive characters seem to show up in a lot of your films. Dexter Gordon, in ‘Round Midnight, was a very self-destructive character…

Tavernier: Self-destructive, but trying to fight against that self-destruction. A lot of my films deal with people who I think are heroes, if you take the definition of hero given by Romain Rolland, who said, “a hero is somebody who does everything he can, while others don’t.” I love Dave Robicheaux [the hero of In the Electric Mist] because he is an idealist, a knight transplanted into the wrong period. But he has, also, a rage, against the arrogance of criminals, the arrogance of corruption, the arrogance of murder. He has these sudden bursts of violence, yet he’s full of guilt, and that makes him a very complex character. I think Tommy Lee Jones brought all that out, and he brought something else — a vulnerability. Moments where he is helpless…

Rumpus: That jumped out at me right in the beginning. In the first scene, after he’s visited the crime scene, then he walks away, he makes a sign of the cross…

Tavernier: Yeah…

Rumpus: Though, right before that, he looks trepidatious, like he is unsure what to do with himself…

Tavernier: Yes!

Rumpus: Right then, I understood, this wasn’t Tommy Lee Jones being a cowboy…

iem-tlj-child1Tavernier: No — it’s why it was a big shock when I saw an American review that said he was only replaying The Fugitive or Sheriff Bell from No Country for Old Men.  I think it’s the opposite.  The sheriff of No Country would never have said, “I’m helpless.” I think Tommy Lee was very conscious that he was going away from his usual territory.  He already did that, to a certain degree, in his own film, Three Burials, but here he went further. I think he is one of the greatest actors I’ve ever worked with. I think he has a tremendous intensity, a tremendous economy.

Rumpus: The film is very beautifully shot, in very rich, saturated color. And throughout, there is the ever-present sound of the bayou. Was there a moment while you were shooting that said to yourself, “Wow, this is beautiful”?

Tavernier: I tried to shoot Louisiana bayou as Dave Robicheaux sees it, not as a tourist. Robicheaux knows the region, loves its beauty, and he understands its violence. He knows that under the roots of many trees, you have dead bodies. And he knows, as Burke often wrote, that if you dig in the levy at Angola, you will find the bodies of hundreds of black people shot by the guards. Robicheaux feels — and this is an obsession of James Lee Burke — that the past is not past, it is connected to the present… I’ll tell you a great story…

Rumpus: Okay.

Tavernier: I was living in New Iberia in a house, which had a beautiful garden that ran down to the Bayou Teche. Near the Bayou was a big oak.  And that oak, Jim Burke told me, was called “the Jean Lafitte oak.” Why? Because it was where Jean Lafitte used to chain the slaves he was selling to New Orleans, there to that oak tree. And in Burke’s youth, he went with his father, and they dug around in that tree, and they found pieces of iron still in the tree. The past was there; they could touch the past. They could touch slavery. And it is still there, present, as something never really dealt with. This is an obsession with Burke, and it’s something I can understand. It’s why I wanted to do the book.

Rumpus: John Sayles, I noticed, is in the film…

Tavernier: Yes, yes…

Rumpus: It reminded me, while I was watching it, of the similarity between Electric Mist and his film Lone Star

Tavernier: Ah!  A film that I love. It’s also about the past, connecting the story of Alamo to the present. Yes…it’s the kind of film I love, and the kind of story I love. I think Sayles has made three or four films that are among the great political American films.

Rumpus: You’re thinking of Matewan

Tavernier: Yes. And I’m thinking of The City of Hope, even the first one, The Brother from Another Planet.

Rumpus: Oh, right [laughs]. I haven’t seen that in a while… Buddy Guy is also in the film….

iem-tlj-tavTavernier: That was an idea of Tommy Lee Jones. Tommy Lee Jones contributed a few casting ideas, which were brilliant.

Rumpus: Did he also bring Levon Helm in…

Tavernier: Yes that’s right…

Rumpus: From Three Burials?

Tavernier: And Coal Miner’s Daughter.

Rumpus: Is that right?

Tavernier: They’re both in Coal Miner’s Daughter… [Tommy Lee] has a great admiration for Levon Helm, who is a terrific actor. When I showed his scenes to Burke, Burke said, “but he looks just like Robert E. Lee!”  [Laughs].

Rumpus: He’s very gaunt, and his voice is something else…

Tavernier: I had the privilege of working with many actors with great voices. Tommy Lee, Levon Helm, John Goodman — John Goodman has a wonderful voice; Peter Saarsgard has a beautiful melodic voice — and Mary Steenburgen, and of course Buddy Guy. I remember the reaction of my production sound mixer, Paul Ledford, upon hearing Buddy Guy, he said,  “you can hear, he’s not a real actor, and this is good; he pronounces certain words in a way that is typical of that part of Louisiana.” Southern Louisiana is a complexity of accents. So, the accent of Buddy Guy should not be the same as John Goodman, or as a deputy sheriff in St. Martinville, or a guy in the ninth ward in New Orleans. I remember Robert Mitchum saying, “an accent is a behavior.” I remember there was a review that said Mitchum did the best Australian accent in the movies. To which Mitchum said, “but ‘Australian’ is not an accent, it’s a way of life!” [Laughs] It’s the same thing in Louisiana. It’s not an accent, it’s a way of life.

Rumpus: James Lee Burke wrote the voiceovers for the film…

Tavernier: Two or three of them he wrote for the film. The first one…

Rumpus: About the tombstones…

Tavernier: Yes. Because I asked him, I said “I have the beginning I do not like.” I don’t want to deal with police cars, with cops talking on the radio… I’ve seen that 500 times. Anyway, if did that, it wouldn’t be as good as most American directors could do. I wanted a more lyrical, a stranger beginning. So he wrote this new beginning… I knew that the film was asking for those voice-overs. I used Jim’s writing for three or four of them. Then, during the editing, I went back to Jim, and he added two more; the rest I wrote myself in Paris and had Tommy Lee record them in, I think, San Antonio or Dallas. Those voice-overs were a way of keeping what makes Burke’s books completely unique. I love him as a writer — the fact that he cares more about characters than plot. I hate to be a prisoner of the plot.

Rumpus: How do you think your experience as a director has changed you as a person?

Tavernier: Difficult question. I think the films I did… made me more educated about certain subjects, but the fact that, very often, they were difficult to make… [Laughs]… maybe I became more quickly irritable. I have to fight against that now, because I’ve become more and more impatient in front of stupidity or arrogance. I’m getting too old; I don’t want to lose time. But I also think I learned. I knew a lot about jazz, for example, and yet, just by spending time with Dexter Gordon, and all those marvelous people, Herbie… The first director I ever wrote was Delmer Daves. When I was young, I admired a lot of Westerns he did. Delmer, in one of his letters to me, said: to understand is to love.  To learn is to understand, and to understand is to love. And I think he was right.


Jule Treneer is a writer living in Paris. His work has appeared in n+1 and the New York Sun. He's currently working on a novel called The History of the Day Before. More from this author →