Working the Muscle
by Mikael Colville-Andersen
09.11.12 - 03:56 pm
Jean-Claude Carrière’s list of writing credits is astonishing: six films with Luis Buñuel including The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Belle du Jour; Danton; The Unbearable Lightness of Being; Valmont; Cyrano de Bergerac; The Tin Drum and The White Ribbon, along with films with Pierre Étaix, Jean-Luc Godard, Peter Brook and Louis Malle. He’s also been an educator, a TV host and an actor (appearing in Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, for example). Through more than 50 years, he has remained one of cinema’s deepest thinkers. Here, Carrière reflects on working with Buñuel.

“We were always alone in some remote place, often in Mexico or Spain, talking French and Spanish, without friends, without women, without wives. Absolutely no one around. Just the two of us. Eating together, working together, drinking together to get absolutely obsessed about the script we were working on. I calculated that we ate together, just the two of us, more than 2000 times. Which is much more than many couples can say.

“So it was a very close relationship. At the very beginning, and this goes for many screenwriters who work with a master, I was so thrilled, so happy, so impressed that I was ready to love any idea from Buñuel. Whenever he told me something I always said, ‘it’s wonderful, let’s do it!’ Always killing my own critical instinct and restraining from suggesting my own ideas.

“After two or three weeks, Serge Silberman came down from Paris to Madrid where we were working. He invited me out to dinner, without Buñuel, which was rather unusual. We always ate together, the three of us. So, after a long dinner and talking about French politics or whatever, he told me something. He said, ‘Luis is very happy with you. You work a lot and are a hard worker. But ... you must say “no” to him from time to time.’

“I found out later that Buñuel had asked Silberman to come down from Paris to tell me this one thing. That I had to oppose him. If not, my contribution was only 50 percent of what it could be. In that type of collaboration, when two people work so closely together on a common work, it is absolutely necessary that one is not the slave of the other—based on fame, age, power. No, you must try to be equal. Which is quite difficult.

“So, from then on, I tried from time to time to say no. To oppose. To say, ‘Luis, I don’t like this idea.’ At times, Buñuel was a bit irritated, but generally he was happy about it. During the writing of the second film, Belle du Jour, we almost reached a real sense of collaboration.

“There was another type of collaboration with Buñuel. Buñuel had a type of surreal, I would say, tendency, or inclination, and I did as well. We were never rational. When he made Un Chien Andalou, his first film with Salvador Dali, they had one rule. The rule was that when one of them proposed an idea the other had three seconds, no more, to say yes or no. They didn’t want the brain to intervene. They wanted an instinctive reaction coming, hopefully, from their subconscious.

“We used this process often although it was not easy. When you propose something, you always want to explain your reasons for why you proposed this or that. That must be put aside. It is a very difficult way of working. It requires a very alert mind to constantly be creative and invent and find new things to propose—all without becoming exhausted. Gradually, step-by-step, you discover, and I’m quoting Buñuel here, that the human imagination is a muscle that can be trained and developed like memory. It is one of the faculties of the brain that knows no limits.”   

– As told to Mikael Colville-Andersen, 1999

© Mikael Colville-Andersen
© 2012