Francis Veber Interview

French farce king voices off on his ruthless new 'Dinner Game' and Tinsle Town's predilection for remaking his movies

French farce king voices off on his ruthless new 'Dinner Game' and Tinsle Town's predilection for remaking his movies

French filmmaker Francis Veber is accustom to the good life. It shows in his knit silk pull-over, his $2,000 watch, his healthy tan and the fact that he scoffed at staying in the studio-booked, upscale San Francisco hotel where we're meeting to talk about his most recent farce, "The Dinner Game."

Last night he paid for his own room on an upper floor of the Mandarin, an even more hoity joint that was more to his liking, and he has returned to his room here only to do his interviews today.

If it sound elitist, don't be fooled. The man himself is beyond personable -- he's downright charming in a way that recalls the uber-seductive French stereotypes of Technicolor movie. He speaks with authority in a soothing voice as smooth as a fine port, oozing aristocracy, sophistication and courtesy. He gestures grandly and fluidly. And he smiles -- a lot.

But it's no wonder he's particular, congenial and well-to-do. More than prosperous in his career at home, he also has a very Hollywood attitude toward sequels and remakes of his often facetious films which has brought him lucrative contracts in the American movie market. For almost every movie he writes and/or directs, he sell the rights to Hollywood for an English language version that is almost always successful -- at least in terms of box office.

His directorial debut, called "Le Jouet," became the Richard Pryor vehicle "The Toy." His most famous film, "La Cage aux Folles" has been a hit Broadway musical and became the Robin Williams-Nathan Lane hit "The Birdcage" (not to mention spawning two sequels at home). Williams also remade "Les Comperes" as "Fathers Day" with Billy Crystal, and many of Veber's other films have also become fodder for big American stars, like "The Man With One Red Shoe" (Tom Hanks), "Quick Change" (Bill Murray) and "Pure Luck" (Danny Glover and Joe Pesci). He even directed an American remake of his own "Les Fugitifs" ("Three Fugitives"), with Nick Nolte and Martin Short.

Remakes and the differences between French and American movie sensibilities are the topic of discussion as we sit down to talk about "The Dinner Game," his ruthless new comedy about a club of Parisian yuppie socialites who gather for dinners at which they compete to see who can bring the biggest idiot as a guest.

What was the birth of this story?

Francis Veber: A real game in Paris. A real game that is probably still played. It's rich, sophisticated people who were inviting the biggest jerk they knew to make a contest.

Did you go to any of these dinners?

Veber: I never went to one...unless I was invited (as the jerk)!

The comedy in "The Dinner Game" is a little mean-spirited. Do you think French people laugh at different things than Americans?

Veber: There are differences, you know? Which explains why it is so difficult to make a remake. French people don't expect to be so far in our sensitivities from America because we have your music, your fast food, your movies. The kids have the same way to put their cap (twisting his hand around atop his head) -- like that, you know? So we say, OK, we're American. But when you come here, you see there is a big difference between the American and the French.

I discovered that when I was working on the remakes. I had people at the studios telling me things I didn't understand. For instance, I discovered there is a character you can't accept here in America, which is the wimp. Oh, we can't touch that! People have to become rebels! But in France, we have wimps. Men are allowed to cry. We're allowed to be weak.

In America it would have to be "shake it off and get on with your life"?

Veber: Yes, that's it. It's bizarre. It's so weird not to understand that.

You've made American films, and you've remade your own films in America. Does that attitude frustrate you?

Veber: It doesn't frustrate me. It explains to me that we are different, you know? And it's good. We say in France, viva la differance! Difference is good, because you bring us good things, and we might -- if you were watching our movies (laughs) -- we might bring you things, too! But it's very difficult for foreign movies to get into the main stream here. People don't want to see subtitled movies here.

So, how do you feel about remakes? You've had so many films you've been involved with remade in by Hollywood.

Veber: I tell you, there are two sides of the answer. First of all, remakes are, unfortunately so far, the compulsory way to reach the real American audience. We know that our films will reach only a very limited audience in the art houses in the subtitled version. So if you really want to have the Anglo-Saxon audience, you have to go through an American movie...

You have to sell the rights.

Veber: Yeah, sure. You sell the rights. Otherwise, you are not seen by people. People know "Birdcage" because it has been remade. Before that they knew "La Cage aux Folles" a little bit, but it was more sophisticated people knowing it.

And the second part, it is very difficult to make a remake, you know? And I try to understand why, and I kind of have an explanation to it.

If I am a writer and you are a producer, we see a French film. We like it. We start watching it 10 times, 15 times just to understand how to restructure it, to remake it. The jokes in the movie will become less fresh and less fresh, and you stop to laugh anymore at the jokes. So if a new writer brings something fresher, you know, you say, "Hey, that's funny," and you start to mix the two -- the new writer and the writer you bought the rights from. And at the end you try to make it richer...(it may be) rich, but it's bad.

Like the wine mixed with the vinegar served to the idiot in "The Dinner Game."

Veber: Like the wine with the vinegar. So when Elaine May, who is a good writer, adapted "La Cage aux Folles," she told me in New York, "I tried to stay as close as possible to the French movie," you know. So she didn't try to bring her jokes in extra, you see.

What did you think of "The Birdcage"?

Veber: I liked it. And I liked Nathan Lane very much. I think he's almost as good as (Michel) Serrault (in the French original).

Elaine May not re-writing it too much was probably good since you had Robin Williams coming in there. Robin Williams, he has his way with things.

Veber: Yes, I know. But he's very good in it. Very funny.

Well, it must be flattering to have all your films remade in America.

Veber: Well, I don't know. I was thinking it was very flattering, but then when I see that some of them are such a mess, I don't know if that's flattering...."The Toy," for instance, (the French version of which) was my first movie as a director, was a very ambitious story, and they did such a mess with it with Richard Pryor and Jackie Gleason.

The concept of that story (that a rich man hires a reporter to be his child's plaything) is too absurdist for an American comedy.

Veber: Maybe, maybe.

In a European comedy, a French comedy, I can see that working, because you just sort of hang up the question about how the circumstances of that story would ever come about. But in an American movie, you're thinking, why would he be doing this?

Veber: Maybe. But I think the problem they had adapting the movie is that they were trying to be funny and it's redundant to try so hard to be funny in a comedy. You know, they come from TV now, most of the American writers. Not from Broadway, as before. And their duty is punch line, punch line, punch line. This is very bad for characters, very bad for situations, for structure.

Have you had any offers for the rights to this one?

Veber: For the remake? Yes. Sure. DreamWorks bought the rights. But I'm afraid that it won't fit with the American audience. It's too rude for people.


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