Bertrand Tavernier Interview
Bertrand Tavernier Interview
Bertrand Tavernier is a legend in his native France and is renowned around the world as a film director. Having worked in the industry since the 1960s, he has written and directed over 30 films, produced and acted in several more, and won numerous Cesar awards, a Palme d’Or and a BAFTA. Talking to View’s Matthew Turner, he spoke about his latest work The Princess of Montpensier, how Alfred Hitchcock was one of his greatest influences and why battle scenes should always be unrehearsed.

What attracted you the project and how did it come about?

Bertrand Tavernier

The producer showed me the short story and what attracted me was I saw the roots of a wonderful romantic and complex love story. Not only between one man and a woman but with a woman and four men. And I felt that each of the men could be completely different. Each one of them was complex and I saw in her the roots of a passionate young woman who is trying to survive, trying to learn how to keep her pride, her dignity, her freedom, trying to educate herself at a time when women had no rights. And I thought that all those themes were very relevant today and there was a modern way of filming that, not filming that as if it was something historical, but as if it was something now, that was happening in front of the camera.
You mentioned that you felt the themes were relevant today – can you elaborate on that?

Bertrand Tavernier

I think that a lot of period films have a way of looking at history as if it was historical, but there was a time when what was happening was not historical, it was just the present. It became historical years later and I don't want to film when it became historical. So my film is not about the period, it's not about the Rennaissance. It's about a moment of history as it is felt, perceived, seen, by a young girl. So that way I can incorporate the ignorance of the public today in the screenplay and I can have the audience discovering these things at the same time as the heroine. In fact, one of my great influences – it will be surprising for you – was Hitchcock. Because Hitchcock made a rule of never being ahead of his characters, never knowing more than his characters. I mean, when Cary Grant is confronted in North By Northwest, we never know more than Cary Grant.
Although, in Vertigo, we know more than James Stewart's character ...

Bertrand Tavernier

No. That one, no. But not in Psycho, not in Strangers on a Train, not in Rear Window. In Rear Window we know exactly what James Stewart is feeling. And I think it's totally different from what most of the people were doing in similar films, where because of the intrigue, to increase the suspense, they always want to show something that the characters are not knowing in order to increase the tension. But Hitchcock tried to have the same tension without that and this is something that I decided to apply, especially in the period film. Never be ahead of the audience.
We had a few rules: no doubles, long takes, no CGI. Everything has to be found on the set...
Gaspard was telling me that you didn't use blocking in the fight scenes. Can you talk me through how you directed the battle scenes?

Bertrand Tavernier

I remember a wonderful discussion I had with Raoul Walsh, one of the directors I admire most in the world. Somebody was asking how he shot the action scenes in Objective Burma, in The Naked and the Dead and he said that he never rehearsed them. He gave instruction to the actors and immediately filmed them. If nothing was good, well … but if there was anything good, usually at the beginning, the first 30 seconds, we use that. So, like that, actors are never repeating the scene. Nothing becomes mechanical. Everything is fresh, you can incorporate accident. And I did all the war scenes that way. And all the battles. We knew, of course, more or less the staging but we never rehearsed.

And that was adventurous but I had a wonderful camera operator, an American, Chris Squires. Great! He was ready to work without marks, without knowing where the people would stop. He would suddenly run in the mud to get Gregoire falling from his horse and that was giving life, a wonderful life, a sense of urgency to this battle. We had a few rules: no doubles, long takes, no CGI. Everything has to be found on the set and not in the lab. And that's a good way.

Anyway, we decided that from the beginning and that was a rule, so I told the actors, 'I will do long takes, so you'd better learn how to ride, to fight and to fall,' and they did. They learned in two months and they didn't want it to look ridiculous, so they behaved extremely bravely. That was great. And so, a wonderful director, Joe Dante, after seeing the film, sent me an email and said, 'Bertrand, the battle scene was stunning – it was like Chimes at Midnight with longer takes!' So he said, 'Your film expresses such a love of cinema that we all have to be thankful for it.' That was wonderful.

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Content updated: 24/02/2018 09:15

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