Friday, November 13, 2015
The French Chef
For years, I spent time enthralled in the Laemmle Theatres scattered around Los Angeles watching one French film after another absorbing the cinema culture of that country from its top filmmakers--Truffaut, Godard, Resnais, Melville, Audiard, Becker, Costa-Gavras, Malle, Tavernier, Beiniex, Bier, de Broca, Sautet, Chabrol, Leconte, Clouzot, Lelouch and Veber among others.
When I finally decided it was now or never with regard to beginning my own adventure in filmmaking, I hopped a plane for Paris knowing full well that I was not seeking a conventional film career and was eager to have the experiences that an unorthodox approach would provide. I expected to stay in Paris for two weeks. I stayed two years during which I made my first film Montmartre and some months later, The French Chef, a TV pilot starring French actor Philippe Léotard.
Philippe was my first and only choice for the project. He had charm, a warm personality and a bemused countenance that made you smile. I had seen him in Le chat et la souris (Cat and Mouse) directed by Claude Lelouch and in John Frankenheimer's French Connection II and it was the image of Philippe in his scenes with Serge Reggiani in the Lelouch film that first came to mind as I considered who I wanted for the role. We put an offer to Philippe's agent and the next day he was confirmed.
If nothing else, filmmaking is an exercise in problem solving and the first problem to be solved was the fact that Philippe spoke no English. The pilot was destined for the nascent cable TV market in America and subtitles were not an option; neither was dubbing the voice of an English speaking actor. As a result, Philippe learned his English text phonetically. This was made a bit more difficult for him as I had already adopted the habit of writing dialogue on the set or location while the crew was setting up the shot. So, there was Philippe standing across the street from Le Tour d'Argent restaurant with Notre Dame in the far background learning his speech while Parisian traffic flew past as though departing the grid in a Formula 1 race.
The second problem had an easier solution for us if, perhaps, not for Philippe. I wouldn't ordinarily write about this but it is a subject that Philippe himself confronted in his public writings. Bob Swaim broached the subject in his DVD commentary for his excellent film La Balance for which Philippe won the César Award for Best Actor, the French equivalent of an Oscar. Philippe liked to take a drink.
As the first day progressed, it became evident that Philippe was increasingly under the influence and this manifested in an unexpected manner--he became friendlier and more charming as the day wore on. The problem--for us anyway--was that we would not know where to find him when a set-up was ready as he had wandered off to a café in search of refreshment. I solved this by giving my partner's son the job of following Philippe around and reporting to me which café he had gone into so we would know where to fetch him when ready to shoot.
The second day of shooting found us in a kitchen where Philippe would be preparing a tantalizing recipe for our viewers. I had in mind an equally tantalizing assistant for him and, with this in mind, I turned to Alain Bernardin who was the proprietor of the Crazy Horse Saloon on the Avenue Georges V to ask if I could borrow one of his Crazy Horse showgirls to appear in the production as Philippe's assistant. I had just acquired the US cable TV rights to the Crazy Horse show and Alain was pleased to oblige. When I picked our showgirl up on the morning of her shoot, I thought there had been some mistake. The girl who got into my car was plain, dressed in a Pendleton shirt and jeans and was about as far from being a Parisian showgirl as one could imagine. On the way to the location, she talked of being a Jehovah's Witness and her plans to marry her fiance--also a Jehovah's Witness along with his family--who was in the States. I asked how being a showgirl at the Crazy Horse went down with the family. "Not too well," was all she said.
Nobody seemed to notice us when we arrived at the location--La Mère Catherine in Montmartre--but thirty minutes later when she came out of the powder room in full make up and hair not to mention a mind-stunning tube dress, all work came to a halt and my choice of 'assistant' was validated.
As I made the rounds in Los Angeles upon returning to the States, The French Chef was a great calling card. Everyone loved the show and thought it was very entertaining but no one knew what to do with a comedy/cooking/travelogue show hosted by a charming French movie star and a girl from the Crazy Horse Saloon. Interestingly, the first meeting I had was with Al Burton at Norman Lear's company. He wanted to know how I had gotten the rights to the Crazy Horse when he had been negotiating with Bernardin for them for months (!!).
I'll never forget Philippe. In spite of whatever problems he was facing personally, he made the production of The French Chef an entirely pleasurable experience and was a complete gentleman to us all.