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Locarno Film Festival: Conversation with Jacqueline Bisset

Interviews
by Susan Kouguell
August 16, 2013 2:50 PM
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On 11 August, British actress Jacqueline Bisset received the Locarno Film Festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award Parmigiani in the Piazza Grande, which was followed by a screening of Rich and Famous.

The Conversation with Jaqueline Bisset took place on 12 August. Carlo Chatrian, the Festival’s Artistic Director, introduced Bisset and Chris Fujiwara, Artistic Director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. The talk covered a wide range of topics on Bisset’s distinguished career. A delightful, humorous theme was food. 

Here are some highlights from the afternoon’s talk. 

Bisset: “I wanted to go to acting school, and I did a few modeling jobs, to pay for acting school. I never aspired to be a model. I met lots of photographers, and I learned a lot about light -- as a source of love and illumination, light as a gift of love. On film, that’s a massive contribution. Light of a great cinematographer -- to illuminate truth and bring atmosphere to situations.”

On Roman Polanski and Cul-de-sac

“I met Roman Polanski in London. (I was at school and I saw Catherine Denueve wandering around, looking depressed. I thought, ‘Who was that woman? What is the matter with her?’  It didn’t occur to me until I saw Repulsion, that she was shooting a movie.  I did not see the camera; it was hidden.) I was at a dinner with a group of people -- Roman said to me, ‘You are such an introvert you might make a good actress.’  I had a Latin teacher three years before, a wonderful teacher, who said to me, ‘You are such an extrovert you might make a good actress.’ It was impossible to entertain that. In England at that time, being an actress or a model was thought of as being a prostitute.”

Fujiwara: “Did that experience working with Roman increase your appetite for cinema?”

Bisset: “Absolutely. I was fascinated because I got free food. I was absolutely broke.”

On Director Stanley Donen and Two for the Road

“Donen was seemingly a suit and tie person. He was very kind and enthusiastic. He was much more well-known than I realized.  At one point we went to a party and he asked me to dance. I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ I thought, I don’t think he can dance at all. He was kind but stuffy, and at some point up he was madly dancing; he was very light on his feet. Never misjudge people. Then I found out he did direct dance and music films; that was his world actually.”

Truffaut and Day for Night

“I was struggling with my French and I was never fluent.  And so everyone had to make sure I knew my lines. Truffaut said, ‘You don’t have to worry, you can make mistakes, you’re not playing a French person.’ He was in the film and directed. I was always thinking, ‘Who’s saying ‘cut’? Is it Truffaut the actor or Truffaut the director?’”

Fujiwara: “Would you say the character Truffaut plays -- was this the way he was in real life?”

Bisset: “In real life, yes, but he had more of a sense of humor. It struck me -- he was not interested in food at all. It interrupted him shooting movies. Got in the way of his dates, and it was reflected in his films. He actually talked about this French bourgeois way of living and interminable meals. He used to say that he didn’t need people to know him, just watch his films.”

Claude Chabrol and La Cérémonie

Fujiwara: “About 20 years later you worked with Claude Chabrol, a great gastronomer.” 

Bisset: “That was his reputation but that didn’t seem so.  My character was the bourgeois lady who would get killed. Knowing that Claude detested the bourgeoisie, the gross caviar, I felt a bit uneasy being this woman because I felt he detested a certain mentality. Everything with Chabrol was set before; he didn’t give any room for change or improvisation. He told us where to stand, and go from where to where.

“I found Chabrol more attentive to the two leading stars -- I understand. We had a comfortable, a polite relationship. I did feel embraced and welcomed. Like an outsider.”

Fujiwara: “An uncomfortable relationship can produce good results.”

Rich and Famous

Fujiwara refers to Cukor as a “master of tempo” and cites Rich and Famous as an example.

Bisset: “The speed in which Cukor wanted us to do everything was always, ‘Faster! Faster!’ He had an obsession about pausing. He despised actors who paused to take an actorly moment. Many actors like to milk it, and pull those words out.”  

Fujiwara: “Pauline Kael’s review of the film was a legendary piece of film criticism.  Kael intimated Cukor’s homosexuality that was not yet publically released.”

Bisset: “Cukor moved away during these scenes, and left it to us. I thought the sex scenes were beautifully photographed. It was the best love scene I was ever in.”

Working with Directors

Fujiwara: “What makes a director good for you to work with?”

Bisset: “I think the grandfather of the set is the director. He needs to have authority, to do what people want. A warm grandfather; he needs to know his job, to be open. The moments that can creep in inadvertently that are not in the script when a take is finished can steal wonderful truths. And the director needs to know how to put the camera in the right place.  It matters what’s on the film.

“I like it when everyone eats together. To see strengths others have; you can see other actors’ qualities.  The rehearsal gives you a chance to play. Playing is important so that you’re not going to do a bad choice. Let’s just try stuff.  And get that energy out there.  And the director -- it’s about giving you confidence.”

Working with Women Directors

“I’ve done five films directed by women. I did like it. They had qualities, particularly in the romantic tenderness of scenes. I felt sometimes they were a little bit soft, but maybe they were clever to get the guys working the way they wanted them to.” 

On Welcome to New York – Directed by Abel Ferraro, currently in postproduction.

Gérard Depardieu plays Dominique Strauss-Kahn. The situations are similar.  The director says it’s loosely based on the true story. I haven’t seen the footage, so I can’t talk about it. I found it to be an interesting experience. I had to learn to renounce the form of the original script. ‘Just get rid of it. Improvise. Go, make it real.’ There were very long, improvised takes with the theme of the scene as a base. Many 15-minute scenes. Abel is an amazing guy; a poet, a very loving man underneath the gruff.”

In a career that has spanned forty-five years, Jacqueline Bisset still has an appetite for more. 

Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell teaches screenwriting and film at Tufts University and presents international seminars.  Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1990 where she works with over 1,000 writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide.  www.su-city-pictures.com

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