Pin It
Portrait by Ki Price (click image below to view fu
Portrait by Ki Price (click image below to view full portrait)

Bertrand Tavernier

The legendary French director talks about directing Tommy Lee Jones, invoking the spectre of American guilt and why the truth is always stranger than fiction

The legendary French auteur Bertrand Tavernier has spent a lifetime making films shot through with humanity, compassion and social conscience, and last night in London he hosted a screening of the director’s cut of his 2009 masterpiece In The Electric Mist. Starring Tommy Lee Jones as a southern lawman haunted by the past, the murder mystery evokes the spectre of the American Civil War to explore collective guilt and the psychological legacy of slavery. The packed-out event was organised by the French film channel Cinemoi and attended by the directors Ken Loach and Stephen Frears, among others. Before everyone took their seats Dazed Digital took some time out with Bertrand to talk ghosts, guilt and why the truth is always stranger than fiction.

Dazed Digital: Something that seems to come through In The Electric Mist is a sense of collective American guilt. Is that something that interests you? Do you think America still has a hard time facing up to its history?
Bertrand Tavernier:
You are putting your finger on one of the points of making the film, and one of the points that is most important for (author) James Lee Burke. For Burke that was the art of the story; the key of the story, and in what we call 'The French Cut' there are three more scenes with the ghosts of the confederate generals. The guilt in America comes back to slavery, and to the fact that people have not looked at the past properly. It is expressed in the scene between Dave Robicheaux (Tommy Lee Jones) and Twinkie LaMoyne (Ned Beatty) when LaMoyne says, ‘We are not the same people now,’ and Robicheaux replies, ‘I think we are...’  I’m very proud of that scene because with Tommy Lee we condensed five pages of the book into 15 lines, and they are the key lines of the movie. Tommy lee has an incredible sense of dialogue and is obsessed by the music of language. He also shares with Burke that sense of the importance of the past.

DD: You invoke a powerful spectre of the American Civil War...
Bertrand Tavernier:
After the film was released in France, a friend working at the BBC sent me an interview with Bob Dylan in which he says what makes the south so special is the fact that it is haunted by the ghosts of The Civil War – all the people who are wandering between heaven and hell, trying to look for forgiveness or somebody to whom they can tell their grief. When Burke discovered where I was staying in Louisiana, he directed me to an oak tree where he grew up, and there are still pieces of iron in the tree because it’s where slaves were tied up to be sold in New Orleans. Burke says that when the past is full of blood and crime, you can touch it. He said to me, ‘Bertrand, go and touch that oak. If you do not understand that you can touch the past in Louisiana, you will not understand Louisiana.'

DD: Is human cruelty a key investigation for you?
Bertrand Tavernier:
Absolutement. And I keep trying to understand, and trying to learn. I want to learn when I make a film. It’s like exploring an unknown land. I have no maps and I am trying to discover and find out my opinions. And it is the excitement of that learning I want to communicate. I want to communicate the pleasure and the surprise, because I think if it can surprise me, it can surprise a few people.

DD: Tommy Lee Jones seems to share that impulse for investigating what it is to be human. He has an incredible humanity etched into his face...
Bertrand Tavernier:
I’ve never seen anybody who can create such feeling by doing so little. Just in the way that he says his lines or moves his head, you feel there is a sorrow. For me, Tommy Lee is one of, if not the greatest American actor alive. Peter Sarsgaard, whom I love as an actor, said that just by the way Tommy Lee looked at the other actors, and his attitude, he forced everyone to give their best. Tommy Lee can be tough with people in the crew and he can be tough with journalists, but with the actors he makes everything great. He says, ‘I am not there to win the award for the nicest guy on the set, I am here to give the best performance!’ What pleased me a lot was that when I sent Tommy Lee the DVD of my cut he said, ‘Bertrand, you have found the essence of southern Louisiana, and paid a real and beautiful tribute to the writing of Burke. I compliment you for this very fine film.’ For a man as economical as Tommy Lee to give such a compliment, it feels like you have written Paradise Lost.

: In the past, you have cast non-actors in roles, such as the jazz musician Dexter Gordon in Round Midnight. Is that a search for authenticity?
Bertrand Tavernier:
Yes, but it’s not only to be naturalistic. There is an authenticity that gives a great life to the drama; gives a new colour. There is something unique in Dexter Gordon. After all, Dexter received a letter from Marlon Brando saying it was the first time in the last 15 years that Brando felt he learned something about acting. When I met Jon Goodman he told me that because of Round Midnight he almost quit acting. He felt he would never be able to get that incredible feeling of truth, but of course, he is a superb actor.

DD: Do you believe truth is sometimes stranger then fiction?
Bertrand Tavernier:
Sometimes truth can be much more exciting dramatically than an invention of the screenwriter. When I was talking with an expert on the history of America, I learned a lot about The Alamo. Santa Anna was actually a dictator like Hitler – raping girls and killing civilians – but at the same time, he was so afraid to cross a river that he was taking something like cocaine every time he had to do it. When I heard that, I thought, ‘Oh my god! This is brilliant. What a fantastic idea!’ In such a case, the truth is much better than what the screenwriter can produce. I mean, do you know about Doc Holliday? He died very young, and before dying he converted himself to both Catholic and Protestant in the same week. What a scene! What a gamble! Nobody in 75 years has explored that. It’s the truth that is most exciting.

A selection of Tavernier's work is available to view on Cinemoi