PARIS — Costa-Gavras makes thrillers, and perhaps his success lies in giving this hard-bitten action-packed form the urgency of an SOS cry of distress.
"Between the Greek tragedy in which I was born and the Hollywood film on which I was nourished, the thriller is natural to me," Costa-Gavras said in the Paris studio where he is editing his new film, "Music Box." His definition of the term is wide: "The Grapes of Wrath" is a thriller, he says, if not in conventional terms.
"Music Box," which he is editing here after shooting in Chicago and Budapest, develops the theme of private responsibility within the framework of a story about a young woman lawyer's defense of her father, an Illinois steel worker accused of war crimes in his native Hungary.
Jessica Lange plays the daughter, with the German actor Armin Mueller-Stahl as her devoted father who raised the girl after her mother's death. In her courtroom defense the daughter manages to weaken much of the evidence more on form than on content, Costa-Gavras said, but she is increasingly stricken by doubt: "It is a little the tragedy of a girl who comes to know her father and must take a stand."
A Carolco presentation of an Irwin Winkler production, "Music Box" is scheduled for release by Tri-Star Pictures in December. The script, by Joe Eszterhas, is in part based on the recent case of John Demjanjuk, the Ukrainian-born Ohio automobile plant worker sentenced to death for his crimes in the Treblinka extermination camp. Costa-Gavras, who does intensive research to inform himself as well as to defend his films after release, said he came to "Music Box" thinking its story would be remote to Americans.
"Then I read Allan M. Ryan's 'Quiet Neighbors,' which is overwhelming. After the war, 10,000 war criminals managed to get to the U.S., an extraordinary number."
The thriller element in "Music Box" is less in tracking down the evidence than in exploring the relationship between father and daughter. "It is a thriller in the sense that it is the daughter's discovery of her father. It is something that on a different level can happen all the time. We don't really know our parents' lives, we cannot imagine them making love, we see them more as images than as human beings.
"I think there is an element of the thriller in all human relations. The thriller is the curiosity we have in life. I remember in Greece I had a teacher who used to say that the difference between animals and men is that if he is in a valley, a man will always try to see what is on the other side of the mountain, while the animal will stay where he is. The thriller is that."
His first film, "Sleeping Car Murders," was a simple whodunit. But then Costa-Gavras moved on to the political thriller with a vengeance. Along came the Academy Award winning "Z" about the Greece of the colonels, "The Confession," set in Stalinist Czechoslovakia, "State of Siege," set in Uraguay, "Special Section," about Vichy France, and "Missing," set in Pinochet's Chile.
"Missing," with Jack Lemmon, was Costa-Gavras' first American film. While deeply political, it could more handily be called a moral thriller, like last year's controversial "Betrayed," about neo-fascism in the American heartland. The film starring Debra Winger and Tom Berringer drew mostly mixed reviews and generated only modest income at the box office.
A naturalized French citizen, Costa-Gavras came to Paris as a film student and worked as an assistant to Rene Clair, Rene Clement, Marcel Ophuls and Jacques Demy. Thanks to Simone Signoret and Yves Montand, he was able to make "Sleeping Car Murders" and Montand later starred in "Z," "The Confession" and "State of Siege."
What attracts him about working in the United States, he says, is not a big budget, which he neither wants nor needs, but more space for ideas. "I film as I do in France, but what I find in America is subjects I can handle in the way I want to handle them. In the U.S. a film can be a cry, in France one tends more to be wry or ironic. I think the U.S. corresponds more to my view."
Viewed askance in some quarters for his leftist politics, Costa-Gavras says the United States "is like galaxy in which there are many suns and people of all sorts." His political views cannot be narrowly confined--he praised the honest right-wing judge in "Z" and flayed the Communist regime in "The Confession"--and he always lets his collaborators know his intentions.
"I explain at the start what I plan to do, so everything is clear. On 'Music Box' I told it all to Jessica and to Irwin and at that point it is yes or no."
Costa-Gavras said no some years back to an offer to direct "The Godfather," a decision he doesn't regret because he says he could not have done it as well as Francis Coppola did and because he did not know America well enough at the time. More important, he wasn't sure about the subject matter. "I had my doubts because it was a film about the Mafia that never (fully addressed the issue of) drugs."