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Q & A

His Films Star Average Guys

French writer-director Francis Veber, a specialist in the plight of regular joes, sees the oddball humor in the human condition. His newest project brings discrimination out of 'The Closet.'

July 06, 2001|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Francis Veber is one of French cinema's most popular comedy writers and directors. During the last 32 years, he has written or co-written such hit farces as "The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe," "Le Magnifique," "La Cage aux Folles," which was nominated for a foreign-language film Oscar, and "Les Comperes." He directed his first film, "The Toy," 25 years ago and his first American film, "Three Fugitives," 13 years later.

One of Veber's best films is the dark 1998 comedy "The Dinner Game," which won several Cesar Awards in France. Based on his hit play of the same title, "The Dinner Game" concerns a self-centered Parisian publisher who participates in a weekly ritual with several high-powered friends: find the dullest, most stupid person you can and bring him to dinner.

Veber's latest comedy, "The Closet," also has been a big hit in France. It opened in New York a few weeks ago and arrives in Los Angeles today in selected theaters.

Daniel Auteuil stars as Francois Pignon, a mild-mannered accountant working in a condom factory who still pines for his ex-wife and tries in vain to connect with his teenage son. When he discovers he's about to be fired because his co-workers think he's boring, his neighbor (Michel Aumont), an elderly gay psychologist, hatches a plan to save Pignon's job. He tells Pignon to start a rumor that he is gay. As a straight man pretending to be gay, Pignon discovers that his co-workers and family treat him differently.

Gerard Depardieu, who has appeared in several Veber comedies, plays a macho lunkhead co-worker who loses his cool, and Michele Laroque plays a fellow accountant with whom Pignon falls in love.

Veber, a former journalist, has lived in Los Angeles for the last 15 years. A fit and trim 63, Veber recently talked about "The Closet" in the dining room of his sumptuous Hollywood Hills home, which has a panoramic view of the L.A. skyline.

Question: Although you make films mainly in France, you live in Los Angeles. What brought you to the City of Angels?

Answer: It was Jeffrey Katzenberg during the Cannes Film Festival 15 years ago, asking me to come to America to the Disney studio. He was head of production at that time. He said, "I like the way you are structuring your stories and you can be a consultant for us." It was very flattering. I don't imagine in France, where we are so arrogant, us bringing a foreigner like that to reread our screenplays. I spent six years over there at Disney. I decided to stay because it is easy for me to write here. In France, I am more famous and [there] is temptation after temptation. People call me to go to premieres and parties and things like that. Here, no one knows me.

Sometimes I go back [to France], but I like the American way of life.

Q: What is the difference between making movies in France and making them in Hollywood?

A: You have more people watching over your shoulder at the studios [in Hollywood]. You write a screenplay that is 110 pages and you have 150 pages of notes. In France, we don't have enough notes. It is not the same system at all. In France, we are very much helped; you have the government giving money [to make films]. Producers don't need to make money with a film. They make money before [the film goes into production].

Q: Your films all are about average, simple guys who find themselves in difficult and crazy situations.

A: I think the arc of these people is more interesting. Most [of my heroes] are people in the crowd, so when these people go to the sunny side of the street, you know, I think it is far more touching. It is why I am more interested in men like Daniel Auteuil succeeding in life than a man like Schwarzenegger being strong. He was born strong.

Q: What was the genesis of "The Closet"?

A: The evolution of political correctness has really changed in France, and America too. There is a line of the guy who is living next door who is suggesting the strategy who says, "I was fired 20 years ago for the reason they are keeping you now."

That was amusing to me, that eventually in a specific kind of company you can be kept for that kind of reason--being gay--because the manager is afraid, scared, not to be politically correct. That is something very new [in France].

Q: Is there less discrimination now in France against gays?

A: It is evolving very, very fast. You can see gay pride here, in France and in every country. More and more people are coming out. But there are still a lot of problems. In France, you still have a kind of discrimination, but not as much [as 20 years ago]. It is changing. That is why I wrote the movie, because I hope it changes more.

Q: Yet more than 20 years ago, "La Cage aux Folles," which dealt with two gay men, had a broad international appeal.

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