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Researching his fond student memories

To use his NYU days for a film, a director turned to the Web first.

May 18, 2003|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

In less than a decade, Cedric Klapisch has emerged as one of France's most accomplished writer-directors, a filmmaker whose works are as intelligent and graceful as they are entertaining.

"When the Cat's Away ... " (1997), his third feature and the first to get a U.S. release, was a charmer about a young woman who entrusts her pet to a neighbor, only to have it run away.

Next came "Un Air de Famille," a deft stage adaptation in which a volatile family gathering turns hilarious. Now his "L'auberge espagnole" has arrived; it's playing at selected theaters. A box office smash in France since its release there last June, it garnered six Cesar nominations, the French equivalent of Oscar nods.

"I wanted to make something about my experience abroad -- my student years in New York," Klapisch, an NYU film school alumnus, said by phone from his home in Paris earlier this week. "Ten years ago, I visited my sister in Barcelona while she was an exchange student studying architecture and sharing an apartment with other students, all from different European countries. So I thought I might be able to mix both experiences -- my sister's and my own.

"When you want to speak about your experiences, it's better if the plot is totally fictional. My hero is not a film student, and he doesn't go to New York. Fiction is always about yourself, but the less you speak directly about yourself, the more interesting it is."

Klapisch's films are sharply observant and built up from an array of authentic and revealing details. For "L'auberge espagnole," he scoured travel and foreign exchange Web sites for background. "I also talked to lots of students to refresh my memories of being 25," said Klapisch, 41. He said that the scene in which his hero, Xavier (Romain Duris), bid his girlfriend and his mother goodbye at the airport when he takes off for Barcelona is taken directly from his own departure for New York.

"Foreign students tend to look back on their years abroad as the best of their lives," Klapisch said. "Everything is new for them, everything is so different, and they come away with strong memories. Saying farewell to their new friends can by very heavy for them."

Since he drew upon ideas that had been germinating over a long period of time, Klapisch was able to write the script in a dizzying 12 days with Duris in mind for the lead. For other roles, Klapisch had casting agents in Copenhagen, Berlin, London and Rome line up about 30 actors in each city for him to interview and audition. Not only did Klapisch tailor his script to the actors he cast, but he also kept rewriting as he went along, incorporating into the film incidents that occurred during production. The film's scene-stealer is Kevin Bishop, who, as the kid brother of one student, comes from England to visit his sister and insults one and all with his clutch of stereotypes, yet is so innocent in his obnoxiousness it's hard to dislike him."

Since we would be shooting so fast, I told everyone that I wanted to make it enjoyable," said Klapisch. "Everyone was really surprised that the film became such a huge success, including myself. Now I want to be able to do with Xavier what Truffaut did with Antoine Doinel: revisit him every five years or so to see how he is doing. He was 25 in this film, and now I want to look in on him at 30."

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