When noted French director Patrice Leconte attended France's most prestigious film school, Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinematographiques, in the late 1960s, none of the country's big directors, such as Francois Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard, ever visited the school to lecture to the aspiring filmmakers.
"If there had been the opportunity to do that," says the slight, bespectacled 56-year-old director, "I would have had thousands of questions. You can learn a lot about films from directors -- good directors. You need to cultivate your mind."
Leconte, the award-winning director of such eclectic films as "Monsieur Hire," "The Hairdresser's Husband," "Ridicule," "The Girl on the Bridge" and the recent "The Man on theTrain," was in town recently for a whirlwind tour of the USC, American Film Institute and UCLA film schools to impart words of wisdom about his craft to graduate film students. Between lectures, Leconte participated in a Q&A session after a screening at the American Cinematheque's Egyptian Theatre of "Hire" and "Hairdresser," and another Q&A event sponsored by the Directors Guild of America after a showing of "The Girl on the Bridge."
Leconte had lectured film students on two occasions in France before his visit to Los Angeles, and he found the contrast between French and U.S. film students striking.
"I'd say between USC and AFI, there is a really joyous, fervent atmosphere," he explains. "I enjoyed it a lot more than talking to French film students. It may just be a first impression, but what I've gotten from my visit here is they use their imagination in a visual sense a lot more. They are more conscious of film as a popular medium. The one thing I never try to forget ultimately is that everything I do is destined to be shown in front of the public in a theater. It's very important to me."
Ironically, says Joe Petricca, vice dean of the AFI Conservatory education programs, "though foreign films are much more accessible today with DVDs and the Internet," the students' film references are "smaller ... and more American post-1977." So he sees the lectures by these filmmakers as beneficial in broadening the horizons of the AFI fellows.
The filmmaker's visit is part of the "On Set With French Cinema" program organized by Unifrance and France's Ministry of Foreign Affairs in partnership with eight universities in Los Angeles and New York, as well as the Museum of Modern Art, the Cinematheque and the Directors Guild.
Last month, Regis Wargnier ("Indochine") discussed filmmaking with students at AFI, UCLA, CalArts and USC, and next month, veteran Agnes Varda ("Cleo From 5 to 7") will visit schools and screen her documentary "Jacquot" at the Cinematheque.
Meanwhile in New York, Claude Miller, Patrice Chereau and Cedric Klapisch are offering insights into filmmaking to students at Columbia University, New York University, the School of Visual Arts and City College of New York.
At the AFI campus off Western and Franklin avenues, Leconte had lunch with several of the school's second-year directing fellows and talked for about three hours, with the aid of a translator, to about 40 directing fellows from both the first- and second-year programs.
Between clips of his films, Leconte admitted to the fellows that he doesn't rely on storyboards to plan his shots. He simply arrives early on the set before shooting begins, acts out each part and plots out the camera moves before the cast and crew arrive.
Although he graduated from film school, Leconte believes these institutions aren't necessarily the only route to becoming a successful director. "I think that every road that leads to filmmaking is a good road. It's that road that really counts. More important is the personal motivation to become a filmmaker. Even if you go to an excellent film school, if you don't have the motivation, the school won't give that to you."
Leconte's reason for going to film school was "simple," he says. "I come from a provincial area in France. And in order to enter a school, you have to take an entrance exam. The fact was I was admitted [to the film school], and it was very competitive. I said to my parents, 'I passed this exam and made it into the school.' There's a difference from telling your family, 'I am going off to Paris to make movies' and 'I was just admitted to school and I will go to Paris to finish this program and then we'll see what happens.' "
AFI's Petricca says that, although the school attracts American filmmakers to its campus during the year, international directors rarely stop by. "The way things are run nowadays, they don't have to be in town that regularly," he says. "Ten or 15 years ago, international filmmakers were coming through on a regular basis."
"On Set With French Cinema" began in earnest in May, when meetings were organized with the participating schools. "We talked with each university," says Mohamed Bendjebbour, executive director of the film and TV department of the Consulate General of France in Los Angeles. "We asked them their reaction to the project and what directors they wanted to come," he says. "They decided on the directors, and we took the most popular names."
The directors, says Bendjebbour, were as enthusiastic as the universities about the concept. And if all goes well, they hope to bring over directors on a yearly basis.
"This is like a test, and we are learning a lot of lessons," he says. "We will try to see how we can do it better for next year, and hopefully we will do it better next time."