Bertrand Tavernier

Trained as a lawyer, his passion for film led him to publicize American films in France and eventually become a filmmaker.

His first major film The Clockmaker based on a Simenon novel was set in his native Lyon and started a legendary collaboration with Philippe Noiret. ‘Round Midnight was an opportunity to explore his passion for jazz and the life of African-American musicians in Paris after the war.



Trained as a lawyer, his passion for film led him to publicize American films in France and eventually become a filmmaker.

His first major film The Clockmaker based on a Simenon novel was set in his native Lyon and started a legendary collaboration with Philippe Noiret. ‘Round Midnight was an opportunity to explore his passion for jazz and the life of African-American musicians in Paris after the war.

The appearance of blacklisted director Jack Berry was a nod to all of those who suffered the stings of McCarthyism and found refuge in Paris.

He is the co-author of Cinquante Ans de le Cinema Américain, a celebration of the American films that informed his cinematic style.

With the imminent release of his latest film In the Electric Mist we sat down over lunch, another of his favorite pastimes, to discuss that film and its star, Tommy Lee Jones.

TG: You’ve always had a great interest in American film. Do you remember the first American film that you saw?
BT: I think it was a World War II film called Gung Ho starring Randolph Scott and Robert Mitchum in a small part. I saw it again on video 20 years later. It was one of those jingoistic, propaganda films. Incredible-the Japanese are called monkeys all the time. It mentions the fight with the Chinese and Chiang Kai-Chek. Randolph Scott’s character fought with the Chinese and is asked to mount an attack on a small island. Quickly after that I saw another war film: Back to Bataan with John Wayne. And I also saw Snow White.

TG: What was it about those films that you found so resonant; so different from French films?
BT: At that time I wasn’t making a distinction between French and American films. The American films had more appeal for a seven or eight year old boy because they had more action. They were less adult and it was easier for my parents to take me to them than a Jean Gabin film. It was when I became a teenager that I started to see a difference. I was mostly interested in the actors-the first being Gary Cooper, especially in THE LIVES OF THE BENGAL LANCERS, directed by Henry Hathaway, which made a tremendous impression me. I loved that film. The fact that he was dying at the end moved me a lot. I saw it again recently and I still think it’s the best of its kind-the colonialist films where the colonialist is never questioned. We are there to occupy the land and you are here to shine our boots. The film doesn’t criticize the attitude but it shows it so very clearly that it can be very interesting even if you have opposite views.

And by the way Hathaway was one of the directors who inspired me to become a film director when I was twelve or thirteen. He was the first person that I noticed.

The first person I recognized as an auteur, even if in a naïve way was John Ford after seeing FORT APACHE and SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON I suddenly thought that you can write a film image the same way that novelists like Jack London, Jules Verne, James Oliver Curwood –you can do with film what they do with words. I was immediately seeing these things in Ford’s work.

I then noticed William Wellman’s work beginning with his last film with John Wayne, ISLAND IN THE SKY, THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY and BLOOD ALLEY.

It was only a few years later that I discovered the films of Renoir and Carné-the shock of LA GRANDE ILLUSION. I think I saw it three times in one week and it has never stopped moving me. And when I was making IN THE ELECTRIC MIST I lived in America for a long time and I suddenly felt very lonely and I wanted to get back to my roots so I watched Renoir films. During the shooting I watched LA GRANDE ILLUSION, LA BETE HUMAINE and Jacques Becker’s TOUCHEZ PA AU GRISBI-it was very comforting.

TG: Let’s talk a little about Dave Robicheaux and the making of IN THE ELECTRIC MIST. Had you been an avid reader of James Lee Burke?
BT: Yes. I love his books. And I love his non-Dave Robicheaux books like TO A BRIGHT AND SHINING DAY or WHITE DOVES IN THE MORNING and his short stories, but I love the Dave Robicheaux stories. I found IN THE ELECTRIC MIST to be very personal and very unusual. It has many themes: the importance of roots-the past, the fact that the crimes of the present are linked to the crimes of the past, the fact that in Louisiana because people never confronted the past and the sins of the past it created the contemporary situation which for Burke is slowly transforming Louisiana into a third world state. He said that after Katrina Louisiana was like Bangladesh.

And I love Dave Robicheaux. I think he’s one of the best characters created in crime prose-one of the best since Phillip Marlowe. I like his compassion, his mercy, his hunger, and revulsion to what is happening in the place where he lives. I think Burke got all that-the sense of corruption, the smells, the complexity of the relationship between the different heavies. There is a great humanism in Burke. I love the fact that Dave Robicheaux is Catholic; that he goes to mass, that he goes to confession. And he is witty and ironic. He is not orthodox at all. He conducts an investigation based on instinct; his knowledge of the time and the place. He cannot explain why he knows that suspect is guilty except that he has a knowledge that the scientific investigators don’t have. I like the fact that he was sometimes wrong, even in his behavior. He has moments of anger that devastate him-something that Tommy Lee Jones caught very well. I tried to be faithful to that spirit and to update it. The action takes place after Katrina providing a subtext for may characters.

TG: How did the project come about?
BT: I wanted to do it. We employed many Louisianians as crew and some actors and shot in New Iberia and two days in New Orleans.

TG: You ate a lot of Tabasco sauce?
BT: No we didn’t get permission because in one scene a character wanted to put Tabasco on his boiled egg but he was using the word “nigger” so Tabasco said no. This is political correctness at its dumbest and stupid–to think that people would connect the sauce to a word.

TG: Was James Lee Burke helpful?
BT: He was wonderful. He showed me the bait shop that we used in the movie, got us into the real Sherriff’s office in New Iberia and even contributed some dialogue such as ”Since Katrina Louisiana doesn’t have enough money to lobotomize guys like me anymore.” This is typical of Burke.

TG: Of all of the books in the series why this one?
BT: It was the content. I love the fact that in the middle of the book you have an investigation that takes place now and a Confederate general who turns up in the story, marvelously played by Levon Helm, the great Levon Helm.

TG: You mentioned a personal connection to Burke.
BT: His attitude towards the past, to history, the importance of knowing your past, your roots. It seems to me that it’s the basis of democracy. In Burke when there is a hurricane suddenly a tree will fall and in the roots of the tree you discover a dead body. Burke was telling me the story of when Lyndon B. Johnson gave a specific order for a river to be searched for the body of a black man who had been lynched. The police were not at all cooperative so immediately he issued a Federal order and they dug up 20 bodies. And Burke was there and one cop turned to another and said: “Do you know why those dead bodies came to the top? Because someone waved a welfare check.” When you have that attitude in the past it explains many things in the present.

TG: You talk about roots and your father was a resistant in Lyon during the war. How has that affected your life and your work?
BT: I learned very early the meaning of the word resistance. I understood that in life some things are unacceptable-you have to draw a line. He didn’t talk to me specifically but I listened to his stories, the moral of his stories. He made me read a lot of books.

TG: I’ve always seen great humanity in your work.
BT: Yes. I was also very much influenced by John Ford’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH. Film contributed to my political education. After BROKEN ARROW I began to research the American Indian, the New Deal after THE GRAPES OF WRATH. Much later I began to study my origins. I felt close to people on the Blacklist, even if they were Stalinian.

TG: Talk about Tommy Lee Jones. When reading the books I never visualized a particular actor but when I saw that he was cast I felt that he’d be perfect.
BT: Tommy Lee Jones is the best Dave Robicheaux. In the only other film of Burke’s novels Alec Baldwin was cast as Robicheaux and although I like some of his work he was totally miscast-he looked like a tourist in the south. Tommy Lee Jones is from the south but beyond that he has a sense of time and place. He captures roots of a character. When you see him walking you have the impression that he has been there or forty years without speaking a line. The same way that Jean Gabin could make you believe in LA BETE HUMAINE that he had been driving that locomotive for twenty years. Whatever the credits on the screenplay, he wrote many scenes. I think that he may be the best actor of his generation. He can transform the world with a look, a knitted brow-he can give you things that are never on the paper. He is the kind of actor with whom you fall more in love in the editing room. On the set he works and is superb on first takes but in the editing room you
see the nuances.



The Paris Insider Newsletter

THE PARIS INSIDER family of weekly newsletters,Including THE PARIS INSIDER (Tuesday,) THE PARIS READERS CIRCLE (Wednesday,) THE PARIS WEEKENDER (Thursday,) and THE PARIS INTERVIEW (Friday) offer freshly written reviews about restaurants, museums, books, events, showings and what's on in Paris. Arriving at 9:15 AM Pacific Time you'll receive all of this plus tips on excursions to the surrounding regions from Champagne to the Loire Valley and much more. Thank you for subscribing.