Francis Veber plays the interview game ... and wins!

The man who gave us "The Dinner Game" and "La Cage aux Folles" is just as entertaining as his films.

Published August 27, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

"It's good for my ego!" says writer-director Francis Veber when I tell him that the success of "The Dinner Game" will up his heat in Hollywood more than anything he's done since his script for the 1979 smash "La Cage aux Folles."

Before "La Cage aux Folles," Veber wrote "The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe" and "L'emmerdeur"; they were remade in America as "The Man With One Red Shoe" and "Buddy, Buddy" (one of the great Billy Wilder's worst movies). In the years since "La Cage aux Folles," Veber directed as well as wrote a succession of French hits ("Le Jouet," "La Chhvre," "Les Comphres" and "Les Fugitifs") that became American bombs ("The Toy," "Pure Luck," "Father's Day" and "Three Fugitives"). To add self-inflicted injury to insult, he directed the remake of "Three Fugitives" himself.

No matter how the remake of "The Dinner Game" turns out (Dreamworks has it in development, and Veber may direct), the original, now in theaters, should win back the goodwill of comedy-watchers everywhere. It's a sour, sweet, then sour again spree. The two leads are a smug, good-looking publisher and an accountant as squat and badly-used as a neighborhood dog's favorite hydrant.

The publisher invites the accountant to a group dinner that's actually a game -- the fellow who brings the sorriest bore wins. The accountant qualifies because he's obsessed with making matchstick recreations of engineering feats like the Eiffel Tower or the Concorde. But the pair never get to the dinner game. And in a satisfying case of existential turnaround, the accountant -- with the best intentions, and without leaving the publisher's home -- ruins his host's life.

At the end of a publicity jaunt from Los Angeles to San Francisco (he has homes in West Hollywood and Paris), Veber couldn't have been more gracious. Making sure that I had not just a Perrier from his hotel room mini-bar but also a proper water glass, he confessed that he identified with both of his characters -- well, maybe a little more with the accountant.

Does doing one of these tours make you feel the host or the idiot?

I feel like the two of them all the time.

So you sometimes think that the press is setting you up to be a jerk?

There is this question that keeps coming back, all the time, about Jerry Lewis. It's like a guilt that we French are supposed to have forever. I mean, Jerry Lewis hasn't been part of our landscape for 20 years. But that question keeps coming: "Do you like Jerry Lewis?"

I only went to Cannes once, 14 years ago, and at an official dinner I was seated next to the wife of a French publisher. I asked her if she liked Jerry Lewis. And she answered, "You know, the first time I see his movies, I don't think they're very funny. But the second time I see his movies, I laugh and laugh!"

That's like the guy who goes to get a tattoo. The first time you think he's an idiot, the second time you think he's a very suspicious character.

So now I have to ask you: Do you like Jerry Lewis?

Actually, he's done some good material. The films he did with Frank Tashlin, or the one they remade -- I don't know how they say it in English, the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thing, "The Magic Professor?"

"The Nutty Professor." And "The Ladies' Man" is not bad either. But tell me -- I'm a bit like the medical man in "The Dinner Game." I've heard about fraternity boys competing to bring the ugliest girl to a party, but I've never heard of grown-ups competing to bring the stupidest man. Is that your invention?

No, it's a real game. They still play it in Paris. A mean, a cruel game, and I didn't like it. So I decided to punish one of the guys who did. There's an exclusive, private club in Paris -- the members are people from advertising or the record business, the "media" -- and those guys were playing this game, bringing the biggest jerk they could find. I heard stories about it. I had friends who say they participated -- for example, an anchorman in Paris. He had to bring a jerk to one of these dinners, and his jerk was supposed to be a world-class one -- and was sick the day of the dinner. Now my friend needed a new jerk. So he called this TV director who was supposed to be amazingly stupid. But this TV director had already been invited! My friend was the second guy calling him! So you see, this is a real game. And a mean game.

Have you ever been invited?

Maybe I have been! Because you know, when I start to talk about screenwriting, I can be as obnoxious as the guy [in "The Dinner Game"] talking about his matchstick things. They punish you for being passionate about something.

I meant, were you invited to be a "host!" Are you saying you based the lead character on someone you know?

A lot of guys I know, guys who had everything when they were born. Handsome, tall, blond, blue-eyed, from rich families. The other guy looks like E.T. or the Hunchback of Paris next to these beautiful people. Two extremes facing each other -- I like the chemistry of that.

We never feel too sorry for "the idiot" because in his own world he's just as snobbish -- he mocks Belgians, for example. And he works for the Financial Ministry and brings a killer tax collector into the other man's house.

You are perfectly right. It's the ambiguity of the character, because he's not exactly an idiot. He's more dangerous than an idiot -- dangerous on two levels, because when a jerk wants to help, he's the most dangerous man in the world. And he's dangerous as a deus ex machina -- he knows when a guy can be audited. You see on his face, at one moment in the film, "I am holding you by the balls now." So he's more dangerous than he seems to be. Tax people are not the most popular people here in the U.S., but in France, they are hated.

You made a movie called "The Dinner Game." But you never really show us the dinner game.

If you try to show a real jerk talking, it's dangerous -- there's a potential that the audience can feel what he's saying is true. So I just had a few seconds of a guy at the dinner saying how he'd kill a wallaby or an ostrich with his boomerang. That was enough.

When I was at school, we were taught Henri Bergson's theory of comedy -- that it derives from disrupted habits, patterns that are broken.

I didn't think of Bergson when I made this movie, but I love his theory. I still remember a story told in his book about a preacher in church, giving his sermon. He's so touching, and so emotional, that everyone is crying except one guy. And a man turns to him and says, "You're not touched by what this priest is saying?" And the guy says, "I don't belong to this church."

Does a comedy such as this one, that plays on social stereotypes -- like, say, the beautiful person with the charmed life and the haute bourgeois background -- play more naturally in France?

It does play more naturally in France. But there is a kind of contempt for poor people in Los Angeles, and it's almost the same thing as the class difference in France. I have a house in the hills in West Hollywood -- very quiet, I can take my bike and ride in the hills, then go back and write. What I've found is that for a lot of people here, a man who is richer is more intelligent than a man who is less rich. Which is very stupid, because you can be very rich and very stupid. But Rupert Murdoch is supposed to be more intelligent than one of his lieutenants -- because he's richer. So this is a clichi, too, and it exists in America.

I've seen the film at festivals here, with crowds made up of almost all Americans, and they were laughing as much as the audience in France. Maybe they understand this kind of humor, even if it's not about the same social structure you have here. Maybe here class has been replaced by wealth.

Why has it been harder for you to have success with the remakes of your movies in America?

Let's say I'm a producer, and I have my writer, and we buy a film to remake it. And we watch this film 10 times, 15 times. And the jokes start to fade, they are less fresh. And my new writer comes up with a new joke and I say, Oh, good, this one is fun. He's bringing his world into the world of the original writer and sometimes it doesn't fit. So you have something that is supposed to be richer than the original -- but it's like putting Chantilly crhme on goose liver. It's rich but bad.

I met an intelligent writer called Elaine May in New York; she and Mike Nichols remade "La Cage aux Folles" as "The Birdcage." And she told me that she tried to stay as close as possible to the French movie so two worlds were not fighting.

I didn't think anything in "The Birdcage" was up to Michel Serrault's performance in "La Cage aux Folles," but at least the filmmakers didn't fool with the structure. And the structure was so strong it clicked for the audience.

"La Cage aux Folles" was one of the best concepts I ever worked on because those people trying to be straight for one evening are just nice, their act comes from the heart. They want to help their son. That's the reason these two poor clowns are so touching.

In general, these days, the American versions of European comedies are much, much broader.

But you have some wonderful comedies here. I saw recently "Analyze This," with De Niro and Billy Crystal, and I would have liked to have this premise, I liked it very much, this psychiatrist and this mobster.

The problem often in America is that the producer or the director or the writer underestimate the audience. They think things have to be broad, have to be hammered, have to be heavy -- and the audience is far faster than they think.

The problem here, too, is the credits, because the studios change teams of writers like Kleenex -- pick two writers, then pick two others, then two others. Because all those writers fight to be the ones who have the credits, you are almost always at the point of the first draft, even at the end.

And there are characters that the executives at the studios won't let you do here. Like the one the executives call a wimp. When a guy is a weak guy, an anti-hero, if he cries, like a Mastroianni type -- "He's a wimp." If he doesn't have an arc that makes him become Rambo, they don't want to touch this guy. I love a man who is courageous enough to say he's weak, but they say "Oh, my God."

"The Dinner Game" is 80 minutes long. I love that.

I didn't want to make the movie longer. You know I could have put in a subplot. It's easy to imagine: We follow the wife as she drives through Paris, and it opens up the movie. And I say, no! I want to focus on the two guys. And I say to myself, what is the American movie I prefer for the last two or three years? And it was "Men in Black." It's one hour and 23 minutes long. Those guys in "Men in Black," when they go in the special service, they have no past and no future anymore. So you avoid those horrible scenes where the guy goes back home and the wife asks him, "Why are you doing this dangerous job?" and the kids are crying. You avoid all that trash, and you get this film that goes whooof! So I didn't put subplots in "The Dinner Game." Eighty minutes is enough.

Even when the wife and another driver collide, you don't make too big a deal of it.

After I showed the movie in Washington, a man raised his hand, and said, "I liked your movie very much, but I have a question for you: What happened to the other driver?" I thought he was kidding, so I said, "The other driver's wife and seven children had to go on welfare because he died in the crash."

Then he said, "No, no, I'm serious, what happened to the other driver?"

And I asked, "What are you doing for dinner tonight, sir?"

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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