MOVIES : Schiffman: From Script Girl to Director

Suzanne Schiffman would have been content--"a happy coward"--spending her creative life in the late Francois Truffaut's shadow. As his behind-the-camera collaborator, she had known the masterful French director since she was 17. She contributed to his films for two decades, as script girl, then assistant director, and, from "Day for Night" (1973) through his final picture, "Confidentially Yours" (1983), as his co-screenwriter.

"I was never frustrated, even as a script girl," Schiffman said during a visit here. "I was the one with whom Francois would discuss everything. And I had such admiration for his work, even the films for which he had lost confidence."

But Truffaut's death from cancer in 1984 confused, angered and depressed the usually easygoing Schiffman. When she tried serving as assistant director to others, the pleasure was gone. She temporarily alienated her old friend, director Jacques Rivette, who had hired her, because "I became very critical of his filming." Another job ended abruptly after a week. "I couldn't stand this other director."

She decided, in fact, that she would never toil as an assistant director again. That resolve led to "Sorceress," Schiffman's first film as a director. It recently opened at Laemmle's Fine Arts in Beverly Hills to good box office and mostly positive reviews.

The morality drama, set in the 13th Century, tells of Etienne de Bourbon (Tcheky Karyo), a zealous Dominican friar sent to purge a village in rural France of heretics. He is confused by an alluring forest woman, Elda (Christine Boisson), who cures the locals with herbs and holistic remedies.

"Sorceress" began for Schiffman in France with a transcontinental telephone call from an American stranger. Pamela Berger, a Boston College art history professor, had written the draft of a script inspired by the Latin texts of the real-life Etienne de Bourbon. She needed a seasoned screenplay collaborator.

"Pamela was very excited telling me the story, saying: 'I'm calling you from Boston, and we can get an NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities) grant!' "

Berger sent a first script, which Schiffman described as "very naive, with no cinematic shape. Pamela was deeply involved with history but did not know yet what a dramatic line was, and how to carry it through. But it was a good story, and the real quality was its freshness."

Schiffman agreed to collaborate, and Berger arrived in France so they could co-write an improved "Sorceress" screenplay.

Schiffman's first task was to trim the enthusiastic speeches--a common mistake of fledgling screenwriters. "There was a daughter of a monk who never stopped explaining about religion. I said, 'She talks and talks! She's out!' I turned the daughter into a mute." The second task was to break an immense flashback, "a big block which completely stopped the action," into manageable parts.

Even as they wrote, Schiffman had no intention to direct "Sorceress." But, Schiffman gradually realized that she was giving her own vision of what "Sorceress" should be on screen. "So I told Pamela, 'Why shouldn't I direct it?' "

Schiffman's biggest worry wasn't casting, but the problems inherent in making an authentic medieval period drama. "You can't invent while shooting. Everything has to be prepared and ready, every weapon and every costume. You can't suddenly move locations because of telephone poles. It puts you in a straitjacket."

In the early 1950s, Schiffman met the young men who would constitute France's New Wave--Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Rivette--at the cine clubs of Paris. As a group, they adored the American action pictures directed by Fritz Lang, Sam Fuller and Nicholas Ray, and they championed the personal French cinema of Jean Renoir, Jean Vigo and Robert Bresson.

"All of us sitting in the front rows, we got acquainted. We talked, and walked through Paris for hours and, yes, we sat in cafes. There were other girls, more or less in love, who came around a few times. But I was the only girl who was like them, friends in love with the cinema."

In the mid-'50s, Truffaut and the others started a fiery cinema magazine, the legendary Cahiers du Cinema. They all wrote polemical film criticism and plotted to make movies--except Schiffman. "I wasn't a very aggressive female then, and I'm still not now."

Instead, she took art history at the Sorbonne, and she met and married Philip Schiffman, an Abstract Expressionist painter from New York who was studying in Europe on the GI Bill. (Their two grown sons are a film actor and a cameraman.) She assisted sociologist Edgar Morin in his monumental tome, "The Imaginary Cinema," and she traveled to the U.S. for a year of contemplating "Social Thought" at the University of Chicago.

When the New Wave directors got film projects, she worked as script girl for Rivette, then Godard. With Godard, "You had to be present but not seen, and it was very hard to discuss anything with him, because he hated questions and there was hardly any script."

When Schiffman moved to Truffaut, she began to be part of the collaborative world of film making.

"The assistant directors, who were always men, were bothered that Truffaut would discuss things with me as the script girl."

With "The Wild Child" (1969), Schiffman was promoted to assistant director, but one with myriad artistic duties. She established the work schedule, scouted locations, eventually helped cast actors.

"We'd come on the set at 9:30 in the morning and discuss how the scene would be shot in the afternoon. I'd look through the camera and come up with ideas."

Their relationship was extremely symbiotic.

"When Francois was acting in his films, I was his double. We were the same size, and I'd walk through the scene for him. When we shot, he'd ask me if it was all right, and whether we needed another take."

At this time, Schiffman severed her work relationship with Godard. "He was the one real genius we had. But our collaboration stopped in 1968 when he became a wild revolutionary. When Godard saw me, he changed sidewalks on the Champs Elysees because I'd sold out to capitalism." Godard likewise assigned Truffaut to his list of political enemies, and attacked Truffaut in speech and print.

"Francois had had it. He'd accepted all the bad things Godard had said about him in the newspapers, but one day he remarked, 'I don't want to see Godard anymore.' But he still went to see Godard's films."

The two New Wave directors remained estranged until the end. "But Godard was very touched by the death of Francois. That I do know." Also, in recent years, Godard and Schiffman have spoken briefly. "I get mad at his films because he refuses to tell stories, but I see all of them. And I don't think we'll change sidewalks anymore when we meet."

On "Day for Night" (1973), she shared an Academy Award original screenplay nomination for the autobiographical celebration of movie making. Truffaut played a director version of himself and actress Nathalie Baye portrayed a script girl much like Schiffman. "The episode at night in which Francois and the script girl are rewriting a scene for the next day because an actress has died--that's what Francois and I did."

Today, she's taking care of her need to be around movies by directing a second feature, "The Straw Woman," a Paris-set comedy starring Truffaut's perennial lead actor, Jean-Pierre Leaud. And Schiffman is using many of the familiar crew from "Sorceress."

There is only one position unfilled: the Truffaut-style all-purpose assistant, collaborator and confidante. "I miss most having someone around to shout at and cry with! Someone like me!"

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