City of 'Lights, Camera, Action' : When Parisians Move Out, Film Makers Move In

Times Staff Writer

On a recent morning here, American television star Sandy Duncan pushed a stunt man into the Seine River after whacking him on the head with an umbrella, part of an action sequence for the season opener of her TV sitcom "The Hogan Family."

The same spot on the river along the Quai Montebello below Notre Dame Cathedral was reserved a few days later for Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward to stroll hand-in-hand in their new film "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge," about a couple from Kansas City who raise a family, drift apart and finally reach terms of endearment while vacationing in Paris.

Meanwhile, positioned precariously atop the sloping, bronze dome of the National Opera house, British actor Charles Dance, who stars with Burt Lancaster in a four-hour American television production of "The Phantom of the Opera," practiced swirling his cape as technicians scrambled to build safety nets to keep him from falling 226 feet into the street below.

The "Phantom" rehearsals were interrupted briefly when the crew was distracted by another production of a smaller scale. A man with a shoulder-held camera was filming two naked women cavorting on the rooftop of a nearby building.

August in Paris.

This is the time of year when many Parisians roll out of town on their annual summer vacations and film crews, encouraged by a movie-mad mayor, roll in from all over the world. August is ideal for film making because the streets of the French capital are much less congested, thus solving what is the biggest headache for location managers working in old European cities: finding a place to park for the trailers, vans and portable commissaries that accompany the big productions like army supply trains.

This year's crop of August filmings has an especially American flavor.

"There are many more American productions in Paris right now than I can remember," said director Roman Polanski, a Paris resident who has made several films here including his most recent, "Frantic."

In addition to the "The Hogan Family" and "Phantom," both for NBC, there are three feature films on location here: the Newman-Woodward film under the direction of James Ivory; a Philippe Setbon-directed film starring Jeff Goldblum entitled "Mr. Frost," and "Henry and June," a film by director Philip Kaufman based on the affair between authors Henry Miller and Anais Nin.

What makes Paris the first choice of directors, of course, are the obvious charms of the city itself, one of the few European capitals that suffered almost no damage during World War II and which consequently has relatively few modern buildings to disturb the authenticity of period films.

Cinema, after all, was invented here at the turn of the century by the Lumiere brothers. Director George Melies invented special effects when a horse-drawn trolley he was filming at the Place de l'Opera moved during a camera breakdown and was replaced by a hearse, giving the impression once the film was developed that the trolley had actually become a hearse. Voila, the birth of accidental symbolism! The first movie Westerns were not made in the San Fernando Valley but in the Bois de Vincennes, on the edge of Paris.

Paris claims to be the "most filmed city in the world," with an average of 10 location filmings, ranging from television commercials to full-length features, taking place every day in the capital.

"Let's see," said Francoise Jacquier, thumbing through a spiral notebook centered on the desk of her attic office at the Paris City Hall. "Today they are filming at Notre Dame; in the Bois de Boulogne; in an apartment in the 16th Arrondissement , the Avenue Victor Hugo; at Les Halles, and on the roof of the Opera. It's a light day."

Jacquier, a former stage actress who is known in the Paris film trade as "Madame Cinema," is a special liaison at City Hall in charge of obtaining authorizations for location filmings in Paris. She was appointed to the job by Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac, an avid movie fan who often stays at the home of his friend Gregory Peck when he visits Los Angeles.

Jacquier promises a response to film producers for their location requests in 24 hours and she is the one who deals primarily with the dozens of police prefects, park authorities, church officials and private businesses that get in the way of making movies. In 1985, the official government publication house listed 80 different bodies with power to issue authorizations for filming.

Partly because of Jacquier's skillful interventions, however, directors say working in Paris is relatively easy, despite the mountains of rules. Producer Ismail Merchant, for example, teamed again with director James Ivory to make "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge," said he had no trouble getting permission to become the first movie maker in history to film inside the two main galleries of the Louvre Museum.

"They welcome you with open arms to make movies here," Merchant enthused, although only the day before, in a tense moment, the French Ministry of Culture had threatened to shut down his production in retaliation for a visa problem with a French director working in the United States.

"Sometimes there is a great deal of red tape," director Polanski said during a recent lunch at Fouquet's, the movie-industry hangout on the Avenue des Champs-Elysees. "As you know, France still lives under the yoke of Napoleonic bureaucracy, which has evolved very little. Production managers complain a great deal. But once you get those permissions, shooting is very easy. I've had all the help in the world shooting in the city of Paris.

"They are even great knowing that you are not going to show their city in the best light. You remember that 'Frantic' was not exactly a tourist's dream." (In the film, Harrison Ford plays an American doctor who comes to Paris for a medical convention only to have his wife kidnaped while the Paris police yawn with indifference.)

That does not mean, however, that shooting films in Paris is free of politics. For days, Sandrine Ageorges, a production manager for the "Phantom" movie, attempted to get the floodlights turned off on the roof of the Grand Hotel that are used to illuminate the opera building.

Finally, Jacquier at the mayor's office called with permission. The lights, after all, are controlled by Mayor Chirac. But the building and presenting it to the public are the province of Minister of Culture Jack Lang, who has authority over historic sites. Lang, as it turned out, would not have the historic building darkened, even for a few hours. Permission was rescinded. Ageorges, of course, smelled politics. Mayor Chirac is a leader of the Gaullist opposition party (RPR). Lang is a senior minister in the ruling Socialist Party. Occasionally, she said, the Socialists like to remind the people in the Paris city government not to let the movie-making business go to their head.

Nor is the French bureaucracy always above politics when wielding its movie location authority as a way to fight back at the actions of other countries.

This was obvious with nearly disastrous results recently when the government threatened to halt filming on "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge" the day before shooting was to begin on the Quai Montebello.

French film director Elie Chouraqui, actor Richard Anconina and a 12-man technical crew were in the United States to make a French film entitled "Miss Missouri." While on location in Kansas City, they went to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service office to obtain work visas.

The procedure in such situations is for the INS to ask an expert authority, in this case the Directors Guild in Los Angeles, to certify that the applicant (Chouraqui) is a director of "distinguished merit and authority." Ostensibly because the Directors Guild was unaware of some of Chouraqui's more successful movies, the certification was denied, the request sent back with copies of some bad reviews for his earlier films. The visa was denied.

U.S. officials close to the case, however, speculated that the real reason for the guild's response may have had more to do with the French director's failure to hire an American crew or staff. French newspapers suggested that the denial also may have been motivated by the American film industry's simmering anger over proposed quotas for American productions in Europe after 1992, when the 12 nations of the European Community, merging their economies into a single market, will adopt uniform film standards.

French authorities made it clear to the U.S. Embassy in Paris that unless Chouraqui were granted a visa, "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge" could not be made in Paris.

The conflict flared anew Friday when Chirac actually suspended filming in Paris for a few hours.

Following the intervention of Motion Picture Assn. of America President Jack Valenti and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), among other personages, a visa was obtained for Chouraqui. Visas for the rest of the French production were promised. For his part, Chouraqui pledged to scout around for American talent.

As a result, the Newman-Woodward film was allowed to roll.

"For 48 hours it was a rough situation," said the film's French co-producer, Hubert Balsan. "We were threatened with retaliation. It was the most extraordinary thing I have seen in France."

Such tense moments over a film are a rarity in Paris, where almost anything goes in the movies, particularly in the month of August.

French officials are much more likely to complain that Americans do not make enough movies in Paris or do not use enough of the city as a cinematic canvas. The only recent denials on record at City Hall, outside of normal concerns about blocking traffic or interfering with public transportation, were to requests to film a swimsuit sequence at the giant Pere Lachaise Cemetery and for a group sex scene at the underground catacombs.

"Regrettably," said Paris cinema czar Jacquier, "Americans usually only film touristic Paris--the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame." But if any American wants to come to Paris and make the city, warts and all, the "star" of the movie:

"I promise I will give them total help."

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