His Films Star Average Guys

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Francis Veber is one of French cinema's most popular comedy writers and directors. During the last 32 years, he has written or co-written such hit farces as "The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe," "Le Magnifique," "La Cage aux Folles," which was nominated for a foreign-language film Oscar, and "Les Comperes." He directed his first film, "The Toy," 25 years ago and his first American film, "Three Fugitives," 13 years later.

One of Veber's best films is the dark 1998 comedy "The Dinner Game," which won several Cesar Awards in France. Based on his hit play of the same title, "The Dinner Game" concerns a self-centered Parisian publisher who participates in a weekly ritual with several high-powered friends: find the dullest, most stupid person you can and bring him to dinner.

Veber's latest comedy, "The Closet," also has been a big hit in France. It opened in New York a few weeks ago and arrives in Los Angeles today in selected theaters.

Daniel Auteuil stars as Francois Pignon, a mild-mannered accountant working in a condom factory who still pines for his ex-wife and tries in vain to connect with his teenage son. When he discovers he's about to be fired because his co-workers think he's boring, his neighbor (Michel Aumont), an elderly gay psychologist, hatches a plan to save Pignon's job. He tells Pignon to start a rumor that he is gay. As a straight man pretending to be gay, Pignon discovers that his co-workers and family treat him differently.

Gerard Depardieu, who has appeared in several Veber comedies, plays a macho lunkhead co-worker who loses his cool, and Michele Laroque plays a fellow accountant with whom Pignon falls in love.

Veber, a former journalist, has lived in Los Angeles for the last 15 years. A fit and trim 63, Veber recently talked about "The Closet" in the dining room of his sumptuous Hollywood Hills home, which has a panoramic view of the L.A. skyline.

Question: Although you make films mainly in France, you live in Los Angeles. What brought you to the City of Angels?

Answer: It was Jeffrey Katzenberg during the Cannes Film Festival 15 years ago, asking me to come to America to the Disney studio. He was head of production at that time. He said, "I like the way you are structuring your stories and you can be a consultant for us." It was very flattering. I don't imagine in France, where we are so arrogant, us bringing a foreigner like that to reread our screenplays. I spent six years over there at Disney. I decided to stay because it is easy for me to write here. In France, I am more famous and [there] is temptation after temptation. People call me to go to premieres and parties and things like that. Here, no one knows me.

Sometimes I go back [to France], but I like the American way of life.

Q: What is the difference between making movies in France and making them in Hollywood?

A: You have more people watching over your shoulder at the studios [in Hollywood]. You write a screenplay that is 110 pages and you have 150 pages of notes. In France, we don't have enough notes. It is not the same system at all. In France, we are very much helped; you have the government giving money [to make films]. Producers don't need to make money with a film. They make money before [the film goes into production].

Q: Your films all are about average, simple guys who find themselves in difficult and crazy situations.

A: I think the arc of these people is more interesting. Most [of my heroes] are people in the crowd, so when these people go to the sunny side of the street, you know, I think it is far more touching. It is why I am more interested in men like Daniel Auteuil succeeding in life than a man like Schwarzenegger being strong. He was born strong.

Q: What was the genesis of "The Closet"?

A: The evolution of political correctness has really changed in France, and America too. There is a line of the guy who is living next door who is suggesting the strategy who says, "I was fired 20 years ago for the reason they are keeping you now."

That was amusing to me, that eventually in a specific kind of company you can be kept for that kind of reason--being gay--because the manager is afraid, scared, not to be politically correct. That is something very new [in France].

Q: Is there less discrimination now in France against gays?

A: It is evolving very, very fast. You can see gay pride here, in France and in every country. More and more people are coming out. But there are still a lot of problems. In France, you still have a kind of discrimination, but not as much [as 20 years ago]. It is changing. That is why I wrote the movie, because I hope it changes more.

Q: Yet more than 20 years ago, "La Cage aux Folles," which dealt with two gay men, had a broad international appeal.

A: In "La Cage aux Folles," the two guys are so much over the top that they have no sex anymore. They are more clowns than gays. Plus, [its appeal lies in the fact that] the story is a love story. It is for their son, they are pretending for one evening to be straight. It explains the huge success of "La Cage" around the world because it is a very touching movie with characters who are not offensive, who are touching because they are nice and are funny because they are clowns.

Q: It's a very interesting plot point that when Auteuil "comes out" he doesn't change his behavior. It is his co-workers' perception of him that changes.

A: I wanted to do a kind of anti-"La Cage aux Folles" because I have seen bad movies where actors were trying to perform like flamers. It is the most horrible thing. That is why the neighbor tells Auteuil: Don't do anything [different]. It is smart advice. It is the perception of others that changes.

Q: Did you write the part of Felix Santini for Depardieu?

A: Oh yes, for sure. I don't see another actor to perform that part because he had to go from the big, stupid macho guy who did bad jokes about gays to this strange, fragile little flower who is having a breakdown little by little. He does that so well.

I was very scared because he had his [heart bypass] surgery the day before my first day of shooting. I went to the hospital and he was lying on his bed--huge. He must have weighed 300 pounds at the time. He looked like a whale. I kissed him and he said, "Wait for me." I waited five weeks. He was so strong, he recovered very well and he gave this performance. I don't see anybody else who could do that.

Q: Pignon must have been a challenge for Auteuil because he has to make the character low-key but sympathetic.

A: It was a challenge because I was asking him to be dull and be transparent, and at the same time to have a screen presence, which is very difficult.

Q: "The Closet" marks the first time one of your films has featured a comedic female lead. You previously have gone on record to say that comedy was a masculine genre. Do you still feel that way?

A: I was wrong. I was thinking that women have to do physical comedy like men. It is not compulsory. You can have a woman who is helping the movie to evolve and she can be perfectly normal [and be funny]. She doesn't have to slip on banana peels.

Q: What has been the response of the gay community in France to "The Closet"?

A: Very recently, Michele Laroque was at a gay festival in San Francisco, and it was very well-received. The only people among the gay community who didn't like the film were the activists, and they are saying--and they are right--that it is not because you are gay that you keep your job in a company. But they are not judging the film, they are fighting their fight. It is a reasonable and fair fight.

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