In the late 1960s, Costa-Gavras couldn't persuade any French producer or distributor to make his political thriller "Z," which went on to win the Oscar for the best foreign language film of 1969.
"It was an unusual movie," says the 76-year-old filmmaker, born in Greece as Konstantinos Gavras. "There was no love story and there were several characters going through it. It was difficult to explain. I remember even an important producer said to me, 'I will film the telephone book, but not that story.' "
"Z," which opens today at the Nuart with a new print and a new translation for its 40th anniversary, is a thinly veiled, dramatized account of the assassination of liberal Greek politician Gregoris Lambrakis in 1963. The opening credits of the film, which is based on a book by Vassilis Vassilikos, even feature a most unusual disclaimer: "Any resemblance of real events, to persons living or dead, is not accidental. It is DELIBERATE."
The closing credits, meanwhile, list everything that had been banned in Greece after a 1967 military coup, including long hair on men, the Beatles, Mark Twain, modern and popular music and the letter "Z," which was a symbolic reminder that the spirit of Lambrakis and resistance still lived in the country.
Yves Montand, who appeared in Costa-Gavras' first feature film, 1965's "The Sleeping Car Murders," plays the politician, Irene Papas is his wife and Jean-Louis Trintignant is the magistrate assigned to investigate the death.
The film was eventually made in Algeria, thanks to co-star and co-producer Jacques Perrin, who had connections there.
"We saw the minster of information [in Algeria]," Costa-Gavras says. "He was a very great intellectual. He said we can do it. We can't give you money, but all the facilities. Because of the low budget, we were being paid little money."
One of the film's high points is the stirring score by Mikis Theodorakis, who was imprisoned at the time because he had founded the Patriotic Front to protest the junta running the country. He gave Costa-Gavras permission to use any of his previous music for the movie. The following year, an international solidarity movement that included Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Miller and Harry Belafonte was able to win the composer's release, though he had to live in exile.
"Z" was universally praised and became the first foreign film in 31 years to earn an Oscar nomination for best picture; Costa-Gavras received nominations for best director as well as for screenplay adaptation, which he shared with Jorge Semprun.
"Z" also won a Golden Globe for best foreign language film, New York Film Critics Circle awards for film and director and a best film award from the National Society of Film Critics. Ironically, the movie's distributor told the producers to turn down the Golden Globe. "At that time, the Golden Globes were not that famous and the distributor said, 'Don't take it. We don't want it. It's not good. It's better to have [the Oscar],' " Costa-Gavras recalls with a laugh.
The success of the film took Costa-Gavras by surprise. "Especially the American success," he says. "French movies had a small audience [in the U.S], but when the movie opened here it very quickly started to have a huge success. It was extraordinary for us."
Since then, Costa-Gavras has continued to challenge and provoke movie audiences with his politically themed films, including "State of Siege" and his first American movie, "Missing," for which he won an Oscar for adapted screenplay.
Costa-Gavras will also be honored April 23 at the City of Lights City of Angels film festival at the Directors Guild of America building. "The Sleeping Car Murders" will be screened in the afternoon, followed by a one-hour discussion with the director, capped off with the West Coast premiere of his latest film, "Eden Is West," about a young man emigrating from an undisclosed country in the Mediterranean to Paris.
"It's not really a movie about immigration," says Costa-Gavras, who immigrated to Paris in the 1950s. "It is also about our society and the way we deal with [immigrants]. The way we exploit them or accept them or help them. It's kind of a double story."