Conor Power in conversation with Guillaume Laurant

Guillaume Laurant is a French author and screenplay writer. He is probably best known for his work as dialogue writer for a number of films directed by one of French cinema’s most original and successful directors Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

The two first worked together on the film The City of Lost Children in 1995 and have since collaborated on Amélie (2000), A Very Long Engagement (2003) and Mic-Macs (2009).

The son of school-teachers and born in the north-east department of Picardie, Laurant left school after second-level education. He was always obsessively interested in literature.

“I read an enormous amount of books,” he says, “obsessively so – almost to an autistic degree, and for me, real life existed in books. I wanted to really live the life of novels; to see and do as much as I possibly could. I left school as early because for me, the idea of going through formal education didn’t make any sense when you could learn so much from experience.”

Laurant went through a number of occupations – including the obligatory stint in the army – while continually writing. He has published two novels and still sees himself as a writer at heart. Although he’s happy to continue writing both novels and for the screen, he prefers the freedom and solitude of writing to the technical and more constrained working conditions of cinema.

“We’ve done four films together now and I’d say that although my passion is in my writing, our work together has been the most important for me because it elevated my work to a worldwide audience in only the second scenario that I wrote (“City of Lost Children”).”

By the early 1990s, Laurant had moved to Paris, where he continued working and writing and where he had become involved in a small drama group. At this point, he was acting while maintaining his day jobs and had just written his first screenplay. This screenplay was never turned into a film, but it was to have a profound effect on his life in a manner that he could surely could not have dared predict even in his wildest dreams.

“I looked up his (Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s) name in the telephone directory at the post office downstairs from where I was living and I sent him something I had written which more-or-less resembled a screenplay!”

At the time, Jeunet had become a worldwide sensation with his first feature film “Delicatessen”.

“I saw Delicatessen and felt that there was a sort-of common off-beat spirit of fantasy with my kind-of screenplay there. So I went down to the post office and got his address and wrote something like ‘Mr Jeunet, I would like to get your opinion on my work’. And, to my great surprise, he telephoned me. He said he had read it and asked me if we could meet up and he suggested that I work with him on The City of Lost Children.

Although the script never became a film, some elements were used in different projects and some even found their way into Amélie.

At this point, Jeunet and Laurant have developed what has become a highly successful and lucrative relationship and are currently working together on their next feature film. As well as a commonality of spirit, the two are also self-taught in their fields. For the last three films they made together, Jeunet normally writes the screenplay and directs, with Laurant writing the dialogue.

Laurant has worked with a couple of other directors, but although the writing role he has played in each of the films he has worked on with Jeunet, he says that he is struck by the fact that the working methods were very different in each movie.

“For Amélie, we made a lot of notes individually and brought them together and mixed them around. For A Very Long Engagement, it was different again because we were working from a novel.

“At this point, we know each other very well and often he will write a scene without the dialogue and then send it to me to fill in the dialogue only. It could be a page where he outlines the scene at the start. Then he puts in the name of the character and puts in ‘bla bla bla’ after it and does the same for the next character. He sends it to me by email and then I fill in the ‘bla bla’ bits!”

Laurant is married to the actress Sandrine Bonnaire, with whom they have one daughter. They met…

Given the romantic nature of a lot of the films he’s worked on (in particular Amélie and A Very Long Engagement), I ask him if he is a romantic at heart. To this, he smiles and wonder how exactly you would define “romantic”.

“Well, it’s certainly true that, generally speaking, stories of the emotions and feelings of people interests me a lot more than, say, stories of finance!”

Mic-Macs was released last year to a limited audience. In a market dominated by American films, non-English-language films tend to get relegated to the rather off-putting category of “Arthouse”. This is a distribution  problem that is often difficult to understand in an era of supposed freedom of market distribution and close co-operation between European nations. I tell him that I hadn’t had the opportunity to see the film as its release hadn’t found its way to West Cork yet.

“Yes – they told me that it was released in Dublin, but just in two cinemas and I think it’s on show in Cork as well.

“It seems to be a question of distribution policy on the part of the distributors. Why they want to release a film only in certain places but not in others… If there’s one thing that a scriptwriter can’t get his head around, it’s certainly that! I can’t understand it at all.”

I suggest to him that it should be important for people in every country in Europe to get the chance to see films made by neighbouring countries.

Guillaume-Laurant-and-Sandrine-Bonnaire-in-Cannes“Most definitely. I’m always quite perplexed at how, for example, when I go to Holland, I see lots of cinemas with American film after American film on display. And yet, there’s quite a rich cinematic industry in Europe but it doesn’t seem visible. In Paris, for example, you’ve quite a unique situation where you have a huge variety of films on show all the time. Even friends of mine from New York have commented on the fact that you don’t get that where they’re from. Whenever you want, you can go and see an old black-and-white film or a non-dubbed American film, or whatever. There are always retrospective festivals and the like showing Chinese, Korean, Russian films. I always took it for granted that the incredible range of cinemas and the diversity of films from all over the world that you have in Paris was in all big cities, but it’s not the case.

“The trouble is that cinema is just a market like any other and if a certain player gets big enough, then he takes control of as many distribution outlets as he can. We should have some sort of policies in place to defend against that. Otherwise, there’s no escape from the law of the market imposing itself completely on the situation.”

I suggest to him that we should perhaps follow the example of the Korean film industry. Some decades back, it was established that all cinemas would be obliged to reserve a minimum space to indigenous Korean films. This means that although foreign films are not pushed out of the market, a section is reserved in all cinemas for Korean films so that the Korean public gets the opportunity to see all Korean films in the cinema. The result is a thriving Korean film industry and a public that are familiar with what’s going in the art in their own country.

“I didn’t know about that one. It strikes me as a very good idea.”

Guillaume Laurant is currently working on a number of projects including a new French three-dimensional film set in Neanderthal era and an animated adaptation of his novel “Happy Hand”.

Interview © Conor Power 2011

Published on 20/04/2011

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