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Interview with  Mary Stephen

Autumn Tale (Eric Rohmer, 1998)

Mary Stephen is a film editor based in France.  She has worked with Eric Rohmer as editor and co-composer since 1992.  She is also a filmmaker in her own right.

Bill Mousoulis:   In Autumn Tale, and indeed in many of Rohmer's other films, the overall pace is measured, and the rhythms established are gentle.  How do you create this?  Do you talk with Rohmer closely about this?

Mary Stephen:    We don't "talk" about the overall pace and rhythm very much in the sense that I instinctively share the same sense of pace as him.  We're both very musically-oriented and when we try to decide at which point we (as audience) would like to see the other person talking or another shot, we invariably fall on practically the same frame.  His subjects call for this kind of measured, elegant (in the sense of a natural elegance) pace.  I can't see a M6 music video rhythm for a Rohmer film. Therefore to answer your question, we seldom "formally" discuss the pace.  We just feel it.

Some of the loveliest shots I've seen in Rohmer's films are the "side" shots, of people listening, or of characters on the fringe of the action. (eg, there's that wonderful closing shot on Marie Rivière in Autumn Tale).  Are these shots created in the editing suite?  How much creative freedom do you have when editing?

Rohmer is very precise in his "constructions". He quite often knew already what the final film sould "feel " like before we cut it.  He loves to use "champ/contre-champ" (shot-countershot), therefore the "listener" becomes an active participant as well in the conversation.  We always look for "interesting reactions" on the listener's face.  When he shoots a scene in "champ/contre-champ", he shoots the scene (or fractions of it) entirely on one character at a time regardless of whether he/she is the one talking or not.  I am also particularly fond of "reactions" and I think that characters reveal themselves more through their silences than what they say (which is of course a favourite theme of Rohmer's: how people's words often mask their true feelings).  In Autumn Tale, I went much further than the previous films in looking for the listener's reactions.  Alain Libolt, who plays Gerald, is particularly wonderful when he is listening.

I would say that I have a lot of creative freedom in the editing room within a certain context: within the context of the Eric Rohmer movie.  As for the final shot on Marie Rivière, it is a moment I particularly cherish, for it was not scripted at all.  I made some tryouts on the 3/4 takes of the final dance, mixing them together, and fell on this expression, which to me expressed all the ambiguity of this part of the story and of her character.  When Rohmer saw the assembly of this scene, he gave his approval and I am sure that he also fully grasped the significance of that look.  That is why he has put instructions (when the film was first released in France) on all the boxes to say that the houselights of the cinemas must be kept down until the very last frame.

A number of elements make Rohmer's films unique and unusual.  One of them is the soundscapes, which beautifully signify the everyday, whether it be street noises or natural noises.  Do you also do the sound editing?

Rohmer is well-known for being partisan of only natural noises.  He will not accept any artifically-created sounds.  That is why in all the original versions of his films he refused to use a foleyman (he is used only for the international dubbing copy).  I did the sound editing for Winter's Tale and subsequently the soundman Pascal Ribier, who also mixes the later films, did the sound editing on his computer according to our flatbed edit.  In our flatbed edit, we would already put in a music track and a noise track.  For Winter's Tale, however, we took a long time creating the right "sound" atmosphere: Rohmer had great joy going out with his walkman to capture natural sounds such as the church bells outside of his office window, dogs, birds in the editing room's courtyard, etc. in order to place them on the soundtrack.  There is nothing more evocative than a dog barking in the suburban night, or birds when  wake up in the morning.  Now that we have started editing in AVID, we are laying the soundtracks in even more details.  Pascal then recreates it in his DD1500 sound computer and continues to round out and add to the natural noises before the mix.

Sometimes I notice mismatches in the editing (the discontinuity of the wind in Autumn Tale is an obvious one).  Does Rohmer use much coverage, and are there many takes?

What wind?  No, seriously, the discontinuity of the wind is simply because, once again, Rohmer will not add any sound that was not "shot", and he will not "voice-over" a dialogue that was taken on a windy day.  Rohmer does very few takes, and there are some shots which are "singles" - one-take wonders.

A film such as Rendezvous in Paris is beautiful because it is quite obviously a "small" film, the crew able to film the actors in very public locations.  Which can then be a pain to edit successfully.  How much do you talk with Rohmer in pre-production about problems that may arise in the editing room?  Does he then have a strategy for the type of shots that will be filmed when in such difficult-to-control locations?

Rendezvous in Paris was shot in 16mm, then blown up.  When you say crew, you're talking about one on camera, one on sound, one on everything else, and at the most, another one on everything else.  Most of the time people in the streets imagine that they're shooting a student film, or a documentary.  In fact, at one point, Rohmer asked me to give him some cards of my Canadian company in order that he could say that they were making a documentary for a Canadian film school or some such thing.  We have never had any problems with the editing because of shooting in the streets, except for a few occasions of cutting out a passer-by looking at the camera.

We don't really "talk" in pre-production in that sense (except for the new film to be shot soon) because there is nothing to talk about.  He knows exactly what he is doing and it always cuts together.  Even in Summer's Tale where they shoot on  the beach, with a dolly and everything, those people on the beach are not extras. They were actually shooting on a real beach with real sun-bathers and swimmers...yet hardly anyone looked at the camera.  Rohmer always says that people are a lot less curious than we imagine.  It is also because that when you see a "movie" being shot in the streets you usually see 5 production trucks, and an army of assistants running around or standing around, and bright lamps in the middle of a sunny day, and traffic being blocked off, etc etc etc. So nobody takes notice of a professor-looking-type with his young women holding small cameras/equipment (and Pascal, big burley guy who looks like an eternal student), even if some of Rendezvous in Paris was actually shot with Diane Baratier (the camerawoman) sitting in a wheelchair (our idea of a dolly) with Rohmer pushing it.

You've worked with Rohmer as editor and co-composer on his last five films, starting from Winter's Tale. He obviously likes having a group of dedicated people around him.  Who are some of the other key crew members he's worked with over the past 10, or even 20, years?

I actually started working with him on The Aviator's Wife as Cécile Dégucis' editing assistant (she was his editor at the time, and she was also Godard's for Breathless and Truffaut for 400 Blows); I even had a cameo role in the film.  I collaborated with him on the song even then, but I was making my own films at the time and I was not yet a French resident so I couldn't be credited.  I then participated in the next 2 films, before leaving Paris for 8 years.  Then I started again on Winter's Tale.  This was because I had returned to Paris and since we'd never been out of touch with each other, he immediately proposed Winter's Tale to me.  He also wanted a "fugue" for the theme which I wrote for him from a phrase of music that was churning around in his head.

He is surrounded by a group of dedicated people around him and since The Tree, The Mayor and the Mediatheque (which is the 16mm film he shot before Rendezvous in Paris but seldom if ever released abroad, a great pity, because it's delicious) he has had the same "core" crew: Diane Baratier on camera, Pascal Ribier on sound, Françoise Etchegaray as production manager and producer on some of the films, and me on editing.  2 assistants joined the dedicated circle in recent years:  Florence and Bésathbée. The actors and actresses also become part of the Rohmer family, and some of them come around again and again in his films (and the shorts) in turn being actors and writers of the short films, such as Rosette, Marie Rivière, Pascal Greggory, Fabrice Luchini, Arielle Dombasle etc.  In fact, Françoise, Diane, Pascal and myself do function like a professional family.

Rohmer's films, ultimately, on top of their value as "moral" studies, are remarkable for their portraits of ordinary people, especially women.  Can you give us some insight as to how he goes about creating these characters?

He simply spends a lot of time with these "ordinary people".  Let's not forget that only a small percentage of his time is spent shooting and editing.  The rest of his time he spends in his office in the company of young people talking and sharing their daily problems, mostly sentimental (i.e."emotional" - eds.).  He takes his inspiration from these people occupying his daily life.

Rohmer not only takes inspiration around him but is deeply affected by the lives of his immediate entourage. It is not by accident that Winter's Tale told the story of a young woman raising a child single-handedly while sorting out her sentimental webs, it was around that time that Rohmer's immediate entourage turned from young carefree girls into young women freshly divorced or separated with a young child.  (I had just returned to Paris with 3 very young children, Françoise was doing the same in the countryside of Paris, Marie, Béatrice and a host of others around him).  And then, Autumn Tale becomes a song, a sort of hommage, to those same carefree young girls (in actresses' terms, all the girls who appeared in Perceval le Gallois) now become 40-something women, having lived and loved and sometimes lost, but still "believers" at heart in true Rohmer fashion.  Rohmer paid us all a great compliment and hit us right in the heart by having the young woman in the film say to Béatrice Romand that she will remain young in spirit forever, that some women are born old, but some are born young, like her.  Thanks to Rohmer, we seem to be blessed by this magic dust, and for better or for worse, seem to continue, at 40-something, to live out the joys and pains of Rohmérien characters.

The acting in the films seems totally free and uninhibited, yet the scenarios are often quite strict.  A great trust, both ways, seems to exist.  What kind of workshopping does Rohmer do with the actors?  Are there many rehearsals on set also?

He rehearses a great deal, sometimes for almost a year before actual shooting begins.  Most of the time the dialogue is in the way of speaking of the actor/actress playing the part. That is why it seems so natural.

Rohmer is a complete recluse when compared to other filmmakers in terms of him appearing at film festivals, doing interviews, etc.  Does he have representatives at festivals?

Yes, us!! I'll come to Australia any time anyone wants to invite me!  No, seriously, it's true that Rohmer seldom, if ever, especially in the past 10 years, goes to film festivals. Once in a while he would participate in a film evening in a French town organised by a ciné-club simply because he will be shooting in that region soon and he likes to rally the help of local ciné-club youngsters.  His reasoning of not participating in public is twofold:  one, that he shoots in the streets a lot, therefore he wants to remain unrecognisable, two, that he knows that his films appeal to a certain limited audience (as opposed to the mass public) and making appearances in a film festival would not, says he, boost any ticket sales.  So why waste the time and energy?  Françoise, Diane and myself and some of the actors have participated in festivals or film-launchings representing the "Rohmer" family.  Before the release of each film, we (the crew, the actors) share the tasks of representing the film in the different cinemas, participating in debates, doing promotion etc.  It's a family affair.

Rohmer is one of the few art auteurs in the world today to have semi-regular distribution of his films in many parts of the world. Still, do you think he is being properly appreciated?  Which countries seem to like the films more?  How is he seen in his own country?

For a long time he was much more appreciated in other countries, such as Japan, the U.S. and so on, than in his own, where he appeals to a very small audience.  With Summer's Tale and Autumn Tale it widened his appeal.  Many young people in France started to see his films with Summer's Tale and didn't know that he was an elderly gentleman.  They thought that he was a new young director!!  He is very much loved in Japan, they even created a pop record out of the stories of Rendezvous in Paris.  Hong Kong, Taiwan, he also has a following there.  I suppose the innocent eroticism of his films appeal to the Asian university crowd: the harmless French sex appeal sort of thing.  He also knows very well how to present French landscapes in his films.  Paris never looks more romantic and appealing than in a Rohmer film, and the Rhone Valley in Autumn Tale certainly makes you want to be there for the wine-tasting.

Autumn Tale almost seems like the perfect way to end a long, sometimes difficult, yet ultimately successful career.  At 80 though, Rohmer is still very active.  Can you talk about any projects he's currently preparing?

I doubt very much that Rohmer would ever think of "ending" his career, nor of retirement. I have sometimes introduced young people to Rohmer, and they are invariably bowled over by his youthful energy.  They would say that after the initial 5 minutes, they forget that they're talking with a 80-year-old.  Rohmer often says that he's 18 at heart, and he is.  He will start to shoot in a week's time a period film called L'Anglaise et la Duc based on the mémoirs of Grace Elliot, an Englishwoman who lived in Paris during the French Revolution.  The particularity of the film is that it is being shot in digital video with special effects. Rohmer has been interested in video for many years now, and the last few short films have been shot in video and then blown up to 35mm.  The last one La Cambrure which I showed in the Vancouver International Film Festival, is spectacular in its image quality.  The characters of his new film will move through paintings of the period.  Finally modern technology is being used to enhance classical beauty, in true Rohmer fashion. I won't say more because you must see the film to find out for yourselves.

You have obviously worked closely with Rohmer over the last 10 years or so.  Are there other directors or films that you have worked for?

I have known and worked with Rohmer since 1977 wheen I first arrived in France from Canada.  With lapses in between.  Since he shoots practically one film per year (counting also the collection of short films that he is constantly shooting and releasing as a full-length program in France), I have not really had time to work for anyone else other than myself.  At the moment, however, I'm editing a first feature of an American-Iranian director Babak Shokrian.  It's an independent endeavour called America So Beautiful and it's being edited in Paris in the premises of Liberator Productions, the French outfit of Lars Von Trier's Danish cinema group.

You directed a couple of films yourself about 20 years back now.  Will you do so again sometime in the future?

Is it already 20 years ago?  Oh, you mean fiction films. Yes, I am definitely going to do so again and soon, I hope.  Meanwhile I have not stopped making films, documentaries in the past few years, concerning writers and poets.  Vision From the Edge: Breyten Breytenbach Painting the Lines is my last film which is an impressionistic non-documentary on the South African poet/painter/activist.  It's making the round of festivals and has been to Brisbane last July and by the way, Geoff Gardner wrote the program note!!

© Bill Mousoulis April 2000
These reviews first appeared in Senses of Cinema, No.5, April 2000.