Let's declare it a dance: Frank Black talks Jacques Tati in a new documentary on the filmmaker playing during YBCA's series this month.

Michael House's Translation of Tati at YBCA

Michael Guillen January 17, 2010

Riding the crest of the Tati tsunami hitting our shores–two retrospectives, one at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and the other at Pacific Film Archive this month, along with arthouse screenings of M. Hulot’s Holiday – is an outstanding documentary, The Magnificent Tati. It’s by Michael House, who lived in San Francisco for 12 years before moving to Paris, where he and his wife, Julie, have lived for the past decade. House still considers himself a San Franciscan, however, and returned to San Francisco to complete the final stages of The Magnificent Tati in collaboration with Kim Aubry’s ZAP Zoetrope. (Aubry used to be the Head of Post Production at Zoetrope Studios and is a long-time collaborator with Francis Ford Coppola.) House phoned me from Paris to converse on the upcoming premiere. The Magnificent Tati has its U.S. premiere in San Francisco at YBCA on Sunday, January 24, 2010, 2 p.m., with the director in attendance.

SF360: The Magnificent Tati will have its U.S. premiere at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. How did that come about?

Michael House: Through Kim Aubry, who’s such a wonderful person with an incredible crew helping independent filmmakers like myself make HD films for the international TV market and the international festival circuit. I wanted The Magnificent Tati to be screened in San Francisco because it is my American home and also because–since we had all worked so hard on the film together–I wanted us to have an opportunity to go somewhere and watch it all together. I called the San Francisco Film Society and asked them if they knew any place I could screen it and they recommended a few venues. It ended up that Joel Shepard at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts expressed interest. I dropped off a first-stage rough cut on CD and Joel said, ‘Fine. We’ll put it in the retrospective.’

SF360: When did you become exposed to Jacques Tati? What was it that inspired you to shift away from musical composition to make your first film?

House: I’ve written music for TV ads for a very long time to pay the rent and live. Pretty much, that life means you spend all your time pitching to get work; it’s 80 percent pitching and 20 percent actual composing. About six years ago I pitched for a BBC One series to write all the music for it. It was a big job, a terrible show, an awful and embarrassing thing to be doing, but it had huge royalty returns. I got the job and went over to Britain to do it. Bristol, you might know, is the home of the wildlife documentary world. Though I’m not personally interested in that, I started pitching and working in that world and incidentally became involved in that whole BBC documentary scene.

After about a year I became tired of pitching for things I didn’t like and I thought, ‘I should try to produce a film. I know enough about film, know enough broadcasters and commissioning editors, know that world, and should make my own films so I can write music for projects I really enjoy.’ So I pitched a bunch of ideas and the first idea that was taken was by a Dutch broadcaster on a documentary about two photographers: Parisian EugŠne Atget and his American counterpart Berenice Abbott [EugŠne and Berenice: Pioneers of Urban Photography, 2007]. They loved the idea and said they would pay for it and told me to go ahead and make it. So I made it. It’s basically a slide show of all their photography and I wrote a massive amount of music for it. [Laughs.] Way too much music. But that’s where I was coming from. But while I was doing it, I became entrenched in the medium of documentary film as a means to tell stories about artists. Being a composer, I really only know art. I’m not really a social issues person. I read too much and listen to too much music. I really don’t know much outside of art. But living in Paris, I became pretty absorbed in the French world and had a lot of ideas that documentaries could help translate for a wider audience outside of France. Pioneers of Urban Photography worked out great because it had the American angle of Berenice Abbott.

Jacques Tati was one of the subjects I knew a little about–not that much–but it was on my list of documentary possibilities. Initially, I approached ITV in Britain trying to get them to back films. Melvin Bragg of The South Bank Show was into Jacques Tati and interested in my idea of making a documentary about him. At the time I knew Tati, I had seen all his films, and I thought, ‘Oh yeah, he’s really weird and interesting’; but, to be quite honest with you, I didn’t like his movies very much. I felt they were a bit over my head. I didn’t really ‘get’ them. So when Melvin Bragg said, ‘Hey, tell me more. Get more of this project together,’ I dove into it and began to read everything that had been written on Tati and started to really look at his films. I learned all about the art of mime, what mime really was, not what I thought it was. I learned all about Tati’s maverick slant and how he had no connections with the French cinema of his era. I fell in love with him as an artist. I thought, ‘Jesus Christ! This guy is amazing.’

Then Melvin Bragg got fired and told me he couldn’t make the Tati film. I was left with no backing but total passion for Jacques Tati and this documentary idea. I thought, ‘I got to get this out there. I’ve got to make this film. I’ve got to tell people about him.’ In France, everyone knows Tati but now I think everyone around the world should know Tati. His work is pertinent in the modern world. So I took on the project. I went to the Tati Archives in Paris and said, ‘Listen, I want to make this film. Can I make it? Would you let me have copyright if I let you review the film?’ They said, ‘Sure. Go ahead.’ That was 18 months ago and here we are. There have been a lot of ups and downs, but I got it done and–along the way–I’ve definitely learned a lot about film and filmmaking.

SF360: I’m surprised that there hasn’t been a documentary on Jacques Tati.

House: I can tell you why. When Tati died, his estate was in a frickin’ mess. He had lost everything. There was dispute as to who owned the actual prints of his films, which were basically scattered all over the world. It was such a goddamn nightmare for any producer to secure decent prints, clear the copyrights and put them all together. It was a major turn-off for anyone to want to do that from a production point of view. Because Tati’s daughter, Sophie Tatischeff, went into partnership with two wonderful artists–J‚r“me Deschamps and Macha Make‹eff–who founded a foundation Les Films de Mon Oncle in France to retain Tati’s copyrights and to get all his films back under one roof so they could be restored, it became possible for a person to go to them and say, ‘You guys have the rights. May I do this?’ They gave me a call and said, ‘Sure, we like you. We’ll let you do it.’ But prior to that? Prior to getting all his films cleaned up and making them available, it would have been hell and I can see why no one has made a documentary on Tati until mine. It was just too goddamn hard, too complicated.

Also, in my opinion, you couldn’t make a documentary about Jacques Tati if you didn’t include clips from every one of his films. Also, to be clear, his daughter Sophie made a documentary film about her father in 1989 called In the Footsteps of M. Hulot. Hers was an accumulation of every appearance Jacques Tati ever made on news shows, etc., and it’s an interesting film for hardcore Tati fans; but, I wouldn’t say it’s a film that my mother would watch to learn about Jacques Tati. It’s far too intense. I wanted to make a simple film that walks you through what he did and tries to pollinate your enthusiasm. That’s all I wanted to do.

SF360: Well, that’s exactly what you did and you accomplished it with much affection.

House: Bless you, bless you, bless you. I’m still a little nervous about the U.S. premiere. It’s been shown over here, but the U.K. is already on the ‘Tati-wagon’. One of my concerns is that Tati has a nostalgic dimension to his work that strikes a chord with people over the age of 55 and my film is not really about that. My film doesn’t really toy or play with that nostalgia. When I premiered The Magnificent Tati in Edinburgh and I looked out on the audience, I saw mainly silver heads.

SF360: Winter’s first snowfall, eh?

House: [Laughs.] Yeah. I was concerned that these people were not going to like Frank Black; but, sure enough, they seemed to love it and were happy about it. So it worked out.

SF360: The Magnificent Tati references the nostalgia you’re talking about; but, more surprisingly, in my opinion it speaks to a younger audience, especially to a new generation of cinephiles. As has been pointed out in your documentary, and in several essays on Tati, his was a genius for using cinema to teach audiences how to look at the world, especially let’s say with his masterpiece Playtime. We are now in the world that Tati saw in his films. The Magnificent Tati is a doorway into this whole discussion about how one sifts comedy from the world by how one looks at the world.

House: Thank you! That’s so well-said. I’ve never heard anybody say that. That’s brilliant.

SF360: Tell me about Sit Up Straight Films. Is this your production company?

House: It’s me and my laptop. [Laughter.] I’m a total one-horse guy. Though my wife Julie is a ruthless editor–not literally; I’m the one who edits my films–but she’ll survey my work and go, ‘Back story. Drop it. Back story. Drop it.’ So basically Sit Up Straight Films is me, with her providing guidance. The next film I’m making is on the writer Somerset Maugham. He’s another Tati-esque subject where he’s present in modern fiction and modern film. She’s helping me with that.

SF360: The film’s official world premiere was within the ‘Totally Tati’ retrospective at the UK French Film Festival where it played the Edinburgh Playhouse on November 26, 2009 and the Glasgow Film Theatre the following evening. It also played concurrently at the IFI (Irish Film Institute) French Film Festival.

House: I flew from San Francisco to Edinburgh, went to the premiere, and then got on the plane the next day and flew to Dublin; but Edinburgh was the official premiere. It was the first time I saw it projected. I had only seen it on a big giant TV in the post-house.

SF360: What’d you think?

House: I was horrified and scared. I was sweating bullets. I’ve never seen any of my films projected. The Atget film had screened in about 20 places, in museums, on television in eight countries, but I’d never seen anything I’ve done projected. It’s just a different deal. That’s like singing in front of people. It’s not like singing in your livingroom. It’s a totally different experience to have a couple of hundred people’s undivided attention in the dark staring at every frame. I had planned the Tati film to work in that environment; but, I’d never done that. I’ll be really scared in San Francisco.

SF360: Your documentary also speaks to the highs and lows of the maverick impulse.

House: God bless you! You are awesome! You totally got it.

SF360: It spoke to me. Though there is an attraction to auteurial vision, there’s also a shadow side to such vision, a danger, which your documentary has personified in the career of Jacques Tati.

House: Thank you. That is so pertinent. I have always been an outsider to the arts but that is why I’m attracted to them. I think that one of the first things that art does in any society is to introduce new thoughts, new ways of looking, of listening to the world, and Tati is such an amazing example because his work–if anything–challenges how we have become accustomed in the last 50-60 years to being told stories in certain ways. Hollywood narratives particularly–and I’m not badmouthing them–do invite you to engage with individuals, people who can be marketed as stars conducive to the industry of filmmaking and storytelling. Tati penetrated that huge world at its peak in the late ’50s and completely turned what moviegoers were used to upside down when it comes to telling a story and what we think is funny. He did it in a super entertaining effective way. In my eyes, Les Vacances de M. Hulot (M. Hulot’s Holiday, 1953) is a film that opens a window to the world and invites you to sit down and watch. It’s totally unique. M. Hulot is totally oblivious. It’s not even about him. The jokes aren’t about him. The film is not about a comic individual; it’s about a comic way of looking at the world. Tati’s someone who took cinema and did something vastly different and achieved massive audience recognition.

Another thing about him that I learned while researching was that he wasn’t a guy who read. He was not literary in any way, shape or form. He was about community. He was about a group–five or six people–telling a story, without even using words necessarily.

SF360: You’re describing how Tati shifted humor away from a comic protagonist to mining humor from observing the crowd. He worked with a lot of people, which leads me to the collaborative aesthetic I appreciated in your film. I got the sense that you have orchestrated a symphony of personalities, both on screen and off, to achieve this documentary.

House: You have no idea, my friend.

SF360: As a relatively new filmmaker, can you speak to your experience of assembling the talent (your talking heads) and accessing archives?

House: Sure. I’ll tell you the truth, I intended to make more of a meta-narrative type of film when I first conceived making a documentary about Tati. I was going to make a film about a novice filmmaker who discovers Tati and was going to be in the film. I was going to tell the story that I’ve basically been telling you but there would have been this other story going on about me. I shot a bunch of stuff for that. When I first sat down to work with the material, I thought, ‘This is ridiculous. It’s so stupid. I don’t even like or care about me. Why would I put myself in the movie?’ I dumped all that, much to the chagrin of Finland who was helping me make the film. I told them, ‘There’s one reason to make this film: to simply tell everyone what Tati did and get them into it. That’s the only thing we should do.’ If you shoot a sequence where a young director is meeting another director to talk about Tati and they have a long conversation and look at his clothes in the archive, and then you bump that up against a clip–let’s say you cut to a clip from Mon Oncle (1958)–Tati’s performance is so stellar and powerful that it just doesn’t work. I couldn’t imagine any new footage that would fit well next to his. When his clips came up and he came to the screen, you were so enchanted and engulfed in him.

So I went through a few phases of how to tell the story. It became apparent early on that it was his movies that I was going to use to tell the whole story. I immediately said to myself, ‘Okay, I hate commentary in documentaries.’ I realized that the people I needed to get for the movie to be the talking heads needed to be able to tell the story of Tati. That simplified it a lot. Of course, I secured the two best Tati experts in the world: France’s Stephane Goudet and Princeton Professor David Bellos. Bellos has written a great book (in English) on Tati and it’s an excellent book for anyone interested in film. Then–because I was making the film for a predominantly English audience–I had to find someone who had a connection with Tati who speaks really good English. The only person I could come up with was Marie-France Sielger, who was Tati’s personal assistant for 20 years and a filmmaker in her own right. She’s a total troublemaker and my kind of girl. [Laughs.] They were the basics. They were the three people who I felt could tell the story.

The other artistic people I used–Mike Mills, Frank Black, Craig McKracken–they all seemed to know each other and recommended each other. I don’t want to make fun of them but they’re a bunch of Tati nerds. [Laughs.] So I got them all for that. I didn’t want them hugely in the film. Mike said some insightful stuff, I thought, so I put in some of the key things about Playtime, but Craig had some amazing stuff to say but it would have taken the film into Craig’s world, not Tati’s world. I have hours of footage from all those guys but I only used very little. Because you can’t. You can’t go into the backstory too much or you get mixed up.

Sylvain Chomet inflected a whole other thing about Tati. Tati wrote a script called The Illusionist, which Chomet (Triplets of Belleville) has animated. It will be coming out as a big feature film this year. Not only has Tati written it, but Chomet has animated him in it.

So I based my documentary on having all of Tati’s films from Les Films de Mon Oncle available to me and knowing that I could tell his story with this rare chance of telling this master of filmmaking story using all of his films. I mean, there’s a couple of shorts I didn’t put in; but, in general, you get everything.

SF360: Can you speak to Tati’s use of sound design?

House: Michael Kowalski, who is an active sound engineer at Dodge College of Films and Media Arts in Los Angeles and a huge Tati fan, helped me explain in the documentary how Tati created every noise in his movies after they were shot. It was a revelation for me to realize Tati didn’t even have microphones on the set. Every sound you hear was done in the studio. I asked Michael if he could re-create one of the scenes from Mon Oncle so I could film the process. He made that work. Foley work is very hard to do. Tati’s sound has its own identity. It’s personal, subjective, and his mixes are weird. Michael explained very well that Tati used sound to direct your attention, which is usually done through editing; but, Tati gives you a big canvas and says, ‘Here it is’ and then you’ll hear some sound off to the left and you look, just like in real life. Tati directs your gaze with sound as opposed to visual edits.

SF360: Before we wrap up here, I wanted to comment on my favorite sequence in your documentary, which I found to be resonant and heart-felt. It was the sequence where Tati won the Oscar for Mon Oncle and was invited to meet anyone he wanted to meet in Hollywood. He thought about it and chose to visit Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd in the retirement home. The photographs you’ve included in your documentary are stunning. Tati looks radiant with pleasure and happiness.

House: I’m so glad you liked that sequence. I think it said a lot about him. I think it’s really interesting that he chose the pre-Chaplin guys. He chose a type of cinema that–in my humble opinion–represented an effort to make an international art form. Those guys all made films that could play anywhere because they were silent and visual. Chaplin did too, but in a different way. That sequence is fantastic because it’s exactly how it happened. He didn’t care about Jerry Lewis or Marilyn Monroe or any of those people. He said, ‘What could I say to them? I have nothing to say to them. But can I meet Buster Keaton?’ I mean, Harold Lloyd?! Jesus Christ! It’s so fantastic that he would choose him over Marilyn Monroe! Tati was a great guy. He saw through so much of the bullshit–though he swam in that cinema world–and just knew what was important and knew how to pay respects when he had the chance to pay respects.

SF360: My final question: there’s an ongoing debate, or discussion, about whether Tati is being understood correctly in terms of whether he was anti-modern and critical of modernity, or merely presenting the comic potential of modern life. Do you have a take on that?

House: Yes. I don’t think that the settings Tati chose or the art direction was, per se, the message. I think human interaction with the settings was the message. My opinion is that Tati was interested in the human condition, whether that setting was in a rural farmyard or a modern city. I see his films as expressions of human interaction. I don’t think he criticized modern architecture. He just showed us how people lived in it.

What’s important to understand about Jacques Tati is that he had an extremely cultivated eye. He had a profound sense of the frame. He knew contrast, color, depth of field, and not through words, but from the experience of having grown up in a family of picture framers that were flooded with the greatest art in the 20th century. The center of Paris during the 1920s–good grief!–and his grandfather was framing all these paintings. Tati grew up in an incredible visual art environment. All of that was in him and–when he was traveling all over the world with the success of Mon Oncle –he commented that the world was all beginning to look the same and he turned that insight into the set for Playtime. Tati’s great sense of design came–not from training–but from his upbringing. If Playtime had been famous, I think he might have gone on to make another film that was even necessarily about the modern world. It could have been about anything. He just got his career cut short. We wouldn’t even wonder .