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László Szabó Remembers

On Friday, January 9, New York's Film Forum begins a two-week run of Jean-Luc Godard's legendary 1966 Made in USA, the director's final film starring his by-then ex-wife Anna Karina, an off-the-cuff project Godard took on as a favor to producer Georges de Beauregard. Via a labyrinthian chain of events, the rights to the film ended up in the hands of Donald E. Westlake, the mystery writer on whose book The Jugger Godard's film is putatively based—and this led to the film not having any kind of official screening for nearly forty years.
Made is hardly a conventional serie noire or hardboiled saga—it is, rather, and exemplary slice of middle-period Godard, a film packed with digressions, discursions, allusions. Jean-Pierre Léaud plays a character named Donald Siegel. A couple of Cahiers du cinema critics play characters named Richard Nixon and Robert McNamara. And in the role of Paul Widmark, the stoic but dogged perhaps-ally of Karina's heroine Paula Nelson...László Szabó, the Hungarian-born actor who's a near-constant presence in Godard's '60s films, from 1962's Le Petit soldat through 1967's Weekend...and back again, for 1982's Passion. As Szabó himself notes, he's one of only two actors who worked with each of the most prominent directors to emerge from the Cahiers scene and create the so-called Nouvelle Vague. The courtly Szabo divides his time between New York and Paris, and The Auteurs caught up with him earlier in the week to gather some reminiscences from the 73-year-old actor, writer and director.
Oh, I came in France with many people.  It was 1956, ‘cause I was born in Hungary.  And I was still in Budapest.  We'd been part of the insurrection going on there, the uprising. And I left the end of November, came to Paris.  Then I learned French and I played on stage, as an actor.  And one day I met a person from the Cahiers du cinema, it was [critic, historian, and filmmaker] Jean Douchet. Who introduced me to Claude Chabrol. It was in 1958, fall, October, November, in the studio. Chabrol was making Les Cousins, and he told me, he had a role, he wanted to use me.  Chabrol told me to come back tomorrow, we'll have a close-up shot. There were two of the main characters, lovers, in a room.  And I opened the door and I saw the lovers and I said “I'm sorry” and I closed the door. And that was it! And then Chabrol took me to the next picture [A Double Tour].

I think maybe Jean-Claude Brialy is the other one…but aside from him, I’m told but that was I was the only actor who played major roles in films by Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer and Rivette.  And I loved them. And I was in love with cinema, like they were. The offices of Cahiers du cinema were on the Champs Elysees, you know, and I remember the day that Jacques Rivette, he took me… I was in offices on the Champs-Elysees and he told me, “Come with me, I'm going to Georges Cinq Hotel to meet Buster Keaton.”  So we met Buster Keaton and his wife.  And we didn't talk English at all.  I am just saying a few things in the English that I learned from the movies, and making gestures. But it was great, because I not only met Buster Keaton, I saw Buster Keaton laughing.

For Made in USA, it was pretty much a case of Godard coming up and and telling me, “You will play this.” And he gave me not even 10 pages, kind of a synopsis kind of thing.  And scheduled the shoot.  It was, I think, 2 weeks shooting.  And then even the synopsis was…the whole thing was different.  And lately I learned that he borrowed the plot from a book, a Donald Westlake book, The Jugger. I just learned this a few weeks ago.  I will read the book but I doubt there's much connection between the book and the picture.  Because it was at this time that Godard was very influenced by Hawks, and he recalled an anecdote about the making of El Dorado, which at the time was the most recent Hawks film. Hawks called up Robert Mitchum to offer him a role, and Mitchum asked, “What’s the story?” And Hawks said, “There is no story. Just characters.”  Godard was thinking of that with Made in USA, it was one idea out of several. It was the last picture he did with his wife…that in itself is enough of an idea. And as he directed us, he was always very definite even as he was creating on the spot. “You do this, this, you walk from here to here.”  And he showed...just a gesture.  “You take your gun like this and you do that.”  And it was a long shot. Thre or four marks to hit, rehearsing the lines that he had just given us 3 times. And that was his kind of working.  He was—you know, for me he was a kind of jazz musician. When Monk or Charlie Parker or Coltrane improvise, it's a great creation.  It's a pure creation I think.  Because they put in everything for just one reason; what they’re doing is just like a prayer.  And Godard was this kind of person, I think. An example.  We shot the short Le Grand Escroc [part of the anthology film Les Plus belles escrocs du monde] in Morocco. I played a Moroccan police officer driving a police car.  And I don’t drive. Didn’t know how to drive.  And he gave me two hours with some people to learn to drive.  And Jean Seberg sat close to me, and Godard he put [cinematographer] Raoul Coutard and the camera in the car behind me and he was there.  And I was driving.  That's responsibility.

On Made in USA, there would be things that he wanted to try and they were always the hardest things to do. He gave these speeches to me and Anna and was going to shoot up together in close up and we were to deliver the speeches simultaneously, looking at the camera. And he was writing these dialogues while Raoul Coutard was changing the camera positions. He gave us two long speeches, complete, and we start the same and we’re supposed to end the same time.  And it’s not going well as we’re rehearsing because at the one moment when we started to listen to the other, and it fell apart. And he said, “OK, I got bad actors, Raoul, we will shoot this anyway.” And then…we did it, and we got it on the first take.  I think it's a question of confidence, but there are different ways of gaining confidence, and of instilling confidence. Years later, I was in his film Passion, and there’s this very long shot. Inside the room there was Isabelle Huppert and Jerzy Radziwilowicz, and they had three minutes worth of dialogue.  And in the end I come knocking on the window and I'm talking for a minute.  So if I made a mistake, and didn’t do my entrance correctly, I’d be destroying their work. That’s responsibility! He liked to play this kind of thing. That's a kind of pressure I myself would never put on an actor. But for Godard, I was a soldier.  And here, the set, is [boot] camp.  So that's not an atmosphere in which, you know, you put your hand up and say “I got an idea.” At other times, in other pictures, that’s something some actors can do.  I directed a picture with Bernadette Lafont. I gave her a story to tell and she was improvising the whole thing much better than what I’d given her.
With Rohmer it was different, with Chabrol it was different. With every director, it’s different.  When I take one day of shooting with Francois Truffaut, for example, in The Last Metro, when I was there he was so careful and meticulous, it seemed like he was setting aside the whole day for me. With Rohmer you would have dinner the night before with the actors, you would be shown wardrobe. Chabrol would come to my place the night before shooting and discuss things with me. But with Godard, he just wanted you to be there, and  to see you do what he says.

I wasn’t supposed to be in Weekend. I went to the set to visit Raoul Coutard. I was trying to make my own films at the time, and Raoul would be kind enough, after a shoot, to turn over his short ends [the unused portion of a reel]. At the end of a certain period of shooting, he put them together in the same box. I was coming to ask him, put them together.  And I used them for myself, mostly. So I was on the set of Weekend for this reason, and Godard said, well, since you’re here, go sit down, make yourself useful. And that’s why I’m in Weekend.

Around that time I had accumulated a lot of short ends from Raoul, and they’re sitting in my refrigerator. And Philippe Garrel told me he wanted to make a picture.  He had no money; I told him I had no money either, but you know, I had these short ends—roaches, as it were. And I gave them to him and he made a very nice picture with Jean Seberg [Les Hauts solitudes].

[Actress] Pascale Ogier died not too long after making Full Moon In Paris with Rohmer; I had a scene with her in the picture. I was shooting a picture in Hungary, and I heard about it from Suzanne Schiffman, my friend who was script supervisor for Godard and Truffaut. And her son was Pascale’s boyfriend. And Francois; I remember in the spring of that year, ’84, he had been sick. And he died just a few days after Pascale. Pascale, Francois, and [writer] Pierre Kast…all died in the same week. I love Truffaut. He was very generous to me. When I directed my first film, he wrote about it, it’s in his book, The Films of My Life, And I was very proud to see myself among all the other directors he wrote about, Nick Ray, Cocteau...Very proud.

Geraldine Chaplin and I had some long scenes together in Rivette’s Love on the Ground. And one day, we shared a car back to our hotel. And she told me “My father, in Switzerland, before dinner, would screen an hour’s worth of his films for us children. He would be there in the projection room every night before dinner.”  The devil was in me that evening… so, just to play, I said to her, “Your father was great, but for me the greatest cinema comic is Buster Keaton.”  She said, “WHAT?”  I backed off right away, I told her, no, I was joking.  I was joking, but I think they are equally great.

You know Anna and Jean-Luc, sometimes they were very...up and down.  One night in the ‘60s I went up to the Cahiers office. And there was Rohmer, alone.  I was preparing to go to the Cinematheque to see...Jean Rouch’s film, The Lion Hunters. I worked with him too, Jean Rouch, I loved him very much.  And at the Cahiers office, Eric Rohmer has gotten some news about Jean-Luc. There had been another conflict with Anna, and he had gone off to Switzerland to take a cure of some sort! So, I went to the Place Trocadero and went into a bar, to have a beer before going to the film. And outside, a big car was passing by, and it stopped, and the horn honked. And there were Jean-Luc and Anna. So I paid and I got in with them.  Where do we go? He took us to a little bar that made sandwiches and we had our dinner there. And then he remembered, “Oh, over at the Champs Elysee they’re showing Rio Bravo. Let’s pay, let's pay, we can get in some Stumpy” And we went and just watched 20 minutes, you know...Walter Brennan playing Stumpy and all.   That was all. Because we had seen the picture five times before!  But for us it was just like music.
At the end of our talk, we asked if Szabó is still in contact with the old friends who are still living. "I don't want to bother Jean-Luc, I call him perhaps once a year. I hear from his sister Veronique sometimes. But I do keep up with many of them. I remember! Jean Douchet is going to turn 80 in a week or so, and I hope to be speaking to him!"
Awesome. Thanks so much for this, Glenn.
Very cool piece. Made in USA just got bumped on my list of priorities.
Real cool stuff. What a jokester. What a face. And, btw, he’s great in Esther Kahn, too.
I love him in Esther Kahn too. The man has practically worked with every great French director from 1960-current.

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