An icon of activist cinema and president of the Cinémathèque Française, director Costa-Gavras pushed the boundaries of French cinema and redefined the police thriller genre starting in the 1960s. In April 2019, to mark the 50th anniversary of Z, his cult-classic film, the Institut Français distributed his first four films: The Sleeping Car Murders (“Compartiments tueurs"), Shock Troops (“Un homme de trop”), Z and The Confession (“L’Aveu"). Through his characters Costa Gavras questions our idea of freedom, highlighting political events from modern history.
How did you become a filmmaker?
I became a filmmaker out of passion, a love for the cinema and the desire to tell stories through images. When I arrived in France, my goal was to study literature and, possibly, to write one day. I enrolled at the Sorbonne because I thought it was the best way to learn French. That’s where I started reading the great French classics: Balzac, Hugo, Zola... then I discovered the Cinémathèque Française and realized that there was more than the blockbuster films in the cinemas: there was also a very classical cinema that didn't exist in Greece, where I came from. After applying via the competitive route for foreign students I was accepted by the IDHEC (Editor's note: now the FEMIS — École nationale supérieure des métiers de l'image et du son) and that was a complete revelation for me, learning about cinema as a new vehicle for writing.
At the end of my course, I had to do a two-week placement. I worked on a film by Yvan Grey in Paris and he offered me a job as his second assistant. I then followed the usual career path: I went on to become an assistant director and then a director. Through these experiences, I discovered classical and popular cinema by working with Henri Verneuil and Jacques Demy from the New Wave movement, gaining an even broader understanding of French cinema.
For your first film The Sleeping Car Murders, you managed to bring together young actors and cinematic greats. Looking back, what can you say about that filming process?
While I was working as an assistant, I went to the cinema a lot and I generally immersed myself in the arts and literature. One day I fell upon this book by accident, The Sleeping Car Murders (“Compartiment Tueurs”) by Sébastien Japrisot, and I decided to adapt it for the screen. I was very interested in the different characters because they allowed me to explore different parts of society. Initially, it was an exercise: I didn’t have the rights and I didn’t even know the writer. But a producer really liked my adaptation and asked me to make the film, which was a huge surprise to me at the time.
Because I knew lots of actors, I began to contact them; they accepted immediately. For example, I had met Simone Signoret on a film by René Clément and we became friends. One day, because I wanted to offer one of the roles to her daughter Catherine, she invited me to the countryside with Yves Montand and read my script. She wanted her daughter to finish her baccalaureate exams first, and offered to take the role herself. I was surprised because it was a very small role! Yves Montand also asked me if he could have a role. It snowballed, the actors followed one after the other. Until we were creating as a family. We all knew each other before, but the film brought us even closer. It was a very unique film, successful in France and internationally. It was the one that paved the way for the following films.
People talk less about your second film, Shock Troops (“Un homme de trop”), which was not as successful as expected at the time. Why do you think this was the case?
The story of Shock Troops is full of contradictions: I made this film with all the tools a director just starting out could ever want, with fantastic actors. However, at the time, the film really didn’t reach audiences. It was a complete flop. Interestingly, Shock Troops sat on the shelf for years. It was when my films were published in DVD box sets in 2016 that the critics gave it rave reviews. Similarly, when it was re-released on television it gathered millions of viewers and now smaller film festivals often ask to screen it.
This year, in 2019, we are also celebrating the fifty-year anniversary of Z, your third film. How do you feel about that?
Z is another story of contradictions! At first, no producers, distributors or funding partners wanted to touch this film. I was told that there was no love story, no women, that some characters appeared and then disappeared, that Yves Montand (supposed to be the big star) wasn’t present enough... The film was fighting an uphill battle, because it wasn’t set up to be a successful feature film according to the usual metrics. However, the actors all agreed to work on it, under unusual conditions. It was a major surprise to see that although the film wasn’t a success in the first few days, word of mouth worked and attracted a large audience.
In the end, the film was in cinemas in Paris for 40 weeks. Today, the film is still shown on television often and people still talk to me about it a lot. Sometimes, in the cinema, we run into unpredictable, uncontrollable miracles. I believe that it would be better to trust the creators than the people who fund the projects.
You are often referred to as an activist filmmaker. For you, was cinema a way to raise awareness?
I have never wanted to change the world. My only desire has always been to tell stories that have touched me deeply. I never forget that when people go to the cinema, they are there to see a show, not to listen to a political or academic speech. My films are often described as ‘political’, but they are primarily human stories, with characters who take political or social positions. Their common denominator remains resistance; daring to face the things that aren't easy, ethical or fair.
What roles do you think the cinema and artists should play in society?
Cinema plays a key role in society: I believe it is one way of getting to know the world and the Other. Artists, when they address thousands, sometimes millions of people, therefore have responsibilities: they have a direct impact on those people. The same applies to directors: they must respect the logic and ethics of history without manipulating it for dramatic reasons or to make it more appealing to audiences. Afterwards, what happens happens. You can never control everything or have everything.
We put our trust in each person's conscience and talent.
What are the stories that are inspiring you, now and looking towards your next projects?
I am in the process of completing a project which has been selected for the Venice Film Festival which will be held at the end of August, Adults in the Room, focusing on the Greek crisis and the costs it has entailed. In both social and economic terms, it has been a real disaster in Greece and beyond. Because this feature film is above all a film about Europe: the characters contribute to the construction of Europe and the European currency. This film itself was financially complex, but we’ve managed to pull it off!
Four films by Costa Gavras are currently being internationally distributed by the Institut français : Compartiment tueurs (1965), Un homme de trop (1966), Z (1968) et L’Aveu (1969). Learn more about the Costa-Gavras Series
The Institut français offers a catalogue of over 2,500 titles, enabling the French cultural network and its partners to screen French films around the world. Learn more about the film catalogue
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