Alan Ayckbourn's Tribute To Alain ResnaisThis page reproduces Alan Ayckbourn's tribute to the French film auteur Alain Resnais published in Positif magazine in July 2015. The article was compiled by François Thomas following an interview with Alan Ayckbourn in Scarborough on 11 September 2014. Alan Ayckbourn's Official Website is grateful to Francois and Positif for allowing the article to reproduced here.
Alan Ayckbourn’s Tribute To Alain Resnais
French film director Alain Resnais adapted Alan Ayckbourn’s work in his films Smoking / No Smoking (1993, based on Intimate Exchanges), Private Fears in Public Places (2006) and Life of Riley (2014). Resnais had a passion for Ayckbourn’s work. He saw many of Ayckbourn’s shows in London from the mid-'70s and was a frequent visitor to Scarborough for a decade from 1989 on. His last project, based on Arrivals & Departures, was interrupted by his death at age 91 in 2014.
The French film magazine Positif asked Ayckbourn to pay a tribute to his departed friend. Ayckbourn’s interview with François Thomas appeared in French translation in No. 653/654, July/August 2015. Positif allowed us to put the original, English version on line.
"You write movies for the stage, I make plays for the screen.”
I had a great love of French cinema from a very early age. My childhood was spent not in the theatre but in the cinema. As a young man, I saw a lot of movies by the great French filmmakers of the time in classic cinemas: René Clair, Cocteau, Renoir, who considerably affected me when I began as a writer; then the New Wave, as well as other European filmmakers such as Buñuel and Antonioni. I was in my early twenties when Alain Resnais’s first movie, Hiroshima mon amour, was released and I puzzled over Last Year at Marienbad like everybody else. We came out of the cinema thinking, “What happened?” He was considered a little bit esoteric, but he was a great intellect, I admired his work. I saw other films by him over the years and I thought of him with great respect, but we came from such different directions that the idea of ever being in the same room was extraordinary.
One day in the summer of 1989, at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round in Scarborough, one of the actors in my play The Revengers’ Comedies told me, “I think I have just seen Alain Resnais in the foyer. It looks exactly like him.” I said, “Nonsense!” but I went out to have a look and saw this very tall, very elegant, very distinguished man with this very beautiful woman on his arm, who turned out to be Sabine Azéma. They looked terribly French, and very out of place in the Scarborough audience. I went over to him and he said that, yes, he was Alain Resnais. I said, “This is an honour. Are you coming to see the show?” - “Yes, indeed.” - “That’s so nice. What brought you to Scarborough?” I thought he might be scouting for a film location, but he replied, “Well, I am a fan of yours.” I was amazed! It was a little bit surreal, the more so when I found out that they had already visited before without making themselves known. We chatted a little and that was that. I saw them in the audience, they seemed to be enjoying the play. Then the next year, they were back again. Alain was quite unassuming. I saw him sitting amongst the children for one of my family plays. We began to talk a little bit more and felt, I think, kindred spirits. We had a great rapport. He made you feel as if you were the most important person in the world.
One day in 1991, during his next stay here, Alain dropped in to tell me he would like to make a movie out of one of my plays. There were some forty-five of them then. I said, “Which play do you want? Take your pick.” His answer took my breath away: Intimate Exchanges. I thought he was nuttier than a fruitcake. This is a marathon of eight plays, each one having two different endings; a two-hander in which the actors play five parts each. You have to go eight times in the theatre to see it all. I said, “But it’s a play with sixteen endings! Do you want to make a movie with sixteen endings?” I was afraid that he would want to do it as a straight film and I was just bracing myself to refuse when he said, “No, I want to make several films with twelve endings.” I said, “Alain, you’re madder than me! But will you find a producer that is madder than you?”
Some time later Alain, who by then had decided to make only two films with six endings each, told me maybe he would want the camera to occasionally leave the characters and pan round to show the Stephen Joseph Theatre audience and myself, when I would say things like, “Either she says:”, “Or she says:” I asked him not to put me in the films. I sometimes wish he had, actually! We agreed that he would work on his own and not bother me. I never want to be on the set, I know better than that. When I direct plays by other writers, I never want the writer that close. I knew that Sabine was in it, and I knew Pierre Arditi from some movies before, although I had not seen him and André Dussollier in my own Bedroom Farce when they played it in Paris in the mid-'70s. Alain employed my regular musical director, John Pattison, who went over to Paris to compose the music. Beyond that, I had no idea what Alain was doing.
When Alain finished the two movies, called by then No Smoking and Smoking, I was invited to go to Paris with my wife Heather to see them. Alain arranged for the projectionist to hold two reels of film and two envelopes with the titles Smoking and No Smoking inside and I drew one out to find which film we would see first. We watched both movies on the same day, with subtitles. What a loving interpretation of the play! Afterwards, we took some roses to Alain and Sabine’s apartment. They had the adapters there, Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri, and Arditi joined us after his evening performance on stage.
I was so impressed with the way Alain handled my play. It was such an easy play to cheat; for example by using trick photography to have Sabine or Pierre play two different characters in the same shot. Alain did none of that. I had set the play entirely out of doors, there isn’t an indoor scene in it. The ordinary film director would have taken a camera crew and gone to a real garden, a clifftop, a golf course, or a churchyard, and probably changed some of the settings as well in order to shoot indoors. Alain placed the entire thing in a studio set representing outdoors! The scenic unreality of it was arrestingly interesting. The play’s setting is an unnamed southern village (I have written only two plays set in Yorkshire), but Alain transferred it up north to Yorkshire. His designer came to take all sorts of photographs in and around Scarborough. The result was very funny, it made me laugh. It was their view of what they had seen here. It was a lovely, affectionate, slight caricature of the actual place, which in fact is rather more ordinary.
What impressed me most was the way the actors captured the characters. They were very accurate, very truthful. When I see productions of my plays on the stage, often the actors tend to make the characters a little bigger than real life instead of keeping them true, keeping them real. A few years before, I had experienced a terrible disappointment with Michael Winner’s film of my play A Chorus of Disapproval. It had made me wary about offers from film producers. That movie had been made without any love or consideration for the material. Some very good English actors, including friends of mine, had been encouraged to grossly overact and gave dreadful performances. You just wanted to tell them, “Please, do treat the characters with respect.” Not so with Alain. The three principal women roles from Intimate Exchanges, Rowena, Celia and Sylvie, could not be more different. At the same time, they are three sides of the same woman. And the same with the men. There is a life in those characters which demands that you take them seriously. I am glad and grateful that Alain encouraged those two very talented actors to perform in that spirit: the more utterly serious they played, the better the comedy.
I thought that was to be our one and only artistic encounter, but by then I was much more aware how close we were although we seemed so different. We were both fascinated by structure. We liked to play around with time and chance. We shared the theme of the half-remembered memory of things forgotten. One day, I asked Alain what he felt it was that drew us together. He replied, “You write movies for the stage, and I make plays for the screen.” That was very true. He thought theatrically. He brought stage effects into film, with extraordinary results. He was a sort of a stage producer who used a camera and I a sort of a film director who has never been on a film set and approached stage plays as though they were films. A lot of what I write is consciously lifted from film. My theatre grammar is in fact film grammar. I use cross-cuts and fades and split screens. The danger with my work for a filmmaker is that if you translate those effects back into movies, they can become a cliché. Alain avoided that.
The summer following the release of No Smoking and Smoking, when Alain and Sabine arrived again, I asked him if he would like to direct a play here (I ran the theatre then). I saw a little gleam come into his eye, but he looked rather askance! We saw them every summer for half a dozen years, I think. They were up here at Christmas once, we had a little New Year party with them. Dussollier came once as well.
In the summer of 1998, Alain rang me to say Sabine and he wanted to get married in Scarborough, and he asked Heather and me if we would be witnesses. After the ceremony at the register office, we took them out to a nice restaurant in the country outside Scarborough. I said to Sabine, “This has been so sudden. I’d love to give you a proper wedding present. What would you like?” She said she’d love to appear in one of my plays at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, but she was afraid her English was not good enough. So I wrote a part in French for her in my next set of plays, House & Garden. One of the plays takes place in the sitting-room of a large country house and the other in the garden. They were performed by the same cast in the two auditoria of our theatre, playing simultaneously in front of two different audiences. The actors went from one stage to the other with only a few seconds to spare. You could see both plays in any order. Sabine’s character, Lucille Cadeau, was an attractive, vivacious but alcoholic French film star who had been invited to open the annual village fête. Sabine was fun and very soon she was one of the company. She enjoyed it very much. A friend painted a portrait of her in House & Garden and it is in our home. Alain came up, too, and stayed for many weeks. He wanted to make a movie that would include filmed excerpts from the plays, so one Sunday, while I was out of town for something or other, he kept the company on and he filmed bits and pieces, but the project never came to fruition.
In 2005, Alain wrote to tell me he wanted to adapt Private Fears in Public Places, which had premiered the year before. That play was unusual for me in that it comprised fifty-four scenes (many of them very short ones), alternating between five main locations and a couple of minor ones, rather like a film script. Also, it covered a four day time span, whereas usually I try to marshal everything into a twenty-four hour time span within a single location; I try and keep in the Aristotle mode. There was a single all-purpose set, with the scenes skipping into different areas. I just crosscut. I suppose it was my most filmic play. Again, once I agreed for Alain to do it, I did not have a hand in the making of the film. By then, I knew that whatever he did with a play, it would not be the way you expect it to be. I recognized that demon in him, our shared fear of repeating ourselves.
It was arranged for me to see Private Fears in the cinema of the Stephen Joseph Theatre. I went with Heather and my son Steven, we were by ourselves. I was immediately taken by the snow storm, which had obviously not happened on stage. I remember my hands gripping the arms of my chair from the start, and I was still in the same position at the very end. Alain had got everything dead right. The conceit of the ever-falling snow to link the scenes was brilliant. The startling moment when Sabine puts her hand on Pierre’s and the snow is falling inside the kitchen… Again, it was incredibly studio-bound. Alain set the action in Paris, not London, which was fine with me. The play had a sort of generality in terms of its locations, they were probably less specific than in my other plays. Although I believe theatre is certainly 50% visual, I was glad that Alain kept so close to the script, he retained nearly all the dialogue. I was to ring him in Paris after the screening. He answered immediately, I sensed he was waiting very anxiously. I told him I loved the film and it made me very happy.
There is only one moment in the film which I did not like, but it was none of Alain’s fault. It happens in a scene with Lionel, the barman, and Dan, the ex-soldier, played respectively by Arditi and Lambert Wilson. Lionel is gay, but it is never said in so many words. As I wrote it, when Dan asks Lionel if his partner left him, Lionel replies, “No. They died”, which does not say which sex they are. Lionel is concealing the truth. In the published script that was translated for the film, there was a misprint and Lionel said, “No. She died.” That made him a liar.
I kept thinking of the film many weeks after the screening. I briefly considered writing a play set in a blizzard. A sort of ghost story. A woman would be coming back to a man, out of the blizzard, while he is sitting in a chair with his back to her. But a two-hour snowfall on stage? It could never have worked in the round.
Alain wasn’t able to come to Scarborough anymore, but I knew he kept reading my plays. When he expressed interest in Life of Riley, I was not quite sure why he wanted to do that one. I had wanted to write a charismatic character that impinged on everyone’s life and that everyone saw slightly differently. But you can’t ask an actor to play that, you can’t tell him, “Please, be all things to all people.” So the only way to do that is to remove the essential character from the play. George Riley never appears, and you have a sense of a whole spectrum revolving around a vacuum. It is not an original stage idea. People have written plays about non-existent central characters for quite a long time, including one or two classic ones during the '40s and '50s. I never consciously thought about the invisible woman in Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives during the writing of Life of Riley, but I sometimes view that film and it must have had an influence.
When we came to Paris to see the film, I expected to be surprised at the result… but certainly not that surprised! I was amazed at Alain’s completely non-naturalistic treatment, he took an enormous step. The scenic conceit of the very graphic canvas walls and gardens was staggering, the actors were on some sort of a stage set. It was an extraordinary attempt to say, “It’s pretence, it’s theatrical.” Again, Alain set in Yorkshire a play that, to me, took place in the South. With his co-writer Laurent Herbiet, he shortened the play somewhat, but he did not remove any scene nor did he change the dialogue. He only made George die in a scuba diving accident, whereas he died paragliding in the play. My image was that George flew away into the sky and, like Icarus, went into the sun. He became an angel. Some of the characters were older than I had written them - in Private Fears too, for that matter - but all the actors knew perfectly how to walk a tightrope wire between the serious and the comic.
After the screening, we went to Alain’s place and had lunch with him and Sabine. I said to Alain, “You never cease to surprise me. I hope I have the artistic longevity that you have. You still at your age think up exciting, startling ideas, shocking ideas sometimes. You’re an incentive to keep me going, because now I want to write something to surprise you.” When we left, I told him, “You keep making them, I’ll keep writing them, Alain.” I did not know the next project he had in mind was Arrivals & Departures, which I had written the year before.
When I was told Alain was in hospital and his death was a matter of days, a great sadness fell over me. And then I thought I also had reason to be deeply moved because I was told he had spent his last creative hours working on a play of mine. That was one of the greatest feelings of my life. I feel terribly lucky to have known him for more than twenty years.
(In conversation with François Thomas, Scarborough, September 11, 2014.)
Copyright: François Thomas