- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 29, 2003

Thompson was my married name — a long, long time ago,” explains Daniele Thompson, director and co-writer of the French romantic comedy “Jet Lag,” which debuted successfully in Paris last November and had its local unveiling during Filmfest DC in April.

The movie began regular commercial engagements Friday at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Landmark Bethesda Row. The former Mrs. Thompson discussed her movie during a phone conversation from New York, where she was fulfilling promotional chores for Miramax Pictures, the American distributor.

New York had been her home for about a decade, when she was a young wife and mother in her 20s. Both her children were born there.

The feminine link in what may be a unique set of filmmaking collaborations, Daniele Thompson is the daughter of Gerard Oury, a prominent character actor in French films who turned to directing in 1960 and remained active through the early 1990s. Born Max-Gerard Houry Tannenbaum in Paris in 1919, Mr. Oury also appeared in occasional English-language movies: “Father Brown,” “The Heart of the Matter,” “The Journey” and “The Prize.” American moviegoers may find it easiest to place him from “The Prize,” released in 1963. He played the sheepish, albeit philandering, doctor who shared a Nobel Prize in medicine with fuming spouse Micheline Presle, who flirted with Paul Newman to appease some of her resentment.

Daniele Thompson began collaborating with her father as a screenwriter in the middle 1960s, and the partnership spawned a huge hit of 1966 titled “La Grande Vadrouille,” which failed to have an American art-house vogue but remains one of the all-time top grossers in France. The collaboration was sustained for another two decades with a pair of Oury-Thompson farces. “The Brain” and “The Mad Adventures of ‘Rabbi’ Jacob,” may ring a bell with confirmed art-house patrons of a generation ago. Mrs. Thompson also worked for several other directors, notably Jean-Charles Tacchella on “Cousin, Cousine,” an art-house phenom in Washington during 1975- 76; with Peter Weir on “Green Card,” which required some French authenticity for Gerard Depardieu’s first English-language role; and with Patrice Chereau on the sumptuous, ominous 1994 costume drama “Queen Margot.”

Needless to say, Daniele Thompson is fluent in English. Four years ago she recruited her son, Christopher Thompson, as a co-writer on a project that helped boost her belated career as a movie director. “La Buche,” a family comedy set during the Christmas season, was a major success of 1999 and led to a collaborative encore on “Jet Lag,” a revamp of a Thompson screenplay that had once been designed to match an American actor and a French actress in a romantic comedy about strangers who meet while stranded at an airport.

It has been realized as a co-starring vehicle for Jean Reno (a Spaniard who emigrated to France when he was in his teens) and Juliette Binoche, who has no split-nationality baggage as far as anyone knows.

“I found visiting movie sets boring when I was a child,” Mrs. Thompson recalls, “but I guess I was always fascinated, unconsciously. Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now. I remained exclusively a writer for a long, long time, because I loved the wonderful freedom of working at my desk and having my own hours. I felt such comfort in my work, and it had gone so well for so many years. I suppose I was a little lazy — and definitely terrified. I was content to surrender the baby to the director, so to speak. He had to deal with all the responsibilities of raising it from that moment on.”

Once it occurred, the transition from co-writer to co-writer and director seemed inevitable.

“I’ve always tried to write in a way that reflects what I’d like to see on the screen,” Mrs. Thompson says. “My way of writing probably implied a lot about how I would have directed the material. Funnily enough, the two films I have directed threw me back on the script in ways I didn’t anticipate. When you feel a little lost on the set, which always happens, although you need to hide it from the crew, I’d take up the script and read the scene again. A silly thing in a way, since I knew the script by heart. But I was trying to recapture the precise mood I felt when writing. I wanted to remember why it had been written that way, why I wanted to see what was on the page. That did help a lot.”

While disinclined to frequent movie sets during her early filmwriting career, Mrs. Thompson did make it a habit to attend “dailies,” the screening of printed takes from the previous day’s shooting. “Thank God I did,” she reflects. “I think a writer’s opinions can be very useful in that setting. I always solicit my son’s opinion. I want him at dailies as much as possible.”

The mother-son team began because Mrs. Thompson could not envision working without a co- writer. “Suddenly I felt very lonely,” she recalls. “I thought of several possibilities. At the time my son was an actor, but he had also begun to write stuff for himself and other people. I asked if he’d be willing to try a couple of weeks working with me. ‘Let’s see what happens,’ I suggested. If it’s fun, if something sparks, if it’s not a bore to drive to work at your mother’s every day … So we tried it, and the test period went so well that we just went on.”

Although rewriting “Jet Lag” for Miss Binoche, Mr. Reno and a very specific location — Terminal F at the Charles De Gaulle Airport in the Paris suburb of Roissy — created few snags in the formative and planning stages, the project was blindsided from afar by the terrorist attacks of September 11.

Mrs. Thompson recalls, “We spent a lot of time preparing in July and August of that year. We were supposed to begin shooting at De Gaulle Airport on Oct. 1 [2001]. When September 11 happened, we lost every single authorization we had worked so patiently to secure. There was not a single airport in the world that would have welcomed a film crew at that time. Not to mention hundreds of extras and their baggage. It was a nightmare. Everyone was so upset and terrified by what had happened that it was impossible to think clearly about the alternatives.”

However, those reconsiderations did begin in a matter of weeks. “We resigned ourselves to a postponement and looked around for other airports,” Mrs. Thompson says. “Nothing could really duplicate the site we had lost, but eventually we did shoot some footage at Lourdes and Lille. Fortunately, when we renewed discussions with the authorities at De Gaulle, we got permission for five days of shooting. Originally, we had a deal to be there for 27 days. We were on our very good behavior during those five days and got permission for an additional five. I managed to compress everything we needed into the 10 days. Nothing was really sacrificed. No scenes or vignettes had to be cut. I had my priorities and did it the way I wanted. But after September 11 we were a very shy group of filmmakers. We lost the aggressiveness that film crews usually have about trying to force open doors.”

As a director, she was most intent on protecting the feeling of loneliness that troubled her principal characters, “despite being surrounded by huge crowds.” Mrs. Thompson explains, “I did everything possible to keep that feeling. I think anybody who sees the film can relate to that experience. If planes are grounded and you have no place to stay, you can feel like a soiled dishrag. It can be profoundly depressing if you’re not feeling so good anyway. But it can also be a useful time for re-evaluating things. In the case of our two characters, they’re forced to stop running and take a sobering look at their lives.”

Juliette Binoche is cast as a make-up artist named Rose whose own facade has become too much of a mask. She’s running away from a widowed, domineering mother and an abusive boyfriend.

Mr. Reno’s Felix is a French chef who has been in lucrative exile in the United States for several years. To oversimplify, a couple of French fugitives meet by chance while heading in opposite directions and discover renewed hope and courage in their mutual attraction.

The filmmaker takes a sanguine view of the match she created. “I think Rose is moving toward an ideal solution,” Mrs. Thompson says, “being free with a man who lets you be free. I think she still has time to have a child. I hope this will happen to them after the movie. I have imagined a very full agenda for Rose.”

The Thompson agenda may include directing an American adaptation of one of her original screenplays. She has a deal pending with New Line, and the picture would be shot in the United States.

She is also working on a new screenplay with a young French director.

“Knowing that I won’t have to direct that one helps me relax,” she says.

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