- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 10, 2007

French writer-director Francis Veber has had perhaps more of his films remade in America than any other foreign director. But he was still surprised by the interest in “The Valet” (“La Doublure”), which opens in theaters today.

“The day after the first screening of the film, at the Los Angeles Film Festival, I had something like five studios fighting to buy the remake,” he reports on a recent stop in the District. “I realized it must be less French than I thought.”

In fact, “The Valet” is a rollicking farce whose humor is universal. The titular attendant can’t believe his luck when a rich businessman pays him to live with a supermodel. The businessman has been cheating on his wife and hopes to persuade her that the valet who was photographed with the pair is really the one dating the gorgeous woman.

The 69-year-old filmmaker offers a modest explanation of why so many of his films have been remade. “It’s not because my films are that good,” he says. “It’s because they are what they call in Hollywood ‘high-concept’ movies in which you can say the story in one line.”

“The Toy,” “Father’s Day” and “My Father the Hero” are just some of the films originally scripted in French by Mr. Veber. Some have been more successful than others. “Even Billy Wilder — I’m his biggest fan — made a bad movie with my script, ‘Buddy Buddy.’ I think the process of remaking a film is very difficult.”

One remake he likes is “The Birdcage,” adapted from his 1978 movie “La Cage aux Folles,” itself adapted in turn from Jean Poiret’s play of the same name. “When a remake is well done, it’s a miracle.”

Mr. Veber spends half his time in Paris, where he has a stage play opening in August, and half in Los Angeles. He’s made American films, too, like 1989’s “Three Fugitives.”

“I felt like I was at the peak of my career, and it felt bizarre to think I could never go higher. So when they offered me the chance to come to America, I accepted,” he recalls. “I like the American way of living. I live in Los Angeles in the Hills. To write there, it’s quiet. It’s very stressful to live in a city like Paris or New York for a writer.”

He’s not quite as fond of the American way of filming. “It’s far easier for me to direct in France because the process of making a film here is very long,” he says. “You write a screenplay of 115 pages and you have 115 pages of notes from the executives.”

He knows writers who haven’t had a film shot in 10 years and screenplays that are “sitting in cellars someplace” because a studio doesn’t want to produce it but won’t sell the rights in case they’re wrong and it becomes a hit.

Not that the film industry of his native land is without endemic problems of its own. “In France, we are helped so much by the government that some films don’t need an audience to open,” he observes. “They’ve already been paid [for] beforehand. It sometimes makes the French directors self-indulgent. They don’t have to be crowd-pleasers. Sometimes you have very intellectual, boring movies.”

Mr. Veber’s witty films are anything but boring. There is a small class of people who haven’t been pleased with his films, though: men named Francois Pignon. He’s used the name repeatedly in his films for the lovable — but none too bright — everyman.

“I don’t know why I got so attached to the name,” he says. “In France, we have 11 Francois Pignons.” And many of them wanted to sue him.

In “L’emmerdeur,” Pignon is the title character. In “The Closet,” he pretends to be homosexual. In “The Dinner Game,” he’s brought in for a dinner for idiots.

Mr. Veber called one Francois Pignon who wrote him an angry letter. He first called the director a bad name, but after some conversation, the two became friends.

“It was really kind of odd to call your hero on the phone,” he laughs.

Always famous

“Away from Her,” opening in theaters today, is a literate and moving film about marriage and memory. Julie Christie plays Fiona, who moves into a nursing home and seemingly forgets her husband after she’s diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Her husband Grant (played by Gordon Pinsent) has to watch his wife form an attachment to another man.

It’s not the first film that deals with the disease — there are 2004’s “The Notebook” and 2001’s “Iris,” for example. But director Sarah Polley, who adapted the screenplay from a short story by Alice Munro, has made it a first in one sense.

“The thing they all had in common that I really wanted to avoid in this film was the reliance on showing these people when they were in their 20s,” says Miss Polley during a recent visit to the District. “It’s like we need to justify making a movie about people who are older. There’s something that rubs me the wrong way about that.”

It’s an insightful comment, but surprising coming from a first-time director who just turned 28.

Miss Polley rarely fails to surprise, however.

The Canadian began her career as a child actress, making her film debut at 4 in “One Magic Christmas.” Canadians like myself grew up watching her grow up on the popular CBC TV series “Road to Avonlea,” based on stories by Lucy Maud Montgomery. She made the rare transition from child star to serious actress, putting in acclaimed work in films like 1997’s “The Sweet Hereafter” and 1999’s “Guinevere.” Although she was given the part that made Kate Hudson a star in “Almost Famous,” she dropped out.

“I was really clear on the kind of films I wanted to be involved in: smaller, independent films,” she explains. “I’m really interested in being part of an indigenous film industry in Canada that’s fundamentally different from the one in the States.”

Mr. Pinsent adds that Canadian films are special because they’re usually made only out of passion: “You really have to work hard and really want to get it done.”

Notwithstanding stars from Britain (Miss Christie) and America (Olympia Dukakis), “Away from Her” is set in Ontario and unabashedly Canadian. Miss Polley says she was never tempted to make a generic North American film: “I feel like you have more of a chance of making a story universal if you are unafraid of making it specific.”

Miss Polley fell in love with directing when she made her first short film at 20. But she plans to keep acting. “It was great as an actor to watch firsthand the process of people you admire that much,” she says of directing.

She’s surprisingly modest and levelheaded for someone who’s been famous almost her whole life. Asked how she managed to avoid the pitfalls that have tripped up so many other child stars, she says simply, “I think I’ve been really lucky. It’s a childhood destined to result in a lot of issues around identity and confidence.”

Some in her native land had trouble seeing Canada’s Sweetheart grow up. She turned political as a teenager, even losing some teeth to riot police. It could have been worse for her career, she notes. “It’s a little easier to have radical left-wing politics in Canada than a lot of other places,” she says. After focusing on “Away From Her” for two years, she laughs, “I feel more criticized now for being politically inactive.”

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