An Evening with Costa-Gavras

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

If there were a theme to the American Cinematheque presentation of "An Evening with Costa-Gavras" that would be it.  

January 26th at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood the Los Angeles Film & TV Office of the French Embassy screened the Director's films "Missing" (1982) and his groundbreaking "Z" (1969) and Nick Redmond sat down with the man himself to discuss his work and his influence on audiences.

Costa-Gavras has a long history with French Cinema. He emigrated from Greece to France as a young man to study at the Sorbonne. It was then that he saw the first important film of his life: "Greed" (1924) by Erich von Stroheim.  

Coming from a country where there was strong censorship and most of the movies they saw were Randolph Scott westerns, "Greed" was powerful.   It propelled him to enroll in cinema school.  When he finished his studies he worked as an assistant director with such notables as René Clément and Jacques Demy.

Because Costa-Gavras came from such humble beginnings in a small third world country his hope at the time was to simply find work as an assistant director. The fact that he became an actual director was a complete but fortuitous accident. Working previously with Yves Montand and Simone Signoret enabled him to have them on his first commercial film " Compartiment tueurs" ("The Sleeping Car Murders") (1965).

The success of "The Sleeping Car Murders" led to producer Harry Saltzman more or less giving Costa-Gavras carte blanche to choose his next project.   He set his sights on an adaptation of the 1933 novel Man's Fate by Andre Malraux.  Unfortunately for Saltzman, the Chinese setting was too much and the movie was never made.

"Z" was written just after the military take over in Greece. Costa-Gavras was in France at the time and the script was his way of making a statement about the things being done in his homeland.   He co-wrote it with his friend Jorge Semprún and found actors like Yves Montand and Jacques Perrin eager to join the project, despite the producer's concerns that no one would care about the assassination of a Greek representative with no love story.

But the French government and the Algerians stepped up with support based on the quality of the script.  The actors and the director practically did the film for free.  The passion that created the film made it an international success, mused Costa-Gavras.

"Z" trivia: The music, though written by Mikis Theodorakis was not written for the film.

At the time, Theodorakis was in jail.  Costa-Gavras was an admirer of the composer's work and when he was finally able to contact him in jail, the composer said that he could use whatever existing pieces he wanted.

The contract between the two men was three lines written on a cigarette box.  In one pivotal scene, Costa-Gavras was unable to find a suitable piece from among Theodorakis's works so he simply took one and played it backwards.

After "Z" Costa-Gavras was asked many times to come and make a movie in America.

He resisted until one day Ed Lewis (producer) sent him the book "Missing"  by Thomas Hauser and a script. He contacted Ed and told him he was interested in making the film but the part in the book that he felt was the true focus was the story of the father looking for his son.

Before Costa-Gavras signed a contract he did an outline of his own script that Lewis approved and then American writer Donald Stewart was brought in to collaborate. As the writer, Costa-Gavras was conscious about not showing what was happening in the Embassy offices or the military. All the facts are given to the viewers by eye-witnesses so not to dramatize the film.   He has quite a passion for actors.

In "Missing" Sissy Spacek gives a powerful performance as Beth a woman desperately searching for answers to her husband's disappearance.   It would be the first of three films Costa-Gavras directed with strong American female leads: "Missing", "Betrayed" (with Debra Winger) and "The Music Box" (with Jessica Lang).

When his draft of "Missing" was approved he said to the studio that he wanted Jack Lemmon for the role of Ed Horman.   The studio replied: "Jack Lemmon?  Are we making a comedy?"  But Costa-Gavras kept insisting on Lemmon even when he was handed a list of other possible names.   In the end Ed Lewis laid down the law and said: "If he likes Jack, get him Jack." 

"Missing" trivia:  When the film was released Nathanial Davis who was the US ambassador to Chile brought a $150 million libel suit against Costa-Gavras and the studio. Lew Wasserman who was the head of Universal at that time was asked to negotiate and offer money to stop the suit and he refused, believing so strongly in the film. Universal won.

Talking about working with Joe Eszterhas (who wrote "Betrayed" and "Music Box") Costa-Gavras tells how Producer Irwin Winkler suggested that he work with Eszterhas on a project.

At the time Costa-Gavras was thinking about a story involving extreme right-wing people so he and Eszterhas began working together in Los Angeles and traveling to other parts of America, especially Montana, Nebraska and Idaho.

While Joe was writing the screenplay for "Betrayed" he was telling Costa-Gavras stories about his life near Chicago and about World War 2 criminals who came to reside in the United States. At Costa-Gavras' suggestion, when Joe came to Paris to see the first edit of "Betrayed" he handed the director the script for "Music Box".  

Costa-Gavras thought the subject matter of "Music Box" was at times difficult for the audience to watch but an important story.

"Music Box" trivia:  Actor Armin Mueller-Stahl, from East Germany, encountered some difficulty getting a visa to work in the US.  They thought he was a communist.

Costa-Gavras believes that film cannot give answers or change the world.  The medium was misused by such groups as the Stalinists and Hitler as propaganda.   People can think, discuss and ask questions after seeing a film but the best way to change the world is not through cinema.

He's been quoted more than once as saying he doesn't make documentaries because they are too difficult. "There are hundreds of directors making pictures in the world.   And how many good documentarians are there?  Very few." He sees movies as a spectacle that can accurately convey true human feelings. The word entertainment for ancient and modern Greeks means literally "to guide the soul." As a director he feels a responsibility not to betray the characters or the situation.  

The movies he makes affect him deeply. That is the reason he's only done 20 movies in 40 years.  He will not make a movie unless he has a deep passion for it. When asked how he kept his faith in humanity alive when his films show such personal tragedy as well the tragedy of an administration failing to help its citizen Costas-Gavras replied "because they are here tonight."

In the case of "Missing," the story was about a father discovering who his son really was as well as a staunch conservative discovering the true nature of his government.   To him those were the great tragedies and the important aspects of the story. Worldwide, the most meaningful movies made talk about the human society.

Some would argue that it's politics, but for Costa-Gavras it's not for whom do you vote tomorrow but how our behavior is in everyday life and how do you deal with the big things.

At present Costa-Gavras is putting the finishing touches on a new script that he hopes to shoot this summer.

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