When French director Francis Veber started filming his new comedy, The Closet, Gerard Depardieu almost died on him. He spilled the beans about this and similarly difficult experiences.
Hollywood has its A-List comprising a handful of the world’s most bankable actors. Just beneath it is the B-List, the equivalent of the Nationwide First Division. And then there is the "Life is too short" List - stars who are so difficult and demanding they should be avoided at all costs.
"I will tell you their names," says Francis Veber, the writer and director whose career has straddled Hollywood and his native France, and whose credits include La Cage aux Folles, My Father the Hero and Le Diner de Cons. His latest, The Closet, opens on 17 May.
"You have Dustin Hoffman. Never work with him. You have Warren Beatty. And you have Matthew Broderick... This little guy is totally neurotic." They worked together on the comedy Out on a Limb (1992) and clashed over Veber’s attempts to change the script. "It was a fight that lasted for 14 weeks," he says.
One day in the middle of a row Veber found himself facing up to Broderick with clenched fists, at which point, according to Veber, Broderick ran away and shut himself in his trailer.
The accidental director
A handsome, tanned 64-year-old, Veber has lived in the United States for the past 15 years, though he maintains his film career has been an accident. He began as a playwright, adapted his work for film, made his directing debut with The Toy (1976) and his first American film as writer-director was Three Fugitives a few years later.
It was a real eye-opener. He recalls that star Nick Nolte’s standard tipple was a triple vodka and tequila - and he would be brought to the set next morning on a gurney. Veber thought filming would be impossible and was nervous at the prospect of a showdown with the gruff giant. But, after clearing the air, he concluded Nolte was actually one of the good guys.
The Closet stars Daniel Auteuil and reunites Veber with regular collaborator Gerard Depardieu. Auteuil plays a dull accountant, whose wife has walked out, son avoids him and employers are about to sack him. He spreads the rumour that he is gay and his employers back down from sacking him for fear of being accused of persecuting homosexuals.
The film reverses the premise of La Cage aux Folles, in which two gays pretend to be straight.
Depardieu's close call
Depardieu plays the macho coach of the works rugby team, who is forced to change his views for fear that he might be sacked for homophobia. But it almost did not happen - Depardieu was rushed to hospital for major heart surgery just as filming began.
"I went to see him at the hospital," says Veber, "and he was laying on his bed naked, and he was huge... he looked like Moby Dick... He told me ‘Wait for me,’ and I waited something like seven weeks. He came back on the set in great shape, but I was very much scared.
"I had to struggle between my perfectionism and my anxiety... I was afraid to kill him, because we were doing take after take." Veber describes Depardieu as a "workaholic" and believes the enforced break may have saved his life.
The inconspicuous Auteuil
He has nothing but praise for his two French stars, complimenting Depardieu’s subtlety in tracing the arc of his character from boor to sensitive modern man, and the way in which Auteuil developed his character.
"I needed a little man in the crowd," he says. "Auteuil is like that. If you met him in the street or in the subway, you won’t notice him. It’s just because he’s so talented that he’s a star." He maintains Auteuil, whose previous films include Jean de Florette, can handle drama and comedy and bring humanity and sexuality to his roles. "You can’t imagine Chaplin making love," he says.
The Closet has been the second most successful French film in the US, after Amelie. Veber attributes the upswing in French movies to the readiness of young directors to heed public taste. "Films were so narcissistic and so intellectual that they just wanted to please themselves and a handful of intellectual reviewers, so it was very boring."
Ben Stiller and Arnold Schwarzenegger have been linked to the planned American version of The Closet and Woody Allen expressed an interest in starring in the Hollywood remake of Le Diner de Cons (The Dinner Game), but Veber says the producers are refusing to even consider him because of his lack of box-office clout, "which is very sad because he is one of their rare geniuses".
What's Hollywood's problem?
Veber clearly has a complex relationship with America: he professes to enjoy living there and to like Americans - and clearly he relishes Hollywood gossip, but he is scathing about American versions of his films, with the exception of The Birdcage (La Cage aux Folles), and about American comedy in general.
"I was asking an old producer in Hollywood, ‘How come comedies aren’t as good now as they were before?’ And he gave me an explanation that’s very interesting. He said, ‘Before the writers were coming from the stage, Broadway, and they were used to structuring a situation; now they’re coming from TV and they know how to make punchlines.’"
When it comes to Hollywood remakes of his films, producers always want more and more jokes, he says, and writers readily oblige. In the end the film is simply overloaded with jokes. "You have people saying funny things, and at the same time, the characters aren’t real anymore."
The Closet is one of the few films going directly up against the new Star Wars film Attack of the Clones, at least in the UK. Audiences will have plenty time to see George Lucas’s latest, says Veber, and he is hopeful they will take the chance to rush out and see his film - before its Hollywood make-over.