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August 27, 2004

Moviemaking and Food

Dear Vanessa --

I enjoy keeping up with American Cinematographer, the monthly magazine of the American Society of Cinematographers. I learn more about what movies are and about how they're made from flipping through this trade magazine than I do from reading movie criticism these days.

A highlight in the September issue is a lively q&a with French cinematographer Willy Kurant, who has worked with such greats as Agnes Varda, Jean-Luc Godard, and Orson Welles. In an interesting and unusual exchange, Kurant spells out some key differences in the way French and American movies are made:

American Cinematographer: Let's start by discussing working hours.

Willy Kurant: Some Americans think "French hours" means working without a break, and with a permanent buffet. In reality, working time is defined by French law. There are two types of days: either from 9 to 6 with a one-hour lunch break, or from noon until 7:30 pm with lunch at 11. You work between 8 and 10 hours a day, and then there is overtime, which has to be requested by the production and accepted by the crew. Overtime after 8 p.m. is very expensive.

AC: French crews have time to eat dinner in the evenings?

Kurant: Often the older guys will go home to eat with their families, and the younger ones will go out to a brasserie together. That is where teams coalesce. On location, I've noticed that while French crews will often eat together, U.S. crews will get room service or face a microwave in a rented flat because of their longer hours.

For a European, the American workload is staggering. In the U.S., it's supposed to be 12 hours contractually, and the union would like us to work for no more than 14 hours. Nevertheless, we often face 16-hour days in the States ...

The American unions are very strong, whereas the French ones are weak, and it's surprising that the working hours are so long in the States with such a strong union. How do we resist in France? I think it's because of the laborers: grips and electricians. When you see pizzas arrive on an American set after 12 or 13 hours, you know you're in for a 16-hour day. In France, pizzas just wouldn't cut it.

AC: In France, the meal is sacred!

Kurant: The meal is the sacramental act, and it has to last one hour, seated and served. Conversations at the table always drift toward creative aspects of the metier. Teams are often created around a table. Off-set dinners are equally important. Many French projects are born in restaurants -- that is where production teams are defined. ..

In the American system, you eat six hours after the beginning of the shoot, so lunch can be called at 5 p.m. ...

AC: Lunch is an essential part of the life of a French movie.

Kurant: I've been told by American producers that they didn't want electricians and grips drinking wine, but it's a matter of French law: there has to be a bottle of wine on the table, whether you drink or not ...

AC: What do you think of the American meal?

Kurant: The American meal is a 30-minute lesson in democracy. Everyone stands in line, even big stars. There is always a vegetarian option. Some crew members elect to take a nap in the truck instead of eating because they are so exhausted. But people have to eat too quickly, and American crews spend a lot time at the craft-service table, where there is all this junk-food.

In France, there is a casse-croute around 4 p.m., sandwiches for physical laborers made with fresh bread and butter and decent ham. In the U.S., you eat all day long ...

Not a point of view on moviemaking that you're likely to find in Sight and Sound, or even in Film Comment!

The funny thing is that you can genuinely feel the impact of these contrasting attitudes towards work and food in the films of the two cultures -- American films tending towards the big, the energized-unto-exhaustion, and the self-important; while French films tend towards the trim, the unhurried, and the spare. (And, yes, perhaps also the boring.) I find it interesting the way that civilized dining arrangements help the French keep work in perspective, and overwork at bay. A lesson to be learned there?

Question for the day: which worker has greater freedom -- the American, or the Frenchman? Seems to me, FWIW, that it kinda depends on what "freedom" is taken to mean. The Frenchman may not be "free" to work 18 hour days -- but the American film-crew member apparently isn't "free" to have a personal life.

American Cinematographer's website is here.



UPDATE: A propos -- what the heck -- of the French and wine, it seems that France's winemakers face a crisis. Here's a good article by Eric Pape and Tracy McNicoll about it for Newsweek Online. Surprising facts:

  • The French drink barely half the wine they did in 1960.
  • In 1998, France sold twice the volume of wine its international competitors did. Last year, for the first time in history, their sales surpassed France's.

posted by Michael at August 27, 2004


Sixteen hour days on American movie sets? What kind of quality work can be expected out of the crew in the last four or five hours of a sixteen hour day? Or am I just being naive? Crank out product -- that's the name of the game.

Posted by: ricpic on August 28, 2004 12:56 PM

Great post, Michael. It got me thinking about two of my favorite films that celebrate the melding of food and conversation. Both possess a distinct French sensibility, which I doubt that most major American studios could replicate, with their noticeably heavy emphasis on Food As Prop And Commercial Product Placement.

How about the rapturously beautiful Babette’s Feast?

"Among the many films that center on food at the end of the twentieth century, Babette's Feast stands out for its reach and for the subtlety of its sensuality. For this film depicts far more than food and foodways; it shows more than the sensuality of food in our lives. Paradoxically, this Danish film tells an exemplary tale of French cuisine. Its portrayal of a French cook far from France evokes the French culinary landscape even more than the Danish countryside where it is set…. It invests cuisine—very pointedly French cuisine—with incomparable transformative powers. The spectacular repast that crowns the film conjures up a vision of spiritual well being created by the transcendent artistry of a chef who sacrifices all for her art and, through that art, recreates her country."

And the stunning My Dinner With Andre, directed by Louis Malle?

(PS: Featuring Wallace Shawn, object of one of the all-time great film disses. As Diane Keaton’s ex-husband in Manhattan, Woody's character described the hapless Shawn as “a homunculus.” Ouch.)

Posted by: Maureen on August 28, 2004 3:51 PM

Ricpic --I'm with you: how can anyone be creative under those circumstances? Maybe that helps explain why American movies these days often feel over-willed (or musclebound) and underinspired.

Maureen -- Thanks for reminding me of "Babette," which, to my shame, I've never seen. But movies and food both, eh? Ah, the good life.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 30, 2004 6:29 PM

I once read an interview with John Woo, in which he discussed his move from Hong Kong to American film-making. He said that the best thing about working in America (other than that the money was much better) was that the much shorter working hours and better working conditions generally in the unionised industry in Los Angeles were much more civilized than the situation in Hong Kong....

Posted by: Michael Jennings on September 3, 2004 6:16 AM

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