The Americanization of Louis Malle

Original Publication: New West Magazine, April 24, 1978.

“…With the controversial ‘Pretty Baby,’ he joins the growing list of foreign directors making movies here. It’s not been easy for them…”

            Last fall, at a party celebrating the New York Film Festival, Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci leaned against a wall in a posh town house and, in halting English, discussed the script of the English-language movie, Luna, which he would soon begin shooting in the United States. In a far corner of the paneled living room, avoiding Bertolucci “because that man is a Communist,” stood Czech director Milos Forman, who was running over budget and behind schedule on his own American movie, Hair. And standing in another corner was French director Louis Malle, smiling through questions about problems surrounding his first American film, the controversial Pretty Baby. That night in that room three of Europe’s top directors had one thing in common: They all wanted an American hit.

            Of the three, Malle, at the moment, is the most interesting. He is one of a handful of directors who has carte blanche to make any film he wants in his native country, France. Yet, at 45, Malle has moved here permanently, one of the growing number of international superstar directors now striving for success in the U.S. Unlike many of these directors, who are bothered by a language barrier, Malle’s English is nearly flawless. Nevertheless, the reasons he chose to work in the U.S. mirror the ambitions and frustrations of his contemporaries. “Europe in the seventies has become a little passive culturally,” Malle says. “The cultural patterns—the way people dress, the music people listen to—is all American, so I decided to let America impregnate me.”

            It has not been an easy pregnancy. Some of the difficulties Malle has had in making Pretty Baby illustrate the problems of translating “high art” into popular entertainment, especially when cultural sensibilities collide. The problems began with his choice of subject matter. Of all the foreign directors now planning or making movies in America, he has chosen, as we’ll probably read over and over, the most difficult and ticklish theme. Pretty Baby is the chronicle of a radiant child prostitute—played by twelve-year-old Brooke Shields—as she comes to pubescence in the only environment she has ever known, a New Orleans whorehouse in 1917.

            Malle, of course, is no stranger to controversial movies, having told the story of mother-son incest in Murmur of the Heart and of a teenage Nazi collaborator in Lacombe, Lucien. “I do believe in shocking people,” he says. “I do believe it’s excellent therapy to provoke them into thinking.” Yet, given America’s current media scrutiny and legislative attack on child pornography and prostitution, any sympathetic or even semisympathetic treatment of the subject—no matter how historically accurate or artistically chaste—is bound to cause public abrasions. Malle himself admits he felt a jolt when, during the first week on location in New Orleans, he heard that Roman Polanski had been arrested in Los Angeles for having sex with a thirteen-year-old girl. “After what happened to Roman,” says Malle, “I realized all of a sudden, ‘My God, this is going to be difficult.’ Now, yes, I do expect to be attacked.”

            Lately it has not been easy for foreign directors to sense what will work for American audiences. In the last few months, superstar filmmakers such as Lina Wertmuller, Ingmar Bergman and Claude Lelouch have all released English-language films that have flopped critically and at the Box office. But because Europe’s film industry is almost as unsettled as its politics, and the mystique of “making it in Hollywood” remains a persistent fantasy, foreign directors are more fascinated than ever with the idea of making movies here.

            Malle, the son of a wealthy French sugar heiress, first learned English and watched Hollywood movies during childhood summers in Ireland. He has been making movies for 22 years, earning a reputation as a risk taker who clothes very tricky themes in lush cinematic tones. Malle moved to the U.S. almost two years ago. He took an apartment in New York and drove around America, amazed at the vastness and diversity he found. “Utah and Louisiana are almost as different as California and Mars,” he said. “Yet at the same time there is something which holds.” Malle began to write a script for David V. Picker, who was then president of Paramount.

            “When I first met Louis,” says Polly Platt, scriptwriter and associate producer of Pretty Baby, “he had been thinking of Pretty Baby but he was also writing a script about a Mexican boy who had come here illegally. I told him, ‘You shouldn’t make the mistake of those foreign directors, like Antonioni with Zabriskie Point, who tried to make a film about a domestic problem. You should make a film about something which interests you personally.’” For years, Malle had been thinking of child prostitution as a movie theme. So he decided on a script which blended his interests and a piece of America’s past.

            But first Malle had to deal with Paramount. Foreign directors are accustomed to working with a small crew usually comprised of the same people film after film. For them, working with an American studio—with its layers of bureaucracy, executives and technicians—is awesome. In Europe one person might perform ten different functions; in America there are ten people to contend with. And here, as in Europe, Malle became his own producer, so there was no one to act as a buffer between him and the myriad details and demands of people involved in the sheer mechanics of making a movie.

            Artistically, as well as administratively, there were differences. “In Europe directors like me can do what they want with a script,” says Malle. “Here studios spend much more time going over and over it for months or years. I work very slowly here to fit into the pace of Hollywood. This script took months to prepare. I wrote Murmur of the Heart in a week.”

            When he began shooting Pretty Baby, Malle’s attempts to cross-pollinate his French sensibility with America’s dissolved. According to more than one person on the set, Malle used all his usual Gallic techniques of filmmaking. “Louis was very stubborn and difficult to work with,” says Platt. “He wouldn’t change his methods for America. I almost kicked him.” In the European manner, Malle cast many nonprofessionals; they were often undisciplined and retarded the shooting schedule. These nonpros deliberately slowed down at one point to protest being corseted for twelve hours at a stretch into period costumes. Tense, Malle wrote a note, which was tacked on their dressing-room mirror: “Any actress who shaves her underarms will be fired. There will be no exceptions. Louis Malle.”

            Malle always rehearsed his actors on the set, which didn’t allow the American crew its usual space to set up camera shots. He constantly changed camera positions before completely finishing at a certain angle, further alienating his crew. “On the set I could be very difficult in a very confusing way,” admits Malle. “But I believe in disorder. My number-one privilege is to contradict myself, because to change your mind is the only way to work creatively. I’m ready to turn a scene upside down. For me shooting is sort of a search.”

            By the end of shooting only a handful of people on the crew had remained loyal to Malle. “The problem,” says a studio executive, “is that culturally, European directors are encouraged to believe they’re artistes. American directors are encouraged to believe they’re employees. It makes a big difference in what you can get away with.” Now, in retrospect, Malle agrees: “In Europe there is much more a cult of the director—he is really the king and everybody is ready to try anything for him. We’re treated much like stars and ultimately that’s ridiculous and unhealthy.”

            Problems with morale and mechanics can be ultimately salved over, of course, if the final product rises to everyone’s expectations. That has not happened here. Although Paramount executives participated in the preparation of the script, they purposely held themselves back from any meddling once filming began. They saw a rough cut of the film last October, when it was three hours long, and made cutting suggestions. When they saw the finished film, it still felt too long. “I’m still amazed Paramount can sit there and be stunned by Pretty Baby,” says Karen Moore, Malle’s assistant on the film. “They kept saying the same thing—it wasn’t exactly what they were expecting. What were they expecting? They all read the script. They thought it was slow, but they were dealing with a director who makes visually careful, slow films. They should have known they were going to get a film made in America with a French tempo.”

            “Louis has made a French film in America,” says associate producer Platt. “It would have been beautiful if he’d cut it down. American audiences don’t need to look at something for an hour to understand it.” Malle himself says, “It probably could have been faster.”

            “What’s usually wrong with foreign director’s movies made here,” says one studio executive, “is that their rhythm is off. They make the audience climb through the screen to get at the story instead of throwing it out at us.” Polly Platt, correspondingly, remembers when European directors like Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch and Jean Renoir were working profitably in this country. “I remember Fritz Lang told me once that he shot a scene of a bunch of women gossiping and then cut to ducks quacking at each other in a pond. He said Darryl Zanuck told him to take the ducks out. Darryl Zanuck told him, ‘American audiences don’t need symbols. They understand.’ Foreign directors today aren’t getting any guidance. If there were a Darryl Zanuck, Pretty Baby would be cut down to a reasonable length.”

            What the Pretty Baby experience adds up to is that Hollywood in the 1970s is not yet able to successfully cross-pollinate the European and American movies. The studios and the creators are tiptoeing around one another’s paranoia, trying but not quite communicating. “You feel presumptuous telling a Bernardo Bertolucci what to do,” says Eric Pleskow, former United Artists president and now president of Orion Picture Corporation. Fair enough. But if the idea is not to make European films in America, if the idea, rather, is to have the benefit of the eye of a Malle, Truffaut or Wertmuller on our landscape to create something spectacular and special, then Hollywood has to figure out new ways of dealing with these directors. That, at least, is the view of people who have expressed disappointment at the recent wave of English-language movies made by foreign directors.

            Now that his first film in America is behind him, Louis Malle concedes that next time he’d like some help. “I’m not too proud to say that now I’d be happy to deal with a good strong producer. Especially now when I open the picture I feel a little bit alone.” Malle is currently working on a new script for Paramount, this one about an American couple in suburbia. “If everyone hates my work here, I’ll go back,” he says, “but I don’t think so because the American film industry is very active and I hope they need somebody like me. They need people who are different. It’s very healthy.”

            Malle goes on to say that, while he wants to continue working in America, he does not want to live around Hollywood. “The moment you tend to accept the values of the Hollywood community—which are money, money, success and money—you’re not faithful to what you are.            Malle sighs. “When you first get to Hollywood as a foreign director with a certain reputation,” he says, “you’re fashionable and everyone comes to you and invites you. But once you’ve made a film here, you’re just one of them—you lose your glamour. They’re sort of disappointed you’re joining them. You become part of the crowd of Hollywood and you have to fight like everyone else.” Malle sighs again. “When my picture opens I’ll be just another director.”

This article is typed from the original material. Please excuse any errors that have escaped final proofreading.