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Kid Stuff: François Truffaut

In this 1976 interview, the master filmmaker discusses his kid-centric Small Change

François Truffaut’s latest film, L’argent de poche (Small Change in the U.S.), opened in France last spring to the best response from the public he has had since his first feature , The 400 Blows. The fact that both films deal with childhood is no coincidence; Truffaut has an uncanny gift for directing children, an empathy, a delicacy, a charm unmatched by any other director working today. Before shooting Small Change, an episodic film with 200 children in the cast, Truffaut told us he was worried that adults would find it too childish, because it was “ full of kids’ jokes.” As it happens, the film ‘s greatest strength is Truffaut’s ability to get into the minds of his young cast members and express their feelings without condescension. To use Jean-Luc Godard’s characterization of Truffaut, Small Change is both “ rigorous and tender” in its approach to growing up.

After playing the New York Film Festival, Small Change will be released here by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, which handled the successful U.S. release of Truffaut’s previous film, The Story of Adele H. New World could not use the literal translation of the new film’s title, Pocket Money, because it was used in 1972 for a film starring Paul Newman and Lee Marvin.

Most of Truffaut’s time in the last few months has been spent on location for Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a science-fiction movie in which he plays a French UFO expert. It is the first time Truffaut has acted for another director since he was an extra in Rene Clement’s Le château de verre (1950), and he has mixed feelings about the experience. He admires Spielberg and finds it interesting to study American production methods (one of the reasons he accepted the role), but the long waits between set-ups in Mobile, Alabama have taken their toll on Truffaut’s patience.

To help pass the time he has been writing a book, L’attente des acteurs, roughly translated Actors’ Waiting, a title inspired by the title of Ingmar Bergman’s film Women’s Waiting. He has also been working with Suzanne Schiffman on the screenplay for his next film, The Man Who Loved Women, which he plans to shoot in France this fall (assuming Close Encounters is finished) with Charles Denner in the title role. We interviewed Truffaut in his suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where he writes in a cloud of cigar smoke, under a photograph of Ernst Lubitsch. When Truffaut visits Los Angeles, as he has done frequently in the last year, his purpose is threefold: to stock up on Montecristo cigars at Dunhill’s, to read the film books he buys at Larry Edmunds’ Book Shop, and to visit Jean Renoir. Truffaut showed Small Change to Renoir in June (Renoir told us he was “moved to tears” by the film), and our interview took place a few days later. It was conducted in both French and English.

Small Change (L'argent de poche) (François Truffaut, 1976)

In your introduction to the screenplays of the four Antoine Doinel films, you said that the first one, The 400 Blows, was originally conceived as a sketch in an omnibus film about children. Small Change could have been that film.

Exactly. I had that project in mind before The 400 Blows when I did Les Mistons. Originally, I had five or six stories about children. I started with Les Mistons because it was the least expensive: no interior scenes, no problem with lighting, all I needed was the film and the people. But I felt Les Mistons was too literary: the story couldn’t have been told without the narration. After that, I wanted to keep working with children, but I wanted to do things which were more direct. The 400 Blows started as a scene that finally wound up in the middle of the film; it just grew out and became an entire film. The germ of the idea was the boy who didn’t go to school for three days in a row, and had to come back with an excuse; he said his mother was dead, and he spent the night outdoors. I felt I had to explain what came after that and what came before.

The new film has such a large cast, and involves so many incidents—how did you and Suzanne Schiffman approach the screenplay?

Initially, I had a few stories: six, maybe seven. For instance, the little girl who shouts “I’m hungry” through the window [using a bullhorn after her parents lock her in the apartment] was a story someone had told me. Another, “I go boom” [a baby miraculously survives after falling from a window], was from a newspaper. The job with Suzanne was to bring all the stories together. We repeated the principle of Day for Night. Each time something got complicated, we’d say, “Unity of place: a small town. Unity of time: two months before vacation.” Since there wasn’t a unity of action, having the other two unities helped us. French literature professors make a big deal of the three unities in the theater of Jean Racine. It’s a very French obsession; it can help you when you work. When you adapt a book, you can cut out the pages you don’t like, but when you’re starting with a blank page, you have to create your own discipline. If you just throw all these stories into the unified framework of the town, then it’ll take shape. It’s important that, if one child is to become more significant than the others, you meet him at the beginning of the film: you can’t just haphazardly meet a lot of kids as you go along. It has to be established.

There were some characters you brought in and then dropped, such as Little Gregory, the one who falls out the window. He was never seen again.

Actually he was seen one more time, in the nursery. But it was very difficult to shoot with him. Very difficult. I was afraid that at any moment his mother would come in and say, “That’s it.”

Did you have lots of mothers on the set?

Just this one. We had to take care of the children ourselves. Suzanne took some and I took some. We had responsibility over them, so their mothers didn’t have to be there. We did have a nurse on the set—she’s the one in the film who runs through the schoolyard after the medical examination. She was actually a nurse for all the children.

It seems there are two strains of thought in Small Change. There is the character played by Geary Desmouceaux, whose story is like Stolen Kisses: he gives flowers to an older woman, falls in love with a young girl. Then there is Philippe Goldman, whose story is like The 400 Blows: he’s a delinquent whose family abuses him. It’s almost as if you have two protagonists.

The dark side and the optimistic side.

The dark side is dropped in favor of the optimistic side because Goldman leaves the film and the story ends with Desmouceaux’s first kiss. Did you want to stress the optimistic side of childhood?

Certainly, it’s stronger in the film. Probably because I’m growing older quickly. I believe that in directing The 400 Blows I was Antoine Doinel’s brother; in The Wild Child, I was Victor’s father; now, I’m a grandfather. But I suppose the real reason is that, more than the others, Small Change was done in collaboration with children. They would come around, gather at the editing table, talk together.

They saw the rushes. And because there were a lot of little children—almost all of them were pre-adolescent—it more and more became a film for them. And that’s what makes it less sad. When I was in the middle of shooting the scene of the boy stealing the ornament off the car, the children saw it in the editing room and they were very upset. They said, “Now the person who owns the car will know who stole it, and he’ll get mad.” I always had problems like that. And to satisfy the children, I made the film less cruel.

Small Change (L'argent de poche) (François Truffaut, 1976)

You wanted to tell it from the child’s point of view?

Yes. When you tell a story to a child, they always want to find optimism, happy things in it. When my daughters were little, I told them stories that had both elements. For example, I told one story about a little girl who spent the night in a bakery. She had a problem—being locked up—but she also had the fun of being able to eat lots of cake. At the end of the story, I would put in an element of Hitchcock’s Marnie. I told them how the girl got out of the bakery: she waited until morning when the scrubwoman came to clean the floor. [In Marnie, Tippi Hedren avoids capture while burglarizing an office because the scrubwoman is deaf.] The other reason for the optimism in Small Change is because I had just done Adele H. This always happens with my films. For example, Shoot the Piano Player was a kind of liberation after The 400 Blows. There was no humor in Adele H., so the shooting was very oppressive; it was hard being on that island all the time. Because of that, Small Change was a liberation. I always make a film that’s contrary in mood to the film that came before it.

The mise-en-scene is very simple in Small Change, apparently because you couldn’t have complicated shots for the children.

I’ve got the same idea for America. Here, there’s an opposition between the East Coast and the West Coast. People in New York speak badly of California people, and California people don’t like New York people. I always thought I would like to do something to reconcile these opposite points of view. If I were President of the United States, I would determine the exact center of the United States and I would build a huge park, bigger than Disneyland, and make everybody come there. And that would be very useful, no? I have a great passion for Brasilia. I think it’s a great idea because it’s sad in Brazil: you have all the people in Rio, and then this huge open country. Building Brasilia was a magnificent idea. But perhaps it wasn’t a success.

In a sense, Small Change reminded me of The 400 Blows, in that the school resembled a military institution. The teachers wore uniforms and it seemed regimented. Even the summer camp seemed military.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s a little more so than in America. But there wasn’t any special point; that’s just the way it is. When you have the responsibility of a hundred kids in summer camp, you need some sort of discipline.

The difference between the schools in the two films is that in Small Change the teachers are more sympathetic.

Yes, absolutely. Because the teachers are changing. They’re younger. They’re more liberal, politically, than they used to be. It’s not so oppressive. There’s a much better relationship between the kids and the teachers today than there was then. But the teachers are still a bit demagogic. The character played by Jean-François Stevenin is a little demagogic; he wants to be friends with the kids. The female teacher [Chantal Mercier] is more honest. She’s tougher. She’s like that; she was a supervisor in a girls’ school for seven years. The teacher in The 400 Blows was very real to me. He’s what I had known in school. But it’s becoming rarer to have a teacher like that because the teachers today read La Nouvelle Observateur.

Was Stevenin meant to be taken as you?

His ideas, yes. They’re my ideas. In France, a lot of people criticized the speech he makes to the kids. They liked the movie but they didn’t like the speech. But they never made very intelligent criticisms of it. I think it’s the truth, line by line. The leftists think it’s too conciliatory. The people on the right think it’s too left-wing. I thought it was a necessary scene, to have those thoughts expressed.

Your daughters, Laura and Eva, both appear in Small Change. Laura was born in 1959, the year you did The 400 Blows. So her life exactly spans the period between the two films. Now that you’ve had the experience of fatherhood all those years, it must give you a different perspective on childhood.

It forced me to, yes. In many ways. But I can’t say how.

Perhaps it’s that being a father makes one more tolerant of one’s own parents’ mistakes.

That’s exactly how it is for me. Because I am divorced, and I feel some culpability as a result. I think The 400 Blows is a very cruel film toward adults. But in Small Change I show the adults with a little more—what is the word?—resignation. They’ve lost something of their responsibility, the adults in Small Change. They do have weaknesses.

Small Change (L'argent de poche) (François Truffaut, 1976)

In the film, you deal more with boys than with girls.

Ah, it’s true. Yes. Maybe someday I will do a film about a fourteen-year-old girl. It’s an old project of mine.

People say in America that because discipline in the schools is not as strong as it once was, the students aren’t learning as much.

In France, the level of education is falling all the time.

What’s the solution? Not more discipline?

No, no. The main problem is that too many people become teachers for the wrong reasons. And it’s probably the most important profession in the world. A lot of people have become teachers because they’re weak but they want to find a strong role in life. They’re afraid to enter adult life, so they become teachers. Often, they prolong their studies to exaggerated lengths because they’re afraid of the competitive aspect of real life. Becoming a teacher is yet another prolongation of this student life. All this is very bad because children shouldn’t be educated by someone who is weak. One should have a vocation for being a teacher. One should want to teach, want to get something across to the students.

Stevenin’s motive for being a teacher in Small Change is admirable: he had had a bad childhood, so he wanted to make up for it by helping his students. It reminded me of the girl in Day for Night saying to Léaud, “You should stop blaming other people for your unhappy childhood and start to grow up.”

Yes, very funny line. In Bed and Board, Claude Jade criticized the book that Doinel was writing about his parents, because it was a form of revenge. She said, “You should never take this kind of revenge.” I believe that.

What do you think will become of Goldman’s character in Small Change? Do you think he’ll come through his ordeal all right?

Oh, not too good.

Stevenin expresses the hope that he will.

He may be better off than he was, but I don’t think it will go too well for him. He’ll be in a public institution. There are problems in places like that as well. The children are unhappy there because they don’t have enough money and there aren’t any comforts. Recently, in one of these orphan asylums, there wasn’t much money, and someone discovered that the pharmaceutical manufacturers were experimenting on them, changing their hair color, trying out new creams and ointments. The drug company gave money to the director of the institution to do these tests on kids. It’s incredible, isn’t it? It was a little scandal that people talked about for a while and then forgot.

You never showed Goldman actually being beaten.

Oh, impossible, impossible!

There was a scene like that in Chabrol’s La rupture.

I didn’t like it. You could do it in silent pictures—for instance, Broken Blossoms—because without sound there was a stylization. With color and sound, it’s impossible.

By not showing it, you avoided melodrama.

Yes. I never show things like that. I never show anything which would make you sick to your stomach. One is responsible for what one shows. It’s enough just to suggest it.

It would seem that Small Change is your ultimate film about childhood up to this point.

Yes, because it has what you could call a global point of view.

Yet one has the impression that it isn’t your last word on the subject.

No. When I go back to the subject, it will be easier to make a film that deals with only one child. When I made The Wild Child, I was a bit anxious in shooting the scenes at the Institute with all the other children around, because it was really the story of one child, and the others were so good. It was then that I decided to do a film with a lot of children, and to do a film with improvisation. That’s why I started Small Change by showing the kids at school, so you can see all of them. Now I can go back to the story of a single child.

It’s unlikely that Small Change could have been made in America—unless you had Tatum O’Neal.

It’s true. In France, you can do a film without stars. It’s a little harder, maybe, to find the money, but once it’s made, it’s distributed as well as a film with Belmondo or Alain Delon. There’s no discrimination.

In America, films aren’t treated equally.

Because they begin by saying, “This is a B-movie.” That’s one of the reasons why I’d be worried about making a film here. I like to make films which start with a small premise. It’s very hard to do that here. When I look back over the last twenty years of American films, the ones I like are those which are completely off in the margins, such as Johnny Got His Gun and The Honeymoon Killers. But in France, they consider me a very traditional filmmaker. I don’t know if it’s true.

Alain Resnais once said that each film should be capable of being summed up in a single sentence. Would you agree with that, and if so, what would be the sentence to sum up Small Change?

It’s the idea that kids are thick-skinned.