Interview: Marin Karmitz
Marin Karmitz, the founder of French production and distribution group MK2, may seem like a walking paradox: a one-time director of militant leftist cinema who now heads one of the most powerful film companies on the international scene, a rich man who claims to have never let go of his Marxist ideals. Another sixties activist rationalizing his capitalist success? The reality seems more complex.
Born in Romania in 1938, Karmitz emigrated to France with his family in 1948 and soon started finding himself—or, more likely, putting himself—in the right place at the right time. He assistant-directed Agnès Varda’s directorial debut Cléo from 5 to 7 and Jean-Luc Godard’s short La Paresse, began his own career as a director with a short written by Marguerite Duras, filmed an adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s Play, and was at the heart of the political ferment of May ’68, working in the new leftist press and directing politically committed features. The traditional distribution system’s refusal to screen his final film as a director, Blow by Blow, led Karmitz to open his first movie theater in Paris and gradually build up a chain of multiplexes that has focused on building movie theaters in underserved, often working-class neighborhoods and screening original-version, subtitled foreign films in a market that previously favored dubbing.
Most importantly, Karmitz has been a steadfast friend to great filmmakers, allowing directors like Godard, Chabrol and Alain Resnais to make a “second first feature” when commercial failures had closed all other doors. He has produced all of Abbas Kiarostami’s features since 1999 and has worked with directors including Gus Van Sant, Hong Sang-soo, Michael Haneke, Claire Denis, and Krzysztof Kieslowski.
MoMA is currently celebrating the MK2 Distribution Group’s 40th anniversary with a carte blanche series. FILM COMMENT took the opportunity to speak to Marin Karmitz about his journey from director to mogul, the role of a hands-on producer, and his complicated relationship with Jean-Luc Godard.
You founded MK2 in 1966 to produce your own features as a director. Was that because you needed your own company to direct political films?
I’ve always been extremely concerned with my freedom. I’m well suited to a state of natural wildness and permanent revolt. So before MK2, I had founded MK, a short-film production company, so I could make the films I wanted to make, namely two films particularly incongruous to the production system of the time, respectively written by Marguerite Duras and Samuel Beckett. French law required me to have a separate company for feature films, so I founded MK2 to continue being free to do what I wanted. I had met producers who offered to do features with me, but I could feel I wouldn’t be comfortable, that I wasn’t going to be free.
Your second feature, Camarades (70), was your first political film.
Well, May ’68 had happened in the meantime. After that, it was hard for me to consider going back to doing things the way I had always done them. For many of us at the time, there was a delineation between before and after May ’68. What came after ’68 for me was Camarades, then Blow for Blow . Camarades was an intermediary stage, because it was an adaptation of a Cesare Pavese novel by a young worker I had met in ’68. I consider Blow for Blow far more successful and profound, given the context of the period.
Blow for Blow was made the same year as Godard’s Tout Va Bien and dealt with the same subject: a strike in a women’s factory.
I had known Godard for a long time. I met him when he had a cameo in Cléo from 5 to 7, then I was his assistant—or rather his slave, which is a very pleasant position to be in when your boss is Godard. Jean-Luc and I were reunited in May ’68 through a project to change French cinema. He and I were part of a group with Claude Chabrol and some others. We raised a little hell in all the do-gooder thinking of the other groups which had formed, with a completely crazy project to make movie-going free. In fact, it wasn’t that crazy: it foreshadowed what would happen in the Eighties with French cable channel Canal Plus offering people subscriptions to have unlimited access to movies. That’s what we were proposing, more or less: you paid a cultural tax, people made films, and you could go to as many movies as you wanted. Godard and I participated in all that, then both of us took pictures for the leftist newspaper J’Accuse, which paved the way for La Cause du Peuple and Libération. Libération and MK2 cinemas are the two major cultural expressions of May ’68 and were both founded in 1974. It’s an enlightening parallel, particularly since Libération is on the verge of going under and we’re still working—I don’t know if we’re succeeding—but we’re working.
It all has to do with the question of how culture deals with money, how a cultural institution can survive when it is militant, leftist, involved in reality, leading political struggles and making enemies and not simply being a neutral organism. I followed the principle of relying on your own strength. I founded my own company, with the idea of individual freedom and autonomy within a collective scheme. Libération needed to rely purely on the collective scheme due to the cost of running a newspaper and to follow the ideal of collective work—which I applied in Blow for Blow. The poster was of one hundred working women, all of us were listed in alphabetical order. It’s similar to what Libération was doing, except that I was personally taking the financial risks. So I had a very concrete relationship with the industrial banking system, which implies a constant back and forth on my part between the center and the margins.
Blow for Blow
Godard criticized Blow for Blow, stating that he thought you were moving too fast by trying to let the working people speak for themselves with the traditional tools of cinema.
You have to look at our respective histories. I had a Marxist education from an early age. I was also confronted with serious historical realities: the war, the Germans, immigration, then the war in Algeria. Godard is Swiss. He is in a tradition of the solitary artist facing the world, society, and politics. I was coming from a different perspective because I had experienced collective struggles to change the world. So Blow for Blow and Tout Va Bien have the same subject, but he and I had different relationships to the same reality. My approach was connected to the new momentum brought by ’68. I wanted to express this collective joy and generosity and give the floor to all these women I had met through my photo stories for J’Accuse. Godard covered the same stories of strikes I did, but with a different idea of the strike. His point of view was always that of Jean-Luc seeing the strike. Mine was, how can I show these strikers from the inside, not from the outside like the reporter standing right next to me? I tried to change the point of view in the photos I took. At the time, intellectuals really divided over our two films, because they provided two different conceptions of the artist and politics—or the artist and history, if you’d rather.
People took sides in a radical way. For example, my film came out when a young worker called Overnay died. We collected money in the theaters showing my film to pay for the funeral. Jane Fonda came and joined us. She had just shot Godard’s film but was openly displaying that she agreed with my point of view. I released my film by taking it from one factory or neighborhood to the next, screening it in villages and backyards. Godard’s film was distributed by an American company. There’s a famous letter Truffaut sent to Godard, taking him to task and writing that “Karmitz needed Jane Fonda and Yves Montand more than you did.” That’s Jean-Luc’s contradictory nature: he made a completely personal film about a women workers’ strike, but with American money and Jane Fonda and Yves Montand. Why not? Both our perspectives make sense and have existed throughout history.
Ultimately, it comes down to your objective. Mine was to contribute something new to what can be called documentary fiction, a school of cinema that has existed since the Lumière Brothers. I see myself as a descendant of the Lumière Brothers, while Godard is a descendant of Méliès. I tried to make my contribution in the Lumière vein, which is to make a work of art from raw reality. Godard asks how you transform that reality from the get-go, how you create a world. Jean-Luc’s films are concerned with an immediate transformation of reality. There are very few connections with reality in his way of shooting or his language. He is clearly no longer involved in story, psychology, all those kinds of references, but in a certain discourse containing images and music. But I have tremendous admiration for what he does.
Every Man for Himself
Many theaters refused to show Blow for Blow. Is that why you founded your own movie theaters and became a distributor?
Censorship did not come from the state, it came from the industrial system. Here again, my need for freedom led me to refuse to be forced into silence by economic pressure. So I distributed the film myself. By doing so, I realized there was a profound change taking place in the French distribution system, which was the arrival of major distribution networks. There were all these formerly isolated theaters now joining programming networks, eventually resulting in the two contemporary distribution networks in France, Pathé-Gaumont and UGC. These two programming networks’ intense concentration reinforced the industrial capitalist weight of film distribution. I reacted as an activist, thinking in terms of counterculture and counter-power. Even if we only had one distribution outlet, at least it would express something else. The difference was not only in the films we showed, but in the architecture and the way of showing films. I set up a bookstore and had art and photo shows, concerts. Most importantly, we had debates and strove for a cinema that was at the core of the city.
Why did you start producing other directors’ films?
I began to produce after opening the theaters. I noticed that certain films were in prison. I don’t like putting people in prison, especially when it’s unjustified or because they have the “wrong” opinion. My movie theater was founded with the idea of creating a zone for freedom. Having the theaters required a distribution company. I couldn’t make a film and dump it in the theater—I needed to create a structure for finding other screens, convincing other allies, expanding the release, dealing with the press etc. So the distribution company was our first counterattack in defense of freedom. At the time, I couldn’t produce, because my political positions made it impossible for me to cohabitate with the political and economic system in place. I did not have access to the center of power, I couldn’t take out loans. I was only able to produce thanks to the success of a film I distributed, the Taviani brothers’ Padre Padrone. I used the money to produce Godard’s Every Man for Himself and Yannick Bellon’s Rape of Love, which was about rape, a subject rarely treated on screen at the time. But I had always proceeded with the idea of returning to production as quickly as possible. The rest was only to support films. I needed to make films or participate in their creation. The question was how. I found a roundabout way of coming back to creating films.
As I said earlier, I’ve always had to go back and forth between the center—power and money—and the margins to do what I’ve done. But these incursions into the center were often very painful and cost me a great deal on a personal level. I sacrificed my career as a director to do that. And at the time I was quite a well-known director, including in the U.S. When I showed Camarades at the New York Film Festival in 1970, it was incredible. The film ends with the singing of the Internationale. At the end of the screening, a spotlight came on to show me standing in the balcony and the entire audience was standing, singing the Internationale with their fists raised. Anyhow, production came later, but it’s the heart of what I do. It’s clearly where I need to be. Everything else serves as a tool—tools that need to be used intelligently.
Story of Women
What does being a producer mean to you?
I’ve always said it’s being a “publisher and merchant” of films. I don’t think you can simply be a producer. That’s one of many producers’ great weaknesses and one of the studios’ great strengths. The studios’ strength is that they are producers—well, they were producers, and from time to time they still are—and distributors of films. They are able to conceive both the making of their films and their global release.
Producing is helping to give birth to the film. It’s being involved in all the choices that happen before the shoot: the script, the actors, the locations, the costumes. For example, Claude Chabrol hated dealing with locations and costumes. For his Story of Women, which was set during World War II in a working class area, I decided we needed to shoot in the provinces. I knew Claude was much more relaxed there. He had his whole crew close at hand, he saw them every night. That creates an atmosphere like with a theater company. It improves the work. People don’t go home every night and argue with their partners. They have to be careful because the rest of the crew is in the neighboring rooms and can hear their arguments. So we shot in Dieppe. I personally chose the locations and decided to challenge Chabrol with 10 feet x 6 feet rooms. I knew he loved those kind of limitations. Shortly before the shoot, I told him, “on set, there will be room for you, the camera operator, and the camera. That’s it. I’d like you to show me how you deal with such small locations.” He was wild with joy! Another example: on L’Enfer, which was set before the war, Emmanuelle Béart absolutely wanted to wear wedge heels, which were trendy at the time we were shooting. I couldn’t accept that. Claude didn’t want to deal with it, he never wanted to deal with costumes. But I have a rule when it comes to costumes, which is that the most perfect costumes are those in Renoir’s Une partie de campagne. As simple as can be. Those costumes have not aged a day. That’s my director’s point of view coming out, but as a producer, I’ve always found it was pretty good. That’s what makes the difference between a dated movie and one you can watch for decades. Even if it’s a costume picture, it remains a modern movie. That’s what it means to be a producer, in concrete terms. It’s the script, the hiring of the crew, and how you finance the film. To paraphrase Godard, who said that the tracking shot was a moral question, I’ve always said that production is a moral question. Today in France there’s all this controversy about actors being overpaid. It’s astounding to me because there are no ethics behind it. What is a salary? What is someone’s work worth? Why is he paid this amount? What is it to make a film freely? The idea behind most films today is how much money can be made—for the producer, the actors, the director etc. But they don’t think about what it costs them in terms of freedom. My approach is to turn limitations into zones of freedom. It took me a long time to learn that. I learned it thanks to Godard, actually. He was in a bad mood one day when we were making Every Man for Himself and he told me I wasn’t a good producer. It wasn’t pleasant to hear, but it was Godard. I learned so much from him that I’m willing to tolerate his nasty remarks. I really asked myself what he meant by that and after 20 films, when I was making Alain Resnais’s Mélo, I understood that producing was transforming a limitation into freedom. And that’s everything.
My work as a producer continues after the film is finished. To stick with Godard, when we premiered Every Man for Himself at Cannes, the critical reception was simply disastrous. So I spent the summer calling up every one of the critics and telling them Jean-Luc had paid careful attention to their criticisms and reedited the film. I would invite them to a private screening of the film, only when they showed up at the lab, Marguerite Duras, Michel Foucault, or Jean-Paul Sartre would be there. And they loved the film, of course. So the critic saw a different film, though Jean-Luc had not changed a frame. And when the film was released in October, some of those same critics wrote rave reviews, and it went on to become his greatest commercial success.
Did you ever have problems with directors reluctant to accept your level of involvement?
Never with the greats. Never with Chabrol, never with Godard. On the contrary. Recently Godard asked to see me because he wanted me to distribute one of his films. So I go to Rolle and he shows me his film. He has digital equipment all over the place but works on a 35mm editing table. I say: “Look, Jean-Luc, this part seems a little long, this other part is not so great.” He answers: “All right, I’m going to talk to Anne-Marie [Miéville].” He calls me up two days later and says, “We wanted to thank you, because we tried what you suggested and you were right, it’s better.” I’ve only had problems with those who are average—it may even be what made me think they were average. When I started to have these problems, I realized these directors were so self-confident, or give such an impression of being self-confident, that they have contempt for the entire world and don’t know how to listen. That lack of listening makes them small. One of the great gifts of intelligence is to be able to listen. The smallest of the small among those I’ve met is Abdellatif Kechiche. Kechiche made production very painful for me. He really made me realize that I don’t want to do all this work for people like him.
Now I’m drastically selective. I choose the people who give me something, with whom there is an exchange. I’m done with people who take and don’t give. I don’t have any more time to lose. I don’t ask directors to make me a lot of money—I’ve reached the age where I don’t need a lot of money and I have other things in mind. I want to make good movies. I want to make movies that contribute something to me and to cinema. Obviously I’m going to produce the next Abbas Kiarostami film, because it’s a pleasure. A joy. The initial cut of Abbas’s last film, Like Someone in Love, was 135 minutes. We sat at the editing table together, watched the film scene by scene, talked about it, and he came back with a 110- minute film. And all that was accomplished through the pleasure of discussion. Working in cinema is working collectively. The producer’s role is like that of a tennis player’s coach. You have to hit the ball back to the director so he can improve his game. What helps is having a person across from him with whom he can have a dialogue.
In France, there’s no dialogue possible. People put you in a category, the producer category or the rich man category, and from that moment on you’re stuck in a position that has nothing to do with you. Here in New York I can feel that people are listening. We don’t have that in France anymore. France is so self-satisfied that it’s becoming unlivable. So now I tend to work with more foreign directors: we’re going to be working with Naomi Kawase, Jia Zhang-ke, Kiarostami and, I hope, Atiq Rahimi. I’m very happy we’ll be having a dialogue with directors in four countries around the world.
There are no young French filmmakers that inspire you?
No. Well, there are interesting things but I don’t know the directors. And I think that they wouldn’t be able to handle the level at which I set the bar. You have to be pretty tough to handle that. You have to want it. And you have to have thought about life a lot. But look how enjoyable it is for me to work with Xavier Dolan. I don’t have someone like him in France. It’s not that I don’t want that, I just can’t find it. But Xavier Dolan came to us, he’s asking for what we can offer. I tell him over and over that he has to remain a free man. He must not sell his soul to the devil. The devil being all these people who are going to offer him things after his success at Cannes. It’s important that someone say that to him—not so he works with me again, but so that he remain who he is, a free young man. That’s important.
Translated by Nicholas Elliott