Barbet Schroeder by Bette Gordon

Upon the release of Reversal of Fortune, Barbet Schroeder’s film about Claus and Sonny Von Bulow, he speaks to Bette Gordon about the many meanings and incarnations of evil, and the “dramatic possibilities” of fiction.

BOMB 32 Summer 1990
032 Summer 1990
Barbet Schroeder. Photo by Nan Goldin © 1990.

Barbet Schroeder. Photo by Nan Goldin © 1990.

Barbet Schroeder is a film director obsessed with characters of an extreme nature: outsiders separated from the dull world of routine, observing the details of their behavior with respect and amusement. While he is best known in the U.S. for his film Barflyby Charles Bukowski, starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway, he has been involved in film since the ‘60s, beginning as producer of many films of the French New Wave directors, including, most notably, the films of Eric Rohmer (La CollectioneuseMy Night at Maude’s) and films by Rivette, Duras and Fassbinder. His directing work began in 1969 with More, a film about a young man’s destruction through love and drugs; then Maitresse, a classic love story revealing what is usually hidden or repressed. His later films include the controversial Idi Amin DadaKoko, The Talking Gorilla ; and La Vallee.

“Reality only fascinates me in what it holds of fiction, just as fiction can only excite me when it is strengthened by a reality which exists behind it.” His current film, Reversal of Fortune, to be released this fall, is an adaptation by writer Nick Kazan of the Alan Dershowitz book about the Claus von Bulow case. Multiple points of view lead us through the case like in a detective story, the truth depends on the teller. Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close star as Claus and Sonny Von Bulow, and Ron Silver plays the lawyer, Alan Dershowitz.

Bette Gordon Do you think everybody, at one time or another, wants to kill someone and get away with it?

Barbet Schroeder No, I never felt like that.

BG You told me that if you ever found out you were dying of a dreaded disease, you would take somebody like Pinochet with you.

BS Yes … but, I was just trying to think how to make my death useful for other people. I’m more the type to accept people as they are, even if they are horrible. Anyway, political assassinations usually produce opposite results.

BG All of your characters are obsessed with money, power, sex, love … drugs. Yet, you remain distant. That distance is something that protects you, but I also maintain that you identify with your villains.

BS That distance comes from the way I see and feel. It’s inherent in the cinema. I don’t like movies that manipulate the audience. The cinema is there to show the inside from the outside. That’s how Isee it. For me, it’s the nature of this art. There are movies that try to get into the mind and the vision of obsessed or crazy people. That approach has not produced many masterpieces.

BG What about a film like Taxi Driver, where you get into the head of somebody, like the DeNiro character?

BS You get into his head by observing his comportment. I don’t think it’s a subjective movie.

BG Is there a difference between simply observing behavior and not taking a stand? For example, in Idi Amin Dada, you really are very interested in letting the audience come to their own conclusions about Idi Amin.

BS Nobody can be objective, obviously, so it’s subjective. In Amin Dada, it was his subjectivity and as little as possible of my own. I claim that I made the movie with him. It was a collaboration between us. I told him I wanted to do a self-portrait and that he should tell me what he wanted to be on the screen. Of course, I was giving him ideas because I asked him to repeat or talk about things that he had already said in the daily paper of his country. Those statements were already public domain. This is an approach of a movie maker versus the one of a journalist. I was not trying to make a judgment or a big political movie that would prove this or that. I just wanted him to exist as he was, and as he was seeing himself. That approach was much more revealing and much more exciting because it ended up talking not only about him, but about power in general. He is a caricature of all the men in power, without exception.

BG In your latest film, Reversal of Fortune, there is no conclusive position taken about Claus Von Bulow’s guilt.

BS My ambition was that the question of whether he did it or not would not be relevant once you have seen the movie.

BG I wonder if that’s going to be possible.

BS Ah well, I know it’s almost impossible, but that’s what I hope because the film goes so much into Claus and Sonny’s relationship that in the end, the guilt doesn’t really matter.

BG How much reality is there in fiction and fiction in reality …

BS All my movies are about feeding the fiction with a documentary approach and trying to feed the documentary with fiction. Every one of my fiction movies has been about an existing character in one way or another. They were all inspired by real people that I met. On top of that, I spent a long time with each character, including Bukowski for BarflyReversal was a very exciting variation because I had both documentary and fiction in one film. I was totally free to treat different versions of what people said happened as a fiction. This film allowed me to move into an unknown territory. It was the first time I was able to do camera movements that were not justified by anything else but the dramaturgy. That’s a big jump because, for me, the camera is not God.

BG The film has two different kinds of stylistic approaches in the camera work; it has the Von Bulow sections and the lawyer, Dershowitz sections.

BS The Dershowitz sections are very close to life and documentary. The different versions of what happened in Clarendon Court are fiction—like a movie. It even has film music, I usually use only source music. Actually, there is even a third stylistic element. Everything that is narrated by Sonny is filmed with the steady-cam, which is an instrument that floats. The idea was to give the floating quality of a soul, somebody who was out of the body and floating around the room.

BG Hovering, like a helicopter. That’s interesting because the steady-cam doesn’t have a point of view really. Whereas your whole movie is about point of view.

BS Exactly. And the lawyer is the detective searching for the truth.

BG You have said that as a director, you were there to film, not to shape. Now that you’re making a fiction film, even though it’s based on real people, isn’t your job to shape, not just to film?

BS My job is to explore the dramatic possibilities of a fiction—a real story that is also fiction because you will never know what is the exact truth. There are only two people who know exactly what happened, Claus Von Bulow and, maybe, his wife. When a story comes from reality, it’s filled with little details that no one could have invented. Even when you invent a total fiction story, you need a lot of research in order to find those little details, you need to have a model. Otherwise, you always fall into cliches. It’s the details that give life to …

BG Fiction?

BS To movies. Even in comedies, I laugh only when I can feel there is a real life story behind it or real characters.

BG Did you ever meet Claus Von Bulow?

BS No. I can’t really go into that … I was afraid that if I met him I would imagine, I would come to realize that he was completely innocent. And then my movie wouldn’t exist because if the possibility of guilt does not exist in the mind of the spectator, if the movie is only about somebody who is unjustly accused—that may be the actual truth—but that becomes a boring movie.

BG I would have thought the opposite. I would have said, Oh, I better not meet him because I’m sure he’s guilty.

BS (laughter)

BG Until seeing your movie.

BS The case for his innocence is pretty strong, I am convinced he is innocent of what he was accused of, injecting with insulin. To tell you the truth, I felt pretty close to this character. I was afraid that if I met him in real life, I wouldn’t feel close enough and I wouldn’t be able to dig into other aspects. That character, for me, was not a problem, I didn’t need to meet him. Jeremy Irons’s approach was that he was innocent, so that’s what gives so much depth to this character. The movie doesn’t say that he’s innocent, but the performance of Jeremy Irons does. That creates a fantastic ambiguity for me.

BG Could Reversal of Fortune be a change of direction for you?

BS I took a bigger step when I made Barfly. Suddenly, I was freed from writing my own screenplay and I discovered something absolutely extraordinary. To be able to call a writer and have a discussion, even during the shooting, about certain scenes. It was such a sense of freedom. Suddenly, I was not left alone with screenplay anxieties. This freedom came from collaborating with a writer. I discovered that I could make a movie that would be as much a movie of Bukowski’s, as much a movie of Nick Kazan’s, as mine. In a foreign language, that is a necessity but also, when the writer is truly great, much more exciting, that is the big turn-on.

BG I always wanted to ask you how you became a director? You produced many films. Tell me a little bit about your days with the “Les Cahiers du Cinema” crowd.

BS First, I think it started with the fact that I was not allowed to have books with illustrations when I was a child.

BG Why?

BS Because you have a tendency to imagine that what you’re reading is what you’re looking at—and very often the illustration, except when they are by extraordinary artists, like Gustav Dore, are very poor compared to what’s in the book. That was my first luck because I had to create my own images when reading. And then my second luck was that finally I started seeing movies at the Cinematheque in Paris when I was 14. I had seen only one movie before. It was in Colombia, when I was a child. I had to be taken out of the movie theater, crying. It was Bambi. (laughter) Then, when I was 13 and 14, I was living in Paris and I started looking at movies, and my luck was that there was this cinematheque, this incredible cultural center. I was there every night absorbing an immense quantity of great classical movies. I remember seeing two movies, two nights in a row, and walking back home and deciding, okay, I know what I want to do, I want to make movies. From then on it was very simple because I knew what I wanted to do.

BG Do you remember what the movie was?

BS Yes, Nah.

BG Nothing great?

BS Well, no, two films that now I like again, Potemkin and L’Age D’Or. Then, I went very far away from those movies, into American cinema.

BG What brought you to Paris in the beginning? You grew up in Colombia.

BS My mother went there after she divorced my father. So I was lucky enough to be there when the New Wave started. I was very young. But I was able to go to the Cahiers du Cinema and meet the people and be on the fringe of the New Wave. We would sit in the cafes and talk about film. That’s how I met Eric Rohmer and started working with him.

BG You became the producer of his films?

BS Yes, because I thought that the best way to learn, would be as producer. I always saw it as the person next to the director who does everything else but directing. So I was First Assistant, Electrician, Grip, Financier—I was everything. Rohmer’s first movies were done on budgets of really hundreds of dollars in 16mm black and white. I founded the company in 1963, when I was 22 and when I was 28, I finally directed my first movie, More.

BG I never realized you produced Paris Vue Par—Chabrol, Rohmer, Godard …

BS Oh yes. I wanted to have a production company that was like an art gallery or a publisher that goes in a certain aesthetic direction. So Paris vue Par was like a manifesto, a trailer made of short sections for a 16mm feature-length movie that these six directors were supposed to each make. The longer versions never came about.

BG But Paris Vue Par became a legend. Even here, people are always talking about that film. It encapsulated a period of history. How did you raise the money for that?

BS All I remember was that, at one point, I had done three of the six films and I couldn’t go further and … and then by magic suddenly a banker from Switzerland called and said I heard you’re doing something interesting. I want to be involved.

BG How come your life has such magic to it?

BS Yes!

BG Do you still have those kinds of magic things happen?

BS Well … yes, I’m always ready. You have to be ready. You have to pretend it happens by luck, but somehow you have to court luck.

BG Yes, and you have done that.

BS Oh, I’m doing that all the time. (laughter) In every possible way. The only thing I believe in is luck.

BG Like the gambler. The one you based Les Tricheurs on, another character from your life who is obsessed and extreme.

BS I started liking him because he was so amazingly persuasive. He is the character referred to as an actor in the Bukowski book Hollywood. I hate the idea he’s called an actor because he’s not really, he’s an adventurer.

BG Well, a kind of con artist, a con artist actor?

BS Actually, I put him in front of the camera to play the part of the Director of the Casino. He could get himself out of every situation in real life—with police, customs, everything—he would make a scandal, put up a show, but when the camera was rolling, he was terrible, he couldn’t get himself out of a shot. He didn’t know whether to go left or right. It’s funny to see people who are natural actors in life, but when the camera starts rolling, it’s very difficult for them.

BG You did produce other films as well as Rohmer’s, Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating, which you act in as well.

BS Yeah, I’m one of the ghosts.

BG Did you ever produce anything for Fassbinder?

BS We were supposed to do a lot of his movies together. He would send me scripts and say, “Get Alain Delon, get Belmondo for this part.” And I would call him and say, “When are you starting to shoot?” And he would say, “In three weeks or so.” “Do you want to come and talk to them?” “No, No, just call them and ask them if they want to play the part.” I’d say, “You don’t want to discuss their haircut or …?” “No, no, I have no time.” So, of course, it never worked. But we had many projects. We ended up doing one, Chinese Roulette.

BG You didn’t actually produce Barfly?

BS Yes, I did, with three friends, I had total freedom. I was producing with Tom Luddy, Fred Roos and Jack Baran. We were really left alone by Cannon to make all the decisions.

BG Will you continue to produce movies for other people?

BS I don’t think so, no. I don’t think so.

BG Why not?

BS Because it’s too much work. Celine and Julie was put together in three or four weeks, and then by working a little bit over the next year. It wasn’t too much work, but now everything has become much more serious in production.

BG In Europe as well?

BS Everywhere, everywhere. That freedom of the New Wave is gone. They were doing movies in black and white with cameras that didn’t need sound. The crews were extremely small. It was an extra freedom. And then, of course, when sound came, which is when I came, it became a little more difficult. Then more and more, financing became linked to a screenplay, to stars. It becomes a very serious enterprise. The New Wave was not dripping with seriousness like film production, unfortunately, is today.

BG What do you mean, dripping with seriousness?

BS It’s so heavy, there’s so much responsibility. Celine and Juliewas done very lightly and I feel that in many great movies of Pagnol and Renoir—you can feel it in the movie, there is a certain lightness, a pleasure.

BG So you think the pleasure is lost?

BS If we don’t find a way to that freedom again—that’s the fight of the director—to create an environment where that lightness is possible.

BG Where things that aren’t necessarily planned can just happen.

BS That’s part of it, without doing improvisation, because that’s a mannerism like any other.

Barbet Schroeder on the set of Reversal of Fortune with Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close.

Barbet Schroeder on the set of Reversal of Fortune with Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close.

G You’ve worked with some incredible actors. What’s your method for work?

BS There is no method. I don’t like to do a lot of rehearsal, I don’t like to give thousands of instructions. I think it’s like a love story. And it has to develop like a love story. In a love story, people don’t need to discuss their relationship. If you are discussing the relationship, it means that the story is already in trouble. So hopefully, you don’t have to do that and hopefully, you have a rapport where you understand each other by hints without making long phrases. It’s much more of an osmosis, spending time together and getting into the movie and character through the side lines: by reading books, by meeting people, by being places—anything that can help the actor get a handle on the character.

BG I wonder about the rehearsal process for a director who has a lot of time and money for this.

BS For me, rehearsal is mostly in the location, that’s an extra luxury, to have rehearsal in the place where you are going to shoot. It almost never happens, but there is something good about starting from scratch every morning. If you don’t have money, which is usually the case, there is a lot of tension and so you gamble a lot, and thanks to that tension, eventually you get extra energy into the scene. So if the scene was over-rehearsed, stale, everything would be less exciting. In a movie, the mistakes you do make are difficult to catch in advance, they are never the ones that you expect. And sometimes mistakes end up working better than what you had planned. There is always an unknown element, and that’s life, that’s excitement. What I see as a parallel between filmmaking and life is running a good restaurant. A friend of mine has a top of the line restaurant and because I like to cook, I go there sometimes, just to cut vegetables or whatever. I like the atmosphere of a kitchen that has a very high standard to defend. All those guys outside are sitting and waiting for this fantastic food, but back there, in the kitchen, it’s a catastrophe in motion, like a movie, anything can go wrong at any minute. No one who’s sitting in the restaurant knows this. And in movies, it is the same. People are sitting and looking at the film. They don’t know how many things have gone wrong and have been saved one way or another.

BG And you like that risk?

BS Yeah, it’s exciting to transform that into something crazy and beautiful, but it’s scary. There’s another analogy—bullfighting—this very disorderly brute force that you slowly transform, change the speed, direct, end up dancing with, making beauty out of disorder, that’s also similar to filmmaking.

BG You’ve written scripts, you’ve acted, you’ve produced and directed, what does that leave?

BS I just wanted to direct from the beginning. If a friend offers me a part, and it’s an exciting project I’m always ready to be there. That experience of being an actor, to know how horrifying it can be and how helpless you can feel, can help a director. Actors meet very few directors with whom they communicate. That’s one of their big complaints.

BG Glenn Close plays the part of Sonny Von Bulow. Because of her roles in Fatal Attraction and Dangerous Liaisons, Glenn Close is known for her portrayals of strong but unlikable women. Did you think casting someone with a history of that type of character would make Claus seem innocent?

BS No, Sonny was an extremely difficult part, that only a very great actress could play—the emotional center of the film—and if that didn’t work, there would be no room for emotion in the movie. So, casting was crucial. There are not many actresses like Glenn Close.

BG Do you think the audience carries the character someone plays from one film to another with them?

BS It’s very dangerous to think in those terms. If you start thinking about the image, you’re in trouble. When you have a great actress like that, her image is secondary to her talent.

BG I think you identify with your villains. But many directors identify with their villains, why? David Lynch, for example, with Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet.

BS Evil is more interesting than good. It’s basic to drama throughout history. A drama is never about good things happening to good people, you’d fall asleep.

BG Another theory could be that to identify with somebody like Idi Amin or Von Bulow or Henry in Barfly—let me put it this way, the scientist, Dr. Frankenstein, falls in love with his creation, and you as a director have that ability through camera and editing—it empowers you. It’s so clear that you identify with Von Bulow. Why not Dershowitz, for example?

BS I do with him, too, and in a way, even more than with Von Bulow, like all my heroes, he goes to his limit. He is mad about justice. I don’t like the word identify I feel for them, I love them. For me, the movie got exciting when I started loving all the characters, except one, I won’t tell you which one. I can’t make anything without being in love with either what I’m doing or the people who are in the movie, the characters and the actors. It’s always the way I work. I couldn’t imagine a movie that denounces people. I don’t like to make accusatory movies, they have to be about people, and I cannot denounce people.

BG That’s part of your process, to be in love with your characters—you have to be—but beyond that, there’s something of the repressed that is allowed to come out. The taboo of Claus’s behavior. When kids plays with monster toys, they take out aggressions and all this repressed stuff by making the monsters do things. You make your monsters do things too. And you love them. So do kids.

BS I’m not trying to make them do things, I’m trying to explore them.

BG The director is ultimately the controller of the film.

BS I know, but you see, the one thing I hate is the power of the director. I’m trying to make movies where I minimize my power in every aspect because I hate power itself.

BG But you love it too.

BS I hate it, including my own power as a director, I hate it. It’s obscene and power corrupts and the more you have the more it corrupts you. So I try to have as little as possible.

BG Many directors feel the exact opposite, they won’t let anything they can’t control slip through their hands.

BS I know, I know … I’m embarrassed to say I’m a director when people ask me what I do.

BG What does Ed Pressman mean when he says, “Barbet is a man who understands evil?”

BS I’m sure he’s referring to the Idi Amin film or to what I just said about the misuse of power.

BG What is evil for you?

BS It’s totally vague, totally abstract, I don’t know myself what evil is, but I know it’s floating around somewhere and especially in this movie. But I can’t pinpoint it. I can’t say who’s evil. I just know there’s the possibility of something evil, let’s put it that way.

BG Not evil in the sense of the devil, not religious evil?

BS If you go to the very end of the notion of evil you end up asking a religious question. You want to know, who’s the fucker who created humanity. You want to strangle him.

BG If Von Bulow isn’t guilty of committing the crime of Sonny’s semi-murder, does the film still say that he’s guilty of something?

BS It says that there’s a possibility that he’s guilty of something, which could simply be of not interfering or not being able to do something at the right moment.

BG When I saw Von Bulow interviewed briefly on television, it seemed that he was playing with his own guilt there, as even in the movie.

BS That is one of his aspects I like enormously, he likes to play games, always leaving open the possibility of his guilt. That’s either a game or it’s part of a perverse gentlemanly attitude. He’s always very fair, very gentlemanly. And that is fascinating in the movie. It’s more perverse than evil. It is a perverse, playful gentleman.

BG The ultimate contradiction. Idi Amin was a charming murderer, right?

BS He was like a wild playful elephant. So he was less guilty than someone like Pinochet, for example, or any other dictator. There are certain types of people who know exactly what they’re doing. Like Ceausescu or Pinochet.

BG They’re more frightening?

BS They are the ultimate horror. I don’t even want to go near them. I know I can’t fall in love with them in any possible way. I’d just be horrified.

BG So there is the true evil, evil incarnate?

BS I would say, yes. They’re not even believers. Sometimes the believers are the most dangerous people in the world, when it comes to politics they are the most …

BG Religious believers, you mean?

BS Any kind of convinced believers: the dreamers, the poets, the believers in power have been responsible for thousands of deaths and a lot of unhappy populations. And at the same time, they are always big figures in history.

BG Von Bulow knows about the film?

BS Yes, yes.

BG Are there legal things that you can’t talk about?

BS No. The movie’s based on material that’s public domain and the movie’s insured for that. All the way through the film we had to have every little line, every shot, examined by a committee of lawyers. They wouldn’t let anything pass that would leave us open to a lawsuit.

BG I want to ask you about Sonny’s and Claus’s relationship. The sadomasochism that seems to come through in the film.

BS I think it’s a very ordinary kind of thing. The daily life which is just the life of any couple. There is nothing of that kind of sexuality there. It is a story that anyone can identify with, you can feel what happened between them, it’s the love dying between two people which is the most universal theme and not very often addressed in movies, although 90 percent of the population on the planet goes through that. Past the passion and past the magic time, which obviously Claus and Sonny had at the beginning. So you have elements of sadomasochism, but it’s not sexual at all. It’s daily life, daily power, role and game playing, it’s completely ordinary in every couple.

BG Claus is very subservient to Sonny.

BS I think a man should be subservient to the woman he lives with.

BG Do you? Oh God, if more women could have you in their lives.

There are films that have attempted to tell stories of actual people and events, like Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song or In Cold Blood. But none that I’ve ever seen has approached documentary and fiction in the way that this Kazan script and your movie does—in a much more puzzling and less conclusive way. Is moral ambiguity something you like playing with?

BS I like ambiguity of any kind, including the moral one. Ambiguity is the richness of life and the richness of movies, especially. Because the minute you make something come alive, it becomes ambiguous.

BG I like that. Okay, you’re off the hook.

—Bette Gordon is set to direct a new feature film in October, Love Me Tender, based on the book by Catherine Texier. Her last film, Greed, part of the anthology film Seven Women, Seven Sins, showed in New York last year. She is also a regular director for the television series, Monsters, produced by Laurel Entertainment.

Barbet Schroeder by Ken Foster
Schroeder 03 Body
Wong Kar-wai  by Han Ong
Article 2113  Kar  Wai 01

Wong Kar-wai’s films are kooky, cool and without being sappy, utterly romantic. The enfant terrible of Hong Kong cinema talks with playwright Han Ong about why he puts in what others leave out.

Véra Belmont by Kristen Bates
Belmont 01 Body

“When you see a film, you can analyze the director. You know if they’re emphatic, energetic, sensitive or not, empty or full. Everything. To direct you are naked, absolutely.”

Originally published in

BOMB 32, Summer 1990

Featuring interviews with Barbet Schroeder, Blue Man Group, Jeanne Silverthorne, Angélica Gorodischer, Richard Nelson, Ed Lachman, Alain Kirili, Griselda Gambaro, and Deb Margolin.

Read the issue
032 Summer 1990