The POV Interview: Thierry Garrel - Part 2

Part 2 of an interview with the programmer of DOXA’s retrospective on Chris Marker

Photo by Louise Traon, courtesy of Thierry Garrel

Read part 1 of the POV interview with Thierry Garrel here.

Thierry Garrel has had an enormous influence on the making of point-of-view aesthetic documentaries over more than four decades. Working first with INA [Institut National de l’Audiovisuel] and then a series of culturally mandated broadcasters in France including La Sept and ARTE, Garrel either produced or helped to create a plentitude of artistic docs. Over the course of many years, Garrel got to know the legendary, and extremely secretive, cineaste Chris Marker. In the second part of M. Garrel’s interview with POV editor Marc Glassman, he shares stories of his relationship with the great Chris Marker, the director of Sans Soleil, La jetée and so many other brilliant films.—Marc Glassman

Thierry Garrel

POV: Marc Glassman
Thierry: Thierry Garrel

POV: You first worked with Chris Marker on Le Fond de l’air est rouge [ A Grin Without a Cat] . What took place during your initial contact with him?

Thierry: I was representing INA [Institut National de l’Audiovisuel], and we had to make a financial agreement with him. So I went to the 12th district, which is on the edge of Paris, and he was working in a big space…not exactly a loft. It was a former sewing shop, or something like that. Up on the second floor was a huge room with all these squeaking floorboards. In the centre was an Atlas 16mm editing table, with hanging bits of film nailed over bins. Chris Marker was there, wearing white gloves. He was a kind of prince. I was quite impressed, of course, and we chatted about what he was editing there. I said, ‘oh, you’re editing in reversal’—he had all this material from various sources that he had gathered from all over the world. Anything could easily get damaged. I asked him what would happen if the material were destroyed accidentally, and he just replied, with a smile, “Well, in that case, c’est l’Histoire qui déchire.”

And then we went on; we had to discuss this agreement. It was his [third] contact with television—he had made La jetée [ The Jetty ], which was coproduced with Service de la Recherche de l’ORTF prior to my engagement there, and then À bientôt, j’espère [ Be Seeing You ] that showed on French Television Second Channel on February or March 1968. You could feel through À bientôt, j’espère that something was rising—a spirit, or a spark of something new. This film Le fond de l’air est rouge was made after the blackout which occurred after ’68, when French television was completely cleaned up of turbulent artistic producers, first by de Gaulle and then by Pompidou. After ’75, with Le Fond de l’air est rouge, I became Chris Marker’s contact with television.

POV: How did you find him as a person? Was he easy to talk to? What was he like?

Thierry: He was a very nice person, very conscientious, very tongue-in-cheek, very sharp thinking, always checking who you were. In conversation, because of how we established the course of it, he was …not suspicious, but demanding, I would say. But we were exchanging thoughts very freely; we never had any arguments.

POV: And you knew each other for many years.

Thierry: Yes, but it was spaced, and far between, at the same time. The next time I had direct contact with Marker for a production was the 31st of December 1986. I was reading the pile of projects that had been sent to the newborn [French cultural and education channel] La Sept, which had been created just a few months before and where I had just been appointed. I discovered Grèce, 12 mots, which would become L’Héritage de la chouette, and instantly decided to co-produce the series.

In between we might have had exchanges on the phone—I don’t really remember. I had his phone number, and when you would phone him, you would hear an answering machine with a Star Trek voice, as if you were calling Captain Kirk. You were invited to leave a message, but he would pick up the phone after three seconds. He was just vetting the calls. Since it was years between productions—you’ve seen the timeline between L’Héritage de la chouette and Le Tombeau d’Alexandre and Une journée and Chats perchés — it became kind of a tradition that once or twice a year I would call him, and it would go through the answering machine and we would make an appointment. It would always be around 11am, because he slept late — and then I would go to his shop there in Rue Courat.

Thierry Garrel,producteur.

We would spend two, three, four hours or sometimes longer, depending on my working schedule, just chatting. He was addicted to this red pepper honey vodka, the Ukrainian one, Khortytsa. Very good, actually. So you would start with one, and if you were a good vodka drinker, it would go on and on for a second or third and sometimes a fourth. Not that we were drunk at all—just chatting. When he trusted people, he was the most witty, agreeable, cultured, serious person—all at the same time, as you would expect from somebody, who had incredible knowledge and connections around the world.

He was very secretive, but at the same time he had built a world network. Even when he wasn’t traveling that much any more, he was envisioning the project of the vingt-quatre fuseaux, the 24 time zones, as early as in the ‘70s, so that things would be connected everywhere on the planet. When we heard the news of his death on his 91st birthday, and that there would be a cremation three days later in Paris at 2pm at Père Lachaise cemetery, the network, of course, knew that. There were 60, maybe 65 people in the network—some of them in Japan, some of them in Russia, some of them in France, some of them in the U.K., some of them in the U.S.—and we all had a toast with the Ukrainian vodka at the same time. Of course, Vancouver is in the most western zone, so I had to drink that toast at five in the morning! I had to drink more than one, because one is too little. In Japan it was very late in the day, when you can have vodka before going to bed.

POV: What would your conversations be about?

Thierry: Everything. À bâtons rompus. Of course, we talked about the state of the world, as any concerned citizen of the world would, or the local news, or a cultural discovery, or a book, or anything dealing with politics and culture in a very wide sense. About the media and the internet too, which he was practising intensively. And because it was once or maximum twice a year, it was a kind of a ritual, but a non-formatted ritual. We’d just say “Okay, I’m free, I’ll come,” and we would switch from one subject to another, with no agenda. And generally, when I would go there at 11, I would at least be free until 3 so that I wouldn’t have to rush.

POV: He was, of course, a very private individual.

Thierry: Marker was private in his way not because of shyness, but because he was not interested in social life, the outside social life. He never came to the screenings, for example. When we organised the great screening of his last film, Chats perchés [ The Case of the Grinning Cat ], I negotiated with the Centre Pompidou to have it there, and I convinced the Centre Pompidou that Monsieur Chat would make the giant yellow cat on the plaza. So there was a gigantic cat—it was 54 metres tall—and everyone, to enter the screening, had to wear a cat mask. I was there with my wife, Patricia; we were getting married the next day. But he didn’t show up at the screening! He never acted as Chris Marker in social rituals; he was Chris Marker in his personal relationships with people.

Chris Marker
Photo by Wim Wenders

POV: And what about his cat, Guillaume?

Thierry: The story of Guillaume-en-Égypte is key. He was a fantastic cat, you know, this kind of high European cat—big, and really orange. Beautiful, very nice. That cat died at the turn of the century, so suddenly, Marker was in mourning. That’s why Guillaume is very present behind his obsession with the yellow cat that was the inspiration for Chats perchés. While he was in mourning, he was following signs, kind of like Borges in “The Garden of Forking Paths,” where the character is following strange signs in a city—one here, one there—until the seventh sign, where he arrives, which is the place where he’s going to be killed. It’s a little like La jetée, but in space instead of time.

I visited him in 2001 or 2002, shortly after Guillaume’s death, and I discovered that he had already entered into a kind of surrealist game with this yellow cat that had appeared on Paris walls and seemed to take part of his orange-cat mourning. He showed me a booklet with photos he had taken. It had months of activity already when he told me, “Look Thierry, it’s very strange—I’ve seen that cat here, and that cat there…” He had started to create these stamps with cats, that he was sending to himself at a real address but with names of famous cineastes.

Photo by Louise Traon
Courtesy of Louis Garrel

So he had started a kind of lonely mourning game. He had not found Monsieur Chat yet at that time. But he had already some material that he had shot. When I came back to my office in ARTE, I started talking with one of my deputies who was in charge of a late-night slot, La Lucarne, and we said, “Why don’t we ask him to make a film about this?” I phoned him and said, “I’m going to come with Luciano and we’re going to chat about this idea.” And so we chatted, the three of us, and he said, “Okay, okay.” So we made the proposal. He already had bits of it everywhere, all this documentation and games that he had started—on which he had worked intensively, for weeks.

Then he went on shooting the diary, and using this kind of bricolage, as he had done when he was editing Le fond de l’air est rouge, in his big loft. He was always a bit of a bricoleur; none of the films were ever a big production of any kind. But he turned really into a bricoleur in the early ‘90s because of the video tools, which he used without even really being concerned with the beauty of it or the aesthetic. This was the beginning of small Hi8 analog video cameras, the very basic video tools. He was playing with the equipment—-always going around with his small camera, shooting the demonstrations in the city, the metro etc.

Photo by Louise Traon
Courtesy of Louis Garrel

I must say his shop on Rue Courat was incredible. It was on the first floor. A tiny, tiny part was a living space—small kitchen, small sitting room and a bed—and the rest was just like, again, Captain Kirk or Jules Vernes’ Captain Nemo’s cabin—machines everywhere. And then he moved to the ground floor, the one you can see from outside in the famous picture of the two cats.

POV: Is that the one you see in Agnès de ci de là Varda?

Thierry: Yes, that’s the one. It was an atelier; it was not really an apartment. When you went inside, there were TV screens everywhere, broadcasting Russian, Japanese, Chinese, American programmes. He was always inside this kind of room: he created bookshelves as walls, with his books and videotapes. And we would talk about books. He was very happy to share culture. It’s always a pleasure, because culture is a fantastic metaphor to talk about life, and metaphor is key, in Marker’s work, for communication. Lichtenberg, my master, says something like—my translation—“There are metaphors that the police should keep an eye on.” That’s something, for example, that we shared.

POV: And the metaphor of the grinning cat?

Thierry: It’s just Lewis Carroll, the Cheshire Cat smile. And that smile is a way of saying, “Hey humans; we’re still connected.” Not “We shall overcome,” but “We may disappear…”