I’m a big fan of Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon. They make lovely comic movies using the rare art of silent film comedy. I say “rare” because it seems like there’s only one notable practitioner per generation.
I was delighted to hear Dom & Fiona were coming to Denver for the film festival with their new film Lost in Paris. In preparing for this interview I only found snippets of biography, so I decided I would try to get a better picture of their history. In particular I wondered if they still did live theater (and if so, where I could buy a ticket), and whether they worked closely or loosely with their collaborators.
Movie Recommendations from Abel & Gordon
M: What's a movie you could watch if you wanted to relax?
D: A very stupid one is The Three Amigos. Landis. Chase.
F: Tampopo? You know that one? Tampopo? That's one of our all-time favorites. Another all-time favorite but it's hard to get is called Who's Singin' Over There? -- Qui chant la bas It's a Yugoslavian movie.
D: It's Ko To Tamo Peva It's Slobodan Sijan. He was teaching in the states I read recently. It takes place in a bus in Yugoslavia.
F: We discovered that in the 80s when we met and then we lost track of it. He didn't do any other movies because he made it during the regime, and everything changed.
D: It's funny because we were in a festival, in Belgrade I think, and we said "oh you know there is a guy that inspire us and it's Slobodan Sijan, and the girl who was introducing us said "well, he's my grandfather. He's going to see your film." We said "Oh my god!" and we met him!
The night when I was telling that to another director and he said, oh yeah that's great and what [other] film did we like a lot? (To Fiona ... what was it that we like a lot?)
F: The Band's Visit
D: ...and the guy I was speaking to was Kolirin... he's the director [Eran Kolirin]
M: Yeah, film festivals... Denver is great for stuff like that.
F: They have David Zellner we noticed.... he won the Rare Pearl award a couple years back with Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, [Fiona and Dom's Lost in Paris took the Rare Pearl this year -- Ed.] but he had some previous movies, one called Goliath, about a cat, they were really great.
I wanted to avoid the ol’ “who are your influences” question, but at the same time I link them so closely in my mind with Jacques Tatí that I wondered what they thought of people like him.
I also wondered what work is like for them — how hard, how fun, how frustrating is doing comedy?
Before I was able to actually start the interview, they were asking me about what I do. I explained that Movie Habit was venerable in Colorado, but maybe not exactly the big leagues. I said that in spite of how much I like the work, I couldn’t quite make a living doing this stuff. Which is why I admire the filmmakers who come back to film festivals every year.
I turned on the microphone after asking them whether it was true for them too — that it’s hard to make a living doing what they do. (Note that although Dom speaks excellent English, he’s a native French speaker. I decided not to “correct” his comments for the written word.)
Fiona Gordon: It’s always difficult...
Dominique Abel: You know I was an economist before I do films, and I have some friends, economists, who are out of work.
Marty Mapes: So you chose the right career!
M: How did you guys meet? How did you find each other?
F: We kind of met in the early 80s. We went to a theater school in Paris called Jacques Lecoq, a school that’s based on theater and movement. So it’s not necessarily for comedians or people who want to be funny, but all types of theater, from a movement point of view.
And so we kind of knew each other existed in the school, but we never really worked together. But, since it was an international school — there were people from all over the world as well as French people. And everyone went back home to Japan or North America, and both of us didn’t want to go. We wanted to to stay around. So we said “well, why don’t we try working together. You never know.” And it turned out we worked really well together.
M: How far had you each come to be in Paris?
F: I was coming from Canada.
D: I was close, I came from Belgium.
M: And you were both already studying dance or theater when you were young?
F: I had done a BFA program at Windsor University, in the theater program. But even before I went to university I wanted to go to this Lecoq school.
M: So you knew about it.
F: I knew about it. Somebody in my small hometown in Canada had gone there and I some of the community admired him and liked his work. My parents didn’t want me to go. They said “you get a university education and then we’ll see if you want to go (ha, ha, she won’t want to),” but I did.
D: It was different for me because I did economics. Four years of university. I was kind of involved in Oxfam, you know, or stuff like that. But I realized that economy is completely different. Statistics and econom[ics] doesn’t really help the people. Until I did a theater workshop, and then I knew that I was not for that [economics]. So I played in the street and somebody told me “go to Lecoq.”
M: So you attend Lecoq, but you don’t have a job. What comes after that?
F: The interesting thing about the school is that it’s a theater school that doesn’t try to make you an actor ready for the market. It’s more for people who want to create their own stuff. So there’s a lot of training of just ... trying things out ... trying and failing and trying and failing.
So when you get out into the world we just started doing our stuff. First in the theater sometimes there were only two people in the audience, three people in the audience... and little by little we kind of build up that following... a tour circuit... then got interested in cinema.
M: Was it Paris or was it Brussels when you were starting out?
D: We moved to Brussels right away because Paris was expensive, and we were poor.
M: [Paris] might have a bigger audience though...
D: Of course, yes. But you know Brussels is so close to Paris... as quick as we had a show, festivals in France invited us, and so we worked mostly in France. Belgium is so tiny. You know there is a joke... the Belgian army pilot cannot take off because right away they get out of the country...
F: It’s nice. It’s a very friendly place to live, as an artist. A lot of people deserted it in the ’80s — the center — so there were a lot of empty spaces to fill up and work in. We have one, actually.
M: So your first work was not for film or cinema.
D: No, it was stage work. We were always inspired mostly by the clowns of cinema like Chaplin and Keaton...
M: Jacques Tatí...
D: We learned with the audience. We created the shows — one of our shows we did 2,000 times, and the show evolved a lot. We had the answers by the quality of the laugh of the audience, or by the silence. So it was a great school for us. That’s where we found our color, our material, our tradition.
We did four shows that we toured a lot. And then we were kind of thinking about cinema. And we didn’t know what to do, and how to do. We wanted to do a short one and a friend who is a director...
M: Is that Bruno [Romy]?
The Etaix Connection
D: No, it was before .... told us, “Look at Pierre Etaix...”
M: They just re-released his work, two years ago...
F: He was Tatí’s gag man. He just died actually [a month before this interview].
M: Did he?
F: Yeah. We wanted him to be in the film. And at the time he had said “yes, but my health isn’t that great so I may not be able to do it.” And just before the shoot he said “I’m sorry I can’t do it, I’m just not up to it.”
D: Two days before the shoot began.
M: He was going to be on the park bench?
F: Yes, that’s right, and so... Pierre Richard is also .... he’s another kind of comic flavor but .... he actually comes from the same school that we did, but 30 years before
M: I didn’t recognize him. I recognized that he must be somebody that I need to get familiar with, but I didn’t actually know who he was...
D: La Carapate...
F: He’s not well known because it’s a little bit more cultural ... French ... linked to French culture I think.
D: [Speaking of Pierre Etaix] He’s well known in Asia, in the eastern countries. We saw Le Soupirant — it’s one of his first features, and it’s very nice film because it’s funny but it’s also very poetic and very ... craft ... very ... film .... it’s like clips, and some moments... so when we saw that we said, “okay we are free we can do whatever we want. We can bring our theater mood into cinema like they did before.”
M: You also brought...
F: Emmanuelle Riva
M: from Hiroshima Mon Amour
F: She’s a wonderful actress. People didn’t think that she would be interested in doing something humorous...
M: I was going to ask if she had a funny bone...
F: Well we weren’t really looking for somebody who was funny. We were just looking for somebody to be the fragile old person that she is. She understood that.
M: That’s true. She’s not the center of the comedy.
D: There are not a lot of actresses of that age that don’t look good — bourgeois.
F: Very well cared for...
D: Also she’s pretty serious, she’s pretty serious, she’s been doing naturalistic... and so we didn’t think of her. And somebody told us “look at this.” It was a video postcard of the New York Times that they did for the Oscar campaign [for Amour]. They came to France, they shoot it in her apartment and ask her to do whatever she wanted. She danced. And she was so ... free. And she had so fun to dance and we saw that and we said: “okay.”
M: So much of what you do that I like is movement based, and it’s not quite dance, but every movement is deliberate. Why is that funny?
F: Our talent lies more ... for us it’s almost like doing a painting. We’re not so great if we have to improvise something funny right away. But if we can take our time and build it up, we’re able to make a sort of sculpture.
We would like to be more spontaneous and sometimes we try to be but usually we’re better at crafting. In Lost in Paris we were a little bit more free because we couldn’t rehearse. We were in the Metro for example. We didn’t know what to expect and what it was going to be like because you can’t go and rehearse there, you’re not allowed to.
M: That answers one of my questions, whether you show your work to an audience and refine the process until you perfect it, or do you say “I’m the master and I’ll present it when I’m ready.”
D: We’d like to be able to re-edit it like Tatí used to do. But nowadays it’s so expensive. Take the mix — the sound system, for example — it’s very expensive.
M: So you do test it with audiences...
F: We do, but the test audiences aren’t the same as real audiences. So usually it’s the first time we see it with a real audience we say “oh, we should have done this... okay that ‘s not right... ah that worked we should have gone longer.” The test audience never reveals that for some reason.
D: I know that Capra used to do it. Perhaps he had more power. Maybe we could fake and say to people, “come, you don’t know what you are going to see, and we won’t tell you” and just be normal audiences. But it’s very hard to organize. We have professionals who come to say what they think, but professionals are not always....
M: You have four movies. Is this what you’re going to do from now on? Or in-between movies do you do some stage shows?
F: We did continue doing theater in parallel until maybe five years ago. And then we realized, when you do theater you need to do it all the time. Otherwise you don’t have the rhythm. It takes a while to get in sync with the audience. And as we weren’t doing it enough, we felt that the level wasn’t good enough. But we’ll go back to it at some point.
D: We will do a fifth feature...
D: Of course we have a few ideas now. We have to take a bit of time ...
M: To do all of this stuff... [film festivals and interviews]
F: Right. Well that’s good rest.
M: The people that you work with... Philippe Martz... is this a troupe or does he just come in for the movie.
D: He is a clown. We know him because when we were touring, he was touring with his own company, with an American guy, it’s called the BP Zoom. So he’s there since our second short. He’s in every film we do because we like a lot with him. He’s so big!
M: He’s so different from both of you physically.
D: You feel like a kid. I’m not tiny, but when I’m with him I feel like a kid.
F: He’s funny too. And even Bruno, with whom we directed the first three features and one of our shorts, he still plays also in the last film. He plays the family that’s jumping [from the bass in the tango scene].
[On Bruno not directing] We decided each of us to do something different, on our own for a while. Working with three is very enriching, but it also means a lot of compromise. And at a given point each of us wants to just be able to do what you want to do (or think you do anyway). We might work with each other in some way again.
D: Physical comedy is very collective in a way...
M: It seems that way...
D: ... because we need to be. When we rehearse it’s like we have a studio and we do all the roles [with] 2 or at 3 [performers]. And we have the camera, and we try... because it’s a lot of improvs and trying, so it helps to be at least 2, because you have a little audience.
M: You have some feedback.
M: Is it fun to do the work that you do?
F: It’s fun when we’re writing and doing all this improvising, and everything’s possible, and it’s funny because there’s no pressure and no teams and crew or anything.
Then when we get to the shooting, that’s when the fun stops.
D: It’s work, work, work. Because we direct, produce, play, do the casting...
F: it’s frustrating sometimes too because... I mean it is prepared, and then we try to re-find the funniness of what we’ve rehearsed. And it doesn’t always come right away.
M: If you’re not in the frame of mind?
F: Sometimes it’s just things... typically we have to wait for the lights, and then we feel tired, and trying to get back in...
D: ... but it’s interesting. It’s not like we are bored. But we are not the nice people we are two months before [the shoot].
M: There was another collaborator, and I don’t know if he was in all of your movies. He’s the undertaker. All he did was push the coffin behind a curtain, but I was like, “that is so graceful.” Who is that person?
F: He’s a new one. He comes from another theater school in Paris. Usually we work with amateurs; we love amateurs. But in Paris there are a lot of people who want to be actors, young people who are just dying to... and so we thought “we have to give these guys a chance.” And he came from one of these schools. And we’re going to definitely work with him again. Greg [Grégory Legeai].
M: He had so little to do, and yet, somehow, just walking with intent....
F: He’s got those funny bones...
D: His body... yeah, he has funny bones.
M: Yeah. And I wanted to ask you about that too because you seem like you are built for what you do. Do you cultivate a certain look that is funny?
D: No, I don’t think we choose. We couldn’t be serious actors I think.
F: I wanted to be [a serious actor]. I was studying to do Eugene O’Neill and Shakespeare, and I just didn’t ... You realize that it’s... you go in the direction that the audience seems to respond to.
D: You know when I was a kid I was watching TV, and there was always the Laurel and Hardy and Chaplin, and I felt so good to see those guys because it was like they could see through me and they knew what human being means. and was very profound — and light — that I didn’t know that I was going to do it because I thought was ... I didn’t know how to do it — but as quick as I could do it, it was such a pleasure - to make people laugh.
M: Yeah, it beats economics, right?