Michel Legrand: interview

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Legendary 77-year-old composer Michel Legrand's career has spanned six decades, writing music for everyone from Jean-Luc Godard to Orson Welles, from Agnes Varda to Clint Eastwood. As Jacques Demy's joyous 'Les Demoiselles de Rochefort' returns to the BFI, Legrand spoke to David Jenkins about his work on this classic musical

The reason we're speaking is that ‘Les Demoiselles de Rochefort’ is being re-released in London.
‘Yes I heard. I’m very happy about it. That’s nice.’

When did you last see the film?
‘It was a long time ago. Because I never really look at the things that I’ve done in the past. It’s a long, long time ago.’

Why is that? Do you not like revisiting past work?
‘No this is not the reason. I’m sure that I would like it, but I’m not so keen on living in the past. I have so many projects, so many things that I have to decide about in the future. I have to really save my time for the future. Not the past.’

Is ‘Les Demoiselles de Rochefort’ a film you are especially proud of?

‘Yes, but I must tell you... I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve done. All the films that I’ve done – and I’ve worked on about 250 – are like my children. So they are all special for different reasons. But I like everything that I’ve done and why not? I always did it with pleasure and I did it because I wanted to do it. There is always a reason, and that is important for me.’

How did you first get into composing music for films? Did you have an interest in cinema when you were studying in Paris?
‘Yes and no. While I was studying in Paris I decided that I wanted to touch on and exist within in every possible musical discipline. Concerts, records, radio, playing piano, conducting, singing, composing, classical, playing jazz... So when I started to work, it was really on that decision.’

Do you think it was cinema that allowed you to do that?
‘Sure! Because I started in the '60s to be an orchestra arranger and then shorty after that I became a composer for French movies. You know the young directors, they all wanted to work with me because I was this new composer.'

Did you go to see lots of films during the ’50s and ’60s?

‘No, because I didn’t have time! I was so busy writing that I had a difficulty going out and seeing movies. I saw some, but not a lot. Once I did a concert with Nino Rota in London and after I said to Nino, “I have to tell you that my knowledge of films is very poor because I worked so much I didn’t have time to see many of the movies you scored,” so he said to me, “Michel, you have to believe me when I tell you, I’ve never seen a single film”. I said, “Nino, what do you mean?” He said, “The only film I see are the films that I scored myself, because I hate cinema!” Ha ha ha. So when you say, “Have you seen many films?” I say, “a few.” But Nino? None at all!’

That’s incredible.
‘Yes extraordinary. Really extraordinary!’

But you don’t hate cinema?

‘No, I like it very much.’

How did you first come into contact with Jacques Demy?

‘In 1959. I just finished scoring a François Reichenbach movie called “America as Seen by a Frenchman". Demy loved the score, so we met and he wanted me to score his first movie which was called “Lola”. So then I scored “Lola” and we became friends and we came to know, appreciate and love each other, and we stayed friends until the very last.’

What was Demy like as person? Did he have very specific ideas of what he wanted from a film score?
‘Oh so sweet! And yes, absolutely. You know, Jacques wanted to live in a fairytale world. He wanted to see happiness, smiles and laughter all around him. He always dreamed that the world would be like that one day. His films were invariably about happy people enjoying being alive. Yet, when it came to the business of filmmaking, he could also be a very serious man.’

Were you able to talk to him about the kind of music he wanted for the films?
‘No. There are no words for music. There are no words to describe it. I just knew that he liked what I was doing and that we were in tune with one another. It was a pleasure working with him.’

So was it a case of you experimenting with sounds and melodies and you’d pass them by him?
‘Absolutely! He trusted me. I have a serious sense of style myself, so I work extremely hard to find the right style for the movie, and when I have decided what it will be, then I’m a very fast writer. For me, it’s all about deciding what style to go with.’

And when you came to compose for ‘Les Demoiselles... ’, how did Jacques describe the kind of film he wanted to make to you?

‘We had worked on “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’ three years before, which was a sort of opera, and he said that he wanted to do a film that is very close to the Hollywood musical movie. He said, "I want to do make an American movie". I suggested contacting Gene Kelly, because I was very close friends him. So he went to see Gene Kelly, and Gene came aboard. So it’s really a homage to American musicals.’

How did you become friends with Gene Kelly?
‘I had worked with him on a television series about “An American in Paris” where he was playing himself, and directing.'

And was he a fan of ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’?
‘Yes, Gene loved it.’

Did you find a film like 'Les Demoiselles... ' difficult to score?

‘It was not easy. My natural instinct is to always write sad music. It is instinctively really what comes out of me. So it was difficult for me to write something so lively, because all the tunes are happy, fast, allegro. So I had to force myself to write happy, happy, happy. And then the next day, happy again. I had to force myself a little!’

I understand that when you are trying to write a melody, you write lots and lots and lots, and then whittle them down.

'Yes.'

Could you describe that process?
‘Well, I go for a theme: main themes or a theme for a character. So I’m not writing one theme, I’m writing 25, 30 themes and initially, I feel like all of them would work. It’s time that helps me, because at the end of the day, I play the 35 again five or six die, so I get rid of them. And then the next day after that, five or six more, so I proceed by elimination. So after a week or so I have four or five very possible, and I end up with two or three.’

Do you discard the melodies that you don’t use?

‘Oh yes, I burn them. I know that I will never use them anywhere else. It is never good for any other movie. I tried, but it never worked.’

As you say, the music in the film is very energetic. It looks like it might have been a fun film to make. Was that the case?

‘Yes of course. But it was tough to write happy melodies. Not easy at all.’

Could you describe your inspiration for creating these melodies?
‘I can’t describe it. It comes or it doesn’t come. I have no idea! One day you can write three really good thing, and then the next day, nothing at all. I can’t answer that question.’

Did you enjoy working with Catherine Deneuve again?

‘Yes of course, she is beautiful and a good actress. And she was very good for the part.’

The actual process of writing the songs: would Demy deliver the lyrics to you?

‘It was very tough for me because he wrote everything in Alexandrines which is in twelve beats. So it was, ba da da, ba da da, ba da da, ba da da. I had a hard time writing different things to fit this template. So I had to break it, rip it up.’

Did he allow you to change any of the lyrics if it would fit the music?

‘Of course.’

Are you interested in reading film criticism?
‘No. I don’t read critics. When 20 critics write about a film, not one is really capable of having any real emotion. I don’t like critics. They annoys me. People who are critics are bums.’

Do you find there is any difference between working in France and Hollywood?
‘No difference at all. Music is music, film is film. English, French, whatever. It’s no difference. Exactly the same process, the same emotion, same approach. For me, it’s the same.’

'Les Demoiselles de Rochefort ' is at BFI Southbank from Friday.

Author: David Jenkins



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