Thursday, July 30, 2015

Remembering Pierre Cottrell

Lisa Lu and Pierre Cottrell, Singapore 2009 

In the last two months two people who I met through my research into the making of Saint Jack have passed away. The first was Tony Yeow in early June, and I will write about him soon, and the second was Pierre Cottrell, who died a few days ago as I write this - on the 23rd July, and whose funeral was held yesterday in Paris. Last night, a few of us in Singapore who came to know Pierre gathered to have a glass or two in his honour. We were (and remain) the Singapore wing of the P. Cottrell Appreciation Society, and even though we knew him in what would turn out to be the last decade of his life, we had more than a few adventures with him, and had tales to tell, because that was the kind of guy Pierre was.

As we drank we translated Julian Gester's obituary of him in Libération and it's lamentable that so little has been written about Pierre in English, so one reason to write this now, is to collect some of the things we know about Monsieur Cottrell.

Pierre was one of that generation of post-war teenagers who fell in love with cinema at the perfect moment. He volunteered at the Cinémathèque Française, imbibing the history of movies for free, and it was here that he encountered seminal figures such as Henri Langlois of the Cinémathèque, Eric Rohmer, who by then (in 1959) was editor of Cahiers du Cinéma and had directed some short films, and Barbet Schroeder who would found the company Les Films du Losange with Rohmer, later Cottrell would join them. However, before that Cottrell went off to America (when he was 18!) , and according to an oft-repeated story it was a self-imposed exile after he was threatened with a gun by another Cahiers writer and would-be film-maker, Jean Eustache.

Of course America was the source of Pierre's favourite film-makers - his deep, abiding love for 'Golden Age' Hollywood directors would last throughout his life and in 1960s Los Angeles he encountered Otto Preminger, Delmer Daves among others, and would fall in with the New Hollywood gang, most notably Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson, and Nicholson's main employer, Roger Corman.

In New York he hung out with Bob Dylan down in the village, and embraced the underground film scene. He loved to tell the story about getting bust by the cops the night Jonas Mekas screened Jean Genet's "obscene" Chant D'Amour, according to some reports he was tearing the tickets, although he insisted he was the projectionist. One of his earliest credits was as a Production Assistant on Mekas's film of The Brig in 1964. Pierre was barely 20.

He went back to France to begin work with Rohmer, but kept up the American Connection. Famously, struggling actor Jack Nicholson moved into Pierre's Paris apartment in 1966 and spent many weeks enjoying the city and Pierre's company whilst getting his head together, before returning to Hollywood (and finally, success). And then Roger Corman arrived in France in 1967 to shoot a biker film, The Wild Racers and Pierre ended up as an Associate Producer (securing the services of Nestor Almendros as cinematographer) and from then on would become Corman's occasional go-to guy for difficult location shoots, including the rarely-seen Vic Morrow in Istanbul flick, Target: Harry in '69, and a decade later Saint Jack in Singapore directed by Peter Bogdanovich (whom Pierre had met in New York when they were both fresh young cinephiles) - but that's another story.

Pierre eventually became a partner in Losange, and he and Schroeder would produce Rohmer's great run of late 60s/early 70s masterpieces, starting with La collectionneuse in '67, for which Pierre was not credited, despite apparently editing the 'script' together from recorded improvisations by Rohmer and the actors, and then Ma nuit chez Maud (1969), Le genou de Claire (1970),  and L'amour l'après-midi (1972). This was the peak. A time of celebrity and international travel. Pierre rubbed shoulders with everyone, and found himself at the Oscars in 1970, representing the nominated Maud.

In the mean-time, his friendship with Bob Rafelson, who he fondly referred to as 'Curly' (a nickname coined by Jack Nicholson) reached the point where the newly minted director offered Pierre 60 thousand bucks so that he could produce the first feature of his would-be assassin, Jean Eustache. Rafelson had met Eustache and found him appropriately crazy. The film they all made together, La Maman et la Putain (1973) took Rohmer's dialogue-heavy approach in an entirely new and extreme direction, and was something of a succès de scandale, getting booed and winning the Grand Prix and the Critic's prize at Cannes, being declared "an insult to the nation" by Le Figaro, and then going onto 'boffo' box office in Paris. Around that time Pierre's involvement with Losange and Schroeder also ended, and from then on he worked alone, moving from project to project on a freelance basis, although he would work with Rohmer once more on L'anglaise et le duc in 2001.

Pierre produced some fascinating films through the 1970s and into the 80s, including the almost entirely unseen Flesh Colour (1978), starring Dennis Hopper, Lou Castel and Bianca Jagger (!), Eustache's second feature Mes petites amoureuses in '74, and two films with Wim Wenders, including Lightning Over Water AKA Nick's Movie (1980), which owed much to Pierre's friendship with the film's subject, the ailing Hollywood maverick, Nicholas Ray, and another meta-film, The State of Things in 1982 (which somehow emerged out of a Raoul Ruiz film that Pierre was also producing, called The Territory), which featured Roger Corman in an acting role, and another of Pierre's heroes Sam Fuller (and reunited him with the star of La collectionneuse, Patrick Bauchau).

From the mid-80s producing work began to dry up. Pierre would find himself in Louisiana helping out Curly Bob, who was shooting the sex scenes (uncredited) on a soft-core porn adaptation of Milo Manara's erotic comic The Click. When Pierre told me this story I had my doubts, but a clip on YouTube shows a very debonair Pierre taking on the role of the butler with poise. Indeed, Pierre ends up on camera in some interesting places, including the aforementioned Lightning Over Water, as a 'Pornographer' in Jacques Rivette's notorious Out 1 (along with his schoolfriend and fellow cinephile, Bernard Eisenschitz), and, decades later, (if he made the final cut) in U-Wei Haji Saari's Hanyut.

Having mostly fallen out of the producing game, his immaculate linguistic skills enabled a second career as a high-end 'Subtitlist', often for American and Asian films that were coming to Cannes, and the list of films and film-makers he translated for includes: Costa-Gavras, Spike Lee, Henry Jaglom, Lizzie Borden, Eric Khoo, Lino Brocka, Edward Yang, and (I'm sure) many, many more.

Although he'd rather have been producing films, Pierre's mastery of language lent itself to the subtitling gig, and anyone who'd spent time with him and/or received letters, emails or memos from him knew how he prided himself on wordplay and poetic turns of phrase (in French and English). There's a quote in Gester's obituary about how as a producer he would write beautiful things on mundane production paperwork. That's very Pierre. I've seen many of the memos he wrote for his director during the Saint Jack shoot, and even though  his relationship with Bogdanovich was fractious, each one is courteous, friendly and perfectly constructed. He was, as our friend Michel says, a man of letters.

When I was writing my book on Saint Jack, I would speak to Pierre on the phone, but most of the best material came from long emails he'd send me, some of which was so potentially libellous I could never use it. He did me the great favour of organising a phone interview between myself and Roger Corman. This gave me a glimpse into his legendary 'fixing' skills. I was sent very clear instructions - a time (the middle of the night in Singapore), a phone number - and it all went like clockwork. Pierre prided himself on getting this stuff done.

When the book was completed and published I was somewhat dreading his reaction (I figured he'd think it was too sympathetic towards Bogdanovich). A copy signed with thanks was dispatched to Paris. To my surprise he sent me a wonderful note of appreciation, asking for five more books as soon as possible, which he wanted to pass to friends and colleagues, and of course he would pay for them (I sent the copies, but never a bill).

We met in Paris a year or so later, and there he was, in his big coat and glasses - quiet, intense but once he warmed up to you, there was humour and mischief. In November 2009, I, and future good friends of Pierre (Warren and Wenjie), were able to bring him out to Singapore for the Saint Jack 30th anniversary screening at the National Museum of Singapore, and he was so happy to be back. He brought prodigious gifts for everyone involved, which included an enormous cache of French cheese for myself. Gifts were part of Pierre's repertoire. There's a story a Saint Jack crew member tells of Pierre rolling up on set during a particularly gruelling section of the shoot - he didn't have their cash per diems because of a problem with the bank, but instead he had a mountain of sweet tropical fruit to pass around - how could anyone be angry? In 2009 I saw a flash of this at the end of our Saint Jack Locations Tour which I was conducting. We finished off at the Goodwood Park Hotel, and while we were outside by the pool, Pierre disappeared into the hotel lobby. He emerged minutes later with a fistful of postcards and handed them out to everyone. It was a lovely thing to do.