LOUIS MALLE is an extremely reminative personality. He weighs his remarks thoughtfully and carefully, questions his motives frequently, resists a fixed or authoritative perception of things. "After two years here, I'm totally incapable of generalizations," he says. "This is not typical of the French. They like to generalize, and French journalists are the most pompous. They get off the plan in New York, and already they know everything wrong with America. I had dinner with one of these specimens not long ago. He was two days in the country and had become an authority."
Malle likes to ambulate as he ruminates. Pacing and pondering, he begins to suggest a French Hamlet, but he's a cheerier soltloquizer. His mouth is usually fixed in a crooked grin, and his train of thought often leads to observations and recollections that break him up.
He had arrived in town following a brief good will mission to Canada, where "Pretty Baby," his first American movie had encountered early and somewhat unexpected censorship problems, being banned by the provincial boards in Ontario and Saskatchewan. The film is a fascinating and evocative period story about a child raised into prostitution in a New Orleans brothel, circa 1917.
"It's always a problem for censors," Malle said, "because they always pick the wrong picture to censor. In such a job you look like an idiot no matter what happens. For the time being the Ontario censors prefer to look like stubborn idiots. Another time they will look like liberal idiots.
"They insisted very much that they were admirers of my work. One made a point to tell me that he thought the picture was very beautiful. This is typical. One must wait for them to reconsider. We had not expected a problem there. I think the studio was more apprehensive for Montreal than Toronto. For example, "Taxi Driver" had not been objected to. I know there is some concern about the censor board in Maryland. Having met with some news people from Baltimore earlier today, I can understand why."
Malle's film began shooting in New Orleans at a time when contemporary examples of child prostitution were being exposed to considerable journalistic scrutiny, as well as idle curiosity. "Pretty Baby" generated notoriety because 12-year-old child model Brooke Shields had been cast to play Violet, the 12-year-old child prostitute of the story.
"What seemed to outrage people more than anything else," Malle recalled, "was the fact that I used Brooke Shields. I don't know what age would be acceptable to play such a part, but the fact that the girl is the same age as the character shocked people most. Reporters always asked if she was being traumatized by this experience. Brooke was never traumatized, but I came close to being traumatized by repetition of this question.
"Believe me, I would have been grateful to discover an actress 18 or 25 or 30 who could have been credible in the role of the girl. It would have spared me many problems. But where was such a creature? When I made my agreement with Paramount, I told them this was a movie project that might not be practical. If someone suitable for the girl could not be found, the movie could not be made.
"The people at Paramount, liking the project, suggested using Jodie Foster, but 'Taxi Driver' was already two years ago. I must point out that Jodie Foster is too old for the role, among other problems. I made problems for myself by having doubts about Brooke. When I was shown her photo, I was certain that she would be perfect, but then I felt she was almost too obvious, so I resisted my intuition. I tried to tell myself that I had to have a girl who was from New Orleans. I spent a lot of time thinking about such mistaken ideas. But I came back to Brooke, and I think she's superb.
"I cannot take any credit for it. I find her fascinating and quite mysterious.She seems remarkable on film but I really had nothing to do with it. In two weeks she was recognized as a star; this is the crew, not just reporters. It could be dangerous for her, and it will be interesting to see how this fame influences her. If I were asked, I would advise her parents to quiet it down. Already it reminds me of the atmosphere that surrounded Brigitte Bardot. You see the parasites gathering around to do every little task for her, but also to cause dissension by manipulating.
"I suppose I was the only person on the set she was still cautious about. She had difficulty with some things. Expressing anger was hard for her; when she had to scream, or to break the plates of Bellocq, the photographer who is doing portraits of the girls in the house. She was very much at ease in scenes where she must be seductive. I like her especially in one small scene with Keith Carradine, who is playing Bellocq. They are at breakfast, and she is buttering a roll in a certain kind of way, very intent and childlike. At the same time there is something very fascinating in her manner: She's aggressive, but in a cool way.
"People compare her with Elizabeth Taylor. I think Brooke's acting is much better. You know, we showed her 'National Velvet.' For a time she was being considered for the sequel, which went to Tatum O'Neal. Brooke is stunningly beautiful now, and I think she'll stay that way. Sometimes you cannot tell how children may change in teen-age, but her beauty will not disappear. She's already very tall. She has grown one foot since last year. The danger is that she will be used up. Now every interesting actor can get consumed immediately if he does not take precautions."
Malle evidently plans to work in the United States for the time being. "I like the country very much," he said, "and I would like to spend more time here. I'm not sure what I'll end up doing next. I find it difficult to make plans. Paramount asks what I have in mind for '79, and I cannot say with any assurance. Each time I've committed myself to a movie far in advance, it turns out to be a disaster.
"I have begun a treatment for what is . . . well, a comedy I suppose, set in suburbia.Maybe it will end up a documentary. I find documentaries very healthy for me, and I think I've spent enough time here to take a camera outside and photograph people with some confidence. At one time I was considering a big enterprise, a kind of 'Phantom America,' but I abandoned it.
"Since 'The Lovers' I'd always have been offered work here. I was offered many American films taking place in France too, but that did not interest me. In the '60s I worked on two projects and went pretty far with them before they were discarded: one a story a single-handed navigator who sails around the world by himself and one a biography of an early jazz musician.
"When I made my agreement with Paramount, it was not possible to do 'Pretty Baby' at once because the idea began with Al Rose's book 'Storyville,' which was still under option to someone else. I did a lot of research on another idea, which I still hope to film - the story of a young wetback who crosses from Mexico to find work in California. It would be documentary in many respects, and I have not lost interest in it, but as a first film with the system, it seemed inappropriate.
"I must say that basically I hate to make decisions. Since directing a picture means making decisions every 10 seconds, there's an obvious contradiction. That may account for my reputation as a disorderly director. I think of the script as a rough blueprint and like to change things as the shooting proceeds. This caused some problems, since American crews like to be well-prepared and have everything in order. That's fine, but my definition of a good technician is one who's well-prepared but also prepared to change everything in five minutes.
"For someone like Sven (cinematographer Sven Nykvist) this way of working poses no problems. It's how he always works with Bergman and me. Many technicians thrive on it. They like the excitement and stimulation that can come out of a flexible shooting method. The trick is simply to assemble a totally sympathetic crew. It's not unheard of here. I've seen Altman work, and I know Bob functions in the same disorderly way I do.
"I've also considered that each picture changes you, or should change you. I would never start concentrated work-on another project until I was through with the last one. That includes discovering what people think about the film, how it affects the audience. Each film is so much of an experience. For a filmmaker that can be almost as important as the film itself. I think it's important to experience each film itself. I think it's important to experience each film completely before deciding what it is you want to do next."
A year ago Malle was crowned "the current king of sexual power in Hollywood" by a somewhat fevered New West reporter. Asked how he earned this reputation, supposedly second only to Bergman as a devastating Svengali-Casanova of the cinema, Malle frowned, grinned, frowned again, shrugged philosphically and finally replied, "Let's put it this way: there are lots of women in Los Angeles, and life can get pretty dull there. I went a little crazy until Paramount gaye me a 'Go,' as they say, on 'Pretty Baby.'
"According to our deal, they were supposed to say yes or no in one mouth. There were still some doubts about the subject matter and the budget and the fact that it was an 'in-between' picture. At $3 million, it wasn't big or little. I was kept waiting an extra month, and in that time, not knowing whether the picture was on or off, I began going to parties and staying places late at night. I went a little crazy from the suspense. As soon as I got the 'Go,' I became a monk."