'A FEW years ago I was so ashamed of my background as a director of television commercials that I didn't dare mention it to anyone. Now it is my highest credential," says French film dirctor Jean-Jacques Annaud, whose second feature film, "Coup de Tete," ("Hot Head") opened here last week.
Annaud's first film, "Black and White in Color," was the dark-horse winner of the 1976 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Before he completed it, Annaud had never produced a film longer than three minutes.
In those days, he was known as the best TV commercial director in France. Despite the distinction and the personal fortune it brought, he was miserable. "Even if I worked like mad to make them intelligient, humorous, nice little things, in the end they still sold yogurt or shoes. My references were with the masters of cinema: Eisenstein, Renoir, Capra, Walsh. I was so depressed that I had a brekdown that lasted a year.
"Making the crossover was terrifying," recalls the now self-assured director, who is currently in New York to cast for his third feature. "I was 29 at the time. I was risking my entire career, but I put ads in the trade journals announcing that I would make no more commercials. The funny thing was that when I put these ads in the trades, everyone called to congratulate me on getting out of an industry I hated. But still they'd say, 'By the way, we have just one more big commercial you'll want to do.'"
Francois Truffaut first discovered Annaud's talent when he saw a demoreel by running it too many times through the machine."
What impressed Truffaut was Annaud's economy of film-language. "In commercials we have to express things very quickly," Annaud says. "If you want to show a man leaving his house for a drive, you simply show him picking up his keys and the next shot is of him behind the steering wheel. The audience can imagine what went on in between. Truffaut used to never do this. aHe was very much into showing the natural rhythm of life."
Annaud says that commercials were, "for me, just a means by which to go on to features. A commercial is a small production, but I made 500 commercials in eight years, so I had the whole range of experiences. I could never have made 'Black and 'White' without the training I received in advertising. It taught me how to shoot very quickly, how to make something small look like a spectacle, and how to do complicated and sophisticated action photography."
He has already received numerous offers from publishers who want him to write an expose of television advertising. "It would be about all the horrible tricks the advertising agencies pull on the consumer. Sponsors would say to me, 'We want a very big campaign because it's a very, very bad product, and we have to push it.'
"One of these days I would like to speak openly of what I know about the advertising industry, but right now I'm still too close to it. It supported me well for eight years and taught me all I needed to know about the equipment of movie-making. I don't want to, as we say in France, 'Split in the soup.'"
His embarrassment over his background in advertising, says Annaud, was once shared by others who have successfully made the jump. They include directors Alan Parker ("Midnight Express"), Ridley Scott ("Alien" and "The Duelist") and Adrian Lyne ("foxes").
Because of the successful record established by these filmmakers, it has now become very fashionable to hire commercial directors to make features. Hollywood is especially hungry for directors from Europe where commercial production is very low (700 a year in France as compared to 40,000 a year over here) but where production quality is very high.
"Coup de Tete" is the story of a despised and jailed soccer player who suddenly becomes a hero to his hypocritical neighbors when he comes to the rescue of the local team. It shows the sense of irony and satire which Annaud says derives from his experience in advertising.
"I wanted to show how foolish is the attitude of people who have power," he says. "It's a fable about people first rejecting a man and then thinking that the same man, who hasn't changed, is a hero.
"I could make a commercial that people hated, but one year later, when it won an award, everyone said it was great. Likewise, I'd make commercials which people loved, but two years later, when nobody bought the sponsor's products, they said the commercials were terrible.
"Hollywood gives such a good example of this. When you're fired from a studio nobody would even talk to you. Then you can become the head of another studio, and suddenly you find that you have so many friends who say you're marvelous. It's very sad human behavior."
Because Annaud like to make fun of common human behavior, he has been unusually successful so far in bridging the transatlantic gap, overcoming the cliches which usually pigeonhole French films into specialized theaters which attract select audiences.
He says, "Distributors assume that the public which goes to see a subtitled film is a sophisticated audience, and so most of the films which make it over here are elitist. They are either about nice French bourgeois who live in beautiful cottages, or they are about very intellectual people who know everything about philosophy and literature. I'm referring to some of the films by Francois Truffaut, Louis Malle and Eric Rohmer. These films are so sophisticated that it's probably irritating for Americans.
"The truth is that we French are very clumsy people. Most of the movies you see here don't reach the French public. The general French audience goes to very stupid movies. We produce about 270 films a year and many of them are horribly vulgar thrillers or simpleminded comedies. You in America only get to see about 5 percent of what we produce, the qualite Francais.' I'm trying to reach the public by giving them something in between."
As Annaud relates, "I tried very hard with 'Coup de Tete' to create a fable that was universal, one which would not be particular to French culture. My writer and I took pains to eliminate any dialogue which would not easily translate into English."
His next film, which is his first American project (for Twentieth Century-Fox), is intended to have no national slant. "Quest for Fire" takes place 100,000 years ago, during the dark ages of prehistory. The language will be neither French nor English. Annaud says tht novelist Anthony Burgess, who created a futuristic vocabulary for "A Clockwork Orange," will create a 100-word "ancient" vocabulary for the film.
Annaud, who has done a great deal of research on early man, believes that fire is what made humans different from the animals. Humans stole it from volancos or from lightning, but for many thousands of years they didn't know how to make it. Annaud says that "Quest for Fire," based on a French novel published at the turn of the century, will be an action-oriented picture about a tribe that has its fire stolen and has to get it back. You could call it a fuel crisis in the ice age.
"It will deal with the very beginning of humanity, man's first loves, first doubts, first questioning," Annaud says. "It will touch upon the very basis of human behavior."