When the writer of the 2006 Oscar-nominated film Days of Glory (Indigenes) and President of the Screenwriters Guild in France, Olivier Lorelle, walked into the Indian Embassy in Paris for his visa to attend the screenwriting seminar in India, the officials nearly rejected his conference visa on the grounds that he must apply for a journalist visa since he’s a writer.
“But I am not a journalist, I am a screenwriter. I write films,” he insisted. They didn’t quite understand until Kamal Haasan called the Embassy to explain that Lorelle was coming to India to participate in a workshop organised specifically to address that need: to bring the writer’s role in cinema back into focus.
The screenwriter and Professor at the reputed film school La Femis, Paris, was in India for a week to interact with students at theChennai International Screenwriting Workshopand at L.V. Prasad Film and TV Academy.
“Students here are more receptive and enthusiastic. Students in Paris sit back and say: Show me what you can do. They are afraid of betraying who they are by learning from someone. Students here are like: Give me all that you have. They have so many questions and they want answers.”
Lorelle used to teach Philosophy and write for theatre before he was a screenwriter.
“But I could not earn my living with theatre. After a while, we theatre writers got together around the late eighties and formed a banner called McGuffin and started writing for TV and films,” he recalls.
Soon, he met Rachid Bouchareb with whom he collaborated on ‘Little Senegal’ that won a few awards. “One day, Rachid showed me a newspaper article about the African soldiers who fought the war. The French didn’t give them anything,” he says, recounting how ‘Days of Glory’ started. “We just wanted to make it a popular film. So the awards were a bonus.” He won a Cesar for Best Screenplay and the film was nominated to the Oscars.
Lorelle has finished writing ‘Outlaw,’ a sequel to ‘Days of Glory’ set in 1945, based on the massacre on the Day of the Armistice when 35,000 soldiers were killed. “It has at the same actors but it is not a continuation of the old story. The film goes on floors next month.”
He’s also working on his directorial debut ‘Red Sky.’ “It’s a love and war film. Set during the Vietnam war, it’s about a French soldier and a Vietnamese girl in love and on the run in the forest. A psychological thriller.”
“Screenwriting is not recognised enough. The French have a tradition of associating films with the director – like Godard, Truffaut. But it does not work like that anymore. Journalists don’t credit music to the director but they always seem to associate and credit the story to the director,” says Lorelle.
The screenplay acquires more importance in the modern day context when there are about 15-20 films fighting for attention every Wednesday, he explains.
“You cannot compete with Hollywood on budgets, so we need to rely on word of mouth and make sure that the film is good. You must tell what you want to tell, but don’t betray yourself. You must work harder and harder, simplify it and make it universal.”
“We have something in common. We have to fight against the supremacy of American films. We must not let Hollywood dictate what our children will see. The Americans work hard on how to tell a story.”
He takes the example of ‘Thoranai’ to explain what’s wrong with the commercial cinema of today. “There were three story arcs – the love affair, the psychological drama of the brother in search of his brother and the third – the thriller. They were not held together, completely disjointed. You need to have one story and not try to put all in one film. At the other extreme, we have American films that are too mechanical – where everything falls into place in perfect rhythm.”
“It’s good to see a big star like Kamal Haasan pay so much importance to scripts. We have to work together and take this forward to develop writers,” Lorelle adds.
“Please also write that I am in love with Indian movie star Shriya. I am searching for a story for her,” smiles the man in love.