The three-part “Five Came Back” is a fascinating mini-series involving five of today's great directors – Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo del Toro, Paul Greengrass and Lawrence Kasdan. It relays the impacts of five heavyweight directors of the past – Frank Capra, John Ford, George Stevens, William Wyler and John Huston – when they left Hollywood and headed to document the action on battlefields during the Second World War.
The series, narrated by Meryl Streep, provides fascinating insights and is receiving rave reviews. It's even had a run in US cinemas to qualify for the Oscars. Yet, few are talking about the man in the director's chair, Laurent Bouzereau, whose story is equally fascinating. He's made more than 300 films on classic movies from Ben-Hur to Jaws, and has collaborated with everyone from Stephen King and Michael Crichton to George Lucas and Roman Polanski. Bouzereau has been literally living out his – and everyone else's – dreams for the past 35 years. He gets to see how the magic happens in Hollywood, with full access to the sets, directors, cast and crew. You would understand if someone in this privileged position was arrogant and boastful, but not Bouzereau. He remains like a kid in a sweet shop, in awe of those around him. His excitement when talking about watching Alisters in action is palpable. Indeed his story gives hope to the ideal of “living the Hollywood Dream”.
As a young boy growing up in Paris in the 1960s and 1970s, he was very shy, but obsessed with movies in every aspect of film making, down to the minutiae of spotting similar techniques and sound effects in movies. “I remember the first time I sat in a movie theatre, I spent more time staring back at where the image was coming from than at the film itself,” Bouzereau says with excitement. “So my dad arranged for me to go into the projection room after it was over. I was fascinated with the projector and the circle at the top that meant you had to change reels. That started my love of looking behind the scenes.”
Bouzereau recalls one incredible chance encounter a few years later in 1981 with his film hero. “I used to go to this small movie store in Paris every Saturday at 11 a.m. One time, I was chatting to the owner – this creepy guy who gave me a good deal on posters – telling him how great François Truffaut was when in walked the famous director himself! This was a few days before “The Last Metro” came out. He bought two books, one by André Bazin, the famous critic. He was slight with an old-fashioned tie and suit on. I was surprised as I imagined him as being tall, big and super hip. I approached and said I was such a big fan and couldn't wait for “The Last Metro”. But he responded that he was really scared because all his recent films were flops and that it would be a disaster. I was so floored that someone who I idolised had zero confidence. Interestingly, that movie that put him back on the map.”
Not too long after this encounter, and after finishing his baccalaureate in France, Bouzereau decided to pack his bags and head for the US determined to get into the film world somehow. With no connections or film qualifications, little money, and only hope, his chances looked slim. His first port of call was the Big Apple.
Bizarrely his dad, who had nothing to do with the film world, had met a producer from New York on a plane a short while before, and had told her that his son was an obsessive film fan desperate to move to the US. She had said Bouzereau could get in touch, probably not expecting him to do so. He did. “Her name was Sally Faile. She had produced this pretty terrible horror film called The Returning (1983). I worked with her for a few months, which was great,” explains Bouzereau. But he had his sights set a little higher. Fortunately the omens were good.
At a film screening, two new actor friends, Rutanya Alda (The Deer Hunter) and her husband, Richard Bright (Looking for Mr.Goodbar) introduced Bouzereau to “Scarface” director, Brian De Palma. As a huge fan, Bouzereau found it hard to contain his excitement. “We talked at length about his movies, and although nothing happened then, I would go on to do 'making-of' documentaries for pretty much all of his movies,” says Bouzereau excitedly. However, this was the 1980s and the independent film sector was dying in New York. So after six years, Bouzereau decided to move to the home of Hollywood, Los Angeles. He managed to get a job working with another Hollywood great, Bette Midler for her company “All Girl Productions”, based in the Walt Disney Studios on Dopey Drive.
Bouzereau's first encounter with the Close Encounters director was an amusing one. “He couldn't believe I knew so much about1941, one of his smaller and obscure films, which was not a box-office success. I had a huge number of memorabilia from the film. That started us geeking out and we just clicked.”
This was the start of a beautiful friendship. Soon after, he was asked to do a retrospective of “Jaws”. Bouzereau recalls one particularly enlightening conversation with Spielberg about the famous shark. “At the end of Jaws, the shark explodes and you have a shot of it falling to the bottom of the ocean and you hear a strange sound. I said to him that in his movie “Duel” when the truck goes over the hill at the end, it has the same sound. He said, “Oh my god! You're the first person to notice this. It was a dinosaur sound from an old movie that I really liked, so I put it in both movies.”
This interest in film techniques is what drives Bouzereau when directing his “making-of” movies. Whether he's doing retrospectives of films like “Jaws”, “The Exorcist” or “Lawrence of Arabia”, which require lengthy research of archives, or actually being on the sets of movies and uncovering behind the scenes little gems for the DVD or Blu-ray extras.
“I have a good relationship with all the heads of departments on the movies I work on, so I know exactly what went into creating every aspect of the films,” explains Bouzereau. “If it's a big movie with large sets, I'm usually there early on to witness everything. If it's a more modest movie or doesn't require much pre-production, then I'll join a little later. But the important thing is I have to be invisible. Everyone is working hard and so I don't want to intrude. Fortunately, Steven has pretty much the same crews for all his films, and they know and trust me, telling me 'you should come and see this'.”
Another highlight was filming Spielberg talking to renowned composer John Williams in a sound stage. “John recalled how when he met Steven for the first time he was surprised that this young filmmaker knew so much about the music he'd done on Westerns, especially a film called The Reivers, and that he could hum the tunes,” recalls Bouzereau, adding that a trust soon built up between the Hollywood giants. He is equally complementary about George Lucas, with whom he has produced several behind the scenes documentaries and books, including “Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays”, about the first trilogy movies, which Lucas produced. “He is very funny and incredibly helpful. He gave me access to every piece of paper handwritten by him for those movies. It was like being handed the Holy Grail. My book has since become a bit of a reference for Star Wars fanatics.”
Another heavyweight he's worked with, and calls him a close friend, is controversial director Roman Polanski. Roman's friend Andrew Braunsberg was interviewing him about his life during his house arrest in 2009 and he wanted me to direct it as a movie. Since then, every morning we put the film together over croissant. It was called “Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir”, which screened at the Cannes Film Festival.”
When delving behind the scenes, Bouzereau also likes to talk to the screenwriters and writers. He formed a particularly strong relationship with Michael Crichton, author of “Jurassic Park”. So much so that he now works with the writer's widow Sherri Crichton through her production company to introduce Michael's work to a new generation. They've already helped develop a couple of film and TV adaptation projects. One is to be a thriller feature film set up at DreamWorks Studios, based on Crichton's last novel “Micro”. The other is to be a TV series called “Dragon Teeth”, based on a soon to be published Crichton manuscript about the rivalry between reallife paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh.
Bouzereau has also optioned a short story written by his friend Stephen King called “Bad Little Kid”. So he's keeping as busy as ever. He knows he's lucky. “The hardest thing in this business is not boxoffice success or winning an Oscar, it's longevity. Who is going to be remembered 30 years from now? I interviewed the legendary producer Herbert Coleman, whose credits included “North by Northwest” and “Vertigo”, but he lived in a trailer park and slept on a cot. These are tough lessons to face.”