Beginning with 1969’s Z, recently added to the Criterion Collection, Costa-Gavras established himself as a master of the political thriller, using the tools of suspense to attack repressive ideology. Born Constantinos Gavras—the name change was courtesy of a title-card typo—he was raised in Greece by politically active parents; his father fought in the anti-Nazi resistance during World War II. While there’s no mistaking his targets, Costa-Gavras prefers allegory to direct confrontation, although the distinction can be a fine one. Centered around the assassination of a popular left-wing leader, Z is set in an unspecified time and place, but contemporary audiences could not have missed the parallels to the director’s home country, where the murder of outspoken pacifist Gregoris Lambrakis was followed by the rise of a military dictatorship. The Confession, released the following year, takes aim at the fascist tactics of the Czechoslovakian secret police, and State Of Siege shadows the U.S.’ involvement in crushing South American revolutionary groups and propping up friendly dictators.
The agit-entertainment Costa-Gavras embodied has been largely squeezed out of the marketplace—John Malkovich’s The Dancer Upstairs, which explicitly quotes State Of Siege, is one of the few worthy successors—and even he has shifted his emphasis. His latest film, Eden Is West, takes a turn toward comedy, starring Riccardo Scamarcio as an illegal immigrant who washes up on the shore of a luxury resort and is taken for one of its guests, managing to keep his cover by barely speaking a word. Although the film has yet to secure U.S. distribution, The A.V. Club caught up with Costa-Gavras during a visit to Philadelphia, where he received an artistic achievement award from the Philadelphia Cinema Alliance.
The A.V. Club: Did you initially see cinema as a tool for political change, or did you just love the art form?
Costa-Gavras: No, no. The idea at the beginning was to study literature and to try, originally, to write. That seemed like a childish dream. And then I discovered the cinema, when I was in France in the university. I decided to go to the cinema school because I thought it was a new sort of media. Today, it’s not anymore, but in the ’50s, cinema had a half century of age. Today it’s more than one century. So I thought it was a new media, a new way of telling stories. The bottom line is that we’re telling stories.
AVC: It was also a time when it was becoming much more possible to make films outside of a studio context. If you were making a movie in the 1930s, you’d usually have to get a job at Gaumont or Pathé.
CG: Yes, exactly. And particularly in France. There was a new law where you could have grants from the state for the movies, and then the audience was open, and also the distributors. Making movies was something. It was the major entertainment just to go to the cinema, once, twice a week. At the time, something like 400 million people went to the movies.
AVC: Did you watch a lot of movies?
CG: Yes, a lot. A lot. Absolutely. French cinemas used to show, at that time, something like two or three movies every day from all over the world. They’d have movies coming from Finland, with Russian subtitles, or China—that kind of picture. But it was extraordinary to see these movies without understanding what it was about, to try to reconstruct the story.
AVC: This was at the Cinémathèque Française, in the Henri Langlois era? There are stories of him projecting films in the stairwell when he ran out of screens.
CG: It was a major experience. In particular for me, because I was coming from a country, Greece, where after the civil war, there was a very tough, very conservative government, and a lot of censorship. So movies with a kind of… what you consider action movies. I know all the Randolph Scott movies.
AVC: Your first movie, The Sleeping Car Murders, is essentially apolitical, but there’s a template there that you drew on a lot in later films. The structure of the thriller seems to attract you. Obviously they’re exciting, and they draw the audience in, but in your case they often serve political purposes as well—that hunt for information, to find out who committed a crime. That works for you?
CG: I put something in the adaptation of the story. For example, he was doing these crimes to go to South Africa. South Africa at that time was very racist. The Sleeping Car Murders was done in a very curious way, because I was waiting to work with René Clément, and assist on another movie, so I bump into this book, and I say, “Okay, why don’t I do an adaptation?” Just as an exercise. I gave it to a lady to type it, she’s working with the studio, she said, “This is a good story,” and she gave it to the director of the studio. The director called me and said, “This is a good story, why are you not making the movie?” But it was at the end of the nouvelle vague, ’65. In the last two or three last years, the so-called nouvelle vague, they weren’t having big successes anymore. So immediately, we’re jumping to a new director with different stories. So the movie was done like this, like an exercise. It was also a way to get into the profession.
AVC: You’d been working as an assistant to René Clair, as well.
CG: René is nouvelle vague without being nouvelle vague. The real nouvelle vague, it starts with Chabrol. And then Truffaut, and Godard, and then that group of people. Because they are very close to Italian cinema, to Italian philosophy on the cinema.
AVC: What was your relationship to that movement, or those filmmakers?
CG: You know, I worked as an assistant. The assistants in France are not like they are here in the States. Assistants are much more close to the directors, and they have—still now, less now, at that time, they used to have a kind of very artistic task. They used to do the casting, scouting, and so forth. So I have worked with René Clair, who was coming from the silent period, and then with Jacques Demy, who was part of the nouvelle vague, so I have seen all the spectrum of the different ways of work in France. I was very close to them, especially since I worked with Agnès Varda as well.
AVC: Right. People like Demy and Varda and Chris Marker are interesting because they’re at the same time as the nouvelle vague, but their movies don’t really fit in.
CG: Jacques was nouvelle vague, a principal part of nouvelle vague. Agnès is not, because she started earlier. Chris either. Chris is like Alain Resnais, because he’s much older and so forth. But they are close. They are the same period. Chris did essentially documentary. Chris is a kind of different planet. Still is, by the way. He’s an extraordinary person.
AVC: He’s very secretive. Not many people know what he looks like.
CG: I know him very well.
AVC: Was he that secretive even back then?
CG: I had met him a couple of times by then, and then I met him better and later when I started having a relationship with Simone Signoret and Yves Montand, because he was part of that group also.
AVC: Right. Apart from Godard, that group was more political than most of the nouvelle vague.
CG: In a certain way, they were. It depends what you mean by political. I think that group was not really connected to the politics. A big influence on them was the surrealists. Do something different from what’s going on. And they were right. To break that kind of monotonous way of repeating things, repeating movies, the same great movies doing very well in the box office and so forth. That was the idea, and one who did, he went very deep with that idea, was Godard. Up until the end. Truffaut and the others got very quickly into the system.
AVC: A lot of surrealism comes out of repressive political climates—Luis Buñuel’s earliest movies, or people like Jan Svankmajer. We can still have great arguments about what “Un Chien Andalou” or L’Âge D’Or actually mean, but they’re clearly an attack on the norm.
CG: Certainly, you’re right. It’s a kind of political way of making movies, absolutely. But this also was helped with the new techniques, the technical changes. The [high-speed film] Tri-X, the small cameras. The Tri-X was essential, because they could shoot anywhere, everywhere, outside of the studio. Always, when you have new techniques, the aesthetics are changing. The conception changes and so forth.
AVC: Cinéma vérité would not have been possible without that sort of equipment.
CG: It would be very difficult. Very difficult, yes.
AVC: You’re talking about being political but not involved with the day-to-day.
CG: Yes, and it depends also… the idea of being political, what’s politics? If you speak English, you vote for whom, Bush or Obama? Or your behavior in everyday life. You use the small or the big power you have over others.
AVC: What you spend your money on.
CG: The money, how you treat people, you respect them, you don’t respect them. Politics, it’s behavior among us. Whether you respect others or not.
AVC: At the beginning of Z, you invert the standard movie disclaimer: Rather than saying any resemblance to real people is a coincidence, you say it’s deliberate. But you don’t use the real names. Why not?
CG: We’re saying to the audience, “Try to find yourself with your knowledge and your information.” The idea is to make the audience participate a little bit. It’s not a conversation with the audience. But instead of making just a speech and have them listening, try to see what’s there, where’s the country, what happens, who’s the guy?
AVC: Missing is different, in that you do name names.
CG: Yes, Missing at the beginning named names completely. Saying the name of everybody in the first script. And then when we start shooting, I have a report from the company saying, “Probably we should do different names.” Because the script went through the lawyers, the lawyers said, “God, we’re going to have all kind of…” Which we had, by the way.
AVC: You got sued?
CG: Yes, and we had to change. First, we changed to a name that was very close, with the same Christian name. And they say no, so we changed this too. We have to completely change everything. We just kept the functions. It was the idea to respect the book, but the movie had all the names. And then they said, “No, the book is one thing, and then the movie is different,” so for all the names. And also because it was an American story.
AVC: You made movies in English, if not Hollywood movies, from 1982 to 1997. How do you look back on that period now?
CG: After Z was shown in the United States, they asked me to make a lot of American movies—you know, the system they have, to sign a contract with several, four or five projects. So I refused, because I didn’t know the country, and also I didn’t have a story which could interest me. The first time I had a story which was very interesting to me, it was Missing. I sent the book. And even then, I told them that I would like to make that movie, but not all the book, just the 65, 70 last pages of the book, when the father finally goes to look for the son. They said, “Okay, let’s sign.” I said, “No, we won’t sign, because I don’t want to get into the Hollywood system. I’ll do an outline of 50 pages, and then if you like it, then we sign.” And it’s what I did, so they liked the outline. Because Hollywood’s a very difficult town to me. It can eat you completely.
AVC: Did you continue working that way through Mad City?
CG: Yes. Because then I asked them, “Okay, the post-production, I would like to do it in France, and the editing,” and so forth, just to keep some kind of distance, to have them on your back burner. Every Saturday, for example, the executives come to the editing room to see, “Show us what you have done during the week.” And then they start discussing, saying “Change this, will you change this?” It becomes a kind of crazy thing. Today, Hollywood is drastically different, I’m sure.
AVC: How did it change, in your experience?
CG: It’s changed completely. I was talking with the executive from Universal for Missing, he said, “You cannot do anymore anything like Missing.” He’s producing movies, you know, those movies about Egypt…
AVC: The Mummy?
CG: The Mummy. I said, “What are you doing?” He said, “The only thing I can do here.” So Hollywood changed completely. I don’t believe it. But if there is a story, when it can interest me, if it returns me to Hollywood, and I have the freedom I need to have, then I will do it.
AVC: Not only does Hollywood rarely make political movies, but they rarely make films that seem even vaguely connected to the real world.
CG: Yeah, but Hollywood did those movies before. Even in the ’20s, silent films. The ’30s, ’50s. We are nourished with those movies. The people who like to make movies, the Hollywood movement was very extraordinary. I remember when I saw a movie like Marty. You remember Marty? In the movie there were accidents. There were really producers and directors who were willing to make the popular movies then.
AVC: Is it easier to make the movies you want to make in Europe?
CG: Yeah, much easier. Much easier. Of course, you don’t have all the money you need, and if you go over budget, then you have to find the money, or you sell your house or something. [Laughs.] But you have much more freedom.
AVC: Since we’re sort of up to the present, where did the idea for Eden Is West come from?
CG: The idea came from… all the movies about the immigrants they have done everywhere, even here in Europe, all are very, very tragic movies. Dramas. Immigrants, they don’t bring only dramas, they are people like everybody. They live a dramatic life, but they are not, how we can say, people who bring dramas to our society. Let’s make a movie about the lightness, if I can say, of immigrants. The idea starts like this. So we started working with Jean-Claude Grumberg, and we made the movie with that idea. In France, one-third of the population is foreigners. So all these guys, they have a good life, and they participate in the life of the country. So I would like to show that the immigrant, it’s also that. Or it’s essentially that.
AVC: There are scenes in the movie that, if they were played a different way, could be extremely dark, like the way the residents of this resort organize themselves into a lynch mob with very little provocation.
CG: Because the movie is about him, it’s also about us. Probably more about us than about him, the way we behave with immigrants.
AVC: He’s deliberately a very silent character, and things happen around him.
CG: He wants to go someplace, and he tries to adapt himself every time in all the situations, bad or good. That’s the fate of an immigrant.
AVC: In some of the reviews, there seems to be a little difficulty accepting a movie like this coming from you, because people think of you making a certain kind of movie.
CG: That’s right. This is true. I never thought about that. I discovered that after it. Like for some comedians, you see them, you have to laugh. Before they start doing something, you start laughing. Just because they are there. So that’s a negative part of our relationship with the audience.
AVC: The positive part is just that it becomes easier to make movies? What do you like about that ongoing relationship?
CG: The idea is to create a kind of… people waiting for something. Especially now, the immigrant problem is very dramatic around the world. Because we don’t know what to do with them. They’re in economic crisis, and there are more and more. There will be more and more. We speak about globalization of economy, but it’s also globalization for immigration. Millions of people, they’re willing to have a better life. A better life, they cannot have it where they live, so they move.
Nobody speaks about the amount of French who are coming from outside. Of course, there are Jews from the period of the ’30s, and before, they have Polish people and Italians coming to work in the mines, and you have really a huge population which are not French.
AVC: You mentioned that group of filmmakers and actors in the early 1960s that you were involved with, and obviously your relationship with Yves Montand and Simone Signoret continued through the course of several films, and outside of them as well. What was important about that relationship to you?
CG: First, it was important because I was an immigrant, and someone coming from a small town to get into the most, I would say, the most hot group of people in Paris, was very important. Why? Because that was the place where they used to speak about cinema, about theater, about politics, about everything. And speaking does mean saying stupid things, speaking really seriously. Deepening the reflection in other people. That was important. And then the second part is because, in the same way, they helped to make my first movie. It was because Yves and Simone said, “Okay, we’ll play in your movies.” Just like this, like a joke. And they didn’t do it only with me, they did it with other young people also. It was kind of their way of being. That was very essential, yeah. And it was learning Paris, learning the life also.
AVC: You use them well. Yves Montand’s character is assassinated less than 15 minutes into Z, but his presence lingers, in part because he was such a big star at the time.
CG: Z, that’s right. Twelve minutes. The movie’s over two hours, and there’s 12 minutes with Yves in the picture. Yves accepted without knowing what the movie would be. Nobody knew what the movie would be. It was very important, because with his character’s qualities, he gave an extraordinary dimension to the character. And of course to the movie.
AVC: His performance in The Confession is very different from what he did in other films. There’s a real quality of weariness, as well as physical endurance.
CG: Because he, for years after the war, Yves and Simone were, without being in the Communist Party, they were close to that movement. They stayed to the left. And the Communist Party played also a kind of bizarre role. They said, everywhere, they were with us completely. But they cannot come out, both of them say, “No. We are with them for some purposes, but not for everything.” It was impossible at that time to speak that openly without it being a condemnation against the Communist Party. So they just accepted that, up until a certain moment.
At that period, it was something like one third of the French population. All the intellectuals were close to the Communist Party. Being inside or being outside, they were close. And of course, little by little, they started getting away. They started with Hungary, in Budapest, it became acceptable to go into towns, and to kill people.
AVC: And then the Prague Spring in 1968. Yes. So that movie was very controversial when it came out?
CG: It was extremely controversial. At that time, it was against all kinds of thinking in Europe, and in particular in France. They used to say, “Okay, there are problems, but it’s necessary to establish socialism or to try to save it.” And then out comes the movie, which was a kind of direct condemnation of the old system. Some people stopped talking to us anymore.
AVC: It’s reminiscent of Kafka in a certain way. Was that intentional?
CG: Yes. The idea was not to play the thriller. The idea is to, up until a certain moment, go with the thriller, “What’s going to happen to him?” and so forth, and then to break the thriller and say, “No. He’s alive.” And then we talk about the situation, why that happens. To have the audience caught by the story, and then be caught by the why. So they have to kill this thriller at the very beginning.
AVC: It’s a shame that neither The Confession nor State Of Siege is on DVD.
CG: Yes, it is hard to find, I know. The rights used to belong to the group of Cinema Five. And now they have them back, so the people who did Z, they’re preparing also the DVD of State Of Siege.
AVC: That makes sense.
CG: But there too, people say I’m using the thriller all the time, but at the very beginning, we start the movie with the American being killed, we see his burial, we see the ceremony. And then we tell the story. The idea was not to play with that idea, he will be killed or he won’t be killed. It was to follow the story a different way.
AVC: Start with the ending.
CG: Yes. He’s dead. But who is he, and what he is doing?
AVC: There is a tricky balance there, in the sense that the thriller as a genre, as a mechanism, is very powerful. But it’s also so powerful that it can overpower whatever else the movie might want to do.
CG: What you’re trying to say. Absolutely. That’s the problem with the thriller, because the audience is taken so much by the most superficial part of the story, and then you don’t remember what the story is about.
AVC: Z has a similar structure, in that he’s killed 20 minutes into the movie, and it’s really about the repercussions of that event, rather than how it happened or what led up to it.
CG: He’s killed, but the idea of Z is to show the system who tries to hide the truthfulness and the assassins. And how one man, with a lot of risks, decides to go all the way down. The idea of resisting.
AVC: One of the interesting things about the movie is that the assassins are strangely charismatic.
CG: Yes. Marcel Bozzuffi and Renato Salvatori, and two very good actors. I remember a movie about Fidel Castro. Who was playing Fidel Castro? Jack Palance. Can you imagine? Because we need to show that it’s a bad guy. No, the bad guy is not because of the bad face. It’s because he is doing something bad. Bad guy can be any one of us. To go a little bit against that system, which some people call Hollywood system, but it’s not only Hollywood’s system, it’s everybody’s system. You have a bad guy, everything’s bad. His son is bad, his wife is bad, his dog. Everything is bad.
AVC: And not only is that bad storytelling and just plain boring, but there’s something insidious about it as well, in that it encourages people to think, “Well, he doesn’t kick his dogs or beat his wife, so he must be a good guy.”
CG: Which is the contrary. How many times you hear people say, we learn that he raped a small girl and so forth, a small boy, and the neighbors say, “No, he was a good guy. Every day, he was saying ‘Good morning’ to us. We have good chats.” Of course, it’s not the face. It’s the brains.
AVC: What are you working on next?
CG: I’m trying to see if I can speak about our society today, but I cannot speak about the theme, because it’s a bit difficult. I’m just starting to work on that. Because we live in a kind of world which has drastically changed in the last years. We speak about globalization, and how it’s become the reason for everything. It has a kind of deep meaning. To be everywhere and to be nowhere at the same time. You think to globalize, you think, the Earth, it’s your country. No, it’s not your country. It’s not easy to catch it in a cinema. It’s too huge.