Many American filmgoers still aren’t familiar with Francis Veber. Yet they should be — they’ve been watching his work for two decades. Sort of.
“The Birdcage,” “The Man with One Red Shoe,” “The Toy,” “Quick Change” are all Hollywood adaptations of works Veber wrote and directed in France, where he is regarded as a master of broad comedy. Francophone originals such as “La Cage Aux Folles” (which he co-scripted) and “Les Comperes” and “La Chevre” (disastrously recreated here as “Father’s Day” and “Pure Luck,” respectively) were huge in France. His “A Pain in the A” even caught the eye of Billy Wilder, who enlisted Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau for his version, “Buddy Buddy.”
So where did Veber, 62, get this transcultural appeal that has made him such a hot commodity on two continents? The veteran writer-director credits his Jewish upbringing.
“We are very universal, you know,” Veber says of his family, “because my mother was Russian and my father came from the east of France. The family of my grandmother on my father’s side [immigrated to France] from Spain in the 16th century.”
Veber himself was born and bred in Paris, the setting of his latest buddy comedy, “The Dinner Game.”
Last year, “Dinner Game” (“Le Diner de Cons” — loosely translated: “Dinner of Idiots”) was the second-highest-grossing film in France (after “Titanic”). The title refers to a mean-spirited high-society game that Veber heard about, in which affluent snobs challenge each other to find the most dimwitted dinner guests to exploit for cheap laughs. In the movie — a comedy of errors based on Veber’s own play — Thierry Lhermitte plays Brochant, an arrogant, upper-crust Parisian who invites moron Pignon (Jacques Villeret’s character) to the exclusive meal. Just before the dinner, Brochant throws his back out, and then his wife leaves him. Stuck at home, Brochant becomes completely dependent on Pignon. Veber piles on the slapstick as Villeret’s imbecile, with the best of intentions, only exacerbates Brochant’s situation, especially when attempting to smooth things over with Brochant’s wife.
“Dinner Game” garnered three Cesars (French Oscars), including one for writer-director Veber’s screenplay. The greatest irony about the comedy is that this quintessential French farce was actually written in the Hollywood Hills.
Veber has lived here for 15 years, ever since attending a Cannes film festival when an enthusiastic fan convinced him to relocate to Hollywood. That fan was then-Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg.
“He said to me, ‘You should come to America and write for us,'” says Veber. “And I told him, ‘Well, I have nothing so far in mind,’ and he said, ‘You could be a consultant at Disney…and if you find an idea, we will be happy to produce it.'”
Once in Hollywood, Veber sold Katzenberg on “Three Fugitives,” even though the French version was already being made abroad by French production giant Gaumont. Veber loves “Birdcage,” but his enthusiasm dips when discussing other remakes of his work. He believes that botched reworkings such as “Father’s Day” are the product of studio insecurity.
“When you have so many writers on a script,” says Veber, “it always becomes a first draft…. It’s a bit sad because you have very, very good writers here, but they have to work alone.”
Don’t even mention the 1990 misfire “Out on a Limb,” his American directorial debut that Veber himself has dubbed “the most horrible film ever done.” The filmmaker says he only has himself to blame for that one.
“I was lazy for the first time. I didn’t write my own screenplay…my head was swelling,” Veber says, laughing. “The guy who was running the studio, Tom Pollock, told me, ‘You are the best!’ I believed [the hype] and [after it flopped]…I didn’t receive any screenplays.”
So Veber retreated into the arms of his old mistress — writing plays “Diner de Cons” became a Parisian smash, playing sold-out performances until its three-year run ended.
Veber is not through with “Dinner Game” just yet. DreamWorks is readying an American remake, which Andy Borowitz (“Fresh Prince of Bel Air”) is adapting.
“If I like it, I will try to direct it,” says Veber, “because it is very fragile. I have no special effects, no sex, no violence, no car chase…. It’s like a Swiss watch — it has to be precise.”
While Veber has endured some flak from France’s film community for his big Hollywood leap, the comedy master says that they “can not complain…because I did something like 27 films in France [as a writer or writer-director] and…none of them lost money.”
“I very often compare screenwriting or filming to boxing, you know,” says Veber. “When you are an European boxer, if you really want recognition, you have to fight here [in the States]…. And I think that to have as a challenge to write and direct a good American comedy, you know, is for a little Frenchman something that is a dream.”
“The Dinner Game” is currently playing in limited release throughout Los Angeles.