My Dinner with Andre
In the dinner conversation that comprises the film, an avant-garde theater director searching for meaning (Andre Gregory) relates tales of his romantic life adventures to his more pragmatic playwright friend (Wallace Shawn), who has difficulty getting a word in edgewise. In real life, Gregory and Shawn were -- and still are -- a director and a playwright (Shawn is also known as an actor), and therefore it's often been thought that in My Dinner With Andre these men are simply playing themselves. But Shawn has said that while the film is based on truth, it's more fiction than reality: "Andre is giving a conscious performance as a self-involved whimsical dilettante, and I'm giving a conscious performance as a terribly obtuse and self-righteous bourgeois."
Shawn recounted that he and Gregory hatched the idea for My Dinner With Andre in November 1978 as "just a thought, a film which would be all conversation." Over many months they discussed what form it would take and recorded hours upon hours of themselves taking about the subject matter. The resulting transcript was thousands of pages long. Shawn then spent a year whittling it into a 180-page script. They showed it to French director Louis Malle, who previously had been uninterested in the idea, but now he was highly interested. The script was cut down further, and a budget of $475,000 was raised with great difficulty -- in bits and pieces from investors and bank loans.
Malle was attracted to the challenge of finding the nuances in a conversation between two people that he could highlight cinematically, and also in making the talk feel real and off the cuff. "The point was to give the impression that it was completely improvised," Malle said. "I think it works. A lot of people believe we shot it with two cameras in one afternoon. But you know, there was not a comma that was not discussed for hours, especially with Wally, who is touchy about his writing."
Gregory and Shawn rehearsed for six months, culminating with ten performances before live audiences at London's Royal Court theater, which proved to be invaluable de facto final rehearsals for the film. In the end, the actors knew every line, every pause, every "um." There is not one ounce of ad-libbing in the film, even though the characters look totally at ease and seem as if they're coming up with all their words off the tops of their heads.
Filming took place in the ballroom of a bankrupt hotel in Richmond, Virginia, one winter. There was no heat available in the hotel, so the actors wore electric blankets to keep warm. Shooting lasted 12 grueling hours a day for 16 days, with one camera shooting the entire film out of sequence, to maximize efficiency from each particular angle. Malle often ordered many takes for each ten-minute shot. He had experimented with camera moves during rehearsals, but ultimately decided to keep his camera on the actors' faces both because tracking shots would have interfered with the editing and because he did not want to draw any attention to the camera. Malle later said, "It was the hardest piece of directing ... and, outside the documentaries, the most elaborate job of editing ... I've ever done.
"My job was to emphasize that it was not so much what they were saying, but the way they were saying it; to bring out that sometimes they were not quite sincere or they were not quite telling the truth, or they were reinventing their memories. Through the reaction shots I could emphasize that. Something was happening on their faces, beyond the words."
Malle came to realize that subtle shifts in camera position could bring out certain emotions or audience responses more effectively, based on the particular emotion at play. Upon viewing the first five days of rushes, he said, "it became clearer to me that in shooting Andre, for him to come off as funny or pompous, a certain angle was the best, and for him to be moving, the camera should be higher." Malle reshot the footage with his new approach and applied it to the rest of the shoot.
Gregory remembered one particularly simple yet effective piece of direction from Malle: "Speak faster." This made Gregory realize that he "was trying to act too much. What I was doing was studied and artificial. The minute I started to talk really fast, I became a character, which I hadn't been before; I didn't have time to think about what I was doing."
Shawn also found Malle to be highly perceptive: "I felt if I showed irritation and annoyance it would be very exaggerated and unreal -- fake. [Malle] said: 'No, you're doing it all wrong. You've got to let more of those things out, and it's not going to look fake.' I suppose I believed the cliche that in film less is more, but it's not always true. Sometimes something broader comes across very well on film, and you have to be very sophisticated in film to know how to judge those things. Of course, he was absolutely right. After a while, I realized he was sort of always right, and I didn't question anything."
Shawn added, "He took an incredibly hedonistic pleasure in film making. He loved the process."
My Dinner With Andre almost closed after six weeks of lackluster box-office in New York, but Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel gave the film a rave review, and word of mouth picked up. Six months later, it was still playing in New York and still opening around the country.
By Jeremy Arnold
Chris Chase, "At the Movies: Films That Don't Move, But Do Work," The New York Times, 11/6/81
Philip French, Malle on Malle
William Grimes, "Our Dinner With Louis," The New York Times, 12/31/95
Fred Kaplan, "Let's Put on a Show...Someday," The New York Times, 7/3/13