Jean Renoir on how the Grand Illusion came about

2015/11/25 § Leave a comment

Taken from a seminar conducted on April 14, 1970, at the American Film Institute. This interview with the legendary French director, Jean Renoir, explored–among other things–the origin of one of his most cherished films (and one of the best of all time), Grand Illusion.


How did Grande illusion come about?

I was shooting Toni in the south of France. It was a film I made almost entirely on location. Nearby was a big military airfield. Everyone there could see I was shooting a picture–there were reflectors, cameras, trucks.  The planes were above my head the whole day long, and I couldn’t record any sound. I decided to pay a visit to the commanding officer of this base, and was confronted by a man with more medals than you could wear. He was a good friend of mine. In fact, during the First War he saved my life several times. He was a fighter in a squadron of fighting planes and I was a photographer. That’s the way I became interested in movies–by taking photographs from above. Planes carrying cameras were not very fast and we thought that every time we were confronted by a German fighter, that was the end of us. Several times this man arrived with his little sqaud and tak-tak-tak–the Germans were happy to run away. At the time he was just a noncom, but he became a general. General Pensal was his name. He was shot down by the Germans seven times. He escaped seven times and he went back to his squadron seven times.

We were happy to meet up with each other again, and in the evening took the habit of having dinner together. He told me the story of how he escaped from German jails, and I thought it would make a good suspense story. I asked his permission to use a few of the stories he had told me, and then wrote a screenplay, convinced I had written a very banal escape story. I thought it was very commercial and that I would be able to find financing very easily. That’s what I thought. For three years, my dear friends, I visited every office on the Champs-Elysées, in Rome and everywhere else. Everywhere I had the same answer: “No girls in your picture. We’re not interested.” Finally I met a man who was a–well, I don’t want to insult people, but I don’t know of any other word but crook. He was a brilliant, successful crook. That was his profession. He told me, “Jean, I believe in your picture.” I said, “You are not in the film business, but people in the business don’t believe in it.” “That doesn’t matter. How much do you want?” He gave me two million francs, and I shot the picture, and it was successful.1

1 George Stevens, Jr., Conversations With The Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the American Film Institute (New York: Knopf, 2006), 617-8.


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