Pierre Rissient is a jack-of-all-movie-trades who’s forgotten more about pictures than most people ever learn. He’s done everything: worked on films (as the assistant director to Jean-Luc Godard on Breathless), distributed and publicized them (in France, in the 1960s, where he was instrumental in re-establishing the international reputations of such forgotten filmmakers as Joseph Losey and Otto Preminger), and even directed a couple of his own. He has been a consultant to some of the world’s leading film festivals, including Cannes, which screened films by Sydney Pollack, Jane Campion and Hou Hsiao-Hsien (to name but three) on Pierre’s recommendation. Above all, he has been a tireless champion of the films and filmmakers he believes in, whether that means offering advice in the editing room, masterminding a distribution strategy or some combination of the above. Indeed, Pierre’s true contributions to a movie can rarely be summed up in a single credit.
It feels like I’ve always known Pierre. I first heard about him in the ’60s, in New York, when I was hanging out with the critics Andrew Sarris and Eugene Archer at the old New Yorker theatre, and we met a short time later, not long after I had moved out to L.A. to get into pictures. We had a lot of directors in common, because he knew John Ford and Howard Hawks and Fritz Lang, and we would discuss our shared memories of those sacred monsters. Pierre’s knowledge of cinema history and his passion for all manner of movie arcana was then, as it remains now, inexhaustible. In the many decades since, our paths have crossed often, most recently in the form of Variety film critic Todd McCarthy’s terrific documentary Pierre Rissient: Man of Cinema, which accomplishes the long-overdue task of hauling Pierre out of the shadows and into the spotlight.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: What gave you the idea to make this film about Pierre?
TODD McCARTHY: I’ve known Pierre for about 35 years and finally came to the conclusion that he was never going to sit down and write his memoir. I just decided this was the only way to get on record the great stories and fantastic opinions and information that he’s got about all things cinematic. At first, I thought I was just doing it for the record, but I pretty quickly decided it would be a good idea to make a film. Over a period of about three years, whenever we were in the same place — be it Los Angeles or Telluride or Paris or Cannes — I’d get Pierre to sit down and talk for as long as he could.
Did you get him to tell you stories about Ford and Hawks?
I had about over 20 hours of material with Pierre talking about all sorts of things, about the cine-club days back in Paris in the early ’50s, about meeting Rivette, Godard, Truffaut and Chabrol. And then in the ’60s, going to Hollywood and meeting Raoul Walsh and Ford and Hawks and inviting them all to Paris. And on through his career, as the power behind the throne in Cannes, discovering directors and bringing Asian cinema to the West.
You interviewed other people as well.
Yes. I interviewed upward of 30 people in Pierre’s orbit. [Film director] Bertrand Tavernier, [Positif film critic] Michel Ciment and the Cannes Film Festival people, Gilles Jacob and Thierry Fremaux. It was a real coup to get Abbas Kiarostami to be in the film — Pierre was responsible for bringing him to Cannes. And Claude Chabrol — Pierre was the assistant director on Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins. Chabrol agreed to do the interview on three conditions. One: the interview be conducted in the best French restaurant in Brittany, where he lives. Two: It would last for three hours. And three: We would consume several bottles of wine in the process. So, I agreed to the conditions, and he was wonderful. The only person who would not see me was Godard.
You got most of the important people, then.
Yes, including Jane Campion, who Pierre discovered when she was a film student in Sydney. I couldn’t go to Australia to see her, but she was at Cannes last year, so I met her there. And Edward Yang, who tragically died a couple of months ago. He was in Cannes two years ago, and I interviewed him then. And on and on. Some people who I couldn’t get to, like John Boorman, agreed to film themselves talking about Pierre, and that was good enough.
What was Pierre like to work with?
Well, he can have a real temper and felt the need to control or dictate a lot of things. But in this case he was a pussycat, the way Otto Preminger was a pussycat as an actor but hardly that as a director. I compare Pierre to that. He didn’t insist on anything. He didn’t say who should be on the film. He didn’t even want to see any of the film before it was done.
Who financed this for you?
It was all me. I just bought a Sony HD camera, which was wonderful. And I toted it around wherever I went.
Will it be distributed?
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Ultimately, I think, the great version of this film will be on DVD, because we can have the film itself, but in addition to that, we can have however many hours we want of interviews with Pierre about many other things that we couldn’t fit into the film, as well as extended interviews with everyone else. Pierre, for instance, presided over the opening of Carl Dreyer’s Gertrude in Paris in the early ’60s. We have clips from that, where Dreyer is meeting Godard and Anna Karina and Truffaut and so on, and we have other footage like that from the time, which is great. He’s led a very rich cinematic life.
AFI Fest will screen Pierre Rissient: Man of Cinema on Fri., Nov. 9, 6:30 p.m., and Sat., Nov. 10, 4:15 p.m.
Peter Bogdanovich is the Oscar-nominated director of The Last Picture Show and the new documentary Running Down a Dream: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and the author of the books Who the Devil Made It and Who the Hell’s ?in It.
Special thanks to Jason Silverman for his transcription assistance.