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Meanness is universal, says writer/director Francis Veber, talking to ANDREW L. URBAN from the seclusion of his West Hollywood home, where he is adapting his hilarious, The Dinner Game, for Spielberg/Katzenberg/Giffen's Dreamworks (possibly to star Roberto Benigni), as the film opens in Australia.

"People think Hollywood is all parties and cocaine around the swimming pool," says writer/director Francis Veber, sitting in his Los Angeles home in the hills above the famed Dome restaurant in West Hollywood. "But I don't know that Hollywood…the Hollywood I know is quiet bike rides around the hills here and writing….It's quiet here," says the Paris-born author of La Cage aux Folles (remade in Hollywood as The Birdcage) and the hilarious The Dinner Game, amongst other things.

"they're crazy here"

Los Angeles quiet!? "Well, yes, when I'm in Paris," where he spends half his time, "people keep ringing me, and besides, Paris is so . . . agitated… it's such a distracting, tempting place," he says with a laugh. "People here in Los Angeles go to bed early - they have to because they get up early to go to the gym….they're crazy here," says the Frenchman, whose culture relishes a full bodied love of life.

Veber, in agile English, explains how he came to have a Los Angeles home: "When Jeffrey Katzenberg was running Disney, he hired me as a script consultant and I did that for six years." Now, he is completing a new screenplay, The Closet (more on that later) and facing the challenge of re-writing The Dinner Game for Dreamworks, to be made into an English language comedy - possibly starring Roberto Benigni.

It's a challenge.

"That's the only reason I'm doing it," he says. "If it doesn't work, I won't do it; I'll go back to Paris and shoot The Closet." At least The Closet is already cast: THIERRY LHERMITTE (star of The Dinner Game), with Gerard Depardieu and Daniel Auteuil, who plays Francois Pignon.

"All my heroes are called Francois Pignon,"

"All my heroes are called Francois Pignon," Veber explains; in The Dinner Game, Pignon is played by Jacques Villeret, and he's a jerk. So is Auteuil's character in The Closet. He plays a 50 year old divorcee with a 15 year old son who ignores him. Everyone ignores him. He's a nobody, an accountant in a large condom manufacturing company. He is about to be fired when his neighbour, an unlikely psychiatrist, advises him to let the company think he's coming out of the closet as gay; it will make them think again. Pignon has to do nothing at all - behave as he always has. Let perceptions do the work.

"I've not told anyone else about this," Veber reveals. "When you've just finished writing a script, it's very difficult to squeeze it into a short synopsis. It's much richer than it appears, and because it's a comedy, I can say lots of things about society….and it's easier with humour."

He should know: in The Dinner Game, Veber uses humour to distill comedy out of human meanness. The Closet also explores man's meanness to man, from a very different perspective. His heroes, his Pignons, are all jerks, as he calls them. They are little people, ordinary and unremarkable, we pass them in the street each day. But they are not without humanity and merit. They often act as a mirror to the rest of society, where things worse than dullness are revealed.

Originally a play, The Dinner Game's meticulous and inspired production design and sets created a broader world, with the Eifel Tower glimpsed through the window. Through any window, in fact, because it was on wheels. This one was a 5.5 ton beast specially built for the studio shoot, so Veber could move it wherever he wanted. "My designer is a genius . . . Hugues Tissandier went to extraordinary trouble to make it all authentic. He even built little lifts into the Tower, and put tiny Japanese tourists in them, even though you can't really see them!"

"I'm too old to be a dreamer"

Adapting The Dinner Game for a Hollywood studio is fraught with dangers, but Veber is both experienced (thanks Disney) and prepared. "I think I'll have very little control," he laughs. "I know the Americans. They all think they all know everything. But I don't need to do it, so…" I can hear him shrug on the phone. "I'm too old to be a dreamer; I know it'll be a tough fight."

The challenge is to make it as culturally specific for Anglo Saxon audiences, as The Dinner Game is to the French. "Yes, that's the challenge, because this is very important, especially in comedy. There was an Italian film - Divorce Italian Style, about a man trying to divorce his wife. Now, in Italy, divorce is very difficult…there's the Vatican on your doorstep and strong religious codes in society. So he spends the film trying to kill his wife as a way of getting rid of her. Now this was a huge hit - and it was a huge hit in France, too, where you can get a divorce just like that. It was a hit because it was an Italian setting."

In America, says Veber, the meanness that drives the concept of The Dinner Game is replicated on college campuses, in what is referred to as the Dark Side, where students invite ugly girls - without explaining why - to a function, for the same express purpose of ridiculing them. That's The Dinner Game's premise, but swap girl for dupe.

"It's best if we can laugh with the idiots"

"Meanness is universal," says Veber. "Every country has its idiots . . and every village a village idiot, who is a bit of a star as a result." But as Veber cleverly knows, it's best if we can laugh with the idiots.

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Francis Veber


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