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Francis Veber Discusses "Le Dîner de Cons."

Terry Gross's interview with French screenwriter and director Francis Veber. He's best known for his farcical french comedies "La Cage Aux Folles" and "The Tall Blonde with One Black Shoe" (which he collaborated on with the director). His latest comedy, "The Dinner Game," was a hit last year in France and is now in the U.S. This year VEBER was honored with a career tribute at the Cannes Film Festival.




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Other segments from the episode on August 5, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 5, 1999: Interview with Francis Veber; Interview with Henru Behar; Interview with Andrew Smith.


Date: AUGUST 05, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 080501np.217
Head: Interview with French Screenwriter/director Francis Verber
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

MARTY MOSS-COANE, HOST: From WHYY in Philadelphia, this is FRESH AIR.

I'm Marty Moss-Coane, filling in for Terry Gross. On Today's FRESH AIR, movies and popcorn. First the man behind the new French Farce, "The Dinner Game." We meet screenwriter and director French film director Francis Veber. He also wrote the screenplay for the film "La Cage Aux Folles."

Then the art and craft of film sub-titling. We talk with Henri Behar. He's translated hundreds of French and English-speaking films, but he says if he's doing his job right, you shouldn't really notice his work. And how popcorn made it to the movies. We talk with Andrew Smith. He's written a new history of popcorn in America.

That's all coming up on today's FRESH AIR.

First the news.



I'm Marty Moss Coane, in for Terry Gross.

"The Dinner Game" is the latest film from French director Francis Veber. Veber is a prolific creator of comedies and has worked on both sides of the Atlantic. Several of his films have been the basis for Hollywood remakes, including "La Cage Aux Folles," which was adapted into "The Birdcage." He also collaborated on "The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe." In America, he directed the film "Three Fugitives," which was a Hollywood remake of his French film "Les Fugitives."

"The Dinner Game" was a play before Veber turned it into a film. We invited him to tell us about it. He spoke with Terry Gross.


TERRY GROSS: Francis Veber, welcome to FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Describe the "idiot dinner" that your movie is based on.

VEBER: Well, it's a real game that was performed in Paris and is maybe still performed, you know? It is a rich, sophisticated people who are setting up dinners where everyone has to bring the biggest jerk they knew, you know? And obviously, the jerks didn't know they were participating to that game. And they had to talk, you know, during the dinner, and at the end, had an award -- in their back, obviously. You know, they didn't know that, either. And it was a very cruel game, and that's why I decided to write and direct this movie to punish one of those guys who was setting up those dinners, you know?

GROSS: Now, do you have any friends who ever participated in this game, either as one of the condescending people or as one of the idiots?

VEBER: I know some of them as condescending people, you know? I didn't meet the idiots, really, but I know some of them. Yeah, sure. You know, they were meeting in a club, a very exclusive club in Paris called Castel (ph). And those guys were publicists, you know, or sometimes working in movie business, you know, or -- they were, you know, in this area in the industry. So they were not very sympathetic, you know?

GROSS: Most of your films have been re-made in America. Are there plans for re-making "The Dinner Game"?

VEBER: Well, Steven Spielberg likes the idea, and Dreamworks has bought the rights to the French company, you know, Gourmand (ph), who produced the film. So it could be a re-make, you know, but it depends on the adaptation, all the work, you know, to make a film, you see?

GROSS: I think the premise of American re-makes is that only a certain small segment of the population will see a movie with subtitles. Therefore, if you want a lot of Americans to see a movie, you've got to re-make it in English with American actors. Do you agree with that premise?

VEBER: Yeah, sure. It's the main problem, you know, because a movie has to be seen. And obviously, America is a huge country for a movie, you know? But we can't get in it because of the subtitles. Americans don't like dubbed versions or subtitled versions, you know, so there is there a handicap we can't pass over, you know? So we have to re-make -- we have to accept the re-make, you know, to have our films seen here in America.

GROSS: Now, most of your films have had American re-makes, but with the exception of "The Birdcage," a remake of your "La Cage Aux Folles," I think most of the American re-makes have flopped, including, you know, "The Toy," "Three Fugitives," "Buddy Buddy," "The Man With One Red Shoe."

VEBER: Well, "Three Fugitives" was a hit, you know?

GROSS: Was it a hit?

VEBER: Yes, it is.

GROSS: Good.

VEBER: It was. I direct it myself -- directed it myself, and I remember the budget was $16 million, and we did more than $40 million gross, you see? So it was considered by Disney Studio like a very fair hit. It was good.

GROSS: So the re-make -- the American adaptation that you made did better than the others. What goes wrong in some of the American re-makes?

VEBER: Well, there are possible explanations, you know? When a producer buys a film -- let's say an Italian or a French film -- he buys it because he likes it. And then he sees it 10 times, 20 times, with the writers that are involved in the adaptation, you know, and the jokes and all that stuff start to be less fresh for him. And let's say that the American writer brings fresher jokes, and trouble starts because they don't know exactly why they bought the original, you know, and they start mixing up things that sometimes don't go well together. It's exactly as if you were putting on some goose liver, you know, some chantilly cream, you see? It's very rich, but it's not very good.

So one of the good adaptation I have seen is "Birdcage." And I met Ellen May (ph), the writer, in New York, and she's a smart, talented woman, you know? And she said, "I try to stay as close as possible to the French film," you see? So she didn't try to bring too much in the movie. And for reasons, like could be wanting credits, you know, or I don't know what, you see, very often, you know, the originals start to be so much transformed that it's -- it's no more what the producer loved when he bought the film.

GROSS: Have you ever gone to a director or screenwriter who adapted one of your movies and said, "I don't get it. Why did you make this decision?"

VEBER: Yeah, sure. And the ultimate argument is because it's American, and I can't argue at that time, you know?

GROSS: That's right!

VEBER: You see, I'll give you an example. The difference between French and American, the most obvious one, is that the major -- the capital sin here for a man is to be a wimp, you know? I learned that word. And men are not allowed to be wimps.

GROSS: You're talking about in the United States?

VEBER: The United States, yes. In France, you are allowed to be a wimp. You are allowed to be what we call an "anti-hero." It means that a man is allowed to cry, to be weak, you know? Here, if the guy does that, he has to have an arc, as they say in the studios, you know, and become Rambo at the end, you see? But an actor like Marcello Mastroianni would have never existed in America because he was just a weak man in his films. He could have cried in front of a woman, you know? He was a wimp very often, and this is not allowed here, you know?

GROSS: So did that mean that you had one of your movies changed because one of the characters was considered too wimpy?

VEBER: Sure. Sure.

GROSS: What's an example?

VEBER: Very often. Well, for instance, you know, I had a film called "Partners." I was only the screenwriter of this film. And there was a moment where this guy who was very much in love committed suicide. Well, obviously, he didn't die. But the producer told me, "No, we can't do that." I said "Why?" "Because he's a wimp." I said, "He's a wimp, but he's very sad. He's in love, you know?" "Yes, but he can't do that." And then, you know, the secretary who was typing the script said, "Oh, no. You can't do that." I understood that I was really in trouble, you know? And I was obliged to cut that out, finished.

GROSS: Oh, really?


GROSS: Now, it strikes me that comedy is probably, I think, the most difficult thing to translate from one language to another because, you know, word play isn't going to work the same way in the translation. And also, like, if -- if, say, English is your second language and you don't think in English as much as have to translate your thought into English -- it's hard to write comedy unless you're thinking in that language. So is it hard for you when you're working on a film in America to do an English comedy?

VEBER: Well, I -- you know what I prefer in a comedy is what we call "situations," you know? And the situations are universal. For instance, the idiot game, you know, the dinner game is universal because I heard that you have here in fraternities, you know, a very cruel game where boys are inviting the ugliest girl, you know? It's called, I think, "dog fights"...

GROSS: That's right.

VEBER: ... or something like that, you see? So this cruelty exists everywhere in the world. It is for idiots in France and for ugly girls in America. So situations can be universal, you know, and it's the way you treat them that is interesting.

GROSS: How did "La Cage Aux Folles" end up getting adapted into "The Birdcage"? Were you in on that at all?

VEBER: No, not at all, no, because "The Birdcage" was first a stage play in Paris, eh? And I wrote the adaptation with the original writer, the stage writer.

And by the way, it was very funny because we rented an apartment, you know, because I had my two kids that were young and very noisy, so I couldn't work in my house. So we rented a little apartment in modern building, you know? And I was writing, and the guy was an actor. The stage writer was performing. And people are, you know, because the walls were very thin, were hearing things like, "Ooh! Ooh! Loose (ph) (INAUDIBLE) " And they said, "Oh!" When we were getting out, said, "This is the gay guys on the third floor," you know?

GROSS: I wonder what you thought of the American musical with the score by Jerry Herman. I assume you've seen it.

VEBER: Yes. I liked it.

GROSS: What'd you think of a song like "I Am What I Am," which is, you know, kind of, like, an anthem of self-esteem, which seems much more serious in tone than "La Cage Aux Folles" was?

VEBER: I think it's the difference between American and French, you know? French were very light on the subject, you know? And it's why it was not offending at all for anybody, you see, and because I remember the critics -- the reviews were "like a spicy French pastry," you know, talking about "The Birdcage." So Americans want to be sometimes more -- you say "significant," you know, more serious, you know? And it's -- the song you're talking about is a sign of that.


MOSS-COANE: That's French director Francis Veber talking with Terry Gross. His new film is "The Dinner Game." More after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


MOSS-COANE: Let's get back to Terry's interview with Francis Veber, the French director.


GROSS: What do you think the French -- the state of the French film industry is now? And what I'm thinking is, you know, in the '60s, the French film industry was famous for breaking rules and trying new things, the French "New Wave," Truffaut, Godard, Louis Malle. And then afterwards, French movies became better known for their light comedies or historical dramas, both a real switch from that sense of experimentation of the French New Wave.

VEBER: I think that the French New Wave had children that are very boring. I'm not -- I'm not afraid by historical films or comedies. I am afraid by those intellectual movies that are so slow-paced, you know, and so self-indulgent that are getting in the festivals, you know? And you have people thinking that because it's boring, it's interesting, you know? And I think that we are committing suicide, sending those films around the world. We -- you know people need to have fun a little bit, you see? A friend of mine said something very funny, you know? He said, "Those French comedies that are so boring are, in fact, made by American studios who want to destroy the French cinema," you know?

GROSS: What are some of the films that you consider the offspring of the French New Wave that you find pretentious and dull?

VEBER: I can't make so many enemies in one shot, you know?

GROSS: Right. Oh, I don't blame you!

VEBER: What I can tell you is that two thirds of the films that are sent in festivals and things like that that are made by French people are nightmares for an ordinary viewer, you know? It's nightmarish because it's so boring.

You know, we have a system in France to produce a movie that is very dangerous because people are assisted, you know? That means that they have money from the government. You know, they have money from everywhere. And the result of the movie is not that important. In America, if you don't make money with a film, well, it's a disaster. In France, no. No. So you have people that are not writing for the audience. They are writing to please themselves or to please the reviewers, you know?

And this is the reason why, very often, we can't compete with your movies who are going all around the world because they are just bringing entertainment to people, you know? So what I'm saying is not that you should refuse every intellectual movie. Some of them are wonderful, you know? But when they are bad, it's two hours of your time that are really killed, you know?

GROSS: I appreciate what you're saying about the offspring of the French New Wave, but did the French New Wave have an impact on you when you were watching those films for the first time?

VEBER: Yes, the way of acting was very interesting because we are coming out -- people who were stage actors, you know, and were not at all that natural, you know, the way their -- the way Godard and Malle and Truffaut directed the actors was very new. What I'm more skeptical about is the story they were telling, you know, because I love Malle. Louis Malle did very interesting stories, you know? I liked Truffaut, but the other guys, you know, are sometimes more suspicious to me, you see, because their stories were not that interesting.

GROSS: What were some of the American films that helped shape your sensibility when you were coming of age?

VEBER: I told you the great American comedies, you know? I -- I rave about them, you know? I think it's so good to see what Preston Sturges did, you know, the way those writers were writing. And someone gave me an explanation to this quality, you know? He said that those writers in the old times were coming from Broadway. They were stage writers first. Now the writers are TV writers, and it's very different, you know, because TV writers know how to write a punchline, and stage writers at that time were knowing how to build, to structure a situation, you know? And this is amazing. I remember scenes, you know? For instance, in "Some Like It Hot," when Tony Curtis is with Marilyn Monroe, he wants to make love to her, but he doesn't know how to do it because he knows that she will refuse, turn him up -- turn him out, so he -- off. So he says to her that he is impotent, if you remember well.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

VEBER: And suddenly, she's no more a woman, she is a doctor. And she's so touched by the problem of this guy that she will end up sleeping with him. This is great screenwriting, you know, because the scene is sincere. It looks sincere. And it is so funny, you see? And I have the feeling that this craftsmanship has a bit disappeared everywhere in the world because it was a lot of work, you know? I know that Diamond (ph) and Wilder -- Diamond was his writer, you know -- were spending hours, you know, to try to find that kind of scene.

GROSS: There was a period in French cinema when it seemed as if the government has passed a rule saying that every movie had to star Gerard Depardieu. Now, maybe it was just the films that were coming to America. I know you've worked with him. What happened during that period, when he seemed to be in everything?

VEBER: First, he wanted to perform in everything, you know, because -- I don't know if he did that to stop the other guys, you know, in their raise, you know, and to try to have the best parts. But he was so voracious about shooting, you know? He was making something like five or six films a year. And I think, you know, Depardieu is a very strange and interesting man because he looks like a big, big strong man like that, but he is so fragile, you know? And when he was not on a set, he was in jeopardy, you know, in his real life. So I think he was taking refuge on sets, too, you know? He was going on films to protect himself against himself, you see.

GROSS: What's it like to work with someone who's so different off-screen than they are on-screen?

VEBER: It's very interesting with Depardieu. You know, his -- he's a very subtle, fragile, interesting man, you know? He was on therapy during two, three years. When you see this guy with his huge hands, you know, the strong man like that, you think that he is just a bull, you know? He's not. He's a very, very, very interesting man.

GROSS: Now, my understanding is that there's a lot of people in France who are disturbed by the amount of American cultural imports coming into the country. Are filmmakers in France feeling very competitive with American films, and, like, American films threaten to drive out French films, even in France?

VEBER: I think that there's a huge, huge stream, save of American films that are very good, first, you know, very expensive, and that talk to any mentality, any nationality, you know? It means that those -- those action movies, you know? We can't compete with them. It mean that if I have unluck, you know, to open a movie on front of "Star Wars" in October, I mean, "The Phantom Menace" in October, I am dead. I'm dead meat because you can't compete, you know? And those monsters are arriving, you know, and all over the world, you know, they are scratching the local movies.

And sometimes one of them can fight a little bit against those big machines, you know, but it's very difficult because it's pure science the way the studios here are building those projects, you know? I mean, when they are putting more than $100 million in a movie, you know, and you see that a budget in France is something like $6 million, $7 million, you see? When the advertisement for it is so expensive, too, you know, that you have the feeling of a tank arriving in your country, you know, and you are on a bicycle to fight it, you see?

GROSS: Right. Right.

VEBER: So sometimes a little comedy like mine, because mine was second after "Titanic," you know, in...

GROSS: At the box office?

VEBER: At the box office, you know? A little comedy like mine can resist, you know, but it's a miracle.

GROSS: When you see an American film in France, would you prefer to see it dubbed or subtitled?

VEBER: I know I prefer to see it in the original, for sure.

GROSS: Is that the common feeling?

VEBER: No. No, no. I had a house in the south of France, and there is thee what we call a multiplex, you know? It's many theaters. There is no one giving the movie in English. All the movies, the American movies, are in French. And I heard a guy, an old guy, telling me once, "I didn't know that Harrison Ford was speaking so well French," you know, because he thought that was...

GROSS: You really lose so much when you don't get the grain of the actor's voice.

VEBER: Oh, yes. I agree with you. I agree with you. It's not normal. You have to hear their voices. You know, my dream is that one day Americans will understand that there are good films around the world that are made and that the effort of reading subtitles is worth it, you know? It happened a little bit with Benigni's film, "Life is Beautiful," because of the story matter, you know? But my dream is that all those great films that are done in Russia, in France, in Italy, in Spain, will arrive here and seen by people who will be the average audience, you know, not only the audience of the art houses. But this is a dream.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

VEBER: Thank you very much.


MOSS-COANE: That's French director Francis Veber talking with Terry Gross. His new film is "The Dinner Game."

I'm Marty Moss-Coane, and this is FRESH AIR.


This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross; Marty Moss-Coane
Guest: Francis Verber
High: TERRY GROSS's interview with French screenwriter and director FRANCIS VEBER ("Vay BEAR"). He's best known for his farcical French comedies "La Cage Aux Folles" and "The Tall Blonde Man with One Black Shoe" (which he collaborated on with the director). His latest comedy, "The Dinner Game," was a hit last year in France and is now in the U.S. This year VEBER was honored with a career tribute at the Cannes Film Festival.
Spec: Entertainment; Movie Industry; Art

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Interview with French Screenwriter/director Francis Verber
Date: AUGUST 05, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 080502NP.217
Head: Interview With Film Subtitler Henri Behar
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:30

MARTY MOSS-COANE, GUEST HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Marty Moss-Coane, in for Terry Gross.

If Henri Behar does his job right, you are barely aware of what he's accomplished. He's a film subtitler and specializes in English to French and French to English translations.

He's worked on more than 100 films, taking the content and subtleties of language and making them understandable to a foreign audience. He's done the French subtitles for well-known English-speaking films including "Zelig," "Married to the Mob," "Boyz in the Hood," "Menace to Society," "Shakespeare in Love," and "Summer of Sam."

Behar says to subtitle a movie, he has to follow the rhythm and the pacing of the dialogue.

HENRI BEHAR, FILM SUBTITLER: The basics of subtitling are sort of simple. A line -- a subtitle line cannot start before the dialogue line is spoken. It has to start at the same time. And it has to be perceived -- key word here, "perceived" -- as ending when the line -- the dialogue line is no longer spoken.

So that gives you a certain number of feet and frames. That number of feet and frames gives you the -- by a simple calculation, gives you the number of characters that you're entitled to.


BEHAR: So if the line is, "I woke up this morning and had a cup of tea," that lasted, I don't know, about a second, a second and a half. That would give me -- second and a half, 16, 20 -- that would give me something like 23 characters.

MOSS-COANE: So that's...

BEHAR: To translate that.

MOSS-COANE: ... that's pretty easy. That...

BEHAR: Yes, but if you say, "Got up this morning, had a cup of tea," well, that's, you know, half a second. What do you do?

MOSS-COANE: And that's a challenge of -- obviously, of subtitling.

BEHAR: And that's the challenge of subtitling.


BEHAR: Yes, you have to make do.

MOSS-COANE: But you also...

BEHAR: So the two notions here in this line are, morning and tea. And if you have to sacrifice one, it depends on the context. Either sacrifice tea, or you sacrifice morning.

MOSS-COANE: But for the audience, you want them to just dip down, look at the lines, and then get back to the visuals, or get back to what's happening on the screen.

BEHAR: Oh, yes, oh, yes.

MOSS-COANE: Is the goal, then, of a subtitler in part really to capture that rhythm of dialogue over the sort of word-by-word translation that would give an audience, a viewer, a sense of what each of those words were, but you may miss something that's essential to that rhythm of speech?

BEHAR: If you want to be that specific, yes. I think you should -- the job of the subtitler is to retain as much as possible of the flavor of the character that's speaking. So even if you have to twist the literal translation into something that would not be acceptable academically but would be acceptable dramatically -- (INAUDIBLE) as if you were translating a play.


BEHAR: The beat is different. Now, I have one theory, but this is just me, and I know that I try every time to do that, whenever it's possible. I have a feeling that if you're watching a movie and you have a dialogue that goes beat-beat-beat-beat, and the subtitling -- and the subtitle goes melody-melody-melody, as a viewer, you just go, Something's wrong, something's not working.

So if possible, if there are three breaks in a dialogue line, I try to have three breaks in the subtitle. You won't notice, but you will feel comfortable with it.

MOSS-COANE: So you kind of have to have the words sort of syllable by syllable, in a way, sort of match the rhythm of the dialogue.

BEHAR: I kind of like the two to dance together.

MOSS-COANE: Yes. Well, I always feel when I'm watching a film, and you do see a dialogue that goes on and on, and then you glance down at the subtitles and you see a rather short subtitle, that you figure you've got to be missing something. You think that's true?

BEHAR: I don't think it happens with the French, in all honesty.


BEHAR: Because French is generally longer than English. So if you do English into French, you have -- you don't have that. If you do French into English, sometimes you might have that feeling. Then you work it, you work it through.


BEHAR: I mean, the worst, the worst might be, actually, when you get a Japanese film or something like that, and they go on and go, (INAUDIBLE), and then they do this whole two-second line, dialogue line, and the subtitle goes, "I don't think so." So you know you're actually losing something.

MOSS-COANE: When you're working on a film, do you consult with the screenwriter, the director, to just make sure that you're on the same wavelength as them?

BEHAR: As much as possible, yes. It depends on them. I always insisted to -- if possible, to be in touch with either the writer or the director, so that, after I've done most of the translation, if I have a problem I can call them and say, What is this? Or this occupied too much space, I had to make -- to take an option, and this is what I took.

For instance, when the -- when we did -- when I did "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," I didn't have space, for instance, at the beginning in reel one, I didn't have space in the subtitle on screen to put "gigantic bats." It's either "gigantic" or "bats." So I went for "bats," because we needed "bats" for the rest of the dialogue.

But I did run it past Terry Gilliam, and I said, "I'm sorry, I don't have `gigantic bats.' I know it's a great beat in English, but I don't have the space. Do you agree on that?" And he says, "Yes."

MOSS-COANE: That was OK?



BEHAR: So I remember another time I was doing a film, I think it was "Drugstore Cowboy," and I'm afraid whoever trans -- had transcribed "Drugstore Cowboy," A, must have been slightly tone deaf, and B, was sort of rather puritanical. So every time -- I don't know if you can say these words on radio. Every time you had "You mother-whatever," or "F this, F that," she would write -- she or he would write, "Inaudible," "Unintelligible."

So with that kind of a film, it's a bit of a problem.

MOSS-COANE: Well, I'll tell you what. I want to talk some more, but first we're going to take a short break. And our guest today on FRESH AIR is Henri Behar, and he's a subtitler, talking to us about the various movies he has subtitled.

We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


MOSS-COANE: My guest is Henri Behar, and we're talking about his work as a subtitler. He also writes about cinema for French "Vogue."

Looking at the list of films that you've done, including "Menace to Society," "Boyz in the Hood," "Summer of Sam," and many others as well, do you find that trans -- that swear words, the F-word, all those words we're familiar with, do they translate well from English into French, or does it lose something?

BEHAR: Again, it comes down to a question of beat. Don't forget that it's not just what you read, you also see a film, you see characters move, and you hear the word, the F-word and all its combinations.

So ultimately at some point, as a translator, you just ignore them. You know that the F-word is going to come back every 10 syllables, but then you work your subtitle in such a way that you have the same beat. Again, it's a question of beat.

MOSS-COANE: But do audiences...

BEHAR: Do I make sense?

MOSS-COANE: Yes. But do audiences in France -- they know what the F-word is, I would assume.

BEHAR: I beg your pardon. Yes, we do. Yes, we do. Is there any place in the world where they don't know the F-word?

MOSS-COANE: That's -- I was just checking on that right.

BEHAR: Please! No, there are things, for instance -- again, sometimes I myself don't know what's being said in the film. I remember "Good Will Hunting," at one point I was reading the text, and Matt Damon at one point says to sort of an Ivy League kind of guy, "Do you like apples?" And the guy says, "Yes." Matt Damon slams a phone number -- Minnie Driver's phone number on the window of the cafe and goes, "She gave me her phone number. So how do you like them apples?"

And I was going, What the hell? Why the hell are they talking of apples? I did not know what "How do you like them apples?"...

MOSS-COANE: As an American slang phrase.

BEHAR: As an American slang phrase. Well, I learned...

MOSS-COANE: So how -- so how -- Well, so how -- I mean, give us the French, then, for "How do you like them apples?"

BEHAR: Well, have you seen the film?


BEHAR: OK, so I had to play with the context. I had to play with the context of the film. So I translated -- I forgot about apples and any comparison with fruit. I just went -- "Are you pleased with yourself? Are you happy with yourself?" And the guy says, "Yes." "She gave me her phone number. Now how -- are you still pleased with yourself?"

MOSS-COANE: That's...

BEHAR: That was the way I twisted it, to, "How do you feel now?"

MOSS-COANE: Right, which essentially gets to that -- the essence of that interchange there.

BEHAR: Correct.

MOSS-COANE: Yes. Do you work alone? And by that I mean, if you're working on a particular scene, do you have someone that you call up and test a subtitle with, or do you test subtitles on audiences to make sure it works for them?

BEHAR: A scene per se, no. A movie, yes, particularly when it comes to slang, because slang changes so fast. Hispanic slang, American slang, American black slang. If you deal with a Canadian film, you have Canadian Haitian kind of slang, or Jamaican slang. Sometimes I don't quite know how to go about it.

But then I get the gist. Again, I call the writer and say, "Excuse me, what does that mean in Jamaican, and how can I translate it?" And then once that is done, yes, I do have a -- such a number of people that I know who live in that kind of milieu.

When I dealt with "Menace to Society," I called a friend of mine who lives that kind of life in one of the suburbs of Paris, and I said, "OK, so how do you say this this week?" Because it changes every week.

And he said, "Oh, yes, well, so what did you write?" And I said, "This." He said, "Oh, psshhh, please!"


BEHAR: So he would say, "No, no" -- Yes, saying, like, Please, you're so square it's a joke. So I said, "OK, so tell me." And once you get into that -- and it's amazing, because throughout the world, as far as I could tell, in the languages that I speak, all the kids, all the kids who also live a violent kind of life, all those who are interested in hip-hop culture in all its forms, have the same thing, they are incredibly attracted and adept and deft and agile in imagery, in visual acrobatics, in verbal acrobatics.

So when you yourself like this kind of thing, otherwise you would never have studied several languages, it becomes fun. And the generation gap sort of disappears for a short while.

MOSS-COANE: I want to thank you very much, Henri Behar, for joining us today on FRESH AIR.

BEHAR: Thank you.

MOSS-COANE: Henri Behar has subtitled more than 100 films, including, most recently, "Shakespeare in Love" and "Summer of Sam."

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Marty Moss-Coane
Guest: Henri Behar
High: Film translator HENRI BEHAR is one of the most sought-after subtitlers in the business. He's subtitled over 100 films, mostly from English to French, but also from French to English. He's subtitled films by Woody Allen, David Mamet, and Spike Lee. Recently he subtitled "Shakespeare in Love," and "Halloween 2." For over 10 years he's also served as moderator at the Cannes Festival press conferences. And he co-wrote the book "Hollywood on the Riviera: The Inside Story of the Cannes Film Festival." (William Morrow, 1992).
Spec: Entertainment; Movie Industry; Art

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Interview With Film Subtitler Henri Behar
Date: AUGUST 05, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 080503NP.217
Head: Interview with Author Andrew Smith
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:45

MARTY MOSS-COANE, GUEST HOST: I find I can't go to a movie theater and not buy popcorn. The aroma is so seductive, and the habit is too ingrained. Popcorn and movies just seem to go together. But how did that come about?

My guest, Andrew Smith, traces the history of popcorn in the United States in his new book, "Popped Culture." Smith teaches culinary history at the New School University in New York. He's the author of many books, including three on the tomato.

Smith says the common myth has been that the Indians served popcorn to the Pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving. He found no proof of this and believes American traders brought popcorn back to New England from South America.

ANDREW SMITH, "POPPED CULTURE": The first real evidence that I have for popcorn in America is not until the 1810s, 1820s. And it's simply there, a mention of it in a sales and seeds catalogs and that sort of thing.

But by the 1840s, all of a sudden everybody is talking about this new, exciting addition to American cookery, popcorn. And so you have literary corn and people like Emerson and people like Thoreau writing letters in their -- to friends and writing notes in their diaries saying, Oh, I popped some corn last night, and it was really exciting stuff. That's a slight transliteration of...

MOSS-COANE: Yes. There's an -- actually a recipe from the late 1840s which sounds just about the way one would make popcorn at home. "Take a gill," or half-pint, "or more of Valparaiso," or popcorn, "put in a frying pan slightly buttered or rubbed with lard, hold the pan over a fire, so as constantly to stir or shake the corn within, and in a few minutes, each kernel will pop and turn inside out."

Doesn't sound like too much has changed.

SMITH: That's the first recipe that I found, and you're quite right, in many ways the popping of the corn has not changed at all. But shortly after that, you have a lot of recipes that came into popcorn cookery, so that the number one way to consume popcorn wasn't the way we consume it today, which is out of a box or out of a bag or out of a bowl, but literally as a cereal. It was America's first cereal. It predates Kellogg's Corn Flakes and things of that sort.

But the problem is, it got soggy as soon as you put it in milk. It clogged up. So you could -- have to really consume it fast in a matter of a couple minutes before it became very soggy. So it was not an ideal cereal food.

But it continued to be eaten as a cereal up until the 1930s.

MOSS-COANE: It's interesting to read about all the various popcorn poppers that have been made since the 19th century, trying to figure out how to pop the corn, but also, of course, contain it so that it's not lying all over the floor.

And the one I really loved was in "Good Housekeeping," about a woman who reported that she took the globe off her burner lamp and put the kernels inside the lamp. And she said it was very successful.

SMITH: Well, the...

MOSS-COANE: Hard to believe.

SMITH: All the early evidence is, is that people had a kernel -- or they had a cob, and they put the cob by a fire, and when it got hot enough, it popped, and some of the popped kernels would go into the flames, and some of it would go onto the ground. And they -- and then the evidence is that the kids in particular, but adults, I'm sure, as well, went around and picked up the popcorn from the ground and ate it. And they were so pleased, because the ground was clean.

So it was a different way of doing it. So the first really important technological invention was the wire over-the-fire popper, which was simply a coffee roaster that you could pop corn on. And it was a major reason on why popcorn expansion occurred so quickly in the 1830s and 1840s, because you could contain it, you could control it, you could take it off the fire. It was a relatively simple sort of thing to do.

MOSS-COANE: It sounds like, as popcorn was growing in popularity, there was this whole debate about whether it was a cereal food, whether it was a snack food, whether it was a vegetable. Help us understand the various camps and how they kind of fought about popcorn's place in eating culture.

SMITH: Well, you've got to understand, in the 19th century there was no such thing as a snack food, or certainly not the way we think of snack foods today. Almost all the snack foods that we consume today are commercial creations of the last 100 years. I mean, candy bars, Popsicles, ice cream bars -- I mean, all the things that you think of as snack foods are creations and inventions of the last 100 years or so.

So popcorn came along with peanuts, and they introduced a whole new eating sensation. You would not just eat at a meal, you would eat between meals, which was something even my grandmother told me I couldn't do, because it would destroy my appetite for food.

MOSS-COANE: Of course.

SMITH: It never did that. But in any case, there was this feeling that eating between meals was -- there was something wrong with it. So snack foods were not something that were particularly common. When peanuts and popcorn came along, they became associated with fun times. They were associated with fairs, they were associated with, later on, sporting events, they were associated with circuses.

And so you'd have a fun time, and in the middle of having a fun time, then you would snack on something, and that would be the popcorn and the peanuts.

So you had that as something that was outside of mainstream cookery, and that was going on in one direction. Then you had people who didn't have a lot of money and needed low-cost foods, and popcorn was one of those foods which was almost no cost and could be used in such a variety of ways for cookery. So it's a health food and it's an important way that you can consume these whole grains.

MOSS-COANE: I'm speaking with Andrew Smith, and we're talking about his new book. It's called "Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn in America." We'll talk more after a short break.

This is FRESH AIR.


MOSS-COANE: My guest is Andrew Smith, and he's got a new book. It's called "Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn in America."

Well, I'm interested in talking about how popcorn got married with the movies, but it looks as if we have to begin with vaudeville, that that's really the first time you see popcorn showing up at a place of public entertainment.

SMITH: Snack foods were served in vaudeville, and popcorn was the single snack food that was the most profitable. I mean, it costs almost nothing for the kernels themselves, and so the real cost of popcorn was the packaging that you had to hold it in.

And it was very closely associated with vaudeville, but vaudeville was often racorus (ph), and in the middle of -- of performances, you'd have people throwing popcorn around and bags around, and they would -- when they finished their -- eating, they'd throw the bag on the floor. And so the bags then had to be cleaned up, and it was just an absolute mess.

So when movie theaters came along, and because they were originally silent films that required people who were literate in order to be able to read the screens, they catered to a much higher clientele, and they didn't want to have any association with vaudeville and all of the horrible experiences that people had with the trash all over the place.

So they considered all snack foods, but particularly popcorn, beneath them. And so none of the early movie theaters, in fact, sold popcorn or sold other snack foods.

MOSS-COANE: So what made theater owners change their mind and decide that it would be OK to serve popcorn?

SMITH: Well, there were several things. The first was the invention of talking films in the -- 1928-1929, you had talkies coming in. And at this point, it meant that people who couldn't read, people who were illiterate, could in fact go to a movie and enjoy it and not have to miss part of what was going on because they couldn't read the screen.

So you had a different class of people going into talking films than you had going into silent films. And as soon as the class level dropped, then that was a factor.

The main one, however, was the Depression, as we can all remember from our history, the Depression literally destroyed most -- many businesses in America, and theaters were no exceptions to it. So you had a real problem. Theaters had a choice of closing their doors or figuring out other ways of making money.

And it was snack foods that obviously came to their rescue, and the -- popcorn, by far, was -- the greatest profit margin was made on popcorn and still is -- still is true today. So you had a profit margin of 90, 95 percent on popcorn sales, and you had a large number of movie theaters that would have gone under, that could not have made it on admissions alone, that really survived because of sale of snack foods, and particularly of popcorn.

MOSS-COANE: So after the Depression, and then after World War II, the habit had been made, the idea of popcorn on movies?

SMITH: Well, it was not just a habit, it was a financial arrangement.


SMITH: And that financial arrangement began in the '30s, continues today. Most movie theaters make more money on their snack food concessions than they do on admissions. So -- and at some points it's been, like, 60 percent of the profit of theaters, in fact, is generated by snack foods.

So it's a financial consideration to begin with. But even some theaters -- some theaters, for instance, in New York refused to sell popcorn well into the late 1940s and early 1950s, and one, Loew's Theaters, for instance, had the sign saying, "Check your popcorn at the door when you come in if you bring it in."

So there was genuinely an anti-popcorn feeling in theaters well into the early 1950s.

MOSS-COANE: Well, I'm sure if there's a dark chapter in the history of popcorn, it has to do with a report which came out a number of years ago by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, not necessarily condemning popcorn at movie theaters, but condemning the fat content in movie theater popcorn. Tell us what happened.

SMITH: Well, I think it started with the popcorn industry itself. Almost from the beginning, they sold popcorn as a healthy food, and indeed, popcorn without any additive is indeed healthy. It's plenty of vitamins, it's got roughage in it, and it doesn't have many calories.

And so therefore they -- the popcorn industry came along and said, This is a healthy product, and you should eat it if you're on a diet. And they had the popcorn diet, and they had all sorts of other people coming along and recommending this wonderful, healthful food.

So you first had this image that it was something healthful. And I'm -- I went to movie theaters and bought popcorn because I figured, Well, I like candy, you know, and I like popcorn too, but I figured the popcorn had less calories in it. And oh, you know, a little salt is not going to bother anybody, and a little imitation butter is not going to bother anybody.

So I think I, like many other people, were absolutely dumbfounded to find out the fat content of movie theater popcorn. And the Center for Science in the Public Interest report came along and said -- it was first the popping oil, which was coconut oil that was a real problem, and that if you bought the big tub of popcorn, it was -- had the equivalent amount of fat as six Big Macs. And if you added imitation butter, it was the equivalent of eight Big Macs in terms of fat.

So I think that shocked all of us when it first came out. And because we thought popcorn was supposed to be so healthy, and then all of a sudden we found out that the popcorn that we liked to eat was not as healthy as we had been led to believe. And the popcorn industry suffered severely because of that report.

MOSS-COANE: Did they -- have they -- they've changed, though, the oil, haven't they, at movie theaters, so they're not using this high-fat-content oil?

SMITH: They shifted to canola oil, and about a month after they made the shift to canola oil, they found out that canola oil, when heated, turns to trans-fatty acid, trans -- and was just as bad as the original coconut oil.

Some movie theaters went -- shifted to vegetable oil. But part of the problem is, you can't get a high enough heat that pops the kernels the way most people like it. So believe it or not, many theaters are still using popcorn popped in coconut oil today. And I think the last estimate was something like 60 to 70 percent of theaters use coconut oil.

MOSS-COANE: Well, I thank you, Andrew Smith, very much for joining us today on FRESH AIR.

SMITH: Thank you.

MOSS-COANE: Andrew Smith is the author of "Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn in America."

(SONG, "POPCORN" (ph))

For Terry Gross, I'm Marty Moss-Coane.


This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Marty Moss-Coane
Guest: Andrew Smith
High: Writer ANDREW SMITH has written a new book about the food that is a staple at movie theatres - popcorn. It's called "Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn in America" (University of South Carolina Press).
Spec: Entertainment; Books; Food and Beverages

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Interview with Author Andrew Smith
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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