Fall 2009

World Class

With films like Z and Missing, Costa-Gavras almost single-handedly created the modern political thriller. But for him, it's the human drama that counts.


Very much a working director at 76, Costa-Gavras says, "Each story imposes its own style."
(Photo: Courtesy of Everett Collection)

Politics. They always want to talk to me about politics," laughs Costa-Gavras in his trademark Franco-Grecian accent. "But for me politics is everyday life, the way we deal with other people and the way they deal with us. In a certain way, I can say all movies are political. But there's another thing about politics—power. A director has power over other people. And above me, there are people who have power over me. Politics is how we use that power, to be kind or aggressive, and how other people do the same with us."

To those familiar with the Oscar-winning director's most celebrated films—Z, Missing, Stage of Siege, The Confession, to name a few—such philosophizing clearly downplays his major contributions. This is, after all, the man who practically invented the modern political protest film with Z in 1969, paving the way for other modern classics, from All the President's Men to Born on the Fourth of July to Hotel Rwanda.

"He was certainly one of my earliest role models," acknowledges Oliver Stone. "I was a film student at NYU when Z came out, which we studied. Costa actually came over with Yves Montand for a screening and was such a hero to us. He was in the tradition of Gillo Pontecorvo [The Battle of Algiers] and was the man in that moment... it was a European moment."

It may have been a special time in filmmaking, but it was a moment many decades in the making for Costa-Gavras. Born Konstantinos Gavras in 1933 in a small Greek village, his formative years were spent under a veil of armed conflict—Nazi occupation followed by civil war. His father, a government functionary who had worked for the Greek resistance against the Nazis, was jailed after the war for siding with the Communists against the United States-backed government, effectively shattering the young man's hopes of higher education in the U.S. France, however, presented no such barriers, and Costa-Gavras was soon headed to Paris, determined to pursue a degree in law. Fortunately, Henri Langlois' Cinémathèque Française got in the way.

The director, working with Sissy Spacek and Jack Lemmon on his first
American film, Missing, created scenes of chilling suspense in the
mystery-thriller set in Pinochet's Chile. (Photo: Ampas)

"I was coming from a country where there was a lot of censorship," Costa-Gavras recalls. "So the only movies you could see at that time were cowboy movies, Errol Flynn movies, those kinds of things. The Cinémathèque was a kind of enlightenment for me, to see that serious classics could be made with the movies. The first movie I saw there was Greed by Erich von Stroheim. I was amazed because my idea was that the movies, especially the American movies, had to be marshmallow movies with happy endings."

Costa-Gavras enrolled at the famed Parisian cinema school l'IDHEC, but it wasn't until after graduation that his real film education would begin as he segued into a series of apprenticeships with some of the era's most prominent directors. "I was fortunate to work with people who'd started during the silent period, like René Clair, and then also with people from the New Wave, like Jacques Demy," he says. "So I saw all the changes in techniques, the way the Nouvelle Vague used the camera versus the way the older directors would do it. The biggest lesson in technique was from René Clément. He was extremely modern and very advanced. His techniques were what we see today in the movies."

Given the different structure of the French industry, Costa-Gavras was able to involve himself in aspects of the creative process—including casting and location scouting—that probably would not have been possible in Hollywood. "In France, the assistant directors are like the right hand to the director," he explains. "They're closest to the director, not just for organizational things but for the artistic things. It's changed a little bit these past few years, but it's completely different from the United States where the 1st assistant director is usually more in charge of organizing the work on the set."

Ironically, Costa-Gavras' much-acclaimed 1965 directing debut, The Sleeping Car Murders, exhibited as much American influence as European. A stylish black-and-white murder thriller rife with Hitchcockian suspense, clever twists and unexpected turns, it's the kind of tautly constructed resumé piece that could have been used as a Hollywood calling card.

But Costa-Gavras' traces his mastery of suspense back to European roots. "I think when you speak about suspense, you go back to the Greek tragedies. And suspense is also in everyday life. You read the newspaper to see what's going on in the world. That's also suspense in a certain way. But the biggest suspense we have is in the Greek tragedies."

With his third film, Z, the thematic and stylistic synthesis he had worked so painstakingly to perfect over the preceding years finally earned him his first major international success. Inspired by the 1963 assassination of Greek politician Gregoris Lambrakis, Z became the first foreign-language film to secure a best picture Oscar nomination since Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion in 1938, as well as his first DGA nomination.

MAGICAL TIME: Costa-Gavras (right) and his crew, including
legendary New Wave cinematographer Raoul Coutard, were
invited to shoot Z in Algeria. (opposite) His next film was
The Confession, based on a true story about the imprisonment
and torture of a Communist Party official in Czechoslovakia.
(Photo: Courtesy of Iconotèque de la Cinémathèque française)

"For more than a year and a half I was trying to find money for that script," he recalls with just a glint of satisfaction. "And everybody used to say to me, 'There is no story there! There is no love story! There is no main character! You think an audience would be interested in a Greek senator who's killed?' So it was the actors and I who decided to do it almost without being paid."

The production couldn't afford to film in France, but then Algeria came to the rescue. "It was very exciting. The Algerian officials said, 'We cannot give you money but we can give you all the facilities.' We had to shoot very quickly because we didn't have much money. But it was important to make that movie for all of us. The first week in France it did nothing. We thought the movie was dead. But the distributor said, 'No, no. Wait.' I never thought it would take off like it did. But sometimes miracles happen in the cinema."

In retrospect, Z's gritty style—a canny blend of Italian neorealism, American melodrama and French cinéma vérité—seems even more ahead of its time than it did in 1969. By 1973, however, Costa-Gavras had already moved on, adopting a style more steeped in the social realist tradition for State of Siege. Once again reunited with Montand, the film was another fact-based exposé of political oppression. Set in Uruguay, it details the kidnapping of an American embassy official by leftist guerrillas intent on exposing American support for the rightist regime. Though the film's heavier tone and more subdued style failed to catch fire with audiences in the same fashion as Z, Costa-Gavras' work continued to have an impact on a future generation of filmmakers.

"I saw State of Siege in Belfast," recalls Terry George, the Irish-born director of Hotel Rwanda and Some Mother's Son (about an IRA prison hunger strike). "What amazed me was the fact that it was being made at all, that I was seeing a film about the Tupamaros [guerrillas] told in the style of The Battle of Algiers. But it was much more personal storytelling. It's almost like political travel filmmaking in that it takes you right inside a situation that Europeans had no perception of. And at that time, I had no concept I'd be involved in moviemaking at all."

So what made Costa-Gavras' brand of political filmmaking so effective? For Stone, he was living proof that it was possible to make commercial entertainment without sacrificing conscience, that success as a filmmaker need not be a Faustian bargain. "He made politics into a thriller," says Stone. "He made it exciting and, at the same time, did not sacrifice reality and truth."

Costa-Gavras turned down Hollywood projects for more than a decade, including The Godfather. "Charlie Bluhdorn, who ran Paramount, sent me the book," the director recalls. "I told him, 'It's not a movie for me. I don't know anything about the Italian or American Mafia. I would be the worst person for that.' I could never have made as good a film as what Coppola made."

Finally, in 1982, he bit on Missing, a Z-style mystery-thriller set during the 1973 Chilean coup led by General Augusto Pinochet. The story focused on the disappearance of an American journalist as his father and wife, played by Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek, try to unravel the truth of his fate. "It was the story of someone who lives in America and goes to another country, like an immigrant, and tries to understand," says Costa-Gavras, underlining the story's similarities to his own life. "And because the film was speaking about Chile, I knew very well the situation there; I had many friends who'd been imprisoned by Pinochet, so I thought it was a movie for me to make."

The director calls his working relationship with Lemmon "probably the best experience I have ever had. After every shot he would turn to look at me, and I would indicate with my fingers, 'Just a little less, Jack.' No words. Just a movement with the thumb and forefinger. In the scene where he learns, by telephone, that his son is dead, his face, his movement, the way he breathed—it was extraordinary. I turned and I saw the boom man was crying, the script girl was crying and I was very close to crying. The whole crew was deeply moved. Those are moments a director can never forget."

Costa-Gavras' film was The Confession, based on a true story about the
imprisonment and torture of a Communist Party official in Czechoslovakia.
(Photo: Courtesy of Iconotèque de la Cinémathèque française)

For George, it's the confluence of such indelible scenes that gives Missing its power. "There were visual moments that really took your breath away," he says. "Particularly the white horse being chased down the street by soldiers. There was something just mind-blowing about that, in its savagery and in the madness of it all."

But despite creating such singular moments, Costa-Gavras has worked in a variety of styles, both in the U.S. and France. "I think he's a storyteller more than a stylist," says George. "And I've tried to match that ambition, letting story dictate the style. It's reaching the maximum audience that becomes the important thing."

Indeed, Costa-Gavras says he approaches each film as a blank slate. "Each story imposes its own style," he says. "Long shots, close-ups, long takes—it depends on the rhythm you want to create with the shot. My only concern is to have enough material in the editing room to control the rhythm of the movie."

He says he learned the crucial importance of editing in the filmmaking process from René Clair. "We became friends and he asked me, 'Would you like to direct one day?' and I said, 'Yes, I really would.' He said, 'Okay, then go into the editing room. That's where everything happens.' And of course I discovered that to be true. I still believe that the editing starts with the writing and then you finish the movie with the editing. You have to do the shooting, but the most important thing is always the editing."

On the set, Costa-Gavras places a lot of trust and autonomy on his team. It's a practical, flexible approach that begins in preproduction. "I like to first explain to everybody what I'm doing and I like to tell them, 'You are my collaborators,'" he explains. "I think the first and most important collaborators for the director are the actors. It's the actors who bring the story to the audience. But everybody is a collaborator to whom I give my best. I don't like to direct with screaming or big authority. I like to be friendly."

It's the director's profound empathy for individuals trapped in circumstances beyond their control that most often identifies his films. That those circumstances are often political almost seems a secondary concern. How the characters relate to each other, and the bond Costa-Gavras forges with the actors who play them, are at the heart of his movies. For instance, preparing to make Mad City (1997), John Travolta was set to play a journalist who intervenes when a museum security guard takes patrons hostage after losing his job. It wasn't until after a reading, over lunch, that Travolta dropped a bombshell: "I'd like to play the other role," he said. Costa-Gavras was stunned. "I said, 'John, it's a completely different role. It's got nothing to do with what you've done up until now.' But he said, 'I'd like to do it.' It was amazing because I started to think completely differently about the film."

At 76, Costa-Gavras remains very much a working director and recently won the top prize at the City of Lights/City of Angels French film festival in Los Angeles for Eden Is West, his first comedy. Since 2007 he has also served a second term as president of the very same Cinémathèque Française he credits with inspiring him to become a director, a job he previously held from 1982 to 1987. No surprise, then, that he sees the film business from an international perspective. "If I were in Greece, I would never have been able to make the movies I've made," he says. "And I think the same thing for the United States; if I had been a Hollywood director, I would have done other movies. I believe because of my past, because of my French culture, because of the way the French society makes movies, I was able to do those movies."

But would he be able to make those same movies today? He isn't so sure. "Not long ago I was speaking with Sean Daniel, who supervised Missing for Universal, and we talked about how it would be impossible to make that film today because the majors have changed politically. There are no more people willing to take chances. Some good things are happening because more countries are trying to have their own cinema, but today there aren't so many great movies being made as before."

At the same time, Costa-Gavras is hopeful about the opportunity digital cameras offers young filmmakers to develop their talent, even if he isn't quite ready to take the digital leap himself. "Not yet. Maybe on the next one," he chuckles. "You know, every time you have a new system, a change in technology, everything else changes. The economics change and the aesthetics change. Today with digital, this is the biggest change we've ever had in the history of cinema. It is a real revolution." And creating a revolution is something Costa-Gavras knows about.

Director Profile

Stories profiling feature film directors about

their life, work and approach to making movies.

More from this issue