‘Reversal of Fortune’ Helmer Barbet Schroeder Gets Surprise Award in Locarno, Talks ‘Barfly’ Controversy: ‘They Wanted Him to Go to AA at the End’

Surprise! Legendary director Barbet Schroeder, in Locarno to introduce his latest doc “Ricardo and Painting,” was greeted with a Special Tribute Award before the screening.

“Is this for the film?” Shroeder, a modest man, asked on stage. “No,” said Locarno festival director Giona Nazzaro.  “It’s for being Barbet Schroeder.”

Despite focusing on harsher subjects in his previous documentaries, “General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait,” “Terror’s Advocate” or “The Venerable W.,” this time Schroeder decided to follow painter Ricardo Cavallo. 

“I have already done my ‘Trilogy of Evil.’ I could continue: the world is full of bad people. But then there was this friend of mine, who I thought was such a good person,” he tells Variety.

Cavallo, convinced that “true life exists in creation,” could teach anyone how to change their way of seeing, claims Schroeder, sacrificing everything for his art.  

“I am always interested in my characters, not in myself. To me, they are everything. That’s why they are always leading the movie! With Idi Amin Dada, I told him: ‘You tell me what to film.’ I learnt that from Éric Rohmer.”

In 1962, Schroeder co-founded production company Les Films du Losange with Rohmer following an explosive coup d’état

“Éric used to be the editor of [film journal] Cahiers du Cinéma. Jacques Rivette needed to pay a legal fee for firing him. The amount was miserable but nobody had a cent, so they found some critics to help pay for it,” he recalls.   

“The day it happened, we found ourselves on the street. Rohmer wanted to start another magazine, but I said no: ‘Tomorrow, I will file papers to create a production company that will make good movies with good directors.’ He replied: ‘In that case, I am O.K. with it’.” 

“The beautiful thing is that he always insisted on supporting Rivette’s movies. He didn’t want to take revenge on him, just on the guys who paid for his firing.”

Praising Margaret Ménégoz – “she managed to keep the spirit of the company and turn it into a real commercial success” – Schroeder also opens up about longtime collaborator Susan Hoffman. 

“She helped me understand the way movies were made in the U.S.. Also, I had the final cut on all my American movies. Which means that to me, they were very personal and I am very proud of all of them. Of almost every minute of them.”

Behind “Single White Female,” “Kiss of Death” or Sandra Bullock vehicle “Murder by Numbers,” also featuring Ryan Gosling, Schroeder was nominated for an Academy Award for “Reversal of Fortune,” with Jeremy Irons earning a statuette for his role. 

“I thought: ‘What should I say if I win? I am very moved to hold this in my hand because Orson Welles, Hitchcock and all these other filmmakers I truly admire didn’t get it.’ I had the whole list ready! I guess it would have caused quite a scandal.”

The Oscar for best director went to Kevin Costner that year, and ultimately Schroeder left Hollywood.

“I learnt the rules of the system and it was great for a while. The minute it started being difficult, the minute I saw my movies weren’t doing so well, I went away and made ‘Our Lady of the Assassins’ in Medellin. A movie that couldn’t be insured, because back then, you would walk out of the house and there would be a corpse on the sidewalk. It would be gone by the time you came back.”

He still considers it as one of his best.

“The movies I like the most are the ones I haven’t written: ‘Our Lady’ by Fernando Vallejo, ‘Reversal of Fortune,’ ‘Barfly.’ You know how long it took me to make ‘Barfly’? Seven years of hard work. No one wanted to do that. They would say: ‘O.K, but we want him to go to AA at the end,’” he shrugs.  

Starring Mickey Rourke and based on Charles Bukowski’s semi-autobiographical work, it proved a tough sell due to its depictions of alcoholism.

“It’s Bukowski! I wasn’t going to change it. But I was in L.A, running out of money, and then finally I succeeded. It was a miracle, the fact it got made. Now, I am getting past 80. Past 80, every movie is a miracle.” 

While he still has a project that got away – “it was about the Algerian War, based on Alice Zeniter’s ‘The Art of Losing.’ French television wouldn’t put one cent into a film that would alienate half of the French audience” – these days, Schroeder is also embracing his playful side. 

He is already immortalized in cameos in “Beverly Hills Cop III,” “The Darjeeling Limited” or Tim Burton’s “Mars Attacks!,” where he played a French president meeting an untimely death while Jack Nicholson listens in. 

“They had a French actor and he just dropped out. He disappeared! They called me a few nights before. All these directors were friends of mine. I do these things for friends and for no money,” he laughs.

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