'Carnage' writer Yasmina Reza discusses her life in the theater
"Carnage," which opened Friday in New York and Los Angeles, is a movie directed by Roman Polanski, but the words -- funny, angry and sometimes savage -- belong to Yasmina Reza, who worked with the famed director to adapt her play "God of Carnage" for the screen. A French writer of mixed ethnicity whose plays have become global hits and won numerous accolades, including two Tony Awards, Reza represents something of an anomaly in the theater world, where success is still very much the domain of white males.
In November, Reza made a brief trip to L.A. to promote "Carnage" at AFI Fest. The morning before the screening, she sat down to talk in a suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. It just so happens to be the same hotel where Polanski was arrested close to 34 years ago.
"Really? No, it's not true!" exclaimed Reza when presented with the coincidence. "How strange...."
In a wide-ranging conversation that switched frequently between English and French, Reza discussed her plays and theatrical career. She also focused on the many stagings of "God of Carnage," which has been produced in more than 30 countries.
"There is no one stage version," Reza explained. "When you write for the theater, you are accustomed to creating something that is very precise when you read it. But after that, when you see it taken in hand by a director, you see changes -- sometimes it's more comic, sometimes more tragic."
"God of Carnage" is both -- a comedy of domestic chaos with an absurdist tragic angle. After their sons clash on a playground, two sets of boho parents sit down to work out a truce. But good intentions soon give way to selfish and immature behavior. The action of the play is set entirely in the claustrophobic confines of an upscale apartment.
The play, written in French, debuted in 2006 in a German-language production at the Schauspielhaus Zürich in Switzerland. Reza described the production, directed by Jürgen Gosch, as "pure tragedy" and said it is one of her favorite stagings.
"It was extremely interesting, very somber and very despairing in the end. It was very experimental with no particular notion of boulevard comedy," she said. There was some humor, but it was "a kind of horrifying humor, a devastating kind."
The production, which later traveled to Berlin, featured a set resembling a giant fish aquarium, with the actors performing in minimalist surroundings. Reza said the abstract staging was possible because the play was produced in a noncommercial venue. "You could go farther in violence and the characters could be more unlikable," she said. "The goal of the director wasn't to create a comedy."
In 2008, Reza directed the French premiere of the play at the Théâtre Antoine in Paris, with Isabelle Huppert in the cast. "It was much less violent than in German," she said. "It was longer, more aesthetic, more analyzed in the solitude of the characters. There were more silences. It was very French."
Reza's staging featured a more literal set than in Switzerland, but the production was similarly spare and visually economical.
"God of Carnage" had its U.S. premiere in 2009 on Broadway at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. The production, directed by Matthew Warchus, was imported from London with a new cast -- Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden. (The cast reunited earlier this year for a limited run at the Ahmanson Theatre in L.A.)
Reza described the American production as "entertainment, without any judgment on that word. [It] was in the tradition of American comedy."
She said her staging in Paris rested somewhere between the gravity of the German production and the levity of the American one. Polanski's film, she said, is closest to the American in terms of tone and spirit.
In watching different productions, Reza said she noticed that directors emphasized different characters. The New York version focused more on Veronica, played by Harden, while the Zurich version centered more on Alan, the character who is always taking cellphone calls. "They were very different, but that's wonderful," she said.
The play has also been produced in Asia, including Japan and Hong Kong. Reza hasn't seen these stagings but said: "What worries me is that they are translating it from the English version of the play. It drives me crazy. It's difficult to control these things."
"Carnage" isn't the first movie based on a Reza play. "Chicas" is a 2010 film that Reza adapted from her own play "A Spanish Play," about actresses rehearsing a stage production. The movie, which hasn't been released in the U.S., takes characters from the play and puts them in new situations.
Reza's newest play is "How You Play the Game," which has been published in book form in France but has yet to be produced on stage. The drama follows a writer who embarks on a promotional tour in a small town.
Reza said adapting her plays for the screen isn't a career priority ("I really don't care!"). But when she was pressed to choose which would make the best movie, she didn't hesitate to pick "Life x3," her 2000 metaphysical exploration of upper-middle-class domestic life in which the main action repeats itself with slight variations.
"If a director wants to take up the challenge, I think it would make a very interesting movie," she said. "If you ask me about adapting my plays, I would say that none need to be made into films. But if there had to be one, it would be this one."
Reza said writing the screenplay for "Carnage" with Polanski was a close, collaborative process: "We had the play in one hand and Roman would say to me, here this is great, or what about erasing this sentence and putting in another one. Or this scene would be better in the bathroom. So it was page after page, but I was the only one who was writing." (Reza wrote the screenplay in French; it was later translated into English.)
The playwright first worked with Polanski in the '80s as the French translator for a theatrical adaptation of Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis," in which Polanski performed on stage.
Reza said she visited the "Carnage" set several times and she shared some of the secrets of the filming. The opening and closings scenes of the movie -- which aren't in the original play and take place outdoors in a Brooklyn park -- were actually filmed against a green screen in a studio in France. (The film was shot at the Bry-sur-Marne studio, a short drive from Paris.)
The movie also features three cameo appearances by members of the Polanski family. Elvis, the son of the director, plays the stick-wielding boy caught in the playground brawl. Polanski himself appears later in the film for a split second as a neighbor who has a low tolerance for noise. And finally, the Polanski family dog puts in an appearance as a misbehaving pooch who manages to do what the other characters cannot -- escape the confines of apartment-dwelling hell.
-- David Ng
Photo (top): Yasmina Reza with Roman Polanski, right, and cinematographer Pawel Edelman. Credit: Guy Ferrandis / Sony Pictures Classics
Photo (second from top): A scene from the 2006 world-premiere production of Reza's "God of Carnage" at Switzerland's Schauspielhaus Zürich, with Corinna Kirchhoff, Dörte Lyssewski, Tilo Nest and Michael Maertens. Credit: Matthias Horn / Schauspielhaus Zürich
Photo (third from top): The 2008 Paris production of "God of Carnage," with Andre Marcon, Eric Elmosnino, Isabelle Huppert and Valerie Bonneton. Credit: Pascal Victor / ArtcomArt / Theatre Antoine
Photo (second from bottom): Jeff Daniels, Marcia Gay Harden, Hope Davis and James Gandolfini in "God of Carnage" at the Ahmanson Theatre in 2011. Credit: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times
Photo (bottom): John C. Reilly, Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet in the 2011 film "Carnage." Credit: Guy Ferrandis / Sony Pictures Classics