We’ll shoot the scene when you find a cat that can act!
–from Day for Night
Talk about the vicissitudes of life? What about the demanding, energy-sapping fluctuations you have to face in the course of making a movie? In Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night, the director of the film-within-the-film, Ferrand (played by Truffaut), must contend with both the personal lives and problems of his cast and crew as well as the unforeseen yet inevitable complications that crop up during the making of his movie. For example, one of his actors is constantly distracted by the shenanigans of a wayward girlfriend. And an actress worried about growing old flubs take after take when she can’t remember which door to open at the end of the scene.
The obstacles faced during production are no less confounding. Early in production Ferrand is told his shooting schedule has been shortened. Later, he learns the lab ruined a negative during processing and he will have to reshoot a very complicated and expensive scene. Lastly, he must deal with the ultimate fear of any director: the death of an actor before the end of principal photography.
A touch all his own
Nearly every lover of classic cinema is familiar with the “Lubitsch Touch,” a phrase coined to describe the works of director Ernst Lubitsch. Francois Truffaut has a touch of his own. He brings a lightness and a breezy quality to his films that belie the mastery of his approach. There are moments in Day for Night that might easily be overlooked and forgotten. Truffaut will freeze the shot for a fraction of a second. This simple technique lends weight to that moment, encouraging us to appreciate the significance in the ephemeral.
More than one way to skin a cat
Truffaut often employs what feels like a documentary-style approach. Anything that gives the impression the camera is trying to keep up with the action will create a sense of immediacy in the viewer. In one sequence the crew is trying to shoot a scene that ends with a cat drinking milk from a saucer. Take after take is ruined as the cat fails to do his part. They finally decide to change cats, using a stray that lives on the studio lot. The cat skirts around the available cups and saucers on the tray. The camera zooms in and the shot goes in and out of focus as it tries to keep up with the cat’s movements. The jerky moves by the camera and the attempt to stay in focus are what draw us into the moment.
The joy of cinema
The exuberance, the sheer joy of filmmaking, can be seen in every frame of Day for Night. The techniques I’ve described were introduced by Truffaut and his contemporaries during the French New Wave in the late 1950’s and early 60’s. Once considered revolutionary, they are now an accepted part of film grammar. What the 20/20 of hindsight reveals is that Truffaut’s goal–like those of his cinematic ancestors before him and his descendants after him–is simply the attempt to tell his stories in that unique idiom, the language of cinema.