Swaim: I made a life choice, not a career choice6 min read
For over thirty years, Bob Swaim has written, directed and produced feature films in Europe and Hollywood. He has films like La Balance, The Climb and Half Moon Street to his credit, including three Caesar awards, a UNICEF Grand Prix award and the French title ‘Officier des Arts et des Lettres’. He caught the film bug in the 60’s and nothing has separated him from films ever since. He spends most of his time teaching and guiding students at The International Film and Television school Paris (EICAR) Paris. The Manipal Journal steals a conversation with the energetic, animated, observant and empathetic director.
How has your experience in Manipal been so far?
Horrible! I hate it (laughs). Want to know the truth? It’s been a wonderful experience. Firstly, I was very impressed with the organisation of the Article 19 Festival and the fact that it was entirely handled by the students. I was very pleasantly surprised to see that on the posters I was welcomed not as a lecturer but as a film-maker. Secondly, I had never heard of this place and I was glad to see that Manipal is a university town.
After a degree in Anthropology you went to France to secure a Doctorate in Ethnology. What made you drop out midway and venture into films?
My philosophy in life is that life is like a river in which I am floating. There is no fixed direction. My boat goes from one place to another. I had no desire to be a film maker during my childhood but I always wanted to do something creative, like writing. When I moved to Paris, I didn’t have sufficient financial aid. The French Cinematheque was close to my house and I would go there as it was cheap and warm inside. That’s where I fell in love with films and found my calling in life. It was accidental.
How difficult was it for you to set up your own production house?
When I graduated from film school, it was very difficult to be integrated into established film crews. I was young and I had no one to guide me. Seven of us who studied together put in some money to set up our own production house under which we shot many short films. It’s a difficult business but it’s also a great business. There is no security hence parents are not generally supportive. But it’s the best job in the world. I had to work myself up the ladder, for that you need to have perseverance, passion and you have to be crazy. Only then can you succeed.
Do you think aspiring film makers need a technical degree in order to be successful?
A professional degree helps you to be a successful in any field. Today technology is so important that we must be able to dominate it and for that we first need to understand it, only then can we master it.
You have worked both in the American and French Film Industry. How different do you find them?
I have worked in France, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Italy, and New Zealand. And I found that the industries were different but my job was the same. I got to direct films in Hollywood under giants like MGM but I didn’t like it. Hence I moved back to France. I made a life choice, not a career choice and I’m happy. Many of them working in Hollywood would envy that.
And what do you think about the Indian Film Industry?
The Indian Film Industry is vibrant and energetic. Bollywood films are popular in France as well. But I am not an expert on it and would like to know it better.
What kind of films do you like to watch?
I watch American and European Cinema. I am also a huge fan of silent films. Pre code films are also one of my favourites. Those were the movies made before the enforcement of censorship in America and had a great presence of women. In 1920, nine out of ten screen-writers were women. This trend is coming back. In France, 30% of the feature films are directed by women. This is why I was so happy to see so many female students at School of Communication, Manipal. I really feel the future of the industry is tied up to the presence of women in it. Women will make the world a better place.
Financial constraints often bring about changes in the script. How do you deal with such problems?
Financial constraints are a fact of life in the film industry. You need to hire many people and need millions of dollars. It is a business and the producer needs the movie to make good money. But as artists, we have our stories to tell. Limitations also produce creativity. We all want freedom but some of the best movies are made in countries where there is censorship. The artist has to be more intelligent, clever and creative to get around the censor. The best Soviet films were made under the communist rule. In the west, we have financial censorship. The script writer doesn’t keep the constraints in mind while writing the script. It is the director who has to find a solution.
So what according to you makes a good story?
A good story has several elements to it. First, you have to create characters that are likeable and interesting. Second, you have to create problems for those characters to overcome. Third, is to create resolution for their problems. All stories must be character driven. As a writer, you must know the psychology of your character which has to remain consistent. Situations must be realistic to the character. I write a little biography of each character before making a film. Aristotle laid the foundation for storytelling and it hasn’t changed. Whether it’s a documentary, feature film or television series, the basis is the same.
Any messages for aspiring film makers?
Firstly, films require team work. Great directors know how to work as a team. Each technician is an artist. Secondly, you have to have a great vision. This vision must be communicated to the team because everyone will be working on the same movie. Thirdly, your passion and commitment is very important. And lastly, you have to be pro-active. You must be ready to act before being asked for it. You have to be independent and punctual. And that will help you to move up the ladder. I personally hire such students or at least recommend them to others.
Edited by Sakhi Todi