François Truffaut’s ‘Bonnie and Clyde’: How the French New Wave Legend Nearly Directed the Iconic Film

François Truffaut was a revered member of the French New Wave, but few people know about the filmmaker’s longtime friend and colleague, Helen Scott. Serge Toubiana, the president of Unifrance and the former director of the Cinematheque Française, aims to change that with his new book. “The American Friend,” which will be published by Albertine Books in March 2020, tracks the life of Scott in New York and Paris as the writer and translator played a key role in Truffaut’s career.

At one point, that included her insistence that Truffaut direct “Bonnie and Clyde” at the height of his popularity. While Arthur Penn eventually directed the seminal 1967 film, the history of Truffaut’s involvement in the project is retold in this exclusive excerpt — entitled “The Bonnie and Clyde Hypothesis” — from Toubiana’s book, translated into English for IndieWire.

Helen Scott was given the film treatment for “Bonnie and Clyde” by Eleanor Wright-Jones, at 33 a talented young woman who had been working as an assistant to Lewis Allen for three years. She read scripts and encouraged authors to write them. She also helped choose actors for the films her boss produced. Helen was captivated by the real-life tale of a couple of young criminals, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, famous for their numerous exploits in the 1930s. “The screenplay is clearly perfect for you!,” she wrote in a letter to Truffaut.

She drafted a three-page memo setting out the adventures of this legendary pair, sometimes in crude detail. “Clyde approaches Bonnie, who’s a pretty girl, and sweet talks her, boasts that he’s just out of prison, invites her to go for a ride in his car. On the journey he commits a small burglary with such ease that not only is the girl able to play a part but she is aroused. They find a quiet spot in the countryside and make love. The girl, supremely passionate, is the aggressor. A few minutes later we see them in the car and he seems miserable and humiliated while she is irritable and obviously disappointed. Nonetheless, he’s a smooth talker and we understand that his years in prison have left a trace of homosexuality. Having decided to seduce this woman, he succeeds by making her realize that anyone can sleep with her but only he can give her an exciting life and make her a star.”

Helen described “Bonnie and Clyde” to Truffaut as though it were a twin film to “Breathless” or something close to it. She anticipated Truffaut’s response: “My first reaction was that it’s too American to be made by you but the many nuances which lend themselves so well to your talent have changed my mind.” She recommended that Madeleine read the screenplay and then have it translated into French.

“Hitchcock / Truffaut”

David Newman and Robert Benton were working as editors for Esquire magazine. Eleanor Wright-Jones had encouraged them to write the screenplay for “Bonnie and Clyde,” and she had held the rights for two years. It was therefore in her interests to move the project forward as quickly as possible and she didn’t exactly find the idea of entrusting direction of the film to François Truffaut displeasing. Quite the contrary — as long as he had full artistic control of the film and she appeared in the credits as associate producer and received a percentage of the film’s takings. Helen, who was acting as an intermediary between Eleanor Wright-Jones and Truffaut, wanted her role as agent to be taken into account. In particular, “if the film had to be handled by a company like United Artists or MGM, I would like to receive payment for my work.”

Having originally planned to shoot the film on location in Texas to remain true to the exploits of the legendary couple, it was even envisaged that the film be made in France to satisfy Truffaut. It was suggested that Jean-Paul Belmondo play Clyde Barrow.

Robert Benton, one of Bonnie and Clyde’s two scriptwriters who subsequently went on to direct, amongst other things, the well- known Kramer vs. Kramer film, is best placed today to describe this episode which had a significant impact on him professionally-speaking. He got to know Helen when she was working at the French Film Office: “My co-scriptwriter and I became friends with her because she let us know in advance about the release of really interesting French films in New York. We were influenced by Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer and Chabrol. When we started writing ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ with David [Newman], we didn’t have the slightest idea how to write a screenplay. We wrote a sort of presentation, a sort of virtual screenplay, without any dialogue. Helen was at a reception and we talked to her about our project. She was sufficiently impressed with what we showed her that she sent it to Truffaut, telling him she loved it. Thanks to her, Truffaut took our project very seriously.”

As soon as he received the script, Truffaut gave it to Claudine Bouché, his film editor who was completely bilingual. He was busy editing “The Soft Skin” at the time and “Bonnie and Clyde” was the least of his concerns. Helen kept pushing, convinced that the screenplay of “Bonnie and Clyde,” associated with the name of François Truffaut, would easily find funding in America. She spoke highly of the kindness of Eleanor Wright-Jones and the two scriptwriters: “Working with them will be no problem. They admire you like mad.”

Truffaut waited to read the French version of the screenplay, which was being translated. He then promised to send a detailed note to the scriptwriters so that they did not develop it in a different direction to the one he wanted, “unless I’m disappointed when I read it and abandon the project.” He had two or three people he trusted read the screenplay: “General enthusiasm and encouragement to make the film”, he wrote in a letter to Helen. But he wanted to know more about the writers and how they knew Helen.

At the same time, another idea had grown in his mind: giving the “Bonnie and Clyde” project to his friend Godard. Busy editing “The Soft Skin,” behind with the finishing touches to his book of conversations with Hitchcock, still hoping to start work on “Fahrenheit 451” and bogged down with the vagaries of a production out of his control, Truffaut could not make “Bonnie and Clyde” a priority.

In the spring of 1964, he traveled to New York to meet Lewis Allen and try to clarify the situation with regard to “Fahrenheit.” He also met the two scriptwriters of “Bonnie and Clyde.” “His English was better than my French,” remembers Robert Benton, “but it was still complicated. With Helen acting as interpreter, he spent two days discussing the script with us, dividing it into units as he put it. We actually kept one of his suggestions in the script. It happened at the Regency Hotel, if I remember correctly. And then he went back to France where he was trying to set up ‘Fahrenheit 451’ at the time and there were problems. Then he wrote to tell us that ‘Fahrenheit’ was going to be made and he didn’t want to work on more than one film at once. He had arranged a screening of a wonderful American film, “Gun Crazy,” because he thought it had the same spirit “Bonnie and Clyde” should have. Jean-Luc Godard was sitting just in front of us at the screening with a very pretty young lady.”

Francois Truffaut

George Brich/AP/Shutterstock

Truffaut took a long time to give an answer, something that distressed Helen, especially as a new project was taking shape: an adaptation of “The Bride Wore Black,” a piece of noir fiction by William Irish. Pushed by her friend to find out Irish’s address, Helen investigated: “My dear Francisco, I know the name of William Irish very well. I know that he also writes under several other names and didn’t expect any problems. In fact, he is rather mystifying. A dozen ‘phone calls to my regular sources have indicated that he does not have an agent, walks about unshaven wearing espadrilles, often changes his address, used to live with his elderly mother until she died, is extremely eccentric and something of an alcoholic. One thing led to another, you know how patient I am, and I eventually found him, in person, using the following name and address: William Irish, Sheraton-Russell Hotel, 37th Street & Park Avenue, New York City.” Helen Scott could tell a tale in an admirably succinct fashion.

In the face of her friend’s endless postponements, Helen continued to campaign energetically for “Bonnie and Clyde” because, she wrote, “I have not read ‘The Bride Wore Black’ but I would rather you tackle a ‘profitable’ film after ‘The Soft Skin’ rather than ‘Fahrenheit,’ which represents a risk. That’s why I approve of ‘The Bride,’ especially with Jeanne, or ‘Bonnie and Clyde,’ or any other project which promises to be a popular success. I think this timing issue is very important for your career: whether it’s Allen or another, I’d prefer ‘Fahrenheit’ be put off until later.”

It was rare for Helen to interfere in this way with Truffaut’s choices or priorities, but she was playing her role of adviser to the full, conscious of her friend’s international career. She resisted the Godard option for “Bonnie and Clyde”: “They are very fond of you. They also know that I like this screenplay a lot but I have always cautioned them, giving them the arguments which would work against this project.” She also feared that “Band of Outsiders” and “A Woman Is a Woman,” screened simultaneously at the New York Film Festival, “are not going to inspire American backers to put up money on the basis of his name”. And she immediately asked to Truffaut to write to Eleanor Wright-Jones to tell her of his refusal to commit to directing Bonnie and Clyde. “You owe them such honesty, François”.

Truffaut complied and wrote to Eleanor Wright-Jones. Although he found the changes made by Newman and Benton excellent and he continued to think that it was a very good script, unfortunately he had to reply in the negative, reasoning that he wanted ‘Fahrenheit’ to be “the first film I make in America. I took the liberty of having my friend Jean-Luc Godard read it and he too liked the screenplay a lot. He makes many more films than I do because he is very quick at all stages: preparation, filming, finishing touches. I don’t know whether you would like him to direct this film. I am convinced that he would be the perfect man for the job. He speaks fluent English and he could make you a sort of American ‘Breathless.’”His final sentence speaks for itself: “I must admit that, of all the screenplays I have refused over the past five years, ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ is by far the best.”

Robert Benton remembers meeting Godard with the two producers slated for Bonnie and Clyde: “Godard was used to working with European producers and Truffaut thought that our producers worked “the European way,” i.e. they had found the money and we could go for it. These two young American producers, who were really nice but inexperienced, said to themselves: OK, you’ve got a script and a director. When you’ve got both you take a star, you strike a deal with a studio and you move forward. They didn’t want to look like they didn’t know what they were doing. One of them said to Godard: “You do know the film has to be made this summer?”; Godard, who actually wanted to make the film in the winter, got up and said: ‘I’m talking about cinema and you’re telling me about the weather.’ And he left.”

That was the end of Truffaut’s idea of Godard making ‘Bonnie and Clyde.’ The film, which would go on to be directed by Arthur Penn and star Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, was hugely successful when it was released in 1967. Benton and Newman wrote other successful screenplays: “There Was a Crooked Man,” directed by Joseph Mankiewicz in 1970, “What’s Up, Doc,” directed by Peter Bogdanovich in 1972, and “Superman,” directed by Richard Donner in 1978, among others. As for Robert Benton, he directed his first film in 1979, “Kramer vs. Kramer,” which won no fewer than five Oscars.

On Monday 2 December 2019, at just after 11 o’clock in the morning, I was walking through Paris on my way to a meeting. On the telephone, Jean Narboni was recalling an amusing incident dating back to January 1968, so 50-odd years ago. It was when “Bonnie and Clyde” had been released in France. Cahiers du Cinéma, for which he was then one of the editors, had published an interview with Arthur Penn by Jean-Louis Comolli, and Andrew S. Labarthe in its December 1967 issue. Arthur Penn had casually stated as follows: “Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway didn’t get on at all. They were very angry with one another. He and I got on very well but I was quite protective, even paternalistic, towards my actress. I told her: ‘Look at Clyde’ – over in the direction where Warren was supposed to be.

“Bonnie and Clyde”

“But at the last minute, I moved Warren out of the way and took his place. It worked so well that she had a very tender expression on her face, very sweet. And I kept that expression – even though she moved slightly in surprise, which broke the shot. I kept it because I wanted it and I’d been looking for it.” These words, like the rest of the interview, were actually translated from English into French by Helen Scott.

Shortly afterwards, Beatty was in Paris to promote the film, which he had also produced. He was absolutely furious when he read the interview in Cahiers du Cinéma. One morning, at about 9 a.m., Jean Narboni was alone at the magazine’s offices, then located at the premises of the Filipacchi Group. He was very surprised to see Beatty arrive accompanied by Scott. She didn’t say a word, but let the actor talk with great passion. He was angry to have read such things in an magazine that was supposed to love cinema but which, in his words, was printing gossip worthy of a the worst kind of tabloid. He did not believe Penn could ever have said anything so far from the truth. As luck would have it, Jean Narboni found the tape of this interview with Penn on a shelf. But, although he looked everywhere, he could not find a tape recorder to listen to it again in front of his two visitors.

The trio left the office and went to find an electronics shop. Beatty, who did not look happy, was immediately spotted in the street and accosted by several young women. They finally found a shop where the sales assistant, recognizing the American actor, welcomed them very warmly and lent them a tape recorder. The tape was played and then came the moment when Penn spoke about the bad blood between the two actors.

Beatty was very sad to recognize the voice of his director. He took Narboni in his arms, babbled his apologies and embraced him. He was sorry to have denigrated Cahiers du Cinéma. Then he took his wallet out of his pocket and removed a wad of notes, which he held out to Helen Scott. She explained to Narboni with a crooked smile that she had just won a bet with the actor. She knew perfectly well that Cahiers du Cinéma was a respectable kind of magazine and would have never permitted itself to put words into the mouth of a director. Beatty had thought the opposite. He’d gambled and lost.

Toubiana will be participating in a discussion of his book as part of the Rendezvous With French Cinema series in New York on Sunday, March 8.

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