First Person: Producer Don Boyd Recalls Working with Jean-Luc Godard on “Aria”

Jean-Luc Godard filming his segment Armide for the 1987 film Aria. Photo courtesy of Don Boyd

Jean-Luc Godard was one of 10 filmmakers to contribute to Aria, a 1987 omnibus film comprising 10 short pieces by as many directors, including Ken Russell, Robert Altman and Bruce Beresford. Each short uses an aria as a soundtrack/sound (Vivaldi, Bach, Wagner) and also as a thematic launching point. Producer Don Boyd recalls working with Godard on his segment, Armide. The short will screen Monday night at 7:00pm (in 35mm!) as part of the Godard Trailer Program, a free screening in our ongoing retrospective Jean-Luc Godard - The Spirit of the Forms. In this first-person essay, Boyd recounts how Godard decided to redo his segment after being dissatisfied with the first version and why he offered to buy 8mm cameras to give to 10 random people. Also included are rare set photos from the production, not previously available online. You can follow Don Boyd on Twitter at @hibrowser.

I first came across Jean-Luc Godard above a Leicester Square camera shop near the London Film School in 1968 when he came to London with One Plus One aka Sympathy for the Devil featuring the Rolling Stones. The room was packed with journalists and they were taunting him. This was the era of les soixante-huitards, and Godard’s outrageous vociferous political opinions were already legendary. One stupid tabloid hack asked him why he thought that his films deserved so much public attention and contemporary cultural validity. Godard paused and with absolutely no irony at all said, and I paraphrase from memory:

"I will give you £50: Go downstairs and buy ten 8mm movie cameras, and ten rolls of film. Take them into the street and stop the first ten people you meet there. Give them a camera each and a roll of film and ask them to make a film. Their film will have as much validity as mine, and certainly more than the article that you will write about me." This was one of the most inspirational  moments in my budding directorial career.

Jean-Luc Godard filming his segment Armide for the 1987 film Aria. Photo courtesy of Don Boyd

Eighteen years later he again demonstrated his creative modesty to me on a much more personal and significant level. He had agreed to contribute to my opera film Aria. I was ecstatic. The genius of French cinema and my directorial hero was going to work with me!  Apart from his courtesy and collaborative attitude to the entire project, (I had told him that he could film a glass of water for ten minutes if so he chose!), he altered his initial notion for the setting of his contribution inspired by an aria from Lully’s Armide, by changing locations from the Musée Rodin in the Rue de Varenne in Paris, to a sweaty body building gymnasium but not before consulting me and showing me the extensive research he had done. He then cast the film and  shot a ten minute sequence there—I was around and watched his efficiency, and rigor at play—and then he telephoned me in Milan in a panic a couple of days after we had wrapped.

"Monsieur Boyd you must come immediately to LTC Laboratoire in Paris and see the rushes." I stopped off on my way back to London and he arranged for me to see all the material, with no sound. The printed dailies had some blemished shots photographically but nothing particularly disastrous—one or two ‘matching’ problems, but nothing that wasn’t characteristic of material shot over 5 days. I ‘phoned him immediately the lights came up. He explained: "Monsieur Boyd these are a disaster! I cannot use them." I almost vomited! "Monsieur Godard, they seem ok to me. Surely salvageable? The ‘matching’ problems we can handle in the grading..."

Jean-Luc Godard filming his segment Armide for the 1987 film Aria. Photo courtesy of Don Boyd

By this stage I was shaking with anxiety, but trying to avoid any note of desperation in my voice. "Monsieur Boyd, I will have to reshoot! The grading is not the big problem. I have cast the wrong actresses. They are too self conscious. Too knowing. I have made a big mistake!" At this stage I choked: "Monsieur Godard, I cannot possibly afford to pay for another five days of shooting." And then he provided me with yet another astonishing example of his creative generosity. "Non, non, non. I pay. I will pay to recast and  reshoot!" I was absolutely staggered. I immediately thought that this might have been his subtle way of bowing out of the film. But he continued. "I will spend the next 3 months finding the right actresses, and when I have I will show you them and we will re-stage the shoot!"

And so he did… Months later he invited me to his home near Geneva at Rolle in Switzerland. He cleared the house and took me down to his studio where there was a six plate Kem flatbed editing table and about 100 ‘bobines’—each shot and corresponding magnetic track in reels—laid out neatly on ledges. Shot by shot this great master of the cinema took me though the construction of the eleven minute film that is now known as Armide. Using a tape splicer he quite literally glued the film together with picture and two magnetic sound tracks blended as identically in the final cut version that appears in the finished movie. He then rewound the reel and showed it to me uninterrupted. I was flabbergasted and exhilarated and when it was over I told him that he had fulfilled every possible ambition I might have had for Aria—the blend of image and great music to make great cinema. This great man burst into tears and hugged me as if his life had depended on my approbation! We then had a modest celebratory lunch. He told me that when he was a critic he hated reviewing bad films and would always try to find something good to say—even if it was just one image of a beautiful woman in a red sweater. He also told me that he really liked Bergman and chided me for not asking him to contribute to Aria. I wish I had.

Jean-Luc Godard filming his segment Armide for the 1987 film Aria. Photo courtesy of Don Boyd

Monsieur Godard would almost certainly deny all these stories now as my youthful exaggerations. But anyone seeing his JLG/JLG - autoportrait de Décembre might have gleaned what I did about him: impish, modest, self-deprecation and a little shy and sly with sentimentality oozing into his view of himself. All at odds with the false images too often peddled by the detractors of this genius. Intellectually arrogant? Misogynist? Duplicitous? Mean? No way! These encounters are my own cherished memories of a man that has remained my most influential cinematic inspiration.

One last anecdote: When we were shooting I caught him consulting some makeshift storyboards from time to time—his own crude stick men drawings of every frame! If only someone had taken up his offer of the £50 to buy those Super 8 cameras… of course nowadays we have our iPhones to promulgate ideas and  express our views publicly in the way that JLG has done in all his great movies.

Jean-Luc Godard filming his segment Armide for the 1987 film Aria. Photo courtesy of Don Boyd

Jean-Luc Godard filming his segment Armide for the 1987 film Aria. Photo courtesy of Don Boyd

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