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Carnage: An Interview With Yasmina Reza

This is the story of Le Dieu du Carnage, the international hit play by acclaimed novelist and playwright Yasmina Reza. Based on a real-life incident, translations of Reza’s satirical comedy won an Olivier Award and a Tony® before director Roman Polanski and Reza wrote a new translation, for the screen. Ray Morton talks to the celebrated writer.
John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster in Carnage; Sony Pictures Classics

John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster in Carnage; Sony Pictures Classics

When a fracas in a Paris playground leads to a minor injury, the parents of the battling boys meet to discuss the confrontation. As the encounter begins, both of these well-educated, upper-middle class couples are determined to take the high road, but as the conversation becomes more and more contentious, the polite facades of all four participants begin to crumble until the afternoon degenerates into a hilariously vicious free-for-all that strips away their civilized veneers and exposes the contradictions, hypocrisies, and prejudices of everyone involved.

This is the story of Le Dieu du Carnage, the international hit play by acclaimed novelist (Hammerklavier) and playwright (Art, Life x 3) Yasmina Reza. Based on a real-life incident, Reza’s satirical comedy debuted in Zurich in December, 2006, and in Paris (in a production directed by the author) in January, 2008. An English-language translation (by Christopher Hampton) called God of Carnage opened in London in 2008 and won the Olivier Award for Best New Play. An Americanized version of that translation opened on Broadway in 2009 and won a Tony® Award for Best Play.

Continuing its remarkable journey, Le Dieu du Carnage has now been brought to the screen in a Brooklyn-set adaptation called Carnage, which was written by Reza and the film’s director, Roman Polanski. Starring Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, and John C. Reilly, Carnage won the Leoncino Prize at the 2011 Venice Film Festival and was the opening night selection at the 2011 New York Film Festival. It opens in New York and Los Angeles on December 16, 2011.

Yasmina Reza recently spoke via e-mail to Script about her work on Carnage :

Script: Where did you get the idea for the original play?

Reza: I based it on a real event. I heard the story of the ‘broken tooth’ from one of my son’s friend’s mothers. She told me the whole story and finished by saying: “And can you believe it, the parents even called us!” I immediately thought that I could find material in this story.

Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet; Sony Pictures Classics

Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet; Sony Pictures Classics

Script : After you got the initial idea, how did you develop the story and themes of the play as we now know it?

Reza: I imagined a meeting between these two pairs of concerned parents. I defined their characters, and made the worst choice of my life: to write their encounter in real time!

Script : Who first proposed making the play into a film?

Reza : Roman Polanski.

Script : How did you initially feel about the idea of transforming your play into a film ?

Reza: I had never previously sold film rights to any of my plays. Not out of any principle, but because no interesting artistic offer had been made to me. It’s not my goal in life to have film adaptations made of my plays. What can convince me is the proposal from a director that I admire. Roman had seen the production that I had directed in Paris and asked me a month later if the film rights were still available. I immediately said yes, simply because it was him. He is a genius at telling stories set in confined spaces, with dramatic tension, and I really like his brand of humor. He also offered that we write the screenplay together.

Script : What was your collaboration with Polanski like ?

Reza: We worked together, in a small office in his Swiss chalet. We wrote the script very quickly, but that was all we focused on. When we had a disagreement, we would play out the roles to convince each other (we both have experience as actors). I loved those moments. There were not many drafts. We quickly came up with a version that satisfied both of us. Then there were some refinements of course. We added elements that didn’t make it in the film later on (dialogue of people of the other end of phone calls) and then some touch ups after the translation (the script was written in French). The play was written to proceed in real time and Roman wanted to keep that principle. That obliged us to keep a strict framework. Even if there were a lot of changes, they remained within this framework.

God of Carnage is the only play of mine that I agreed to change the location of the story. And only for the US version! In my view, characters are conditioned, body and soul, by their place of origin. But James Gandolfini, who was preparing to play the role of Michael on Broadway, wanted to see if we could try a New York version. I like this actor a lot, so I accepted to try to transpose it to Brooklyn – a place that has a similar spirit to Paris. The result was positive and didn’t betray the play. There were actually not a lot of changes other that the names of the places and a few marks.

Roman Polanski wanted to shoot the film with English-speaking actors. Since I had already had that experience with Broadway, I didn’t object. That being said, I would not have had the same resistance to changes with a film, since films are inherently adaptations.

Script : Were you present on the set during shooting ?

Reza: I did visit the set a few times, just for fun. I no longer had any role on the film. Once or twice I may have given a few notes on tiny modifications in the dialogue, but nothing more. Roman had rehearsed the actors on the entire script between the first reading and the shoot. The most moving moment was when I got a complete tour of Dean Tavoularis’ magnificent set. There were no cameras and Roman took me by the hand to show me how the characters moved through the space.

Script : For you, what is the difference between writing for the stage and writing for cinema? Do you prefer one over the other?

Reza: I don’t consider myself a playwright but rather an author. I have written plays as well literary novels. But writing for the screen only makes sense if it is for my own film project or for an enthusiastic filmmaker.

Carnage, starring Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly, and Christoph Waltz, opens wide December 16, 2011.