Photo by Ken Lau.
Photo by Ken Lau.

Interview

Mary Stephen

BY ALIZA MA

A life-spanning conversation with the Hong Kong-born filmmaker and long-time Éric Rohmer editor, co-composer—and friend, who, off the set, was welcomed into the Rohmer circle, engaging in discussions on life and film, much music, and even more tea-drinking.

Mary Stephen and Éric Rohmer
Mary Stephen and Éric Rohmer

There is a congenial way in which Éric Rohmer’s films bond to our experiences of everyday life. They capture the vertices of human encounter—a chance meeting that leads to the beautiful and pure friendship; a long, meandering walk down a boulevard between quarreling lovers—with such lucidity and specificity that, to describe something as Rohmerian is to conjure up a constellation of attitudes about freedom, pleasure, and morality, and standards of realism and introspection as represented by not only the unforgettable characters in his films but also the mode his films were made in. These films synthesize with our own lived experiences and color the way we approach new life encounters. 

So it felt like a perfectly Rohmerian moment when, upon an early trip to Paris a friend offered an introduction to one of Rohmer’s closest collaborators, Mary Stephen. I knew nothing else about her except that she had been his longtime editor, co-composer, and that she was known for hosting the best Chinese New Year dinners. The woman I met—a brilliant multilingual Chinese Canadian émigré full of profundities and stories—had been, along with actress Marie Rivière, a main spokesperson for Rohmer at festivals and screenings even before his passing, owing to his emphasis on privacy. Now she travels the world and works as mentor and editor to an ever-growing array of established and up-and-coming international filmmakers, amassing a tremendous body of work that includes Blind Mountain (Li Yang, 2007), Last Train Home (Lixin Fan, 2009), The Swaying Waterlily (Seren Yüce, 2016), and, most recently, Love After Love (Ann Hui, 2020). Mary’s friendship has given me a precious glimpse into not only the profound inner workings of Rohmer’s productions but also the extensive influence of these films on contemporary filmmaking generations on, as reified by her own prolific career.

 

To begin, I wonder if you could talk about your background. What was your childhood like?

I was born in Hong Kong to a family of five children. My parents had a company selling construction materials in the postwar years, with stores on both the Hong Kong and Kowloon sides. They came from modest beginnings: my mother was a schoolteacher; my father had done many odd jobs in his youth, including construction work.

I spent my childhood in a large old-style flat near the famous Tiger Balm Garden. My maternal grandmother, who had been a concubine for my mother’s father, also lived with us. She died when I was about 10. I remember my mother saying that she was a woman who “never had a day of happiness.” Sadly, our old house was destined to be demolished to make way for a high-rise.

How did you first form an interest in cinema? 

The first film in my memory was a Hitchcock suspense-thriller. In those days, there were no age limits in cinemas, so my parents would take us to anything. I also started contributing to local newspapers, principally the Hong Kong Chinese Students Weekly, where I learned about the French New Wave. Cinema scholar Law Kar—the movie page editor at the time and still my mentor now—introduced films like The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim, Hiroshima Mon Amour, and Sundays and Cybèle.

When I was 15, my mother traveled to Canada to visit my older brother and sister, who were there studying. She asked my father to take me and my younger sister out to keep us entertained. I requested Blow-Up, which my father sat through approvingly, nodding like a connoisseur, until Vanessa Redgrave took off her shirt and came toward the camera with bare breasts. He didn’t say a word after that and never let me choose a Sunday film again!

I also started going to film-club screenings frequented by the same university students of the newspaper. From then on, I had only one desire: to go to Paris.

“At Reid Hall we learned about argots, or slang, using Godard’s Breathless. Who would have thought that just a couple of years later, I’d be working as the assistant of that film’s legendary editor?”

But first you moved to Montreal.

My mother’s trip to Canada was prolonged because unrest in Hong Kong began in 1967. We spent a year in Hong Kong with my father who was no fun for adolescent girls, so I explored the south side of Hong Kong alone and took French lessons behind his back. Then the whole family began life as newly landed immigrants. My English was good thanks to lots of solitary reading, but this first year in a new country was difficult. I was discriminated against, and refused to go to school for days. 

After showing aptitude in the subject, I went into a math program at Acadia University, but it quickly became clear that this was not the path for me. So I took art classes and started to think about the next step. I saw movement in all the still images from these classes. By the second year, I was majoring in Film. 

To this date, I apply my really good professors’ teachings to my editing and storytelling processes. The great, late collector of Hollywood star photography John Kobal taught a class on Hollywood musicals and subsequently became a regular correspondent and friend. Later, an encounter with him in London put me in the path of Mathieu Carrière and Jeanne Moreau, for my film project Night Fires, which was never successfully funded.

What precipitated your first trip to Paris? 

I often felt stifled in Montreal. Artistic pursuits were frowned upon in our family, but in my third or fourth year in Canada, my mother took me and my younger sister on a trip to Paris and London in an effort to give us some sort of a “cosmopolitan” education. I finally felt liberated driving by the bookstores and art galleries and vowed then and there to come back to Paris. 

After graduation from Loyola [the year it  became Concordia], I lingered in Montreal, not sure what to do with my life. I had a Canada Council grant to make a film traveling across the country with the other hitchhiking youth, but then my mother passed away, and I made a short film about that for my family. I enrolled in a yearlong master’s program at the University of Wisconsin, but it was one of those study-abroad programs, so my partner John Cressey—a photographer with his own Paris dream inspired by Brassaï—and I sold everything and took off to Paris. I knew in my heart that I would never return.

How did you initially find Paris as a student? What was your day-to-day like? 

For the first month we had French-language lessons at Reid Hall in Montparnasse. I quickly realized that the French classes I had been taking in Montreal were not enough to deal with daily life in Paris. At Reid Hall we learned about argots, or slang, using Godard’s Breathless. Who would have thought that just a couple of years later, I’d be working as the assistant of that film’s legendary editor?

With my new friend Ann Martin, I went to about five screenings a day. I discovered a tiny cinema at Maubert Mutualité, where a little film by Marguerite Duras called India Song was playing. I must have seen the film a dozen times. I was blown away by the images and soundtrack, the suggested ambiance of a hot and humid southeast Asia, the melodrama expressed in such an abstract and experimental way. I immediately wanted to make my own version of India Song—a “contrechamp” from the Asian woman’s point of view instead of Duras’s white colonial protagonist’s

Tell me about your first encounter with Les Films du Losange and Éric Rohmer.

I dropped out of the Wisconsin program in time to get a refund and started writing a short script. But having a script was not enough—we needed a budget as well. In this university program mainly focused on Semiology, we were allowed to audit all of Paris University’s courses, and someone found a weekly three-hour class at the Institut de l’art et l’archéologie, given by Eric Rohmer, so we all went. It turns out Rohmer was using a film he was preparing at the time, Perceval le Gallois [1978] to teach students how to create budgets.

In order to get a sample budget, I went to Les Films du Losange to see Mr. Rohmer. The secretary didn’t let me through, but she made a note. As I reached the door, I heard the phone ringing. It was Rohmer saying more or less that if I wanted to see a sample budget, I should make my way back to the office.

Upon that first meeting at Losange, what did you know of Rohmer? Had you seen his films? 

I knew that Rohmer was one of the first cineastes of the French New Wave. In Montreal, there was an ongoing show of his films at the Outremont Repertory Cinema, but I never went. I saw The Marquise of O when I arrived in Paris. My French New Wave idols were Truffaut and Resnais, and my dream had been to meet them in Paris. Somehow, I never ended up meeting either.

What did you discuss at that first meeting and what transpired after that? 

When I got back to Losange, Rohmer was with Fabrice Luchini.  I was not fluent in French, and very shy. Éric served us tea, and his usual little biscuits. Fabrice was rehearsing lines in medieval French for his role in Perceval le Gallois.

It turned out they were meeting that night to go watch Suzanne Flon in a play, as Rohmer was thinking of her for the role of Perceval’s mother. He asked if I wanted to come. It was at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, which is just a stone’s throw away from Rohmer’s office. As we walked, he talked to me about the architecture and history of the buildings we passed. Soon, this became a ritual: I would spend lots and lots of afternoons in Rohmer’s office. He would often say that I was the only person who could drink more tea than him.

Did you eventually talk to Rohmer about your film projects? 

Yes, definitely, all through the early years. When he knew me as a student, I was already making my first feature, Ombres de soie [1978]. For this low-budget film, we used a discounted editing room off the Champs-Elysées, mostly used for dubbing porno films. Rohmer came to watch the process as he was interested in outside-the-box forms of indie filmmaking. Later on, he used my VHS of India Song to teach economical filmmaking. This way of thinking influences me to this day. I think younger generations of filmmakers are fans of Rohmer’s cinema not only because of the content and form but also the method.

When and how did you first begin working with Rohmer on his films? 

After Ombres de soie, I wanted to stay in Paris and needed money, but I didn’t have a working permit. Rohmer asked if I would be Cécile Decugis’s assistant on The Aviator’s Wife, despite already having directed two films of my own. Cécile edited many New Wave classics, including for Godard and Truffaut. I obviously didn’t say no. Rohmer warned me that Cécile was very tough with her assistants and always made them cry. I said that was okay.

So I started working with Cécile as assistant. Not only did she never make me cry, we became good friends. We had dinner often, and she consoled me when I had heartaches. I don’t know what it is that bonded us. It could have been that I was a stranger in a strange town. She had a rich secret life that she never talked about: she was a fighter for the Algerian liberation movement and was involved in it so actively to the point of going to prison. She would tell me stories about Rohmer—or rather her own opinion of him. They had a straight working relationship, very different than what we had at the office. Though at first I might have been considered one of the “Rohmer girls” that he imposed on his editor, she very quickly adopted me. That’s how I started a working life in the Rohmer circle.

After that, I worked a little on the next two films, Le Beau Mariage [1982] and Pauline at the Beach [1983]. Then, I left for the south for personal reasons. When I came back to Paris seven and a half years later, Rohmer was the first to come to my rescue. By then, Cécile had retired, and Lisa [María Luisa García], who had  edited several Rohmer films after Cécile’s retirement, was busy working on a film with her companion, Jean-Claude Brisseau. Rohmer knew that I needed work quickly, now on my own with three little kids to feed. He told his producer that I would edit his new project, A Tale of Winter [1992] without even telling me first. Of course, I was overjoyed, but I hadn’t touched an editing table for over seven years. I had to relearn everything.

 

Rohmer’s films feel so hewn from real life. One imagines, especially looking at your Polaroids, his film sets to be a friendly atmosphere where people feel free to speak their minds, like his characters. How closely does that imagined reality match with your experience?

The world in his private office, where we, his friends, would gather, was exactly like how you imagine. The afternoon would be spent having tea, chatting about whatever subject was in the air, playing the electric piano, or listening to pieces of music he has been enjoying, mostly Mozart, Beethoven, or Bach. 

The world of his film sets, however, was not the same. They were very disciplined. He was very economical and definitely followed the motto that “time is money.” In the editing room as well, we worked seriously, almost mathematically. Only when he took breaks around lunchtime and made tea did we chat about other things. During those times, he would often tell stories about Chabrol, Godard, Truffaut, his fellow filmmakers. He didn’t allow other people into the editing room. In Asia, where I sometimes work now, visiting film sets and editing rooms is a convivial act. That would have driven Rohmer crazy! 

As his “chef monteuse” [chief editor], I was not allowed on set. This is because he wanted his editor to have fresh eyes. He would prefer that we work together, alone. Even his producers could only set foot in the editing room if absolutely necessary; they’d mostly only discover the films when we had finished cutting.

A hallmark of Rohmer’s films is the way the shot/countershot captures the pensive exchanges of dialogue between characters, which have such a lilting naturalism to them. Were the shoots very well planned out, or did a lot of it take shape in the editing process?

He planned his scenes out very carefully indeed. He was particularly fond of the shot/countershot type of setup, of course, and would continue to film characters even if they were not speaking, to capture the listener. He was sometimes more interested in the listener’s expressions than the speaker’s. It resonated a great deal with me. Now in my editing, whether fiction or documentary, I’m always looking for the countershot, the expressions or reactions of the person listening and reacting. Putting these together “composed” the naturalism you’re talking about. Though well-planned, the composition itself is made during the editing process.

Did you ever disagree on an editing or post-production choice, and how did this work itself out?

Not overtly. Our sense of rhythm was the same. However, I had a few tricks of my own on The Lady and the Duke [2001]. I also took to cutting into scenes without having characters enter the frame or exit the frame completely, which is something I still do all the time, in order to have a more dynamic rhythm within the shot. But usually his word would be the last.  

There may have been scenes I wasn’t particularly keen on, like long discussions on religion, but I knew they were central to his themes and preoccupations, so there was no need to “disagree.” Pascal Ribier, the soundman, once said very aptly, that we never really knew what he was trying to film or say, until we finished the film and saw the whole thing. It was as if we, the collaborators, were all holding a piece of the puzzle at a time, and only understood his full intentions when the whole puzzle came together.

How did the scene with you in The Aviator’s Wife come about?

He gave us the general idea of what he wanted the scene to be. It was written into the script, but Neil [Chen] and I concocted the dialogues ourselves, which Rohmer approved. He didn’t give a lot of instructions to us or to his professional actors. He really let their natural demeanor shine through. Diane and he would work on camera angles and how the actors should move in relation to the camera—or, rather, how the camera should move in relation to the actors’ movements. 

 

Mary Stephen in The Aviator’s Wife
Mary Stephen in The Aviator’s Wife

Tell me a bit more about your background in music, which led to your role as a co-composer for Rohmer. His soundscapes are such a vital source of his signature naturalism. 

Rohmer was a great connoisseur of classical music. He learned to play the piano when he was 70 and enjoyed singing a great deal, though he was completely out of tune! When I worked on The Aviator’s Wife, he wrote the little melody for the theme song with the lyrics and we went to his place to work on the harmonies of the accompaniment. This was because he knew I’d been playing piano since I was three and a half. 

After hearing the theme music for my first feature, Rohmer asked me to collaborate on the music for The Aviator’s Wife. But as I didn’t have a work permit then, I couldn’t put my name on anything. As the accompaniment was going to be on an accordion, [producer] Margaret Ménégoz introduced Rohmer to a young musician called Jean-Louis Valéro. He adapted our score to an accordion and that became the official arrangement for the music. Subsequently, he wrote music for several other Rohmer films.  

When I was editing A Tale of Winter, Rohmer was toying with theme music he had written a few bars of, but thought that Jean-Louis would laugh at. So I offered to complete the piece for him, though by that time I had been out of musical education for decades. I let Rohmer listen to my “composition,” which was really the continuation of the few bars of melody he had been humming in his head, with accompaniment. He loved it. We recorded it in my home with Pascal the soundman because Rohmer liked to have an “amateur” feel to his films, whether in the acting, the naturalism of the dialogue—as if improvised—or the music. Image and diegetic sound were the only two things that he didn’t ask for “amateurism” in.

In order not to be disloyal to Valero, Rohmer and I decided to concoct a pseudonym for the composer of the music. We settled on “Sébastien Erms”—Erms for ERMS for Éric Rohmer and Mary Stephen, and Sébastien because he loved Bach. He never gave away the secret until years and years later in an interview with a German journal. Shortly after, I was working at Vogue and had lunch with Jean-Louis. As a joke, I asked if he knew who this Sébastien Erms was, and he said, huffing and puffing, “Oh some young upstart, no doubt.” I imagine he was kind of joking, too, but he really didn’t know who it was. Quite a while later, I finally let him in on it. I think he forgave us!

What were your film-viewing habits throughout those years of working with Rohmer, as a cinephile? Were you going to the cinematheque regularly?

Strangely enough, throughout those years, I had rather neglected watching French films, though at the end of each year I got a big box of DVDs as a Césars voting member. In fact, Rohmer didn’t go to the cinemas much, he preferred watching TV series in the office and at home. While raising three children and working, I didn’t have as much time as I’d have liked to go to the cinema. But definitely in recent years, my focus has changed. 

My tastes have leaned more toward Asian cinema, especially Japanese, Korean, and, recently, Southeast Asian, Cambodia, Thailand, and Singapore, where new cineastes are emerging with very personal visions, as if they’re not as influenced by the Western film language. I am thinking of films like Yeo Siew Hua’s A Land Imagined, Davy Chou’s Diamond Island, Kavich Neang’s Last Night I Saw You Smiling, Sompot Chidgasornpongse’s Railway Sleepers, Anucha Boonyawatana’s Malila: The Farewell Flower, and Kirsten Tan’s Pop Aye

Mary Stephen
Mary Stephen

Rohmer’s characters are so cerebral. Did you talk about philosophical concerns throughout your friendship, subjects like God, Pascal, probability, “morality,” destiny that reoccur so frequently in the films?

Nothing about “morality,” no, he wasn’t a preachy type! With each friend, he discussed a different subject. Most of the time—and I think that is one of the most precious things about Rohmer—he was listening to us. He had a huge dictionary on the shelf behind him at his office, and often would take it out to look up whatever we were talking about, like the way people are always pulling out their smartphones today to Google something. 

In A Tale of Winter, Haydée Caillot’s character talked about karma and other subjects she had discussed with him in the office. He learned about things through our conversations, backgrounds, stories, cultures—and whatever resonated with him was transformed into his stories and characters. A precious lesson from Rohmer, who was never an egomaniac, was the importance of listening to and learning about others rather than flaunting what you know. He inspired so much trust that we would always be confiding our very intimate stories with him. He had a privileged relationship with each of his younger female friends, what the French call “l’amitié amoureuse.” These friendships all remained in noble and spiritual spheres. The one great love of his life was his wife, Thérèse.  

After his passing, Thérèse invited me to their home because she had found my script among his papers and thought I’d like to have it back. At one point, when I was helping her make tea, the light from the kitchen window fell on her beautiful blue eyes, and I suddenly understood, at that very instant, how he saw her. She told me that he loved singing, and that she had never said anything about how awful it was. “Imagine if I did,” she said, “imagine how badly I would feel now, now that he’s gone.” This was so amazingly pure and beautiful to hear.

“Rohmer liked to have an ‘amateur’ feel to his films, whether in the acting, the naturalism of the dialogue—as if improvised—or the music. Image and diegetic sound were the only two things that he didn’t ask for ‘amateurism’ in.”

This might be a silly question, but—since we know Éric Rohmer is a portmanteau of Eric von Stroheim and Sax Rohmer—did you use his real name Maurice when you talked or did you call him Éric? It seems like he had an affinity for making up code names!

No, for us he was always Éric... and we only met his biological family at the post-funeral get-together. His family marveled at meeting us, the Rohmer’s collaborators, as much as we were awed by meeting them. During this get-together, what was so strange and very moving, was that they referred to “Maurice” while we talked about “Éric,” but we were missing the same person.

With your post-Rohmer career, you have chosen to work more internationally. You were just in Venice with Ann Hui after editing her newest film, Love After Love. In many cases, you have worked with a diverse range of up-and-coming filmmakers on their projects in the roles of editor and/or mentor. Has this path been a conscientious one?

I never thought of having a post-Rohmer career. I remember a friend urging me to think about it around the time of The Lady and the Duke. Éric himself asked me during the editing of that same film—he was about 79, 80 by then—what I would do “after”...

 The opportunities that opened doors came by chance. At one point, INA [National Audiovisual Institute] was making documentaries about China. They needed an experienced Chinese-speaking editor for Zhao Liang, and they picked me. It was 2005, I was between Rohmer films and accepted. A trip to Beijing also precipitated a long and fruitful list of collaborations with Chinese filmmakers Du Haibin and Li Yang [Blind Shaft]. In 2007, I worked on 1428 with Du Haibin, about the Sichuan earthquake, and around the same time, I was editing Lixin Fan’s Last Train Home [2009] in Montreal.

On the surface, my work post-Rohmer seems very different. But many things I still do today come from how I was formed by the films with Rohmer, mainly the way a shot is handled in its length and its rhythm. My penchant for natural sound design and my suggestions to students or first-time filmmakers to do away with their overused soundtrack music are also from Rohmer. Clarity was a major concern for Rohmer. The first thing he’d ask when we cut a scene was, “Is it clear?” Of course sometimes you want to be deliberately “unclear” to impose intrigue, but even that has to be “clear.” 

It’s quite funny that sometimes those who solicit me to edit their documentary films don’t necessarily know that I’ve been Rohmer’s film editor, and, on the other hand, Eric’s own company and my ex-collaborators with Rohmer, are surprised that I actually also edit documentaries. They are seen as two very separate worlds, but maybe one has forgotten that Rohmer has a lot of documentary elements in his films, like in The Tree, the Mayor, and the Mediatheque [1993] or A Summer’s Tale [1996]. 

 Ann Hui’s world, which is more of a commercial system in Hong Kong—and now with mainland Chinese financiers—is quite divergent from Rohmer’s world. Indeed, coming from Rohmer’s world, I shouldn’t logically have landed in this commercial cinema, no matter how refined Ann’s style is. I’m often like an observer, an outsider. Such are the frustrations of working in this system, which is so totally different from the Rohmer system of intimate but totally independent filmmaking. I can’t think of a single Rohmer film I edited where I didn’t feel that the final film was totally what he wanted or that there was anything I regretted. However, I can’t say that with the post-Rohmer films, especially the fictional ones, where, for many reasons, there are things in the cut not completely in my thinking. 

You didn’t win awards with Éric Rohmer films, and one of Éric’s provocations was saying there shouldn’t be editing awards because the best editing is invisible. But in some ways I agree with him. You don’t always know how much of the editing is the director’s instigation or the editor’s own contribution. We were in a bubble working with Rohmer: protected, respected, and cherished. Innocence and faith were always the key elements of a Rohmer collaboration. Out there is a wild world that’s not always pretty. •

Aliza Ma is Metrograph’s Head of Programming.

Mary Stephen. Photo by John Cressey.
Mary Stephen. Photo by John Cressey.