Originally from Germany, Schurmann spent several years working in London, notably with the BBC World Service before a company takeover eventually brought him to Paris. He worked for several years at Eurosport as a commentator, mostly for American sports, but today divides his time between writing and freelance translation. Always a film buff, his passion grew as he got to know the city better, and today he lives on the almost permanant film set which the Montmartre hill has become. As soon as we leave his front door he is immediately able to point out the locations of two films and the previous apartment of one of France's top directors.
Our walk takes us through some of the more well known sites such as those used in Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain, but there are many surprises en route as well. Schurmann is meticulous in his research, sometimes spending hours in front of his television, pausing films at key moments and studying a scene in minute detail. He then walks around the approximate area of the shoot until he finds the eureka moment of the exact location and the precise camera angle. In this way he believes that he has made discoveries that are not documented elsewhere, notably with the film An American in Paris (the scene location is pictured at the top of this post). As he writes in the book,
"All the books on the subject say that the entire movie was shot on a Hollywood sound stage, where the original settings were more or less faithfully re-created, but if you compare the view you're seeing (here at the top of the staircase) with the film's final tableau, the similarities seem too striking to believe that we're merely seeing a recreation in the film"
A key location in 1998's Ronin.
As we walk we chat, and I point out to Schurmann that creating a successful walk is a little like producing a successful film; it needs to have a good beginning and end, and not to lose people in the bits between. He agrees, but points out that by following a movie walk in Paris people are unlikely to ever get bored or find their attention drifting. For American audiences, Paris is always used for a reason, and when Paris is chosen as a location it becomes one of the biggest stars in the film. To use it against type and send audiences to some non-descript corner of the 15th arrondissement for example would be like using Brad Pitt in a film and only giving him a walk on part. Why go through the trouble and expense of using this star if you don't then give audiences what they want? For this reason, almost all the locations described in the book are picturesque and often feature key touristic sites.
A case of life imitating art. The epicier featured in Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain was rendered 'more authentic' for the film, but the store owner has kept it in exactly the same condition since.
I ask Schurmann if there is there any film though that has taken the risk to use the city against type, and he thinks hard. The answer he gives is also his favourite film set in the city; The Bourne Identity. He calls it 'an andidote to the saccharine that's an occupational hazard for people who watch too many movies about Paris'. This is not Roger Moore fighting Grace Jones on the Eiffel Tower, but Matt Damon hiding out in a no star hotel in a forgotten corner of Belleville. All of the locations used are logical and realistic and as Schuermann says, 'give you a real feel for the city'. It is featured in no less than seven of the ten walks in the book.
Schurmann is not a frustrated director or screenwriter, but just somebody with a genuine passion for film. I'm even surprised to learn that he would not particularly be interested in working as a location hunter. 'Can you imagine how difficult that job would be in reality?' he asks. 'Sure Paris is a dream city for making films, but how do you find locations that haven't already been used twenty times before? You need to incorporate recognisable sites, yet find angles that are completely new'.
Perhaps Paris will one day become the faded star, the actress who appeared in too many films and who began to bore the audience. Schurmann thinks this unlikely given the fact that the city authorities are so helpful to film makers and because the city itself is just so adaptable. As we walk along the top of Rue Lepic, my guide explains that this street was used at the beginning of La Vie en Rose (Piaf). 'It's so easy to make this street represent any era' he explains. 'For this film they just had to put up a few old posters, put the extras in costume and find a horse, and it is immediately the beginning of the 20th century'. However, he does have many examples of films that were supposedly set in Paris but in reality were filmed in other, cheaper cities, with Budapest being a particularly popular alternative.
We finish the walk and I thank Schurmann for showing me sites I wasn't familar with. I am not especially passionate about the cinema myself, but I find the book nevertheless to be an informative and entertaining read. Featuring over 120 films, it gives regular historical and cultural asides, and is much like going on a walk with the man himself. The tone is light-hearted and amusing, and the book always gives readers opportunities to dip in and out and organise the walks in their own manner. Finally, as Schurmann points out, 'even if you don't like the cinema and don't know the movies, you're still going to see some great parts of the city!'
Paris Movie Walks by Michael Schurrman is available from Amazon in the US, and will be published in the UK in August.