How a six-month trip across Europe inspired 'The Truffaut Affair' film
When Matthew Ben Miller went backpacking across Northern and Western Europe a few years ago, the last thing he had on his mind was a feature film.
But, as he made his way through Ireland, England, and eventually France—where the bulk of his travels occurred—the more cinematic his adventures became.
Like scenes straight out of a movie, Miller danced in the rain with a group of French youth, he was invited by strangers back to their farm for dinner and a wine tasting, and he ate so many pears off a tree in a little town square he got sick and worried the little old lady bathroom attendant.
Miller arrived in France on July 6, 2021, as part of a six-month trip.
“I had been learning French, though I’d yet to speak it in person with real French people, I had never been to Europe … and was lost in life,” Miller said. “So, it was the right ingredients in the blender.”
Miller said he will never forget drinking-in the beautiful cities, touring the amazing architecture, and traveling the dirty cobblestone streets.
“The accents, the history—I remember going into a boulangerie and buying my first baguette in French,” he said. “It was a different way to live and that’s stuck with me. I met strangers who were like me, and strangers who certainly were not. I slept in strangers’ apartments, and blindly took greater risks—likely out of necessity. And I realized my French-speaking level was much worse than I thought it was.”
Miller’s favorite things about France?
“Enjoying l'apero along the Seine in Paris,” he said. “L’apero is like snack time before dinner. It’s almost a ritual for the French. You generally eat things like peanuts, baguettes, cheese, and drink a beer or have a glass of wine. This is done, usually, from 5-7 p.m. before dinner.”
He added, “They eat dinner very late in France! Often it was around 9 p.m.”
Miller’s least favorite part of the trip?
“The couch-surfing. I had many stressful days of waking up in the morning and not knowing where I would spend the upcoming night,” he said. “And then you sometimes sacrifice judgement because you’re in need of a bed, so you stay with rather shady people. Wandering the street at 3 a.m. with your travel bag and looking for a motel that’ll take you—I don’t miss those moments.”
How were the people?
“People are really the same all over. And the people are what make or break the city,” Miller said. “I spent time in a lovely city called Nantes but the man hosting me was a complete nut-job. He believed the aliens were using covid to harvest the human race. On a positive side, I stayed with a girl, Claire, in St. Malo. She was the absolute best. Very kind, spontaneous, and her personality was effortless. She was my favorite host.”
He added, “When I went back to France a year later, I stayed with her again, this time in Annecy, a small lake town where my great-grandmother is supposed to be buried. So, I took a bike, and went to the oldest cemetery. I spent hours looking for her with no luck.”
How were you treated as an American?
“I spoke French with anyone I interacted with, so I don’t believe they pegged me as the traditional ‘American.’ If anything, they saw me as a chance to practice their English,” Miller said. “But, as time went on, my accent improved to the point I was on a night bus in Paris—I had just watched Lost in Translation in an old cinema—and I started speaking with someone on the bus. They couldn’t figure out where my accent was from.”
He added, “They tried Spain, Germany, Mexico, Canada, and Eastern Europe, but never got American. The whole bus seemed to be listening in, because, as I disembarked, a few people congratulated me on my ‘non-American’ accent.”
Any adventures along the way?
“Ah, I (almost) went skinny dipping with a few hitchhikers. Though I didn’t join them out of embarrassment, and I don’t really know how to swim,” Miller said. “When I was in Ireland, after an aggressive host tried sleeping with me upon my arrival, at about 7 a.m., I took to the streets and wandered Dublin til about 7 p.m. Dog tired, I was on a bridge when I heard French spoken behind me. It was a group of men and a girl. This group invited me along, and I ended up crashing at the girl’s place for a week.”
Miller also had the chance to share a fun late-night meal.
“I met this retired chief of police in Rome. It was about midnight, I had time to kill, so I left the train station for a pizza. They closed right after they served me, so when an older fellow showed up too late for pizza, I invited him to share mine,” Miller said. “He was a character. An Italian in his 70s, a lady-lover, a life full-lived, and he spoke French very well. He told me he knew Ennio Morricone back in the day. Good friend.”
Most beautiful French places?
“Annecy, a small town in France, is 45 minutes from Switzerland. Paris, the cemeteries in Paris. Brittany. Blois, a town in the center of France that I’ll move to someday.”
What was your travel route?
“There wasn’t one. Everything was spontaneous or based on where I could find someone to host me. I took rideshares, busses, and trains to get where I needed to go.”
Anything that surprised you?
“Someone began to teach me how to drive a manual in France. I was surprised they trusted me with their car like that!”
What were some similarities to, and differences from, American life?
“It’s largely different. America is a land of religion, France is a land of art. Or culture, as they’d call it. The rhythm and purpose of French life puts the focus on living rather than work. They laugh at our big SUVs and trucks. They all drive manuals over there. They’re more honest in France. They like their rituals of smoking, drinking wine, and eating bread,” Miller said. “They perhaps like Americans, but do not respect them entirely. Americans are often seen as obnoxious and ignorant. Specifically in Paris or touristy towns.”
He added, “The biggest takeaway was the French allowing themselves the time to live. To go out, enjoy a picnic at a park. Talk for hours over a few beers. Granted their bars and parks are much more beautiful than what we have here.”
Would you encourage others to travel France?
“Traveling and seeing new cities is a fountain of youth in its own way,” Miller said. “It reminded me of being a little kid and running through the creek and everything was somehow new.”
Miller’s advice to travelers:
“Go with no expectations and ask nothing of others. Be a fly on the wall and drink it in. There are many rough eggs, but it’s somehow all worth it when you meet someone you could be friends with forever.”
Having many of his plans put on hold for a couple of years—along with the rest of the world—Miller emerged from the pandemic ready to roll.
But, before the first frame could be shot, he would need a screenplay.
An actor/director at heart, Miller scoured his California contacts looking for a writer who shared his love of romantic comedy and road trip stories.
Then, during a chance encounter at a virtual networking event, Miller clicked with a Michigan-based writer and the two fleshed out a semi-autobiographical romantic road trip dramedy in the vein of Richard Linklater’s The Before trilogy.
Realizing the cost and scope of shooting a story which stretches from Paris to the small southern village of Sare, Nouvelle-Aquitaine, would require the kind of resources more appropriate for a later feature film, the duo set out to create a story containing many of the same elements—humor, romance, adventure … and Frenchness—on a more doable scale and in a more accessible location.
And so, they combined their love of French New Wave Cinema and Hollywood Film Noir to create an artful yet accessible adventure story that’s both funny and romantic.
The Truffaut Affair mixes a number of genres including romance, comedy, and action-thriller to create a modern adventure story with classical sensibilities.
“It’s like The Maltese Falcon meets The Wizard of Oz, which I know sounds crazy,” Miller said. “But it’s crazy in a good way.”
The Truffaut Affair is set to begin filming in Summer 2023 in Los Angeles.