Micmacs: Interview with Director Jean-Pierre (Amelie) Jeunet

Jean-Pierre Jeunet is the writer/director of "Micmacs" the French film starring Dany Boon. The film was screened at the SXSW Film Fest and will be released in May by Sony.

What was the initial idea for Micmacs? The hero with a bullet in his head? The junkyard dealers? The weapon sellers?

 

As usual, everything came pretty much at the same time. Already, there's always in the heart of me that story of Tom Thumb I mentioned earlier… As for the idea of the weapon sellers, that's been rattling around in my head for a long time now. When we were editing The City of Lost Children in Saint-Cloud, next to the Dassault factories, we often went to a restaurant where the Dassault engineers went to lunch, too. They were very straight-laced men, in suit and tie, with nice looking faces, but I couldn't help thinking they were creating and manufacturing incredible weapons to destroy and kill other human beings on the planet! It didn't seem to bother them very much! I was upset and shocked by that. At the same time, I didn't want to make an intellectual piece; I wanted to make a comedy. And what could be more different from arms manufacturers than junkyard dealers?

 

From there on, it was easy to imagine that gang of scavengers was going to join forces against those businessmen of death. David and Goliath, once again… The idea came naturally, especially since I'd wanted to face off the arms sellers with a gang of characters like the toys in Toy Story – I really admire the work of Pixar. People who are unique, marginal, a little naïve, but each of them, like in Toy Story, has a character trait, something distinctive that serves the story, that helps move the plot forward. Eccentric avengers, clumsy, sometimes poetic, always united and above all, deeply human. Our other big influence is Mission Impossible – I'm an unconditional fan of the series. It's obvious that in the plot construction, in its twists and turns, in the tale of manipulations – the fake trip to the desert, for example – there are moments reminiscent of the television series Mission Impossible…

 

In what ways are you and co-writer Guillaume Laurant complementary?

 

It's hard to say. It's a mysterious alchemy. A true partnership, where working together is a joy, and above all, we bounce off each other so well that almost immediately, we can't tell who came up with what anymore. Between us, it's an endless game of ping-pong. It's also obvious that our worlds are in synch. I love playing with the French language – and so does he. If I've made the choice to shoot in France and in French no matter what it takes, it's to be able to play with the language. My greatest influence, of course, is the writer Jacques Prévert (The Children of Paradise, 1945). It all starts there. He's a constant source of nourishment for me. Guillaume and I have the same passion for Prévert, for the poetic realism dear to Prévert and director Marcel Carné (The Children of Paradise). I try to put that poetic perspective in all my films, and he has a natural tendency to go that way too… Matter of fact, when the dialogue gets a little too ordinary for my taste, I tell him, “We need to, „re-Préverize? that!” It goes without saying that we had a great time with the dialogue for Omar's character!

 

What was the most difficult part of writing Micmacs?

 

We just had to find the right balance between the gang of junkyard dealers, who look like they just walked out of Toy Story, and the weapon sellers, who are more serious types. We didn't want to make the weapon sellers too serious, or to make them into caricatures, either. That was another balance we had to find. That was why, knowing so little about the weapons industry, before starting to write, I made my own little investigation. With the journalist Phil Casoar, I met and questioned a man who had retired from a job at the highest level of the weapons industry, a former secret agent and an engineer from Matra… We also visited a weapon factory in Belgium – in France, that wasn't possible. Really nice people, technicians who talk so passionately about their factory it could be a chocolate shop, only when the new caramel they've just invented hits its target, it makes a tank heat up to 4500°! Which means that on the inside, everyone burns to a crisp in a fraction of a second! Terrifying. And they talk about it as if it were just a technological innovation! All the lines in the film that refer to the weapons industry are authentic, like for example: “We don't work for the Attack Department; we work for the Defense Department.” That's a pretty marvelous justification to keep your conscience clean! Except that their “products” are sold, and at the end of the chain, they cause suffering, mourning, death…

 

Was it relatively easy for you to find the right characters for the gang of junkyard dealers and determine how their distinctiveness would serve the story?

 

That's where we could have the most fun and play with fantasy. The idea was to come up with characters with a specific angle, a little like Moliere (The Bourgeois Gentleman, The Miser, The Misanthrope).. At first, there were a lot more than there are now. And then with each successive work session, we eliminated, distilled and kept the essential elements. And at a certain moment, I decided that it was good to have seven. First because it's a magic number and secondly, because the story is also a sort of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs! As a matter of fact, their names are descriptive, like the dwarfs' names: Mama Chow because she cooks, Slammer because he just got out of prison, Elastic Girl because she really bends and stretches like rubber, Buster because he's all bust and broken up, Remington because he types on a typewriter, Calculator because she instinctively calculates everything. Only Tiny Pete has the name of a Naïve Artist I like a lot. A sort of Postman Cheval who created a work called The Ride out of salvaged materials. The wild automated sculptures Tiny Pete makes in the movie are the work of a different artist I discovered at Halle Saint Pierre, near my home in Montmartre, where I go often, since I love Naïve Art and Art Brut: Gilbert Peyre. I created the character of Tiny Pete so I could use his artwork. Luckily, Gilbert Peyre likes my films and was willing to loan them to us. Once we had defined the characters, we just searched for ways their characteristics could help the story development, the logistics of revenge and the plot twists and turning points…

 

Bazil, how did you imagine him?

 

He drives the story. Twice a vi
ctim of weapon manufacturers – they made him an orphan and because of them, he has to live with a bullet in his brain that could kill him at any instant. Of course he wants revenge! Adopting him, the junkyard dealers, united – also adopted his revenge. The fact that he has a bullet in his head allowed us to slip into fantasy, delirium, imaginary worlds… like so many little films within the film, little parenthetical animated sequences, and all the things I love so much…

 

You originally wrote the character of Bazil for Jamel Debbouze (Indigènes), but once again, like with Amelie who was supposed to be played by Emily Watson instead of Audrey Tautou, nothing went as planned…

 

After Amelie, I'd promised Jamel I would write a part for him. So I did. I wrote Micmacs… for him, taking the risk, without telling him exactly what it was about. He was all excited. He was just as excited when he read the script, if not more. So we went into production, and a few months later, he called me to tell me he wasn't going to do Micmacs… for personal reasons, he didn't want to be working at the time. And actually, since then he hasn't shot a thing. Of course I respect his decision. But even so, two months away from shooting, that was… a little tough! Luckily, fate seems to smile on me, so that even if nothing happens as planned, in the end everything happens like it's supposed to happen! Right away, I thought of Dany Boon to replace him. I'd already had him somewhere in the back of my mind, as another possible choice.

 

What made you think of Dany Boon, who's so different from Jamel?

 

That's really hard to say. A sort of sixth sense, an inner conviction. As soon as I saw Audrey, I know she was Amelie, even though she couldn't be more different from Emily Watson. Here, it was the same thing. I just knew it. Even before Dany did! As soon as Jamel gave up the role, I contacted him and had the revised script sent to him – we'd erased some of what had been custom written for Jamel, more especially with regards to his handicap: at first, he was the one who jumped on the mine…. Right away, Dany's agent called me back to say he didn't want to do the film, that it was for Jamel, not for him. The film was dead. The week after, I rewrote a version for a female lead, and even one for a child. When you fall into icy waters, if you don't fight your way out, you die! And then, finally, I got hold of Dany. I said to him, “Listen, you're right, you shouldn't do it if you don't feel like it's for you, it's really too bad though because I like what you do a lot, I have for a long time now.” He said he liked my films a lot too and was sorry to turn me down. And right there, I put all my chips on the table, and said to him, “What if we got together for an hour? To do some screen tests, just for fun, now that we know you're not doing the film. Just to see if we think we could work together some other time.” He said yes. It went really well. While we were doing the screen tests, I said to him, “It's really too bad, look how well we get along, look how well our worlds fit together.” He had a great time, and that night he called me to say he'd do the film. And today, when you see Micmacs, you can't imagine anyone else playing Bazil. Exactly like Audrey with Amelie. A lucky twist of fate. On top of that, fate was so kind to me that the very day we wrapped the film, the day I was “free” again, and Chanel asked me to direct their new ad for Chanel N°5 with Audrey Tautou. With that, my triptych with her was complete!

 

After Dany Boon came on board, did you make a lot of changes to the script?

 

Guillaume and I continued the work we had started when we had him read the script. But it was more details than anything else. And then we did real screen tests, this time. Because compared to Jamel's shrimpy little figure, Dany was afraid he was too bulky, too muscular and that it wouldn't work. Right away we realized that his gentle, dreamy side and his obvious vulnerability made up for his size and even made an interesting contrast. Quite the contrary, we didn't need to worry about thickening him up a bit, putting a big wool sweater or bonnet on him, making him into a big clumsy teddy bear, making him exactly the opposite of what we'd originally planned…

 

What, in your opinion, is the best thing about him?

 

It's going to sound like an awful cliché, but I can't help it. First of all, he's an incredible human being who, after the huge success in France of Welcome to the Sticks, is still utterly modest and simple. During our entire shoot, I never once saw him in a bad mood, or late, or on the telephone. I never saw him complain or be mean to anyone. Really. On top of that, he's funny and a delight to everyone. And above all, there are things I love about him professionally. We know how funny he can be, but he's also efficient and feels very profoundly. He's very technical, rigorous, knows his lines impeccably and at the same time is extremely inventive, coming up with new things I never would have thought of. He's very consistent, yet is constantly searching, leaving all doors open and letting himself go to inspiration. For example, in one shot he spontaneously started acting a little like the great French actor, Bourvil. I loved it. And we kept it in the edit. There's also, at a certain moment, an obvious tribute to Chaplin…Same thing there. He came up with that. It wasn't in the script at all. It was while we were shooting, at one point he got the idea of playing the scene that way. Afterwards, in the edit, I emphasized it with music… What's really surprising is how consistent he is. There's never a take that's not as good as the others, it's astounding! What surprised me the most was seeing how comfortable I felt with him right away, which isn't always the case with actors. Is it because he's from the North and I'm from the East, that we've both been through hard times that we've both worked in animation? There's something easy and obvious between us. Like getting back together with an old friend. It's really rare… What's really disgusting is on top of all that, he writes, performs in shows and directs films! On that note, I love working with actors who are also directors, like Mathieu Kassowitz or Jodie Foster. You explain to them what you're doing – “There'll be a tracking shot there, I cut here and pick up over there” – and they understand. It simplifies things.

 

In the end, the only area you're not consistent in is the music…

 

Yes, because each time I try to find the music that corresponds the most with the spirit and story of the film. We had the idea of composer Carlos d?Alessio before we even shot Delicatessen. For The City of Lost Children, we immediately wanted Badalamenti because of David Lynch (Blue Velvet). On Alien: Resurrection, we had a young composer (he cost less for Fox!) who wrote in the traditional musical style of action movies. For Amelie, our collaboration was exceptional and entirely by accident – or by fate! – with Yann Tiersen. The osmosis between the image and music was unbelievable. For Micmacs, at first I wanted to do something a little more modern, a little more rap, to take old music from action pictures and sample them, but it didn?t work. It just so happened that we were looking for an excerpt from an old movie for the credits – the credits within the credits was an idea I'd had for a long time.

 

Looking through Warner's Bogart box set, I watched The Big Sleep again, and found exactly what I was wanting. All of a sudden, while listening to the music of The Big Sleep composed by Max Steiner, I thought it would be ideal for all the action scenes. Luckily, there were beautiful recordings, since it had been re-recorded in the 1970's. But that wasn't enough. Once again, fate struck, exactly like it did for Amelie. One day, Dany's lighting double, who runs a restaurant, gave me a CD of one of his clients. I listened to it in the car on the way to the shoot and thought it was good. I met the composer, Raphaël Beau, a young music teacher who teaches to troubled kids in the suburbs. I told him I was interested but couldn't promise him anything just yet. He composed 25 pieces without being hired! Each time he composed for a certain sequence, it didn't work, but as soon as we put his music on a different sequence, it worked like a charm! So in the end, I told him, “You?re the one who's making the film!”

 

In Micmacs, we rediscover the Paris you love, the traditional Paris of always, but this time it coexists with today's Paris and its contemporary architecture. It seems like you wanted to keep us guessing by mixing up periods, and not just with architecture. For example, there's that beautiful shot with the tramway and an old salvaged industrial tricycle… And also there's that use of YouTube at the end of the film…

 

I had fun with YouTube, with using something that's so popular right now, even though I'm often criticized for being too retro. And I had to hurry up to do it before other people got the idea. As for Paris, I tried to change a little, since by now I've more than made the rounds of the traditional Paris I love – the bridge pillars, the metro, the train stations… I liked the idea of mixing in certain elements of today's Paris that I love too, and anyway, I can only film what I love. So a magnificent building from the 30's meets up with the new Line T3 tramway, the open-air metro with a modern post office surmounted by a neon light, the skylight at Galeries Lafayette with a department of lycra sports clothes, the Musée d'Orsay with a contemporary coffee shop…The challenge was to glorify the same city, but a little differently, and this time to include the suburbs. But it's still a Paris, if not idealized, that's at least seen through my imagination, through my filter… I can't resist emptying the streets a little, cleaning up the sky, playing with the colors. But of course I really enjoyed shooting on the Canal de l?Ourcq at the Crimée bridge, which I love. Prévert was photographed there by the great Robert Doisneau, there's the Marcel Carné school nearby and you can see the Arletty boat pass by on the Seine… It's where the classic film Gates of the Night (1946) was shot, a film by Marcel Carné with Jean Vilar playing Fate. And as chance would have it, we shot the home office of one of the weapons companies at the Jean Vilar Theatre in Suresnes. I love those lucky signs! I totally maintain and defend the heritage of Carné-Prévert.

 

You seem to have – and you can even see it in the film, in the junkyard dealers' cave for example – a real love for craftsmanship, in the noblest sense of the word.

 

I love it. I love the actual making of the film and I need to be there at every stage, every second. It begins with the choice of paper for the storyboard, all the way to the mix and calibration. Many directors get bored with those stages of filmmaking. I love filmmaking every single moment. Crafting is the ultimate pleasure for me. I always feel like a kid opening up his Meccano box and playing with each piece. And no way can I leave an unused bolt at the bottom of the box! At the same time, I also feel like a chef in his kitchen. When he makes a dish, he chooses the ingredients, he invents, he simmers, and he takes risks. Of course he has to like the dish, but the only thing he wants is to share it with others. It's the same for me. The pleasure is only worth something if I can share it with the audience. In the end, in the spirit of Micmacs, we could sum it up by saying that cinema is tweaking and cooking!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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