Artist, The: Interview with Director Michel Hazanavicius–Part 1

Weinstein Company will release The Artist, a charming film, winner of numerous audience awards in film festivals, November 25, 2011

A silent film, in black and white? 

Seven or eight years ago, I fantasized about making a silent film. Probably because the great mythical directors I admire most all come from silent cinema… Hitchcock, Lang, Ford, Lubitsch, Murnau, Billy Wilder (as screenwriter)… But mainly because as a director it makes you face your responsibilities; it makes you tell the story in a very special way. It’s not up to the screenwriter, nor to the actors to tell the story – it really is up to the director. In this genre everything is in the image, in the organization of the signals you’re sending to the audience. And it’s an emotional cinema, it’s sensorial; the fact that you don’t go through a text brings you back to a basic way of telling a story that only works on the feelings you have created. It’s a fascinating way to work. I thought it would be a magnificent challenge and that if I could manage it, it would be very rewarding. If I said it was a fantasy more than a desire, it’s because each time I mentioned it.

I’d only get an amused reaction – no one took this seriously. Then the success of the two “OSS” films changed the way people reacted to: “I want to make a silent film.” It wasn’t perceived in quite the same way. But above all, Thomas Langmann is not a producer like the others. He didn’t only take what I said seriously, I saw in his eyes that he believed in it. It’s thanks to him that this film became possible. It was no longer a fantasy, but a project. I could start working. I told him I would look for a story, that as soon as I’d found it and it seemed to work, I’d come back and see him…

 Silent b/w silent film about the cinema as theme?

When I started to think about what this silent film would be, I had two possibilities. Either pure entertainment, a spy film in the vein of SPIES by Fritz Lang – which inspired Hergé to create Tintin in my opinion; or a film dealing with more serious issues, probably involving more work. This was more appealing to me, because as a result we would move away from “OSS”: I wanted to work with Jean again but didn’t want to end up doing the same things. I didn’t want this project to be perceived as a whim, or a gimmick, so I started looking for a story that could fit into this format.

Jean-Claude Grumberg, screenwriter and playwright, but also a friend of my parents, had told me the story of how one day, while he was talking to a producer about a silent movie actor who had been wiped out by the arrival of the talkies, the producer had replied: “That’s wonderful, but the ’20s, too expensive, couldn’t it be set in the ’50s?” I remembered this story and started to work in that direction, to look into that episode of the arrival of the talkies. I don’t make films to reproduce reality, I’m not a naturalistic director. What I love is to create a show and for people to enjoy it and be aware that’s what it is, a show. I am interested in the stylization of reality, the possibility of playing with codes. That how this idea of a film set in the Hollywood of the late ’20s and early ’30s, in black and white, was formed. I wrote very quickly, in four months. I don’t think I’ve ever written a screenplay so quickly. My starting point, linked with the desire to work once more with Jean (Dujardin) and Bérénice (Bejo), was: a silent movie actor who doesn’t want to hear anything about the talkies. I circled around this character but as soon as I got the idea of this young starlet and the crossed destinies, everything fell into place and made sense, even the themes – pride, fame, vanity.  An old-fashion vision of love, very pure, that also held with the form. Indeed, in my opinion, the silent movies that have not aged much, those that have withstood the test of time, even if I don’t want to compare myself to them, are the melodramas. The genre is ideal for this. Simple love stories that are accomplished films, even masterpieces. Moreover, if this could encourage audiences to watch these films again… In any case they gave me the desire to go in this direction, everything being lighter, more optimistic, more joyful despite everything.

Writing silent movie versus talking movie?

I didn’t alter the way I work, the only difference being that at a given point, contrarily to what I normally do, I didn’t write down the dialogues.

I didn’t stop during writing to ask myself pure directorial questions: how to tell this story knowing it is not possible to insert intertitles every twenty seconds? If there are too many new developments, if the range is too wide, too many characters, a complex plot, you just can’t do it visually. That was the complexity. I watched and re-watched many silent films to try to assimilate the rules of the form, to understand what I was going to be confronted with. I quickly observed that as soon as the story starts to grow unclear, you lose interest. It’s an unforgiving format, particularly today. People didn’t have too many points of reference at that time, they took the films that were given to them. But habits have changed today, codes have changed. The challenge was to determine the acting range; after that it was quite simple. What was also complicated was to keep telling myself that this project was worth it, that it could be completed. The film goes so much against current trends, almost anachronistic. We were right in the middle of the AVATAR craze, in full 3D mania. It was as if I was at the wheel of a 2CV with Formula One cars roaring around me!

 

Adding to the excitement?

Yes, but with time, over one and a half years, you can’t escape questioning, having doubts. Thankfully, what prevails most of the time, is the excitement of doing something special, of being different, and gradually seeing the film becoming a possibility, then a reality, and the amused expressions turning into interested ones.

Films that nourished your imagination and work

 There were many. Murnau’s films, particularly SUNRISE, which was considered to be the most beautiful film in the history of cinema for a long time, and CITY GIRL, which I tend to prefer… Frank Borzage’s films, which are in the same vein even though they’ve dated more. Murnau is timeless, modern even. Moreover William Fox, the founder of Fox, encouraged Borzage and John Ford to watch Murnau at work. Fox had brought Murnau to America because he was “the best director in the world.” After this experience, Ford made FOUR SONS, a magnificent film that really resembles a Murnau film, like one director replying to another. It was very moving. At first I watched anything that I could find, the Germans, the Russians, the Americans, the British, the French, but after all, it’s the American silent cinema that nourished me the most, because it suits me more and it is the one that imposed its reality right away… a closeness to the characters, the story… THE CROWD by King Vidor is a moving example. Chaplin’s films also. But Chaplin is so far above the rest that I was wary of him, because I think that what is true for him is true only for him. His work is unique. Then there are Eric Von Stroheim’s films. One of my favourite is by Tod Browning, THE UNKNOWN, with Lon Chaney. There are also some absolutely incredible Fritz Lang films. They nourished me tremendously, even if they have nothing in common with the film I made. It’s films like these that I showed the actors and the crew, more as references than as models of course.

Research about Hollywood in the 20s and 30s?

I read a lot of books – actors’ and directors’ biographies, but not exclusively. Research is very important. Not so much for historical accuracy, not to be realistic, because this is not at all what I’m after, but as a springboard to the imaginary, like foundations for a house.

I needed to conduct all this research. To feed the story, the context, the characters – in THE ARTIST there are echoes of Douglas Fairbanks, Gloria Swanson, Joan Crawford, and distant echoes of Greta Garbo and John Gilbert’s story. So that I would know what I was talking about, so that I would be able to answer all the questions that people were going to ask me during the preparation and the shoot. Things are quite simple when you are on your own in front of your computer, but when you are faced with 300 people asking you hundreds of questions, you have to know what you’re talking about a little bit. Set designers, costume designers, props people, they will also do their own research and ask you questions. The more research you have done, the more you can play with it all.

 Your “OSS” films are pastiches, but The Artist is not.

Indeed, this is not a pastiche – except when we see George Valentin’s silent films, but I didn’t keep a lot of that. I didn’t want to do something ironical like “OSS”, a parody, if only because I thought we’d run out of breath rather quickly. All the same I have a hard time not considering this film as a continuation of my work. Sure, it’s a different type of story – I don’t plan on making pastiche movies all my life, or to always be the guy who makes you laugh at the dinner table – but it’s a way of exploring the language of cinema and playing with it. It’s good to respond to our desires when we have them. Again, this is to do with the format. When you watch Chaplin’s films, you tend to remember the comic parts, but the stories are pure melodramas, where young girls are not only orphans but also blind! The funny things are always in counterpoint to a poignant story. This is the vein that seems to me to suit the film I wanted to make. Besides, regardless of my wanting to make a silent film, I’ve wanted to do a melodrama for a long time, if only because I love to watch them. I wrote with that in mind but, at first, I was slightly nervous of making this world mine. Until the day I no longer even asked myself that question. As for the winks you mentioned, I very much liked the idea of this guy’s issues, caught between silence and sound, and playing with all that. I pushed it to the extreme in the nightmare scene…

 

You can’t remake films exactly the way they were made 90 years ago. Audiences have been exposed to so much; they are sharper, quicker and a lot smarter. It’s exciting to stimulate them. And the films I like the most are often films that are part of a genre where, inside that genre, the directors wander around and dare to make what they want while respecting the genre throughout, without betraying the promise.

Easy to gauge?

No, it is not easy because you never know if you’ve succeeded until you’ve seen the whole film. In fact, this balance is achieved during editing. So, I followed my idea, started with the writing, I didn’t close the door on what could happen during shooting and later, I made the definitive choice in the edit. But in order to have the choice during editing you have to have different possibilities.

 

Casting Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Béjo

 I wrote it for them, but also keeping in mind the fact they could have refused, particularly with a project like this. Anyway, when I gave Jean the screenplay, I wasn’t sure of anything at all. I told him: ”I’d like it if you’d do it but don’t feel you have to! If you don’t feel like it, that’s no problem.” He read it very quickly in the train that was taking him to the south of France and called me when he got there to tell me he loved it and wanted to be part of it!

 

Playing emotional part…

I really love him when he acts like Vittorio Gassman, extroverted, solar-powered, and brilliant. My idea was to start from there and bring him into something more introverted, more enclosed.

Ideal actors for the characters

Jean is an actor who is as good in close ups, with his facial expressions, as he is in long shots, with his body language. Few actors are good with both. Jean is. He also has a timeless face, a face that can easily be “vintage”. Bérénice also has that quality. We’re happy to accept the idea that Hollywood is going to chose her and make a big star out of her. She exudes freshness, positivity, goodness, almost too much! These characters are in a way close to who they really are, in any case, to the idea I have of them. George Valentin and Peppy Miller are, in a way, Jean and Bérénice fantasized by me!

 

Shooting in Hollywood as fantasy?

Of course! Here again we have to give thanks to Thomas Langmann. If he had said to me: “OK for the film but we’ll shoot it in the Ukraine!” I would have gone to the Ukraine to shoot it. It’s he who did everything within his power to allow us to shoot it where it should be shot, where the action took place.

 

Shooting at Warner and Paramount.

For someone who loves cinema, scouting locations for this film seemed like a fantastic package tour! We visited all the studios. We went to Chaplin’s offices, the studios where he shot GOLD RUSH, CITY LIGHTS, etc. We visited the offices of Harry Cohn, Mack Sennett, Douglas Fairbanks’ studios: it was incredible… Peppy’s house in the film, that’s Mary Pickford’s house, the bed where George Valentin wakes up, that’s Mary Pickford’s bed… We were in truly mythical places… Then, once you start shooting, you’re working and the fantasy fades somehow, inevitably, even if sometimes you have moments of clarity when you think: “We’re in Hollywood!” And to top it all with Dujardin. Jeannot in Hollywood! In a French film!

 

Reaction of the Hollywood community?

We felt they were curious and touched. First because they have a slightly schizophrenic relationship with French cinema and, because in this famous debate between art and industry, France holds a unique place. Then because of the fact that this project was very different: a silent film, in black and white, about Hollywood… We had lots of visitors, tons of phone calls, we were told many stories that didn’t go back to the silent era but… The father of James Cromwell (who plays Valentin’s butler) moved to Hollywood in 1926 and before becoming a director, wrote intertitles for silent films. That we were talking about their memories, the memories that make their lives, really touched them. And for people involved in cinema, making black and white images today, it’s not insignificant. Quickly, everybody realised there was great work for all the trades: for the set designers, costume designers, make-up artists, electricians…