Artist, The: Interview with Director Michel Hazanavicius–Part 2

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

CASTING 

American actors: James Cromwell, John Goodman

I had castings organized; I chose certain people but there also were people who chose the film… Things are different in the US for the sets. There’s a production manager who oversees the visual part and picks the set designer. I hired Larry Bennett first. But I already had a very precise idea of what I wanted and the locations we had picked helped. Mark Bridges is Paul Thomas Anderson’s costume designer. A great reference! He is really good and impressive to watch at work. At first we started pre-production with a very small team – three or four people – that became gradually larger as we were getting closer to shooting. In the end, Hollywood is very small, and today, mostly TV series are shot there. Everybody found out about this quickly, and got very excited. Soon we saw people arriving who wanted to work with us, like Jim Planette, the gaffer. The gaffer is a very important job in the system; he really is the DP’s right arm. People from the camera department offered to make special lenses for us, old projectors were pulled out of cupboards…The casting director told me that Malcolm McDowell wanted to meet me. I only had a very small part to offer him, almost an extra, and he was delighted! With John Goodman, things moved very quickly. I sent him the screenplay, he read it and a few days later it took three minutes to settle in his agent’s office! With James Cromwell, I was the one who was being interviewed. He liked the screenplay and the project and asked to meet me. We met, he asked me questions for an hour and a half, precise questions asked in a precise way, we started to understand each other little by little, to appreciate each other and in the end, he said: ”OK, I’ll be your lady!”

 

Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Béjo act real lines?

Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t. They asked for some all the way through prep, but I didn’t want to give them any. I thought: “They’re actors, they’re going to work on their lines,” but, on this project, the last thing I wanted was for them to work on text. In the end, they worked on other things, if only tap dancing. We didn’t do a classic reading, of course, but we talked a lot. About the characters, the situations, the sequence shots, the style of acting, etc.. I tried to reassure them that they would not have to play “silent” and that if I had got the screenplay right, they wouldn’t have to act in a special way. Bérénice, who has followed the project since day one, probably had more points of reference, but for them, shooting this film was a very particular exercise. It’s as if they no longer had any points of reference. I know Jean well, once he has placed his voice, he’s in character right away. He couldn’t do that here. For most actors, the voice is a great asset. Suddenly, they had to make do without it. They didn’t need to worry if they were “in key” or not. In the same way, they had to leave the text aside. Text is an essential aid to convey feelings, but here, everything had to be conveyed visually, with no help from words, breath, pauses, tone, all the variations actors normally use… I think that what they had to do was very difficult, even more so than usual. Their acting takes meaning really only in the frame, in a shot that will be edited later. Thankfully, Jean, Bérénice and I trust each other completely.

 

Working with on silent film on emotional level?

It was inevitably different. I think that for Jean, working with Nicole Garcia and Bertrand Blier has changed him a bit. He accepts venturing more into intimate and deeper territory… more vulnerability… He probably works more easily without a safety net. It might also be due to the nature of the film. Bérénice wanted to work from the initial stages. She hired a coach; she did tons of research, watched silent movies at the Cinémathèque, read lots of actresses’ biographies. Afterwards, she just had to forget about everything to capture the character from the inside. It was beautiful to see all of a sudden, in a scene, during the first days of shooting, the character clicking into place and appear before our eyes. For Bérénice it was in the restaurant scene where Peppy is being interviewed, when she becomes aware of her new star status. She completely let herself go, had great fun, and suddenly all of us saw the character appear. For Jean, it was the scene where he pulls off the sheets covering his pieces of furniture that Peppy has just bought at auction. He was so inhabited by his character in that scene that everyone on the set felt a real thrill. The only difficulty for them afterwards – as a matter of fact for everyone, for me, for Guillaume (Schiffman, the DP) – was to keep up the same level, to keep this ambition the whole way through, during the seven weeks of shooting… In short, to keep the promise.

Giving the actors direction?

What I did was play music on the set and it literally carried them. So much so that at the end, they couldn’t do without it! I played mostly Hollywood music of the ’40s and ’50s: Bernard Herrmann, Max Steiner, Frank Waxman, but also George Gershwin, Cole Porter… I used SUNSET BOULEVARD a lot but I also played THE WAY WE WERE and even Philippe Sarde’s music for THE THINGS OF LIFE. It’s a beautiful melody and I knew Jean has a particular relationship with that theme. I didn’t warn him the first time I played it and I knew that by playing it on set I’d trigger something during the take. That’s exactly what happened. I did the same with Bérénice when she arrives in hospital; I played the theme from LAURA, which she loves. It was a real bonus for them, I think. At other times I also played some of the first themes that Ludovic Bource composed. To act in a scene while music is being played is a wonderful way to help you find the mood. For the actors, it was their relation to acting that was different, more sensitive, more intimate, and more immediate. It was really lovely for me to watch them blossom thanks to the music. When you find the appropriate theme for a sequence, it can be a lot clearer than all the explanations you could think of. In fact, I realized on this film that talking is something wonderful but also fundamentally simplistic.

Your aesthetic choices?

The direction, the framing, the cutting could only be the continuation of the screenplay. Of course, I had to leave some doors open for myself and I took all the liberties I wanted but I had storyboarded everything. I had to know that everything could be told. That everything was understandable. We couldn’t count on dialogues. I like to compose the frames, I like to define each shot, I like each shot to have meaning… to play with contrasts, shadows, place them in the frames, find a visual writing, codes, meanings, I love it! So I tell myself lots of stories to be able to direct and try to have the most coherent, the roundest one which seems the simplest possible. For lighting, with Guillaume (Schiffman), it’s more than just collaboration. THE ARTIST is my third film with him, we’ve done ads together, and we know each other very well. As soon as I had the idea of this film, I talked to him about it. He also did a lot of research. I gave him tons of films to watch, he came to the Cinémathèque to watch them on a big screen, found out about the techniques, cameras and lenses of the time. He has a special place in the process; he’s like a sparring partner who would have the technical responsibility of the camera and the lighting on top. I love the way we work together. The idea was the same for all: do some research, nourish ourselves, understand the rules thoroughly in order to be able to forget them at the end. What must prevail in the end is the clarity of the story, the accuracy of the situation, the impact of the shot…

 

Greatest danger on this film?

What I always strive for is to avoid letting myself be swallowed by the mood on the set, because the mood on the set has nothing to do with the mood of the film. The danger in fact is, the promise of the film being great that we have to live up to it. Yet there are so many ways of not reaching what we strive for… There was also the danger, in order not to make the crew wait around for hours, in order not to lose time, of giving up on what was needed, of not redoing a set when it wasn’t working, of not spending the time to find another idea when you realize that what’s been planned doesn’t work fully, because in this film the picture is paramount, every element says something. The two great dangers? Indulgence and laziness.

 

In silent film, music is crucial?

 As usual, I called Ludovic Bource. I’d been talking to him about this silent film fantasy for a long time! We talked about it a lot. From the initial stages of the writing I gave him the records I listened to while writing. The ones I mentioned to you earlier : Waxman, Steiner, etc. He went back to the musicians who had inspired them: Prokofiev, Debussy, Ravel, and after having done research, he did the same as everybody else, he digested the lot to serve the story that we wanted to tell. Even if he wrote a few themes before we started shooting, he needed even more than usual to see the scenes edited before being really able to compose. Our collaboration was a little more complicated than usual. In a film like this, there is music pretty much all the time. It is quite unusual. And more importantly, it has to take into account each mood, and also all the fluctuations, the ruptures, the conflicts, all the changes of direction at each shot – either to move away from 9

them, or to accompany them. Each time, a choice arises and it’s a script choice, it can’t just be left in the hands of the composer ! So I structured the film in narrative blocks indicating to Ludovic and his arrangers what mood I wanted and defining the points of correspondence between the music and the images that seemed vital to me, as well as the moments when, on the contrary, the music had to move away from any commentary, in order to avoid being tiresome or embarrassing. This required a lot of going back and forth between them and me. I didn’t make it easy for them but they did a remarkable job.

 Most proud of?

First of all, that this film exists! And that it resembles the idea that I had of it. I think it’s a beautiful thing, it keeps its promise.

Producer Thomas Langmann’s strongest asset?

He has no limits; he is mad and gives himself the means to be! He has panache and he sprinkles that panache everywhere. He’s cheeky, obstinate, respectful of work, but mostly his desire to see cinema surpasses everything. More than a producer, he reminds me of a Florentine prince, a patron… I love him.

One memorable moment from the whole adventure?

There are too many. The first that comes to mind is the party at the end of the film. We shot this film in 35 days, we finished exhausted, but we were there, in Hollywood, only a few French among the Americans, but we were a team. And we made the film we were hoping for. I liked the way we looked at each other that evening, I thought it was moving. But there were a lot of strong moments. A lot… And I hope it’s not over!