Artist, The: Interview with Director Michel Hazanavicius

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…


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!