Illusionist, The: Interview with Director Sylvain Chomet

Sylvain Chomet is the director of “The Illusionist,” the French adaptation of Jacques Tati’s story of the same name.
The animated film is released by Sony Classics on Christmas 2010.

“There was a moment in that movie where the triplets are watching television in bed”, explains Chomet. “I thought it would be funny to have the cartoon characters view a live-action clip close in feeling to its Tour de France cycling story. Filmmaker Jacques Tati’s wonderful Jour de fête/Holiday sprang to mind because it featured him as a postman on a bicycle. So Didier Brunner (the producer) contacted the Tati estate, run by his sole surviving daughter Sophie Tatischeff, for permission to use an extract. Her authorization was based on pictures and a set of design developments for The Triplets of Belleville. She clearly liked what she saw because she mentioned an un-filmed script by her father and hinted that my animation style might suit it.” 

On the film’s origins

THE ILLUSIONIST was written by the world famous Jacques Tati between 1956 and 1959. “The story was all about the irrevocable passing of time and I understood completely why he had never made it. It was far too close to himself, it dealt in things he knew all too well, and he preferred to hide behind the mask of his seminal character Monsieur Hulot. You could tell from the start it was not just another Hulot misadventure, all the heart-on-sleeve observations made that crystal clear. Had he made the movie – and I’m certain he had every camera angle already worked out – it would have taken his career in a totally different direction. He is actually on record saying THE ILLUSIONIST was far too serious a subject for his persona and he chose to make the classic Play Time instead”. 

Chomet read THE ILLUSIONIST script for the first time on his train journey to the Cannes Film Festival in 2003 for the world premiere of The Triplets of Belleville. “It was quite beautiful and rather touching. The surroundings could’t have been more appropriate either, as much of the story takes place on railways. And if The Triplets of Belleville told a complicated story in a simple way, THE ILLUSIONIST was the complete opposite. Its narrative was so deceptively simple it was highly complex. Yet I could picture every single scene as I read the script, it visually spoke to me. It was something you’d never see normally done in animation. Nor did it follow the basic rules of animation as it really was squarely aimed at adults. How to make a grown-up cartoon equally appealing to kids? Those were exciting challenges.” 

A few small modifications

“I added in my own characters to give further emotional resonance to the overall arc of the story which is the end of one showbiz era – the music hall – and the beginning of another teenage-oriented one – rock ‘n’ roll music. Parallel to that you have this universal theme about father/daughter relationships and how bittersweet they often are. THE ILLUSIONIST contained everything I love about Tati and his connection to human foibles. All I had to do was add my visual poetry to his and I knew in my heart that combination was going to work. Yet it now seems natural in retrospect.” 

Aside from a few structural shifts there was only one major change to Tati’s original treatment Chomet insisted on: “The story originally took place between Paris and Prague and I wanted that changed to Paris and Edinburgh. I went to Prague but just couldn’t picture the action taking place there. And I had fallen in love with Edinburgh when I presented The Triplets of Belleville at the Edinburgh Film Festival. I found the city a very magical place – something about the constantly changing light – and my wife Sally and I decided to move there to set up a studio. I had lived in Montreal when making The Triplets of Belleville and there is a very Canadian feel to that movie. I believe it’s important to live in the same environment you are trying to animate because your inspiration is then all around you.” 

He continues, “There is also the story strand that takes place in a remote village where the community gets electricity for the first time. I thought that isolation would fit one of the Scottish islands more than a hamlet outside Prague. I initially looked at Mull, which led me to the Isle of Iona, its small neighbour in the Inner Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland. When I read their local history I was astounded to discover that at exactly the same time the Tati story is set (1959), the islanders had a party to celebrate the arrival of electricity from the mainland. So that moment was 100% historically accurate. Also during the same time period the community would virtually be untouched by outside civilization, which made Alice’s naivety work in context. It also made perfect sense for The Illusionist to be playing in these last outreaches of vaudeville, too.”