Destined for a heap of Oscar nominations this year, The Artist is a unique cinematic experience. The film is black and white and silent, directly resembling the looks of films from the late 1920s and early 30s. It tells the story of a silent film star named George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) who struggles after being dethroned by talkie pictures and the rising star he fell for, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). The Artist is much more than just a cute throwback, and it’s certainly much more than a Singin’ in the Rain retread.
I sat down with writer/director Michel Hazanavicius in a roundtable interview to discuss The Artist, his motivation behind making such a unique film, and what he really thinks of sound engineers.
The Artist opens in Chicago on December 23.
Could you give us a synopsis of the film made within The Artist, “Tears of Love”?
It’s like Tarzan, more or less. A mix of Tarzan and King Kong. The story of a young lady who comes with her father on an expedition in Africa, and then there’s an adventurer who lives in Africa who knows the continent, played by George. Very surprisingly, they fall in love, and they go into the jungle. They have adventures; snakes, tribes, and finally they survive through almost everything, except that they are lost. He dies in quicksand. But to allow her to be happy in her next life, he pretends that he never loved her in a very desperate act of love.
When did the idea of doing a silent film come up? How did this film come about?
For a long time, I was looking for what is the most important thing in the moviemaking process. At first I thought it was the shooting, but I think it’s not. Then I thought it was the editing, or the writing. But now I feel the most important thing is when you choose an idea. When you finish a movie, you have some ten or twelve ideas around your head, and some people want you to do a certain thing, but you pick one idea, and say, “This is the one I want to do.” It’s very difficult.
This idea was particularly there for a long time. It wasn’t an idea, but just a desire. For a long time, it was a fantasy, it was a dream. I didn’t even take it very seriously. The first person I had to convince was myself, and think, “Okay, even if everybody thinks it is undoable, I am going to try because I really want to do it.” I started to work on the idea maybe eight years ago, and saw that it was not at the right moment, but people did not take me seriously. They would smile and say, “Okay, what else?” After I had the chance to do two successes in France, I was able to say, “This is what I really want to do. And I want to do it now because if I don’t do it now it will never happen.” It was really about the format. The script came after.
After my previous movies, I met some producers, and felt that they were scared a little bit. And then I met Thomas Langmann, who was the right person. I could see in his eyes that he was hooked, and really wanted to see that movie. When I met John Goodman, he said to me, “I’ve never seen this movie. That’s why I want to do it.”
Doing a silent movie is just a gimmick, a trick. I didn’t want to do a conceptual movie, I wanted to do a real movie. And there were many options for the story, so I had to be clear myself, to sign a contract on the story, not a trick. The writing of the script will tell me if the movie is doable or not doable. If I can shoot it, or not shoot it. The story is a thing, but I have to tell the story with just images. I wrote the script very quickly, it took me like four months, which is very short for me. I knew that I could shoot every sequence with no dialogue, so at the end of the writing, I said, “Okay, I think I can do it.”
The two OSS movies were like genre spoofs, whereas this one is very funny, but it’s a straightforward story.
For me, it was the most important step to do from the OSS movies to this one – the most important change was the absence of irony. There’s no irony in this movie. Quick into writing this movie, I watched a hundred silent movies. The ones who aged the best were melodramas and romances. And even the issue with Charlie Chaplin is that people think he is a comic, but his films are melodramas. Pure melodramas, nineteenth century dramas.
But a spoof movie means that I would want to be really funny all of the time. But if you want to be funny for one hour and thirty minutes with no dialogue, it’s too much of a challenge. I can try to do it for thirty minutes, if I am very good, but after thirty minutes I can’t do it; I would feel the lack of dialogue. The format also allows you to be melodramatic, and create a nice sweet romance. If you want to do a Sex Pistols song with a symphony orchestra, it doesn’t sound the same. It seemed like a classical romance would be the best to do. On the structure I would put funny things, because that is my voice. I really wanted to respect the characters and the story.
Was there any relief in not having to do sound design for the film?
It is a benediction to not have sound on the set. The sound engineers, I hope they will excuse me, but they are a pain in the ass. Cinema is about images. The star on the set is the cinematographer. The sound engineer has to adapt himself to the schedule of the image. They are always frustrated. “No, no, no, I have to get something here.” And you don’t want to wait for them. My uncle is a sound engineer. He says to me, “When the night falls, it doesn’t make a sound. That is our revenge.”
Actors have to start from nothing to find the emotion, and then run with it. With music, it is very smooth. You give them the emotion, and you create the spark. They have to deal with it, it was a very cool experience for them and for me, to direct actors with music. Also, we have a dog in the movie. The dog, for the trainers, was a benediction, not to have sound. It’s nothing, but it’s something. Uggie the Dog is the star. He stole the movie.
How much of a hand did you have in the score, especially since the music is so driven by music?
A lot. I worked with the same composer for twelve years now. He’s my friend. But we almost killed ourselves for this one. Here, the music is the right hand of the image. The images and the music tell the story together. The images tell the story, and music gives the emotional mood not for every narrative plot. The storytelling is my responsibility; I am in charge of the storytelling, not the composer. He had to follow the exact structure that I gave him. I was very precise. Like, “When he puts the butter here, and he looks at her, and the music has to start here.” Or for example, when he puts the fire on the film stock, the composer started the music when the fire began, but I said, “No, no, put the fire when he gets the idea.” For him, it was very difficult. For me, it was difficult for me to get him to follow me, and accept that I was in charge of the story. We had to be very, very precise. And we had to hurry, because we wanted to open for Cannes Film Festival.
When you were studying these silent films, how did you come up with a balance between a story that was as simple as the earlier films, but also respected our modern ability to pick up on more dedicated stories?
There’s two things that are a little confusing about The Artist – the format, and the fact that it’s a period movie. But these are two different things. The format is just a format. People think that it could be an old movie because it’s a silent movie, but in fact silent movies are only silent movies because they were made in the 20’s. It sounds obvious, but it’s not. This one sells like a period movie, but when you say that it’s like you’re making an old movie. But this is a period movie, made now. The way I wrote this movie, I tried to respect the spirit. I tried to respect the melodrama, the structure, even the Hays Code, in the way that there is no kiss. It’s a very sweet romance, it’s very old fashioned. But the way to do it, I know that I am talking to a modern audience, and I think of myself as a modern director. And for example, the movie knows it is silent, which is not the case for the films in the 20s. Here, the movie knows, so it has a game with the audience. But silence is the theme of the movie, which makes the movie more modern. Because doing a silent movie with silence as a theme is something that they didn’t do in the 20s. The acting is modern. They didn’t ape the acting style of the 1920s. The usage of music in The Artist is very modern, as they weren’t able to do it in the 20s.
In your mind, is George more of a film star, or an artist?
In my mind, he is everything but an artist. He is a film star, but that’s his job in a way. That’s not his principle characterization. To me, he is a proud man. That’s what defines him. He refused to adapt himself to a changing of his world. I think he’s afraid of losing something that he thinks he controls. And I think he is afraid of the problem. And you want to know about the title?
I’m curious now, yeah.
It was not my title. I think it is a very good one. My title was Peppy and George. It was nice, and old fashioned, but a little too simple.