At the San Francisco Film Society benefit screening of Persepolis held in conjunction with the grand opening of the refurbished Sundance Kabuki, SFFS Executive Director Graham Leggat conducted an onstage conversation with Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud. As much as he tried, he couldn't quite get Paronnaud to participate. In fact, Paronnaud's quietude seemed in conscious service to Satrapi's ebullience and, by notable contrast, provided a comic accent. Theirs seemed to be a working understanding. Much of this, of course, had to do with Paronnaud not having Satrapi's command of English. Thus, I was especially grateful that earlier in the day interpreter Donald McMahon helped translate my questions to Paronnaud and his responses.
Leggat quoted Woody Guthrie who allegedly wrote on his guitar: "This machine kills facists." He applied the quote to Persepolis, saying that it too kills facists. I likewise admire Kristi Mitsuda's comment for indieWIRE that Persepolis "is a corrective bomb of beauty launched lovingly into a terrified world."
After sharing morning coffee with Marjane, I sat down with Vincent Paronnaud and Donald McMahon to hear what the-otherwise-quiet member of the Persepolis duo had to say.
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Michael Guillén: Vincent, what did Marjane detect in the signature of your personal work that convinced her you would be her perfect collaborator on this project?
Vincent Paronnaud: It's a little bit hard for me, perhaps, to talk about that—I don't want to toot my own horn, so to speak—but, I'm certainly professional and have a lot of experience from a technical point of view and certainly I've done a lot. But I don't want to toot my own horn.
Guillén: But you should!
Paronnaud: But I'm French!
Guillén: Ah. You're indulging discretion? Understood. I know that you're quite accomplished with your own graphic novels and animation and that's why I was curious if Marjane saw a similar line to your work that she felt would work with hers? I understand the two of you actually draw together? That your styles meld?
Paronnaud: You could say it's two-pronged. Sure, there's our artistic dimension; but, perhaps even more important, is the friendship and the mutual respect that has grown between us. That's the basis for our collaboration. Yes, there's certainly my contribution, my take, which is very much present in Persepolis and it was a challenge to be present but very discretely. It's not my role to upstage her—it's her story—but, there is a presence. I think Marjane respects my artistic ability; but—more important perhaps—she knew that I would be able to remain in the background, so to speak, and yet still be effective; that I was capable of doing that.
Guillén: I'm respectful, of course, of your graceful discretion; but, at the same time—as much as you have tried to stay out of the picture—I'm interested in teasing out your influence on the film. When the two of you—as friends—sat down together to talk about this project, how did you decide to divvy up the directorial duties? How did you delegate what you would each supervise?
Paronnaud: The fact that we wrote the script together was a big help. That set the stage for the direction thereafter. It wasn't as hard since we worked on the script together. From a technical point of view, my role [involved doing] a lot of research as far as the décor and the backdrops for the film and also the storyboard and the cuts.
Guillén: I understand you were both relying upon cinematic influences but that yours were Italian comedies? What was it about Italian comedies that you pulled into Persepolis?
Paronnaud: Yes, the both of us talked about Italian comedy and tried to work that in as an aesthetic. As far as aesthetic references in the world of comic books and animated comics, there was not a whole lot. We went to the classic cinema, not just the Italian comedies, but German expressionism. As far as some of the family scenes, that's something that Marjane and I were familiar with and that was something that we referred to. It wasn't a fixation. It wasn't like we were concentrating on that so much; but, it did enter into the picture, as did German expressionism for some of the décors. We weren't going to do a Disney film.
Guillén: Thank goodness!! [Laughter.]
Paronnaud: It was more a general idea. It wasn't so much methodically going through a bunch of Italian comedies and picking out stuff, although we did look at some Italian comedies. It was [more the image] of family life, where everybody's trying to talk over one another and it becomes funny and also quite moving.
Guillén: The reason I asked is because I found the comedy in Persepolis to be physical and situational and, thereby, universal. The film could speak to families everywhere.
Paronnaud: Yes, absolutely.
Guillén: I respect that you took an old-fashioned approach to animating Persepolis with drawings on paper and tracings, avoiding a fashionable reliance on CGI. On the website for the film I appreciated the making-of documentary showing how the tracings were done and the characters brought to life. I suppose it's obvious, but why did you two decide to approach the animation that way?
Paronnaud: There were certain things we took for granted from the beginning—like it was going to be in black and white—but then, as we went on, people working with us didn't necessarily understand where we were going so we had to deal with things as they came up. It's true you can't intellectualize everything from the beginning. It's as they come up that they have to be dealt with.
Guillén: Design-wise, I love the aquamarine blue you've selected to accompany the black and white for purposes of the poster and book cover publicity. Its particular tone works so well.
Paronnaud: It comes down to taste. It's like mixing a little bit of paint of this with that. It's kind of automatic. We've been working with this for a long time and we realized that—if we needed to add something—why not add a little bit of blue? Or a little bit of yellow? And voila! This goes back to the beginnings, this kind of do-it-yourself artisanal work. There's a combination of the use of old techniques and some of the new ideas that we wanted to put out.
Guillén: I bring it up only because clearly there are two hundred shades of blue and I wanted to focus on the fact that every decision on this film was calculated, something you worked out by testing and experimenting. I'm praising you. I loved your specific choice of this blue. It's perfect!
Paronnaud: It is true. Since in the world of comics we didn't really have much to work with, we had to go beyond that. We did have to think out our decisions. Some of it was a matter of taste. We ended up exhausted at the end of the whole thing because we really did put a lot of energy into thinking about each little detail.
Guillén: And just when you finished the film and thought you could finally rest, then came the demands of the press junkets! [Paronnaud chuckles.] Another thing I wanted to explore—because I haven't seen it written up anywhere—is the fact that a lot of attention has been paid to Marjane's depiction of herself as a child and young woman, her mother, and her grandmother and less focus on her uncle and father in the story. Can you talk at all about what considerations went into forming the masculine personages in the film?
Paronnaud: They are as important as the female characters.
Guillén: And I wanted to stress that because I feel they're being neglected.
Paronnaud: I think there's a balance between male and female figures but a lot of the viewers want to see the tradition from the grandmother and Marjane; they identify with it. That's why it's been so emphasized. But for me the figure of the father and the uncle are very important figures as well.
Guillén: What I wanted to emphasize was that—more than a feminist viewpoint—this is a humanist viewpoint. Its viewpoint is not gender-specific.
Paronnaud: Marjane is even less of a feminist than I am! If this film were some sort of feminist apology in the worst tradition, I wouldn't have wanted to be part of it. It's much more than that. This is a humanist film.
Guillén: Exactly. And that's why it's being so well-received, I'm sure. I'm intrigued by the phases of an artistic expression. First, the thought and energy that goes into the creation of a film. Then the festival experience of shepherding a film in front of a critical audience. And then the expanded distribution with the attached press junkets. Can you speak to the contrast between your festival experience with the film and now its public release?
Paronnaud: The festival was really a wonderful experience for us. Maybe not wonderful but special. [Laughter.] We had just finished mixing and so forth two weeks before Cannes. We were very very tired. The festivals are—what do you want to call them?—a beast?
Guillén: I caught it at the Toronto International, which I believe was its second appearance, buoyed by so much buzz from Cannes. What are your hopes for the film? Especially here in the United States?
Paronnaud: If you want to talk about hopes, I think they have already been fulfilled; but, I'll go on. In the beginning in our little studio we just wanted to do something that was true, honest, moving. But bit by bit it moved out. We were doing something that was like an underground piece but now it's come out above ground and that process is very interesting. I hope that people in the United States see it, are enthusiastic about it, and that the message comes across.
Guillén: In that process of shifting from underground to above ground, as you said, there's a kind of "boho dance" compromise that takes place when something underground enters into the mainstream. You have no issues with that process?
Paronnaud: No problem with this. Marjane and I are not going to do something that may sound like a commercial success. That's not what we're interested in. We wanted to do something that's straightforward, that's honest, real, and everything else is a gift.
Guillén: I've long felt that—in terms of underground artistry—its true purpose is to fertilize and inform the mainstream culture. For me, Persepolis is a classic success story in that regard.
Paronnaud: Yes, indeed, that is the role of the underground, to have this fertilizing effect. That's why it's so important for young artists to be able to have the means to go about their work and also be given the opportunity to bring their work to the public. The larger commercial sphere doesn't necessarily pervert the little guy. Sometimes it works out. Also, for years we worked for nothing so we're certainly happy to be receiving something, sure.
Guillén: What's coming up next for you, Vincent? Are you hoping to work with Marjane again? Do you have projects that you're continuing on? I'm curious about your work.
Paronnaud: I have a graphic novel that I need to finish. An adaptation of Pinnochio. I've started it.
Guillén: Talk to me about your pseudonym Winshluss. What is that?
Paronnaud: It comes from the underground environment. When I was very young, that was the name they gave me and it stuck!
Guillén: Does it mean something?
Paronnaud: No, it's a play on "Vincent."
Guillén: You're probably more recognized by that name, right?
Guillén: Along with the adaptation of Pinnochio, will you do another film?
Paronnaud: Yes, very much so. Maybe with Marjane. But not an animation.
Guillén: In terms of the realm of graphic novels and graphic artists, can you recommend someone you respect and admire?
Paronnaud: Actually, there are a lot of graphic artists in the U.S. that I love. Chris Weir. He's the one who's revolutionized the world of comics. Also Art Spiegelman with Maus.
Guillén: My final question: now that you're accompanying the film on its national release, what are you gaining from your audiences?
Paronnaud: Coming from the world of comics, this is new, strange, even exotic for me. Because I wouldn't have a lot of contact with the public.
Guillén: You're a shy person, I understand?
Paronnaud: Sometimes I'm at a lack for an answer. There's a lot of emotion that comes to the surface in various people and sometimes I'm at a lack as to how to answer.
Guillén: I purposely stayed away from delving too much into the emotional wake of this film. It's amazing to me that you were able to administer and rein it through the creative process. I greatly respect the project. It's a beautiful film. Your participation has been stellar. And I thank you very much for your time today.
Paronnaud: Thank you very much.
Cross-published on Twitch.