Fast forward to May 2011 and The Artist scored Dujardin the Prix d'interprétation masculine award at the Cannes Film Festival (not to be undone by Uggy, his canine accomplice, who received the special Jury Prize, the Palm Dog Award). I was delighted when The Artist was programmed as a Special Presentation at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and noted that it was the only film I heard applauded by the international press during its festival P&I screening.
As Michèle Maheux wrote in her program notes for TIFF: "A love letter to 1920s Hollywood, Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist resurrects silent cinema as a powerful and complex storytelling medium. Shot entirely in black and white, without dialogue and in a traditional 1.33 aspect ratio, the film remains faithful to the period it represents, avoiding the trap of pastiche through a sincere appreciation of the cinematic possibilities offered by classic silent film.
"Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, whose matinee-idol good looks and arrogant but good-natured charm evoke Douglas Fairbanks at his best. George is at the height of his career in 1927 when The Artist begins. While working the premiere of his new film, he accidentally bumps into a beautiful unknown, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), and the ensuing photo op sets her on the path to unexpected fame.
"George, however, quickly finds himself on the opposite track, as sound begins to dominate the screens. Refusing to accept this modern innovation, he finances his own silent feature in 1929 and loses it all. His wife leaves him and his fans forget him. Broken and alone, George fades into the shadows of old Hollywood.
"At the same time, new It-girl Peppy finds herself at the forefront of the sound phenomenon. As her star status rises, she never forgets the man who gave her the start she needed; she resolves to help George in any way she can.
"The Artist tells a familiar story, reminiscent of classics like Sunset Boulevard and A Star is Born, but Hazanavicius and cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman breathe new life into an old tale. Their skilful handling of a style that could easily have turned into camp enables for a newfound appreciation not only for silent cinema, but also for melodrama and the intense emotional effects the genre can deliver. Above all, The Artist offers a joyous look back to a golden age, and will leave audiences nostalgic for a cinematic form that, as Hazanavicius proves, hasn't lost its resonance."
The Artist is scheduled to make appearances at the 49th edition of the New York Film Festival (currently in progress) and as the closing night feature at the upcoming 34th edition of the Mill Valley Film Festival, running October 6-16, 2011. My thanks to Andrea Grau of Touchwood PR for setting me up to speak with Michel Hazavanicius in the mezzanine of Toronto's Park Hyatt.
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Michael Guillén: Michel, congratulations on The Artist. It's a beautiful, impeccably crafted film.
Michel Hazavanicius: Thank you very much.
Guillén: What I'd like to pursue in our conversation is an appreciation of cinematic citation. The Artist intrigued me for successfully circumventing the camp tendencies of pastiche and eliciting the depth of homage. But truthfully, it even goes past homage and is more accurately a silent film intact on its own terms.
Hazavanicius: That's right.
Guillén: Why were you attracted to making a silent film? It's quite a departure from the OSS 117 spoofs.
Hazavanicius: I wanted to do something completely different from the OSS 117 films. In a way, The Artist is very different from those films but it's also close to them, in the sense of taking a certain kind of cinema and making it modern. To take the spy movies, the James Bond movies, and make comedies that skewer racism was the thrust of the OSS 117 films. With The Artist, I wasn't trying to ape movies from the silent era. What intrigued me was that there was no more irony. I wasn't mocking the silent era. As you say, it wasn't that I wanted to do an homage per se; I just wanted to make a silent movie.
At the beginning, I wasn't sure if it would be a movie about a silent film actor or if the subject of the film would be about silent movies. I was primarily interested in the format. I ended up choosing this story of a silent movie actor because I thought it would be easier for the audience to accept watching a silent movie. That made sense. I felt audiences needed a justification to accept watching a movie in such an unusual format.
I had many deep motivations for wanting to make a silent film. As a member of the audience, I absolutely love the way stories are told to me in a silent movie. It's not a cerebral response. It's more a child-like response. Because there's no spoken language, the way the story engages your heart is special. It's hypnotic, sensual, not at all cerebral, and I love that sensation as an audience member. My motivations as a director were much more selfish. For me, it was a great experience. It's what cinema is about, in my opinion. I'm telling a story with images and music. With images, you have the actors, you have the sets, you have the costumes, the lights, everything, and that's how you're telling the story. You don't need words for that. It's the ultimate experience for a director to make a silent movie. I really wanted to try to do it.
The opportunity to do so I owe to the producer Thomas Langmann who gave me permission. It was a fantasy that he helped come true. Also, the two lead actors—Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo—thoroughly inspired the characters. They were actors I felt could make a silent film because their faces and their styles of acting—since it's not just about their faces—aren't really modern and I felt they were suited to a silent film. All of the crew, my cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman, my composer Ludovic Bource, were involved early in the project. I invited them to come with me into the immersion process of trying to understand what kind of movie we could make.
So making The Artist has been a very long process that started from a desire deep in my soul mingled with my selfishness and involving meeting the right people at the right time. Of course, the success of the OSS 117 films helped me a lot because—when I first talked about this story—nobody was interested in making a black and white silent movie. It was too much out of the market.
Guillén: You might know that in San Francisco we have one of the world's leading forums for silent cinema—the San Francisco Silent Film Festival—who have been wholly instrumental in educating my appreciation of the medium. I have to presume that you've had a lot of exposure yourself to silent cinema? You've utilized the conventions so masterfully that I presume you've attended Pordenone?
Hazavanicius: I watch a lot of silent movies, yes. My biggest challenge with this movie—aside from finding the financing, which was a big challenge—was the writing. It was during the writing process that I was convinced I could make a silent movie. I actually wrote a story with no dialogue that I felt I could shoot as a director and that I felt actors would be able to tell. So I've watched a lot of silent movies, yes, primarily to know the rules of the game. What you can do. What you cannot do. What the format frees you to do. There were several oneiric sequences where I could play, like poetry—I'm not saying I'm a poet—but, there were unrealistic sequences that a director can rarely use in a realistic film. Everyone would think it was ridiculous because usually in a realistic film you strive to be naturalistic. In a black and white silent movie you are already so far from reality, which in itself is a promise to venture into another space besides realism. Once you've set up that other space, audiences will enter. Does that make sense?
Guillén: Absolutely! And I think audiences are hungry to experience these alternate spectatorial spaces. I have to mention that even the press are. The Artist has been the only press screening I've seen applauded by the press here at TIFF. And that always amuses me because it's like we slough away our professional personas and suddenly become just an audience. We all just want a real movie. We all want to be entertained and taken away into—as you say—another space. The Artist succeeds in that.
Hazavancius: Perhaps because we made the film in a classical way? It's a pleasant film. It's like a classic film but it's also modern in the sense that the pace of the film is not like a silent era film. The story itself is not complicated, it's a simple story, but it's not quite as simple as some of the narratives of silent era cinema. If you watch, for example, Murnau's City Girl (1930) or Sunrise (1927), the scripts, their stories, are very very simple. For today's audiences, they might be too simple. So I made The Artist a bit more complex. But then again, I couldn't make the story too complicated because the format doesn't allow it. At a certain point you would need words to express complex relationships. I had to strike a balance: not too simple, not too complex, only as complex as I was able.
Guillén: It could be said, perhaps, that an aspect of that just-so complexity is rendered in the film's exquisite production design. Guillaume Schiffman's cinematography captures the spirit of George Hurrell's Hollywood glamour portraiture perfectly. Can you speak a bit to what was involved in the preproduction process to achieve the look of the film?
Hazavanicius: I'm very selective about locations. When we were scouting for locations, the cinematographer and the production designer [Laurence Bennett] started off liking me but by the end they were fed up with me because I was never quite satisfied with what they found. I know that a story cannot be told in a good way without the right locations. I was the same way with the OSS 117 films and I was even worse with this film. So preproduction took a little time. We filmed The Artist in 35 days, which is short really, so the preparation wasn't as long as I would have liked but we committed ourselves to making sure that we could do the film justice on such a short schedule.
Guillén: How about post-production effects? Was a lot of time spent in post-production insuring the look of Hollywood in the '20s and '30s?
Hazavanicius: Not so much, really. The way I work is to try to do the less I can. I try to leave as much room as possible for the audience. I firmly believe that what the audience does is better than what I do because they do it in their own way. Every single viewer does the work in their own way. So my job as the filmmaker is to put as little as is necessary in each frame. So there was a little bit of post-production but mainly things that you aren't supposed to know about or notice.
For example, at that time the Hollywood sign actually read Hollywoodland. As a filmmaker I had a choice. Would I use Hollywoodland, even though most people didn't know that was the authentic sign? I chose to go with the authentic sign. But I couldn't reconstruct these huge letters on the hill so I had to effect this digitally in post-production.
Guillén: If I may single out one of my favorite images in the film? It's when Valentin, in a moment of self-loathing, pours out his whiskey on the reflective surface of the table. Stunning!
Hazavanicius: Oh, thank you! That image was not included in the print shown at Cannes.
Guillén: It was not?!
Hazavanicius: No. This was the only shot I changed between Cannes and now. I don't know why I didn't include it at first. Perhaps because I worried that as a director it would appear that I was showing off?—"Look what I can do!"—and so I didn't feel comfortable and took it out. Then when the film screened at Cannes, I felt that the story got a bit confusing without that sequence so I reinserted it, provided a date, and that helped to structure that section of the film. They loved the movie anyway at Cannes but I feel it is better now.
Guillén: Along with eliciting these marvelous performances out of Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, how in the world did you find Uggy? And what went into developing a relationship between Jean and this upstaging Jack Russell?
Hazavanicius: I was lucky. But you know, I've been lucky from the very beginning of this movie right to the present moment. I hope my luck doesn't run out! The producer always said this movie was born under a lucky star. And really, that's the truth. I wrote the script with a Jack Russell doing all these tricks that you saw in the movie. I knew it was going to be a problem finding the dog. I knew that it would take a long time to train a dog to do all these tricks and we didn't have the money or the time. I told my producer that there were two things we needed to do very quickly. One was to find a dance instructor for the actors—because they had to do a tapdancing number—and we had to find the dog, because I thought we were going to have to train it.
So when we first arrived in Los Angeles, I had to push the producer to find the money to afford the dog. Then we started looking for him. We went to the largest animal training company in Hollywood who provides all the "talent" for animal movies. They're one of the best in the world. They have horses, birds, any kind of animal you can imagine, including dozens of dogs, and they showed me the dogs they had on file. I saw some genius dogs, as smart as Einstein, cute and able to do a lot of tricks, but none of them were a Jack Russell. So they told me, "If you really want a Jack Russell, it's going to take six months to train them because we're going to have to buy six to eight Jack Russells and train them to do specific things." They said I would need at least three Jack Russells for my movie. Which, of course, was very expensive and was going to take too long.
But then they offered another option. They knew of an independent dog trainer from a small family who lived in a small house in the suburbs who—when I first visited them—I thought were going to be useless. And then the trainer introduced me to Uggy. Uggy was exactly what you see in the movie. He already knew all of the tricks and the trainer told me, "Yes, I read the script and there's no problem." Then, bam, Uggy fell down dead like he does in the movie, and he did all the tricks, even more tricks than we showed in the movie: he skates, he has a skateboard! He stands on his skateboard on two legs and curves, it's just amazing.
As for his relationship with Jean, there were two things. Uggy obeyed his trainer. This was useful while making a silent movie because the trainer could yell at him during the filming. But this proved very difficult for Jean. For example, towards the end of the movie when Valentin wants to commit suicide and Uggy is tugging at the hem of his trousers because he doesn't want Valentin to commit suicide, his trainer was yelling on the set to coax him to do this and Jean was having to play the scene very sad with all this noisy distraction. So, yes, Uggy performs marvelously in that scene, but it's Jean who is the consummate performer for maintaining the sadness necessary to the scene even as the dog trainer is shouting. There were other times when Uggy was not on set but Jean had to anticipate what Uggy might do. So these scenes do not succeed just because of how well-trained the dog is but because of how Jean worked with him. There's the famous caution to an actor never to work with children or animals and, in this instance, Jean had to work to make the scenes believable. If the scenes were not believable, no one would blame the dog. They would say the actor was no good.
Guillén: To wrap up here then, being a fan of silent cinema myself, I appreciated your observance of the transnational value of silent cinema, which I've been taught is one of the reasons that silent cinema was so beloved around the world. These films were easily accommodated through translated intertitles that allowed them to traffic globally. So I'm curious if you're replicating that strategy and have various prints that are traveling with translated intertitles?
Hazavanicius: Because it's an American movie, we felt American intertitles were more authentic so we've elected to use translated subtitles for the film's international screenings. But I did try to sell the idea of providing software to foreign distributors so that they could make their own intertitles in their own languages, but we ended up not doing that. Even at Cannes, the French watched the movie with American intertitles but French subtitles.
But what remains true for me is that silent cinema is more than language. It's a utopian medium that can travel anywhere and is understandable to everyone in the exact same way, irregardless of the intertitles. Silent cinema "speaks" in a language that anyone on the Earth can understand. There's something touching about that. When we were looking for the financing, that's what I told the potential investors. I wasn't sure if I was lying or actually telling the truth, but I told them that maybe the film wouldn't be a huge success in France because it was silent and it was in black and white. But I reminded them that we were making a prestige movie that—if we made it well—we could sell to every country in the world, because the film would harken back to an era when cinema was for everyone. Cannes proved the success of the idea.
Guillén: Not only in the conventions of silent cinema as a transnational medium, but in your choice to cast the film with an international ensemble that includes American, British and French actors. It's phenomenal what you've accomplished.
Hazavanicius: Thank you very much.
Guillén: I look forward to your next project.
Hazavanicius: Me too!