Joann Sfar was born in Nice to an Ashkenazi mother and a Sephardic father, a pencil in hand. He very quickly began collecting comic books and cultivating a bazaar full of quirky characters and funny monsters. After graduating from high school, he simultaneously pursued a degree in philosophy at the University of Nice (where he graduated with honors) while taking classes with Jean-François Debord at the School of Fine Arts in the Morphology department in Paris. These classes took him from autopsy rooms to the Museum of Natural History, where he found monster-like creatures floating in formaldehyde.
As a teenager, he knocked on the doors of famous comic book artists, who would later on become his guardian angels. He also knocked on the doors of publishers, who finally responded in 1994: during the same month, L'Association, Delcourt and Dargaud decided to publish his first comic books. In just a few years, the young man who had been criticized for his lack of talent became one of the leaders of the "new wave" of comic book art along with Christophe Blain, Lewis Trondheim and Emmanuel Guibert. He made less formal and less commercial drawings and made the storytelling a priority. Joann and these other leading artists manage to appeal to a much wider audience.
Sfar, either alone or in collaboration with other artists, has created over 150 comic books, some novels and animated films, amongst them a prize-winning video clip for the rock band Dionysos (Annecy International Animation Film Festival 2006). That same year, he received an Eisner Award for The Rabbi's Cat (and was previously nominated for Klezmer and Vampire Loves) as well as the Jury Prize at Angoulême International Comics Festival. He has been nominated for another Eisner Award this year in the Best Adaptation from Another Work category for his adaptation of The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
He is best known in the United States for his children's books, Little Vampire Goes to School, which was on The New York Times best-seller list and Little Vampire does Kung Fu! (also nominated for an Eisner Award in 2004). Sfar is currently adapting Little Vampire Goes to School into an English-language 3D animation feature. He has already adapted his award-winning graphic novel Rabbi's Cat (co-directed with Antoine Delesvaux) into a feature length animated film which was released in France in early June and features the voice of actor Eric Elmosnino (star of Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life).
My thanks to Brandon Nichols and Music Box Films for facilitating an interview with the enthusiastic and charming Joann Sfar. Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life opens August 31 at New York's Film Forum, rolls out to the rest of the country shortly thereafter, arriving in Landmark Theatres in San Francisco and Berkeley in late October.
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Michael Guillén: Joann, thank you for taking the time to speak with me today.
Joann Sfar: Thank you for helping me pretend I'm a filmmaker!
Guillén: [Laughs.] It's my hope to draw attention to your charming debut feature Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque) / Gainsbourg (A Heroic Life), which certainly qualifies you as a filmmaker. First and foremost, however, congratulations on your multiple nominations and triple win earlier this year at the César Awards where Gainsbourg won the César Award for Eric Elmosnino's lead performance, as well as Best Debut for you, and Best Sound.
Sfar: Thank you. I was the first one to be surprised. We were very happy with that and feel that the jury made a wonderful choice. [Laughs.]
Guillén: Not bad for a first film. Clearly, French audiences have embraced the film?
Sfar: Yes, definitely, and it's possible that the movie is not responsible. There has always been a huge French response to anything concerning Serge Gainsbourg. He is beloved by the French people.
Guillén: You have admitted your boyhood fascination with Serge Gainsbourg. Do you remember the first time you ever saw Gainsbourg on French television?
Sfar: I don't remember the first moment, no; but, I think most French kids reacted as I did. He was the only French singer with an attitude when I was a kid. He was the only French personality on TV who addressed subjects like sex, alcohol, and so on and—when you're a kid and watch someone so provocative—you feel it would be fun to be a grown-up.
Guillén: I can appreciate your youthful response to his being a provocateur. How about his music? When did his music first resonate with you?
Sfar: Well, the truth is that I had been listening to much of his music without knowing it was his. I didn't know that he was the composer of many of the songs I listened to. On one side he was a singer and on the other he was writing songs for a countless number of pop singers. When I was a kid, many French songs were filled with his lyrics and I wasn't even aware that he was the composer of so many titles.
Guillén: You came to making this film after an established career as a graphic novelist. What prompted the leap from creating a graphic novel to creating a film? Was the film your idea or was it brought to you?
Sfar: It was my idea and I had to fight for it because most of the studio executives told me that it was not a good time to make a biopic. Other biopics had done terribly in France. But I told them the film was not going to be a biopic; it was going to be a musical. They said that was even worse. [Laughs.] But after 20 years as a graphic novelist, I was conscious of the fact that a movie is about time. When you read a comic, you take your time; but, when you watch a movie, time is caused by the medium. The music was useful for me because the music was the root of my movie and I have to say I was more involved with making a musical, which was equally as important as storytelling for me, especially for this particular story.
Guillén: I'm fascinated when an artist works in multiple mediums. What is the connective tissue between graphic novels and filmic adaptations? How does the grammar of graphic novels become adapted to the grammar of film?
Sfar: You know, after 20 years people still tell me I don't know how to make a comic book. Maybe I don't know how to make a movie either? But I'm sure that one of the common elements is drawing. I make drawings all the time. I love the idea of performing and storytelling through pictures and putting the words afterwards. I love to be shocked by a picture, whether it's tender or violent or brutal and I love to leave a book or the theater with an image in my mind. So perhaps the connection is about drawing.
Guillén: Did you film your own hands making the watercolors within the film?
Sfar: Yes. It was quite difficult because we needed to pretend they were a child's hands so I had to hold the brush by the top and there was a camera weighing 200 kilos over my hand—the camera needed to be very close to the sheet of paper—and everyone kept reminding me film was expensive so we couldn't film a take that was longer than 40 seconds. I had to draw very quickly. But I'm a total megalomaniac so I wanted my drawings all over the place. Also, it's an interesting problem to see, "How do we shoot drawings?" It's as tricky as shooting music.
Guillén: The film excels at suggesting Gainsbourg's persona was a deeply rooted reaction to his childhood during WWII. And though I will be praising Eric Elmosnino's remarkable performance as Serge Gainsbourg in due course, I'd like to shout out first to Kacey Mottet Klein's equally brilliant performance as Lucien Ginsburg (Gainsbourg as a child). How did you find Kacey?
Sfar: This was tricky because I found him in Switzerland. He's a wonderful actor but we had a problem with his Swiss accent. He had to work a lot to lose the accent before making the movie. As I am a mad person, I always considered Kacey and Elmosnino to be the same actor. In my perception, I didn't differentiate between working with a child or a grown-up. I have to say that most of the lines from the movie come from real interviews with Serge Gainsbourg. Even the stories about his childhood are stories he told so we made the whole movie with the idea that everything was true, even if it was a fairytale or a story told by a drunk person. We pretended everything was true.
Guillén: When you have both a child actor and an adult actor portraying the same character, how do you maintain a through line in their characterizations? Did you ever have the two actors interact to coordinate the character?
Sfar: I guess from a psychological point of view you could say that Kacey and Elmosnino are clearly two separate people, yet both of them are extremely charming and fragile, and both of them are egotistical (as actors often can be) and they both possess the same temperament, which made it easy to develop that through line. The only true issue was legal. In France, you cannot shoot a child actor for longer than four hours a day so we had to divide every day of shooting between the first half of the day with Kacey and the second half of the day with Elmosnino. That was completely mad! We were shooting two separate moments of Gainsbourg's life every day.
Guillén: Which enforces what I would term the "longbody" aspect of your portraiture of Gainsbourg. I refer to longbody in its Amerindian sense, whereby the meaning of a life is contained within the span of a lifetime, specifically through the mutually-aware stages between childhood and old age. Psychologically, that's what the Jungians would probably term the puer / senex dyad. More simply put, you present the elder Gainsbourg as an eternal child, but I especially appreciated Kacey's performance as an adult child.
Sfar: That was exactly my point. I didn't want Kacey to be a true child. I wanted him to be the child you remember yourself as when you are old and drunk and referring back to your childhood. It was as if I had met a totally drunk Serge Gainsbourg in a nightclub where he began telling me about his boyhood. But it's possible he doesn't really even know who he truly was as a child—he says, "I did this and I did that"—and because the movie is not really a biopic, you're correct when you say these scenes are not really about his childhood. He is the same as a child as he is as an adult, in the sense that he is a boy mature beyond his years and an adult who is childish. It balances out to be the same.
Guillén: The film's subtitle is "A Heroic Life", yet you've mentioned elsewhere that French heroes never learn, in contrast to American heroes who redeem and heal themselves.
Sfar: The movie is more about the fact that Gainsbourg (as the hero) is unable to learn anything. He doesn't change. He doesn't have a character arc. There is no resolution. It's as if he is simply walking through life until he is old. From a psychological point of view, the meaning of the movie is that life has a meaning. The whole point about Serge Gainsbourg is that, I think, he was a happy person in a meaningless world. The fact that everything is meaningless and nothing is to be resolved is essentially Russian. In my perception, this is who Gainsbourg was. He had a way of being joyful and tragic at the same time.
Guillén: Would you say Gainsbourg was more Russian than Jewish?
Sfar: He pretended to be Russian and French, but Jewish first. He didn't come from a religious family. They didn't care about being Jewish; but, when he was nine years old, he was called in by the French police to register as a Jew. They gave him a yellow star. So his is a peculiar story of a guy who became Jewish because of the French police. [Chuckles.] In the way that he told that story, it turned all of his relationships with French women into a love story with France. I cannot forget that when he met Brigitte Bardot it was a symbol. When he wrote to his father, "I am dating Brigitte Bardot", he was in a sense saying, "We belong to this country now."
Guillén: That's fascinating and confirms Philip French's observation in the Observer that Gainsbourg's Jewish background was, in essence, his "Rosebud". Can you speak to pivoting your portrait around his negotiation with Jewishness and French anti-Semitism? And your creative decision to render racial caricaturing through full-body puppetry?
Sfar: There were two reasons. From a storytelling point of view, if I was going to refer to WWII I wanted it to be through the eyes of a selfish and solitary child who sees the tragedy of the war through the lens of what he can get. He assumed that he looked like the Jewish caricatures of the time. He presumed he was ugly. Maybe that propaganda had a part in that.
From a creative and somewhat egotistical point of view, I love puppets. While making my movie, I thought, "Maybe this will be my one and only movie. Maybe they will never let me make another one and I don't want to quit the movie business before I've had the chance to put puppets in a movie." So I decided to put puppets in the first movie I made. I also love monsters. My favorite movies would be the horror films from Universal or the Hammer Studios or Roger Corman's movies. I couldn't imagine making a movie without a puppet in it.
Guillén: How intriguing that you think of your puppets as monsters. La Gruele / "The Mug", Gainsbourg's Double, his Shadow, is played by one of my favorite character actors Doug Jones. As Peter Bradshaw writes in The Guardian: "This bizarre, long-nosed caricature expresses [Gainsbourg's] self-doubt, but also his exuberance and flamboyant flair, his bohemian sang-froid, his confrontational quality, which is bound up with Jewishness and differentness." Your casting of Doug Jones in this role is remarkable. Can you speak to why you chose him?
Sfar: Oh yes! Doug Jones is the most handsome monster I've ever met. [Laughs.] I was very lucky because I knew his face but most of my crew never saw his face until the end of the shoot. He came every day at 4:00 in the morning to get into his heavy make-up. Everyone on the set only saw him as a creature. Even when my children visited the set, they thought of him as a monster and I explained to them that—if they looked through the nostrils of his mask—they could see Doug's real face. One day when Doug was asleep during two shots, my kid wanted to feed him and brought him pancakes, which he shoved up through the nostrils.
Guillén: Oh no!
Sfar: [Laughs.] Doug Jones was so charming. I guess he was grateful that I allowed him to show that a monster can do something different, not only frighten people, but have a psychological moment where he can dance with a woman and play the piano. Both for Doug and all the makeup and prosthetic crew, it was a wonderful moment. We also had wonderful support from Guillermo del Toro during the shooting of the movie because most of his crew from Pan's Labyrinth was with us and he sent a memo and so on.
We also had the support of Jim Henson's company. The ugly face that steps out of the propaganda poster that you see early in the movie is the biggest animatronic face ever made. Usually when you make such a character, you make it at 20 centimeters and pretend that it's big; but—because we were totally mad—we made him two meters tall, which required a huge oven to bake the skin of this creature. The crew who made the prosthetics received help from Jim Henson's company and their friends at Industrial Light and Magic. A lot of nice people were involved in creating those moments for the movie.
Guillén: Well, even if you think of those creatures as monsters, they're quite beautiful and nuanced and you do genre fans a great service by incorporating them in your film. Another bit of whimsy that I appreciated in Gainsbourg was the talking black cat at the entrance to Juliette Gréco's apartment. Can you speak to that?
Sfar: Yes. That was my simple tribute to the Hammer films of my childhood. As with most movies about vampires, the hero arrives at a castle, accidentally cuts his hand on broken glass, and the reaction of his host to the sight of blood exposes (or announces) him as a vampire. I needed someone to announce the vampire—that is, Juliette Gréco—and the cat was perfect for that. I have to say that I don't like a movie where—through CGI—cats are made to look like they're talking. You know there's a computer involved. But in my movie I felt the cat really talks because you're seeing the cat and you hear a voice.
Guillén: It's a telepathic communication.
Sfar: And we were very lucky. The whole day was scheduled around that scene and the cat did everything we wanted in the first take. Not because he was in love with me but because we put food on a spoon and put the spoon on the top of my head. Animal handlers say cats are the most difficult animal to work with because you can't teach them anything; but, for us, for that scene, everything occurred within the hour. So that was one of the film's lucky moments.
Another lucky moment was when nobody died during the scene where we set fire to the painter's studio because, there again, that effect was not computerized. The wardrobe and the monster actually caught on fire. We were happy that no one was injured during the filming of that moment.
Guillén: So am I! Let's talk a bit more about your casting, which is key to this project and exquisitely executed. You've indicated that you never intended your film to be a biopic, and I'd agree that it's more a musical fantasy, but can you talk about the creative decision to cast actors who looked like their real-life counterparts, and who sang like them? How was that negotiated?
Sfar: It was not really negotiated. We wanted to pay a tribute and we wanted to pretend that all the characters came from my comic books. That may sound pretentious but it was a way of getting rid of the burden of reality. We didn't want to build a museum. We wanted to create a live performance and we wanted to have fun. People have asked me where I found such wonderful comedians for my film and the answer would be that I found them on the stage. I have to say that I am very close to stage actors and most of my actors come from live theater.
Guillén: Can you speak to casting Yolande Moreau in the role of Fréhel?
Sfar: Oui! It could have been no one else. She was happy with her makeup and it was tender during the wardrobe moments because I explained to her that Fréhel had to be always drunk. She comes through the door dressed in her nightgown and fur coat and, yes, she's like that but she also has to be elegant in a way. Of course, she is elegant. I told her, "She's big but she doesn't want people to know she's big" and that's how Moreau played the character. Also, during the WWII sequence, I needed one nice face from France.
Guillén: How did you score casting Claude Chabrol as Gainsbourg's music producer?
Sfar: That came about because Claude Chabrol was the person who made me enter moviemaking in the first place. He was the first director to invite me to visit a movie set. He wanted me to make comic book sketches during the making of one of his films. We met and became friends. When I asked him to be in my film, he was happy to come and perform. He refused money and asked only for champagne and good cigars. We were happy to provide them. We had a wonderful moment. Later he complained, "You tricked me. You obliged me to play with a dog, which is one of the worst things you can do to an actor." During filming, Chabrol was nice enough not to tell me how to make my film and I was grateful for that.
Guillén: Gainsbourg is the rare example of a beautiful film unexpectedly caught in the grip of the death horizon, with the tragic death of Lucy Gordon, who plays Jane Birkin in the film. I understand the film is dedicated to her and I commend you for eliciting such a charming performance out of her, all the more notable for being her last. What is it you want us to remember about Lucy Gordon?
Sfar: She was a wonderful archetype. We had seen 600 British comedians before we found her. My point at the beginning of the casting was that Jane Birkin should look like a British girl, but—when you go to London—you don't see a single British girl that looks or behaves like Jane Birkin. Lucy called me, told me she would be briefly in Paris, and asked to meet me. I saw this nice lady who behaved like a boy and talked like Cardinal Ratzinger. Her father was a teacher at Oxford (he told me that her name means "light"), she excelled at the modeling profession, and was just a wonderful person. We had so much fun during the making of the movie. She came to the set even when she was not scheduled to work and we were very upset when she died. The day before she died, I was at the Cannes Film Festival and we talked on the phone. She said, "I've just changed my hair color and I will join you tomorrow." But there never was a tomorrow. She was a strong person. Most of her girl friends, many of them models like her, often threatened suicide and she was the one who would argue, "Life is beautiful." We lost a friend when we lost Lucy and I'm sure that the movie industry lost a wonderful actress.
Guillén: And then there's Laetitia Casta as Brigitte Bardot. I understand that you sold this film less as a biopic about Serge Gainsbourg and more as a love story with Bardot as the love interest? Particularly with Laetitia as Bardot, the relationship between the camera and the female bodies in your film are markedly sensuous. Her entrance into the film as she walks down the hallway to Gainsbourg's apartment is one of the most voluptuous entrances in film I've ever seen.
Sfar: Maybe because that's what I love? [Laughs.] And maybe because I love the temper of this actress? Laetitia has a very bad temper, and so do I, so our relationship has been wonderful. Before making a movie, I make a comic book and that comic book is filled with heavy sexual content, extremely pornographic, you name it; but, I never want to have my actors doing the same things. I want my actors to keep something to themselves, to create something evocative and abstract, and I feel there's a true tension between the sexual content of my drawings and the naïve and childish way in which I make movies. Maybe the tension between the beautiful pictures in my movies and the dirty drawings brings out something sensual?
I have one story about a moment with Laetitia that says everything about working with her. She is aware of her unearthly power over men. The way men react whenever she enters a room. The way when she wants to take power, men give it up. We were discussing about hiring a dance teacher for the scene where Bardot dances in a bedsheet around Gainsbourg at the piano. Shortly before the scene, she told me, "Okay. You want me to give the audience a hard-on, right? So fire the dance teacher and let's get to work." In that moment I knew what it was going to be like to work with her.
She's very smart as an actress. It's all about what do you want to get? As Bardot, she's the most famous woman in the world but with her man she is just a girlfriend who wants to give him a dance. It doesn't have to be a perfect dance, but it should be a charming dance, and that's how she and I built the choreography for that scene. I love that my actors know I'm willing to let them try something on set. My only job as a director is to give them the space to try something. The way I look at Laetitia is not just male desire; it's more admiration and fascination. In one way, I feel extremely gay because I want to be her in that moment. In this way, Gainsbourg relates more to a movie like American In Paris or those kinds of movies, which had a way of depicting women as poisonous and harmless at the same time.
Cross-published on Twitch.