Oscar-nominated director Marjane Satrapi brings magic to the screen once again with Chicken with Plums, her second full-length movie co-directed with Vincent Paronnaud, which opens in Los Angeles on August 31st. It’s a stylish, timeless fable filled with humor, caprice and melancholy about a talented musician who loses his will to live. Adapted from Satrapi’s graphic novel of the same name, Chicken with Plums is the second volume in a trilogy that began with Persepolis and stars Mathieu Amaric with Maria de Medeiros, Golshifteh Farahani, Isabella Rossellini and Edouard Baer.
In an exclusive interview, Satrapi talked to us about the graphic novel that inspired the film, what it was like shifting from animation to live action direction, what fueled her creative collaboration with Paronnaud, and how she dealt with the challenges of marrying distinctly different visual styles and genres in a non-linear storyline. She also discussed her upcoming project, Tale of the Hanging Head. Hit the jump for more.
Marjane Satrapi: If it’s a good work of adaptation, the book should remain a book and the film should remain a film, and you should not necessarily read the book to see the film. If you do need that, then that means that it’s a failure. That is what I think. It’s not so much that I like to adapt my books at all. When I made Persepolis, it was really not my idea. It was a friend of mine who wanted to become a producer, and I was totally against the idea, because first of all, the adaptation of books is never a success. When the author wants to make it, it’s even worse. I was completely sure that I would make the worst film in the world and I didn’t have any reason to make it. At the same time, Jiminy Cricket was there telling me “They’re going to pay you. They’re going to invest money so you will learn something new. Why not do it?” Because of curiosity and because of that fact, I said “I will do something that I thought I would never be able to do. Let’s go for it.” I was so scared that the movie would be really bad. You have to detach yourself from the book – read it and put it aside. Of course, the language in a comic book or a graphic novel and the cinematographic language are really not the same language. They are false brother and sister. It’s not at all the same. So, forget it, and think and concentrate on the cinema. That was it.
In a film where the central themes are about the complexities of the world and the human soul, you go from dramatic to comic to heartbreaking moments. How do you strike a balance that draws an audience in but doesn’t distract or overwhelm them?
Satrapi: I try to look at life carefully and reproduce life the way life is. It’s a question of looking carefully at how it is. In life, you don’t have total happiness. People always say that. But you don’t have total sadness either, no matter what situation you are living in. I’m someone who lived in a war for five years. I received bombs on my head every day of my childhood. Did that stop me from living? Did that stop me from laughing? Just because I knew a bomb was coming, would that stop me from going and buying a new pair of Nikes that were fashionable? No. I was a child who had a life, who had hopes, and I wished that a bomb would not fall on my head. Anyway, I needed my new Nikes because life is like that. Did that stop us from laughing? No, it made us laugh even more, because these are the moments where you understand how fragile life is and you are aware that we know that we’re going to die, but we forget it. But when you have bombs, you don’t have any way. You cannot forget it. It’s just there. Of course, you want to survive. I just looked carefully at life. Life is complex. You don’t have any person who is nice from the beginning until the end. You don’t always have the notion of redemption. The bad people don’t always pay. People do the best that they can do — all the people in this film. Of course, Nasser-Ali is very selfish. He’s very egoistic. He does not like his kids at the beginning. He does not like them more at the end. And, this is true, not everybody loves their children. If that was a fact, all the children would be happy and they would make happy adults. Instead, we have lots of miserable children that later became miserable adults. This is a fact. We cannot change that. It’s not because a guy smokes that he’s a bad guy, like today in a film, in the next ten minutes, he’s going to rape someone or blow up a building or something. Life is about that. So, it was to give each character the chance to be nice, to be gentle, to be detestable, to be bad, and not necessarily wanting redemption but more or less just to describe life. But then, of course, as you say, the whole film with all these different styles is a question of the rhythm and to find balance and to see whether it’s going too far. But then also, it’s a question of working. You work it and work it, and then, there’s a moment where you feel this is fine. I have it.
Can you talk about your friendship and creative collaboration with Vincent and how that works? You come from different cultures and have different artistic sensibilities. How do your aesthetic tastes complement one another?
Satrapi: Our personal work is really the opposite. I mean, he would never do the things that I would do, and I would never do the things that he would do. That is why it’s interesting to work with him, because otherwise, if it was only me, and me two times, it would be unbearable. We have known each other for a very long time. We collaborated on Persepolis. We had lots of joy doing it. We prepared the film very much in advance so it’s like different layers. And then, all of that gets cooked and you have one thing, and it’s very difficult to say what layer came from what. It’s like when you cook and you put in all these ingredients and at the end you have food, but who knows what taste came from where. Also, he’s a very funny man and he makes me laugh a lot, and I need to laugh in my life. Otherwise, I’m very unhappy.
What was the experience like for you to shift from animation to live action directing? Did you enjoy working with the actors?
Satrapi: With actors, it was very natural. First of all, I would say I had the luxury of working with actors, none of whom were divas. They were all committed to the film. They loved the film. But also, I chose the actors that I was in love with. I cannot work with people that I don’t personally like a lot. They can be the best actor in the world, but if the first contact is not good, if I don’t fall in love with them, then I don’t want to work with them. It’s impossible. It is the same with everybody else that I work with. I really have to like them personally. You always say that business is business, but business is very personal. For me, everything is extremely personal. With actors, the fact that I write helps, because when you say to an actor “Oh I want you to do it a little bit more …,” without saying what you want more of, then the actor doesn’t know what to do. But if you can put into words exactly what you want, then the experience of writing is helpful with that. They were very committed. They were very great actors. We talked a lot about many things, but not so much about the film. It was more important for me to create for them an atmosphere, a flair, to make them understand how an Iranian family functions altogether. I told them all sorts of anecdotes about things that don’t exist, even in the film. They were surrounded by this, and then you start working, and when they were as good as they were, then you know that it was the gift of God.
Satrapi: In animation, the cool thing is, it is long, so if you don’t like something, you can always change it. With Chicken with Plums, we had 46 days. We didn’t have a big studio behind us where I could say “Oh, we need another five days,” and they would give it to us. It was 46 days and that was it. If you have seen the movie, you know that it’s made like a puzzle. If there’s one plan that you don’t have, then the whole structure will fall down. Everything needs to be there. It’s a very stressful thing, but I’m someone who likes to stress a lot, who thinks the best when I’m stressed. If I have one year or two days, I will do exactly the same work and probably better in two days because my brain functions the best. I think animation is like running a marathon and making a movie is like a 100 meter sprint. The question is: are you a marathon man or are you a sprinter? I realized that I was more of a sprinter than a marathon man. With a long, long project, I get bored easily.
How did you deal with the challenges that following a non-linear story presented coupled with an aesthetic that combines different styles and genres?
Satrapi: Of course, when you remember your life, you never remember anything in a chronological way. You always have pieces of memories, and some of these memories are full of details and very colorful. Some of them you just see the action and it’s completely blank. It’s like that. So, the whole thing was to re-describe that, but then the big challenge was how to go from one style to another without it looking like a patchwork. Here is where the preparation is important. This is the question that you have to ask yourself before you start shooting the movie, because once you have done it, the editor can do his best, but if he does not have the material, he cannot make magic either. It’s lots of work, lots of preparation. We made a storyboard. After the storyboard, we made an animatic. There are lots of things that we played ourselves. We tried many things and we prepared a lot before shooting the film.
Satrapi: You have to have a good cinematographer, of course. You have to tell him what you want and to have a discussion. And, of course, you have to have a cinematographer who has an eye and who knows all the lenses and all the possibilities. He will tell you “Yes, you can do that. But look, if you look from this side, you’ll see something else.” And you look, and obviously he’s right. You need to be open and not have this question of ego where I say that so it’s going to be like that. I think the best work of the director is to listen to what all the technicians around him have to say, but then the thing is to take the best decision, what you think is the best. Then, that is the moment where you have to have all the film in your head and imagine how all of that will fit together. We were lucky to have an excellent cinematographer with a great sensibility, so it was easy.
How did you share the directing duties with Vincent?
Satrapi: We prepare everything in advance. But then, on the set, he is with the cinematographer. I am with the actors. If he frames a scene in a way that I don’t like, I tell him. If I give a direction in the acting that he does not like, he will tell me. But we will say it to each other [privately], because if people have to deal with two people that say contradictory things, not the same thing, then that can be very confusing. That does not happen very often, because since we have prepared everything in advance, we are okay. We’re going to do this and that, but sometimes you have to improvise. But then, you have to have the elegance not to let other people know that you have problems. “They have been yelling at each other, shouting.” I wanted to kill him. He wanted to kill me. But then, after one hour, it’s finished. I’m not somebody that keeps the thing in her heart. I can get very angry for five minutes, but then it’s finished. Once I’ve yelled, it’s over.
Satrapi: All of the actors were my first choice. I called Mathieu Amalric and he said “Oh I don’t want to act,” and I said “Yes, but it is this book.” “Oh, I’m in love with this book. How do you want me to refuse a project like that?” So, he said okay. I didn’t know Isabella Rossellini. A friend of mine knew her so I called her, and right away, she told me “I will make it.” I was like “Ms. Rossellini, maybe you have to read the script.” She responded “I never choose a project based on a script. I know your books. I want to work with you.” I needed an Isabella Rossellini with her big voice. I needed somebody with a fever in their eyes like Mathieu Amalric. These were the first choices and all of them said yes. How wonderful. But, I also have to say that in France it is much easier to contact an actor directly than in America. In America, it becomes very difficult because you have to go to so many agents and managers and lawyers. Before you meet the actor, you’ve spent nine months discussing it with people who have not even talked about the project with the actor. This is the truth. I have experienced that. In France, it’s like if you know someone who knows someone, and Isabella Rossellini is European, so I know I can write her in an email and say “Oh, I’m the friend of that one,” and she will give me her phone number and I will call her right away. And then, the rest of the deal is made by the agent, but it’s much easier.
Can you talk about the role that music played in this film and how you collaborated with Olivier Bernet?
Satrapi: Olivier Bernet is an old friend of Vincent’s and he has also been my friend for a long time. He’s a great musician. The thing is, since we have this storyboard and we made an animatic, before we even started shooting the movie, he was composing the music because the music is another character in the film. Also, we had the luck to work with an editor who is a musician himself, so he understands the rhythm of the music and he can edit on the music. You have to have an ear to be able to do that. So, a very talented Olivier and a very talented editor made it. The music is great, but then it also feels good because of the editing since it follows the rhythm of the film.
Satrapi: Yes. The Prophet I’m not going to make. I was supposed to make it, but then the project took another direction that I don’t think is for me. I think it still is a very interesting project, but you have to have the feeling because it’s an investment. The Tale of the Hanging Head, yes, we are working on it. We’re working on writing another script. I’m also preparing an exhibition of paintings in Paris in 2013. So yes, I have lots of work.
Are you directing The Tale of the Hanging Head with Alfonso Cuaron and Michel Gondry among others?
Satrapi: Yes, these are my friends. Sara Driver had this project and all of us…it’s always like that. You always want to do things with your friends. As I said at the beginning, you have to like the people because the time that you spend with them is so intense. Imagine if I cannot stand someone and every day he is here in my face, then I cannot work. Then, the whole time, I am thinking “I hate him, I hate him.” But if I love him or I love her, then I can do anything, then I am comfortable. That’s why it’s so important to be surrounded by people that you really like. I never believe it when they say “Yeah, but this guy is a very good performer.” However a good performer he is, if I don’t like him, I prefer to take a guy who is less performant but who’s more convinced. With conviction, with belief, with love, we can go much further than just by performance.