After the impressive success of their animated feature, Persepolis, Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi return to the big screen with Chicken with Plums, a captivating live-action fairytale full of whimsy, humor, magic and despair. Adapted from Satrapi’s graphic novel of the same name about a renowned musician who loses interest in life after the destruction of his favorite violin, the film pays homage to a number of well-known filmmakers and cinematic styles.
In an exclusive interview, I talked to Paronnaud about their decision to adapt Satrapi’s graphic novel to film, how their aesthetic worlds complement one another, how they collaborated on co-directing the film, what impressed him most about working with live actors, and why they chose the film’s unusual narrative structure and marriage of styles. Paronnaud also revealed he is currently working on a comic book about the Old and the New Testament and a screenplay for a very violent thriller. Hit the jump for more.
Vincent Paronnaud: It was at the end of Persepolis and we had worked pretty hard so we decided to do something different, to get a little bit of fresh air, and to do a live action movie with actors and animation as well. The book by Marjane was on the desk and we thought “Wow, why don’t we do that?” It’s an adaptation, and while the basis is basically the same, we had to adapt and change it for the movie. The aesthetics started to appear and it was something different with different rhythms. As with Persepolis, graphically, we tried to be as close as possible to the book, but the look of Chicken with Plums is totally different.
Can you talk about your collaborative process and how the two of you work together?
Paronnaud: We always work together on the script which is very important. We even film each other and we start to imagine things so that we are ready, because when you start shooting, it’s pretty stressful. We had a storyboard and we had everything ready. Once we were on the set, we each did different kinds of work. I was doing more the technical stuff, the framing and the camera work, and she was working more with the actors. Marjane and I don’t stop speaking once we’re on the set. We continue to talk. We define what our roles are going to be on set, because to have a snake with two heads is silly. Each of us has our defined work, but we still talk about what just happened in the scene we shot. Sometimes we yell at each other, and then we get back together and make up. We both have very strong personalities, but that’s completely normal, because even if you’re very well prepared, you never know when you shoot live action. There are always different things that can happen and we don’t want to yell at other people. It’s easier if we yell at each other. We’re still friends, so obviously it worked out.
Paronnaud: My personal work is totally different from Marjane’s. It’s very violent. There’s very dark humor. Marjane is also like that in a certain way, but not in her work. I can also have that naïve side like she has. So that’s how we can mix up a lot of things and we get along and agree about a lot of things. We love the same kind of movies, and like in Chicken with Plums, we love the same style of movies basically.
What did you enjoy most about mixing up the genres and the visual styles in this film?
Paronnaud: We love to play. It’s like a game. So that’s an aspect that we love about making a film. To really do something well, we have to have fun. So, even if the story is sad, you have to find some intellectual satisfaction and fulfillment in that. Otherwise, it’s boring.
Was it challenging to pursue a non-linear narrative structure?
Paronnaud: Oh yes, we were very conscious of all the problems that the film could pose as far as the different patchworks and styles. So, we tried to keep the [narrative] thread, but we were also adding chaos on top of it constantly because that’s what life is. It’s chaotic.
Paronnaud: We were very lucky because we asked really big actors and they said yes. For me, it was a wonderful surprise because I saw wonderful actors being very professional working in front of me. I finally understood what an actor is and what an actor does. On a daily basis, it’s a bit repetitive. For example, I would see them every day, and I found it quite impressive the fact that they can repeat an emotion about twenty times for a take.
What filmmakers have inspired you the most and why?
Paronnaud: There are a lot. The only common thing is that they surprise me. I love Taxi Driver. When I saw it the first time, I didn’t understand it, but I loved it because I thought the guy was really cool when he’s talking to himself in the mirror. But, after that, I really got it, that he was a poor guy who was lost. I also love Apocalypse Now because it’s a war movie, but yet it’s not really a movie about war.
Can you talk about which filmmakers influenced your visual style in Chicken with Plums?
Paronnaud: We have a lot of Alfred Hitchcock, for example. We have images reminiscent of Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief when he’s driving his car along the cliffs of the French Riviera near Monte Carlo. The film also has the ambiance of German Expressionism. There’s also the influence of Douglas Sirk. It’s an aesthetic that interests me. It’s like me going to the movies and somebody takes me by the hand and says, for example, “Okay, I’m going to tell you a story and it happens in Rome,” and I see Charlton Heston playing Ben Hur. It’s stupid, but it works. That’s what I love about movies because they make you dream. We wanted to pay homage to these kinds of movies where the backdrops and the sets are a little bit fake, but they say “Okay, now I’m going to tell you a story.” However, the emotions that they express are very real, very ambiguous and very paradoxical.
Paronnaud: That comes from Marjane, too, because she also likes anything that has to do with magic and I like that as well. I’m very different from her, but my work gets involved in that. For example, when Nasser’s mother dies and we see the puff of smoke, the scene with the smoke is very naïve, but at the same time it expresses a conviction that it is possible [her soul is leaving her body]. It’s more like an oriental side of seeing things. It’s a bit bizarre.
The music plays an important role in the film. Can you talk about your collaboration with composer Olivier Bernet?
Paronnaud: He made the music for Persepolis so we already had a basis. He was also a friend who I was playing music with. I play guitar and we were together in the same band. He is very talented so that’s how we started working together. So, we started talking about the music, and Marjane and I had him listen to certain things and certain samples of what we liked, and then we told him “Now you do it. Tell us and just do something.” He’s an intimate friend so we are very close. He lives in Berlin, so I would go to Berlin, and we could talk about stuff without it becoming a war between us. I know what music is. I know that you don’t just press a button and it comes out. It’s more complicated than that. We had the music almost finished before the movie started shooting. We already had the idea about the musical background in the movie because it was really important to the film.
Paronnaud: They were all very good. I learned many things from them. Otherwise, I would not have been able to do it. It was really a collaborative effort. The movie is very delicate, and you need to have people around you that understand what you’re doing, otherwise it doesn’t work. Also, there are different kinds of passages in the movie. One of the passages is like a sitcom and another is a bit more delicate and another is more bizarre, so you have to have people who know how to navigate that. We needed to have a great set decorator, a great D.P., a great costume designer, everybody. Without all these people, we would have made a shitty movie.
What are you working on next?
Paronnaud: Lots of stuff. I’m working on a book about the Old and the New Testament, but it’s a funny book, a comic book. I’m also writing a film script. It’s a thriller that’s going to be very violent.