With Amelie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s new film Micmacs getting released this Friday, we got to participate in a roundtable interview with the gifted filmmaker. Micmacs is a poignant and whimsical tale starring French comedian Dany Boon and featuring Jeunet cast favorites Andre Dussolliers, Dominique Pinon and Yolande Moreau. Set in modern day Paris, Jeunet’s satire on the world’s arm trade takes its inspiration from some of the great silent comedies of another era and reflects his extraordinary eye for colorful characters and rich visual detail. Micmacs also reveals once again Jeunet’s unique sensibility for addressing matters of life and death in a distinctly original way with poetry, imagination and emotion.
During the interview, Jeunet talked to us about what drew him to the project, how he infused the film’s political undercurrent with magical realism to make his point, and why ingenuity and imagination can be a powerful defense against violence in today’s world. He also discussed the challenges he faced while making Alien: Resurrection. More after the jump:
Here’s the synopsis and trailer. You might want to watch the trailer before reading the interview:
First it was a mine that exploded in the middle of the Moroccan desert. Years later, it was a stray bullet that lodged in his brain. Bazil (Dany Boon) doesn’t have much luck with weapons. The first made him an orphan, the second holds him on the brink of sudden death. Then one day, walking by two huge buildings, Bazil recognizes the logos of the weapons manufacturers that caused all of his misfortune. With a little help from a band of quirky junkyard dealers who befriend him, he sets about exacting his revenge on the two heartless industrial giants who ruined his life in a battle reminiscent of David and Goliath with all the imagination and fantasy of Buster Keaton.
Question: Where did you get the story for Micmacs?
Jean-Pierre Jeunet: In fact, you have to know something before. I worked two years on Life of Pi. It’s a beautiful project for 20th Century Fox and now Ang Lee is supposed to make the film. I spoke with the producer this morning and it’s on the way, but it was so expensive because it was a story about a kid after a shipwreck in a lifeboat fighting against the tigers. You have the three worst elements for a film: the sea, a wild animal and a kid. So it was too expensive. That’s the only reason I didn’t make this film after two years and I did the work. I wrote the script. I created the storyboard with my video camera with a model. I spent six months making the storyboard. It was huge work. I was so starving to shoot. I wanted to make something very quickly and I had different ideas in my computer. In fact, I mixed three different feelings. One of them was a preoccupation about weapon sellers because I had a fascination for these strange people who are able to invent things to give suffering. Also, I wanted a story of revenge. I love Once Upon a Time in the West. I love a story of revenge. And the third thing was to make something with a band of original, weird people like the Seven Dwarves and Snow White. One of them is shy. Another one is always pissed off. You know, this kind of stuff. So, I mix with really strong feelings. It wasn’t so easy. I was concerned about mixing a serious issue like weapons with a slapstick cartoon. I thought okay, The Great Dictator was a comedy too. I hope it works pretty well.
Did you want this to have a deliberate political undercurrent and how tough was it to combine that with the magical realism that you injected into the rest of the film?
Jeunet: I want to say politic because it’s such a cliché to say it’s not good, it’s bad to sell weapons. But we did real research for what we did. We did a beautiful interview with a weapons manufacturer in Belgium who built arrows to go through the tank. It gets the temperature so high. In one second, everybody burns inside the tank. We met very interesting people. They have a passion for technology. I would like to have these kind of people on my crew – very nice people. When you say, “But at the end you kill people,” they say, “Yes, but we work on the right side. We work for the Minister of Defense, not for the Minister of Attack.” Isn’t that beautiful? They say, “No, no. We sell to people just for… not to the bad guys, of course.” They know it’s hypocritical. They know that we sell it in Africa for poor people. You know, it’s a war.
How do you come up with these ideas in your films? They’re always rich with color and so many details. Also, do you use a lot of wide lenses?
Jeunet: I would say it’s a question of style. I like directors with a strong style where you recognize the style after 10 seconds. When you see a film from Tim Burton, you recognize immediately that it’s Tim Burton. It’s the same thing with Terry Gilliam. A long time ago, it was Fellini. I don’t want to compare myself with these great directors. I love to shoot with a short lens and use warm colors. I love to do that. This time I wanted to make something faster with a lighter camera, but everybody told me “No, it’s too early for digital. We’ll spend too much time fixing the defects.” Next time I want make it all in 3D or with a lighter camera.
Do you share your characters’ vision that ingenuity or naivete is a way of defending yourself against the violence in the world?
Jeunet: Yes, absolutely, I believe in imagination. I was a worker when I was 17. Between 17 and 21, I was a worker in the telephone company and imagination saved my life. In fact, the character of Dany Boon is a little bit of a metaphor for my work because to accomplish his revenge, he needs a crew with specific character like I need a crew to accomplish my film. It’s kind of a metaphor. Isn’t it beautiful?
You said that you were working on another film before this one. Does it usually take you several years to develop an idea and get it done?
Jeunet: Yes, because I write the script myself. It’s not for everybody. It’s someone’s personal work, in fact. I need to be in love with the subject. For example, I’ve read some books over the last 6 months, and I need to be completely in love. So, it’s a long process after you write it between 6 months and one year. You look for the money. Each time you have a problem. This time I lost my actor because I wrote the main character from the director. I lost 4 months. I took advantage of that and made a beautiful commercial for Chanel No. 5. After Alien 4, Chanel No. 5. I love a good joke. (Laughs) It’s a long process to make these films and for the post production. There is the shooting. It’s very long because I’m very picky. I spent, for example, 7 weeks just to fix the color at the end. It’s very long, but I love it. I don’t care.
Do you think nowadays imagination is a rare commodity and it’s something that cinema needs because everyone is working on sequels and remakes and then you bring something that is totally fresh?
Jeunet: Yes, it’s getting difficult. For example, in France, they love realistic stories when it’s imagination and you see for Terry Gilliam, it’s getting tough in terms of animation. But, on the other hand, the biggest success is from the comics. But, you’re right, it’s from other work. After one century, we’ve told so many stories. It’s difficult to renovate and find new ideas. It’s not easy. I know it’s not easy.
Mechanical devices seem to figure prominently in your movies and remind me of the famous remark that Orson Welles made about movies being like a big train set. Why is that?
Jeunet: For me, I would compare it to a Meccano. Do you know what a Meccano is? It’s like a toy construction set. Inside the box you have the costumes, the dialogue and the music, and I want to use everything inside the box to build the most beautiful toy I can without losing anything inside the box. This is my conception of this film. Another one is, I am like a chef. I prepare a good meal and I want to share. “Do you think it’s good?” And sometimes they say, “No, it’s not good.” And then, you are disappointed.
You actually put the train sets on the screen?
Jeunet: Yes. For this one, I hired a guy that I discovered who is a naïve artist. He was in a museum in Paris and made an animated sculpture and it was so beautiful. We didn’t build it ourselves. I hired the guy to lend it to us. It’s a different sculpture.
You used the term “cartoon” to describe it, but I thought your film paid tribute to and was inspired stylistically by the physical comedy of such Silent film artists such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin and perhaps Jacques Tati in Monsieur Hulot. Would you agree?
Jeunet: Exactly. Absolutely. And Pierre Etaix, another French director. He’s in the film. Yes, especially the cannon man in the film. He reminded me especially of Buster Keaton. During the shooting, I saw Dany and said “Oh, you make me think of Chaplin.” He said, “Oh, you think so?” And after, I think he continued to think. It was on purpose.
Dany Boon is a great actor and a stand-up comic who is well known in France. How did you get to cast him in your movie?
Jeunet: I’ve followed him for 15 years because he used to do one-man stand-up shows. Just after I hired him, he enjoyed a huge success with Welcome to the Land of Shtis. But, when I say huge, you can’t imagine. It was almost like Titanic, 21 million admission. I mean it was a huge success. It was 9 million admission. Can you believe it? I am very jealous. He’s an auteur. He’s wise. He’s good. He’s a good actor. Every take is perfect. You never had a bad take. And he’s a nice guy, very simple, very funny.
You’re meticulous in terms of the camerawork. How do you work with actors?
Jeunet: They have to be precise. That’s the reason I love Audrey Tatou or Dany Boon. You have to have the head here and here in order to move a little bit, because when you use a short lens, if they are too close to the lens, they could look like a monster. I am very precise. But, on the other hand, if they want to surprise me or they want to propose something different, I am very open. I am free. I make a storyboard, but okay, new idea? No problem. But I love technique actor, technician actor (method actor?).
How did you decide to incorporate the Max Steiner score?
Jeunet: At the beginning, it’s The Big Sleep. We used maybe 6 or 7 different pieces of different films from Max Steiner. In fact, I wanted just to use The Big Sleep to make the gag with the end starting the film. It was on my mind, in my notes. Of course, we had the music and the music worked so well. We found it and thought maybe we could use Max Steiner music for the whole film. There were action scenes and it worked so well. Sometimes it was like a miracle. I remember once during 40 seconds, not a cut. Every sync point was perfect. I imagine Max Steiner in paradise [laughing very pleased] like a second life. No, it was a great moment. And, by luck, we found some good recordings from the 70s music. It was in stereo, good quality, not amazing quality but good quality.
Q: You compared yourself to being like a chef preparing something for the audience. When you make a movie, do you present what you think is right or do you try to anticipate what the audience is going to want?
Jeunet: You work for yourself. If you are a chef, you are the first taster. ”Um, I love that. Do you want to share?’ But, you have to love before. You are the first spectator of your film. If you think about the other people, you’re dead, you know.
Is it very personal?
Jeunet: Yes, it’s very selfish to make a film. Very selfish. But it’s not the only recipe. You can be happy. You can make something very sincere. You can. It doesn’t work. You know what I mean?
How do you come up with these elaborate scenes or set pieces — the carefully crafted visual jokes without any dialogue?
Jeunet: The only thing that I can say is that it’s 10% inspiration and 90% transpiration.
What are some of the other talents or super powers that you considered for the characters and then rejected?
Jeunet: I imagined maybe 15 characters. But, I can’t remember now why we got rid of some of them. I kept 7 because that’s a magic number — Seven Dwarves, Seven Samurai. I remember I had some twins but I don’t remember which quality they had.
When you’re writing, do you have directing in mind? Are you thinking “I’m going to write this because I really want to shoot this”? Or is this completely separate?
Jeunet: Yes, when I write the visual scenes, that’s the case. When Guillaume (Laurant), my partner, writes the dialogue scenes, it’s different. I have to imagine after and it’s a different game. But it’s pretty easy to imagine for me to storyboard. It’s an easy game. I close my eyes and I see those scenes. It’s pretty easy.
Micmacs has been described as a quintessentially French film. Is that part of how you compete with Hollywood — by not trying to imitate Hollywood, but coming up with your own accent?
Jeunet: I don’t know. Really I don’t know. I love Paris. I try to show a different Paris each time. I don’t know if it’s French. Of course, if I use the music with an accordion, it sounds French. But, in France, you have to know that I am not French. They think I am international because my films are shown everywhere, but I don’t feel especially French. I’m not a member of any guild. For example, Almodovar, they don’t like him in Spain. You know that? He quit the Academy of America’s Spanish Oscar because they don’t like him. In France, I can complain. But now, it’s getting difficult because I’ve had 3 huge successes: Alien. Alien was a success in France. Alien, Amelie, and A Very Long Engagement. Now it’s time to pay!
Was The Life of Pi meant to be a more commercial film or was it just something that had a bigger budget?
Jeunet: No, it was a very risky movie that I didn’t want to make because it was expensive and risky. An Indian kid, alone, in the middle of the sea. It’s not very commercial. Who knows? Maybe it will be a success but nobody can know.
Have you thought about merging your sensibility with something more commercial or are you content with the path that you’re on right now?
Jeunet: I have different ideas. For example, right now I am trying to buy the rights to a small French book. It will be a very intimate story. It will be beautiful, emotional, but not very commercial. On the other hand, I read an amazing American book. Oh my God, it’s a masterpiece, but I don’t want to say anything because I’m going to meet the author next week in New York. It is such a good book. Oh my God! It will be a fucking masterpiece. But I heard he would like to direct the film himself. Big mistake. (Laughs)
International audiences and critics have complained that they’ve Americanized a lot of foreign books in the process of adaptation. Do you feel like turnabout is fair play?
Jeunet: No, this one is in Russia. It’s during the war. It’s very different. It’s a war film. It won’t be American. It won’t be French. Except, I suppose, we have to use American actors or scare up some Russian actors.
Do you think your imagination is dark?
Jeunet: It can be if I want. I try to make something brighter because it’s more interesting and more difficult to make something positive than negative. To be negative is very easy.
Amelie is a more romantic love story, but when you think about Delicatessen and even some of the things in Micmacs and A Very Long Engagement, it seems you have both.
Jeunet: Yes, I like both. And, for some people, I mean it was dark. Can you believe it? In France, they said “Oh, it’s very dark.” Intellectual critics.
How do you relate to science fiction and the genre of extreme imagination? Do you like the genre and do you think it brings new ideas?
Jeunet: I love science fiction but I don’t like fantastic [cinema]. For example, if you have a magical ring and you can explode the world with it. What are we talking about? You know, it’s not interesting. I don’t like Lord of the Rings, you understand. Even Star Wars, for me, I don’t understand this kind of story. But Alien, because the rules of the game are very precise, it could happen. I love science fiction. I have an idea about robots in the future.
What’s the main influence in your work because you’ve shown realism which underpins the French cinema?
Jeunet: For this film, I think it’s pretty obvious: Sergio Leone, Mission Impossible, Buster Keaton, as we said.
What about Wall-E?
Jeunet: Oh yes, Pixar.
Were you also thinking of maybe Doc Savage or Buckaroo Banzai where you have a special team and everyone has their specialty?
Jeunet: Yes, maybe.
You talked about making a film that might not be commercial, but you also talked earlier about wanting to share your concoction with the audience. Are those two sides of a coin because you can make a film that is close to your heart but might not reach a wide audience?
Jeunet: If you share with one person. You can have a dinner with one person or with 10 people like now and it is the same pleasure. But sometime it’s very sincere. It’s just a question of money. If you can get the money back just to get the money back for the film, it’s not a problem. If I would want to have a huge audience, I would make American movies, not French movies, because there is a limit of course with French language. If I prefer to shoot in my own language, it is to play with my language, to play in my Paris, and I have complete freedom in France. It’s so amazing. If American directors could imagine how free I am, they would have asked for political asylum immediately. (Laughs)
Was your experience in Alien: Resurrection different?
Jeunet: I was waiting for this question. (Laughs) No, it was a great experience. And I read so many times, “It was a nightmare for Jean-Pierre Jeunet.” You know the guy who made Up in the Air? He made a joke with the photo like the dwarf in Amelie and they say “It’s like in the French film.” Because I read in an interview, “He said because it was a nightmare to make Alien for Jean-Pierre Jeunet, he came back in France to make Amelie. It’s an hommage.” No, it wasn’t a nightmare. I’m sorry. You would like? It was tough. It was difficult because you have to convince people to let you do your own editing. You have to speak with a lot of people. But it wasn’t a nightmare, it was just tough. And in France, it’s not tough. You have the freedom by law. We have the final cut by the law. It’s the law.
I loved your Alien. Why do you think the hardcore Alien fans didn’t go for it?
Jeunet: Maybe because I put some humor inside. But, the best one is the first one, definitely.
When you’re writing a film like this, do you have a distinct visual style in mind beforehand or does it evolve as the film goes along?
Jeunet: It depends. The main important thing, of course, is the story. I think we made a mistake with the City of Forgotten Children because we had the feeling of the mood and the set before the story. At this time we said, “Okay, now we need a story.” If you think we need a story, it’s not a good way. You have to have a beautiful story and at this time “Oh I’m going to shoot that.” This is the right order.
Jeunet: I think it’s not enough. (Laughs) Some people told me “It’s not enough. We need some stronger emotion.” And they’re right, I think. I have a great admiration for Pixar. I had the great privilege to make a master class at Pixar in San Francisco with 1,000 people. It was amazing. They are so good at alternating. They say one laugh for one tear.
Would you say Bazil’s memories of his life guide us through the movie since everything happens because of what he’s been through?
Jeunet: Yes, the bullet on his brain was just a pretext to give him imagination, fantasy. The first time I wanted to give him more fantasy, more voiceover, more imagination, but it would have killed the story. So we limited it just to the animation scenes.
Was it hard finding someone like Julie Ferrier to cast as Elastic Girl?
Jeunet: You have to look on YouTube and type Julie Ferrier. She is amazing on stage because she’s able to play 15 different characters and you can’t recognize her. You think it’s a trick and she’s a different actress. She changes a wig, the aspect and the voice and she’s different. She’s amazing. In my film, she’s okay, but on stage she’s absolutely amazing. She’s a genius. And, of course, she is very flexible because she was a dancer, but not enough for the character. We found a Russian girl acting in Germany and she does some erotic show in Germany and it’s very interesting. (Laughs)
Is that on YouTube also?
Jeunet: Maybe. My Japanese director of photography was very moved. (Laughs) Why him, I don’t know.
What are you working on now?
Jeunet: I am reading. I have this book. If I could have the rights immediately, I’m on, because I want to make an adaptation now. I don’t feel ready to write another story during the year except the story with robots.
Micmacs opens on May 28th in select cities and June 4th in Los Angeles. In French with English subtitles.