Michel Hazanavicus, The Artist
Remarkably, given the decibel-raising, sensorial overkill of our current mainstream film culture, Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist—an exuberantly charming black-and-white silent melodrama about the birth of the talkies—is finding a foothold in awards season thanks to a Best Actor win at Cannes for French star Jean Dujardin, effervescent word of mouth, and the mighty muscle of the Harvey Weinstein machine. Hazanavicius, a onetime gag man for a TV comedy troupe and writer-director of the nutty James Bond spoofs OSS 117: A Nest of Spies and OSS 117: Lost in Rio, conceived of the film as a formal experiment that would hearken back to the Golden Age of live-orchestra-accompanied Hollywood cinema. Little did he realize what a welcome the film would receive from audiences around the world (I saw The Artist in a packed-to-the-rafters opera house in Doha, Qatar) who’ve embraced the pure spirit of his traditional tale, rendered in an obsolete format. The film centers on Douglas Fairbanks–esque silent-film star George Valentin (Dujardin), a happy-go-lucky, supremely confident actor whose career stalls when the sound era arrives, sending him into a tailspin. Locked in a loveless marriage with Doris (Penelope Ann Miller), he falls for Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a wanna-be starlet whose transformation into the marquee-topping darling of studio boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman) heightens Valentin’s sense of dejection. Only his utterly devoted dog (a scene-stealing Jack Russell who won a Palm Dog at Cannes, alongside his co-star) and loyal driver Clifton (James Cromwell) remain faithful friends as Valentin slips further into obscurity and depression. The Artist delights on many levels—as a love story, as an homage to cinematic tradition, complete with a rousing, show-closing dance sequence—and with any luck, may renew interest in the silent era with its show-biz flair, moody musings on craft, and contagious enthusiasm for bygone times.
Filmmaker spoke with Hazanavicius about the virtues of silence and classical Hollywood, full-bodied choreography and canine talent wranglers. The Weinstein Company opens The Artist in theaters Friday.
Filmmaker: On the heels of your rapturous premiere at Cannes, there has been an enthusiastic international response to The Artist.
Hazanavicius: Yes. It’s really gratifying to see people reacting with the same pleasure in Canada, France, Germany, and the United States. It’s touching for me.
Filmmaker: Do you think it’s simply about nostalgia for the silent era?
Hazanavicius: I’m not sure it’s a nostalgic movie. The story itself is the opposite – it’s about how you can adapt yourself to [new circumstances]. It’s more about the format itself; it’s a sensual experience. It’s not intellectual, and I think that’s new for people who aren’t used to seeing silent movies. People love participating in the storytelling process. It’s like a mirror they can project themselves into.
Filmmaker: Your artistic relationship to Hollywood movies intrigues me. La classe américain was composed entirely of footage from old Warners films, and the OSS 117 films are spoofs of the James Bond franchise. Now you’ve made an homage to the silent era. What’s that all about?
Hazanavicius: I don’t see myself as a French director—I don’t care about being French. [These films] are part of my culture. My childhood was full of such movies. And I have a personal interest in the Jewish emigration [to Hollywood]. My own grandfather tried to go to America but ended up in France. I guess I’m more impressed by Billy Wilder and Ernst Lubitsch than by French film of the thirties or forties. A lot of countries share a cinematographic culture with Hollywood movies. People from Europe built Hollywood—producers, writers, directors—and a lot of them were Jewish from eastern Europe.
Filmmaker: As a writer, how did you go about getting the movement and pacing right for a silent film?
Hazanavicius: It was the most challenging part of the process. It’s like “pre-directing.” I watched hundreds of movies just to understand the rules of the game and how things work. You have to make images into interesting sequences that [then become] an organic story. Usually, when you write, you try to find some important images, but you’re not attached to them always. And here you have to find the right path to tell your story knowing images are all you have. It’s a balance between the story you want to tell and the story you actually can tell. You can’t have a too complex story. But on the other hand, you know you are working for a modern audience so you can’t be as simple as in the silent era. You have limits. But also it’s very freeing doing a silent movie because of that—it’s part of the contract you have with the audience. For example, when Valentin is arguing with his own shadow—you wouldn’t do that in a talking movie, because you risk being ridiculous.
Filmmaker: Creating a black-and-white silent film for a sophisticated 21st-century audience, since they are aware you have made a choice not to use sound or dialogue or color, must have led you to the idea of taking on the whole silent-to-talkies transition as your central story.
Hazanavicius: That’s right. And it also makes the film – not unique – but quite specific. In the old days, directors weren’t making “silent movies,” just movies. There was no option. Knowing that I am making a silent movie, I can play with that. Silence is one of the themes of the movie; how Valentin and Doris, for instance, aren’t talking anymore. Or how the dog is Valentin’s only friend and the only character who doesn’t speak. In a way, it’s a game with the audience.
Filmmaker: You’re winking at the audience, asking us to play along, but not trying to re-do the era.
Hazanavicius: Right. I didn’t do a fake twenties movie. I tried to make a modern film. That means okay, we are all aware that I can introduce sound anytime I want. It’s a choice, so let’s play with that. I had many options with the script. I chose this story because I had the feeling that silence and working with a team of silently performing actors could [create] something interesting between the form of the movie and its subject. They could have some connection.
Filmmaker: You’ve mentioned that F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise and Fritz Lang’s Spies were touchstones for you in making The Artist. Did you look at any of the modern silents made by people like Guy Maddin or Aki Kaurismäki?
Hazanavicius: I really loved Kaurismäki’s Juha and The Man Without a Past. And Guy Maddin’s films—I’ve seen one and it was very avant-garde, and that’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to make a mainstream silent movie in the Hollywood way. This was part of the difficulty: I had to find the money to do it. But also I had to respect the way stories were told in the classical Hollywood era, even through the forties. There’s no irony in The Artist—the [lovers] don’t kiss each other in the movie, they dance, as they used to do in the old musicals. I really tried to respect the spirit of that era.
Filmmaker: How did you work to make it your own, to speak in your own voice, even though you were reviving the format of a different time?
Hazanavicius: I was working in two times, past and present, so I asked Guillaume [Schiffman, DP] and Bérénice [Bejo], who both did a lot of research, to do the same. Because Bérénice is my wife, she came with me to the cinématheque to watch the movies. She read all the books I read about actors and producers and directors of that era. The first thing was to accumulate references—a small part of the story, a small part of an image. And then the idea was to forget everything and tell your own story in your own voice. For instance, Bérénice was [studying] all these actors, like Joan Crawford, Clara Bow, and Marlene Dietrich, and she was super analyzing every sequence of the script. So at one point I said to her, “Now I know you’re familiar with all these actresses. Forget them, they won’t help you—you’ll have to find your own character.” I did the same with Guillaume. The first time Valentin discovers sound in [Zimmer’s] screening room, for instance, I asked Guillaume to do the same lighting that’s in Citizen Kane, with a very strong backlight and sharp shadows. Guillaume said “But it isn’t like light in the films of the twenties, more like the forties.” And I said, “Yes, but I don’t care.” I needed the character to be in very strong light and then go into shadow because that’s what happens in the story. I needed to see it.
Filmmaker: A handful of purists have lightly criticized the film because it isn’t “authentic” enough, because it doesn’t employ soft-focus lighting throughout or get this or that detail of certain acting styles exactly right. It’s as if they were reviewing a piece of scholarship rather than a movie.
Hazanavicius: A lot of people have preconceived notions about what silent cinema is supposed to be. We’re talking about twenty years of cinema, all over the world. The Russian silents are so different from the German ones. Movies in the early teens are so different from those in the early twenties, and so on. It’s not a genre, it’s a format—meaning it has no sound. My only promise to the audience is to tell a story. The way I do it is my business. If people like the story and the actors, then I’m happy.
Filmmaker: Jean Dujardin has been with you over the past few films. He has that handsome, matinee-idol suavity and a roguish quality that you use really well for humor in the OSS 117 films.
Hazanavicius: With the three movies I made with him, it was very important for me to have his charm. For The Artist, I really tried to work in another perspective, though the charm was still important. I wrote the script with him and Bérénice in mind. I think their acting style and physicality fits really well with this kind of storytelling.
Filmmaker: Did they inspire you to do a silent movie?
Hazanavicius: No, but that was my deal with the producer: this is the movie I want to do, with these people, including Ludovic Bource, the composer. Because you’re so focused on what you see in a silent film, everything has to be very choreographed. It you use the wrong music on a sequence, it makes a lot of confusion. You can lose the story. So everybody has to do their job very precisely.
Filmmaker: Speaking of choreography, the dance sequence at the end is your pièce de résistance. It must have taken months to get right.
Hazanavicius: For Jean and Bérénice, yes. For me it was easy to write! I warned them that I was going to shoot it in the classical way. I told them, “I want to see your whole bodies dancing.” I didn’t want to do close-ups of [another dancer’s] feet and then cut to their smiling faces. They worked with a teacher and we tried to do it in the more classical way. I love it when you watch actors in a film and you see that they’ve taken time to learn something, just for you. It’s touching—I always want to thank them.
Filmmaker: How did you land on Uggie, the Jack Russell who steals the show?
Hazanavicius: The trainers in LA showed me some great dogs—geniuses, really. But I wanted a Jack Russell. So we went to a small company. They didn’t have so many dogs, but they had Uggie. And he did most of the acting in the movie. There’s one wide shot when he’s running that I don’t think is him. That’s rare—usually you have two or three dogs. In general, I’m not a big fan of movies with animals. But this terrier gave it the flavor of the twenties, because you can’t help but love a character who is so loved by a dog like this. You know he’s a good person.
Filmmaker: So how many people advised you not to make a black-and-white silent film?
Hazanavicius: [Laughs] Well, it’s like censorship today. People don’t really tell you not to do it, but you feel you should not. One producer refused to read the script. He told us he was sure the script was good, but he knew he couldn’t raise the money for it. He didn’t want to say no to a script he thought he would love.