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Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, Chicken with Plums

Chicken with Plums focuses on a deeply sensitive Iranian musician named Nasser Ali (Mathieu Amalric), and the film, from writer-directors Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, makes clear from the start that viewers shouldn’t be expecting anything like a storybook ending. Having watched helplessly as his violin is smashed before his eyes, Nasser decides he’s had it with this life. And so into bed he climbs, determined to die, lest he face another year with Faranguisse (Maria de Medeiros), the wife he’s never loved. As the days go by, his mind wanders from the past to the present, and to the future, as he recalls his mother’s (Isabella Rossellini) formative influence, pines for his first love (Golshifteh Farahani) and wonders what will become of his two children. In a film that blends straightforward storytelling and magical realism, Satrapi and Paronnaud use a variety of methods—flashbacks, flash-forwards, satire, references to classic film, subtle ruminations of Iranian political history—to tell their story.

Satrapi and Paronnaud are best known for Persepolis, the charming, vibrant 2007 movie that was inspired by Satrapi’s youth in Iran, as chronicled in her graphic novel of the same name. It was an Oscar nominee in the Best Animated Film category, but the duo has now opted for a different path. Aside from one scene, Chicken with Plums, which opens Friday, is a live-action production, the second film in a planned trilogy about the Iranian family introduced in Persepolis. During a recent swing through New York, the Parisian-based collaborators talked to Filmmaker about the differences between live-action filmmaking and animation, their inauspicious first meeting and the classic movie that a young Satrapi watched every day for a year.

Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi (Photo by Emily Moysson)

Filmmaker: What are the important themes that link Persepolis and Chicken with Plums?

Paronnaud: We [deal with] the same country, Iran, and the same family but from a different perspective than Persepolis, which was much more political. Persepolis we did as an animated feature because we wanted something that was more universal, that the public could identify with more. This is a love story, which is of course universal as well, but live action makes it very different.

Satrapi: The thing that is in common in all of my stories is my refusal to make definitive characters—this is the good one, and this is the bad one. I like the complexity of the human being, I like the complexity of the situation. I think that nobody is glorious all the time, nobody is bad all the time. I like to give everybody the chance to be nasty and bad. I don’t think that nastiness and being bad should be the privilege of the real nasty and bad people. Everybody has to have this privilege. I like that the main character in Chicken with Plums is not a very likable person, but at the end you like him, at the end you understand his broken heart.

Filmmaker: What are the pros and cons of the two kinds of filmmaking, live action and animation?

Paronnaud: The initial part of the process is actually the same in view of the fact that we also did a storyboard for this movie. Up to the point where you start to shoot on set, it’s really the same. Of course the big difference is when the actor comes on the scene. In an animated feature you can control basically every aspect from the beginning until the end. But when you entrust the role to an actor, he appropriates it because that’s his work, and in a certain sense, you become a spectator. Also, the time we had for the [live action] shoot is very short, and that increases the stress level.

Satrapi: You have two major differences. In animation, you have all the time and leisure to change things if they don’t fit. But with Chicken with Plums, I had 46 days of shooting—and not one more, because I don’t have a big studio behind my back where I could say, ‘I need another five days of shooting,’ and they say, ‘Yeah, you have the money to do that.’ You’re in a state of stress, but I realize that I work much better under stress. If I have six months to do something, I will always do it in the six last days. The stress actually makes my brain work better. When you are stressed, you have to go to the essential.

And the second big difference is the actors. They give you a much wider range than you could ever imagine. Maria de Medeiros, who is playing Faranguisse, she is supposed to be nasty and a little bit likable at the end. But she became much more nasty. She is a cute woman, with a small voice, and when she was yelling, I was like, ‘Maria, I could never imagine that you could do things like that.’ Sometimes it makes it the director stops directing and become the viewer of the film. Mathieu Amalric, the things that he’s able to do with these feverish eyes that he has—when you have it in front of you, it’s pretty amazing.

If I make animation, it should be in 20 years when I’ve forgotten how painful it is. Or make short ones, because it’s a very long process. It’s like running a marathon or running a 100-meter sprint. I’m not a marathon runner.

Filmmaker: Live action is more of a sprint?

Satrapi: Absolutely. For me, it makes me happier. I like to be amazed by actors. Of course, in animation I have much more control because I make the drawings, and everybody does exactly what I want. But the things that are out of my control [in live action], like the set designer, who is so good—he knows how to do it all, without a big budget. These are surprises that you don’t have in animation, so I like [live action] better, I have to say.

Filmmaker: Persepolis was very successful. It was nominated for an Oscar, and it won a top prize at Cannes. Did it change your life?

Satrapi: To tell you the truth, no. When you have awards, it is so good your ego. But you put that on the bookshelf and you look at it, and after one week, you forget about it. In Paris, people know me, so they stop me in the street, and they tell me very nice things. That makes me very happy. But to be honest, these things don’t affect me so much. If I read a very bad review of myself, I would never think, ‘Well, I’m a jerk now.’

But we were so naïve. After Persepolis, we said to ourselves, “Now we are Oscar nominees. We will say, ‘We want to make our next film,’ and they will open the door to a room full of dollars and they will say, ‘Take all the dollars you want, go and make your film.’ ” Not at all. They want to make remakes, and if you have done something that has worked, you have to do the same thing again. It didn’t help me at all to be an Oscar nominee. On the contrary, it was like, ‘Why don’t make another animated film?’ I said, ‘No, I want to try something new.’

I’m 41. Let’s say I will have 30 more years in front of me, to work. Each project takes about three years. Three years in 30 years is 10 percent. Ten times 10 percent and my life is over! I have 10 more projects to do. I want to have tried everything.

Filmmaker: As you’ve discussed before, you’re from different countries, different upbringings—how do these differences complement one another as you’re making a film?

Paronnaud: What brings us together is really our common culture in the sense of our way of seeing things, our vision, our cinema interests and backgrounds, our interest in music. Marjane brings an esoteric side, a magical element—it’s not practical at all. And for me, things are more structured. It works because when it comes to bringing in the things that are more technical and more structured, I have a cooler eye to be able to assess things. My work with Marjane is not really to show that I’m there, it’s to work underneath, like a submarine.

Satrapi: It’s very rare that he will see a film that will astonish him and that I will hate. I have just one example: 2001: A Space Odyssey. I hate this film. It makes me sleep. I have gone five times to the theater, and every time after half an hour, I sleep. He thinks it’s a masterpiece. This is the only place that we disagree about the movies. A Clockwork Orange, I love it; Lolita, I love it—all the other Kubrick films. But this one—and Eyes Wide Shut—is really bad.

Filmmaker: How did you meet?

Satrapi: In a studio. In Paris it’s very normal to share a studio with other artists. I knew his comics and someone left the studio, so I called him, and I’m a very enthusiastic person, so I was like, ‘You should come!’ He thought that I was crazy. He came and he seemed like a hostile person. I looked at him, and I was like, ‘What an asshole.’

So for one year he came to the studio, and we saw each other but didn’t talk. Hello, goodbye. Nothing else. Until one day I was in a café by my studio and I was drinking coffee. It was seven in the morning, and I saw him coming, and I was like, ‘Shit, now I have to have coffee with the asshole.’ And then we started talking about geopolitics, and that’s how we became friends.

Filmmaker: How long ago was this?

Satrapi: About 12 years ago.

Filmmaker: In Chicken with Plums we see an imagined version of Sophia Loren, we see snippets from The Phantom of the Opera. There are different film references in Persepolis, like when we see Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator. How important were movies to you as you were growing up?

Satrapi: My father was a complete cinephile. He went to see the same movies 55 times. I grew up with all the American movies—Hitchcock, Singin’ in the Rain, West Side Story, The Chase by Arthur Penn, The Night of the Hunter, William Wyler’s movies. I was very obsessional with film. I will tell you something, maybe you won’t believe me, but this is the truth. We had The Seven Samurai, by Kurosawa, on VHS. For a whole year—believe me, I’m not exaggerating—every day I came back from school and watched The Seven Samurai.

Filmmaker: The same movie, every day?

Satrapi: I watched it 365 times, at least. It’s a three-and-a-half hour movie, and I could just sit and every time I would see something that I didn’t see the last time. I was, like, 10.

Filmmaker: Were there subtitles, or was it dubbed?

Satrapi: It was dubbed in Persian. I would have my lunch while watching that, every day.

Filmmaker: Nasser Ali, the main character of Chicken with Plums, decides to die early on in the film. But his death doesn’t stop the story, it actually propels it forward. How do you tell a story when the end is known from the beginning?

Paronnaud: That’s what interested me from the onset. It was killing off the character from the beginning and then telling the story through that, retrospectively, and to talk about life through that. Even the structure of the film, with flashbacks, it reminds one of a thriller in terms of how you’re filling in the blanks and you’re finding the solution as you go along. Because if you look at the story, it’s not really very sexy: it’s a guy who’s depressed and so he decides to die. That’s kind of boring. That’s the challenge, to bring the burlesque side to it, the comic, the magical side to it—to bring all those elements to the film.

Filmmaker: In a director’s statement that accompanies the press materials, you say your influences includes Ernst Lubitsch’s movies, Russian symphonies and your international cast, a group of actors from Iran, France, Morocco and Italy. How did these influences make their way onto the screen?

Paronnaud: There are a lot of influences, but also a lot references. When we decided to work with actors, we also decided that we wanted to bring in a lot of these winks and references to old cinema. That was really the starting point, to be able to structure the film within an artificial environment, where everything was built from scratch. There’s German expressionism, a little wink toward Hitchcock. It’s more images, recollections, memories that weren’t heavy-handed—not quite unconscious, but close. For instance, for a scene with the schoolmaster I just did a rough sketch framing it as a not-so-clear-cut reference to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and then we researched with the set designer and the cameraman to work on lighting, ambience and certain elements connected with that.

Filmmaker:  The film satirizes American pop culture in a scene where there’s a character who weighs 400 pounds and doesn’t realize she’s pregnant until it’s time to go to the hospital. It looks like you had fun with that scene.

Paronnaud: We’re silly children. [laughs] That’s another kind of reference, because that type of sitcom is something that polluted the world, and we were exposed to that as children. We were fed with that.

Satrapi: I was sure that Americans would laugh. Americans have a sense of humor like no one in the world. I saw a thing with Michael J. Fox making a joke about having Parkinson’s. I don’t think any actor, if he’s not American, can have this sense of humor.

Filmmaker: What’s the status of The Eleventh Laureate, which would be the third movie in the trilogy?

Satrapi: I have started writing the script, but since I’m also preparing my exhibition of paintings for January in Paris, it will take me a little bit of time.

Filmmaker: Will that be live action too?

Satrapi: Yes. Now, only live action.

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