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It's been a pretty good week for Michel Hazanavicius. The French director saw his new film The Artist open strong in limited release over the holiday, bringing in more than $200,000 on just 6 screens, partly thanks to the kind of ecstatic reviews that inevitably result in awards attention. And then, like clockwork, those awards came-- The Artist was named Best Picture of the year by the New York Film Critics Circle, and Hazanavicius himself got a nod as Best Director. The Artist was also included on the National Board of Review's list of the year's 10 best films, and believe me when I say these are not the last awards The Artist will be winning.
Given that it's a love letter to old Hollywood, and a light comedy that's also expertly crafted, it's not entirely surprising that The Artist is winning so many fans. But it's also a black and white silent film, allowing French actors Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bujo to play American movie stars-- he an aging star refusing to accept talkies, she a bright up-and-comer-- while acting with nothing but their faces. I talked to Hazanavicius about the challenges of going silent, why he considers The Artist a subversive film, and why he had to ask his lead actor to put sausages in his socks. Read all about that and more below.
Did you ever let yourself hope for the kind of crazy positive response you got at Cannes?
No no, you can never hope for that. You never feel so confident. What you do is you can lie when you talk to the financier, you can say "We're going to do a prestige movie, and we're going to travel to festivals," but actually you're lying. It's in my genes, I guess, not to be so confident.
And you've done comedies before, and usually comedies don't translate well between countries. Is something you like about this that silent films can transcend borders?
In a way, yes, There's no borders, but there's no money to make it. Nobody had a clue of how people can be curious or not with that kind of movie, if they will come or not, if they will enjoy or not. I hoped that people will like the movie, but you never know. Yes, clearly silent movies are a universal language. Everybody can understand them.
This story is kind of iconic of Hollywood. Did you want to strip down the story to the very basics of a man and a woman, a rise and fall?
I watched a lot of movies when I decided to write it, just to understand the rules of the game. You can't write a story and then say "I'm going to do it in a silent way." What I felt is that if you try to be too complex, that you need the words to express some very complex things in the relationships, in the feelings. You have to be more simple in a way. But the movies from that era, the real ones from the 20s, they are much too simple. So I have to make it a little more complicated, because the audience changed a lot in 80 years.
But also I felt the fact that to do a silent movie in black and white is so unrealistic that it allows you to do some dream sequences, some sequences that you would never dare to do. It's part of the contract you have with the audience. People come to a silent black and white movie, they know it's not going to be a realistic movie. It's a transfiguration of the reality.
The moment that sound comes in, halfway through the movie, it feels magical. Did you think about that early on, bringing sound in once in a while to kind of shock the audience?
That's the way I am. I try not to be too serious. I wanted to mix, to find a balance between the story, which is a melodrama, and a little joke and distance, and also a game with the audience. Like, trust me, you are watching a movie, this is entertaining, we can play.
Were you worried about not being able to get to the emotions of the story?
When you do something too positive, people can think you're stupid in a way. Yeah, I was worried about that. The two other movies i made, the comedies, are ironic and satirical. They are political. The subversive thing I did in this movie is about the format, to do a silent in black and white.
Because it's something we don't normally see?
Because it's something which is out of the market, it's something that nobody wanted.
You say it's subversive, as opposed to nostalgic. You tiptoe around nostalgia in a way that's important.
There's some nostalgia, I'm sure there is. But it's just like the real life, you don't live with just one feeling, you have many feelings, and sometimes they oppose each other. There is some nostalgia, but just to do something that other people don't do, and something that other people tell you not to do.
When you shoot this movie in LA as a French team making a movie about Hollywood, is there a sense of ownership, like you can't tell this story because you're not Americans?
No no no. I made a movie in Morocco, I made a movie in Brazil, I've made commercials all over the world. Every set looks like another set. To be honest, they were very touched that a European guy, a foreigner, tells their story, and also believes in Hollywood. But Hollywood doesn't belong to America, Hollywood belongs to movie lovers. It's another country, it's something else.
Was there any thing in particular that you learned about filmmaking in general going back to those silent films?
I felt it before doing that, but I really find it now. You, as a director, you have to do your job, you have to show things, and you don't have to ask the actors to do it, or the dialogue. For example, this character is very egocentric. So how can you show he's egocentric? As a screenwriter I have to find a solution if I don't want to ask the actor to act egocentric, because that means nothing. There's one shot in the movie, he walks down the stairs and he stops just in front of the big painting of himself and he says "Hi." Everybody loves it because he's funny, but the real information you get is that this guy is crazy about himself. He has this painting in his own house! After a while you see this painting as his own story. At the very end of the movie, when he's not able to see that a lady loves him because he's too much in his own misery, you accept it because at the very beginning he has been exposed as egocentric. To me, the challenge of that is in the screenwriting. The director does what the screenwriter wrote, and in this case it's the same person. I can change whatever I want. I didn't ask the actors to act something they don't have to. I do my job, and this is really what I learned. If you really do your job, you do the situation and the images that tell the story, the actors will be fabulous because you didn't ask them to do your job. It's something that helps very much.
What did you have to ask of the actors making this movie that you wouldn't have to ask in a movie with dialogue?
They will say they worked in a very different way, and maybe they did. But I swear, I didn't ask them, except I asked them to learn how to tap dance. But the rest I didn't ask hem something special, I tried to help them. I shot the movie in 22 frames a second, so they move a little bit faster. That small acceleration gives you as an audience the flavors of the 20s. In a way I made their life easier. And I wrote the script with him and her in mind, so I think that helps.
But something that no one can see, but this is really great about acting and about how Jean is very, very good-- at the very ending of the movie, he wants to commit suicide, and the dog bites his pants because he doesn't want him to commit suicide. That's the story, that's what you understand. The reality of the moment we are shooting is very different. The dog trainer is right out of the frame. I put on some very dramatic music to help Jean, and Jean has sausages in his socks, and the dog trainer is yelling and shouting, and Jean has to focus. That's the most awkward thing I could ask of an actor. But that's not what you see onscreen.