BOP Interview: Michel Hazanavicius
By Ryan Mazie
November 25, 2011
With teen vampires, dancing penguins, sword-wielding cats, and stoners celebrating holiday wins over the box office, it is shocking to see that the film making the loudest impression (without the aid of an extra dimension) is one that is silent. Taking a leap backward in time but a leap forward in quality, French director Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist is one of the year’s most delightful movies that kicked off its deafening buzz at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Hazanavicius recounted the successful debut: “I was very proud and happy because at the beginning, nobody wanted to put money into the movie or believed in it,” said the director during a stop in Boston to tout the film, “So to be there with all of the people enjoying it was a big success in a way. It's a nice story. It's not finished yet.”
Hazanavicius has every right to be optimistic. Winning the Best Actor Award at Cannes, Jean Dujardin stars as a silent film actor George Valentin, who falls out of fashion to make way for the talkies, starring rising actress Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo – Hazanavicius’ wife, who he mentions he is proud to share the journey with).
In the interview, Michel Hazanvicius talks about writing a silent film, shooting in Charlie Chaplin’s studios, special effects, and how to earn (and lose) money by producing movies.
What I loved about the movie is how it is not a gimmick. While the aesthetics are the obvious attention-grabber, the story and characters really shine through. So as a director, how did you manage that?
MH: The first thing I was attracted by was the format. Then I worked on the story, because I wanted a story that fits the format and makes things easier for the audience. I noticed that when I started talking about making the movie, people needed justification, always asking, “Why make a silent movie?” So I decided to tell the story of a silent actor, because that makes sense. When I decided that, I watched a lot of silent movies to understand how it works and then I gave them to the actors, crew, cinematographer, and composer a lot of references to watch and I said to everyone, “Once you did your homework and you watch all of those movies, you forget everything.” Because after that we have to focus on the story I want to tell. So you have to work a lot to be comfortable with the format.
Was it difficult to write a silent script or was it fun to play with those limitations?
MH: It’s both actually. There are a lot of limitations, but its also freeing. So if you have a desire to do it, and that was my case, you focus on the freeing part. But there are a lot of limitations. Two hours ago a journalist asked me about the sequence where Peppy puts her hand in the coat of George and if it was written or an improvisation and everything was written, but he didn’t understand how you can write something like this. He had the feeling that there was nothing to write and so that’s the difficulty; to find a way to create images with no dialogue. You work with images to tell the story. In a way that seems to be simple for the audience so when people see the movie, it is very accessible and easy to follow. It looks very simple, but you have to work with the images, you don’t have the tools of dialogue.