"Taking Tati’s soul and putting it into animation"
by Fabien Lemercier
- Extracts from the French director’s meeting with the press at the Berlin Film Festival 2010 where The Illusionist was unveiled
Having first come to attention in 2003 at the Cannes Film Festival with Belleville Rendez-vous [+see also:
film profile], French director Sylvain Chomet has worked from an original screenplay by Jacques Tati for his second feature, The Illusionist [+see also:
interview: Sylvain Chomet
film profile], presented in the Berlinale Special section at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival.
Where did the idea come from to work on this screenplay by Jacques Tati?
Sylvain Chomet: In Belleville Rendez-vous, I paid homage to Tati with a clip from The Big Day. Sophie Tatischeff then mentioned to us that it would be a good idea to take a screenplay by her father, which he had never made into a film: The Illusionist. She didn’t want a live-action film because nobody could play the role of her father, who is obviously the main character in the story. I read the screenplay and immediately fell in love with it.
Was it a detailed screenplay?
It was more like a little novel, very poetic. There were lots of things where I couldn’t guess what Tati would have wanted to do, so I left them out. The screenplay set the action in Prague. But I was in the process of settling in Scotland and I thought this would be the best setting for the film’s action, for Edinburgh is even more magical than Prague because of its lights and changing skies.
What immediately attracted you to this story?
The first thing I saw in the screenplay was a beautiful story between an ageing man and a young girl who is becoming a woman. These two paths cross, then separate. But it’s clear that the illusionist is more Jacques Tatischeff than Mr. Hulot: he is elegantly dressed like Tati was in real life. The fact that Tati belong to us through his films was also very useful for creating his animated character, for we were able to study the way he moved. It was like taking Tati’s soul and putting it into animation.
Is the theme of the ageing artist the central focus of the film?
It’s funny because this music hall world that disappears and is considered lost when rock music emerges, we conjure up using a technology that some predict will also disappear: hand-drawn animation. But things change, they never disappear completely: television hasn’t killed radio, or cinema for example.
The film’s subject isn’t the end of the music hall, but simply what people bring with age. The young girl finds herself drawn into another world, which is also that of shop windows, the beginnings of consumer society. Each character sets off again on their own path after a very affectionate encounter, of realistic and poetic gentleness, and which is really about life.
How did you invent this language including a few words of French, English, Gaelic and above all sounds?
The whole film is based on the fact that the two characters can’t really understand each other. He has this little English dictionary and she speaks Gaelic. Then the music is also full of contrasts, including rock and the old-fashioned music that accompanies the magician on stage. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a musical film for which I wrote the pieces. And as the characters don’t understand each other, we try to convey their emotions with the music that becomes their language.
How long did the animation work take and how did you get the financing together?
Between two-and-a-half and three years with an enormous amount of work because the camera doesn’t move and stays in a wide-angle shot like in Tati’s films, rather distant, a bit like watching a stage. We see the characters from head to toe. The problem with not using medium close-up shots is that you have to draw in everything else, what’s happening in the corners, in the background. There are a few very long scenes with lots of characters and that’s the hardest thing to do in animated films.
The film was financed by Pathé on a big budget, though very small one compared to the United States, where it would probably cost seven times the amount to produce the same thing.