"I had a little secret weapon"
by Fabien Lemercier
- The French director talks about The Artist, the crazy yet successful gamble of a silent, black-and-white film aimed at a 21st-century mainstream audience.
Flanked by his actors Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Béjo, the French director explained to the international press why he embarked on the astonishing adventure of The Artist [+see also:
interview: Michel Hazanavicius
film profile], a silent, black-and-white film presented in competition at the Cannes Film Festival.
Did you want to make a silent film as a homage to cinema or to tackle a narrative style to which you were not accustomed?
Michel Hazanavicius: To which nobody had been accustomed for a while. First and foremost it was the format; I wanted to get stuck into this way of telling the story, which is purely cinematic, purely visual and which, in my opinion, gave birth to the greatest directors in history. I was greatly attracted to it without knowing if I was capable of it. I had a little secret weapon because I was picking up where the great filmmakers had left off in 1927, but I had the benefit of 90 years of storytelling and improvement in filmmaking techniques. For we mustn’t forget that at the time, film was a very, very young medium and the work on the musical score, on the rhythm, etc, has changed enormously. The story came along on top of this: I tried to write a story which enabled me to work in the format.
How did you avoid the danger of lapsing into a stylistic exercise and pastiche?
It was a determination from the outset. I had knowledge of silent cinema, but I watched a lot of silent films in order to understand the rules of the game. Very quickly, I felt that a comedy, and especially an ironic comedy, wouldn’t stay the course over a 1h30min runtime. Moreover, the silent format requires that viewers experience the films in a certain way, which makes melodrama, and love stories in particular, the genre that best fits this format in my opinion. For instance, we tend to think of Chaplin as a comic, but all his features are essentially melodramas with humorous counterpoints. Other directors of melodrama include Murnau, Borzage and King Vidor.
From then on, we needed a story with a literal meaning and a work that didn’t involve caricature or parody, but creating the setting in which we were going to have fun, make an entertaining, mainstream film, not a highly specialised piece with hidden meanings . All the choices stem from there: the lighting, the set, the cast and obviously the story. As regards the body movements for example, we filmed at a rate of 22 frames per second, which gives a very slight time-lapse effect. When doing some tests, we saw that at 20 frames per second, we tipped over a bit into pastiche, that the actors started to move like in a Mack Sennet film and looked a bit funny. But by sticking with 24 frames per second, we didn’t have the flavour, the little taste of the 1920s, of silent cinema. That’s an example, but the work involved navigating around all of that.
Making a silent, black-and-white film in the age of 3D is a bold gamble.
I pay tribute to my producer, Thomas Langmann, who made the film possible. I’m in a rather fortunate position because I say: I’d really like to do that. Then people set to work and say: it’s going to cost this much. Then someone says: it’s not possible, but we’ll have a go anyway. This freedom has a price and it’s very difficult to impose this type of film on a market that is governed by other priorities. I was lucky that I had had success with my previous two films, that Thomas supported me and the actors took a risk.
The film is full of many influences, sometimes recalling Singin’ in the Rain and Borzage.
At the outset, I remembered a story told by playwright Jean-Claude Grumberg who wanted to write about an actor whose career is wrecked by the arrival of talking pictures. He had suggested the idea to a producer who said to him: “It’s wonderful, I love this story, but the 1920s are a bit expensive, can it be set in the 1960s?” I liked this story. Singin’ in the Rain wasn’t a source of inspiration even though certain scenes are reminiscent of it. In the case of Borzage, there is a conscious quotation. There are many others. Sometimes, it’s quotation, sometimes a homage, sometimes plain theft. I tell myself that if it’s done with taste, it will be good. There are shots that are straight out of Fritz Lang’s Spies. They’re little things, but that’s part of the project like artists of music and painting, who regularly echo each other over the centuries.