Interview: 'Surviving the silent movie' and beating the odds with 'The Artist'

Posted by · 12:42 pm · November 25th, 2011

“People keep telling me what a good idea it was to make this movie, but the truth is that it was a bad idea, a very bad idea,” Michel Hazanavicius says on the phone from Los Angeles, a chipper lilt to his warm French accent. “I don”t even know if ‘idea” is the word – it was more of a desire, something I needed to discover. There”s a difference. If it had been just an idea, it”d have been too far out of the market to pursue.”

The “bad idea” he”s is speaking of, of course, is “The Artist,” the director”s playful ode to classic Hollywood moviemaking that has beguiled critics and festival audiences on assorted shores, turned the head of Harvey Weinstein, scooped an award at Cannes and now finds itself among the frontrunners for this year”s Academy Awards. All this despite the minor obstacles of being French-made and in black and white. Oh, and silent. If Hazanavicius sounds like he can”t quite believe his luck, a lot of industry pundits are with him.

What”s driving its success, however, is that once in the theater, the film seems so much more familiar and comfortable than it does on paper: the storytelling is fluid and classical, the emotions naked, the star chemistry between leads Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo (who also happens to be Mrs. Hazanavicius) tangible. It”s a movie first and an exercise second: more ambitious formally than the “OSS 117” films, the hit parodies of 1960s spy capers with which the director made his name, but no less committed to its audience amid all the affectionate, clever-clever pastiche.

The story of George Valentin, a fictional silent-movie star drowning in personal and professional insecurities as Hollywood enters the talkie era, it would make for a tough pitch to potential collaborators. So it”s handy that Hazanavicius had his stars already in his pocket.

“When Michel came to me with this script, I immediately said, ‘Yes, yes, yes,” because it”s Michel,” recalls Dujardin, who previously headlined both Hazanavicius”s “OSS 117” films. The suave French leading man, equal parts Yves Montand and Gene Kelly and a major star at home, speaks via a translator, though he meets me halfway with enthusiastic bursts of English. “Then I thought about it for a moment, and I said, ‘No, no, no.” The whole idea made me nervous — I was wondering what people would expect of me when they saw this, and I never make my choices that way. But I trust Michel and I love challenges. Who gets to do anything like this now?”

For the Argentina-born Bejo, there were fewer initial misgivings – though as the director”s wife, obviously, she was on the project from the get-go. “As an actor, you don”t usually get to see the whole process of a movie coming to life from the idea stage, so it was exciting watching Michel thinking and working and coming home full of ideas for this scene or that, as the project came together little by little,” she says, sounding every bit as bright and eager as the aptly named Peppy Miller, the fast-rising ingénue she plays in the film.

“But then I wasn”t as intimidated by the film as I thought I”d be. I worked much the same way I always do: finding the character, where she”s going, what she”s doing, identifying the dramatics of each scene. I think it was a much more different experience for Michel. He”s the one who has to work out how to tell this story using only images. We still had words, even if you can”t hear them.”

Dujardin, meanwhile, describes the experience as feeling at once familiar and alien: “Acting for silent film is very instinctive – it”s your subconscious that does a lot of the work,” he explains. “Because the sound isn”t the focus of the scene, you find your body moves very differently. But you eventually stop thinking about the fact that it”s a silent film. After all, we had lines, we spoke, there was a lot of noise on set, it was all very lively. So it was surprisingly easy to forget what an unusual movie we were making.”

For Hazanavicius, this lack of self-awareness was key. He was determined that the film wouldn”t play as an academic or embalmed exercise. “I love silent cinema, but don”t hold it sacred: like any branch of film, there are some very boring films alongside the masterpieces. These films are old because of the era they”re from, not specifically the format they”re made in, which is extraordinary, and can still be contemporary. It was important on ‘The Artist” not to think of it as an ‘old” movie: it”s now, it”s new. But you have the benefit of this neglected format, which gives you such exciting options as a storyteller. I wanted the audience to share in that specific experience, not a history lecture.”

Which is not to say that the director skimped on his research. Many days were spent at the Paris Cinémathèque poring over silent classics and obscurities alike, while cartloads of DVDs were brought home. Hazanavicius admits he never went to film school, so his films” cribbing from past genres has been something of a self-education. And Bejo, whose filmmaker father instilled a cinephile”s passion in her from an early age (“Robert Mitchum was my favorite actor… which I suppose was funny for a 10-year-old girl,” she laughs), joined in the homework, as she and her husband discovered a mutual enthusiasm for the works of Frank Borzage and F.W. Murnau.

While Dujardin regards the films of silent star Douglas Fairbanks as his primary reference point, Bejo is more cautious about naming names. “I really loved watching Janet Gaynor,” she says, name-checking the first ever winner of the Best Actress Oscar. “But in a way, she seemed too close to Peppy to me – I didn”t want to base her on anybody. I looked more at Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich at the beginning of their careers, neither who were very like Peppy in their manner, but had this sweetness to them that shifted as they got older. I was interested in how the industry molded these women into movie stars, and how they changed themselves.”

Does she see any of herself in the character? “Michel does!” she laughs. “She”s like his projection of the perfect Bérénice for him. But that”s not me. Like everything in these movies, it”s bigger than life. That”s what I think the movie gets about old Hollywood: they”re characters you can dream about.”

Likewise, Dujardin recognizes the universality of his character”s crisis – the fear all successful artists have of the world outgrowing their talents – but stops short of identifying it in himself. “I don”t have that kind of angst,” he says. “I mean, I expect it”s going to happen – everyone gets older, and there will come a time when you”re no longer in fashion and have to reinvent yourself. Maybe I”m just naïve. Though that”s a little like George Valentin, too.”

Causing Dujardin more concern than his character”s emotional problems were the twin challenges of dancing and dogs – his closest scene partner throughout the film is Uggy, an evidently precocious Jack Russell with some pretty sharp moves. “Those were the two things I really rehearsed: the tap-dance sequences and the interaction with the dog,” he says. “Everything else just came together on set. I admit I thought it would be more complicated, but that dog knows what he”s doing. As long as you kept feeding him sausages, he”d do what you wanted him to. I had a lot in my pocket.”

All three profess delight and surprise at the smooth ride the film has had to the top since its enthusiastically received Cannes debut. The challenge of making the film, Bejo explains, was so great that its mere completion seemed an ample reward in itself. Have they any idea what audiences are connecting to in the film, even – perhaps especially – ones unfamiliar with silent cinema?

“It”s precisely that unfamiliarity, I think,” Hazanavicius ventures. “I think, above all, people really respond to the format. They might come to the film with negative preconceptions about silent film. They think it”ll be boring, or hard to understand, and they”re surprised to find that they not only follow it, but enjoy it, relate to it. It”s like they”re saying, ‘I survived the silent movie!’ So I think there”s a double pleasure in that.”

Dujardin, however, takes a different tack: it”s what”s inside the slightly exotic presentation that resonates. “It”s a feel-good movie, obviously,” he says. “But I think when you leave the dialogue out, this pure emotion is left, and in a way, the audience participates more. They create their own dialogue in their heads, their own story. We have so many films these days in which special effects obscure the emotion, and a film like this takes it back down to the basics: a love story, a human story, a nice little dog.”

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.

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