If you’re even a halfway serious film fan, you may have noticed that directors like Wes Anderson, Tim Burton, and Quentin Tarantino do not make movies set on Planet Earth, they make movies set on Planets Anderson, Burton, and Tarantino. I’m a bit less of an expert on France’s extremely popular Jean-Pierre Jeunet, but it’s obvious that, even when his films are set in Paris, they’re really set on Planet Jeunet. His films have their own look and exist in their own reality.
As with Tim Burton, Jeunet’s roots are in animation. Together with his early collaborator, cartoonist Marc Caro, he made two films that pretty much destroyed the idea of France as a land where all movies were gritty examinations of the lives of depressed intellectuals (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Dystopic but decidedly non-realistic, “Delicatessen” and, to a much greater extent, 1995’s “The City of Lost Children” broke through internationally, with the latter becoming a popular midnight selection and attracting a geek audience that might have ordinarily rejected subtitled films. That was followed by his first solo production and also his first and, so far, only American film. 1997’s “Alien: Resurrection” was a domestic commercial disappointment that generated mixed reviews and more than a little fan hate in the U.S. — even its screenwriter, fan-master Joss Whedon, has entirely disowned it — but it was nevertheless an international success which is still warmly embraced by its jovial director. After that, Jeunet broke through even bigger with the worldwide success of “Amelie” in 2001, easily one of the most widely seen French films in the United States of the last couple of decades — so much so that it was simply referenced as “the French movie” in last year’s “Up in the Air.”
Now, Jeunet is back with his first film since his worldwide box office and critical hit, 2005’s “A Very Long Engagement,” with his own take on Chaplinesque/Keatonesque comedy with just a dash of Rube Goldberg not-quite-sci-fi. “Micmacs” stars comic Dany Boon (“My Best Friend”) as the hapless Bazil, whose father was killed by a landmine and whose health and livelihood was ruined by a bullet — each produced by a ruthless arms manufacturer. Homeless, he is befriended by a ragtag assortment of seven eccentrics with various unique skills. Bazil enlists their aid in avenging himself against the two firms.
The film has done reasonably well in its initial New York opening, and will be expanding to more theaters this Friday. It’s generally also been a hit with critics, very definitely including PH’s own Jason Zingale.
Jeunet is not one of those filmmakers he seems to mind meeting the press. Though he arrived late — how French of him! — he was both apologetic and in infectious high spirits, joking and introducing an old friend who was there to smooth over rough spots in translations. (Jeunet had little trouble giving long answers in English, but he seemed to occasionally need help in understanding the more involved questions.)
The first question was about the source of the story of “Micmacs,” and Jeunet was off and running.
“First you have to know something. Before, I worked two years on ‘Life of Pi.’ It’s a beautiful project for 20th Century Fox and now Ang Lee is supposed to make the film. I spoke with the producer this morning and it’s on the way. But it was so expensive because it was a story about a kid after a shipwreck in a lifeboat fighting against a tiger. You have the three worst elements for a film: the sea, a wild animal, and a kid. It was too expensive, that was the only reason I didn’t make this film after two years. I wrote the script… I spent six months to make the storyboard. Huge work.”
“So,” Jeunet continued, “I was starving to shoot — to make something very quickly. I had some different ideas in my computer and, in fact, I mixed three different feelings. One of them was a preoccupation with weapons sellers because I had a fascination for these strange people able to invent things to [create] suffering.”
“Also, I wanted a story of revenge. I love ‘Once Upon a Time in the West.’ And the third thing was to make something with a band of original, weird people like the seven dwarfs from ‘Snow White.’ One of them is shy, one of them is always pissed-off… so I mix from different feelings. I was concerned about mixing serious issues like weapons with a slapstick cartoon, and I thought, ‘Okay, ‘The Great Dictator‘ was a comedy, too.'”
That was followed by a question about mixing politics, to whatever extent “Micmacs” is political, with Jeunet’s not-of-this-earth style.
“I don’t want to say ‘politics’ because it’s such a cliche to say ‘it’s bad to sell weapons.’ But we made real research. We made a beautiful interview with a weapons manufacturer in Belgium who made some arrows to go through the tanks. He’d get the temperature to go so high in one second everybody burns inside the tanks.”
“We met very interesting people. They have the passion for technology, I would like to have these people in my crew. Very nice people. But when you say, ‘But, then you kill people,’ they say ‘Yes, but we work on the right side.’ I remember this sentence, it’s in the film, ‘We work for the Minister of Defense, not the Minister of Attack,” said Jeunet, noting that, despite the arms merchants’ claims, their weapons are often resold on the open market to all kinds of evil characters.
Then there was the more or less inevitable question about Jeunet’s highly distinctive visual approach, particularly his use of rich colors and wide lenses.
“I like directors with a strong style….When you see a film from Tim Burton, you recognize immediately it’s Tim Burton. Same thing for Terry Gilliam or…David Lynch. A long time ago it was Fellini. I don’t want to compare myself to these great directors, but I love to shoot with a short lens, to use warm colors — I love to do that. That’s it.”
“This time, I wanted to make something faster with a lighter camera, but everybody told me, ‘no, it’s too early for the digital, we [need to] spend some time to fix the defects.’ Next time, I want to make it all in 3-D or with a lighter camera.”
Then, a question about whether a certain amount of innocence, combined with ingenuity and imagination, can be a way to defend oneself from the violence and evil of the world.
“Absolutely, I believe, about imagination. Between the ages of 17 and 21 I was a worker at the telephone company and imagination saved my life. In fact, the character of Dany Boon is a little bit of a metaphor of my work because, to accomplish his revenge, he needs a crew of specific characters like I need a crew to accomplish my films.”
Working at something of a disadvantage since I hadn’t yet seen “Micmacs,” I asked Jeunet about his obvious love for onscreen mechanical devices, which always puts me in mind of Orson Welles’ famous remark that having a film studio to work in was “the biggest electric train set a boy ever had.”
Jeunet was of a similar mind, comparing filmmaking to French-manufactured Meccano construction sets. “Inside the box you have the costumes, the dialogue, the music — and I want to use everything inside the box to build the most beautiful toy I can and don’t lose anything inside the box. This is my conception.”
“Another one is I am like a chef. I prepare a good meal and I want to share. ‘You think it’s good, no?’ and sometimes they say, ‘no, it’s not good, and I am disappointed.”
But Jeunet is different from other directors in that he’s obviously fond of actually putting odd, sometimes Rube Goldberg-like, mechanical constructions up on the screen.
“Yes. For this one, I hired a guy, because I discovered this guy who’s a naive artist. He was in a museum in Paris with a beautiful animated sculpture. It was so beautiful we didn’t build them ourselves, but I hired the guy to lend [them.]”
Then the conversation turned to the great silent comedy filmmakers and their influence on “Micmacs.”
“Especially for the ‘Cannon Men’ scene, I thought about Buster Keaton. And when Dany Boon makes you think about [Charlie] Chaplin, it wasn’t on purpose. During the shooting I saw him and said, ‘Ooh, you make me think of Chaplin.’ He said ‘You think so?’ And after, I think, he continued to think, and it was on purpose after that.”
And exactly how was the very talented actor-stand-up-performer Dany Boon, a huge star in France, cast?
“I followed him since 15 years ago. Just after I hired him, he got a huge success with ‘Welcome to the Land of Shtis’ [which Boon co-wrote and directed]. But when I say huge I mean it was almost like ‘Titanic’ — 21 million admissions. ‘Amelie’ was a huge success, it was nine million admissions. Can you believe it? I’m very jealous,” Jeunet said, getting some laughs at the table.
“He’s a very good actor. Every take is perfect. You never had a bad take. And he’s a nice guy, very simple, very funny.”
And what is Jeunet’s style of working with actors in general?
“They have to be precise. That’s the reason I love Audrey Tautou or Dany Boon. You have to have the head here or here, not to move a little bit. Because when you use a short lens, if they are too close to the lens they could be like a monster. I am very precise. On the other hand, if they want to surprise me, if they want to propose to me something different, I am very open. I make a storyboard but ‘okay, new idea, no problem.’ But I love technician-actors.”
Then there was a question (which I was hoping to ask myself) about the use of the music of Hollywood classic-era composer Max Steiner, which follows on a scene early in the film where Dany Boon’s character is watching a classic detective movie directed by Howard Hawks.
“At the beginning it was ‘The Big Sleep.’ We used maybe six or seven pieces of different [film scores] from Max Steiner. In fact, I wanted to just use the ‘The Big Sleep’ to make the gag with the end starting the film. It was on my notes. Of course, we had the music and the music worked so well, later we thought maybe we could use Max Steiner music for the whole film, the action scenes.
“It worked so well sometimes it was like a miracle. I remember one scene, during 40 seconds — not a cut. Every sync point worked perfect. I imagined Max Steiner in Paradise… [rubs his hands, laughing maniacally as if the angelic Steiner was gleefully observing “Micmacs” post-production]. No, it was a great moment. By luck we found some good recordings from the seventies. It was in stereo. Good quality, not amazing quality, but good quality.”
Then there was a question following up on Jeunet’s earlier comparison of being a director to being a chef. Does Jeunet try mainly to please himself or does he think specifically about the audience’s reaction while working on the film?
“You work for yourself. If you are a chef, you are the first taster. ‘Hmm. I love that! Do you want to share?’ But you have to love [it] before…’ You are the first spectator of your film. If you think about the other people, you’re dead. It’s very selfish to make a film.”
Next was a question about the strongly Gaelic flavor of Jeunet’s films, at least from an American point of view. Has it been a help in differentiating his films and competing in the world market with U.S. productions?
“I don’t know. I love Paris. I try to show a different Paris each time. I don’t know if it’s French. Of course, if I use music with accordions, it sounds French. But, in France, you have to know, I am not French. They think I am international because my films are sold everywhere, and I don’t feel especially French.”
That led to a discussion about how sometimes a country’s most internationally successful living filmmaker is less beloved at home. Jeunet mentioned how Spain’s Pedro Almodovar has quit his nation’s film academy after his films were ignored at awards time. I didn’t get the chance to bring it up, but a similar phenomenon happened with the elder Akira Kurosawa in Japan, who endured a great deal of criticism during the seventies and eighties from younger filmmakers and writers. No one is a prophet in their own home, as the saying goes.
Of course, that’s not all, there’s the tendency of all nations’ press to build people up and then rip them apart.
“At first, I can’t complain. But now it’s getting difficult because I had three huge success. ‘ Alien’ [as alluded to before, “Alien: Resurrection” was a hit in France], ‘Amelie’ and ‘A Very Long Engagement.’ Now,” Jeunet intoned, his voice getting comically melodramatic, “it’s time to pay!,” he said, getting a big laugh from the table.
Next there was a question about whether future projects might be more commercial than past films. The director alluded to an intimate “small French book” which he thought might not be commercial, but that there was also a presumably more broadly appealing, and apparently really excellent, American book. “Oh my God, it’s a masterpiece. But I don’t want to tell anything because I’m going to meet next week with the author in New York.”
Jeunet likes the book, whatever it is, so much he was having a hard time containing himself. “Ah, it’s such a good book. Oh my God, it’s a fucking masterpiece but I heard he [presumably, the author] would like to direct the film himself. Big mistake!” Jeunet said with his French talent for exaggeration, getting another laugh from the table. He also said that the story is actually set in Russia “during the war” and that it would neither be a French or American film in terms of feeling, though American actors would star because using Russian actors would probably “scare people.”
Another question: Does Jeunet think his imagination is “dark”?
What does he think of the current vogue for more film science fiction and works of “extreme imagination.”
“I love science fiction and I don’t like the fantastic. For example, if you have a magical ring and you can explode the world, for me — it’s not interesting. I don’t like ‘Lord of the Rings’ or even ‘Star Wars.’ For me, I don’t understand this kind of story. But [I love] ‘Alien,’ because the rules of the game are very precise. It could happen… I have an idea about robots in the future…”
Then came some questions that really didn’t go very far. Having not seen the film, I wondered if, in addition to the hero’s helpers being an allusion to the seven dwarfs, if they were perhaps somewhat influenced by the highly specialized abilities of the teams that helped pulp heroes like Doc Savage pull off their daring-do. I also couldn’t help thinking of the Doc Savage-inspired science fiction satire, “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension,” a movie that might have been improved if Jeunet had been able to direct it in 1984. Since he didn’t seem to know anything about either, I have to take that as a “no” even if his two-word answer was “Yeah, maybe.”
Moving on to another questioner, how did Jeunet feel about the relative size of his audience, overall?
“You can have a dinner with one [person] or with ten people and it’s the same pleasure. If you can get the money back for the film, it’s not a problem. If I would have wanted to have a huge audience, I would make American movies, not French movies, because there is a limit, of course, with the French language.
“…I prefer to shoot in my own language, to play with my language, to play in Paris. And, I have the freedom, complete freedom in France. It’s amazing. If American directors could imagine how I am free they would have asked to have…” And then Jeunet had to ask his aid for the words he was seeking. They were “political asylum.” Another big laugh.
And that led to the question, which Jeunet said he was waiting for, about the general impression that he wasn’t allowed very much freedom by the American producers of the controversial “Alien: Resurrection.”
“No, it was a great experience. I read so many times ‘it was a nightmare for Jean-Pierre Jeunet.'” That impression apparently extended to “Up in the Air” co-writer/director Jason Reitman who, according to Jeunet, mentioned in an interview the director’s alleged ordeal in connection with his film’s offhand reference to “Amelie” and her traveling garden gnome.
“No, it wasn’t a nightmare. I’m sorry. It was tough. It was difficult because you have to convince people to have your way in editing. You have to speak with a lot of people, but it wasn’t a nightmare. It was just tough. And, in France, it’s not tough. You have the freedom by law.”
Then Jeunet did something very refreshing in response to questions, which is to admit to some creative weaknesses. First, in a passing reference to “City of Lost Children,” he confessed that he and Marc Caro had come up with the kind of setting and mood they wanted to create before coming up with the story and that was, perhaps, the wrong order. The story, he said, should come first.
“I think it’s not enough. Some people told me, ‘It’s not enough. We need some stronger emotion.’ And they’re right, I think.”
That led to an anecdote about an American studio he greatly admires. “I had the great privilege to make a master class at Pixar in San Francisco with 1,000 people. It was amazing. They are so good to alternate… they say ‘one laugh for one tear.’ Auggh.”
That led to a bit more discussion of Julie Ferrier, a character comedian in her own right who Jeunet thinks is a kind of genius and instructed us all to look her up on YouTube. (I did. Being reasonably fluent in French would probably be a help.) And though she is quite flexible thanks to her background as a dancer, she’s not quite a contortionist. A body double was needed as well.
“We found a Russian girl, and she does an erotic show in Germany, and its very interesting,” Jeunet said, showing some good comic timing and getting a big laugh and generating questions whether her performances could be found on YouTube as well. He added. “My Japanese director of photography [Tetsuo Nagata], he was very moved.” More laughter.
And, apparently wanting to leave the journos laughing, the end of the interview was declared.