Interview with Marjane Satrapi
Interview with Director Marjane Satrapi on her new film, Chicken with Plums, based on a graphic novel by the same name, co-directed with Vincent Paronnaud.
Was it an easy choice for you, after Persepolis, not to make another animated film?
Yes. The most interesting thing in any artistic project is rising to a challenge and doing things you're yet to do and don't know how to do. We made an animated film, we learned a lot, it was long and taxing, even if, of course, we took enormous pleasure from it. It was exciting to do something new. Vincent and I work like that; it's our engine, our driving force.
At the same time, Persepolis was an animated film with the intensity, depth and emotion of a "normal" film, while Chicken with Plums, which is a movie with actors and real images (well, in the most part!) has all the fantasy, invention and freedom of an animated film. From the very outset, Chicken with Plums was a logical, coherent follow-on from Persepolis for us. One, because the movie's protagonist, this musician broken by love, is the brother of my grandfather, the revolutionary communist prisoner I spoke of in Persepolis. Here, we rediscover the jasmine flowers that floated in Persepolis, and the film set of Teheran is called Persepolis... Two, because neither Vincent nor I can forget the medium we come from. We are illustrators, so there are obviously certain things that it's normal for us to use – although without setting out to turn them into a demonstration or manifesto. It's simply a form of expression that's natural to us. And finally, because we both have absolute faith in film as a means of exploring the imaginary and estheticism. Realism doesn't interest us very much. When we want to tell a story, we both need to go beyond realism, to surpass it... To us, the movies are about dreams, glamour and fantasy. That comes from the films we've loved, which have fed our imagination – be they The Wizard of Oz, German expressionism, Hitchcock or Fellini... It's what made us dream, what gave us the desire to make movies. That's what we want to explore; that's what we want to pay homage to.
What inspired the writing of Chicken with Plums, the novel?
The starting point was the story of my mother's musician uncle, who died in strange circumstances that no one was ever able to explain. I went to Germany to see my mother's brother, who was also a musician. He told me that this uncle was a remarkable man, one of the best tar players of his day, and he showed me photos of him. As I'm very sensitive to beauty, this man's romantic face inspired me and made me want to tell his story of broken love. Then there was also the need to talk about death. It's a notion that obsesses me, one that I can't accept... I'd wanted to do a book on it for a long time, to tell a nihilist story: in the end, there's nothing, no redemption, when it's over, it's over; it's all gone! As the Persian poet Omar Khayyam, whom I quote in the film, said, "My two ears have never heard anyone say/ Why I was brought here and why I will be taken away"... I started with those two desires, and the rest followed. There are invented things, family memories... I knew that the musician's wife was a teacher and that she was a pain in the neck. My mother had a female cousin who drank, smoked and gambled and had three heart attacks! I drew inspiration from familiar events, stories I'd heard... Whatever happens, all the stories you write clearly come from somewhere...
Unlike Persepolis, Chicken with Plums isn't your life story. So wasn't it easier for you to adapt it?
Yes. Firstly because it was a single book and not four! And moreover, there wasn't the same emotional burden. Working on Persepolis killed me a hundred times over! I lived the story, then relived it to write the books, and then relived it again to make the film. Reliving all that had happened was tough... Not to mention seeing all the people who had started drawing like me, and also drawing ME! The emotional burden was very heavy. Whenever I saw a scene with my grandmother or with my uncle, I was always moved to tears. But I had to hold it in otherwise those working on the movie would have started treading too lightly. And that was unthinkable. What's more, there was all the political aspect: the Islamic regime, the accusations, the threats, the pressure... Plus also, it was the first time I hadn't worked alone. However wonderful the experience turned out to be, it wasn't easy for me who likes to have complete control over everything! For Chicken with Plums, it was much easier. It was just a lovely, sad love story. At the same time, when I wrote and drew Chicken with Plums, I said that this hurt musician was the character who was closest to me; because as he's a man, I can hide behind him much more easily.
In what way is he closest to you?
All of what this story tells is close to me... And notably the questioning on what it is to be an artist. An artist is a wonderful being, but also hugely egocentric, hugely narcissistic... Being aware of that helps you progress. There's also the romantic dimension; because contrary to what one might believe, I'm very romantic. For twenty years, this man played music for the woman he lost, convinced that she was still thinking of him. When he meets her again and she doesn't recognize him – or rather, pretends not to recognize him, because it's too late for her – all meaning is lost and he can no longer play. No instrument can ever bring back the feelings he had had during those twenty years...
The music maestro tells him: "You are suffering; that's why you play so well." Do you also believe in the need to feel pain in order to create?
There are two sides to it. One, you clearly need to be in a particular state of mind to write, draw or make a movie. And two, I absolutely don't believe that you need to work in pain... On set, I prefer to have fun. I think that the more you laugh, the better you work. You don't obtain pain or emotion by putting people in positions of suffering. On the contrary, when you get them to trust you, when you take them into your consideration and when you develop complicity with them...
In the movie, the tar of the album became a violin...
Simply so that the anecdotal wouldn't detract from the essential. The tar is a very particular instrument, with a singular shape and sound. We didn't want its unusual look to be the focus of attention. It's not the instrument itself that's important in this story; it's simply a pretext to talk of something else. The violin, which is very present in traditional Iranian music, is more universal, and its music more readily accessible. In any case, I never want to do folklore or Orientalism. That's of no interest to me. I always prefer to accentuate things we share rather than things that differentiate us...
You did, however, stick very closely to your novel, to the nonlinear storyline that mixes flashback, the leaps forward in time and the ellipses. But you decided to treat each episode which broke the narrative continuity in esthetically different ways... Did you and Vincent Paronnaud quickly agree on the style you would give to these "breakaways"?
The book did indeed have a drawer-like structure, which I wanted to be playful, and which was crucial to be in the film. And also, as I said earlier, Vincent and I both share an absolute belief in cinematographic language; so it was very exciting and great fun for us to play with all the possibilities, all the options and all the styles; we had fun with all the things that make us dream. We wanted to embark on a movie which, as it gradually progresses, takes more and more liberties with realism. We liked the idea of making a great love story, a Douglas Sirk-style melodrama, but with humor.
The movie swings between the burlesque and emotion, fantasy and seriousness, and advocates a mixture of genres. So you took "expression" in its primary meaning and played on the mixture of cinematographic styles...
We wanted a movie that married different narrative styles, different ways of telling things, different esthetics... We had a lot of fun switching between sitcom parody, Italian melodrama, fantasy films and nods to Méliès. We had a lot of fun, but not without serious thought. We had to switch from one narrative style to the next without noticing the mechanics. That was undoubtedly what we worked on most. For a drawer-type film to work, there was no other way. So we very quickly agreed on how to treat the sequences that would give the movie its style. Vincent and I discussed a lot, drew a lot, and we tried to get as close as possible to what we imagined. What made things easy was, Vincent and I have the same esthetic taste. Better still: we imagine the same things. There's no other person to whom I can say, "Imagine that" and be sure that he sees exactly the same image.
That doesn't seem so obvious since your graphic worlds are so different...
True. In drawing, I have a more sober side and Vincent a more baroque, more lavish side. But at the same time, our worlds are very complementary. Some things are our own and other things we share, like our sense of fun, and our unequivocally humoristic view of the world and the people who surround us. Faced with such-and-such a situation or behavior, we very often have the same flabbergasted reaction! We both share the same point of view of mankind. We're both big fans of Dostoyevsky, whom we think is THE supreme author. Like him, we believe that everyone is good and bad in equal measures! You may hate Raskolnikov at the beginning, but by the end you feel compassion for him. Faranguisse, Nasser-Ali's wife, played by Maria de Medeiros, is a dreadful woman, but at the end, you see her beauty and like her because you understand her. Everybody can be bad, but everybody should have the chance to show they are good... Also, Vincent makes me laugh a lot. A lot. So it's because we're different and complementary that things work so well between us. Besides, at the end of the day, it's hard to say who does what. On set, we shared out the jobs: Vincent saw to the framing, the lighting and the camera movements, while I the actors, their costumes and their acting. But it wasn't as clear-cut as that, since he gave his opinions on my work, and I on his. It truly was shared work. And the best thing is, we always manage to surprise each other.
In what way had your collaboration evolved since Persepolis?
We worked more calmly and much better. There are never ego problems or power struggles between us. We're friends, we're no longer youngsters, and we know that anything we say is never directed at the other but for the good of the movie, in the interest of the movie. We have our own separate, fulfilling artistic lives. We have mutual admiration, and when we decide to work together, we totally combine our individual strengths.
You have said that for you, Mathieu Amalric was the ideal Nasser. What makes you think that?
Mathieu has that needed touch of madness and extravagance, and the needed eyes, feverishness and edge... It was obvious it had to be him and no one else. He's such a talented actor. He can swing between a Desplechin film to a Bond movie... And play the violin too! He's a very open and available man. Out of 46 days of shooting, he must have been there for 44 of them, always concentrated and patient.
How did the idea for Isabella Rossellini come about?
She's an extraordinary artist and woman. When I called her, she said yes right away, without even reading the screenplay. She scared us the most, and we had to start the shoot with her! Isabella Rossellini, just imagine! We'd seen her do some amazing things for a long time... I mean, take Blue Velvet! Then suddenly she's in front of you, and she's really nice and has a laugh with you. What's more, she's very touching: she was scared of acting in French, and opposite Mathieu, because she'd just seen him in a movie and he terrified her...
And why Jamel Debbouze? Chiara Mastroianni? Edouard Baer?
Jamel is someone with extraordinary verve and intelligence. I had wanted to work with him for quite a while. I wanted him to play several characters, or rather the same character who, like in fairy tales, comes back in various forms. A kind of genie... He appears a first time as a friendly yet crafty grocer to tell Nasser-Ali to enjoy life's pleasures. Then he comes back in another guise to reproach him for having given up on life, and tell him there's nothing worse than giving up on life... Chiara, I like her a lot. We had already worked together on Persepolis. She has the potential to be this slightly sarcastic femme fatale, and I had fun playing around with that. Chiara has a booming voice and a loud laugh, and I was delighted that she accepted, even for just a small part. As for Edouard Baer, who did the narration and made two appearances, he was the perfect angel of death! Death, however scandalous it is, is part of life. So to us, the angel of death was never going to be an old, all-knowing sage. We imagined someone youngish, quite worldly, rather nonchalant, who has a job to do and does it despite occasionally making friends with someone and regretting his line of work! Edouard has that nonchalance, that charm and that both ironic and melancholic distance; and also a literary voice that I love. He's delightful and magnificent, cultured and intelligent. He put himself completely at the service of the film. He believed in it and played his parts fully, despite always telling me: "You only want me for my voice. You don't want me for my body otherwise you wouldn't paint me all black!"
And Golshifteh Farahani?
I thought of Golshifteh very quickly, because her husband is a childhood friend of mine. So I've known her a long time, I know her films, and it turns out that now, following the bother she faced from the Iranian state after Body of Lies, she lives in France. Chicken with Plums is set in the 1950s during the coup d’état mounted by the Americans, because Iran was the first country to nationalize its oil. The character she plays, who is central to the film, is called Irâne, meaning Iran, like you have girls in France called France... So it's not by chance. It's the dream of a bygone Iran, of a democracy that could have existed. All these dreams of a better world which flew away... If you know the history, you can draw the parallel; but if you don't know it, it works anyway. So for a character called Irâne, it just had to be her. She's drop-dead gorgeous and a marvelous actor with incredible emotional power.
And Maria de Medeiros?
Ah, Maria! Maria! I absolutely love that woman! I adore her filmography, the fact that she only does things she likes. She's not the slightest bit careerist. She was shooting in Canada when I offered her the part... She said yes the very next day. She immediately understood the complexity and beauty of her character and didn't baulk at making-up to be ugly for the role. She has extraordinary force and tells fantastic funny stories. Actually, the casting was practically done within a week. With the cast, we never had any problems. Same with the crew: Christophe Beaucarne, the cinematographer, Udo Kramer, the production designer, Madeline Fontaine for costume design, Nathalie Tissier for makeup... For the violin pieces, we were lucky enough to work with Renaud Capuçon, introduced to us by our music supervisor, Elise Luguern. When I attended the recordings in Germany, I had goose bumps and tears in my eyes. There were also those who worked on Persepolis who returned: our composer Olivier Bernet, our editor Stéphane Roche, Damien Gaillardon, our story-boarder Nicolas Pawlowski...
Did you like working on set with the actors, which was new to you?
I thought the set was fantastic! I already have more adrenaline than most people, and there I had even more. I loved the energy that the shoot required. I was happy doing the animation, but that's a marathon, and I'm not a marathon runner. The shoot, however, is a series of short sprints, and I love that. It's exhausting, but so stimulating... I loved working with the actors. I must say they were very respectful of the script and what we asked of them... And the chemistry between them was magnificent.
Did you also follow all the post-production?
Of course! Vincent and I always need to be there. Stéphane Roche, too. In fact, we're a trio. Stéphane works with us all the time, during every stage. He worked with us on the animatic, on the motion and timing of the film upstream... So, very naturally, when he started the editing, we didn't leave his side!
On the release of Persepolis, you said you always remembered that snow-capped mountain that overlooks Teheran and that you always missed it... We see it again as Chicken with Plums opens...
How can I escape it? It's etched in my heart forever. I talk about what I know. The milieu I depict in Chicken with Plums is the one I grew up in. At the time, for example, they all dreamed of having a western interior, especially in Teheran. In the 50s, Iran was very westernized. That's why, in our movie, the furniture in the family home is very western... Plus, beyond the esthetics of the movie, it's a way of saying certain things, especially these days when we hear that multiculturalism is a failure: as if all Iranians were identical, as if all French people were identical, too! An Iranian Guardian of the Islamic revolution and I will never understand each other. I better understand French people I meet in a café! It's not about country, language or religion; it's about human beings. The only clear divide that exists is between the fanatics in any country and those who communicate with others. Of course, this movie talks about multiculturalism, even if it primarily tells the story of people who can die of love. Anyway, it's high time we celebrated love and the human and made them central to everything. It's wonderful making a film in Germany, set in Iran, with Isabella who's Italian, Maria who's Portuguese, Golfshifteh who's Iranian, Rona who's Romanian, Serge Avedikian of Armenian origin, Jamel whose parents are Moroccan, Mathieu, Chiara... and the result: a French movie!
Interview conducted by Jean-Pierre Lavoignat.
Source: Press Kit / Chicken with Plums (Sony Pictures Classics)