Zimbio Exclusive Interview - 'The Artist' Writer and Director Michel Hazanavicius

Screening Of The Weinstein Company's
Director Michel Hazanavicius and Uggie the dog arrive to a special screening of The Weinstein Company's "The Artist" at AMPAS Samuel Goldwyn Theater on November 21, 2011 in Beverly Hills, California. (Getty Images)more pics » ..it would be a great honor to be nominated. I'm not sure we can win something but that's not the point. To be part of the competition to be nominated beats winning. It's just a plus. We had a chance to sit down with director Michel Hazanavicus to discuss his new film The Artist. The Frenchman is known to European audiences for his hilarious satires based in the spy world, but he has not made a name for himself in America… yet. The Artist won critical acclaim at this year's Cannes Film Festival, taking home the prize for Best Actor, which went to its star Jean Dujardin. The Artist also gained some notoriety for another reason: it is a silent film. In this age of Transformers-ridiculous special-effects-driven popcorn blockbusters, how does a silent film break through to the people? Credit the vision of the director and the courage of his producers. Hazanavicius' movie is a silent film, but it is so much more. Its tale is one of love and redemption, timeless themes that should strike a chord with viewers of any age. With the Academy Awards fast approaching, Mr. Hazanavicius' little film is gaining plenty of steam in the race for Best Picture. Likewise, he is also one of the front-runners for a Best Director nomination. While he remains a bit of an unknown now in the States, Michel Hazanavicius will be a name American audiences know and remember soon enough.

Zimbio: What was your greatest fear in making The Artist?
Michel Hazanavicius: Actually fear is not something I practice so much. Usually I move by desire. So I really wanted to make this movie and it was a desire so when you desire something you really think in a positive way and think positive things: what you want, and what are your goals so you're working with the good things. I guess if you work with fear it's something you shouldn't do. it's negative. I'm not sure negative things are the best way to find yourself. But that doesn't mean I'm so stupid I don't fear. but I had no real fear. The only thing.. when I met the producer, and I was very lucky to meet that producer, he was crazy enough to put his own money in a movie like this one because, at the beginning, nobody wants a movie like that. Nobody wants to put money in it. It's too much out of the market. When I met him and I said to him "Okay I'm going to write the script and we'll see at the end of the script if the movie is doable or not doable because I don't have the answers now. the only thing I know is I would love to do it and would love to succeed, but I'm not sure." So I wrote the script and at the end of the script I knew it was doable so I had no reason to have fear or fear anything. The producer was brave because he had to trust some of what was in my head and for me, I had to respect what was in his pockets (laughs) but the movie was in my head so it was easier for me.

Zimbio: What are the rules to making a silent film?
MH: There're a lot of (rules). I watched a lot of movies to understand the rules.
The first things are very obvious. Like, you don't have language so you have to proceed with images and you have to tell your story with images. You can't ask the actors to make the job for you. The actors can do what they can do. Anybody, the characters and respect the situation, but they can't say. Usually in a normal movie you have two people talking and they say "Did you know that this person went to there and that's what he wants?" ..and everything.. and you can put all the goals, the objectives of the characters and say it. Here, you can't. So you have to do that with your images with your characters and situation you have to put things together so the story can start to be told. So that's not so easy. The story can't be too complex because you can't go too far in the complexity of the characters with no dialogue. There are some things you can't tell. but what you can do u can find some sequences that evoke conflict or evoke the situation and leave time for the audience to think of it and from that thought comes the complexity but the complexity is in the audience's brain. not specifically in the movie. So you have to try not to be too complex, but not too simple. When you look at the real silent movies from the '20's I think the stories are maybe a little bit too simple for a modern audience. The other thing is, these people, the directors from the '20s they didn't make silent movies, they made movies and didn't have the option of talking. But, when you do silent movies now it's a choice. So silence has to be.. that's the way I worked on this one. It has to be a part of the themes. And I wanted to play with the audience off the fact that I was doing and they were watching a silent movie. Also it's very freeing to do a silent movie because you allow yourself to do some sequences that you surely would not do in a normal movie. Like very lyric sequences, dream sequences for example you can put a character talking to himself.. like when he's (George Valentin) in the bar and he's talking to a small (version of) himself. It's very hard to do it in a normal movie I guess, but black and white silent movies are so far from reality I don't try to be naturalistic or realistic, it's a fantasy in a way so in a fantasy you can do whatever you want and it's about images and the kind of things which are very doable.

Zimbio: Could you talk more about the (silent film) process on set? I read you played music during the production?
MH: Yeah sure, I played music for the actors. I tried.. I wanted to, in all the movies I've done i guess I always try to make the actors as good as possible. The audience looks at the actors. After the actors is the situation, the story, and after, the direction, the location, the lights, but Also on Zimbio:
everything comes after the actors so I want them to be perfect. So black and white is very flattering for actors, the format, the ratio - 133 - is perfect for actors because they really take up all the space of the movie. You don't have lost space on the side. And I played music for them because it was very specific, it was like they were in the movie. Usually when you make a movie, it's silent, like a religious silence, you say "SILENCE!" And "Be calm!" And that's something fake in a way. But here, with the music they were into the sequences and for everybody it was very good to see because you almost had the final result in front of your eyes. So that creates, for the actors, a feeling, the music creates a feeling and you can play with it and you know you can create a sparkle.

Zimbio: What's the biggest difference between making a silent film and regular film with sound? Besides the obvious?
MH: I think as a director you really do the job. You don't count on the text, the dialogue, so you really have to think. I mean, I do that in the other movies I've done. but you really have to think of your movie as a succession of images. This succession has to tell the story and you can't count on dialogue. But, you can't count on actors either. They will give you some flesh, some charm, some life, but they won't tell the story so you really have to be sure of yourself. You have to confident when you sign (on) for it. I wrote the script, but i really think only the director can write a script like that because the story has to follow the rules of silent movie. So you can't say, "Oh, it would be great to tell that part of the story." You have to be sure the images tell the story.

Zimbio: The actors in old silent films are much less natural than today. Was that a consideration, did you instruct the actors to overact?
MH: I don't try to be natural because if I would try I would put color and sound so I don't try to be natural. The real thing that changed was the code. The code of acting is very very different. Actors in the silent era were naive in the way they were evoking the situation or feelings. When they were happy they were very happy: (play acts) "Hahaha!" And you can't do that anymore because it's too stupid. What I tried to do.. I tried to avoid playing with that code. The movie's in the movie, the main character is an actor so we can see them actually, both of them are actors, so we can see them acting in other movies. So in those movies they overact a little bit.. or, not overacting, but acting with the code of the '20s. Which is different. But in the normal sequences they act with more modern code. And I didn't want them to overact because I try to avoid any irony or sarcasm, cynicism in the movie. I really try to be very innocent. It's very fragile in a way. My other movies were very ironic and very.. you know.. You saw them?

Zimbio: Yes. (Both OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies and OSS 117: Lost in Rio are spy satires starring Jean Dujardin)

MH: ...Yeah okay, so I showed I was very clever, politically incorrect, and doing dirty jokes and everything. This one is very different because if I tried to be ironic in this one, it could be a parody or comedy. I mean, I tried to be funny, but ironic. The problem is if you do parody in a silent way, try to do a real comedy with no dialogue, for me, its almost impossible. I'm sure some people could do it but I'm sure I cant. I can maybe do it for 20-25 minutes, but not much more than that. So I try to avoid any kind of irony, sarcasm.. showing we were more clever than the movies we were referencing. I ask them to play as sincere as possible. I shot the movie at 22 frames per second so that gives them a very small acceleration which gives them the flavor of the '20s. In those movies, everyone moves a little accelerated.

Zimbio: Were Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo speaking French during their scenes?
MH: At the very beginning they were speaking French because we were obliged to do it. Because of some financial reasons.. stupid things in France, like if you want the money from an organization that will help cinema they have to speak French on set. But I said, "They don't speak any language! It's a silent movie!" But we noticed that people can read lips so after one week we decided to say "No. It's impossible. They can't speak French. They have to speak English." But you still have some shots in which you could recognize the French. I think French people who want to recognize it could recognize it.

Zimbio: Were the roles written specifically for Jean and Berenice? (Michel is married to Ms. Bejo and has worked with she and Dujardin on multiple films)
MH: Yes, I wrote the roles with them in mind. I know them and knew they would be perfect for this kind of movie. They project feelings and some actors are stone-faces. It's much more difficult to work with that kind of actor when you do a silent movie for sure. They have very expressive acting so yeah I wanted to do it with them and I said to the producer in the very beginning I wanted to sell them a black and white movie with Jean, Berenice, Guillaume Chiffman as the cinematographer and Ludovic Bource, the music. So that was the crew.

Zimbio: What was the inspiration for George Valentin? He recalls Douglas Fairbanks. Was he based in reality at all?
MH: I read a lot of books, watched a lot of movies and listened to a lot of music so I had a lot of stories. This character, yes, could be.. there's some John Gilbert some Max Linder, some Douglas Fairbanks, even some Buster Keaton. All the stocks of Fairbanks burned, you probably know this.. and George Melies, he burned his own movies. So yeah, there's a lot of inspiration. When I started to work on my story I had to think in terms of my specific story so if something was helping me tell the story I picked things and put (them) in the script. For example, at the end of the movie when she (Peppy Miller) wants to cast him (Valentin) in the movie she's doing, this is a story that existed with Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. They were lovers, and she broke through with talkies and he didn't so she wanted to get him into Queen Christina and he did it but he didn't feel comfortable because of his pride.

Zimbio: Since it takes place in America, did you have American influences on set?
MH: Oh yeah, we shot the entire movie in Los Angeles, in Hollywood, so the crew was American and all the other actors are American. So if you're talking (about) movies to reference, I really watched the last four to five years of the American silent film era. It was very important to the movie here in the States. Because everything is accurate. The cars, the props, the extras, and costumes, everything is shootable so there was no way to do this movie in another place. To me, it's more an American movie than a French movie. To be honest, it's more an international movie because Hollywood is not specifically American. It belongs to everyone now. It's part of the cinema more than the States.

Zimbio: Who are your favorite American directors?
MH: Billy Wilder.. no doubt. I can say it very quickly. And actually he's not really American. He's from Vienna, but he did American movies and worked here in the States.

Zimbio: How about modern directors?
MH: P.T. Anderson, Wes Anderson as well, David Fincher is great, Steven Spielberg is surely the best filmmaker. The Coen brothers are brilliant. It's a country where people know how to make movies.

Zimbio: Do you have Oscar hopes?
MH: Yeah I start to have hopes, yeah for sure.. because at the beginning I was debating. Lets be serious, nobody knows us.. black and white silent movie so please be serious. But yeah we are in the predictions. People seem to think we are nice and yeah it would be a great honor to be nominated. I'm not sure we can win something but that's not the point. To be part of the competition to be nominated beats winning. It's just a plus.

For more photos of Michel Hazanavicius:
  • Michel Hazanavicius in "The Artist" New York Premiere
  • Michel Hazanavicius in "The Artist" New York Premiere
  • Michel Hazanavicius in "The Artist" New York Premiere
  • Michel Hazanavicius in "The Artist" New York Premiere
  • Michel Hazanavicius in "The Artist" New York Premiere
  • Michel Hazanavicius in "The Artist" New York Premiere
  • Michel Hazanavicius in "The Artist" New York Premiere
  • Michel Hazanavicius in "The Artist" New York Premiere
Senior Editor at Zimbio. I'll take Johnny Clay, the Rev. Harry Powell, and Annie Savoy. You can have the rest.