Photo Courtesy of Michel Hazanavicious

An Interview with The Artist: Michel Hazanavicious

By Mel Papalcure, MUSE staff

I practically skipped out of the theatre (okay, I skipped) after seeing Michel Hazanavicious’ The Artist, which is something I had the opportunity to tell Hazanavicious in person, after our roundtable interview.

Critics are praising The Artist as a tribute to silent cinema, the perfect blend of nostalgia, comedy, romance and sorrow, no sound or color necessary. Who would have thought a silent film in 2011 could be so enthralling, warming and intense? Immediately I was sucked in to this old time world – one of slapstick grace, tap-dancing and tabloids.

An immense amount of research went into its making – by Hanazavicious – the leading lady (Bérénice Bejo) who also happens to be his wife – along with Jean Dujardin – who wrings out a masterfully expressive performance as George Valentin – and every one else involved, with a special nod to composer Luduvic Bource.

The film is set in the late twenties, when talking pictures are just beginning to surface, and George Valentin would rather stay behind in the silent past than open his mouth in front of a camera. As his career begins to flop, Peppy Miller – the new “it girl” – rises to fame.

Muse: The aesthetic of the film isn’t a gimmick; the story unfolds very naturally. How were you able to do that?

Michel Hazanavicious: Initially I was attracted by the format. I wanted a story that fit into the format. I needed a justification: “Why a silent movie?” So I decided to tell the story about a silent actor. I did a lot of research. A lot of preparation went into it, a lot of references. Once you did your homework. You have to focus on the story. You have to let go of everything you’ve learned. You have to work a lot to be comfortable with the format.

MUSE: Was it difficult to write a silent script? Was it fun to play within the limitations?

MH: Both, actually. There’ s lot of limitations, but it’s also very free. I guess if you have the desire to do it, you focus on the freeing part. Yeah, there’s a lot of limitation too. Two hours ago, a journalist asked me about the sequence where she puts her hand is in George’s coat – he asked if it was written or an improvisation – and actually everything was written, but he didn’t understand how you can write something like this. In the film – there’s nothing to write – which was difficult, to find a way to create a script with no dialogue, just images. You work with images to tell the story, and in a way that seems to be simpler for the audience. When people feel the movie, it is very accessible, so it looks very simple – but you have to work with the limits – you don’t have the tools you usually have to write it.

MUSE: So was it more like a storyboard than a script?

MH: It was a script. The fact is, I draw. When I wasn’t writing, I was drawing, and it helps to be able to think with images. It was a real script – written more like a short novel, because usually when people read a script, they don’t read the action; they just read the dialogue. So, I had to find a way to write the action in a way that was easy for me to read, more like a short.

MUSE: You make the audacious choice to allow sound to intrude in the dream sequence. Was this something you deliberated about? Did not want to allow sound or did you always want to play around with the idea that the film was being made in a modern time?

MH: Everything was written in the script. It’s not like I did it afterwards or anything. The use of the sound had an important significance. In the dream sequence for instance, when sound comes, the silent actor is the only one who stays silent. I thought it was a disappointment to have twenty minutes silent until the movie was turning – with sound. I think it was cool to shock the audience with such an effect, a small thing. The end of the movie there’s some lines of dialogue [because] the idea [centered on the] main character and his problem with the talking. So if I wanted a happy ending he has to win, he has to speak a little, so he just says one or two words much later.

MUSE: The soundtrack is amazing and so important to the plot of this film. When was the music made for the film? Was it made during the shooting? The actors hit the beats so well.  

MH: The music is very important. The music is in tandem to the plot. In older silent movies, it’s just there as background, and after an hour it’s really kind of boring. That’s [what makes] this movie modern; we composed music that followed the structure of the script. I worked very close with the composer. At all the turning points and variations the music is correlated to the structure of the story. I also played music while they were acting, and they loved it.

MUSE: Did you choose music while you were directing that would evoke specific emotional responses?

MH: Yeah sure. I used a lot of great classical Hollywood composers: Leonard Bernstein, Max Steiner, Bernard Herrmann —actually, the Vertigo track at the end is Hermann’s. I played music for the emotion in some sequences; it helped to have something with a good rhythm. In the scene in Peppy’s house where George pulls the sheets off all the furniture, I used Sunset Boulevard with a lot of variation and strong acceleration to get the emotion.

Sometime I just played decorative music, like jazz from the era, just to keep them in the right mood.

MUSE: Were you able to talk to the actors while they were filming?

MH: I usually talk to the actors during a take it, even if it’s a film with sound. I do it because sometimes an actor says his line, and you want just a slow variation. If you wait for the end of the take, he doesn’t even remember what he did. You’ve got to be very precise during the take.

MUSE: With the shift toward digital projection, film is dying. How do you feel about digital projection versus film, whether this has an effect on film itself?

MH: Film is dying, [but] I’m not sure you can see the difference in the projection. The problem with projection, especially in black and white, is that you don’t have black and white from reel to reel. You can have more or less blue in one reel and another one will be a little more yellow, kind of changing. Also, the quality of film after three or four weeks degenerates. With digital, even if you see the movie after five weeks, you see the same thing from the first one. I think I prefer the digital, I think it has more respect for the work that you do. I mean, I’m not sure people really see the difference. Some of the directors saw small differences, but for a movie, people come to the theatre, they have popcorn. They don’t really notice.

MUSE: How do you feel about the direction that film is heading into right now? What statement does The Artist make amidst other films that are spectacle based, with lots of CGI and special effects?

MH: I didn’t make the movie against a type of film…There’s a lot of movies with special effects which are very good – like The Planet of the Apes, for example. When new technology arrives at first, directors use it as a toy and then eventually other directors use it as a tool. I think this movie is different from the others, but there are a lot of good movies that take care of telling a story with effects. There isn’t one way to make a movie; I think there’s room for all kinds.

MUSE: Was there ever a worry that the audience would want to see a silent movie when they are otherwise being bombarded by CGI and 3D?

MH: When we decided to make the movie, so many people said “you can’t do it, people won’t come to see it.” [Even when] we found this producer who would do it, they said, “you are so courageous.” We decided that we might lose money, but the idea was to do something different, try to make it a different picture.

MUSE: What is it like to work with your wife on a movie?

MH: It’s very cool. She is very simple – she’s not what you would think of an actress…She’s a good person, very easy to work with, very nice with people…I am very proud that she’s in the movie, because we can share our work, our happiness. We really share it. It’s very…fun and happy to – to have done it with her.

MUSE: What’s it like shooting on location in Hollywood, especially for a French film?

MH: It was a wonderful experience. First of all, we had a great house in L.A, in the hills, with a pool, with a view. A wonderful view. We were doing an American movie with a French production. For me, there’s a big difference. In the French way,  directors make all decisions – I’m not sure if it’s all the same here. I think in America, the boss is the producer in a lot of cases. We had all the benefits of the French production with the Americans. But we were living here without living here, since we had a very short shooting schedule, 35 days. We’ve had the privilege to shoot in a lot of actual locations in the homes, in Charlie Chaplin’s studios, the studio of Douglas Fairbanks. Peppy Miller’s house is Mary Pickford’s house, the real one. It was very touching to go to all these locations. When we shot the movie, I didn’t have time to appreciate it since the shooting schedule was so short.

MUSE: The movie is both a silent film and a tribute to silent films. Was it always about being a tribute or was it more important to make a silent film itself?

MH: No, the most important thing was making a silent film.

MUSE: Do you want to make more films that head in an emotional direction?

MH: Yes I think so, but I’m always changing, so I’m always doing different things. I think the next one will be very emotional, but maybe after I’ll do another comedy or – I don’t know. People always want to see the same thing, they always want the sequel.

What motivates me is the desire. I know [what I want] more or less for the next one. With [The Artist], things are very well received here in the states, suddenly a lot of propositions are coming from Hollywood.