Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet on ’MicMacs’, ’Life of Pi’, ’Alien Resurrection’ and more
HollywoodNews.com: As the director responsible for Delicatessen, City of Lost Children, Amelie, and A Very Long Engagement, Jean-Pierre Jeunet is one of the world’s pre-eminent auteurs, creating a unique vision of the world with every film he makes. In his latest, MicMacs, Jeunet further explores the magic realism that give his earlier work such distinctive flair, and yet embeds it in a believable and deeply felt world where the stakes, as silly as they sometimes seem, are always grounded in something real.
Hollywood News recently sat down with Jeunet at the Los Angeles press day for MicMacs. In addition to talking about his approach for this particular film, Jeunet revealed details about his work on The Life of Pi, which director Ang Lee is reportedly set to take over, reflected on his experience making the Hollywood studio film Alien: Resurrection, and hinted at what his next movie might be.
[Note: Although “Hollywood News” is used to distinguish questions from answers in the text below, our journalist was just one of many reporters asking questions of the filmmakers.]
Hollywood News: Where did you get the story for MicMacs?
Jean-Pierre Jeunet: In fact, 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. So it was too expensive. That’s the only reason I didn’t make this film after two years and I made the work. I wrote the script. I made the work storyboard with my video camera with a model. I spent six months to make the storyboard. It was huge work. I was so starving to shoot, I wanted to make something very quickly and I had some different ideas in my computer. In fact, I mixed three different feelings. One of them was a preoccupation about weapon sellers because I had a fascination for these strange people who are able to invent things to give suffering. Also, I wanted a story of revenge. I love Once Upon a Time in the West. I love a story of revenge. And the third thing was to make something with a band of original, weird people like the Seven Dwarves and Snow White. One of them is shy, another one is always pissed off, you know, this kind of stuff. So, I mix with really strong feelings. It wasn’t so easy. I was concerned to mix a serious issue like the weapons issue and a slapstick cartoon. I thought okay, The Great Dictator was a comedy too. I hope it works pretty well.
Hollywood News: How deliberately did you want this to have a political undercurrent and then how tough was it to combine that with the magic realism that you injected into the rest of the film?
Jeunet: I want to say politic because it’s such a cliché to say it’s not good, it’s bad to sell weapons. But we made real research for what we did. We made a beautiful interview in a weapons manufacturer in Belgium who built some arrows to go through the tank. It gets the temperature so high. In one second, everybody burns inside the tank. We met very interesting people. They have the passion for technology. I would like to have these kind of people in my crew – very nice people. But when you say, “But at the end you kill people,” they say, “Yes, but we work on the right side. We work for the Minister of Defense, not for the Minister of Attack.” Isn’t that beautiful? They say, “No, no. We sell to people [but] not to the bad guys, of course.” They know it’s hypocritical. We know that they sell it in Africa for poor people. You know, it’s a war.
Hollywood News: How do you come up with these ideas in your films? They’re always rich with color and so many details. Also, do you use a lot of wide lenses?
Jeunet: Yeah. I would say it’s a question of style. I like directors with a strong style, when you recognize the style after 10 seconds. When you see a film from Tim Burton, you recognize immediately it’s Tim Burton. Same thing for Terry Gilliam or Costa Gravas, David Lynch, and a long time ago it was Fellini or whatever. I don’t want to compare myself with these great directors, but I love to shoot with short lens, to use warm color, and I love to do that. This time I wanted to make something faster with a lighter camera but everybody told me no, it’s too early for digital. We spend too much time fixing the defects. Next time I want make it all in 3D or in lighter camera.
Hollywood News: Do you share your characters’ vision that ingenuity or naivete is a way of defending yourself from the world and its violence?
Jeunet: Yes, absolutely, I believe about imagination. You know, I was a worker when I was 17. Between 17 and 21, I was a worker in the telephone company and imagination saved my life. In fact, the character of Dany Boon is a little bit a metaphor of my work because to accomplish his revenge, he needs a crew with specific character like I need a crew to accomplish my film. It’s kind of a metaphor. Isn’t it beautiful?
Hollywood News: You said that you were working on another film before this one. Does it usually take you several years to develop an idea and get it done?
Jeunet: Yes, because I wrote the script myself. It’s not for everybody. It’s so much work, in fact, and you know, I need to be in love with the subject. For example, I’ve read some books now since last October, since 6 months, and I need to be completely in love. So, it’s a long process after you write it between 6 months and one year, and you look for the money, and each time you have a problem. This time I lost my actor because I wrote the main character for another actor. I lost 4 months. I took advantage to make a beautiful commercial for Chanel 5. After Alien 4, Chanel 5. I love that joke (laughs). It’s a long process and they are very long to make these films, long for the post production. There is the shooting. It’s very long because I’m very picky. I spent, for example, seven weeks just to fix the color at the end. It’s very long but I love it. I don’t care.
Hollywood News: Mechanical devices always seem to figure in your movies. Why is that?
Jeunet: For me, I would compare to a mechano. You know what a mechano is? It’s like a toy construction set. Inside the box you have the costumes, the dialogue and 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 of this film. Another one is I am like a chef. I prepare a good meal and I want to share. “Do you think it’s good?” and sometimes they say, “No, it’s not good,” and then you are disappointed. For this one, I hired a guy because I discovered this guy is a naïve artist. He was in a museum in Paris and made a beautiful animated sculpture and it was so beautiful. We didn’t build it ourselves. I hired the guy to lend us the different sculpture.
Hollywood News: You used the term “cartoon” to describe it. I would use “silent film.” I thought that you were going back to Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin or Jacques Tati in Monsieur Hulot. Is that a style that particularly appeals to you?
Jeunet: Yeah, especially the cannon man in the film, I thought especially about Buster Keaton, of course. When Dany Boon makes you think about Charlie Chaplin, it wasn’t on purpose. During the shooting, I saw him and said “Oh, you make me think of Chaplin.” He said, “Oh, you think so?” And after, I think he continued to think. It was on purpose after that.
Hollywood News: Dany Boon is a really great actor and he’s well known in France. He’s a stand-up comic. How did you get to cast him in your movie?
Jeunet: I’ve followed him since 15 years because he used to make some one-man shows standing up. Just after I hired him, he got a huge success with Welcome to the Land of Shtis. But, when I say huge, you can’t imagine. It was almost like Titanic, 21 million admissions. I mean it was a huge success. It was 9 million admissions. Can you believe it? I am very jealous. He’s an auteur. He’s wise. He’s good. He’s a good actor. Every take is perfect. You never had a bad take. And he’s a nice guy, very simple, very funny.
Hollywood News: You’re meticulous in terms of the camerawork. How do you work with actors?
Jeunet: They have to be precise. That’s the reason I love Audrey Tautou or Dany Boon. You have to have their head here and here in order 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. But, on the other hand, if they want to surprise me or they want to propose me something different, I am very open. I am free. I make a storyboard, but okay, new idea, no problem. But I love technique actor, technician actor.
Hollywood News: How did you decide to incorporate the Max Steiner score?
Jeunet: At the beginning, it’s The Big Sleep. We used maybe 6 or 7 different pieces of different films from Max Steiner. In fact, I wanted just to use The Big Sleep to make the gag with the end starting the film. It was on my mind, on my notes. Of course, we had the music and the music worked so well. We find it and we thought maybe we could use Max Steiner music for the whole film. There were action scenes and it worked so well, sometimes it was like a miracle. I remember once during 40 seconds, not a cut. Every sync point was perfect. I imagine Max Steiner in paradise [laughing very pleased] like a second life. No, it was a great moment. And, by luck, we found some good recordings from the 70s of the music. It was in stereo, good quality, not amazing quality but good quality.
Hollywood News: You mentioned that you were like a chef preparing something for the audience. When you make a movie, do you present what you think is right or do you try to anticipate what the audience is going to want?
Jeunet: 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 before. You are the first spectator of your film. If you think about the other people, you’re dead, you know.
Hollywood News: Is it very personal?
Jeunet: Yes, it’s very selfish to make a film, very selfish. But it’s not the only recipe. You can be happy. You can make something very sincere, but you can and it doesn’t work. You know what I mean?
Hollywood News: When you’re writing, do you have directing in mind? Are you thinking “I’m going to write this because I really want to shoot this.” Or is this completely separate?
Jeunet: Yes, when I write myself the visual scenes, that’s the case. When Guillaume [Laurant], my partner, writes the dialogue scenes, it’s different. I have to imagine after and it’s a different game. But it’s pretty easy to imagine for me to storyboard. It’s an easy game. I close my eyes and I see those scenes. It’s pretty easy.
Hollywood News: Some of the folks who saw the film described it as sort of quintessentially French. Is that part of how to compete with Hollywood by saying okay, we’re not going to try to imitate Hollywood, we’re going to come up with our own accent?
Jeunet: I don’t know. Really 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 the music with an accordion, it sounds French, of course. But, in France, you have to know that I am not French. They think I am international because my films are sold everywhere and I don’t feel especially French. I’m not a member of any guild. For example, Almodovar, they don’t like him in Spain. You know that? He quit the Academy of the Spanish Oscars because they don’t like him. In France, I can complain. But now, it’s getting difficult because I had 3 huge successes: Alien. Alien was a success in France. Alien, Amelie, and A Very Long Engagement. Now it’s time to pay! (laughs)
Hollywood News: Was The Life of Pi meant to be a more commercial film or was it just something that had a bigger budget?
Jeunet: No, it was a very risky movie that the [investors] didn’t want to make because it was expensive and risky – an Indian kid, alone, in the middle of the sea? It’s not very commercial. Who knows? Maybe it will be a success but nobody can know.
Hollywood News: Do you think at all now about merging your sensibility with something more commercial or are you content with the path that you’re on right now?
Jeunet: I have different ideas. For example, right now I am trying to buy the rights to a small French book. It will be a very intimate story. It will be beautiful, emotional, but not very commercial. On the other hand, I read an amazing American book. Oh my God, it’s a masterpiece, but I don’t want to tell anything because I’m going to meet the author next week in New York. It is such a good book. Oh my God! It will be a f*cking masterpiece. But I heard he would like to direct the film himself. Big mistake (laughs).
Hollywood News: International audiences or critics have complained that they’ve sort of Americanized a lot of foreign books in the process of adaptation. Do you feel like turnabout is fair play if you took that book and you made it into a movie that you would give it a French twist?
Jeunet: No, I don’t want to tell more, but this one is in Russia. It’s during the war. It’s very different. So it’s a war film. It won’t be American. It won’t be French. Except, I suppose, we have to use American actors or scare [up] Russian actors.
Hollywood News: Do you think your imagination is dark?
Jeunet: I can [be] if I want. I try to make something more bright because it’s more interesting and more difficult to make something positive than negative. To be negative is very easy.
Hollywood News: Amelie is a more romantic love story, but thinking about Delicatessen and even some of the things in Micmacs and A Very Long Engagement, it seems you have both.
Jeunet: Yes, I like both. And, for some people, I mean it was dark. Can you believe it? In France, they said “Oh, it’s very dark.” Intellectual critics.
Hollywood News: On that note, how do you relate to science fiction and the genre of extreme imagination? Do you like the genre? Do you think it’s bringing new ideas?
Jeunet: I love science fiction and I don’t like fantastic. For example, if you have a magical ring and you can explode the world with it, what are we talking about? You know, 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 Alien, because the rules of the game are very precise, it could happen. I love science fiction. I have an idea about robots in the future.
Hollywood News: You talked about making a film that might not be commercial. Yet you also talked earlier about the relationship with the audience, that you want to share your concoction with the audience. Are those two sides of a coin because you can make a film that is close to your heart but might not reach a wide audience?
Jeunet: If you share with one people. You can have a dinner with one people or with 10 people, and it is the same pleasure. But sometime it’s very sincere. It’s just a question of money. If you can get the money back just to get the money back for the film, it’s not a problem. If I would want to have a huge audience, I would make American movies, not French movies, because there is a limit of course with French language. If I prefer to shoot in my own language, it is to play with my language, to play in Paris, and I have the freedom, the complete freedom in France. It’s so amazing. If American directors could imagine how I am free, they would have asked for political asylum immediately (laughs).
Hollywood News: So was your experience in Alien different?
Jeunet: I was waiting for this question (laughs). No, it was a great experience. And I read so many times, “It was a nightmare for Jean-Pierre Jeunet.” You know the guy who made Up in the Air? He made a joke with the photo like the dwarf in Amelie and they say “It’s like in the French film.” Because I read in an interview, “He said because it was a nightmare to make Alien for Jean-Pierre Jeunet, he came back in France to make Amelie. It’s an hommage.” No, it wasn’t a nightmare. I’m sorry. You would like? It was tough. It was difficult because you have to convince people to have your own 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. We have the final cut by the law. It’s the law.
Hollywood News: When you’re writing a film like this, do you have in mind before you even begin directing a distinct visual style that you’re going to pursue or does it evolve as the film goes along?
Jeunet: It depends. The main important thing, of course, is the story. I think we made a mistake with the City of Lost Children because we had the feeling of the mood and the set before the story. At this time we said, “Okay, now we need a story.” If you think we need a story, it’s not the good way. You have to have a beautiful story and at this time “Oh I’m going to shoot that.” This is the right order.
Hollywood News: What can you tell us about the love story between Bazil and the contortionist?
Jeunet: I think it’s not enough (laughs). Some people told me “It’s not enough. We need some stronger emotion.” And they’re right, I think. Pixar is my main [inspiration], not in films but I have a great admiration. 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.
Hollywood News: Since Elastic Girl came up, what kind of casting challenge was it to find Julie Ferrier?
Jeunet: You have to look on YouTube and type Julie Ferrier. She is amazing on stage because she’s able to play 15 different characters and you can’t recognize her. You think it’s a trick and she’s a different actress. She changes a wig, the aspect and the voice and she’s different. She’s amazing. In my film, she’s okay, but on stage she’s absolutely amazing. She’s a genius. And, of course, she is very flexible because she was a dancer, but not enough for the character. We found a Russian girl acting in Germany and she does some erotic show in Germany and it’s very interesting (laughs).
Hollywood News: Is that on You Tube also?
Jeunet: Maybe. My Japanese director of photography was very moved (laughs). Why him, I don’t know.
Hollywood News: What are you working on now?
Jeunet: I am reading. I have this book. If I could have the rights immediately, I’m on. Because I want to make an adaptation now. I don’t feel ready to write another story during the year, except the story with robots. I don’t know.