Oscars: Michel Hazanavicius talks Frank Capra, the Coens Brothers and “The Artist” – AWARDS ALLEY

By Sean O’Connell
Hollywoodnews.com: “The Artist” shouldn’t work in 2011.

At a time when giants of the cinematic art form such as Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese are experimenting with cutting-edge 3D technology, Michel Hazanavicius turns back the clock, delivering a black-and-white, predominantly silent ode to Hollywood’s Golden Age.

The story involves legendary silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) being pushed out of the spotlight by the arrival of the “talkies.” But it also rekindles in audiences all of the whimsical reasons they flock to the movies.

“The Artist” has been charming audiences since Cannes, and continued winning over fans at AFI Fest in Los Angeles this week. Hazavanicius and I started with that meaningful screening when we sat down for a lengthy chat, where we got into Frank Capra films, the visual panache of the Coen Brothers, Mary Pickford’s legacy and the joy of winning multiple Audience Awards. Here’s “The Artist” director Michel Hazanavicius:

HollywoodNews.com: How have you enjoyed AFI Fest?

Michel Hazanavicius: It’s excellent. It’s a little bit tiring, because yesterday we screened the movie, and so last night I didn’t get that much sleep. But that’s OK. [Laughs] I can’t complain.

HollywoodNews.com: Do you still get energized when a new audience sees the film?

Yeah, and especially for us yesterday, we screened at the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, so it was really special. Part of the crew was there, and they hadn’t seen the movie before. It was a very special screening. The history of that theatre … it’s really like we finished the circle, in a way. But also, because we were in Hollywood – where we shot the movie last year – we’re now coming back to screen it. It was a mixture of a lot of different emotions.

HollywoodNews.com: Your film captures a bygone era of Hollywood. It’s set in the late 1920s, and yet you make modern-day Los Angeles look timeless.

Well, this is my third period movie [after two “OSS 117” films]. What I think, from a production standpoint, is that the less you do, the better. I don’t try to prove that we are in the ‘20s. And sometimes, a simple white wall is really “period.” If the story’s good, and the way you shoot it is choreographed with your story … I mean, you don’t have to put evidence in every scene that you are in the 1920s. The less you do, the more room you leave for your audience to imagine things and create an environment by themselves.

The interiors, however, were not so complicated. I had some beautiful, beautiful interiors. Like, for example, the restaurant scene, where Peppy gives the interview [with the reporter]. It was a beautiful location that allowed up to do wide shots.

HollywoodNews.com: I especially loved the tracking shot, where the dog catches the police officer’s attention and sprints through the neighborhood. Your exterior setting still looked period-sensitive.

Actually, that was in Hancock Park. And when we needed a more urban setting, we went to the backlots of Paramount and Warner Bros. … And the theaters in the film’s opening sequence are still old theaters that exist in downtown. The Los Angeles Theater and the Orpheum. There are beautiful locations in this city, and they look like they did in the ‘20s.

HollywoodNews.com: That era of Hollywood still exists somewhere.

Yeah, exactly. When I was scouting for my locations, I found it amazing how many old places still existed. For instance, the offices and studios of Charlie Chaplin … I love cinema, and in Los Angeles, it was great to find so many of these places. Actually, the house of Peppy Miller — the house where George wakes up after the fire –- was Mary Pickford’s house. And the bed where he woke up was the accurate depiction of the bed of Mary Pickford. So it was extremely interesting to shoot in that type of location. It was a very special experience.

HollywoodNews.com: Tell me what you were looking for when casting your actors. You’d worked with Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo before, but how’d you get John Goodman or Malcolm McDowell for essentially a 30-second, silent cameo?

I’ll tell you a funny story about Malcolm. It’s really unusual to have that kind of actor doing that kind of part. He’s really like an extra! But I met him during my film’s preparation because he had heard about the movie and he called the production offices saying he wanted to meet me. Of course I said yes. Any excuse to meet Malcolm McDowell, no? [Laughs] We met in the office of the casting director, and he is … how should I say? He’s “rock-n-roll.” I was fascinated with him. So he went away, and I said to the casting director, “I love him, but I don’t have anything to give to him. I have a very small part, but I would be so happy if he would act in my film.” So she called him, and he came for two hours on the set. It’s not an important part, but I am so proud to have him in the movie.

For John Goodman, he was my first choice. He’s fabulous. Such a wonderful actor. In France, the Coen Brothers are like gods. We love them, and we love their movies. So John Goodman is a huge star in France. I was really proud and lucky to work with him.

HollywoodNews.com: The Coens also have long stretches in their films where action moves along with no dialogue, and Goodman’s perfect at handling those sequences.

Oh, absolutely. I think they are very visual. And to me, directors who are most visual make room for the dialogue. I appreciate a director who relies on visuals and doesn’t rely too heavily on dialogue. Even in their first few movies … take “Raising Arizona.” It’s very visual. All of their movies are very visual.

HollywoodNews.com: Well, there’s a scene in your film that stands apart from the rest, as well. It’s a very clever joke that plays extremely well with a live audience. I’m talking about George’s nightmare, where you introduce sound into his silent world.

I thought it would be funny to shock people with something so small. It’s just the sound of a glass on a table. It’s nothing. You’ve heard it in every movie you’ve seen since your childhood. It’s just normal. But it’s not a convention of this movie, so it’s very shocking. I thought it was funny.

Actually, when I started writing, I thought I would tell a larger story of a silent-movie actor whose entire world started to grow noisy, and he was the only one who stayed silent. But then I thought it would be very disappointing to start a movie as a silent movie and then go back to normal, with talking characters. So I abandoned it.

HollywoodNews.com: As the film makes the festival circuit, it is collecting multiple Audience Awards. A run through the Oscars would be one thing, but how significant is it for “The Artist” to continually connect with large audiences at various film festivals?

For me, it’s a beautiful story. In the beginning, no one wanted to make this movie. Believe me. I really felt alone for a long time. Financially, they explained to me that this isn’t a movie you could or should do. It is so out of the marketplace. Nobody wants to put money into a movie like this, and most are afraid to do it.

Ultimately, I was very lucky to work with [producer] Thomas Langmann. I believed in the movie. He believed in the movie. And little by little, people began to join us. Today, to see the audience enjoy the movie and hear their response, it’s really like in an American movie … a Frank Capra movie. You start alone, then people start to agree not with you, but with the movie. They start to believe in the same thing you believe in. And it’s very touching.

I think people enjoy the movie, but I also think they enjoy the format. They think that the format is old. In fact, it’s the movies that are old just because they were made in the ’20s. But the format is just the format. If you do a movie now, it’s a modern movie, no?

HollywoodNews.com: Sure. Storytelling is storytelling.

Exactly! I just used a format that nobody wanted to use anymore, and it’s very pleasing to see that people have enjoyed it.

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