Directing "THE ARTIST"
Interview: Michel Hazanavicius
Published: Friday, December 23, 2011
Updated: Monday, January 2, 2012 13:01
Michel Hazanavicius is having a good time. The auteur behind the French film "THE ARTIST" seems as surprised by his films success as anyone else: picked up by the Weinstein Company, it's been collecting Critics' Awards and Oscar buzz for a month. Faster than you can say "Best Picture", the Weinstein's had Hazanavicius on a press tour, screening the film in Boston's historic Coolidge Corner theater. Hazanavicius was kind enough to speak to us the following day about a large variety of topics, from film vs. digital to the dangers of making a prestige film.
The Suffolk Voice: What was like going to Cannes with a silent film, and getting the great reception that you did? You won the awards for Best Actor, and Best Dog Actor! So what was it like, it must have been quite the ‘homecoming'?
Michel Hazanavicius: I had some things in my personal life – I was distant… but I was very proud, very happy. The movie, nobody wanted to put money in it, but I believed in that movie. So to be here, with all these people who have enjoyed the movie so much, it was a big success. And it was a very nice story. It is a very nice story – not finished yet!
Q: What interested you most about doing a silent film?
MH: I was attracted by the format. The I worked on the story because I wanted a story that fit the format that made things easier for the audience. I noticed that people needed justification, they asked me "Why a silent movie?" So I decided to tell the story of a silent actor. People accept this more easily – it's a silent movie, it's about a silent actor. So when I decided that, I watched a lot of silent movies to understand how it was. After that, I gave all the actors, the crew, the cinematographer, the composer, many references to watch. But I said to everyone – "Once you do your homework, and watch all those movies, you must forget everything!" We had to focus on the story I wanted to tell, which is the only thing that is important. It's not a student movie, it's not for a university, and I'm not a teacher, so I do whatever I want if it helps me tell the story.
Q: I was very impressed by your willingness to allow sound into the picture at certain moments. Was this a tough decision to go through with, to "ruin" the illusion of being a totally silent film?
MH: Well it's all written in the script. But the dream sequence, for example – I had that option for the entire script, at that moment. I could have a silent actor, and the sound comes, and he is the only one who remains silent. But I thought it was disappointing to have 20 minutes of silence, and then the movie was turning into a talkie. But I liked the idea, so I kept it as a dream sequence. And at the end of the movie, there's some sound, and some dialogue, but the idea was that the main character has this problem with the talkies, and the antagonist of the movie isn't a person; it is sound. If I wanted a happy ending, he has to ‘win'! He has to speak. So he says two words – "with pleasure" – I thought I had to put some sound in there.
Q: "THE ARTIST" is being released at a very interesting time for a silent film – film itself seems to be dying, with theaters switching to digital projection and now the production of film cameras being halted. What are your thoughts on this? Would you want your audience to see "THE ARTIST" on film if possible?
MH: No, and actually – we shot the movie on film. So I don't think film is dying. Well, it will die. We just don't know when. But the digital cameras are improving so fast that I'm not even sure if you can see the difference.
Q: I think for many people the difference is very notable in digital projection vs. film projection.
MH: I like the digital projection, actually. What you see in digital projection is exactly what I've done. It's really close. The problems to me with projecting on film – especially when doing a black and white movie – is that you don't have the black and white chemical bath anymore. So from a reel to another one, you can have one blue reel, one yellow reel… so you have this kind of changing. And also, the quality of the print after 3 weeks or 4 weeks of playing is horrid. And with the digital, even if you see the movie after 5 weeks, you're seeing the same thing as the first audience. So I think I prefer the digital screening, it's more precise, and it respects the work you've done.
I'm not sure people really see the difference. I did a test for another movie. I did some tests with a digital camera, and some with a film camera. And what I saw – I didn't see the difference. I was with some other directors, and some of them saw a small difference, but it was really nuances.
Q: How were you able to get such great actors for such small roles? Malcolm McDowell appears for only a fraction of a scene – was he interested in doing a cameo, or perhaps were sequences deleted from the final cut?
MH: I don't know exactly! Malcolm McDowell, for example, heard about the project and wanted to meet me. So I said to him – I have nothing! The two other characters were already cast, James Cromwell and John Goodman. So the only thing was just a cameo, for the pleasure of having Malcolm McDowell in my movie. So he said ok!
Q: I love how the film is alternatively a tribute to silent movies, and a silent movie itself. What was more important – paying tribute to the style, or taking part in it?