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Gaining attention in his native country for his two clever OSS 117 spy spoofs, French director Michel Hazanavicius is now receiving international acclaim for his latest film, The Artist, an homage to Hollywood’s 1920s silent era, told with almost no sync sound. It follows heartthrob movie star George Valentin (OSS star Jean Dujardin) as his indifference toward the new talkies leads to his downfall. Though Hazanavicius masterfully captures how films were told before sound (right down to shooting in the era’s traditional 1:33 aspect ratio) Dujardin’s tour-de-force performance—which garnered him the Best Actor prize at this year’s Cannes Festival and might earn him an Oscar nomination—is what separates this story from a knockoff of films like A Star Is Born and Singin’ In The Rain. Hazanavicius recently spoke with The A.V. Club about convincing Dujardin to take the role, how the music from Vertigo fit into the film’s score, and why all this sudden attention doesn’t make him want to pack his bags for Hollywood.
The A.V. Club: Are you surprised by the attention the film has gotten since premièring at Cannes this past spring?
Michel Hazanavicius: Yes. I’m very surprised. When we were looking for the money to make the movie, I said to the financiers, “If we do our job well, it can be a prestige movie. We can get it into some festivals, and it won’t make a lot of money in France, but we’ll be able to sell it around the world, because it has no language, and it’s about Hollywood, and everyone knows about Hollywood.” But I didn’t know if I was lying or telling the truth. [Laughs.] The Oscar talk, when you’re not American, you just never even dream of that. It’s not for us. So to be in the discussion is not even real for me.
AVC: Do French viewers see the story differently than an American audience?
MH: I think there’s something special about the film [for Americans], because it’s a movie about America and Hollywood, and it looks at your own history of cinema and shows how beautiful it is. I think Americans are moved by that. I’m not sure if in France, people have this perception.
AVC: Was it your intention to make a film that could not be perceived as a foreign film?
MH: When I started to work on it, I concentrated on the format, how a silent film was told. Then later on, I chose the story, and when I started working on it, I really immersed myself in the American way of telling a story, which is really specific, especially in this era, with the Hays Code. People don’t kiss, there isn’t any kissing in my movie, the dancing scenes are the love scenes. But it’s an American way to tell a story, so I tried to think as an American director, because it was the movie I wanted to refer to.
AVC: When you were doing your research of American silent films, were there specific aspects, like the pacing of a story or comedic elements, that you wanted to highlight from the era?
MH: The actors of that era didn’t know they were doing a silent movie—they were just doing movies. This movie knows it’s a silent movie, and I play with that. I didn’t try to make a fake ’20s movie; I tried to make a modern movie for a modern audience. But I wanted to advocate the spirit of the ’20s in America, the spirit of that kind of movie, which for most of them were melodramas and romances, even the Charlie Chaplin movies. So I tried to respect that, and it started by respecting the characters and the story and being comfortable in doing a melodrama.
AVC: Were there challenges in making The Artist look like a silent movie using modern technology?
MH: It’s not a big deal. It’s not a technical challenge; the challenge is in the conception. But what people usually do when they make a period movie is recreate what they are shooting, but they aren’t recreating the way they’re shooting. What I’ve done here is, I recreate as well the way to shoot it. So it’s a very classical way of shooting. There’s no Steadicam, for example.
AVC: You shot the film in color; were the dailies in color?
MH: The dailies were in black in white. In fact, the monitor on set was in black and white!
AVC: Like your OSS comedies, The Artist has a Hitchcock influence—you use Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score for a pivotal moment in the movie. Was that intentional?
MH: For OSS 117: Lost In Rio, it was conscious. It was written that way, and it’s part of the joke. For The Artist, the music from Vertigo came in post. I guess all the directors in France are influenced by Hitchcock, because he’s the perfect visual director, in my eyes. So I guess, yes, certainly he was an influence, but it wasn’t a reference. I mean, I wasn’t watching Hitchcock movies, I was watching silent movies. But when I was writing the script, I was listening to a lot of classical composers, and there was a lot of music from movies in that, and the music from Vertigo was one of them. So when we were editing, I went back to the script and told the composer, “There are nine narrative blocks where we need nine big scores.” So I gave him all the points of what kind of emotion the music should have. And for that particular scene you’re speaking of, I wanted something special. I wanted it to be the final movement. I wanted a slow love theme, and the music from Vertigo just fit perfectly. And it’s not Herrmann’s score, in fact, but the score re-orchestrated by Elmer Bernstein [from 1992].
After seeing that sequence cut together, our composer [Ludovic Bource] used that style as an influence for the rest of the music he created for other parts of the movie. I’ll admit it’s strange to have the music from another movie in your movie, but finally I chose to accept it.
AVC: Did it take a lot of convincing for Jean Dujardin to come onboard?
MH: Kind of. He really loved the script, but I think he wanted to do another movie, and he was not sure if I’d be able to find the money so quickly. So I think he was a little surprised. He did hesitate for a while, and I had to convince him to do it. It’s my third collaboration with him, but sometimes you have to do a little convincing. I showed him that I wanted him and that I wrote it for him, and why I thought he was going to be good in it. Maybe he needed to hear that.
AVC: How much did you two collaborate on the creation of George Valentin?
MH: To me, it’s like every character—it’s a mix. I think the writer is always the creator, because he’s starting with nothing, but the actor comes in and gives flesh and blood. Certainly Jean brought the gestures and the charm. If another actor came on, the soul of the character would still be the same, but it’s not the same. I think there are a lot of things you can accept George doing because it’s Jean playing him. For example, his behavior in the very beginning of the movie—I mean, he’s not a good guy. He’s egocentric. If you do it with an actor and you don’t feel the sympathy, the audience can turn on you. But his charm makes him get away with it. So that’s easier when you write for an actor, and you can really anticipate how the audience will feel toward that person.
AVC: You mentioned the Oscar attention for the movie. Do you hope the exposure will lead to you being considered for Hollywood films?
MH: I’m very happy in France making movies. There’s a temptation to come here. I mean, I made The Artist in Hollywood, but it was through the French organization, and in France, the real boss is the director. I make almost all the decisions on set and have to deal with all the financial aspects. I do my own coverage and storyboards, and I can change and rewrite, and I don’t have to deal with anyone. And at the end of editing, I have the final cut. So this is the way I work. I think for Hollywood, that makes me maybe not likely to get many propositions.
AVC: The Hollywood studio system isn’t for you.
MH: I don’t think so.