After several years of collaborating on commercials, music videos, and animated shorts, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and his longtime partner, Marc Caro, caused a minor sensation with their 1991 feature debut Delicatessen. An instant cult classic, the film introduced a dark and playfully surreal sensibility that combined fairy-tale imagery with a flair for rhythmic, Rube Goldberg-style comic sequences. Jeunet and Caro solidified their reputation with 1995's The City Of Lost Children, an inventive fable about an evil scientist's plot to steal children's dreams. The team split up when Jeunet was hired to make the fourth installment in the Alien series, 1997's Alien: Resurrection, although Caro was credited as a design supervisor. But Jeunet was on his own for Amelie, an uncharacteristically sweet and whimsical romantic comedy about a young woman who decides to help everyone around her and discovers love in the process. Having already premièred in Europe to enormous critical and commercial success, Amelie seems poised to carry its charms to significant audiences in America. Jeunet recently talked to The Onion A.V. Club about fantasy, French critics, and going Hollywood.
The Onion: How did your interest in fantasy first develop?
Jean-Pierre Jeunet: Actually, it comes very naturally for me, because all day my mind drifts off into fantasies and little stupid jokes. For example, when Amelie looks out at the city and wonders how many people are screwing at that moment. I have those same kind of ridiculous questions all the time. [Holds up glass of water, points at the skyline.] Like now, how many people in this city are bringing a glass of water to their mouths? It's always been pretty easy for me to exercise my imagination. The other part of the brain, the one that does mathematics, is a nightmare for me. It doesn't work at all. When I was a kid, I used to escape from my family with my imagination, and I kept this spirit into my adult life. This doesn't always happen. All children have imagination, but for some it doesn't carry over.
O: How did you develop your particular visual style?
JPJ: Well, it came to me naturally, too. In literature, we think about and accept the fantastical style all the time, but in film, that's not always the case, especially in France. Sometimes they hate the style. They prefer ugly things, realistic movies. I love to play with everything: the sound, the costumes, the camera.
O: In the past, your films have contained surrealistic, nightmarish elements. Why the sudden shift in tone with the new film?
JPJ: Maybe because I had done all these dark movies before, and I wanted to change. I wanted to use this collection of positive and magical images that had accumulated in my head over the last 25 years. You do a film for yourself first. You don't do it for other people. And if you do the best you can and you are sincere, then hopefully people will respond to it.
O: When you were casting the film, what qualities were you looking for in the lead character?
JPJ: In general, I have some precise ideas about everything, because the film is completed in my head before we ever start shooting. With casting, I am always present, even for the smallest character. If a character has so much as a single line, I'll be at casting sessions, looking at 12 or 20 people to choose the best reading. So, with the main character, I knew exactly what I was looking for, and when I did some tests on [Audrey Tautou], I was certain right away that she was perfect for the part.
O: So when it comes down to actually shooting the movie, you have pretty strong control over how the actors deliver their lines?
JPJ: Yes. And if you make the right choice in casting, your work is nearly done already. You don't have to spend a lot of time directing the actors, because they're so well suited to the parts. For example, Audrey was absolutely perfect during the shooting. It was not necessary to direct her. Each day, I reassured her, "Some day, you won't be perfect, and I'm going to tell you. But don't be worried, you're perfect right now." The performance on screen is exactly like the test. Perhaps I'll put the test on the DVD so you can see.
O: Why do you think the public has responded so strongly to this particular film so far? Were you surprised by that?
JPJ: Yes, it was a huge surprise. Now that I've had time to think about why, I suppose people responded because it's a positive story and it's about generosity, which is rare these days. Currently, violence is more fashionable… though maybe not so much after what happened in New York. Anyway, when you speak about generosity, about something good we have inside ourselves, you're speaking to the majority. Also, Amelie is a romantic love story, not a realistic love story, and people need that. It's about the pleasurable side of life. It takes place in a nice Paris—a fake Paris, but one maybe that French people would like to imagine exists.
O: How do you prepare to shoot a film? Do you do storyboards?
JPJ: Yes. I do storyboards—not for actors, but for the visual scene. I hate to lose time on the set. On the set, you have to go at a good pace, because the clock is your master. For that reason, I have to know exactly what I'm trying to get beforehand. I spend about two months doing the storyboards. I'm very slow, and I do everything myself. I remember I spent three days to change the size of something
I had sketched because I felt it was too small. Before the storyboards, I wrote 18 drafts of the script. [Laughs.]
O: After co-directing your first two films with Marc Caro, what adjustments did you have to make without him?
JPJ: When you work with someone for so long, it would seem very hard to separate. If you are brothers or lovers, I imagine you're very close. But that wasn't the case with [Caro]. We're just friends. One day, we decided to make some films separately. I know by heart that he doesn't like love stories or emotional things, and I wanted to make a film about those feelings. I've since discovered that I'm very happy to work alone, and I think I'd like to continue doing so.
O: What aspects of the production did you have to fill in without having him around?
JPJ: I learned a lot about artistic direction, because that was always his job. I remember when we did Alien without him, sometimes we left some clutter on the set, and we'd say, "Marc Caro is not here. We don't care." [Laughs.]
O: Not so long ago, Patrice Leconte and Roman Polanski, among others, complained loudly about the French critical community not being supportive of French films. Where do you stand on that?
JPJ: I say, when critics love your film, you love critics. When they hate your film, you hate critics. [Laughs.] It's the same everywhere, but maybe especially in France, where we have pretty good critics, except for three or four newspapers that are really dogmatic. To ask one of these kinds of newspapers in Paris to love Amelie is like asking the Pope to put on a condom. They hate these kinds of movies. They only like realistic movies with couples fighting in the kitchen… very boring, very ugly. They like that and only that, and they hate the kinds of movies I make. But not the audience. We have a new generation of filmmakers in France that try to do something for the audience, and the audience appreciates it. For the first time, the box office is much better for French films than American films.
O: Do you think this political divide explains the Cannes situation? [Amelie was not selected for the competition section at Cannes, which caused a minor controversy. —ed.]
JPJ: No. It was just that Gilles Jacob, the boss of Cannes, didn't like the film. He has a right, of course, and at that time he didn't know it was going to be such a success. He just didn't find the film very interesting. By the time the festival started, though, it got crazy, because everybody wanted to kill him. Poor guy. [Laughs.]
O: So people have sort of a narrow idea about what a movie should be?
JPJ: Yes, I think so. In France, with some exceptions, I've been lucky in general with the way my films have been received. With this film, we've had 450 good reviews—and when I say "good," sometimes
amazing—and six bad reviews. So I'm ready to sign for the next film like this one. But with those six critics, they are very tough, and they hate you when you are successful. In France, it's very suspect when you have a success.
O: How did you get involved with the Alien sequel?
JPJ: When [the producers] called me, I was just curious. But it was impossible to say, "No, I'm not interested." I wanted to make Amelie at this time, and I started to write it, but I came to Hollywood for a meeting anyway, just to see. In this case, I said exactly what they wanted to hear. I remember thinking, "Oh, no, they are going to hire me. I don't want to make this movie." [Laughs.] But I took the job, and my life was totally changed in one week. It was so weird. Nevertheless, the film turned out to be an amazing adventure for me. It was unlike anything I've made before. It was the first time I didn't write the script—Joss Whedon wrote it—but I decided from the beginning to modify each scene to include at least one personal idea, so I could claim the film for myself in a way. Now I love the film. I saw it again a couple months ago, and I'm very proud of it.
O: Did you not have enough time to prepare to shoot it?
JPJ: No, I had the time. I told the studio that I needed two months to do the storyboards, and they said, "No, we don't have time for that. If we do, we're going to lose Winona Ryder." So I said, "Okay. No problem. Bye-bye. I'm on my way to the airport." [Laughs.] They were so surprised, because in Hollywood, everybody would die to make a film like Alien. But they finally caved and allowed me the time that I needed.
O: How was your experience on a Hollywood production different than French productions?
JPJ: In France, I am so free. I have more freedom than most American directors could dare to even imagine. In the States, I learned to fight for every idea. Sometimes, a director has to be a tyrant to keep the quality. On the other hand, I was open to some suggestion. For example, in the editing room, they would ask me to modify a small detail. At first, my editor and I would say, "Oh, shit," but then we'd try it, and were often surprised to see that the film worked better as a result.
O: What was Terry Gilliam's role in getting Delicatessen made?
JPJ: Not substantial. I think it was Miramax's idea to have him put his name on the poster. I don't know why. [Laughs.] As it happens, I love him, and we're friends. When 12 Monkeys came out in France, I did a big interview with him for a French television channel. Like a journalist.
O: What are your animated films like?
JPJ: They were with puppets, like Tim Burton, but very cheap and not with the same talent. I'm a little ashamed of the films, actually, but it was the same kind of technique.
O: Do you have any inclination to depart from fantasy?
JPJ: No, I never want to make a realistic movie, which is not to say that I don't love watching them. For example, Erin Brockovich is a film I really like, and I own the DVD, but it's nothing like any movie I would make. I want to control and modify the images and play with everything.
O: How has technology improved and changed your way of doing things since Delicatessen?
JPJ: The arrival of digital technology, which wasn't around for Delicatessen, has changed everything substantially. For City Of Lost Children, we were able to do all of the special effects in digital. Now, with Amelie, we did the cutting in digital. We didn't cut the negative. I think we're entering a new period of filmmaking that's analogous to switching from black-and-white to color, or from silent to sound. The medium is completely flexible now, and it's not bound by anything. If you imagine something, you can do it.