When silence was golden
Michel Hazanavicius can still recall the many conversations he had with film industry executives a few years ago about The Artist. By then, he had already proved his worth with OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies and OSS 117: Lost in Rio, two comedies which reaped critical and commercial acclaim for its effective send-ups of the spy-film genre - but that track record still couldn't convince some potential backers about the feasibility and marketability of his next project.
'They didn't want to go with this,' says the 44-year-old. '[French pay-television channel] Canal Plus gave us some money, [the national broadcaster] France Televisions gave us some too, but the main channels didn't want to give us anything. They didn't even want to read the script. There was one person from a big television channel who had given us some money for the OSS films, and he said to us, 'Please don't send me the script - I'm sure it's going to be wonderful but I won't give you money, because I can't. I don't want to say no to you for something I'm sure I'm going to like'.'
On paper, The Artist is indeed a project laden with risks: in an epoch where stereoscopy reigns supreme, Hazanavicius touts a film which is devoid of in-your-face special effects or pyrotechnics. In fact, it doesn't even have colour or sound. The Artist is not only a silent film, it's in black and white too - the one thing which made investors uneasy, he says.
'In France, movies are financed by TV channels,' he says. 'They are not so afraid of the silent part of the movie, it's the black-and-white part of it. They don't broadcast black-and-white movies anymore except for the specialist channels. You know, with a remote [control], when people see a black-and-white movie, they switch channels. That's why [the executives] say they don't do that, as it's a dictum in the business. If you want to do a film like that, you have to find another way.'
And Hazanavicius did - with the help of his long-time producer, Thomas Langmann, who dug deep into his own pockets when they came up short. 'At one point, he had to choose between asking me to do another movie, or to do this on a smaller scale. And I said to him, 'Please, I wrote this, you have to find me some more money'. So he said, 'Okay, I'll put in my own money', which is something very unusual among producers today. It was very courageous of him to do that.' The pair's persistence has since been vindicated, and in a style that has far surpassed their expectations.
Originally slated for a world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival as an out-of-competition entry, The Artist was elevated to one of the 20 contenders for the Palme d'Or. While the festival's top honour eventually went to Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, the film left the Croisette boasting an award (the best actor gong for Jean Dujardin), overwhelmingly positive reviews, and a strong backer in Hollywood svengali Harvey Weinstein.
Having acquired the American distribution rights to the film, Weinstein provided a publicity blitz which landed it in prime position for the annual awards season. With six nominations, Hazanavicius' film is expected to forge a prominent presence at tomorrow morning's Golden Globes; the film is nearly guaranteed multiple nominations - if not wins - at the Baftas and the Academy Awards.
While The Artist might seem a difficult sell on paper, the film could actually be described as a crowd-pleaser. It draws influences from many a classic of the silent-film era - Hazanavicius readily admits to 'borrowing' scenes from, among others, the Douglas Fairbanks version of The Mark of Zorro, Fritz Lang's Dr Mabuse and Frank Borzage's Seventh Heaven. But what draws the viewer into The Artist is the director's masterfully empathetic reworking of the ill-fated Tinseltown romance A Star is Born.
Using the arrival of the talkies in the 1920s as a pivot, the film revolves around the divergent fortunes of George Valentin (Dujardin), a charismatic actor whose stellar career is fast fading because of his inability to adapt to sync-sound filmmaking, and his protegee and lover, Peppi Miller (Berenice Bejo), whose meteoric rise to stardom has left her flabbergasted and him increasingly demoralised. Hazanavicius says the film appeals to various demographics: cinephiles can treat it as an homage to the cinematic form and sentiments of a past age, while others may simply enjoy the love story. 'I screened the film in Paris in small screenings [before the Cannes premiere], and there were some teenagers in the room who were crying for 20 minutes or more,' the director says.
'There's something very romantic about it, an old-fashioned vision of love which is pure and which talks to them. I remember when I was a teenager I really appreciated that kind of non-ironic vision of love.' (At the press screening at Cannes, an industry executive sitting next to this writer was reduced to a tearful wreck by the time the lights went up - a common reaction seen at later screenings at the festival, as reported by fellow critics attending the shows.)
'When I was a kid, my grandfather used to bring me to this cinema which specialised in silent movies, films with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton ... so I started [watching these films] very young,' Hazanavicius says. 'I was always fascinated by the stories being told. They were very touching and moving. And then, when I became a director, [making a silent film] became a fantasy: I would love to have been born in that time and age, to try my hand at it.'
Hazanavicius says he adores actors such as Lon Chaney - whose 1927 film The Unknown made with Tod Browning remains a 'masterpiece', he says - but what fascinates him more are the directors themselves. 'I loved them - I think it's a form of expression [made] for directors. I think they were the stars. While actors like Valentino were huge, it's the directors who did all from the very beginning to the end. They were the real artists - Fritz Lang, [F.W.] Murnau, [Sergei] Eisenstein, [Alfred] Hitchcock, Raoul Walsh ... a lot of wonderful directors.'
The Artist is very much built on the templates as set by those filmmakers, Hazanavicius says, but with a spin of his own. 'I started by looking at a lot of movies, to understand the rules, to know what the format allowed me to do, to know my tools, my playground. And then I went' - he mimes throwing away a book - 'this is my own movie, I've my story to tell. It's very important that it's my story ... not just references. Some people think the film is an homage - but, well, actually it's robbery. But I think if I do it with good taste, and if it's for the good of the story, there's no problem. All these guys are dead anyway,' he says.
What makes the homage in The Artist complete, however, is how Hazanavicius managed to relocate the entire production to Los Angeles. Scenes were shot on actual studio soundstages in Hollywood and sometimes the very buildings where silent-film stars once lived. 'It's a real plus for the movie, when you see the props, cars and cameras, and it's all very accurate,' he says.
Peppi Miller's house in the film was once the residence of Mary Pickford, the Canadian actress of The Poor Little Rich Girl and Rosita fame who went on to become a co-founder of the United Artists studio and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
'We were scouting and found this house,' he says. 'And then they told us it was Mary Pickford's house, and this is the real bed of Mary Pickford's. For someone who likes movies and the history of the movie business in America, it was the most exciting scouting trip you could ever imagine.'
In a way, The Artist is a change of pace for Hazanavicius, who worked in television serials and then commercials before moving to filmmaking. While The Artist is as much a revisit of a past genre as his OSS 117 movies it's also less a pastiche than a straightforward and sincere attempt to tell a story. 'I think I'm more comfortable with irony,' he says with a laugh.
'When I brought Jean the script, I was [feeling] very fragile - I was like, 'Okay, don't laugh, please be kind with me'. But the work, for me, is the same - it's the same way to work, the same process. As a director, you are there to organise information and emotions - and it's not easy to make people laugh or cry.'
The Artist begins with a film within a film, with George Valentin performing in a masked-hero caper not that different from the OSS 117 films. 'It's a very conscious decision,' Hazanavicius says.
'I wanted to start the movie like it's OSS. There are fireworks at the beginning - but I wanted to say, we are here but we want to go in another direction.
'I think it's very good a movie begins at one point and ends at a very different one.'
With the success of The Artist, Hazanavicius' career is now definitely sailing on to another level as well.
The Artist opens on Feb 23