French moviemaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s latest film, Micmacs, gets its stateside release this spring. For the famed director of Delicatessen (1991), The City of Lost Children (1995) and Amélie (2001), Micmacs—a satire on the armaments business—is a return to the world of earth-bound, offbeat fantasy that has by now become a personal brand.
The director made Micmacs after spending two years developing Yann Martel’s Life of Pi for Fox, only to leave the project when, as he put it, the difficulty of finding a way to bring together a kid, the ocean and a tiger (on budget) became a nightmare he was ultimately only too happy to leave to others (in this case, Ang Lee).
Going back to the warm embrace of the auteur-centric French film world, Jeunet and writing partner Guillaume Laurant dipped into their notebooks and came out with the story of a character who lives with a bullet lodged inside his brain (from a drive-by shooting), for which he seeks revenge on the French armaments industry.
The Jeunet film—a rich pastiche of classic cinema, epic adventure, comic book stylings, animation and collage—has multiple antecedents, but few contemporaries. The director’s influences are vast and varied, and he pulls from them liberally. Buster Keaton, Sergio Leone, Disney animation and classic French cinema are all inspirations.
A self-taught moviemaker, Jeunet began making animated shorts as a kid. His love of animation—and the color and design sensibilities of the cartoon world—remain a relative constant in his work. He counts an invitation from Pixar to teach a master class at their studio as a highlight of his career. “I started with animation, with puppets,” he emphasizes, “much like Tim Burton; less talent, but same technique.”
Jeunet eventually found his way into directing commercials and short films and, in the process, met and began to collaborate with production designer Marc Caro. In the 1980s, they created several prize-winning, animated shorts—such as the César Award-winning Le manège—before making their first feature, Delicatessen. The pair remained partners up until Jeunet’s first Hollywood assignment, Alien: Resurrection, for which Caro did some design but was less involved overall.
Speaking from Paris, Jeunet, a jocular, easygoing enthusiast, paints a picture of his creative process and the world of artists and ideals from which he continues to draw inspiration.
Phillip Williams (MM): How do you develop your ideas?
Jean-Pierre Jeunet (JPJ): I work closely with my partner, Guillaume Laurant. We collect small ideas all the time; when we hear something funny, beautiful or touching in real life, we take notes in a kind of book. This “book” is now inside a computer and when I start to make a film, we open the book and choose the best details for our story. Then we create a new book for the new film, and we start to write the story only when that book is packed with ideas. Guillaume is very good with dialogue, so he writes the dialogue scenes and I write the visual scenes; it’s like a game of ping-pong.
MM: Do you draw as you write or prepare a film?
JPJ: No, this is the drama of my life: I do not know how to draw. (laughs) I do some storyboards, but I am very bad. I make some stupid sketches and a good designer will complete them. But the most important thing is to imagine the storyboard—the quality of the design is not important. But I would like so much to be a good designer!
MM: Maybe, it’s a good thing. Maybe it causes you to develop other strengths—to push yourself.
JPJ: I believe in working hard. I am not ashamed to say that, even though now it’s considered tacky to say that in France. Picasso used to say he made 150 sketches to paint “Guernica,” his famous painting. That’s the secret: You have to work. I don’t believe in improvisation, but if you have a good idea at the last moment, why not? I storyboard, but I don’t follow the storyboard all the time. If I discover a better idea, I jump on it.
MM: There is some beautiful acting in your movies, and obviously you like to work with certain people over and over again. What have you learned from working with actors?
JPJ: When I made my first feature, Delicatessen, the first day of shooting, I remember working with the actors and I immediately loved that—it was a pleasure. Now I have a kind of recipe for finding good actors: You have to be present during the casting sessions, because you have a character in your mind. But if you have many actors come in to read, it can be so inspiring. So I love to be at the casting sessions; even for a very little character to say just one sentence in the film, sometimes I see 20 or 30 people. Also, I love the interesting faces, because I began in animation and I love actors with strange faces.
MM: What do you think are you biggest strengths as a director?
JPJ: I would say—and maybe it’s a quality, maybe it’s a defect—but I have a style. You can recognize a film from me, like with Tim Burton or Terry Gilliam or Emir Kusturica. But maybe it’s a defect, because people can get tired of your style. Roman Polanski, for example, you can say he has a style, but every film is very different. Maybe it’s better, I don’t know, but I can’t avoid [having] the same style.
MM: Do you have an urge to do something different? To make a film that is not like what you have done before?
JPJ: I would like to change now, because I am a little bit tired of the heavy technique. I don’t want to take so much time. When I see a film like Slumdog Millionaire, I want to shoot a picture that way: To shoot with a handheld, digital camera; to go faster; to change; to make something more agile… To find the next story.
MM: You clearly have tremendous love and passion for what you do. Have you always had this strong motivation or is this something that you cultivate?
JPJ: No, always. Now, after six films, maybe I’ve lost a little bit of my passion for cinema. I ask myself if it is because I am getting older or because cinema is getting older? I have more passion for American television series like “The Sopranos,” “Six Feet Under,” “The West Wing” or “The Wire.” It’s the case for a lot of people now, because cinema is not so interesting. On the other hand, I was president of the jury for the last Deauville American Film Festival, and I was very happy to see how there is passion for films like The Messenger or Precious. I was very touched by a lot of American films, and I was very happy to see that.
MM: Did you feel, after making Alien: Resurrection, that you would continue to work in Hollywood, or was it always your intention to stay in Paris?
JPJ: I didn’t have a plan, but I always felt that if my American agent proposed something very interesting to me, why not? But on the other hand, I learned something: The freedom I have in France is so good—I have complete freedom, [there’s] nobody to tell me anything. It’s like I’m making a short film, you know? And for my five French films, I had complete, complete freedom. When I made Alien: Resurrection, at the end I got a kind of freedom. But for that I had to struggle and fight every day. Though it was friendly, because I stayed friends with the studio, it was like a fight. You had to explain, to convince them; it was tiring. In France it’s not the case. It’s very precious to have your freedom.
MM: Does this freedom come from the tradition of the auteur?
JPJ: Exactly. It’s a tradition, and it’s the law; you have final cut by law. But I learned a lot of things in the U.S. also. I used to do test screenings in France, but the big difference is, if some people say critical things, I don’t care… (laughs) But it’s very useful to understand if people don’t understand certain scenes in the film, and to correct it in editing. That can be helpful. But it was very useful for me to understand, when Fox asked me to try some different things, that sometimes their suggestions were good; it was good for the ego to learn that—to learn to listen to people. But the bad thing is when they say, “People don’t like this scene, you must cut it.” Of course sometimes, you want to say, ‘I know they don’t like it, but I love it, and I want to keep it.’ In France, I can do that.
MM: If you were teaching cinema, what would your curriculum be?
JPJ: I would say, ‘Just do it!’ Take up your camera and you will be happy. And if you have some talent, if you have some imagination, maybe you will win some award in a festival and maybe, little by little, you will be known, and you will be lucky. But just have the pleasure of making something. That’s the best advice.