Paris-based cartoonist Marjane Satrapi says she never set out to make movies. Satrapi is the author and illustrator of the beloved graphic novels Persepolis I and II, which, together comprise a funny, moving memoir chronicling Satrapi’s life growing up in Tehran and Vienna during the rise of the Islamic revolution. The books offer a glimpse into “Marji’s” experiences as a curious, outspoken girl who suddenly finds herself living in a fundamentalist society where she has to wear a veil and punk rock music is verboten.
A few years ago, Satrapi was approached by 2.4.7. Films, an emerging French production company, about adapting Persepolis into an animated feature. So she recruited her friend and fellow cartoonist Vincent Paronnaud to join the project as co-writer and co-director. Along the way, this creative duo attracted top talent, including French film legend Catherine Deneuve and her daughter Chiara Mastroianni (both of whom are big fans of Satrapi’s comics); together they serve as signature voices in the film’s original French-language version.
When Persepolis premiered at Cannes in May 2007, Satrapi walked away with a Jury Prize. France also selected the film as its official entry for Best Foreign Language Film for the 2008 Academy Awards. These milestones suggest that comics—and the films they inspire—aren’t just for kids anymore.
MovieMaker had the chance to speak with Satrapi in New York about her experiences as a first-time moviemaker. A self-described loner, she shared with us the “hell” and the joys of working with a crew of 100 people to transform 16 years of her life into an animated work of art.
Nancy Rosenbaum (MM): How did you finance the film?
Marjane Satrapi (MS): The budget thing in France is quite different than in America, because you have one TV channel that gives you some money and then you have this organization that, if you make a movie in Paris, you have some help. Then you have the [National Centre of Cinematography]—they give some money. Then the French distributor and then Sony Pictures Classics came. That is the way we put up the money.
All in all, the whole project [cost] about $8 million which, when you have to pay about 100 people over two years, it’s not lots of money. It’s not small money, but it’s not like $50 million or $100 million. It’s an $8 million movie and that’s it.
But a movie is not a question of budget; you can have all the budget in the world and if you don’t have any good ideas, it doesn’t make a nice film.
MM: So in France there is much more state support for moviemaking than in the U.S.?
MS: Oh yeah, absolutely: It’s not like in America, where there are studios that are paying, so there are many differences. Also we have a law in France that the director has the final cut.
MM: So you had complete creative control?
MS: Absolutely. I never made even one compromise on the movie. Me and Vincent, we really did make the movie we wanted… Either you make a movie you like or then why do it? I don’t quite understand that in America, it’s not obvious that the director would have the final cut. I mean, if the director doesn’t?have the?final cut, who can?
MM: I imagine that when you work as a cartoonist, you’re mostly working by yourself. But with this film project, so many more people were involved. What was the creative process of putting this film together like for you?
MS: I never work with an editor, actually… I never change anything, because you like it or you don’t. I’m not going to change it. I always show it to a couple of friends, and if they don’t understand something, I will change it. But this relationship of power over an artistic work—I don’t understand it.
But yeah, it was very difficult to go from a personal work to working with other people. Both Vincent and I, we are not people who have an ego in a way that we want to be right. The fact is that we wanted to make a good movie. So if I have the best idea in the world and it destroys the rhythm of the movie—no problem, we just throw it out.
We made this studio in Paris—we created it for this project—and everybody worked as much as they could. Of course, at the beginning it was not easy. But then when you see all the people, they put all their love, their heart, their talent, their art—whatever they have—into the project, then you say to yourself, ‘Jesus Christ! I made a universal thing…’ So yeah, it was a good thing in the end. I was very satisfied working with people and I will certainly continue working with people because it’s much better than what I thought it would be.
MM: What did you think it would be like to work with other people?
MS: Hell! And for the first six months it was hell. I was praying that I didn’t have to have [people] in my face every day. I didn’t like it at all in the beginning; I had to get used to it. I’m a very solitary person: I like to be alone—I love loneliness—I’m like a freak myself. So having all these people [around where] I have to be social… It was not easy for me at all.
MM: Can you talk about your crew? How many people were involved in the production and what kinds of roles did people play?
MS: We had a team of 100 people. There were 30 animators and then the people who were the animation assistants. So that means the animator—if you need 12 images, for example, for one second—the animator would make four of the [key] images, and the images in between are going to be made by the assistant. Then you had the people who made the layout… Then you have the people who were inking it, because we inked it all by hand. That is a job that has completely disappeared in France. We found the last tracer in France in Lyon. We had him come up to Paris and he created a team of tracers that didn’t exist in France anymore…Then there are the people who made the coloring, the people who made the background. Then at the end you have to use a computer to take the background, the animation—all of that—put it all together and then the movements of the camera are made on the computer with After Effects. So that was the procedure. All the time we had about 90 people. But if you count from the beginning to the end, we had about 120 people.
MM: Your title is co-writer and co-director.
MM: What does it mean to co-direct an animated film?
MS: You know the Coen brothers? We are like the Coen brothers. The only thing is, we are not really brother and sister. You know Vincent and I, we are very complementary. It’s extremely difficult to say who did what, because it’s a question of layers. I say something, he says something and in the end we have a product… So the co-directing was also because of the fact that we’ve been friends from the beginning and we knew each other very well. Everything was a matter of discussion. It was like two brains in one body—or two bodies with one brain. But that’s what it was.
MM: How did Sony Pictures Classics get involved?
MS: From the beginning [executive producer] Kathleen Kennedy wanted to buy the rights for the book… She said, ‘I will help you. No matter how I can, I will do it.’ So she proposed the project to Sony and they got involved [as the U.S. distributor]. They were the best people to get involved in it. For distributing foreign movies, I don’t think I could have done better than Sony Pictures Classics.
Of course, you need money to make movies… I mean, first you have to make a good movie, then the rest comes by itself… I’m proud of this movie. If I was not satisfied, I would not be able to sit here and defend it, because it wouldn’t look like me… It’s extremely exciting when you work with people who, the first love of their life is the movie, and then comes the business. Because many times it’s the business first and then the quality of the movie. The business is good, but first you have to make quality work—and it pays! I think when you work honestly, with all your heart and spirit, people are not dumb; they see it and they feel it.
MM: What challenges did you encounter along the way of making this film?
MS: We never thought the movie was finished. We made all these backgrounds and then you look at the thing and you see, ‘Oh, it doesn’t work.’ So we changed it until the last moment—we changed everything. The last dialogue that we taped, that was in February—and we finished the movie in March.
MM: Do you think there’s more film in your future? Do you want to make more movies?
MS: Oh yes, certainly yes. But not animation, because animation sucks. It’s too much work.