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.