Co-directors of the Oscar-nominated Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud have tackled another one of graphic novelist Satrapi’s works for their second collaboration, the dreamy, fairy tale-esque Chicken with Plums, which debuted at the Venice Film Festival last year and is having its U.S. premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this month.
Whereas Persepolis brought its source material, Satrapi’s graphic novel of the same name, to life as an animated film, the writer/director’s 2009 graphic novel Chicken with Plums finds cinematic life in live action, with French actor Mathieu Amalric (A Christmas Tale, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) starring as the almost supernaturally talented violinist Nasser-Ali who, as the story begins, decides to die.
Over the next eight days, as Nasser-Ali lies in bed waiting for death to take him, he reflects back on his life, his family and—most of all—his lost love Irâne (played to perfection by Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani). A French film made in Germany and set in Iran with a cast that includes actors hailing from France, Iran, Portugal, Italy and Romania, the universality of Chicken with Plums‘ story was intentionally brought out by its two co-directors, who are quick to emphasize how, though the film is set in a time and place unfamiliar to many audience members, at the heart of the film is something with which all cultures are familiar: A love story.
Satrapi and Paronnaud took the time to chat with MovieMaker about their second collaboration and the source of their visual inspiration for this truly stunning film.
Rebecca Pahle (MM): After Persepolis, was there ever a question as to whether you two would collaborate again? How did you come to choose Chicken with Plums to be your second film together?
Marjane Satrapi (MS): During Persepolis… we’re thinking, what are we going to do next? I loved the Chicken with Plums story because—well, I wrote it, so of course I like it a lot, but I thought that the story was kind of cinematographic. And it seemed like an obvious thing, that we wanted to make a second movie.
Vincent Paronnaud (VP): It was during the making of Persepolis—we started thinking about doing another film together. I think the primary reason is that we wanted to think about something else. If we ended up working together again, it’s because we had this project in mind well before Persepolis became successful.
MM: Did you always envision the film as live-action, not animation?
MS: Well, I’m not an animator to start with. It was not like I was Miyazaki, and I had made 25 films in a superb style of animation. In Persepolis I had a style of animation, but I never thought that it would be great to make all my movies in animation. To start with, I don’t think of animation as a genre. It’s just another way of making cinema. For Persepolis, it was really a decision to make it in animation because of the fact that, if we made it with some type of human being, some geographical place, people would see it as another story from the third world. Making it as an animation… there’s something extremely abstract about the drawing that makes it so anybody can identify.
The second project, because it is a love story, it’s universal. [We wanted] to try something new. In the end, I think that each story needs a way of being made, a way of being filmed. Different stories cannot be treated the same way. ?
VP: An animation film is a very technical and labor-intensive undertaking. Thinking about another project was an escape of sorts. That’s also the reason we chose to totally change registers, in other words, to do a “live” film.
MM: How did you decide how to tell the story, what approach to take both visually and in terms of your use of flashbacks? Were there any specific films you looked to for inspiration?
VP: We knew, from very early on, that we wanted to shoot a film solely in-studio, in the style of films from the ‘40s or ‘50s. We drew on our cinephile memory banks to imagine the film’s ambiance. We had in mind the movies of Douglas Sirk, Hitchcock or even Murnau. Thankfully, we had an excellent team that understood what we wanted.
MS: There are pieces that look like German Expressionism and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, [like the scene with Nasser-Ali and his brother] in the school. The film actually has a lot of humor and many things going on, but the basis of the film is the story of a great man who decides to die. The whole thing was, not only how to make the narration exciting, but also how to make the way of telling it exciting. Here you have a story that is, deep down… kind of a depressing story. In the way of making it, you have to go in exactly the other direction, to make it look exciting. The biggest problem was how to go from one style to the other without it looking like a patchwork. We tried to use different styles, but the whole thing was just this question of transition: How to make the transition work? And, thank God, we worked a lot on it before. We didn’t have much time to film this, and not such a big budget either. We started thinking about a budget that was three times more than what [it ended up being]. The budget became lower, but our ambition stayed at the same level. Each time we had to imagine: How can we have the same result, with less money? And we managed, so I’m quite happy.
MM: The visual style of of the film is so detailed and immersive; how hands-on were you when it came to working with with the production designer and the cinematographer??
VP: The fact that we both draw professionally helped simplify the task at hand. We could anticipate framing, setting and lighting. But, I have to say, we were incredibly lucky to fall on [cinematographer] Christophe Beaucarne and [production designer] Udo Kramer.
MM: Has your experience with directing had any impact on how you approach illustration?
VP: I don’t think that the making of a film has changed my way of drawing one iota.
MS: Making movies made me stop making comics for one simple reason: When I make movies or when I make comics, I have one obsession in my life. If I tell the story, I have to be sure that the person who wants to read what I do will be able to understand what I want to say, because what I want to say should be exactly clear. This is my obsession.
Now that I make cinema, if I make comics on the side, that means I have to ask the question again. Is it clear, what I write? Now, what I do in the time I don’t make movies, is I go back to my first love, which is painting. So now I paint. Because when I paint, I don’t need to ask myself these kinds of questions. I can just paint. You don’t need to have it so the [viewer] really understands. For the next script I write, certainly it will change my concept, too, because I know the problem. But, at the same time I say that, maybe I’m not sure? Because it’s better to write without [worrying about] the question of how they are going to manage the filming.
MM: You’ve done two feature films, one animation, one live action. Can you talk a bit about how your approach to dealing with actors has differed from film to film??
MS: When you make an animated film, you always record the voices before you make the animation. You listen to the voice of the actor, and then they animate. So you have to make the film before starting to make the film, with the actors… The biggest difference between animation and live action is that, with animation, it is a long procedure, so if something goes wrong, you always have the time to come and correct it and make it better. [But with live action], you have to be very concentrated, and when time goes by it goes by. You can’t go back and pretend you have more time, because you don’t. But the cool thing about that is that everything is so dense. All you’re feeling, whatever you do, whatever you feel, however you think, whatever—is multiplied by ten… The stress is a little bit more, but you have a dynamic that is much cooler. I mean, for me, I make animation, I prefer to make shorter animation or short movies or things like that. But [feature] animation… I think I need some time to forget that it took so long to do it. And once I have forgotten, I can come back and make another one. You don’t remember that it was long and painful.
MM: Anything you’d like to add?
MS: The only thing I have to say is that I really, really enjoy movies. I loved making this film. And now I also want to work with other people who write other kinds of scripts. I would like to make a horror movie, for example. It’s one big dream that I have; that kind of movie, a horror movie. I would love to do one.
[When you’re making a movie], the time that you are dreaming about it, the time you are doing it, the time you are editing it—the whole thing is so exciting. And I have done many different things in my life, but nothing gave me the satisfaction of making a film….You have all these people, and everybody wants to go in the same direction. Something magic happens.
Chicken with Plums screens at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 22nd and 24th and will hit theaters in limited release this August. For more information on the film, visit www.chickenwithplumsmovie.com.