The Artist – Interview with director Michel Hazanavicius

Behind the scenes on the silent movie thats making a lot of noise

Hotly tipped to pick up lots of awards, ‘The Artist’ is a black & white, silent movie that is capturing audience attentions at the box office. Brogen Hayes spoke to Michel Hazanavicius about his risky decision to release a silent movie.

Why did you decide to make ‘The Artist’ as a silent film?
I wanted to tell the tale in this way, it is purely visual, it is pure cinema and indeed, it was the substance of some of the greatest directors in cinema, so I was deeply attracted to this format. I didn’t know if would be able to do it or not, in fact I had a secret weapon; I started in 1927 when these great directors stopped, but I benefitted from years and years of refining this technique because cinema at the time was very very young. I worked a lot on the music, on the pace and things have tremendously in the meantime. That was what initially made me want to do the film, and subsequently it was the tale that I wanted to tell as well. I tried to write a tale that would enable me to work with this format.

How did you avoid it becoming a pastiche?
This was my will, right from the outset. On the whole, I looked at a lot of films from the time to understand the rules of the game and very quickly I realised that comedy and ironic comedy would not hold water over an hour and a half. The format imposes a certain way of experiencing the film on the spectator, so melodrama and a love story fit best with that format. Chaplin is, above all, a comedic actor, but all of his feature films are melodramas with some little snippets of humour. I deliberately put Chaplin to one side, what works for him may not work for someone else because he is the greatest at the job. Other people seemed to indicate that melodrama was the most fitting kind of style. Hence, we needed a story that would not be a caricature or a parody, the idea was to create a frame where everybody would have fun, enjoy themselves and then all of my choices flowed from that initial decision; the lighting, the casting, the sets, the story.

With no sound, how did you perfect the style and gestures of the time?
We were able to speed things up just a little bit, at 2o frames a second it would have been a pastiche they would look jerky on the screen and it would have been a little funny. At 24 images we didn’t get a flavour of the 20s, and that lent a special taste of the film. I give you this example because it was typical of how we worked.

Were you worried about the commercial aspects of releasing a silent film to a modern audience?
No, You have to have guts. I am in a privileged position, I had already done two films that proved tremendously popular, and then the actors decided to run the risk. I was very fortunate because I was able to go through with my desires and beliefs and produce something very beautiful, but not everyone is that fortunate. This freedom comes with a price; it is very hard to impose this film on a market that is governed by other priorities. This is not something that is specific to cinema, this is how the world works.

Were you inspired by ‘Singing in the Rain’ or Mel Brooks’s ‘Silent Movie’?
No [laughs] The Mel Brooks, no I didn’t want to see it in fact. I love Mel Brooks, when we were location scouting we went to a lot of studios and I saw a car parked in a spot marked Mel Brooks and I asked if he was there. He was, and I made the mistake of my life; I didn’t go to see him. I am sorry about that. He was clearly focusing on a parody, deeply rooted in a given time. As to Singing in the Rain, that came later. You were right to refer to the fact that while at the outset there was no plan to do this, there were certain scenes, and Jean looked a bit like Gene Kelly. There are certain images where there is a resemblance, especially when the images are in colour, but that was not a source of inspiration. I tried to be very careful about it because I think it is better not to refer back to this giant of the cinema.

The brief introduction of sound is interesting in the film, how did you think about this in the screenplay?
MH: The music obviously plays a key part in the film. Right at the beginning it was possible to do something a little different; the actor in the silent film, the world begins to talk and he remains silent. I wanted to make a silent film, so there is a world where there is a lot of sound but one man remains silent. I liked that view, I thought it fitted in well with the character; this is why I used this idea. It wasn’t worth a lengthy scene, but one sequence would be quite effective.


Words – Brogen Hayes

The Artist is now showing in cinemas