Interview with Vincent Paronnaud

October 30, 2012 | By Jean-Pierre Lavoignat (Sony Pictures Classics / Press Kit)
Patricia Khan/Sony Pictures Classics

Interview with Director Vincent Paronnaud on his new film co-directed with Marjane Satrapi. 

Was it you or Marjane who came up with the idea of adapting Chicken with Plums? And, of not doing another animated movie?
I can't remember, but I do know that when we finished Persepolis, we both felt the need to think of something else, so we started looking to the future... Very soon, we got onto the subject of Chicken with Plums. Also very soon, we said we'd make a film with real actors to make a change from the austere, monastic work that animation is... Whereas the adaptation of the four Persepolis books was heavy on every level – practical, psychological, human – and we had to make lots of sacrifices with Marjane's narrative, the format of Chicken with Plums made our job so much simpler and clearer. This story had more air, more space to play around in, more available freedom. The album has an effective and rhythmic structure, as it's chopped into days, and, at the same time, its non-linear narrative, with flashbacks, leaps forward in time, digressions and dreams, allows you to go off in different directions and to give free rein to your imagination... The book has a puzzle-like quality which I liked a lot and which was very stimulating. I liked the idea of a man going to bed to die and who, as he waits for death, thinks of all kinds of things; I liked the moments when he gets bored and he lets his mind wander... I thought there were things we could try with the sets and settings.

Was it hard to work with a world that wasn't yours again?
Indeed, Marjane treats subjects that aren't akin to mine. Hers have a touch of the romantic, the sentimental, the naive, even, which aren't in my register at all. But it's exactly that which interests me intellectually. So the only question I ask myself is, "How do we tell that?" The idea of telling an old-fashioned love story, with its mix of exuberant feelings, and even a touch of burlesque, intrigued me. I wondered how we could draw the audience into the story by playing with different styles, how we could sweep them off, make them empathize with the characters while permanently shifting the narrative, how we could create emotion while remaining playful, and how far we could go... It was an exciting tightrope-balancing act.

Weren't you ever scared of getting lost, personally?
No, never. Because I knew exactly what I was getting into and I always approach this work with honesty. Plus, with Marjane, despite being very different, we're also very complementary; we do see eye to eye on some points. Even she is sometimes totally distraught! But we both love having a good laugh together, mixing seriousness and comedy, pretty-much-cheap ideas with something grandiose... In fact, you can't integrate someone else's world unless there's room for it. And in Marjane's, there is room. Even graphically, due to the sobriety of her drawing, there's room. The opposite would clearly be harder, due to my style and my very atheistic world! We love working together, we continue to surprise each other and we very quickly agree on the fundamentals and on the directions we want to take.

Talking of directions, with Chicken with Plums, one gets the impression that you really wanted to have fun with all the different possibilities, from melodrama to sitcom, by mixing genres and visual styles... As though you had conceived the film as homage to cinema.
That was one of our starting points. Was it the fact that we were working with actors for the first time, shooting in a studio, recreating a world from A to Z, by building sets and playing with mock-ups? Whatever, it seemed to be coherent with the project and with the story. Just because it's a serious story set in 1950s Iran didn't mean we had to be realistic, that we had to abandon dreams, the imaginary, fantasy. That's where Marjane and I see eye to eye: we love to forestall things, to thwart fate. Indeed, one of the characters in the movie says, " "I take fate and I break it." We wanted to do the same thing with the movie. Early on, we said we would make nods and winks to the movies we loved as children and teenagers. We said – even if Marjane hates the expression – that it was a chance for us to scream out our love for cinema. We're fascinated by the same movies. I recall, when I was 10 or 12, my father banning me from watching TV; so I used to watch Ciné Club in secret late at night. More often than not, they were foreign movies with subtitles. I'd watch all these classics with, as an extra, the feeling of breaking the law; so it was twice as good! We wanted to start with something quite classical so that after we could jump to more bizarre, more burlesque registers, while still allowing us to reflect on death... That's why there's both Sophia Loren and Murnau, both Lubitsch and Hitchcock, both puppets and animation... Our aim was to bring a modern view to this story, by playing with the references and esthetical features that belong to us. The big danger was creating a patchwork with no unity; so we worked a lot upstream on the transitions, so they would be smooth and not appear labored, so that the audience could have fun with us on this curious treasure-hunt and step through doors as they opened... As if the audience was active. We don't want to preach truths but to stimulate people. That's a fairly natural approach to us, perhaps because, not being movie professionals, we have no complexes. We're not innocent, however. I've seen tons of movies. Marjane, too.

And when a movie has marked me, I watch it several times to find out why it marked me, and how. Why did such-and-such editing work there but not there? Why did such- and-such director do something successfully, while another didn't? Of course, I don't always find the answers, but it's stimulating to look for them. For Marjane, it's quite similar. After that, we let our instinct guide us, tell us if something's good or not.

How did you prepare for the new experience of a live-action movie?
We knew it was a complicated movie and that we had to give it its own rhythm, which isn't the same as the book. So we gave a lot of thought to the images, the movements and the sets and settings, not just to the style... We made the whole movie as an animatic, we did tests and trials, we played scenes which we filmed and incorporated into the animatic, we started working on the music – which is crucial – with our composer Olivier Bernet who made us samples... I didn't want to find myself at editing totally unprepared! I also realized that it wasn't necessarily the most beautiful images that told best what we wanted to say. That made me very vigilant on the set, it stopped me from being subjugated by what you see live... So during the shoot, we had a pretty precise idea of the sequences! And just as well, because nine weeks of filming, with a huge number of sequences to shoot, with different sets, different lighting... it doesn't leave you much time to think. It was great to be able to rely on the work we'd done upstream. It was quite tough, but it worked out well. Also because we were surrounded by such good people.

What made you choose Christophe Beaucarne as your cinematographer?
Our producer, Hengameh Panahi, introduced him to us, and we got along immediately. I needed a cinematographer who could, in a way, teach me the job. He taught me the focals, the lighting... He was invaluable. We became close very quickly. Christophe isn't only very gifted, but he also handles very well the tension that arises when setting up the lights on set. Udo Kramer, our production designer, was also really impressive. He came on board with a kind of book of moods. He had imagined the movie from all the references we had quoted in the screenplay and he had gotten everything just right! And as we had budget problems, he found clever ways to recycle the sets without making things look restricted. He had a perfect grasp of the project. If the composer, the cinematographer, the production designer, the costume designer and the makeup artist are all in tune with your project, it makes things so much easier. Whereas with an animated film, you can make last-minute changes – and we did plenty of them on Persepolis – here, it was impossible. Once a set is built, it's no longer ours to interfere with.

You shot at Babelsberg...
Mentally, it was good to be somewhere other than Paris. Plus I adore Berlin... It was fantastic to see, in the vast hangar where we shot, bits of the set all over the place, like snippets of dreams. Sometimes, I was even transported elsewhere and what had been built seemed so magical; I'd forget it had been built for our movie!

What surprised you most on the set?
The actors, I think... Actors were something I wasn't at all familiar with... Of course, there were also the sets, the incredible house, the section of street... When we saw it, we went, "Wow, it's so beautiful!" But the actors were something else! Marjane and I chose them together, we discussed them a lot, we met them... But during preparation, it was more she who was in touch with them. And I don't think you really know what an actor is until you work with them. Seeing them at work is really impressive... I realized that even more while editing. I was staggered by their precision, their sense of timing, their way of talking... Maybe that was the biggest surprise: being moved by the actors during editing...

Was it easy getting them to understand what the movie would look like once finished?
For the actors, yes, it was fairly easy... When I spoke earlier about the instinct Marjane and I have about the people we work with, I meant them, to, of course. Their adhesion to the project was so strong that everything came naturally.

For Chicken with Plums, you worked with your composer for Persepolis, Olivier Brunet...
Our project was a little "old school", so we wanted something very orchestrated, very symphonic. We wanted pomp and romanticism, but also more comic moments. The work Olivier did upstream was crucial, because we could start the shoot already with a very rhythmic structure for the movie... It was both scary and wonderful for him to work with a philharmonic orchestra; but moreover, his music is beautiful. We also worked again with our editor, Stéphane Roche. His first job on the movie was making the animatic. After, once shooting had begun, he gradually pre-edited it to see if it was working, or if we were missing any scenes... He was like a third eye which had the necessary objectivity to analyze what we were doing. Then he did the editing, for which both Marjane and I were present.

Did he manage to find his own place in-between you?
Yes, and that's not easy! But he was quietly obsessed by the work, by the project, which is how he got by, nervously! He's indispensable to our work... He's one of the people I met on a short movie with whom we worked on Persepolis and with whom we continue to progress.

Interview conducted by Jean-Pierre Lavoignat.

Source: Press Kit / Chicken with Plums (Sony Pictures Classics)

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