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Director Michel Hazanavicius Inspired By Life Of Silent Actor John Gilbert In Writing ‘The Artist’

Director Michel Hazanavicius Inspired By Life Of Silent Actor John Gilbert In Writing 'The Artist'

Michel Hazanavicius is drawing serious heat from Oscar prognosticators. His fourth film, “The Artist,” already took home a Best Actor award for star Jean Dujardin at Cannes, and most consider it a lock for a Best Picture Oscar nomination. The film tells the story of fictional silent film star George Valentin, and the relationship he starts with up-and-comer Peppy Miller (Hazanavicius’ wife, Berenice Bejo). But when Miller become a star of the talkies, Valentin becomes marginalized and forgotten.

But another big reason there is so much talk about “The Artist” — in case you weren’t aware — is due to the fact that its actually a silent film, presented in old school black and white, and fleshed out with a classically felt orchestral score. It’s bound to be an unconventional choice for those going out to the movies, and is throwback to a style of filmmaking many aren’t familiar with. But Hazanavicius, who last directed the two uproarious ‘OSS 117‘ French spy spoof movies, has crafted a loving ode to a bygone era, with laughs, tears and a little bit of romance (though the director may disagree) that will be sure win over anybody who gives the film a shot.

We recently sat down and discussed “The Artist” with Hazanavicius, and he revealed to us some behind-the-scenes secrets of the film, while also sharing many of his own creative aspirations.

“The Artist” is not a romance, and it is not a spoof.
While “The Artist” earns some laughs by purposely violating the silent film rule, Hazanavicius took great pains to make sure the audience takes the subject matter seriously. “There’s no parody,” he says. “There’s no irony. It’s not a spoof movie.”

It’s also, apparently, not a romance. “It’s not a romantic relationship between them,” Hazanavicius says of the affection between Valentin and Miller. “I had the choice when I wrote the movie. I could do something more modern, have them kiss. But at that time, there would have been the Hays Code, so there would be no kissing. And I thought it was more witty to symbolize the chaste relationship. I don’t think Fred Astaire ever kissed Ginger Rogers, they just danced. I always thought that was very sweet.”

The spoken dialogue in the film is mostly improvised.
There are moments in “The Artist” where the actors speak a flurry of dialogue, only for a title card to reveal only one or two lines. Apparently, most of this was not in the script and came to the cast and crew during shooting. “What isn’t in the titles is usually improvised, or I just give them at the very last moment,” Hazanavicius says. “It wasn’t written in the script.”

But the process differed depending on the actor. “Some of them love to improvise, like John Goodman. I can just give him the situation, and he can speak and speak and speak. Some of them don’t like to speak, so if they don’t have a line, they don’t speak.” This proved to be an interesting challenge mostly for star Dujardin, who doesn’t speak English very well, though most of his work was pantomime, particularly one sequence where he appears alongside himself. “When he yells at himself at the bar,” Hazanavicius says of the dialogue-less moment, “he was just saying, ‘Bla bla bla bla bla.’”

The crew used real-life historical locations to shoot.
As much a film about fast rise and quick fall of celebrity, “The Artist” is also a vigorous celebration of Hollywood of yore with everything from cigar smoking studio heads (okay, maybe not everything has changed), to the expansive back lots, elaborately grand Spanish style mansions and all the trappings that come with it. And to get that feeling right, the director visited some of Hollywood’s fabled locations to get them on film.

“Scouting for this movie was amazing, because we had been in every location which is part of the history of Hollywood,” says Hazanavicius. The film is deeply rooted in Hollywood history, so it only made sense a few recognizable landmarks would pop up on-screen. “We shot in very famous theaters in downtown Los Angeles, the Orpheum. One of the houses was Mary Pickford’s. In the sequence where he wakes up and gets out of bed, that’s Mary Pickford’s actual bed.”

Most of “The Artist” was based on the real-life stories of silent film actors, particularly John Gilbert
Though his name is not as well remembered, silent film actor John Gilbert once rivaled Rudolph Valentino as the silver screen’s “great lover.” He became a huge star, starring in King Vidor‘s “His Hour” and “The Big Parade,” and played opposite some of the most beautiful women of the time including Norma Shearer (“He Who Gets Slapped“), Mae Murray (Erich Von Stroheim‘s “The Merry Widow“) and Lillian Gish (“La Boheme“). But just like Valentin, his career became imperiled with the onset of the talkies that inspired Hazanavicius as he wrote his screenplay.

“When I started to work on this story, I read a lot of books, biographies about this era,” says Hazanavicius. “John Gilbert [had a relationship with] Greta Garbo. When the talkies arrived, he became a nobody, he didn’t work at all, and she was a huge star. So she decided to hire him for one of her own movies. But he really felt uncomfortable, he didn’t do it again.”

“The Artist” was based on an aborted project about a silent movie star who has no voice.
During a dream sequence, Valentin discovers that his whole world suddenly has sound. Most upsetting to him is that his voice has grown silent. Apparently, this conceit is based upon an earlier idea that spawned “The Artist.” “I had the option to do another script that could be what you saw in the dream sequence,” says Hazanavicius. “It’s a silent actor, and then the world starts to [make noise], and everyone is noisy, and he‘s the only one who can‘t talk.” 

But Hazanavicius wasn‘t happy with how he was subverting the storytelling style, saying, “I thought it would be cheating, because I made the promise early on in the movie to be silent, and then all this talking happens.”

There may not be another “OSS 117” movie without Hazanavicius
What’s next for Hazanavicius? Coming off two spy spoofs and a silent film seems like a pretty colorful work schedule. “I finished that movie four days before the screening at the Cannes Film Festival,” he reveals. “After that I did a short with Jean [as part of the upcoming omnibusThe Players‘].. I think [next] I want to do something very very different. I want to do a small movie with no trick, just a very simple story.”

But will that be another ‘OSS 117’ movie? The originals, ‘Cairo, Nest of Spies‘ and ‘Lost In Rio,’ featured Dujardin as a suave but bumbling super spy in the vein of Connery-era Bond. Given that the two have now collaborated three straight times, it’s not entirely unprecedented they would reunite. “I love this character, but I would love to do something very different,” says Hazanavicius, being non-committal. “If they want to do another one, they can do it without me. The producer thinks that I’m the one who would decide, because he thinks that Jean wouldn’t do one without me.” Though he definitely has a key idea for a future film in the series. “I would love to wait a little bit and do one where he’s a little fat, old, a dirty dirty guy,” he laughs.

“The Artist” opens in limited release on November 23rd.

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