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Talking the Silence of The Artist: Hazanavicius, Dujardin, Bejo

Talking the Silence of The Artist: Hazanavicius, Dujardin, Bejo

“The Artist” gang is in high spirits–their $14 million silent movie has steadily built awards buzz since Harvey Weinstein liked what he saw pre-Cannes and nabbed it before anyone else could. He knew that older Academy voters would eat up this nostalgic movie. Best picture, director, writer, actor, cinematography and possibly supporting actress nominations are in the cards. (A best picture nomination would mark the first silent film since 1928’s “The Patriot.”) And the dog Uggy almost steals the picture.

“The Artist” (November 25) holds up well on second viewing, and while a few folks at Sneak Previews were impatient with watching a black-and-white silent film in the old Academy aspect ratio set in Hollywood during the changeover from silents to sound, most were delighted. What no Q & A transcript can capture is how funny and charming are this French trio, Jean Dujardin (who won Best Actor at Cannes) and writer-director Michel Hanazavicius (both “OSS 117” films) and his wife, actress Berenice Bejo (“OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies”). I was impressed with how English-challenged Dujardin, working with an interpreter at his side, was able to answer in English–with impeccable comic timing.

Anne Thompson: Michel, your “OSS” films were hit comedies. What made you come up with the idea for this film? 

Michel Hazanavicius: Not too funny, is it?

AT: It’s very funny, but it’s also something else.

MH: I wanted to do a silent movie and I was really attracted by the format.  I had a feeling—the silent movie aged the best, I think.  The melodramas more than the romances.  So I wanted to be true to that kind of movie and not try to be ironic.  So I tried to do an entertaining movie, and it can be funny, but it’s not a comedy like the “OSS” movies, which wanted to be funny all the time.  There’s no irony in this one.

AT: So for the actors—when you two read this script for the first time, what was your reaction?

Jean Dujardin: “Are you crazy?”  I thought it’d be impossible to finance this movie.  I saw “Sunrise” with Michel and Berenice, and I understood what Michel wanted.

AT: Those are some of the most beautiful movies ever made, and you’re honoring something that was lost—a language that was lost.  What was your reaction, Berenice?

Berenice Bejo: Like Jean, I was a bit surprised at the beginning.  And then I forgot that and didn’t talk about that.  And then we started talking about it again in 2009.  It was very funny because “Avatar” was released in France, so the 3-D thing was happening and Michel was like, “I’m going to do a black and white film.” But I was curious and I wanted to read the script and was flattered that he would write something for me, and that I inspired him.

AT: Silent screen acting is a specific skill.  You cast as Dujardin’s wife Penelope Ann Miller, who had done “Chaplin.”  Did she already know how to do it, and was it diffcult to do?

MH: Maybe the actors will say something different, but for me, people mix two things.  People are confusing something.  I don’t think there’s a way to act in a silent movie.  What we know about acting in silent movies is because of what we think we know.  It’s because of the acting of the 20s.  Not especially the silence.  If you look at the movies of the early 30s, the colored movies are very similar in acting to the silent ones.  But you have to work with expressive actors.  You can’t work with Steve McQueen.  He’s really good but he has a poker face—we don’t read anything on his face.  It’s a kind of acting that doesn’t fit, I think, to silent movies.

BB: I didn’t think of it like, “oh wow, what should I do?”  I just tried to find a character in all the glamor of the actresses of the 30s and that time.  I tried to work on that.  I think if you could hear the sound of movie, I’m sure Peppy would act and move and smile and be the same way that she is in this silent movie. But I had to trust my body language and not my voice.  I had to be very loud and high and horrible.  I’d excuse myself to the crew and Michel, but then Michel would say look at the monitor and I would realize the body language was right.  But then in some scenes, I would do exactly the same as a talking movie when there’s no dialogue—you just have to feel and look at your partner and you just don’t have any words.

AT: Jean, for you, what was the most difficult aspect of playing this role?

JD: The hours.  It was 35 days for all of it.  Sixteen hours a day –and the tap dancing.

AT: It was beautiful!  Had you done a lot of dancing before that, the two of you?  Were you trained?

JD: No.

AT: Now where did you shoot the film?

MH: Here in Hollywood.  

AT: I thought I saw the Warner Bros. backlot and the Paramount backlot.  Am I correct?

MH: Exactly.  There’s the library building.  The theater downtown.  Hancock Park.  The entire movie is shot here in Hollywood.

AT: There are similar plot lines to “A Star Is Born” and “Singing in the Rain.”  Were those films particularly influential for you?  “Sunset Boulevard?”

MH: I tried not to watch them when I was writing the script, because of that.  There’s something that you maybe won’t believe, but I’ve never seen “A Star Is Born.” “Sunset Boulevard” was to me—Billy Wilder is the god of moviemakers. So the ghost of “Singing in the Rain” was here, but actually, if you look at the story itself, the plot is very different.

AT: It’s the setting that seems similar as opposed to the plot.

MH: Exactly.  The tap dancing is very similar to “Singing In the Rain.”

AT: And the young actress who becomes a star.

MH: Also the fact that Jean can really look like Gene Kelly in certain shot angles.

JD: Yeah…

AT: So Jean, you got to work with the dog.  Uggy’s a real star. 

JD: Yeah.  I met him two weeks before the shooting.  I watched “Lassie” with Uggy.  

AT: For inspiration?

JD: Yeah.  There was a lot of improvisation because it’s a dog and does whatever it will.  So if you put the dog on the table, sometimes I follow him, sometimes he’s following me.  But he’s a star.

AT: And there were two dogs?

JD: Three dogs.  A lot of sausages.  In my pocket.

AT:  The choice of music does a lot for the film,  especially at the end.

MH: I worked with the composer, Ludovic Bource—I’ve worked with him now for 15 years, so we are very close.  But this one was particularly difficult to do because he had to respect the spirit of all the great Hollywood classical composers.  But also he had to respect the structure of the script and the story.  And that was very difficult because he really had to follow the story.  I am in charge of the storytelling, so he had to accept that I made the decision of what the music had to be.  So it was very difficult for him.  And he did a really great job.  

AT: But you end up with “Vertigo,” Bernard Hermann?

MH: Yeah, Vertigo.  Bernard, in my mind, was a genius.  He was a wonderful composer, and actually there’s some tribute to Bernard Hermann in the movie in terms of the score, to “Citizen Kane.” If you know the score, you recognize some parts.  It’s like a musical citation.

AT: When he goes into into the room and discovers all his stuff?

MH: No, this is more Franz Waxman in “Sunset Boulevard.” When he goes out of the theater after seeing the movie, there’s a number in the score that is like the opening of “Citizen Kane,” the aria.  But “Vertigo” is very beautiful.  And I wanted something specific for the moment at the end, something very beautiful.  And when I put the” Vertigo” love theme, it was completely perfect. So the composer tried to make something close to that, but finally I decided to keep it because it was much better.

Audience member:  How is the movie being distributed?  Where does it go next, when is it being released?

MH: It’s going to be released first here in Los Angeles and New York on the 25th of November, and then it goes to other towns.  The Weinstein Company is releasing the movie.

AT: I was in Cannes when the film first showed—

MH: Me too!

AT: And it got out that The Weinstein Company had picked it up.  How did they get it?

MH: Harvey Weinstein came to Paris two or three weeks before Cannes.  I’d been told by an international seller (Wild Bunch) and he was looking for a movie for the Oscar.  And this French international seller said he had nothing, but that he knew of a silent movie about Hollywood. So Harvey flew to Paris and he came to see the movie in a small screening room, and he loved the movie.  He wanted to buy it and it’s all about the luck here, I guess.

AT: Well, he knows what he’s doing.

Audience member: During the scenes where you two are talking to the other actors, are you speaking in French?  Or are you speaking in English?  Or a mix?

JD: Gibberish!

BB: I was speaking in English.  

Audience member: You were trying to talk English to them.

BB: I was not trying.  I was speaking!  What do you mean, I was trying? (Laughter) We were speaking French together, sometimes.

AT: So did you have a French crew or an American crew?

MH: Yeah.  At the very beginning of the movie, I had to ask them to speak French because of the French legacy.  When you finance the movie, they had to speak French.  We did that for a few days.  You can see certain shots in the movie where they’re clearly speaking French.  But after that, it was so ridiculous, because they’re supposed to be American, so we changed and they spoke in English almost all the time.  Except for one or two sequences where Jean spoke gibberish.  The small man on the bar—he had to speak very quickly.  (JD mimics his gibberish)  And that was pretty funny, because the crew thought that was French.

AT: So did you not shoot in French for the French release?  It was in English there, too?

MH: Yeah, thank you.  We have both versions.  There’s a version with the French cards and a version with the American cards.  Naturally, if you ask me, I prefer the American cards because i think it’s more accurate.  The spirit of the movie is American!  The director and the actors and the money are French, but it’s really, to me—the essence of the movie is American.  It’s an American story.

AT: What was the budget of the movie in American dollars?

MH: Something like $14 million.  But with very low salaries.

AT: Hopefully they’ll get something back. So is this team going to work together again?

MH: Actually, yeah.  

AT: You have one more movie already in the can, right?  “The Player?” Is that what it’s called?

MH: Jean wrote and produced a sketch movie and he’s an actor in it.  So they asked me to do a short movie, but he worked with other directors.

AT: Is that going to be coming out?  Is that something that we’re going to see here?

JD: The 29th of February, in France.

Audience member: Would each of you compare working in Hollywood to all the movies that you’ve made in France with French crews and on the French countryside or in Paris.  How would you compare Hollywood and Paris?

JD: The language.  It’s very different.  And no wine.

BB: No wine for lunch.

JD: And the cheese and the bread.  No.  In a way it’s different—the organization of the work is different.  But basically a crew is a crew.

BB: And a set is a set. But the food is very different here.  And the crew is supposed to eat a hot meal every six hours.  We don’t have that in France.  We don’t eat that much.  We drink more.

Audience member: The bar scene, I saw, was 3-D composited.  I was wondering if you did that all in film or was it digital.

MH: Yeah.  It’s very difficult to find a very small Jean Dujardin.  Even in Hollywood. They told me that there was one but he wasn’t available—he was doing another movie.  No. The entire movie has been shot in film, and for certain sequences I used some digital effects.  I used the modern tools.  I’m not as stupid as people think I am.  

AT: What would you like to do next?  Back in France—do you have something lined up?

BB: I’m actually working next week in France in a French movie. With a better director.

MH: No!

Audience member: Were silent films as popular in the 20s in France as they were here?

MH: Yeah sure.  French silent movies were very popular.  And the cinema was a new form of expression and it was very popular everywhere.  Even the American movies were very popular in France.  The Charlie Chaplin movies were very popular, and Fatty Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, all these comics—the French people loved them!  And it was a medium for the poor people and for everyone.  It was cheap to go to the movies.  

Audience member: A question for all of you.  Any plans for making movies here?

BB: Why not?  Do you have a movie?

MH: Yes.  I would love to work with good actresses.  

Audience member: I was wondering how John Goodman came into this film.

MH: He has his own car.  He drives.  No, I mean I gently asked him and he gently said yes.  He read the script very fast and he wanted to meet me just to know who I am.  So we met and meeting lasted like 4 minutes, and he said, “Perfect!”  He said something very interesting—he said, “I’ve never seen a movie like that, so I want to do it.”  But I think he just wanted to check me and to see if I was totally crazy or if he could trust.  And he said yes very quickly.

Audience member: With the Weinstein brothers picking up this movie, did you have to make any adjustment to cater to the American audience?  Changing an ending or scene or something?

MH: There were a lot of sex sequences…  I’m joking!  We didn’t change it.  Not a single frame.  People told me that it was very rare, because usually…

AT: Harvey Scissorhands.

MH: Yeah.  Maybe.  But he didn’t change it.  He used our poster, our trailer, and he didn’t change a single thing in the movie.  And actually a producer who was involved in the movie, she used to work with him, so when he bought it, she wanted to know if he would cut something.  She asked him, “What do you think of the movie?” and he said, “It’s very good.  I really love it.”  So she said, “But don’t you think there’s a fault in the movie?” and he said, “Yes, there’s a very big fault. I don’t know what to cut.”  And he didn’t cut it.

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